- Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women's Literature: Feminist Empathy by Chielozona Eze
Already with his first book, Postcolonial Imaginations and Moral Representations in African Literature and Culture (Lexington Books, 2011), Chielozona Eze brought a refreshing perspective on African feminist writing, arguing convincingly that it has often suffered from being too concerned with "confronting the gaze of the West" than with the local structures that oppress African women. With this, his second book, Eze develops his ideas of feminist ethics that he exemplifies by drawing from ten third-generation Anglophone African women writers: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinelo Okparanta, NoViolet Bulawayo, Nnedi Okorafor, Warsan Shire, Lola Shoneyin, Petina Gappah, Chika Unigwe, Sefi Atta, and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley. The book argues that these writers have been moving away from abstractions, rooted in "culture," the "nation," or "Africanness" that had been at the center of previous African feminists, toward a focus on the female body as a "home to [the women's] individual selves" (3). The stories of pain that they tell are primarily to establish women's subjectivities in a world that had seen their bodies as allegories or symbols of something else, sacrificing them in the process of anticolonial or neocolonial struggles. The innovation of its feminist thrust is in the privileging of the individual woman's personhood, i.e., its individualism rather than the collectivism of the previous forms of African feminism. A central argument in the book is that when a woman is subjected to needless pain, her personhood and human rights are violated. African women writers tell stories about women in pain so that readers can put themselves in their position through imagining their pain. This is what Eze means by feminist empathy, which he defines as "the ability to feel oneself in the experience of a woman in suffering because of her gender" (7).
As postcolonialists we are trained to doubt any claims of universality. Are human rights universal? Eze, who is a Nigerian, concedes that the conception of human rights as they have been formulated and adopted by most countries in the world are the invention of the European Enlightenment and therefore reflect the normative values, aspirations, and interests of Western culture at a specific stage of historical evolution. For him, the question is not the origin of human rights but whether the ideas inherent in them are universal—i.e., whether they are capable of addressing the body as its locus and recognizing its "total freedom" (22)—its desire to be seen not as a means to some end, but as an end in itself. He compares it with an African concept Ubuntu, which means "A person is a person through other persons." He maintains that Ubuntu, in its tendency to subsume the individual within a collective "we," runs the risk of being guided by abstractions and ideologies. [End Page 268]
On the other hand, "fairness" is "the simple idea that male and female bodies are equal as human beings and should be treated accordingly" (22). It means treating women as men would like to be treated. For Eze, the idea of "fairness" is rooted in Levinas's "face"—the ability to recognize another's pain. Since most people will respond to physical hurt in the same way, regardless of their cultural context, the concept of pain disallows us to defend cultural traditions that oppress women, such as child marriage, socially sanctioned rape, or female genital excision. The idea of fairness, according to Eze, also excludes polygamy, since a polygamous marriage is in principle based not on equality, but complementarity of genders, and is equal to sexual slavery with regard to a woman's dignity. Even if a woman believed in this cultural institution and might personally support it, in his view she would be disabled by polygamy. As this shows, Eze's definition of human rights and male-female relations is in fact overwhelmingly Western. This is reflected also in the long list of philosophers and theorists he draws from for his key concepts: Judith...