In the precolonial era, certain women played key governance roles, for example, the queen’s sister and the king’s mother in Buganda, the largest of Uganda’s four kingdoms. At one time they had as much power as the king in Buganda. However, women’s authority declined in Buganda in the 1700s and 1800s with the rise of the hereditary chiefs (batongole) and the demise of the influence of the clans. The coming of the British further undermined their roles. While on the one hand, British colonial engagement with local authorities privileged men, colonial education gave rise to Ugandan women’s leadership in local and national organizations, which provided women with a venue for political mobilization. The first women were appointed to the legislature at the end of British rule in 1954; all of them were British. As a result of pressure from women’s organizations, African women were soon thereafter appointed to the legislature starting in 1956. The number of women in political office remained low until the takeover of President Yoweri Museveni in 1986, when Uganda became a leader in Africa in advancing women in positions in the legislature and executive. The Museveni government’s adoption of reserved seats for women at all levels from local councils to the parliament in 1989 ensured that at least one-third of seats were held by women. The increase in numbers of women in parliament had some impact on the adoption of women’s rights legislation; however, ultimately women remained constrained by patronage and the undemocratic nature of the political system in Uganda.
Aili Mari Tripp
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.
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.
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.
Ama Ata Aidoo is one of the most prominent African writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her works comprise plays, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. She is recognized worldwide and has received many prizes and honorary distinctions. In Ghana, her country of origin, her books are part of the syllabus for secondary schools, and they are studied in many universities around the world. A number of late 20th and early 21st century women writers from the African continent acknowledge their debts toward her work and speak of her as their literary big sister, as did Nigerian author Buchi Emecheta, or mother, as does Ghanaian author Amma Darko. Like many other African authors, she is both a major writer and more than “just” a writer: she is also an activist, notably an acknowledged feminist, a dramatist, a teacher, and a craftswoman—this list is not exhaustive.
Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015) was a sociologist, writer, feminist, and activist, and above all a free thinker and an avowed humanist. She was committed to dialogue, dismantling all sorts of boundaries, whether between East and West, South and North, women and men, rural and urban, illiterate and educated, activism and academia, as well as that between fiction and scholarly writing. Her work is multifaceted, intersectional, fluid, and organic. In her scholarly writings Mernissi was concerned with identifying and critiquing the different structures that intersect to oppress women, ranging through colonialism, nationalism, patriarchal interpretation of Islam, capitalist development, and imperialism. She was also dedicated to shedding light on subaltern women’s agency, amplifying their voices for the hearing of decision-makers and development planners. She significantly contributed to the emergence of “Third World feminism,” fostering pan-African and transnational feminist solidarity. Credited as one of the founders of “Islamic feminism,” she inspired Muslim women all over the world to advocate for women’s rights from a faith-based position. At the end of her life she identified as a Sufi, committed to fostering civic bonding and synergy between civil-society actors, intellectuals, and ordinary women and their communities, always struggling against elitism and egoism. Mernissi wrote over sixteen books, edited a significant number of volumes, and authored numerous articles. Some of her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages. She directed many writing workshops and was the founding member of numerous research groups and organizations. Mernissi was also the recipient of prestigious awards, among them the Prince of Asturias Award in 2003 and the Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands in 2004. The Guardian ranked her among the top 100 most influential women in the world in 2011. Another recognition—that of which she would perhaps have been most proud—is the acknowledgment and love ordinary women and their communities, with whom she mixed and worked for decades, continue to vow for? her after her passing.
Writing on women in Nigeria is an ambitious venture, considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups that make up Nigeria, and the historical antecedents and cultural particularities of the various ethnic groupings. Women in Nigeria can, therefore, be studied more appropriately within the historical trajectory of the continent of Africa, by examining the different nationalities that constituted “Nigeria” in the early 20th century, and finally through the dissection of identities, power, and the experiences of diverse categories of women in postcolonial Nigeria. There is a need to avoid undue generalizations about women in Nigeria. In postcolonial Nigeria, women’s experiences are differentiated based on the extent to which the superimposition or assimilation of external cultural traits—which manifest along class lines, the rural-urban divide, ethnicity, and religion—have altered indigenous lifeways. Africa’s contact with the Arabian world in the 7th century impacted on women’s experiences in areas where the Islamic religion was introduced. Prior to the contact of Africa with the European world in the 15th century and the subsequent imposition of British rule, what became “Nigeria” in the early 20th century were disparate groups with different cultural, political, and historical configurations. The amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 gave birth to “Nigeria.” These historical events redefined and reshaped the place and participation of women in society. In precolonial Nigeria, women enjoyed certain privileges, prestige, and recognition, which colonialism and emerging Western economic rationality later undermined. Women-led protests against the colonial administration were prevalent and led to policy changes intended to take women into account in government policies. In postcolonial Nigeria, women confront the forces of tradition, modernity, and the neo-patriarchy, forces that contend with their drive for self-definition, while they struggle, against all odds, to remain afloat.
Susana Castillo-Rodriguez and Alba Valenciano Mañé
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.
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.