Where Is the Place of A Woman in Africa? An Overview of Precolonial Africa
July 25, 2020
So many questions to ask: where is the place of an African woman? Is her place in the kitchen? Is patriarchy African? Better still, what does precolonial Africa say about the status of women in the home and society at large?
In finding answers to these questions, I will discuss the place of a woman in an African society by exploring the role of women in politics, social environment, and economy in the precolonial era.
Precolonial and Women’s Role in the Society
Many of us are quick to utter the words: “Africa is a patriarchal society.” But what we do not know, is that pre-colonial Africa valued and respected its women. It was never the situation of “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” even though African women were domesticated.
Before colonialism, Africa was a society void of the “social categorization” by gender: male and female. Rather, everyone ordinarily co-exists without any strong sensitivity to gender. The studies of Niara Sirdakusa, Oyeronke Oyewunmi, and Cyrelene Amoah-Boampong and Christabel Agyeiwa’s explained that the pre-colonial African society socialized based on seniority, kinship, and polygamy. These traditions did not subscribe to the subjugation and oppression of women; rather it gave room for African women to thrive even though the society was patrilineal.
For instance, in Yoruba society, women’s socialization was not restricted to the dictates of their husbands or society’s definition of their roles. Oyewunmi writes that women in the precolonial era had power over their bodies and freely socialize because their husbands were married to many women and their activities were bounded by the principle of division of labor: that is, roles are determined by duties expected of the “iyale” and “iyawo.” And so, the social relations of the time influenced women’s involvement in various vocations and community engagement as female hunters, fisherwomen, and members of women’s group.
Politically and economically, women held leadership positions and had their jobs. As an agrarian and traditional religious society, women were the major agriculturists in Africa and were clan leaders. According to Gina Koczerbeski, African women were “the main food producers and nurturers . . . and . . . main generators of wealth” before colonialism. Oyewunmi, Kamene Nkonjo, Funmi Soetan, and Adetunji Ogunyemi, O. W. Ogbomo and Q. O. Ogbomo, and Foluke Ogunleye in their works identify that Nigerian women held chieftaincy and kingship titles as Iyalode, iyaloja’s, and omu’s in the south east, south south, and south west communities. Similarly, in Northern Nigeria, we had king women as Queen Amina. Likewise, in traditional West African societies such as Ghana and Benin, Amoah-Boampong and Agyeiwa allude that women were queen mothers and held leadership positions in the family.
The Impact of Colonialism, Christian Ethos, and Islamic Ethos on African Women’s Status
Unfortunately, with the incursion of Africa by the Europeans in the nineteenth century there was a change in how the society perceived women. According to Monica Orisadare and Tolulope Osinubi, colonialism armed with Victorian ethos described women as ornaments and housewives, and therefore, cheated African women and refer to them as second-class citizens.
So, colonialism turns out to be the greatest disservice African women experienced. The gender dualism ideology supported by Victorian ethos and Christianity deposed and deconstructed women’s position and power in the African society. And with the Christian religion, the colonizers introduced monogamy to displace polygamy in Africa. Thereby, putting an end to women’s economic role as traders, landowners, and priestesses. LaRay Denzer extends that the introduction of the monogamy family structure was a way that colonial masters entrenched the British laws in the African society while also imposing the traditions that strongly supported male control of the church, women, and society. Gloria Chuku describes that the British made use of Christianity onslaught and western educational policies that favored men to displace women. In corroboration of this evidence, Amoah-Boampong and Agyeiwa explain that “the introduction of Christianity by missionaries subjugated women and it prohibited them from taking up any leadership position in the church. They then confine women to domestic chores such as cleaning the church, teaching children, attending church activities, and preparing food for church programs when necessary.” As such, the model of managing colonies then undermined the political and economic power of women.
Also, with the aid of Christianity as a tool of undermining African women, the colonizers introduced western education. This was presented as a form of advancement for African society. But unfortunately, it was a tool for marginalizing women. Oluwafisayo Ogundoro in her study points out that missionary schools were desegregated into the boy’s grammar school and girls grammar school: the boys’ schools being more mathematical and technical while girls’ schools being more catering and needlework focused. The organization of the school system then elevated men’s increased enrollment in education while it puts a peg on women’s access to education. This is a reality of the present African society where we have more males enrolled in education than females.
Do we blame the change in women’s status on colonialism or Christianity alone? The answer is NO. This is because Islam began in Nigeria and West Africa earlier before Christianity. According to Soetan and Ogunyemi, Islam began to gain acceptance in the 1500s and 1600s, and it prohibited women from engaging in public spheres through the practice of the purdah tradition. (The purdah tradition advocates the seclusion of women). And this is the case in North Africa and many other Islamic nations. The Islamic tradition relegates women’s status and role to the private spheres of child-rearing and family nurturing. As a result, the colonizers in Islamic societies built on the tradition met on-ground. This made it easy for the smooth sailing of the European Victorian ethos.
Overall, colonialism armed with Victorian ethos and Christianity, and Islam changed how African women socialize. This goes to reflect how the west and Islamic practices sold the ideology that the best place for a woman is the kitchen. For this reason, women were relegated to private spheres and the culture of patriarchy in African society was heavily promoted with everyone holding the belief that women should not hold political positions or pursue a career.
The impact of colonialism did not allow African tradition to grow to its full stature. Therefore, what we see today in terms of women’s socialization in politics, economy, and family life are the result of the encroachment of African tradition through the British practice of gender dualism. It is as well, important to emphasize that most African societies are patrilineal which demands that women exercise their domestic duties. Howbeit, these traditional societies never relegated African women to the kitchen without access to jobs, leadership roles, and priesthood.
Iyale and Iyawo: Yoruba words for junior and senior wives
Pre-colonial Africa: the period between 1500–1800
Colonial Africa: the period between 1800–1960 (the ending dates depend on the date of independence).
Victorian Era/Ethos: This was a period in which Queen Victoria reigned in England. In this era, a woman’s place is to be a wife, and mother, and these were considered as sufficient definitions, emotional fulfillment, and identity of women.
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Watch these videos for more context:
Seun Kuti on the proverb: “the place of a woman is in the kitchen.”