Women and Gender in Early African histories
According to WHO, gender is the socially made characteristics of men and women. The characteristics being norms, the relationships between distinct groups of women and men, and the roles of each group. Gender describes how a male or a female behaves, look, act, and sees things. Scholars over the years have produced immense information in their body of studies highlighting how roles have continued to change based on gender and how they in differ in different African cultural setups. Since gender defined and segregated roles and determined relationships between male and female, it continued to perpetuate inequalities in the various African cultural setups. Despite this, women played and continue to play significant roles in the political, economic, religious, and social institutions in the society. However, their roles and authority were and to some extent, are still limited compared to that of men in a number of societies in Africa. This paper, therefore, looks at the history of gender before colonialism, the role of African women and gender in the rise and fall of colonialism and their status in the post-colonialism.
African history on gender was characterized by a number of occurrences; from historiography neglect to male imperialism that neglected women and gender altogether; in fact, scholars pointed an accusing finger to historians for the astounding invisibility of women and gender in their work. Women hardly featured in African history and politics. Despite this, women in the pre-colonial times tried to defy this and entered into religious groups, gender-based organizations and international women movements to help them through awkward moments. The impetus in these movements to mainstream women and womens interests saw the Womens movements ?ourish all over Africa 1980s onwards with major transformation being realized socio-economically and politically. There was the democratization of political systems, economic , and policies adjustments to incorporate gender issues and women. Women were hugely involved in the pre-colonial and colonial protests; they took part in the anti-colonial struggles and wars apart from forming national political movements for liberation. For example, in Tanzania, there were TANU women.
As the discontentment of the colonial rule gained momentum in Africa, Tanzania, then Tanganyika political power was being redefined by the formation of movements. At the center stage was Mwalimu Julius Nyerere with his TANU party. Alongside Nyerere was a woman, Bibi Titti Mohamed, who constantly appeared with Nyerere in rallies as the urge for independence kept growing. Bibi Titti was so vocal and a determined TANU enthusiast who played a key role in Tanzania getting its independence from British rule. Bibi Titti and other women at large received less attention in most accounts about Tanzania nationalism. This depicted the historiography marginalization of the female gender; this trend continued until recently when the women themselves took to the center stage to write about their history, and thus, the few existing writings are work of women who participated in one way or the other or witnessed the rising of TANU.
Elsewhere, gender and colonialism had a thing on women, in Congo, for example, only young male populations were encouraged to migrate to the city while women were dissuaded from moving to the city. The Congolese men too preferred to keep their women in the rural areas for economic reasons. The colonial whites highly stigmatized the black woman in the cities of Congo, and therefore, the population of women in the Congolese cities remained low. Up to until the 1930s when the colonial whites started interacting with black women that the population of women in the cities, particularly, Leopoldville, began to increase. While in the city, women were neglected and discriminated against from taking part in the development activities of these cities. They were labeled musenzi,” a Lingala term meaning uncivilized as opposed to their male counterparts who, According to the colonialist showed the capability of evolving into civilization. Women were also denied access to education and therefore, could not secure job opportunities, which were highly preceded by men. Therefore, women did not have formal sources of income, and many of them turned to prostitution to be able to meet town expenses. The same phenomena of women prostitution were characteristic with Nairobi city in Kenya, and women were able to accumulate wealth to the extent of establishing bar and restaurants.
David Schroenbrun depicted other gendered themes in early African history in his book chapter Gendered themes in Early African history. David depicts the arrangements of gender that are revealed by early African history. From the southern Africa rock art that represent sexually ambiguous figures to a group of men and women who owned lavish stone houses in the east coast of the Indian ocean, to portraits of men and women in characteristic poses in central Nigeria.
The role of African women and gender in the rise and fall of colonialism cannot be overlooked. Despite their contribution being given less attention by the historiographers, women contribution to the rise and fall of colonialism is immense. The colonial rulers marginalized women and orchestrated a political antagonism between the African men and African woman. However, the African woman remained pivotal in shaping up movements against colonial rule. Them being mothers, nurtured a family, and were important social agents. The colonialists saw women as an important driver that would push Africans to consumer dependency. Women were highly used in the quest of colonialists to marginalize the Africans and women themselves. It was a strategy used to defeat African traditions and establish customary laws. The laws transformed the African society at the expense of women. The laws ignored women, ignored the productive role of women, exaggerated the powers of the chief, and made African men feel they were reclaiming their control over the African women. Colonial missionaries also used women as a scapegoat to promote and spread Christianity, and both the state and the church in unison agreed to put African woman under the African men this was to control the influence of an African woman who was seen as a savior to Africa. The customary law was used to violate women rights to own property, even the property inherited by women from their own families were transferred to under the management of African men, and this enhanced the colonialist strategy to cub womens influence. European biases towards male leadership jeopardized and dimmed women hope to ascend to leadership positions in the colonial society and women lost political significance altogether. This left the women so powerless, non-productive, and left out of the decision making process To the extent that women were made housewives and thus, the colonialists had succeeded in establishing Africans society as a consuming state. A consuming state, literally to enslave African men to continue providing labor to their industries.
However, other African history paints a different picture about women leadership. For example, in the history of the Akan and the Asante people, the Akan traditions had women leadership at the core of migrant and nascent communities. Even the city of Kumase is alleged to have been bought from a woman, and women remained indispensable from the growth of the Asante community. Another example is the political life of an Igbo woman. Traditionally, an Igbo woman had some political role to play; She would participate in village meetings which, in other African traditions, is a preserve of men. Women solidarity, as it was expressed in their political institutions, in their meetings and kinship groups saw the Igbo woman possess real political power to the extent of enforcing their decisions. However, the British colonial system did not recognize such. Both men colonial office holders and missionaries failed to appreciate the political systems and organized institutions through which an Igbo woman exercised her political power.
The Igbo women continued to exercise their political role despite it not being recognized by the British men and women. In 1929, Igbo and Ibibio women came together to demonstrate against the systemic changes that had been initiated by the then governor, Frederick Lugard. The changes had utterly watered down the influence of women in society. The system had undermined the women political and economic status through the imposition of indirect rule. An indirect rule that was characterized by extremely high taxation, unjust courts that ruled unjustly against women, and highly inefficient chiefs. Women were made entirely inconsequential in the midst of dominant male decision makers. The males who wholly depended on female labor to earn some income. This sparked protest that culminated into women war, a war strategically planned and executed by the Igbo women against the colonial political, social, and economic injustices meted against the women in British Nigeria.
In Tanzania, Bibi Titti Mohamed was also at the center stage fighting for the women political space within TANU. Belonging to a number of women group in Dar es Salaam, Bibi Titti was able to mobilize women to fight for independence. She was the women leader in TANU, and she devoted energies and tremendous amount of time to organizing nationalist movements. The movements were because of the expression of the sense of personality and a collective identity that surpassed the tribal and ethnic organization or affiliation. This was made easy by the existence of popular music and dance groups whose members came from everywhere. The Swahili language was also was the popular language used in this music and dance groups. It was also the language widely used for general interaction in the town. This made it possible for political discussions to sink in the broader women population who inculcated the talks in their songs. The songs, mainly with TANU slogans and with the theme of activism, were sung by the women in the groups of music and dance, and this placed the women at the center of politics and nationalization. They had now been turned into TANU activists and therefore participated widely in the politics of TANU.
The TANU constitution recognized and promoted equal participation of men and women in the politics of freedom, the TANU leader, Mwalimu Nyerere even demonstrated his recognition of the womens question of Tanganyika by writing an essay incorporating the J. S. Mills analysis to the subjugation of African women in the society. The women played even an important role in the political mobilization of not only women but also in the recruitment of men into TANU. Women occupied an important position of the decision-making organ in TANU, and through the active activism of women, the attempts by the colonialists to detain Nyerere was thwarted at some point. The urge for self-rule gained momentum, fight against racial discrimination was a success. The women fought against colonial exploitation, inaccessibility to education and jobs, and the failure of the colonialist to give respect to the Tanganyikas. The women used the TANU ideology and commitment to end discrimination based on sex and religion to fight gender inequality among their own society since gender had shaped their experience on colonial oppression. The women were so successful in entrenching their influence in the political and economic arena; they succeeded to voice their concerns and fought for their space in the colonial period.
In the post-colonial Africa, gender relations continued to change, with more and more women coming into the limelight, more women historiographer started writing about their stories. Gender issues were mainstreamed into most aspects of governance. Most of existing male chauvinistic kind of laws were revised and more accommodative and all-inclusive laws were enacted with countries like Kenya introducing affirmative action and a third gender rule in their newly promulgated constitution of 2010. A number of African countries saw women presidential candidates who not only participated in the election but also won those elections. A good example is Liberias first woman president and indeed first African woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served between 2006 and 2018.
In Nigeria, the post-colonial era did not come with a lot of changes to the Igbo woman and women at large, especially in the education system at least in the 1960s. it was until a decade ago that there were changes to education policies. Despite this, women involvement in education matters in the post-colonial is still poor. This has further been exacerbated by the social-cultural policies in gender education that characterized the education system in the colonial era. In the economic cycle, the Igbo women were so prolific in the pre-colonial era; women generally drove the economic wheel. However, this changed in the colonial era after the introduction of indirect rule during the amalgamation of the North and South-East and South-west Nigeria. The economic status of women became insignificant; the colonial rulers transferred economic power to the colonizers and later to the African men and women were condemned to poverty. This situation has not significantly changed in the post-colonial period. The economic gender roles in this era have witnessed little or no changes. No new policies were or have been initiated to address the economic inequalities that were brought out during the colonial era.
In conclusion, gender and women in the early African history was characterized by a number of activities from the pre-colonial to colonial and post-colonial era. They ranged from women actively involved in various aspects of governance, being been actively engaged in economic activities and even politics in the pre-colonial era. This then changed with the onset of colonial error that saw injustices meted on women population. There was the institutionalization of customary laws that limited women rights to own property, reduced their influence on matters governance. Important decisions were left to the colonial officials and a few African men. In Nigeria, there was the introduction of indirect rule that was characterized by unjust courts and warrants chiefs who ruled against women. The Igbo women were denied rights to education, denied rights of economic empowerment and were condemned to poverty with their economic roles being transferred to the colonialists and African men. This saw a women revolt in Nigeria to protest against the injustice brought about by the ruling governor in 1929. In other countries like Tanzania, women were turned into activists to fight for space, fight against discrimination of roles basing on gender issues and colonial exploitation of the African woman, among other ills. Women were able to expand some space in leadership, empowered themselves through women movements that advocated for their rights. Women who were restricted from settling in urban centers like L?opoldville in Congo were able to own bars and accumulated wealth. Despite this, most of this situation and the status of African woman did not significantly change in the post-colonial period in some African countries. There have been few changes witnessed in countries like Nigeria to elevate the status of the Igbo women. Until a decade ago, for example, there were no new policies that were instituted by the government to better the education opportunity for the Igbos.
However, in countries like Tanzania, the ruling party in the colonial error empowered women and recognized them in its organization structure with women like Bibi Titti playing a huge role in fighting for independence and fighting for women space in the society. Countries like Kenya progressively recognized women in the political leadership of the country, entrenching a third gender rule in their constitution and instituting affirmative action to increase the number of women in political leadership. The opening space for women in leadership within Africa saw Liberia electing a woman as a president who served for more than ten years. Also, women stories that were given little attention by historiographers started to feature, women themselves took up the role of writing their achievements and roles they played to the see the fall of colonialism.
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