What does The River Between say about the place of women in Gikuyu society?

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The women in Gikuyu society are portrayed as having very little agency, especially when they are young. The decisions about their bodies (like potential circumcision or pregnancy) are controlled by men and do not include women's personal preferences or identities. The mother character also tells a story about when women...

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The women in Gikuyu society are portrayed as having very little agency, especially when they are young. The decisions about their bodies (like potential circumcision or pregnancy) are controlled by men and do not include women's personal preferences or identities. The mother character also tells a story about when women ran the society. Whether it is apocryphal or not, the story makes clear that their bodies got in their way (the women being pregnant making them weak) and that they now feel disregarded. This suggests that the understanding of women's capacity to reproduce is seen as a burden, even to women.

Narratively, the women are frequently pawns in conflicts between men. Even when Muthoni does make a decision that goes against Joshua, it ends in pain and death. Nyambura falling in love with Waiyaki and her personal feelings are similarly only a plot point for Waiyaki's relationship with his community. Nyambura does not have her own struggle or journey and is a "flat" character, ultimately serving Waiyaki's narrative arc.

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In The River Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, women in Gikuyu society are given low status. According to legend, it was not always like that. We learn that there was a time when women ruled the land. When Waiyaki asks his father, Chege, why antelopes don't run away from women but run away from men, Chege replies that women used to rule the land and its men. He tells him that women were harsh and owned everything, and they kept antelopes as domestic animals, like goats. Men resented women's harsh rule, so they got all the women pregnant and overthrew them. The antelopes ran away because women could not manage them. They know women to be weak, and thus they do not fear them. After hearing this story, Waiyaki understands why his mother owns nothing.

Women are shown to care for their children and homes, though they do not have much say in their homes. Muthoni's and Nyambura's mother, Miriamu, understands her daughters' struggles but cannot go against their father's will. This implies that women are under men's authority and have to obey men's decisions. Women also have to bear the consequences of the actions of their children. When Muthoni disappears to get circumcised, her mother takes the responsibility for her daughter's disobedience.

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I think generally it becomes clear that women occupy a low place in the social heirarchy of the Gikuyu tribe. They are given jobs such as caring for children and cooking which men consider to be beneath them. They exist in a patriarchal society where they are expected to go through a process of female circumcision to become women, and they are not necessarily treated well by their fathers and husbands. However, there is an alternative approach to viewing women in this novel that does present them in a much stronger light. Remember the story that Waiyaki is told by his mother about the way that antelopes do not run away from women:

Long ago women used to rule this land and its men. They were harsh and men began to resent their hard hand. So when all the women were pregnant, men came together and overthrew them. Before this, women owned everything.

So, although this parable states that women in Gikuyu society are in the position of having been "overthrown" by the men, it also speaks of the kind of dignity that so many women have in the novel and the way that this challenges the way that men act. Women are strongly silent characters who, whilst not living in an equal society, are clearly given real stature in their own right.

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