The Smell by Ruth Mukwana, reviewed by Lina Rodriguez

Lina Rodriguez is originally from Colombia. She is currently a student at Lincoln Memorial University, where she is studying Veterinary Health Science, and will be attending LMU College of Veterinary Medicine next fall.

Ruth Mukwana’s story, The Smell, was orginally published in Solstice, and can be read here.

 

Ruth Mukwana addresses the issue of women’s rights in her fictional story The Smell. The author uses this story as a way to bring awareness about women’s rights in other countries or, to be more precise, the lack of them. She does so by narrating the story of Rose, a woman who not only suffered from domestic violence but also suffered horrific consequences when she decided to stand up for herself.

In The Smell, Rose is literally ironed by her husband as punishment for spending money for their baby’s formula. After murdering her husband, Rose is incarcerated in inhumane conditions and subjected to abuse from the guards at the prison. She mentions how she tries to “understand what pained [her] the most, [her] broken body or spirit.”

Author Ruth Mukwana has experienced what it is like to live in a society where women are considered to be less than men. She was born in Uganda, a country where women’s rights, especially in rural areas, are practically nonexistent. Although fictional, The Smell is based on a society that she has been a part of. She has witnessed firsthand the suffering of women in her home country. This is perhaps one of the main reasons she has taken upon herself the mission to bring awareness of this situation.

When she narrates the story of Rose, a woman who murdered her husband after years of abuse, she is narrating the life of hundreds of women who are being mistreated. The reality portrayed in this fictional story is common among developing countries, especially those countries that live in extreme poverty. Women are treated as property, and their families marry them off young to obtain a dowry. Young women do not go to school. They do not have a childhood. Getting married, having kids, working, and taking care of the home is the future countless girls have accepted as their only option. These girls submit to this future as part of their cultural beliefs sometimes without questioning it or even realizing that they have other opportunities.

The author, although living in a society where this situation is common, did not have to go through this situation herself. In fact, Ruth Mukwana holds an MFA from Bennington College, works for the United Nations and has lived for an extensive period of time in New York City. She is a well-educated woman who was able to have a successful career in a country where this is an exclusive privilege.

In The Smell, there is a successful female lawyer who fights for Rose’s freedom. This lawyer represents a sign of hope for all young women. This young lawyer shows that, although it is not common, a woman can have a successful career. This figure represents a powerful woman capable of helping others. The lawyer represents someone who stood up for herself. She fought against her culture and succeeded. In the story, Rose admires this woman: “she was older than [her], but she looked much younger.” Rose is aware of how “her face exuded youth, but it didn’t have any of the physical scars and the haunted look wedged in [her] eyes.”

By juxtaposing Rose and her lawyer, Mukwana is showing two possibilities. Not every woman suffers from domestic abuse. Not every woman has to follow the cultural belief that their job is to take care of the house. Rose’s story is not exceptional. This is a situation that has been going on for multiple generations. Rose remembers how her mother “married [her] at the age of fourteen to a maternal uncle much older and twice [her] size.” This is the same situation her mother went through when she “was married at the age of twelve and had her first child the same year.” Perhaps this pattern is why young girls do not fight for their rights. In most cases, they are not even aware that they have rights. They have lived in a society that has belittled them for so long that they believe this is the way it is supposed to be. Through the lawyer’s character, the author is also providing these young women a role model—someone they can look up to. This does not literally mean that young women should become lawyers. What the author is trying to do is inspire young women to stand up for themselves. She is showing them that it is possible to be successful. Mukwana is showing little girls that they have something to fight for, and they should do so.

Women around the world suffer from discrimination. It is true that some women such as Rose face far more challenging types of discrimination than women living in wealthy countries. That being said, according to Lenora M. Lapidus, Director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, “today, women at all income levels are still facing barriers to advancement, and in some ways, these challenges are harder than ever because there are some people who think that discrimination against women no longer exists. Sadly, that’s just not true.”

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