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Gretchen Bauer, Akosua Darkwah, and Donna Patterson
Building upon their participation in anti-colonial struggles across Africa in the mid-20th century, African women have taken on many political roles in the post-independence period. While military rule and single-party rule precluded access to elected office in many countries in the early years after independence, female combatants fought alongside their male counterparts in ongoing struggles for national liberation in other parts of Africa, especially southern Africa, into the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, national gender machineries established in the 1970s provided an institutional infrastructure for pursuing women’s rights even if they were often not fully implemented. State feminism, articulated through First Ladyism and state-led national women’s associations, sought to co-opt women’s struggles for political gain. In some instances, it did ameliorate women’s economic hardships and promote political participation. Women’s mobilization in the 1980s, in part a response to the severe impact of structural adjustment programs on devastated African economies, led to local-level organizing and eventually to a focus on women’s access to political office. Since the political transitions that swept the continent beginning in the early 1990s, women have accessed political office in all three branches of government in unprecedented numbers just as new forms of mobilization have emerged around issues like the rights of sexual minorities.
Mariana P. Candido
Kidnapping, warfare, seizure, and enslavement were gendered experiences in the sense that men, women, and children did not necessarily face the same process. Each enslaved woman and man was an individual who navigated bondage, resistance, dependency, and violence with different degrees of success within specific contexts. Recognizing their complexities and the variations regarding their enslavement and bondage is vital to avoiding essentialization of African slavery as a monolithic or an ahistorical institution. Women composed most of the enslaved population within the African continent, due in part to the operation of internal markets and local demands. The internal demand for enslaved women affected prices, values, and flows of the external slave trades, as well as gender imbalance.
Women in bondage played major economic roles in the domestic and public spheres as farmers, skilled craftspersons, street vendors, miners, healers, and cooks, performing tasks that respectable and honorable free women would not do. They were valued as producers and reproducers who could attend to sexual demands and be incorporated into lineages as unfree people. In different societies within and outside of Africa, enslaved women in bondage were sexually objectified and exploited. There is thus nothing “African” about this violence, since one of the premises of enslaving girls and women was the ability to abuse their bodies. The sexual dimension of the use of women’s bodies explains the higher value for female captives in internal African markets, as well as the silence surrounding the enslavement of women. It is important to recognize that in Africa, as elsewhere, the institution of slavery was not monolithic. Detailed regional studies indicate variations across time and space. Women experienced capture, enslavement, and bondage in different ways. One cannot make general assumptions when analyzing exceptional lives.
Peace A. Medie
Violence, in all of its forms, touches girls and women’s lives in Africa. While there is evidence that girls and women do participate in violence, research has shown that a significant proportion of them have also been victims. Violence against women describes violence inflicted on girls and women because of their gender and includes femicide, rape, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking. It also includes harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage. While it is a global problem, the levels of some forms of violence against women are particularly high in Africa. The problem is caused by a complex interaction of factors operating at multiple levels, including at the global level. Historical records show that acts of violence against women, including intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, were perpetrated during the colonial era. During this period, perpetrators of non-partner sexual violence included colonial officers and troops under their command. Cases brought before colonial courts sometimes resulted in the conviction of the offender, but sentences were generally light. However, incidents of violence against women were mostly resolved within the family or community, with relatives and traditional leaders playing a central role.
The post-independence period has seen increased attention to violence against women. Activism by women’s movements contributed to placing the issue on the agenda of states and of international organizations such as the United Nations. Sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors during wars in the 1990s also served to draw attention to violence against women. Consequently, most African countries have amended colonial-era rape laws and have adopted new legislation to address acts such as intimate partner violence, early marriage, and female genital mutilation. Many of them have also created specialized criminal-justice-sector institutions to address various forms of violence against women. These actions on the part of states have been influenced by women’s movements and by pressure from international organizations such as the United Nations. While this demonstrates progress on the part of African states, there is a large implementation gap in most countries. Thus, girls and women rarely benefit from the progressive laws on the books. This demonstrates that there is much work that needs to be done to address violence against women in Africa.
Mariana P. Candido
European colonial powers established the contemporary boundaries of Angola during the Conference of Berlin (1884–1885). However, colonialism dates to the 15th century, when Portuguese merchants first contacted the Kingdom of Kongo along the Congo River and established early settlements in Luanda (1575) and Benguela (1617). Parts of the territories that became known as Angola in the early 20th century have a long history of interaction with the outside world, and as a result European primary sources provide much of the information available to historians. The reports, official correspondence, and diaries were produced by European men and are therefore problematic. However, by reading against the grain scholars can begin to understand how women lived in Angola before the 20th century.
Some, such as Queen Njinga, had access to political power, and others, such as Dona Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, enjoyed great wealth. Kimpa Vita was a prophet who led a movement of political and religious renewal and was killed as a result. Most women never appeared in historical documents but were fundamental to the economic and social existence of their communities as farmers, traders, artisans, mediums, and enslaved individuals. The end of the slave trade in the 1850s led to the expansion of the so-called legitimate trade and plantation economies, which privileged male labor while relying on women’s domestic contributions. The arrival of a larger number of missionaries, colonial troops, and Portuguese settlers by the end of the 19th century resulted in new policies that stimulated migration and family separation. It also introduced new ideas about morality, sexuality, and motherhood. Women resisted and joined anticolonial movements. After independence, decades of civil war increased forced displacement, gender imbalance, and sexual violence. The greater stability at the end of the armed conflict may favor the expansion of women’s organizations and internal pressures to address gender inequalities.
Associations and organizations are groups of individuals who form a body to achieve an aim. Women’s leadership and membership in associations constitute a vital part of Africa’s economic, social, and political history. Women-only associations and women in dual-sex organizations protested against colonial rule; fought for independence; and mobilized for democracy, peace, and equality. Still, women in associations also supported colonial projects, fought in war, and held up postcolonial authoritarian rule. Taken together, economic, social, and political accounts of Africa are inherently incomplete if they fail to interrogate women’s participation in collective action on the continent.
Women have created and joined many kinds of associations and organizations in Africa. These include secular and religious associations. Some groups represent the interests of a profession (e.g., academics, journalists, lawyers, midwives, traders) or a political party or ideology (e.g., African National Congress Women’s League in South Africa). Others explicitly try to bring together women and men from multiple status and political groups (e.g., Women’s National Coalition in South Africa). Women have formed groups of friends and family members in their immediate vicinity, at times through small-scale rotating savings and credit associations. Other associations have a national membership base. Associations further vary in their relationship to the state. Some are formally recognized, and others are informal. Whereas some groups receive state financing, others depend solely on the contributions of its members, and many fall in the middle of the spectrum. Women have also forged intra-regional, pan-African, and global networks of individuals and organizations. It is not uncommon for a woman to belong to multiple kinds of associations simultaneously and for her memberships to vary over her lifetime.
The associations and organizations that women have spearheaded rise and fall, consolidate and fragment, and succeed and fail in achieving their aims, reflecting local, national, and international contradictions and dynamics. The power of women-led organizations has changed over time. Women-led organizations registered economic revolutions, political upheavals, and religious conversion on the continent before the advent of European colonization, under European rule, and in postcolonial Africa.
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.
This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.
The inhabitants of the Comoros archipelago, situated between the East African coast and the island of Madagascar, are Muslim and at the same time follow a matrilocal residence rule and, in two of the four islands, a matrilineal descent rule. This has consequences for women’s place in society, though their status and power varies according to their age and place in the social hierarchy, and with the political context. This article draws on three examples taken from specific island contexts to illustrate forms of agency accessible to the Comorian women. It shows how, having previously been invisible in political life, women played a leading role in Maore Island to escape the domination of the other islands’ elite by choosing to remain a French territory. It analyzes the way ceremonial exchanges in Ngazidja Island give elder and younger sisters different opportunities and place different constraints upon them in terms of how they behave and lead their lives. Finally, it shows the unexpected impact of an international program addressing Ndzuwani women on their empowerment in a patriarchal social context.
Women who live in the territories that today comprise the Republic of Equatorial Guinea experienced important material and social changes during pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial times. They faced crucial imbalances in terms of their social and political position: while Guinean women had a vital role in household management and child rearing, in most cases they did not control their income nor the circulation of goods and people within their society. While they have historic commonalities with women in other parts of Central Africa, their particular experiences during the slave trade and Spanish colonialism, including the deployment of the national Catholic colonial state during Franco’s dictatorship in the territory, contributed to their unique history and situation today. Francoist colonialism, which lasted from 1936 until Equatorial Guinea’s independence from Spain in 1968, strengthened the existing patriarchal structure of the societies living within the country. Independence did not substantially change the social and political roles of women in Equatorial Guinea but nevertheless opened up new horizons for them. Since 1968, three generations of empowered women—teachers, traders, farmers, writers, and politicians—have contributed to the creation of alternative narratives for women and increased the scope of their role in the public domain. Despite these new avenues for women, Equatorial Guinea’s current regime and economy not only relies on extracting rents from an oil-based economy but also extracting the organizing and political capacity of ordinary Guinean women. As before, they still face the challenge of managing their households without controlling their larger economic circumstances while lacking political power in the country.
Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups with complicated historical entanglements along the Upper Guinea Coast and across European and Afro-Atlantic orbits. Generalizations about women’s lives, given both the longue durée of its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and the diversity of its social systems, are quite easily countered by contradictory—or at least more nuanced—renderings. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some broad commonalities and continuities, especially in market-related roles and activities. Guinean women have been enterprising traders—sometimes gaining economic and political prominence—since precolonial times and throughout the prolonged Portuguese colonial presence in the region. In particular, Luso-African women, known as nharas, revolutionized and dominated trade in coastal settlements from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but their political and economic autonomy was ultimately curtailed by increasingly repressive colonial policies.
Guinea-Bissau’s unique struggle for independence—spearheaded by the revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral and achieved through an 11-year military struggle against the Portuguese—opened up opportunities for women’s liberation from both Portuguese colonialism and customary patriarchal strictures. Although Guinean women participated in the Luta da Libertação in unprecedented ways, they struggled to maintain an active role in nation-building after formal independence in 1974. The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde’s (PAIGC) rhetorical commitment to gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in the postcolonial period, as chronic political instability, deleterious economic policies, and largely unfavorable structural adjustment programs have tended to worsen women’s overall conditions. Women have continued to carve out creative roles in an expanding neoliberal marketplace, often becoming intrepid—although always precarious—players in the informal sector. Although women have gained several protective legislative rights since independence—such as the prohibition of forced and child marriage, and easier access to divorce—these have been implemented unevenly. Guinea-Bissau’s human development indicators are among the lowest in the world, especially for women: life expectancy for women is 59 years, childbirth is the leading cause of women’s mortality, and literacy among women is at 44 percent. The failure of the postcolonial state to fulfill Cabral’s egalitarian vision has not only marginalized women’s political and economic status within the country, it may have contributed to the overall weakening of key state institutions, ultimately enticing international narco-traffickers to its shores in the early 21st century and entrenching a drug economy amidst the ruins of the country’s capital city. The gendered roots of Guinea-Bissau’s present woes cannot be ignored.
African law and justice systems in the early 21st century are the result of over a thousand years of religious and cultural influences and political change on the continent. As customary and Islamic laws became reinterpreted and formalized by colonial states, women experienced the effects of successive periods of religious and political conquest as an entrenching of patriarchal control in the family and personal law sphere. The 20th century saw African women’s resistance rise from the grass roots as an important force for national liberation. African women’s legal activism grew after political independence and African women lawyers were part of global feminist movements. In the wake of dramatic political changes across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the global sphere of rights post-1989 became an enabling frame for women’s legal activism. Political transitions to multiparty democracy, the liberalization of African economies, and a wave of constitutional reforms strengthened women’s rights and gender equality guarantees. The 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of regional and pan-African women’s legal activist organizations, including the Action Committee of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Women in Law and Development in Africa as well as the adoption of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. In the 21st century, while social, economic, and legal inequalities persist in spite of many gains for women’s rights, some African women lawyers have risen to occupy the highest echelons of the judiciary in several countries and in international courts.
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847.
As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
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.
Women have had a significant role throughout Namibian history. Prior to colonization men were generally dominant, but certain women of high rank attained powerful positions. Namibian societies and politics became thoroughly gendered during the German and South African colonial periods. After independence the postcolonial Namibian state drew on the intensive involvement of women in the liberation struggle and adopted a legal framework and policies that emphasized gender equality. Nonetheless, little real improvement has been achieved for the majority of women in postcolonial Namibia. The country’s high level of social inequality continues to be profoundly gendered.
Namibia’s independence in 1990 followed prolonged colonial rule by South Africa, which ruled the country, named “South West Africa,” as a de facto fifth province. Post–World War II South Africa retained the full range of apartheid legislation and policy in Namibia until about 1980, when the apartheid state’s colony became a laboratory for social engineering geared toward limited change. Namibia was divided into two distinct zones in 1907 and throughout the South African colonial period. Southern and central Namibia were governed similar to South Africa and the northern regions experienced colonial rule more akin to the British doctrine of indirect rule. Both colonial projects were profoundly gendered. Thus anticolonial resistance was both varied and gendered, including its defiance of apartheid.
Nationalist movements in Africa may have been led by male luminaries, but the influence and successes of these movements largely depended on women’s grassroots organizing and mobilizing. Women played central roles in local and national organizing efforts, and in some cases, many of them joined their male counterparts on the front lines of war during the armed struggle. From leading protests against taxation policies to distributing anti-colonial propaganda pamphlets, as well as feeding and treating wounded guerrilla soldiers, women’s roles in nationalist movements were diverse. Whether popular mobilization or clandestine networks, women’s anti–colonial efforts were met often with violent resistance from colonial regimes. Many activists were flogged, arrested and imprisoned as a way to repress and immobilize their political participation.
While their personal histories and motivations for joining independence movements differed and varied, many women participated in these movements because they saw their emancipation as women as closely linked with the liberation of their countries. Within various movements, women took their duties as patriotic mothers seriously and for most of them, their gender consciousness was awakened as a result of their political participation and their desire for independence. However, participating in national liberation struggles involved more than just fighting against colonial oppression. Despite their influence and active involvement, women had to contend with their own subordination and marginalization within various nationalist movements due to the patriarchal structures that characterized nationalist politics. A struggle that many female politicians and activists continue to engage within the 21st century.
Women’s experiences of conflict have been the subject of increased international attention since the end of the Cold War and this has been accompanied by a concomitant growth in attention to the role of women in peace and security initiatives in Africa. Alongside the rise of humanitarian interventions, new trends have emerged in the realms of conflict resolution, accountability, and post-conflict transformation. As a result, post-conflict experiences in Africa in the 21st century have revealed numerous opportunities for the advancement of gender justice. Experiences from countries emerging from conflict on the continent provide some important examples of promoting women’s rights through accountability mechanisms, furthering access to government, producing gender-sensitive reform, challenging discriminatory laws, and advancing economic opportunities. However, while women’s needs and rights have been increasingly recognized through international and national commitments, women continue to face widespread gender-based violence as well as socioeconomic challenges in the aftermath of conflict. Thus, understanding intersectional experiences of conflict and the role of enduring gender power relations are critical to revisiting how transitions might be transformative.
With a population of 186,000 (2012) and an area of 1,001 km², the twin-island republic of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea is the second smallest country in Africa. Following the decline of the once prosperous plantation economy after independence from Portugal in 1975, the country has largely become dependent on foreign aid. More than half of the population lives in poverty, especially women, children, and people in rural areas. After fifteen years of socialist one-party rule, a multiparty democracy was adopted in 1990. The local Creole population, called forros, is descended from white colonists and African slaves who settled the hitherto uninhabited islands from the late 15th century. The minority of descendants of African plantation workers from the first half of the 20th century tends to assimilate into Creole culture, while the angolares, descendants of a maroon community from the 16th century, constitute a distinct sociocultural group. According to 2012 census data, 80 percent of the population is Christian, predominantly Roman Catholic, while 20 percent is nonreligious. African beliefs in witchcraft and other occult forces frequently coexist with Christianity. The kinship system is bilateral where descent and inheritance are passed through both father and mother. Infant baptism is an important ritual, whereas initiation ceremonies for adolescents, including male and female circumcision, are non-existent. The dominant conjugal union is the customary union, while the formal marriage is a rare exception and only practiced by the educated elite. Polygamy is a common practice, but a man’s different wives never live together in the same residence. Local society considers polygyny and male dominance as a natural condition of men. Despite their subordinated role in family and society, individual well-off or educated women have always achieved considerable prestige and recognition. During the socialist regime, legal equality between the sexes was guaranteed and the emancipation of women was promoted, at least officially. Since the 1990s, several externally conceived campaigns, government programs, and new legislation have combated gender inequality and discrimination against women.
Although Somali women have played a dynamic and important role in the making of Somalia’s history, their histories have been obscured by archival limitations and androcentric scholarship. Women in traditional Somali society—pastoralists, agriculturalists, and urbanites alike—were central to their communities for their reproductive and productive labor. They embodied social capital, as the practice of exogamous marriage that brought them to other communities also created important reciprocal relations between different kinship groups. Although a deeply patriarchal culture defined their life roles primarily as wives and mothers, Somali women used that very culture and the indigenous resources available to them to exercise agency, negotiate their positions, and carve out their own spaces. The advent of colonial rule, which partitioned the Somali peninsula between Britain, France, Italy, and the Ethiopian empire, drastically altered women’s lives. It fused traditional patriarchal relations with European ones, codified tradition and flexible communal identities, treated women as dependents of their male relatives, and created opportunities for men in education and employment that were not available to women. Though Somali women were at the forefront of the anticolonial struggle, the male elite who inherited the state after independence excluded women from the political sphere. Women’s rights took on a prominent role in the military dictatorship of General Mohamed Siad Barre, yet the repression and state violence that characterized his rule affected women acutely. The civil war that followed the disintegration of the Somali state has similarly affected women intimately. In addition to the gendered experience of violence, the increasingly conservative nature of Somali society has resulted in the loss of many gains made for women’s rights after independence. From precolonial society to colonial rule, dictatorship, and civil war, Somali women have exhibited the resilience, agency, and fortitude to make the most of their circumstances.
Jill E. Kelly
Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets.
After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.
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.