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Since the turn of the 21st century, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has frequently been portrayed in international media as “the worst place in the world to be a woman.” The moral and political economy of gender relations in the largest country of sub-Saharan Africa has nevertheless been shaped by a long history of women’s multiple experiences of agency and disempowerment and competition and solidarity, whose complexity cannot be captured through victimizing narratives. While political boundaries of DR Congo result from late-19th-century colonialism, the territories encompassed in the country have a rich longue durée history. In precolonial times, women’s status and access to resources and power varied greatly across different cultural and political formations. From the 16th century, the intensification of the slave and ivory trade, in the footsteps of European expansion, affected normative and effective patterns of gender relations. The creation of the Congo Free State (1885–1908), which marked the debut of Belgian colonialism in Central Africa, created a regime of forceful extraction of resources and labor that had a severe impact on women. The distinctive features of the Belgian Congo regime (1908–1960) also influenced the status and experiences of women. The central role of the Roman Catholic Church and the maternalist visions of Belgian authorities generated a specific lens through which Congolese women were targeted by colonial policies. Despite limited room for maneuvering, Congolese women never restricted themselves to the roles imposed on them, neither during the colonial nor the postcolonial period. During the Mobutu regime (1965–1997) and beyond, transgressions of gender norms, as well as strategies of emancipation, has generated specific—even if ambiguous—paths of mobilization.

Article

Catherine Cymone Fourshey

A predominantly rural territory with few urban centers historically, the Gambia holds little in the way of well-known luxury resources commonly discussed in studies of western Africa. People of the region, in particular women, have exploited both riverine and oceanic food and material resources. The limited scholarship available on Gambian women reveals they have been essential to those endeavors contributing to economy, politics, society, and family institutions. Often by pursuing seemingly less-lucrative endeavors, women have been prominent actors innovating production and acquisition techniques as well as product uses in this mixed agricultural and aquatic economy, from precolonial to contemporary times. Despite few raw materials or luxury resources, and in certain contexts great limits on their authority, women of the Gambia River region were central to economic life historically, developing household food production and trading their surplus agricultural, aquatic, and manufactured goods. In different eras and contexts, Gambian women have been agricultural innovators and technologists; catchers, processors, and traders of aquatic resources; merchants of manufactured and crafted items; and educators. In essence, they created intellectual, economic, and artisanal opportunities for themselves and others in their communities. These activities allowed women to influence and propel economic and political agendas over time. In particular, women have been credited with critical developments in rice production technologies going back at least to the 16th century, though women’s expertise in this realm likely has much deeper historical roots. This knowledge and set of skills related to rice agriculture made Mandinka women of the Gambia River region critical to West Africa’s Upper Guinea coast and also to life in the Americas as enslaved producers. Mandinka women and men became a large demographic represented in southeastern US plantations and communities because of their well-developed techniques in rice cultivation. Gambian women significantly influenced the eastern and western Atlantic worlds. The modern-day nation of The Gambia, which achieved independence in 1965, is a relatively small territory hugging the banks of Gambia River for a narrow fifteen miles from the north and south banks. Starting 300 miles inland to the east (upriver), the river flows west into the Atlantic Ocean (downriver). Looking back in time at this region bordering the river, it is important to consider Gambian women’s lives over time in the context of both centralized and non-centralized political units. In the orbit of centralized states such as Ghana (4th–13th centuries), Takrur (9th–14th centuries), Mali (13th–15th centuries), and Jolof (14th–16th centuries), women (and men) negotiated shifting expectations over time. Certainly Gambian women have been born into, circulated among, or married within several local cultural and linguistic traditions that include Aku, Bambara, Fula, Jola, Mandinka, Manjago, Serahulle, Serer, and Wollof. However, scholars have written more about women and gender for these groups in neighboring countries. Non-centralized political and social affiliations typically provided women a great deal of authority and autonomy. However, most positions and statuses women were privy to historically were reshaped and often greatly diminished from the 19th century onward due to processes of the slave trade, Islamization, and European colonialization. With the rise of Atlantic-world trade small numbers of coastal Gambian River women expanded their spheres of influence and wealth by forming both marital and economic alliances with Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British men. By the 20th century a number of women pursued various forms and levels of education in efforts to increase their opportunities in the social, political, and economic arenas. In essence, in each historical era women of the Gambia River have sought out knowledge, expertise, and skills in order to achieve their ambitions regardless of the political, religious, or social order dominant at the time.

Article

Boutheina Ben Hassine

This article is a review of the dynamics of the evolution of feminist movements in Tunisia starting in the third decade of the 20th century. These movements took advantage of the influence of the Nahda movement in the 19th century, which prompted the Arab world to modernize education and to involve women mainly in vocational education. The executives of the patriarchal society encouraged polygamy, while the French Protectorate and the Catholic Church targeted Tunisian women as a means of spreading French culture. In the 1920s, the national focus was on the education of women and encouraging their presence in the public space. When journalist Tahar Haddad wrote in favor of abandoning the veil, many nationalists (including President Habib Bourguiba) refused his idea, as the veil was seen as a symbol of Tunisian cultural identity, one transmitted specifically by women. This controversy over the veil is considered the beginning of Tunisian nationalism. By the 1930s, Tunisian women were no longer a central object of polemics and political discussion. They created new feminist associations: The Muslim Women’s Union of Tunisia (1936–1955), the Union of Tunisian Women (1944–1963), and the Union of Tunisian Girls (1945–1963). These associations worked within Tunisian society to help women overcome poverty, economic doldrums, and war, and they participated in Tunisia’s war of independence. Meanwhile, President Bourguiba focused on women in the struggle to modernize the country following independence. The achievement of personal status on August 13, 1956, was a revolutionary event in Africa. The National Union of Women of Tunisia became the machine of President Bourguiba, the “supreme fighter,” to educate women, control birth rates, and build the image of the Tunisian nation. Several women, including Radhia Haddad and Fathia Mzali, were involved in implementing this Bourguibian policy. But this policy led to difficulties—essentially, Bourguiba’s eventual return to a conservative and patriarchal model. The economic crisis of the 1970s deeply affected women, especially female workers in the textile industry. Intellectuals created the Tahar Haddad Club as a response to the hardening of the political regime and the Islamization of society. University women mobilized to create the Association of Tunisian Academic Women for Research and Development (TAWRD), with the motto of equal opportunities for men and women. After Zine El Abidine Ben Ali demolished the Bourguibian regime, he instituted a feminist policy to gain political legitimacy. He encouraged women ministers to promote women’s rights in the Ministry of Social Affairs. Ben Ali’s policy also redefined the prerogatives of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Children. His quest for legitimacy over his predecessor led him to undertake a major reform of the Code of Personal Status (CPS). The Ministry of Women, Family, and Children put more attention into studies and research on women by creating the CREDIF (Center for Research, Documentation, and Information on Women). But all these measures did not prevent Ben Ali’s regime from being fascist. The 2011 Revolution has been of great benefit for women’s rights, despite the rise of religious conservatism and radicalism, because it allowed parity in electoral lists and criminalized violence against women. Feminist associations doubled in number and multiplied actions for equality. More recently, from 2014–2019, the president of the republic, Beji Caid Essebssi, created a committee to enact laws on equality in matters of succession.

Article

In the precolonial era, certain women played key governance roles, for example, the queen’s sister and the king’s mother in Buganda, the largest of Uganda’s four kingdoms. At one time they had as much power as the king in Buganda. However, women’s authority declined in Buganda in the 1700s and 1800s with the rise of the hereditary chiefs (batongole) and the demise of the influence of the clans. The coming of the British further undermined their roles. While on the one hand, British colonial engagement with local authorities privileged men, colonial education gave rise to Ugandan women’s leadership in local and national organizations, which provided women with a venue for political mobilization. The first women were appointed to the legislature at the end of British rule in 1954; all of them were British. As a result of pressure from women’s organizations, African women were soon thereafter appointed to the legislature starting in 1956. The number of women in political office remained low until the takeover of President Yoweri Museveni in 1986, when Uganda became a leader in Africa in advancing women in positions in the legislature and executive. The Museveni government’s adoption of reserved seats for women at all levels from local councils to the parliament in 1989 ensured that at least one-third of seats were held by women. The increase in numbers of women in parliament had some impact on the adoption of women’s rights legislation; however, ultimately women remained constrained by patronage and the undemocratic nature of the political system in Uganda.

Article

Barbara Cooper

Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.

Article

Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice. During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.

Article

Hilary Jones

The idea of race shaped the encounter between Africa and Europe from the “age of discovery,” through the height of colonial rule in the 20th century, and on into the age of independence, decolonization and the birth of the postcolonial nation. Race, understood today as a social construct rather than a biological fact, emerged as an ideological framework in Western thought to rationalize difference. In the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and color stood as markers of difference. The Atlantic slave trade furthered the notion of African inferiority by defining African people as “heathen” and therefore suitable for enslavement. By the 19th century, scientific racism advanced the idea of blackness as biologically and culturally inferior to whiteness, which in turn served to justify colonial conquest under the guise of “civilizing dark Africa.” Colonial rule, moreover, relied on ethnicity as a means of categorizing African peoples. Using the idea of “tribe” to characterize and govern African peoples furthered the objectives of European imperialism by taking a complex landscape of social, cultural, political, and linguistic identity and establishing a rigid and fixed system of classification. African women stood at the intersection of racialist thinking about Africa and the construction of a colonial social order that used race and ethnicity as means of defining and controlling African populations. Women like Sara Baartman became the symbolic projection of racial and ethnic difference for Europe; at the same time, customary marriages between African women and European men in Atlantic Africa defined cross-cultural trade and gave rise to multiracial communities. As European imperialism gave way to colonial bureaucracy, the fluidity of interracial unions gave way to policies that sought to police the boundaries between black and white in the colony; children of mixed racial ancestry did not fit neatly into the ethnic or racial categories erected by colonial regimes. Far from being passive receptacles of racial and ethnic thinking, African men and women used these categories of European knowledge as tools for their own purposes. African women, in particular, developed their own strategies for engaging with European merchants and officials in the age of encounter, and for navigating the evolving landscape of colonial rule, whether defying colonial boundaries by entering into intimate partnerships with European men, or rejecting European suitors.

Article

Women were the majority of enslaved people in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was transformed and expanded in the context of so-called “legitimate commerce” that followed the abolition of oceanic slave trading. Abolition proclamations followed, in British colonies in the 1830s, and elsewhere from the 1870s through much of the 20th century, but abolition did not equate to freedom. Gender was at the heart of emancipation everywhere. Colonial merchants and officials colluded with local male elites to ensure the least disruption possible to the status quo. For these male allies, emancipation was a contradiction in terms for women, because masculine authority and control over women was assumed. In many regions, it was difficult for Europeans to distinguish between marriage, pawnship, and slavery. Women engaged strategically with colonial institutions like the courts over such distinctions to assert some form of control over their own lives, labor, and bodies. Where slavery and marriage were categorically distinct, again women might engage with Western gender stereotypes of marriage to extricate themselves from the authority of former slaveholders, or they might withdraw their labor by fleeing from the farms. Whereas for Europeans women were ideally defined as subservient wives within nuclear families, for many women themselves motherhood and access to their children were key to struggles toward emancipation. Women’s decisions about their emancipation were influenced by many factors, including whether or not they were mothers, if they were born into slavery or enslaved as children or adults, their experiences of coercion and cruelty including sexual violence, their status within the slaveholding, and their relationships of dependency and support. Topography and location mattered; urban contexts offered different kinds of post-slavery opportunity for many, and access to land and other economic opportunities and limitations were critical. The abolition of slavery by European colonial officials did not emancipate women, but it did provide the context in which some women might negotiate or claim their own rights to freedom as they defined it—which in some cases meant walking away from systems of involuntary servitude. Some women engaged colonial officers and institutions directly to demand a change in status, whereas others decided to stay in relationships that, in many cases, were subtly redefined.

Article

Johanna Bond

In the colonial and postcolonial period, African women have advocated for legal reforms that would improve the status of women across the continent. During the colonial period, European common and civil law systems greatly influenced African indigenous legal systems and further entrenched patriarchal aspects of the law. In the years since independence, women’s rights advocates have fought, with varying degrees of success, for women’s equality within the constitution, the family, the political arena, property rights, rights to inheritance, rights to be free from gender-based violence, rights to control their reproductive lives and health, rights to education, and many other aspects of life. Legal developments at the international, national, and local levels reflect the efforts of countless African women’s rights activists to improve the status of women within the region.

Article

African literature refers to (a) African oral literature (also called Orature) and (b) written African literature from West, North, Central, East, and Southern Africa. African oral literature encompasses works from Africa’s ancient and classical narrative traditions and spans oral narratives, proverbs, drama, poetry, chants and songs, riddles, and so on. With the earliest known works located in ancient Egypt, written African literature includes inscriptions on pyramid walls, the short story, the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography, and so forth. Women’s literature in Africa refers to African literatures by and about women. While storytelling styles vary by region and experiences shaped by history and society, the themes are linked by complex worldviews rooted in a common evocation of human experiences that seem unique to the continent. The languages of African literature include Africa’s indigenous languages as well as the languages acquired by different African societies as a result of the continent’s encounters with the East and experiences of Western colonization.

Article

Adam Paddock

The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender. Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance. The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.