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date: 25 March 2023

Women in Southern African Historylocked

Women in Southern African Historylocked

  • Heike BeckerHeike BeckerDepartment of Anthropology and Sociology, University of the Western Cape


Women have played complex roles in the history of Southern Africa, a vast region that comprises diverse local histories as well as social and cultural forms. The diversity of the region has been both integrated and fragmented through historical connections, which have centered on South Africa as a subimperial power.

Prior to colonial conquest and the impact of Christian missions and European trade, gender relations varied, partly due to an array of social and kinship systems. Overall, however, the position of women in southern African societies deteriorated after colonization. Economic, political, and cultural dynamics impacted on gender relations through the interaction of European and indigenous patriarchy, colonial rule, and capitalist modes of production, which reinforced and transformed one another, evolving into new structures and forms of domination.

The paradox of similarities due to settler colonialism and differences in respect of timing and pathways to decolonization impacted upon the trajectories of postcolonial gender politics and the representation of women in the postcolonial political structures of southern Africa.

Despite initial differences regarding legal gender equality, everywhere that liberation movements in power established themselves in the region, discourses of “African culture and tradition” became pertinent. Colonial customary laws and powers given to traditional leaders remain at the heart of contemporary battles over gender equality and social justice.


  • Southern Africa
  • Women’s History

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