Sara Baartman (also known as Saartje, Saartjie, or Sarah), a South African woman, was widely known on stage in England and France in the early 19th century, and subsequently internationally since then, as the “Hottentot Venus,” the Western racist fiction of the primitive, sexualized, black woman. Until the 21st century, scholars paradoxically paid more attention to the fiction than the actual person. Further research showed that Baartman was born on the colonial frontier in the 1770s and lived in Cape Town in conditions similar to urban slavery from the 1790s through 1810, when she was taken to London. There and later in the English countryside and in Ireland, she was displayed on stage. In 1814, she was sold to an animal trainer in Paris who forced her to display herself to restaurant patrons and who possibly also forced her into prostitution. George Cuvier, the founder of Comparative Anatomy, interviewed her and, after her death in December 1815, performed an autopsy, not to discover the cause of death but to see if her body, literally, was the connection between humankind and animals. The Museum of Man in Paris displayed a nude plaster cast of Baartman’s body until the 1970s. Following the coming of democracy to South Africa, activists petitioned to bring Baartman’s remains home, and they were buried on South African National Women’s Day, August 1, 2002, as part of a nationally televised ceremony. Her burial site is in Hankey, Eastern Cape.
The Amazons in general come from Greek legend and myth without any palpable historical evidence. However, there is no doubt about the historical female fighters of the erstwhile Kingdom of Dahomey (Danhome or Danxome) in West Africa, which survived until their defeat by the French colonial forces in 1893. The history of the historical Amazons of the Kingdom of Dahomey stems from vast amounts of oral tradition collected and analyzed over the years, as well as written accounts by Europeans who happened to have visited the kingdom or lived on the West African coast since Dahomey’s foundation in the 17th century to its demise in the late 19th century. These sources have been reviewed and debated by several scholars (including Amélie Degbelo, Stanley B. Alpern, Melville J. Herskovits, Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Boniface Obichere, Edna G. Bay, Robin Law, Susan Preston Blier, Auguste Le Herisse, etc.), who may or may not agree on the narrative of the founding of the kingdom or the genesis of female fighters in the Dahomean army. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that the female forces traditionally called Ahosi/Mino did exist and fought valiantly in many of Dahomey’s battles against their neighbors (Oyo, Ouemenou, Ouidah, etc.) and France. The history of the Ahosi/Mino is intricately linked to the origins and political and social development of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Ahosi/Mino are still celebrated in the oral traditions of the Fon.
The sty of women in East Africa did not begin until the 1970s and 1980s. Knowledge of times past comes from colonial records, filtered through the lenses of late Victorian-era men and from casting back the structures of early colonial years to create imaginaries of preexisting realities. Living in age-grade social systems that featured gendered lines of authority, men occupied societal institutions of power while women were informal political actors. Women were highly subordinated to their menfolk in some societies but held positions as chiefs in others. A gendered division of labor confined females to the domestic sphere, including subsistence production. We know little about intergender relationships, less about sexuality—studied in those eras almost exclusively in terms of the physical desires and behaviors that were morally right, appropriate, and “natural” and how those ideas were used to create unequal access to status, power, privileges, and resources.
The extractive focus of the colonial era transformed women’s lives and relationships as taxation and wage labor incrementally located and oriented males outside family and community spheres. Colonists dealt mainly with men, rendering women mostly silent. Missionaries taught a new morality and way of life that framed the concepts of marriage, family, and sexuality, and provided openings into unknown spaces as well as new possibilities. The trajectory of women’s lives, gender, and sexuality in East Africa is shaped by the continuation of policies and forces set in motion during the colonial period. Some, particularly the educated, have been able to pursue careers and become producers and consumers. Immersed increasingly in the social values of individuality and personal satisfaction, women are expanding their horizons to control their own lives. Their sexuality is increasingly considered as a dimension of personhood, rather than as a domain of externally imposed social control.
The history of women is characterized by nonlinear and gendered social, political and economic processes. In particular, the history of Burundian women’s collective actions has been embedded in the contested and violent trajectory of the Burundian state. Burundian women’s collective actions refer to a broad range of interactions: from protest, and social mobilizations to institutionalized actions. These interactions have been shaped by both global and local social structures, and by complex conflictive and cooperative relations between the Burundian state, political parties, women’s organizations and movements, and external actors (colonial powers, international organizations, non-governmental organizations).
Women’s experiences in Burundi’s pre-colonial patriarchal society are little known, with the exception of the glorified Queen-mothers. German and Belgian colonial policies (1886–1962) reinforced and rigidified pre-colonial social constructions of ethnic and gendered social identities and roles, assigning ordinary women to the domestic sphere and sanctioning their social inferior status along with ethnic lines (Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa). After Burundi’s independence, the one-party military regime organized and supervised the first forms of women’s political participation through the Union des femmes burundaises (1962–1980s). The democratic transition of the early 1990s led to the creation of autonomous women’s organizations and networks, which were extended during the civil war (1993–2005). Burundian women actively contributed to national and grassroots peace processes. In particular, a delegation of seven Burundian women participated in the negotiations held in Arusha (1998–2000), with observer status. Post-conflict struggles for women’s rights posed the central issue of women’s political representation, with the adoption of gender quotas from 2005, but left aside other issues after 2010, such as women’s right to inherit land. In Spring 2015, Burundian women were present in protests against the president’s third mandate; with the women’s march being the first to reach the city center in March 2015. Women’s organizations kept mobilizing towards women’s rights after the electoral crisis, in exile or within Burundi, though facing important financial constraints and political repression.
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.
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.
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.
Anthonia C. Kalu
African literature refers to (a) African oral literature (also called Orature) and (b) written African literature from West, North, Central, East, and Southern Africa. African oral literature encompasses works from Africa’s ancient and classical narrative traditions and spans oral narratives, proverbs, drama, poetry, chants and songs, riddles, and so on. With the earliest known works located in ancient Egypt, written African literature includes inscriptions on pyramid walls, the short story, the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography, and so forth. Women’s literature in Africa refers to African literatures by and about women. While storytelling styles vary by region and experiences shaped by history and society, the themes are linked by complex worldviews rooted in a common evocation of human experiences that seem unique to the continent. The languages of African literature include Africa’s indigenous languages as well as the languages acquired by different African societies as a result of the continent’s encounters with the East and experiences of Western colonization.
Hasna Lebbady and Hiam El Hilali
Referred to as the best-known Amazigh malika (queen), Zaynab al-Nafzaouiya was centrally involved with the building of the Almoravid dynasty of Morocco and its empire in the 11th century. The Almoravids were Sanhaja tribesmen who, led by Abdellah b. Yasin, started off as religious reformers and developed into empire builders when they embarked on a campaign to regain control over trans-Sahara trade, which the Sanhaja had lost the previous century. Two Almoravid leaders, Abu Bakr b. Umar and Yusuf b. Tashfin, married Zaynab, who had already been married twice before, and brought her to the world’s notice. The sources, in which she receives brief but significant notice, mention her only as her life touches upon those of the Almoravids; however, they depict her as playing a pivotal role in both the cultural and the political spheres of Aghmat (near Marrakesh), in which she was based.
Although some called her a magician, Zaynab was actually just intelligent, knowledgeable, and capable of benefitting from the intellectual and cultural affluence that characterized her era. She was, moreover, gifted with political acumen, making her a good advisor for Abu Bakr b. Umar and a good co-ruler for Yusuf b. Tashfin. Her understanding proved to be particularly helpful concerning the founding of the Almoravid empire, stretching from modern-day Senegal to al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), which the two emirs were instrumental in building. They were both virtuous men who possessed considerable military skills; however, they were basically nomads from the desert. It was Zaynab who was familiar with the more settled and refined way of life in Aghmat, enabling her to advise them diplomatically concerning the politics of the area to which she was accustomed. She was even able to advise Yusuf b. Tashfin on how to handle Abu Bakr b. Umar, enabling him, with her at his side, to take over the leadership of the dynasty and launch the extension of its empire all the way to al-Andalus.
The Tunisian Bchira Ben M’rad (1913–1993), a feminist for some, a reformist for others, was a significant figure in Tunisia in the first half of the 20th century in the struggles for women’s education, for a more balanced relationship within the married couple, and against colonialism. Her participation in these struggles was shaped both by her own personal experience as well as by the then social, cultural and political context of Tunisia and its region.
Bchira Ben M’rad was the first Tunisian woman to request official recognition for a women’s organization, the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia (l’Union des femmes musulmanes de Tunisie, or UFMT), which she founded in 1936 and headed until 1956, during the period when Tunisia was a French colony. The refusal by the authorities to award official recognition and the excuses they offered in defense of their refusal provide an insight into the complex relations between the French colonial power and the Tunisian authorities, headed by the Bey, as the debate over women’s rights, including the right to form women’s organizations, became an increasingly profound societal issue. It was only in the early 1950s, in the years just before Tunisian independence was achieved in 1956, that the UFMT obtained official recognition.