Understanding Women and Power in AfricaIdes Ofune 6th April 2020 0 COMMENTS
Few months back, I paid a visit to a friend and discussions veered into the perceived cultural injustice faced by women in Africa. According to mainstream views, African culture is inherently oppressive to women. I hold a contrary opinion. I have always believed that historically, African women were not the weak passive victims waiting for men to save them. We do not even have fairy tales of girls waiting for prince charming to rescue them from castles. I dare say that no African girl has such dreams. Given that this is not my research area neither do I have the time to actively carry out a detailed research to back my beliefs, they remained at best opinions. So you could imagine my joy when I came across a book chapter highlighting African women’s contribution to anti-colonial resistance and nation building. The chapter entitled “Women, Colonial Resistance, and Decolonization Challenging African Histories,” was written by Professor Yolande Bouka. Although the research is written in academic style language, I will try to extricate the points I considered important using a combination of layman and academic styles.
She argues that in precolonial Africa, women were agents in their own right as opposed to properties of men. She opines that it was the “European social construction of gender” imposed on African colonies that had and continues to have a great influence in the way women are portrayed.
In the author’s words:
“Modern European societies were built on a masculinist perspective of the state and later invested heavily in the replication of this framework in their colonies as part of their imperial projects. After World War II, newly independent postcolonial states, their leaders, and their demands for self-determination stumbled into this gendered international system of states. As such, while African women from all walks of life actively resisted colonialism, even at times from their private and devalued spheres of influence, national and international discourses of independence infused in masculine privilege rendered their labour invisible. Consequently, in the recounting of nationalist struggles, only men’s voices are registered in African historical and political scholarship.”
This line of argument has also been advanced by Chimamanda Adichie during the 2018 Igbo conference in the USA. In her speech, she said that in precolonial Igbo society, women owned properties, were big time traders and had their own form of power. They were highly organised and could also discipline errant men. The British colonialists were horrified by this tradition and outlawed it. They subsequently imposed laws based on the Victorian era view of women which unfortunately still holds till today. Professor Bouka believes that these views had enormous influence on the African intellectual spaces in terms of selecting which “history of contestations and anti-colonial struggles were recorded during the independence process”. She therefore fills this gap by highlighting the various female directions and impacts during anticolonial struggles.
She begins with the Senegalese author Ousmane Sembène’s book entitled “God’s Bits of Wood”. This book is based on the success of the Dakar-Niger Railway workers historical strike of 1947–1948. Ousmane portrayed women as agents by showing that working women were a particular normal feature of the society and integral to the success of the strikes. I get the same sense that historically, African women were not powerless victims anytime I read “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. Nevertheless, history on anticolonial struggles would have us believe that women waited for men to liberate them. This is not the case. According to the Professor Bouka,
“Women in pre-colonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, led armies, launched military conquests, and founded new states. Across the continent, Queen mothers held and exercised varying degrees of political, social, and cultural power. Depending on the society, Queen mothers could be autonomous rulers such as Queen Pokou, who, in the eighteenth century, during a violent succession conflict, led a branch of the Ashanti Empire away from Kumasi. Under her leadership, the political and social institutions of the Baoulé emerged west of Komoé River. In other cases, women co-ruled with their husbands, sons, or brothers.”
However, this is not to romanticize women’s conditions in precolonial Africa or that women were basking in a haven of equality. I do not even think that there is such a thing as an equal modern society where women do not suffer any form of injustice. It doesn’t exist. In precolonial Africa, there were certainly situations were women were clearly excluded from some public roles due to their gender. The point is that female power in precolonial Africa was not an aberration. Once this is established, we can fully see the negative impact of colonialism on female power in Africa. The author rightly concludes that colonialism “diluted the power and influence of African women by creating social and economic boundaries that emphasized the subordination of African women’s domesticity in the private sphere and upheld men’s central role in the cash economy and as interlocutors to colonial authorities.”
Particular instances of female power in the book chapter are highlighted below:
- In 1929, Igbo and Ibibio market women in Owerri and Calabar (Nigeria) made war against warrant chiefs and colonial authorities over issues of taxation and colonial administration. In addition to their economic grievances, they also called for the end of the reform of the native courts.
- In post-World War I French Togoland, anticolonial resistance started in the capital of Lomé, predominantly inhabited by Ewe-speakers. In the early 1930s Ewe market women joined men in the indigenous city council to resist a proposed tax.
- Women warriors in Dahomey not only served as guards to the king, but female military units became integral parts of the kingdom’s expansionist and war-making machine. They were renowned for their valiance, courage, and strength. In her ethnographic study of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last enslaved Africans taken to the Americas, Zora Neale Hurston recounts his memory of the Dahomey female warriors: “No man kin be so strong lak the women soldiers from the Dahomey”. In 1890, as the First French-Dahomean War raged, female units were on the front lines. During the final conquest, 2 years later, the women were the last to surrender to the French.
Just as I argued in my friend’s house, oppressed women with no rights would not undertake such risky roles against powerful European colonialists. The essence of writing this article and highlighting these feats by African women is to normalise the fact that in Africa, women have always been powerful agents in their own right. It is no wonder that Africa has the highest number of female entrepreneurs in the world. I think this power resides in our DNA somewhere but was rendered dormant by colonialism. This is corroborated with the undeniable fact that in an average African society, a woman can attain economic success and independence without formal education which is unobtainable in other more advanced and so called equal societies.
Going forward I propose that as African women, we need to take off this cloak of perpetual victimhood that the world likes to put on us. Furthermore, while we empathize with women all over the world, we should not appropriate their struggles as ours especially if they are not part of our history. Doing this creates an unjustified and unhealthy anger which is definitely not helpful. Our histories are different so our fight must not necessarily not tow the same path. Ours is to restore and regain what has been lost not really beginning from a clean slate. I think that western form of female struggle for justice is too militant, confrontational and antagonistic which goes against the fabric of the innate African culture. As African women, we know how to get what we want and need for advancement. We do this not by totally upending and overthrowing the system but by correcting the injustice within it. As we advocate for equity, we must take pride in the fact that our fore bearers were powerful. We are therefore coming from a place of strength not weakness.
To read the full book chapter, click here.
Yolande Bouka is (Ph.D. American University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University. Her research and teaching focus on gender, African politics and security, political violence, and field research ethics in conflict-affected societies. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from American University. Read her full biography here.
Ides Ofune is currently a PhD Student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on civil society and accountability in improving the quality of education. She is the founder of Desert Bloom Initiative and editor of Desert Bloom Advisory. Ides is very passionate about education and creating an inclusive society. She speaks French and English fluently. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org