Gender roles are constructs built by communities and society to define the expectations those communities have on women and men. These constructs are often based on political and religious influence and are problematic in how they contribute to individual development and growth. Over time, these expectations serve to further divide women and men, excluding individuals from accomplishing even daily tasks because they are seen through the lens of these social constructs. Even small gender roles (assigning things like cooking to women and household maintenance to men) contribute to the continual divide between genders and impact the interactions between women and men. Chinua Achebe’s short story “Girls at War” is a commentary on gender roles, reflecting the interpersonal struggles that arise when someone does and doesn’t meet the expectations placed on them by society.
“Girls at War” takes place during the Nigerian War and the main character, Reginald, appears to be a kind of deliveryman, making sure supplies get to where they’re needed. During one of his deliveries, he’s stopped at a checkpoint to have his vehicle searched. The soldier searching his vehicle is a young woman named Gladys. Reginald and Gladys have met before; he gave her ride once and told her “to go back to school because girls were not required in the militia” (2). But in the moment that she’s searching his vehicle, he has a change of heart; something about her determination to do her job well without deference to anyone, including someone she’s met before, gives him hope.
This small interaction speaks to a larger issue of gender expectations. Although the reader doesn’t know why Reginald told Gladys to go back to school instead of joining the militia, it can be surmised that, at least at the time, he believed the militia (and the war it was responding to) to be men’s responsibility, while it was a woman’s to go back to school and learn. At a time when a nation is in desperate need of hands and feet and bodies, Reginald saw only that a woman was stepping into a role that, in his view, should have been held by a man, though he is unable to give any real justification for this view. This is a consequence of gender roles and expectations placed on both genders by the higher social collective. Instead of seeing a Nigerian citizen fighting for what they believe in, he sees gender first and separates the duty of the soldier from the gender of the soldier.
Yet, during this interaction with Gladys, he has a change of heart. When he sees the determination and dedication in Gladys’ execution of her duties, “he finally believed there might be something in this talk about revolution” (2). In other words, he ceases to see a woman in a man’s job; rather, he sees a human being taking their role in the revolution seriously. She surprises him, and the result is that he ceases to mock the other women in the militia and develops a sense of hope for the future. This realization is a consequence of individuals not meeting the expectations placed on them through gender roles. Whatever reason Reginald had for believing women had no place in the militia evaporates when he actually sees a woman fulfilling her duty. His eyes show him a dedicated soldier who happens to be a woman, instead of the reverse. He is happily surprised and it alters his entire view of women soldiers, at least for a time.
As the story progresses, the reader sees even more examples of gender roles and expectations. He comes across Gladys again as she hails for a lift on the side of the road. He doesn’t immediately recognize her because she has put aside her militia uniform, and dolled herself in a wig and makeup and earrings. At first, he is attracted to this new look and calls her a “beauty queen” (4). But as he drives her toward her friend’s house, their conversation in his vehicle progresses and reveals his own conflicted nature. He becomes irritated with the changes in her until at last, he says in frustration (after finding that her friend isn’t at home), “She will come back on an arms plane loaded with shoes, wigs, pants, bras, cosmetics…which she will then sell and make thousands of pounds. You girls really are at war, aren’t you?” (7). When Gladys says that that is what men want women to do, he replies, “Here is one man who doesn’t want you to do that. Do you remember that girl in khaki jeans who searched me without mercy at the check point?…That is the girl I want you to become again” (7). This complicated interaction shows several problematic roles and expectations.
Reginald, at first enthralled with Gladys’ new look, realizes that she has forgone her role in the militia and taken to a more self-centered and selfish lifestyle. He believes that she must have a rich boyfriend somewhere, and is disappointed in this change. His comment that he would rather have the “girl in khaki jeans” is problematic for two reasons. First, because it asserts that his expectations and desires are more valuable than her own. Second, because instead of attempting to understand her situation, he operates on nothing but assumptions based on fleeting, in the moment interactions.
Moreover, this interaction also speaks to the influence of the patriarchy. When Reginald berates Gladys for what she and her friend do, she says, “That is what you men want us to do” (7). This links back to when she first searches his car at the checkpoint. When he gets mad for being delayed, she says, “But you people gave us this job to do” (2). In both instances, the female is fulfilling a role determined for her by the patriarchy through their actions. In her first role, it was the war (presumably waged by men) that required her to join the revolution. In her second, it was the desires of men that required her to wear a wig and dress in fancy clothes and jewelry. Reginald lays the blame for both roles entirely on Gladys’ shoulders, even though she points out that it is because of men these roles and expectations exist.
In this moment Reginald represents the patriarchy that is both responsible for the roles women take on, and that judges them when they either do or don’t fit those roles. Gladys represents the women of Nigeria (and, indeed, women everywhere) and how they are judged whether they operate within or outside of these roles. Whether she does or doesn’t conform to the expectations placed on her, Gladys inevitably loses. When she steps outside of the typical gender role expected of her and joins the militia, Reginald is offended and mocks her and only sees the good she’s doing when she isn’t affected by his attitude. When she leaves the militia and steps into a role seen as more typically feminine, Reginald loses all respect for her. Instead of questioning the social collective responsible for creating these roles and pushing women into and out of them, Reginald acts as if it is Gladys who is at fault.
Furthermore, he acts as though he has some right to tell her what she should and should not do, and does so at each meeting. In their very first meeting, when he gives her a ride and finds out she wants to join the militia, he tells her she should rather go to school. This he repeats in their second meeting when she searches his car. Then he reprimands her in their third meeting when he gives her a ride to her friend’s house. Outside of their few encounters throughout the story, he has no real role in her life. Moreover, he hardly recognizes her in their second and third meetings, indicating that she doesn’t mean much to him at all, and yet he acts as though she is personally affected by the choices she makes in life. This is even more symbolic of the patriarchy and its control over women’s lives and choices, and emblematic of how the patriarchy sees women’s issues as men’s issues, first.
While many themes fill the lines of this story, it is the definite gender roles and expectations that stand out to the reader. Reginald, while not only being a complicated and rather self-important character, also acts a symbol of the patriarchy; feigning concern for Gladys, convincing himself of both her worthiness for her role in the revolution and of her lack of virtue when she leaves the militia, are all part of his internal and external struggles in relation to this woman. Ultimately, Reginald proves to be a shallow character who’s more concerned with how women affect his life than how the war is affecting everyone. This poses many relevant questions with regards to gender and the social constructs which ever serve to divide women and men.