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Article

Ndubueze L. Mbah

As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?

Article

Sandra Swart

Animal history in Africa—the multi-species story of the continent’s past—as a separate subdisciplinary “turn” is both recent and tentative, but as an integrated theme within the broader historiography it is both pioneering and enduring. Historians of Africa have long engaged with animals as vectors of change in human history and, of course, at the same time, understood that humans were a key agent of change in animal histories too, especially in the long-lived and extensive writing on epizootics, livestock farming, pastoralism, hunting, and conservation. African animal histories should resist the imposition of intellectual paradigms from the Global North.

Article

Disease control and public health have been key aspects of social and political life in sub-Saharan Africa since time immemorial. With variations across space and time, many societies viewed disease as the result of imbalances in persons and societies and combined the use of materia medica from the natural world, spiritual divination, and community healing to redress these imbalances. While early encounters between African and European healing systems were still marked by mutual exchanges and adaptations, the emergence of European germ theory-based biomedicine and the establishment of racialized colonial states in the 19th century increasingly challenged the value of African therapeutic practices for disease control on the continent. Initially, colonial states focused on preserving the health of European soldiers, administrators, and settlers, who were deemed particularly vulnerable to tropical climate and its diseases. Around 1900, however, they started paying more attention to diseases among Africans, whose health and population growth were now deemed crucial for economic development and the legitimacy of colonial rule. Fueled by new insights and techniques provided by tropical medicine, antisleeping sickness campaigns would be among the first major interventions. After World War I, colonial health services expanded their campaigns against epidemic diseases, but also engaged with broader public health approaches that addressed reproductive problems and the social determinants of both disease and health. Colonial states were not the only providers of biomedical healthcare in colonial Africa. Missionary societies and private companies had their own health services, with particular logics, methods, and focuses. And after 1945, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) increasingly invested in health campaigns in Africa as well. Moreover, Africans actively participated in colonial disease control, most notably as nurses, midwives, and doctors. Nevertheless, Western biomedicine never gained hegemony in colonial Africa. Many Africans tried to avoid or minimize participation in certain campaigns or continued to utilize the services of local healers and diviners, often in combination with particular biomedical approaches. To what extent colonial disease control impacted on disease incidence and demography is still controversially debated.

Article

Fertility has long been highly prized in Africa, especially in societies where economic production depended mainly on human labor power. In addition to their role as future workers, children were crucial for, inter alia, securing lineages, providing social security, and ensuring spiritual safekeeping. Women were therefore expected to produce offspring. For them, bearing children was elemental to their social identity, security, and status; failing to reproduce could be calamitous. For both women and their husbands, infertility was often stigmatizing, but women usually bore the brunt of blame for involuntary childlessness and therefore could suffer especially devastating social consequences, such as divorce and ostracism. Managing fertility involved a wide range of reproductive practices. Africans believed infertility was caused by supernatural forces; consequently they sought assistance from spirit mediums and traditional healers to help women achieve or maintain fecundity. Postpartum women practiced birth spacing to ensure infants’ health, achieved through sexual abstinence and prolonged breastfeeding. Because premarital pregnancy was often a serious violation of social norms, youth were typically taught ways to avoid conception while engaging in premarital sex play. Women procured abortions using a variety of methods, including ingestion of plant-based concoctions and extreme manual pressure to kill the fetus. Childbirth, though feared for the risk involved, was typically a welcomed event although the social context for birth varied according to culture and social organization. In some societies, midwives attended women, whereas in others, solitary birth was the ideal. The reproductive politics and practices of precolonial societies informed those of the colonial era, which in turn helped shape postcolonial Africa. Western incursions into African societies had uneven effects on indigenous practices related to reproductive health, fertility control, and childbirth. While some indigenous ideas and practices persist, others, such as post-partum sexual abstinence, have been severely undermined.

Article

Lesley Nicole Braun

African women’s experiences of migration and transregional movements have long been eclipsed by men’s histories of travel and journeying. However, this certainly does not mean that women have not historically participated in geographical movement, both with their families and independently. Reasons for women’s migratory practices are divergent, and they are informed by a kaleidoscope of shifting historical internal and external sociopolitical forces. Some of these include escape from violent conflict and war, slavery, environmental and economic hardship, and oppressive family constraints. The colonial era marked a period of intense migration in which men were forcibly moved to labor within extractive economies. Women, for their part, sometimes migrated without the approval of their own families, and against the colonial administration’s sanctions. Their experiences were shaped by struggles against all forms of patriarchal authority. As a result of changing demographics and social roles, the colonial city also assumed a reputation among colonials and Africans as a space of moral depravity motivated by consumer culture. Consequently, migrant women often faced stigma when they entered cities, and sometimes when they returned home. Women were attracted to towns and cities and what they came to represent—spaces where new opportunities could be explored. Opportunity came in the form of economic independence, marriage, romantic liaisons, and education. Most migrant women were confronted with being marginalized to the domestic sphere and informal sector. However, many women also acquired and honed their market acumen, amassing wealth which they often reinvested in family networks back in their natal villages, thus revealing circular modes of migration associated with multilocal networks.

Article

Jessica Catherine Reuther

The modern-day Republic of Benin in West Africa was historically a patchwork of precolonial kingdoms and acephalous zones. In the 17th century, the kingdom of Dahomey formed in the south central interior plateau region of modern-day Benin. In the 18th century, Dahomey grew to become the dominant regional power. Dahomey’s women were famed globally for their roles as government ministers, queen mothers, and warriors. Women had multiple means through which to achieve various forms of power. Women’s power was multi-faceted during the precolonial era; however, these women’s power required proximity to the king and incorporation into the royal palace. During the colonial era from 1894–1960, women had much fewer opportunities to achieve positions of formal power. After the conquest of the Slave Coast region in the 1890s, France established a colony named after the kingdom of Dahomey. Women’s roles in politics declined rapidly as part of the shift from the precolonial to colonial systems of governance. This shift continued a trend though, already unfolding in the 19th century, that reduced women’s power in the royal palace. Few women rose to formal positions of authority in collaboration with the French colonial administration. Colonialism irrevocably transformed gendered systems of power and authority in ways that removed Dahomean women from officially sanctioned positions of power. Despite these restrictions, Dahomean women always found ways to express their agendas and exert influence over the colonial government. During the colonial era, market women, in particular, found ways to protest colonial policies and developed gendered strategies of activism. In 1960, Dahomey gained independence from France and was renamed Benin in 1972. Beninese women have struggled to regain their active roles in political life. Since the end of the Cold War and the transition from socialism to democracy in the 1990s, individual Beninese women who had access to education and the opportunity to study and work for extended periods of time have managed to once again participate in national politics. However, they remain a disadvantaged minority in electoral politics.

Article

Meron Zeleke Eresso

There are number of Ethiopian women from different historical epochs known for their military prowess or diplomatic skills, renowned as religious figures, and more. Some played a significant role in fighting against the predominant patriarchal value system, including Ye Kake Yewerdewt in the early 19th century. Born in Gurage Zone, she advocated for women’s rights and condemned many of the common cultural values and practices in her community, such as polygamy, exclusive property inheritance rights for male children and male family members, and the practice of arranged and forced marriage. Among the Arsi Oromo, women have been actively engaged in sociojudicial decision-making processes, as the case of the Sinqee institution, a women-led customary institution for dispute resolution, shows. This reflects the leading role and status women enjoyed in traditional Arsi Oromo society, both within the family and in the wider community. In Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in eastern Ethiopia, female Muslim scholars have played a significant role in teaching and handing down Islamic learning. One such religious figure was the Harari scholar Ay Amatullāh (1851–1893). Another prominent female religious figure from Arsi area, Sittī Momina (d. 1929), was known for her spiritual practices and healing powers. A shrine in eastern Ethiopia dedicated to Sittī Momina is visited by Muslim and Christian pilgrims from across the country. Despite the significant and multifaceted role played by women in the Ethiopian community, however, there is a paucity of data illustrating the place women had and have in Ethiopia’s cultural and historical milieu.

Article

Claire H. Griffiths

Gabon, a small oil-rich country straddling the equator on the west coast of Africa, is the wealthiest of France’s former colonies. An early period of colonization in the 19th century resulted in disease, famine, and economic failure. The creation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 marked the beginning of the sustained lucrative exploitation of Gabon’s natural resources. Gabon began off-shore oil production while still a colony of France. Uranium was also discovered in the last decade of the French Equatorial African empire. Coupled with rich reserves in tropical woods, Gabon has achieved, since independence in 1960, a higher level of export revenue per capita of population than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa in the postcolonial era. However, significant inequality has characterized access to wealth through paid employment throughout the recorded history of monetized labor. While fortunes have been amassed by a minute proportion of the female population of Gabon associated with the ruling regime, and a professional female middle-class has emerged, inequalities of opportunity and reward continue to mark women’s experience of life in this little-known country of West Central Africa. The key challenge facing scholars researching the history of women in Gabon remains the relative lack of historical resources. While significant strides have been made over the past decade, research on women’s history in Francophone Africa published in English or French remains embryonic. French research on African women began to make a mark in the last decade of colonization, notably with the work of Denise Paulme, but then remained a neglected area for decades. The publication in 1994 of Les Africaines by French historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch was hailed at the time as a pioneering work in French historiography. But even this new research contained no analysis of and only a passing reference to women in Gabon.

Article

Madina Thiam

Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.

Article

Hoda Elsadda

Women in Egypt have always played key roles in society in different historical eras. In the modern period, women were at the forefront of the modernization project that gained momentum at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. “The woman question” occupied center stage in debates about the new modern nation in the making and against the background of colonial domination as Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882. The period from the 1920s to the early 1950s is noted as a period that was particularly vibrant in the history of the women’s movement and witnessed rapid developments in women’s participation in the public sphere. Women founded magazines, established civil society organizations in all fields, joined the national movement for independence, and contributed to key ongoing debates on the modernization project. In 1952, the Free Officers Revolution resulted in a radical shift in the political sphere: the end of British colonialism, the transformation of Egypt from a monarchy to a socialist republic, and the start of a new era. The new order promoted women’s education and access to the labor market but restricted political rights and freedoms in general, a new reality that inevitably impacted the development of an independent women’s movement. In the 1970s, women’s rights assumed center stage in international politics, a development that had an impact on women in general and Egyptian women in particular. Egyptian women entered the diplomatic corps and participated in drafting international conventions, in representing their country in international forums, and in joining international civil society campaigns for women’s rights. They also established a new generation of civil society organizations that advocated for women’s rights both locally and on the international stage. The year 2011 marks an important moment in the history of Egypt. The wave of revolutions that swept the Arab world resulted in the opening of the political sphere in an unprecedented manner. Women’s rights activists rose to the challenge, and more and more women were active participants in the movement for change. Women joined new political parties that were established in the aftermath of revolutions; they were active participants in numerous political and social initiatives and movements; and they played a prominent role in marches for political and social freedoms. In sum, women in modern Egypt have played key roles in the making of modern Egypt. The story of their contributions and achievements is the story of a movement for change toward a better future.

Article

Liazzat J. K. Bonate and Jonna Katto

Mozambique is divided into matrilineal north and patrilineal south, while the central part of the country has a mixture of the two. Both types of kinship organization have important implications for the situation of women. Women in matrilineal societies could access land and political and decision-making power. They had their own property and their children belonged to their matrikin. In patrilineal societies, women depended on their husbands and their kin groups in order to access farmland. Children and property belonged to the husband’s clan. During the colonial period (c. 1890–1975), women’s position in Mozambique was affected by the Indigenato regime (1917–1961). The native African population (classified as indígenas) were denied the rights of Portuguese citizenship and placed under the jurisdiction of local “traditional habits and customs” administered by the appointed chiefs. Despite the fact that Portuguese citizenship was extended to all independent of creed and race by the 1961 Overseas Administrative Reform, most rural African areas remained within the Indigenato regime until the end of colonialism in 1974. Portuguese colonialism adopted an assimilationist and “civilizing” stance and tried to domesticate African women and impose a patriarchal Christian model of family and gender relations. Women were active in the independence struggle and liberation war (1964–1974), contributing greatly to ending colonialism in Mozambique. In 1973, Frelimo launched a nationwide women’s organization, Organização da Mulher Moçambicana (Organization of Mozambican Women, OMM). Although women were encouraged to work for wages in the first decade after independence, they remained largely limited to the subsistence economy, especially in rural areas. The OMM upheld the party line describing women as “natural” caregivers. Only with the political and economic liberalizations of the 1990s were many women able to access new opportunities. The merging of various women’s organizations working in the country during this period helped to consolidate decades-long efforts to expand women’s political and legal rights in independent Mozambique. In the early 2000s, these efforts led to the reform of the family law, which was crucial for the improvement of women’s rights and conditions in Mozambique.

Article

Christine Saidi

In precolonial Africa, relations between women and men were varied, changing, and culturally specific, yet there were some common themes. Most African societies attempted to attain forms of heterarchy, which meant they often created several centers of authority and aspired to establish communities where gender relations between women and men were equitable. Additionally, throughout history most Africans determined status by the amount of labor a group or individual could control, and in a historically underpopulated continent, this meant that motherhood and giving birth to children was very important. The result is that women, as both biological and social mothers and as grandmothers, were highly respected throughout the history of the continent. The earliest ancestors of modern humans originated in Africa, and so the history of women starts earlier in Africa than anywhere else, probably around 200,000 bce. Anthropologists of early humanity have proposed that the most successful human families in the earliest eras were based on family units that situated grandmothers at the center, a family structure found in many parts of Africa in the early 21st century. Around 5,500 years ago, a small group of Bantu-speaking people migrated from West Africa and over time populated large portions of Africa below the Sahara Desert. Heterarchy and gender equity were features of most Bantu-speaking societies. Their worldviews were manifested in the matrilineal social structure that most Bantu societies preferred until recent history. Even the earliest empires in Africa, Nubia and Egypt, were organized matrilineally. The West African Sahel empires from 700 ce were also matrilineal, and there is a long history of Muslim African female rulers. However, with the creation of empires and more centralized societies, hierarchy among some societies replaced heterarchy. This change motivated a shift in gender relations: Women from elite lineages maintained their status, while other women tended to lose their traditional positions of authority as mothers and elders within their clans. Overall, the Atlantic slave trade severely challenged heterarchical social relations and threatened women’s authority and status in West Africa. Another element of this period is the transference of African gender relations to the Americas. During the 19th century, as Europeans arrived in greater numbers, they imposed new gender ideologies as they began to structure how the rest of the world viewed Africans. From the so-called White Man’s Burden to Social Darwinism, new definitions of the Other placed African women at the bottom of this new social order. While women played key roles in the long term history of Africa, the Western analysis of African gender dynamics began to inform colonial policies, dominate world opinion, and shape academic research.

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

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.