An Analysis of Gender Relations in Zaynab Alkali’s the Virtuous Woman

An Analysis of Gender Relations in Zaynab Alkali’s the Virtuous Woman


The human society exhibits nuances of conflicts overtly or covertly. Unfortunately, these conflicts permeate every strata even relationships. In the struggle for self actualisation and assertion by females, the study explores the gender relations in Zaynab Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman. Therefore, methodology for the research is essentially Content Analysis. To this end, the struggles and societal odds that confront the female gender are the thrust of this study. In this regard, the study adopts the African feminist perspective which advocates for mutual co-existence and end to all forms of oppression against the female gender. African Feminism stresses complementary roles among the genders as against radical feminism that supports a total reordering of the society.


In light of the demand for a more favourable socio-political status by women, some scholars captured these struggles and consistently advocated for female rights. This women emancipation movement later came to be termed as feminism. The term ‘feminism’ is relatively modern, though there are debates over when and where it was first used. However, the term ‘feminist’ as put forward by some scholars like Fraisse in 1995 was first used in 1871 in a French medical text to describe a cessation in development of the sexual organs and characteristics in male patients, who were perceived as thus suffering from ‘feminization of their bodies. This term was later adopted by Alexander Dumas; a French writer in his pamphlet I’Homme Femme to signify various women emancipation movement.

Feminism is a socio-political movement chiefly concerned about the plight of women in the society which is basically patriarchal in outlook. Sequel to its expansion in terms of scope and interest, feminism largely begun in the West as an institution with the women’s suffrage movement; a movement begun by a group of liberal white women advocating for women’s right to vote at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This landmark event provides an insight to understanding and grasping the tenets or concerns of feminism. Feminism is thus a term that emerged long after women started questioning their inferior status and demanding an amelioration in their social position. The motivations behind the development of feminism borders on the need to advance the position of women through such means as achievement of political, legal or economic rights equal to those granted the opposite gender (men). These aspirations form the basic thrust for the development of feminism in the West and other parts of the world, Africa inclusive.


This refers to a body of knowledge that offers critical explanations on the condition of women. Some will be discussed briefly.

Liberal Feminism: This is a feminist perspective that focuses on women’s ability to maintain their equality through their own actions and choices. It argues that the society holds false beliefs that women are by nature less intellectually and physically capable than men, thus leading to various forms of discrimination against the female gender on various spheres of the society. In the light of this, Liberal feminism seeks equal rights with men by stressing that individuals should be treated in accordance with their talents, abilities and efforts as opposed to the characteristics of their sex. It also canvasses for the removal of any obstacles be it political, social, legal or economical that gets in the way of women having the same opportunities as their male counterparts. In other words, the basic thrust of Liberal feminist is that all persons are created equal by God and deserve equal rights. They also believe that women have the same mental capacity as men and should b given the same access to opportunities in all spheres. In the nutshell, women should have the right to choose, not their life chosen for them because of their sex. One of the notable supporters of this view is Betty Friedan.

Radical Feminism: This emerged as a reaction to Liberal feminism. It is a perspective that calls for a total and radical reordering of the society in which all forms of male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts. In other words, it seeks equality among the genders altering the status quo of the hitherto existing structures. Radical feminism seeks to abolish patriarchy by challenging existing social norms and institutions, rather than through a purely political process. This includes challenging the notion of traditional gender roles, opposing the sexual objectification of women and raising public awareness about rape and violence against women. Radical feminists totally reject a world where men control women’s bodies and force women into motherhood or sexual slavery. They vehemently blame men as the oppressors of women in the society.

Motherism: This concept was coined and created by Catherine Acholonu; a prominent Nigerian critic, writer and feminist. She affirmed that motherism is an alternative to feminism. According to Nnolim citing Acholonu, motherism is a

…A multi-dimensional theory which involves the dynamics of ordering,
Reodering, creating structures, building and rebuilding in cooperation
with mother nature at all levels of human endeavour. (196)

Motherism further advocates love, tolerance, service mutual cooperation for the sexes, not antagonism, aggression, militancy or violent confrontation plus protection and defence of family values. Similarly, it opposes the tenets of white/western feminism which is regarded as anti-mother, anti –child, anti-nature and anti-culture.


In Africa, most societies are predominantly patriarchal with deepened manifestations of male chauvinism. Though the issue of women liberation had become popular in many parts of the World around the end of the Second World War, it only started to gain currency in Africa during the post-colonial era. Long before then and up till the present, many African societies are cornerstones of subjugation and discrimination against the female gender. Nigeria is not an exception to this obnoxious reality as it is still being practiced in almost community nationwide. It is not uncommon to find societies where the men call the shots, thus, intensely stoking the embers of macho values (male chauvinism) which stifle women’s images as positive contributors to the development of the society. The dismal representation of women in the works of many Nigerian male writers is not unconnected with the patriarchal nature of our traditional societies, in addition to the colonially inspired value judgment of the time. Women in most traditional societies were hardly visible, basically restricted to domestic chores and subsistent farming while the men considered themselves as best fit in the struggle for independence.

It is in response to these stereotype representations that prompted mostly female writers and social activist like Zaynab Alkali, Flora Nwapa, Omolara Ogundipe Leslie, Catherine Acholonu, Buchi Emecheta, Zulu Sofola amongst others who took it up amongst themselves to disabuse the minds of many against the negative perceptions about womanhood in Nigeria. In the works of female writers like Flora Nwapa and Zulu Sofola, women are presented as backbones of families by actively engaging in commerce and agriculture. More often than not, women are portrayed as the stabilizing force in men’s life, a fact that only began to rear up its head when women began to tell their own stories. Other writers like Zaynab Alkali in The Stillborn, portrayed women as independent achievers irrespective of their environment and harsh treatments from the men in their lives. In Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class- Citizen, the woman is presented as more enduring in the face of difficulties, more resourceful in the home front and finance management and better composed in distress situations.


The Virtuous Woman mirrors various challenges that females face in a male oriented and chauvinistic society. The novel highlights the inherent biases against female children who are largely considered inferior to male children. The female gender in a typical Northern society which is a microcosm of the Nigerian society continually struggles with the lower status she finds herself. The prevalent obnoxious view that women are inferior are absolutely created to disregard any form of aspiration is socially demeaning for the female gender. For instance, a woman is seen as meant to cater for the home front alone. This responsibility typical revolves around procreation and training of children. In The Virtuous Woman, Musa Dogo passes for a stereotype who sees nothing special in female children. He represents the ideologies of male chauvinism that hold no regard for the female gender. For instance, at birth, high premium is placed on males as against females. As a result, a man is regarded successful and often celebrated when he has more male children. He family often becomes the reference point and envy of everyone in the community. This cannot be said of a man who has only female children. It is said of Musa Dogo that he considered it a misfortune when he could not have more male children. His six daughters never mattered to him. Rather he saw them as losses.

“his only misfortune was that he had only one son;
the rest were daughters”.

This perfectly portrays the importance placed on male children. A man like Musa Dogo does not find fulfillment in having daughters. He sees himself as a failure despite being a rich and successful farmer in his community. This is predicated on the fact that his ego will be decimated by other men who will see him as weak. In a bid to avoid this scenario, he desperately looks for another male child. This preempts him to take another wife. In the same vein, attempts by women to get education are often rebuffed. Even when allowed, there seems to be a limit to their acquisition of western education. Musa Dogo strongly holds this view. As a rich and successful farmer, he did not see the need to send his daughters to school despite the fact that he could afford it. He vehemently kicked against sending his daughters to school. The situation would have been different had he more male children because his first son was already studying abroad. Sadly, he saw money spent on female children as a waste of resources because to him, they only add value to their spouses. He believed that resources spent on female children would add no value to him eventually. According to him, female children have no relevance unlike male children who will continue ones name till the next generation.

if I had sons now, my name would be carried from generation
to generation…but not so with daughters. They are consumers
And they let other people consume your wealth.
While your name dies out.

Unfortunately for the female gender, they have to take the bull by the horn to achieve their dreams. What would naturally come to the males now becomes a struggle for females. Education that should be a right now turns a privilege for female children. Meanwhile, when the female child goes against the wishes of their father, they are termed disobedient and eventually disowned.

Furthermore, the society totally supports a man in taking another wife. A man can decide to be polygamous but society frowns at a woman who is considered to be promiscuous. It is commonplace to find women labelled diabolic by their husbands whenever the men feel things are not going right for them. In most cases, when a man is not doing well, all fingers point at the wife. During Musa Dogo’s trying times, everyone in the community pointed accusing fingers at his first wife. Such is the plight of women in the typical African society. When things go well, the men are praised but when situations go awry, the women receive the blame. Interestingly, all Musa Dogo was waiting to hear is that his wife was behind his travails when his youngest wife couldn’t bear a child after five years of marriage. Musa Dogo’s sister in-law revealed that

Others, however, accused the first wife of witchcraft. Why else
Should a young girl with hot blood remain barren for five years?
or we have always known that the first wife is no ordinary woman.

Worthy of note is the comportment and determination of Musa Dogo’s eldest wife in the midst of these travails. She determined that she was going to ensure that her daughter who eventually left for school ended well. She went an extra mile by working assiduously to see off her children through school.


In sum, it goes without saying that society needs the invaluable contributions of women and the female gender in general in the development of the society. A nation’s progress is reliant on the general well being of the female gender. Both genders have their unique roles which cannot be taken upon by the other. In other words, it is only rationale to admit that each gender has its strategic importance in the society, as none is absolutely better than the other. Thus, there is a need for a balanced relationship; one that does not seek to take advantage or relegate females to the background. Also, a social re-engineering of the society is significant to curtail all manifestations of male chauvinism; however long it may take to achieve.


Nnolim, Charles. Issues in African Literature. Nigeria: Malthouse Press Limited, 2010. Print

Alkali, Zaynab. The Virtuous Woman. Nigeria: Longman Nigeria Limited, 2000. Print

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