Monday’s Girls, directed by the British-Nigerian filmmaker Ngozi Onwurah, opens by introducing the viewer to two young women from Ogoloma, a fishing town in the southern Rivers State of Nigeria as they prepare for Iria, a five-week ritual meant to prepare girls for marriage. Both girls are from prominent families in the town, but while Florence, who was raised in Ogoloma, is eager and proud to participate in the tradition, Asikiye, a music student who is returning from the city for the first time in 10 years, has only come at the persuasion of her parents, and is determined to only participate in the aspects of the ceremony that she is comfortable with.
The primary point of contention comes when Asikiye refuses to bare her breasts during a part of the ritual in which the iriabos (girls participating in Iria) are supposed to appear bare-chested before the entire town to have their bodies examined by a council of elder women (the leader of this council, Monday Moses, gives the film its title) to ensure that they have been chaste. In one particularly compelling scene, Florence, having passed the test, picks up a ticket certifying her chastity from the male council of chiefs to the sounds of drumming and the applause of the entire town, while Asikiye sits in a darkened room, her face painted with the elaborate designs of the other iriabos but having refused to be a part of the ritual, angrily venting her frustrations to an unseen woman.
Asikiye is sent home in disgrace but unrepentant, and the focus of the film temporarily shifts to Florence and the other iriabos during their time in the “fattening rooms,” where they undergo a month-long period of seclusion and relative immobility, aided by heavy bronze rings fitted on their legs, so that when they emerge from the rooms they will be plump and ready for marriage. The film offers a complex view of this ceremony – Florence describes enjoying her time eating and resting, and being made to feel attractive and appreciated, but also acknowledges that her legs are uncomfortable and she is tired of being in the rooms. She receives advice from the older women on how to breastfeed as well as how to please a husband by being submissive as we see shots of Asikiye dancing with a man in a nightclub. The division between tradition and modernity is also not clear cut — Asikiye clearly lives a more ‘modern’ life than those in Ogoloma, but Florence, who we learn identifies as a Christian, listens to hip hop and reggae on the radio while in the fattening rooms, and ultimately decides to finish her education before getting married.
Ultimately, Monday’s Girls provides an in-depth look at a multifaceted tradition, depicts the costs and benefits of different paths available to women in a changing society, and introduces us to two thoughtful and very distinct characters who are firm in the choices they make for themselves.
Initiation ceremony, marriage, Nigeria, women, tradition vs modernity, Iria
Anderson, Melissa. Review of Becoming a Woman in Okrika by Judith Gleason, Elisa Mereghetti and Monday’s Girls by Ngozi Onwurah. African Arts vol. 29 no. 4, 1996, pp. 76-78, 96. Accessed 21 Jan 2016. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3337402?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents