Ama Ata Aidoo's "The Girl Who Can" and the Importance of Solidarity for Female Emancipation

Op-ed

Imagine jumping out of a skydiving plane. Imagine the blast of air that would hit you, the realization of being airborne, and feeling weightless. In those brief moments of defying gravity, one feels as if one has been disenthralled. The feeling of liberation. Now imagine a woman, who has lived most of her life clutched between society and its perspectives. One day she realizes that there exist tools that can set her free. That something can set her free, can emancipate her. She discovers that her voice can be heard. She would feel the same way, one felt while they jumped out the skydiving plane.

If you were to ask any woman to describe the feeling of being liberated, I am sure many of them would often use the skydiving as a metaphor. The mad rush of emotions, the feeling of being whole and weightless, and thinking of how there exists nothing that can crumble them. Recently a story came my way, ‘The Girl Who Can’. A beautiful portrayal of three distinct female characters who give us the three faces of society. Written by Ama Ata Aidoo, this story serves as self-reflection for every woman out there who ever questioned her standing in society. This is a story for every woman who ever asked herself the question, “Who am I?” This story is for every woman who asked, “What is my worth?”. Often than not, every woman has faced an identity crisis all ascribable to socially constructed dichotomies, dualism, and patriarchal ideologies. Why this story, one would ask. I shall tell you why. It is not quite often that you come across a writer who takes up inglorious realities of the world and puts them in simple words. Words and phrases so simple yet resolute, that they make you think harder than you already are thinking. These simple words create an unyielding and profound effect on you. Writers like Ama Ata Aidoo write in a way that makes you want to seek answers. ‘The Girl Who Can’ like its name suggests, is about a girl who did what she wanted that proved her mettle. The story’s protagonist is Adjoa, a little African girl who resides in the village in Ghana along with her mother and her Nana, her mother’s mother. This is Adjoa’s struggle to find her rightful place in the society, it’s her story of seeking answers to the needs and issues.

What is the story about?

Little Adjoa is an ambitious girl, like any other girl of her age who has dreams and aspirations of her own and truly believes that anything is possible. She still isn’t introduced to the real atrocities of the world and thinks of it as a happy and safe place. In Adjoa, is a glimpse of every other girl child who still isn’t riddled with the ugly face of truth. In Adjoa, I see a part of me, a part which still believes that persistence can break barriers. Now comes Maami, her mother who like every other parent wants the best for her child and wants that her daughters soar high on success and earns a respectful position in this society. In Maami, I see a glimpse of my mother and every other mother in this world who still wants to give her daughter what she was denied. Now behold the old Nana. Nana, who has lived all her life according to the society’s perspective and it is safe to assume that Nana could’ve herself been a victim of indifference and enormities. Nana represents the real face of this patriarchal society who is hellbent on degrading a woman and denying her self-worth. You would ask me how does Nana becomes an embodiment of patriarchal society when she is a woman. Allow me to tell you how. The continued oppression of women can as well be worsened by some other women who use women's oppression to climb the social ladder. Nana constantly disputes and debates with Adjoa’s mother regarding Adjoa’s spindly legs. Our dear little protagonist has thin legs that have no thick muscles on them and neither does she have thick and solid hips. Nana is skeptical about the girl’s future because of this. It is imperative to note that solid hips and thick legs exhibit biological signs of robustness which according to Nana promise fertility and strength. For Nana, and, for the entire society, the definition of a perfect and powerful woman is one who can bear children and be a perfect wife and mother.

Adjoa doesn’t get it. She finds it hard to understand how can someone’s body set limits on who they can be and cannot be. Adjoa does not feel insecure rather she is inquisitive and tries to find out whether what Nana believes is true or not. Her confusion reflects every woman’s dilemma of how her worth is reduced to certain biological factors and beauty standards. Also, Nana’s other concern is Adjoa’s father. Often than not, a woman’s relationship with a man is criticized and even abhorred by some. Her ability to find happiness on her own is riddled with doubts and frowned upon. Adjoa’s mother is made to feel guilty by her mother regarding her husband. Nana always gets the upper hand and Adjoa’s mother is not able to voice her concerns.

But Adjoa is a girl of grit and spirit. Her one real love is her love for running. Adjoa is selected by her school for running at the district games. She finally runs. And she runs like never before and wins a cup. It is Adjoa’s passion for running that eventually reconnects her with Nana. Nana although initially is skeptical of her ability to run, finally finds herself admiring her granddaughter. Although she doesn’t show it, on the inside Nana has found peace in Adjoa’s achievements. She has found a piece of what was missing in her own life, the satisfaction of being known. The satisfaction that your self-worth often comes from persistence.

What I think of running?

I think it emancipates a woman more than anything in this world. When a woman runs, she rejoices what she has, she rejoices the body she has. Running can take you places, literally. When you run, you leave behind a part of you and when you finally stop, there at the finish point lies another emancipated version of yourself. We all wish to be the untrammeled versions of ourselves. Adjoa’s running and winning here symbolizes every woman’s struggle to break free from society’s barriers and emerge triumphantly. She symbolizes liberation. Liberation from the way she was looked at, liberation from the set definition of “perfect” woman. She has created her definition of perfect.

Why this story resonates with the struggles of the emancipation of women?

Emancipation begins at an individual level. When a hundred women liberate themselves by doing their part, they move onto a further level. At this new level of solidarity, they bring a thousand different idiosyncratic definitions of “perfect” women at the table. But if only women’s emancipation was as easy as it seems. Virginia Woolf in her book-length essay, “A Room Of One’s Own” said,

“The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting than the history of emancipation itself”.

Gender elitism stands as the first and foremost problem to women’s liberation and there’s no more accurate description of this than Virginia Woolf’s quote. Why is it that powerful man is seen as some sort of leader yet a powerful woman is seen as a variation, as an oddity? We follow the same path yet; a male is endowed with much more respect and a woman is not. Does a set of different genitals bother society so much? Well in that case the ultimate answer lies with a much higher power, for it is responsible for such a variation. But even in today's day and age, men are still bristling with half knowledge. They still fail to understand the simple needs of a woman. I believe that if women were to be given the reins of the administration and the power that men possess today, half the world would not face the atrocities they face today. But since it remains a hypothetical situation, all we can hope for is a reawakening or rekindling of men’s consciousness who have never faced the wrongdoings that women have to go through.

Often than not, the economic status of women coincides with her status of liberation. A woman with an underdeveloped economic status is still seen as unliberated. It is imperative to note that emancipation does not translate as just economic. It is political, social, and even at a mental and spiritual level. Maybe money can act as a liberation symbol at the professional front but it can never be substituted for all the toiling women have to undergo at their own houses. Nana always thought that a woman’s true ambition should be to rear children, which shows how women are again degraded and only thought of as child bearers. As if having an identity apart from that of mother and wife is an anomaly. You could liberate a woman at her work front, which in itself is seldom given a thought by men, but how will you liberate her from her slavery to the hearth. How will you liberate her from her slavery to the household and kitchen which time and again is enforced on her?

Most of us here do not have the answer to that. Neither do I. I am not here to lay a discourse on how a woman is supposed to live her life. Liberation and emancipation for different women mean different things. And let her have freedom, whichever way she wants to. Let her liberate herself using whichever medium she wants to. Use your voice, and don’t be discouraged when people laugh at you, just like Adjoa was never heard initially but eventually earned her rightful place through persistence. Run and run, until you feel the burn in yourself. Maybe go skydiving once. And when you reach the finish line, there will be standing a free version of you. Be the Girl Who Did.

Margaret Atwood in A Handmaid’s Tale said, “Nolite bas tardes carborundorum”.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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Bharavi Yadav

Bharavi Yadav is a Delhi based writer, currently a student pursuing psychology from the University of Delhi. She writes for everything and anything, although has a knack for politics and political writings. Vibrant, bold and clear, is how she would describe herself and her work.


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