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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.
Faranirina V. Rajaonah
Lineage and rootedness in ancestral lands shape the course of women’s lives in Madagascar. Women certainly benefit from this situation, but it also constrains them. Despite the diversity of situations within the social spaces inherited from former kingdoms, women across the island play an essential role in their lineage. Some women have influenced the course of history, at times in ways that extend beyond their social sphere, in the capacity of queens, while others have voiced their disapproval of sovereigns’ decisions. Madagascar has witnessed accelerated change since the 19th century, brought about by the island’s increased integration into global markets dominated by the West, and represented by traders, missionaries, and colonial administrators. Upper-class women and their families have been able to choose from among the novelties offered them in the form of material goods, careers, education, and religion. Women of lesser means have likewise tried to find their way within an enlarged horizon, including through emigration, while their country, since independence, has been confronted by increasing challenges.
Katherine Ann Wiley
Women in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania have significantly influenced their country’s social, economic, religious, political, and artistic realms. How they have done so has been affected by the country’s nomadic past, severe droughts, history with slavery, and rapid urbanization following independence. Women have participated in trade, influenced politics, made decisions for their families, shaped their marriages, and contributed to religious scholarship. Mauritanian women have also exercised significant power as compared to some of their counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world, being able to initiate divorce, speak publicly, and act as heads of household. Despite such influence, their gender has also disadvantaged them, making it difficult to access many of the opportunities that are available to men. Likewise, women’s varying social ranks, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities and regional locations have affected their abilities to maneuver and assert power.
The Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius has a population made up of the descendants of migrants from France, India, Africa, and China. Mauritius has a multicultural and multi-ethnic population and these divisions impact upon Mauritian women’s rights and political mobilization in the country. Women were expected to support the men of their community and, in the mid 1940s, female suffrage was proposed by men from the elite and wealthy groups to win votes for their communities. There is no evidence of a women’s lobby for the franchise. Despite the controversy surrounding female suffrage, Mauritius had two women members of parliament following the election after proclamation of female suffrage.
Under 19th-century Mauritian law the state treated women as the inalienable property of their husbands. The “Code Napoleon” or “Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804,” adopted in 1808 in Mauritius, imposed the status of “minor” on a married woman and was characterized by severe patriarchalism, restricting women to the private domestic sphere. Despite these restrictions, women were not passive and they were drawn into the economic and political struggles of the early 20th century. One of the most vivid memories is that of Anjalay Coopen, a female agricultural laborer who was among the people killed during an uprising on the sugar estates in 1943.
Mauritius became independent in 1968 and the role that women played in the negotiations leading to independence remains unclear to this day due to a paucity of research in this area, male domination of the political and historical writings of the country, and the fact that the Mauritian population was highly divided over independence. Women’s-movement activism peaked in the mid-1970s. This was when women’s organizations grouped together on common platforms to lobby for changes in the civil code and laws governing marriage and the Immigration and Deportation Act, which allowed for the deportation of foreign husbands of Mauritian women but not for foreign wives of Mauritian men. Women from different communities rallied together for equal rights for women, generating a strong national women’s movement.
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.
The 20th century witnessed the emergence of individual women as political actors, women as a category of political and social actors, and women (or “the woman question”) as a theme for political action across North Africa. This history is both intertwined with, and for a long time has been overshadowed by, that of colonialism, nationalism, and postcolonial state-building. Without being linear or homogeneous, the stages and processes of making women visible and extending women’s rights have been similar across Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria: increasing access to education, the emergence of pioneering female “models,” the mobilization of women as a group in the anti-colonial struggle, postcolonial state feminism and then a shift towards women speaking, writing and organizing themselves as women. Specificities of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan history have also given rise to distinctive features in the history of women and the writing of the history of women in each country. These include the long history of male feminist thought expressed in Arabic in Tunisia, the mass participation of women in armed struggle in Algeria, and the reformist feminism, based on women reinterpreting religious sources and history, which originated in Morocco.
As scholars of Africa continue to challenge the place and role of Africa in world history, shedding light on women as valid historical actors in postcolonial Africa within the last three decades remains an ongoing and much-needed endeavor. African women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, mothers, and community leaders to influence their social, economic, and political worlds and to assert their power. In the 21st century, they have become known especially for their success as formidable politicians and peace activists. Even in the age of cyberactivism, women in postcolonial Africa have demonstrated their ability to mobilize across ethno-linguistic lines to effect change in their societies. It is important to move beyond the male-centric perspectives on Africa by highlighting not only the diverse experiences of women in the post-independence era but to also underscore the fundamental roles they continue to play in defining and redefining the postcolonial political economies, and their place in them.
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.
Seychellois society is generally perceived to be matrifocal. This is because women’s influence is considered all pervasive, from the family unit to church and political activities and public service institutions. Since its social revolution in the last quarter of the 20th century, Seychelles has been considered very avant-garde in its promotion of women in responsible positions. It is important to note, however, that though this promotion of women has not specifically targeted any social class, it is working-class women who have benefited the most from it. In the first place, the working class in Seychelles has always been a much larger majority. The landowning and merchant class have, since the early settlement period and throughout colonial history, been restricted to a few but very influential people. Thus, though women in these classes have also benefited from social reform and emancipation, it has not been the norm to assess changes within their ranks simply because their numbers are negligible compared to the working class. Second, social reform in Seychelles was led by a socialist government, which emphasized a classless society, with the intention of leveling the field for working-class people. Thus, women’s emancipation has almost always been seen from a working-class perspective. If there is an economic middle class in 21st-century Seychelles, it has emerged from the working class. Thus, this article tends to focus on the working class.
It is also important to note that a result of women’s emancipation and accession to prominent positions in government and middle management has been the perceived tendency to emphasize the failures of the male population. With no less than ten women’s associations in existence and the current global push for promoting women’s causes, Seychellois men have begun to feel marginalized and have formed their own associations to promote their cause and image.
However, the matrifocal nature of Seychellois society might indeed be just a perception. In effect, men still hold the top positions in key domains of power such as the Cabinet and Parliament. Women ministers are often perceived as having been promoted through the benevolence of a male presidency. In fact, there is a certain amount of gender power conflict in Seychelles, which might result from (a) the clashing of patriarchal and matriarchal systems imposed by colonialism, (b) male subjugation and female exploitation during and after slavery, and (c) female emancipation during the socialist era.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.