The Travails of a First Wife is an insight into the experiences of some women in polygyny. Set in the North Eastern part of Nigeria, the novel depicts experiences of northern women in polygyny and by extension, the experiences of women in cultures across the country that practice polygyny. As reflected in the title, the word travail symbolises pain, which is the idea that permeates throughout the entire narrative; the pain women suffer in polygyny. The way the author carefully presents the issues she highlights in the novel shows her mastery of the subject and the fact that she is not communicating ideas she is alien to. Her presentation supports the widely held idea that literature reflects and reveals society. The Travails of a First Wife is such a novel; it is precise in its portrayal of human life within the confines of polygyny as it appears in everyday life, thus making it easy for readers to use their own experiences as touchstone to the experiences of the characters in the novel. The novel is therefore better described as a faithful representation of reality, recreated by the highest level of artistry.
Summarily, The Travails of a First Wife is a captivating story about Ibrahim and his three wives:Zarah, Kellu, and Fantere. Ibrahim is first married to Zarah until he comes to break her heart with the news of his intended second marriage to Kellu. Zarah is pained but obliged to respect and accept her husband’s decision, plus it is Ibrahim’s prerogative as a Muslim to marry more than one wife. Zarah is yet to completely absorb the shock of Kellu coming into the marriage when Ibrahim inconsiderably discloses his intention of marrying a third wife (Fantere) simultaneously on the same day with the second (Kellu). Kellu is even more pained when she discovers that she is being married together with another woman on the same day. Hence, Ibrahim becomes the single object of attraction of his wives, with each craving for his undivided attention which the author’s portrayal proves impossible. The unequivocal nature of the themes Mohammed portrays in the novel emphasizes the essence and relevance of the novel to society. In no way is her representation an attempt to ridicule polygyny, her themes simply reveal the obvious in polygyny and the man-made ills in it that happen to be the unfortunate lot women suffer in it. Her themes range from the inevitability of jealousy among women in polygyny, their battle for sex time table, the undeniable presence of preferential treatment by husbands in polygyny, to mention but a few. Unfortunately, in each of these themes, the man just has his way and leaves the women in a brawl against one another. Thus, the relationship between all three wives is sustained by hatred, which betrays sisterhood as an ideawomanism upholds in its fight against women oppression in the society. Consequently, Kellu is warned that a co-wife can never be a friend however she claims (83). HajjiaSaudatu also points to the adverse effect of negative emotions among wives in polygyny when she reveals that some mates could engage in “unimaginable diabolic activities” (149) against one another.Judging from a psychoanalytical point of view, it is possible to see the motivation or influence behind the behaviour of Ibrahim’s wives towards one another to be his outright disregard for their personality and feelings and the hidden fear of sharing a man with another woman. The fact that Ibrahim keeps his intentions secretly and brings it to their knowledge in the most unexpected, disregarding and humiliatingway is seen to shatter any composure of love and unity that should exist among the wives.
The most significant literary function of the novel for the reviewer is in its indictment of men, who go into polygyny without the preparedness it requires. Such men fail to be faithful to the Quranic injunction that permits Muslim men to marry more than one wife. According to Surah 4:3, Muslim men are allowed to marry more than one wife only if they can be fair and just to all of them. Mohammed’s portrayal of Ibrahim’s character reveals his unfaithfulness to the Quranic injunction; selfishness pushes him to marry them all. That is why he is so inconsiderate and disrespectful to the women he marries; he owes them no explanation for his decisions and this makes him and men like him unfit for polygyny because of the travails they put the women through. In such a portrayal of male characters is Mohammed’s feministic stance made obvious.
Her feministic stance is also made obvious in her revelation of women’s oppression, but the reviewer also notices that Mohammed’s feminism does not imbue her female characters with the courage to face adversity and overcome in the end, which is the utmost goal of feminism. Her female characters are mostly victims. This trend is noticeable in “Sterile Water”, “Laila”, and Habiba.Zarah also suffers same fate as her other female protagonists in the works listed. None of these female characters in Mohammed’s works is strong enough to fight and win the fight against her oppression, they just live through their unchanging circumstances sad and disappointed at life. This is a weakness in the novel and in Mohammed’s feminism.
Zarah is therefore scared of divorce because she fears the negative attitude of the society towards unmarried women (220). The focus for her is the society, yet she is the one being unhappy with life and her circumstances. Mohammed’s readers are therefore left to decide on the next line of action, they are not guided by a decisive action from Mohammed’s portrayal, which would have been more appropriate. Above all, the novel does not leave the society ignorant of its attitude and behaviours, just as it is a mirror with which the society can look at itself and make necessary amends.
Teryima Mson Myegba is a graduate of University of Maiduguri where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English (Literature) in 2011. Also, he obtained a Master of Arts degree in Literature-in-English from Benue State University. He is a researcher with a special interest in feminism. Currently, he works with Ancheng Security as he searches for a job in lecturing.