The opposing pulls of custom and progress that Ramatoulaye encounters in the Senegalese political climate become personal and particular in her struggle to reconcile her abiding faith in Islam with her feminism. The central drama of the novel is the disintegration of Ramatoulaye’s marriage to Modou after the latter takes on a second wife—his daughter’s young friend, no less. Ramatoulaye’s faith permits polygyny (a man taking more than one wife), and dictates that she remain with her husband even after he marries another woman. And yet Ramatoulaye can’t help but feel the injustice of her position—Modou takes on his second wife without any warning (he even refuses to be the one to break the news to Ramatoulaye) and then proceeds to effectively abandon Ramatoulaye and her twelve children.
When Modou suddenly dies, it appears at first as though his entire inheritance will fall to his in-laws and his second wife, Binetou. Ramatoulaye has to fight off her mother-in-law in order to claim the house that Ramatoulaye and Modou acquired on a joint bank loan, a house that is thus rightfully hers. Both the circumstances of her husband’s second marriage and the events following his death indicate to Ramatoulaye that, in the Senegalese-Islamic model of marriage, the woman is seen as something of a disposable commodity, who can be cast aside as soon as the husband grows bored of her.
Aissatou, who endures a similar misfortune when her husband marries his young, nobly born cousin in order to appease his mother, provides Ramatoulaye with an example of escape. Rather than endure her husband’s second marriage, Aissatou divorces him on principle (he claims to still love her) and seeks an education in France, before eventually moving to America. While she never disavows her faith, her decision entails an implicit rejection of certain Senegalese-Islamic norms. Despite Aissatou’s example, however, Ramatoulaye brings together her outspoken feminism with her religiously-inflected notions of family. She resolves to remain married to Modou, even though he has effectively abandoned her, and endures the indignities of the mourning period as the fulfillment of a vow. While she is a professional woman, working long hours as a school teacher, she also remains committed to her role as the homemaker. She turns her feminism inward, seeking empowerment within the constraints of custom. She learns to drive and singlehandedly raises her twelve children to become sensitive adults. When, following Modou’s death, Tamsir and Daoudu propose marriage to her, Ramatoulaye rejects them both (publically humiliating Tamsir) and resolves to live a life of self-reliance. Not long afterward, she manages to win back the house that she and Modou bought together.
Ramatoulaye lives at an intersection likely unfamiliar to most Western readers: she is African, she is Muslim, and she is a feminist. Rather than reject any one of those identities, she seems to value and embody each equally. This refusal to choose is itself an expression of empowerment.
Feminism and Islam ThemeTracker
Feminism and Islam Quotes in So Long a Letter
This is the moment dreaded by every Senegalese woman, the moment when she sacrifices her possessions as gifts to her family-in-law; and, worse still, beyond her possessions she gives up her personality, her dignity, becoming a thing in the service of the man who has married her, his grandfather, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his brother, his sister, his uncle, his aunt, his male and female cousins, his friends. Her behaviour is conditioned: no sister-in-law will touch the head of any wife who has been stingy, unfaithful or inhospitable.
To overcome my bitterness, I think of human destiny. Each life has its share of heroism, an obscure heroism, born of abdication, of renunciation and acceptance under the merciless whip of fate.
Combining your despair you could have been avengers and made them tremble, all those who are drunk on their wealth; tremble, those upon whom fate has bestowed favours. A horde powerful in its repugnance and revolt, you could have snatched the bread that your hunger craves.
Your stoicism has made you not violent or subversive but true heroes, unknown in the mainstream of history, never upsetting established order, despite your miserable condition.
To lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own, to raise our vision of the world, cultivate our personalities, strengthen our qualities, to make up for our inadequacies, to develop universal moral values in us: these were the aims of our admirable headmistress. The word 'love' had a particular resonance in her. She loved us without patronizing us, with our plaits either standing on end or bent down, with our loose blouses, our wrappers. She knew how to discover and appreciate our qualities.
The assimilationist dream of the colonist drew into its crucible our mode of thought and way of life. The sun helmet worn over the natural protection of our kinky hair, smoke-filled pipe in the mouth, white shorts just above the calves, very short dresses displaying shapely legs: a whole generation suddenly became aware of the ridiculous situation festering in our midst.
I was irritated. He was asking me to understand. But to understand what? The supremacy of instinct? The right to betray? The justification of the desire for variety? I could not be an ally to polygamic instincts. What, then, was I to understand?
‘You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don't know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith and of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chosen and who has chosen you.’
Daouda Dieng was savouring the warmth of the inner dream he was spinning around me. As for me, I was bolting like a horse that has long been tethered and is now free and revelling in space. Ah, the joy of having an interlocutor before you, especially an admirer!
Life is an eternal compromise. What is important is the examination paper… This, too, will be at the mercy of the marker. No one will have any say over him. So why fight a teacher for one or two marks that can never change the destiny of a student?
Now our society is shaken to its very foundations, torn between the attraction of imported vices and the fierce resistance of old virtues.
‘Marriage is no chain. It is mutual agreement over a life's programme. So if one of the partners is no longer satisfied with the union, why should he remain? It may be Abou [her husband]; it may be me. Why not? The wife can take the initiative to make the break.’