The society of old Mali, as described in Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali translated by D. T. Niane
is one in which women are held separate and unequal to men. With some exceptions, their roles are defined only in relationship
to men, who hold official positions of authority, and, often a large degree of practical, and unquestioned, control of the
women with whom they are in relations with.
First and foremost it seems worthwhile to note that
the epic is related by a male, and there is no mention of any female griots anywhere within. This would imply that the oral
history of Mali, including "Secrets many centuries old," (1) and "What is to be kept concealed," (84), is the exclusive domain
of males. Therefore, the work itself reflects an unbalanced view of women, coming from a point of view of "otherness." This
would also affect the female characters within the work, as their understanding of their collective history would come from
the "other" perspective.
Moving into the story itself, shortly after a recitation of the kings
of Mali leading up to Maghan Kon Fatta (Sundiata’s father), a female character is mentioned for the first time: "Oh
that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, she bares on her back a disfiguring hump. Her monstrous eyes seem to have been merely
laid on her face, but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who
will make the name of Mali immortal forever (6)."
Immediately upon our introduction to the epic’s first female character,
she is reduced to, first, her physical appearance, and, then, to her (future) roles of wife and mother. Admittedly, the prior
is certainly to provide contrast with Sundiata’s father who "Was renowned for his beauty in every land (4)," but further
concern with her looks, including the king’s embarrassment (7), suggests an inordinate concern with women’s physical
beauty. The second point however, the roles of wife and mother, or, the relationship between a woman and the men who control
her destiny, plays a much more important role. For indeed, it does seem as though women’s destinies in old Mali are
inexorably tied to, even controlled by, the males with whom they are connected.
While it does
seem that women could control some degree of property, and receive inheritance (being cheated of her inheritance is what drove
the Buffalo Woman to violent revenge), in general, it seems that they were still kept from positions of power. Even Sassouma
Bérété, the first wife of Sundiata’s father wondered "What would become of her . . . if her son were disinherited (13)",
implying that without her relationship to a male power-figure she would be stripped of her privilege. Later, after Maghan
Kon Fatta’s death, rather than rule herself, she does so through her son. She is referred to as "all powerful (18),"
but is not granted any official position of power, nor does she seem involved in official decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, Sogolon, Sassouma Bérété’s rival, after Maghan Kon Fatta’s death, takes on the role, primarily, of
mother to Sundiata. In fact, it is because she is Sundiata’s mother, not because of any aspect of herself that she is
at odds with Sassouma Bérété. In a way, the goals of women in Sundiata arise from the conflicts in the realm of men, and play
themselves out in that domain. Later on, Sassouma’s daughter Nana Triban provides another example. She is able to take
action not directly, but by betraying her husband, Soumaoro, to his enemy, Sundiata. Furthermore, the betrayal is only possible
because of her willingness to feign submission to Soumaoro, and to play the role of wife to its fullest.
It is worth noting
that Nana Triban was not willingly married to Soumaoro, but her family, specifically her brother, the king, forced her to
it: "My brother sent me by force to Sosso to be the wife of Soumaoro . . . I wept a great deal . . ." (57). There are other
indications as well that marriage was largely an interaction between the groom, and the male family of the bride: "The two
hunters were considered as being relatives of Sogolon and it was to them that Gnamkouman Doua bore the traditional cola nuts.
By agreement with the hunters the marriage was fixed for the first Wednesday of the new moon.(9)."
In the case of Sogolon, this contract between her male "family" and her future husband is held as a justification of rape.
Sogolon takes clear action to indicate she does not want to consummate the marriage - using one’s wraith to grow long-hairs
all over one’s body even being rather extreme. The king, however goes so far as to threaten her life, causing her to
faint, allowing him the opportunity to impregnate while she is incapacitated. Within the institution of marriage this is evidently
seen as legitimate, and the incident is related by the male griot without any sympathy or comment.
The only role which women seem to play in the novel that is not defined in relationship to men seems to be that of the powerful
witch. However, the witches, and for that matter, the Buffalo of Do (In the form in which the hunters first encounter her)
are all described as old women (7, 24). They are stripped of their sexuality, and they may be free of males, by they are reduced
to hags. They are associated with violent sorts of magic; Sassouma addresses the "nine hags" saying, "You who rule supreme
at night nocturnal powers, oh you who hold the secret of life, you who can put an end to one life (24)," and their leader
is described as "dangerous" (24). It is as though, socially, these characters are not women, but outsiders of a different
In essence, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali takes place in a patriarchal society, which, while
allowing women some rights and powers, essentially views them primarily in the context of their relations with men. They are
also seemingly confined to a limited number of roles, and largely excluded from official positions of power.