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.
Celeste Fortes and Elizabeth Challinor
Cape Verde is a transnational nation, situated off the coast of Senegal, formed out of the slave trade, and has such a long history of migration that it is widely believed that double the size of its local population resides abroad. Men were traditionally the first to emigrate, influencing family and gender relations, with high rates of informal male polygamy producing diverse family forms in predominantly female-headed households that challenge the dominant Cape Verdean model of a patriarchal society that places the man as the breadwinner at the head of the family. Historical records have largely failed to address the significant roles played by women during the colonial period and struggle for independence, which have become the focus of current research. Following Cape Verde’s independence from Portugal in 1975, women did not occupy any governmental positions until after the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991, when issues related to women’s emancipation, gender equality, and equity began to gain political leverage. In 1994 the government created the Institute for the Condition of Women (ICF) to implement its policies to combat discrimination against women in all public and private spheres, which was renamed the Institute for Gender Equality and Equity in 2006. Civil society and non-governmental organizations that specialize in gender and promote women’s empowerment through projects and campaigns have also become increasingly active. Informal commerce has constituted an important resource for many women to provide for their families, some of which takes place through transnational business networks that allow them to buy goods abroad and sell them in Cape Verde. Women have also migrated to support their families—thus initiating transnational maternity practices—and to pursue academic capital in higher education. They have also contributed toward the dissemination of Cape Verdean culture through female voices such as Cesária Évora and Lura.
The nature of motherhood and maternalism in Africa challenges perceptions and assumptions about women, families, and societies in unexpected ways. Across Africa, motherhood has operated as an institution and ideology that shaped social, economic, and political organization, especially before European colonialism expanded across the continent during the late 19th century. The sociocultural significance of biological motherhood and childrearing remains an important theme in the study of the past and the present as African women form families, sometimes outside of the bonds of marriage. Ideas about biological motherhood have also shifted to address health, disease, and sexuality. African women and men are reimagining motherhood in the face of diverse issues such as infertility, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and an emergent, self-identified LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. Similarly, maternalism in Africa extends beyond the common focus on issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, or children’s education. Maternalist politics in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have addressed broader political questions such as state policies, housing, and infrastructure, often with an internationalist vision. Taken together, motherhood and maternalism in Africa not only encompass personal and emotional realms often associated with both terms but also bridge historical and political questions, including ones about belonging and citizenship in an interconnected world.
There is no singular or universal experience of girlhood in Africa. Conceptions of childhood, youth, generation, gender, and sexuality have differed across the continent and around the world over time. Since the 19th century, varying understandings of African girlhood have been deeply connected to the growth of racist hierarchies of human societies, the European colonization of Africa, African nationalisms, transnational feminist movements, and crises in capitalism. Case studies of two areas concerning African girlhood—female circumcision and the emergence of the girls’ rights movement—show how politicized girlhood in Africa has been. These two topics provide a distinct vantage point from which to understand far-reaching political processes and how these processes have uniquely played out in and through debates over girls’ bodies.
Sarah J. Zimmerman
African women are profoundly affected by warfare and its consequences in their societies. Militarization describes the violent processes that transform communities’ social, political, economic, and cultural spheres beyond the battlefield. These effects are gendered. Militarization transforms the social institutions that gender and define women’s personhood—marriage, motherhood, daughter, wife, widow, concubine, slave, domestic laborer, etc. Since these institutions are references for social continuity and discontinuity, conflict turns women into symbols of nationalistic significance and centers their procreative power and roles within regimes of morality. Militarization facilitates transformations in gendered roles and sexualities—women became soldiers and auxiliary wartime laborers, as well as the strategic targets of armed violence. Economic, social, and political status were key in determining women’s experiences of conflict and militarization. Elite women are often better-positioned to maintain their personal safety and access leadership roles in their communities during and after conflict. Low-status women were more vulnerable to enslavement, sexual/domestic violence, food insecurity, disease, displacement, and death. Women’s myriad experiences of militarization challenge false assumptions about the incontrovertible linkages between masculinity and belligerence or femininity and pacifism. Militarization alters how women realize optimal futures due to changes in gendered-access to authority, legal accountability, as well as perceptions of moral order and the division between public and domestic life. A handful of ancient and medieval noble women provide legendary exploits of warrior queens, who mobilized armies toward political unification or the defense of their societies. In several centralized African societies, noble women—as queen mothers or reign mates—constrained and bolstered the authority of male leaders. Dahomey fielded female regiments in battle. The warfare affiliated with long-distance slave trades and 19th-century state building created dichotomous experiences for elite and slave women. Elite African women depended on the resources generated from slave export, as well as benefited from the domestic and agricultural labor of captured and enslaved women. European colonization and the spread of monotheistic Abrahamic religions altered African women’s experiences of militarization. The gendered biases of written sources obscure the degree to which women participated in the militarization of their societies within political and/or religious conquest. Colonization normalized gender-restricted access to power and militancy, as well as entrenched patriarchy and gender dichotomies that equated masculinity with martiality and femininity with nonviolence. Anticolonial, revolutionary rhetoric championed African women’s participation in wars of decolonization—as freedom fighters and mothers within new nations. Women experienced great personal and communal violence in the postcolonial military dictatorships that prioritized patriarchal and violent power. During the 1990s, Western industries of humanitarianism and global media propagated stereotypical portrayals of African women as victims of male-perpetrated violence and as innate peacemakers. To the contrary, African women have played myriad roles in societies experiencing secessionist wars, military dictatorships, genocide, warlords, and Salafist militarization.
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.
Apartheid, the system of racial and ethnic separation introduced in South Africa in 1948, was a gendered project. The immediate goal of the white Afrikaner men who led the apartheid state was to control black men: to turn black men from perceived political and criminal threats into compliant workers. Under apartheid, African men would travel to work for whites in towns and on mines, but their homes would be in rural ethnic “reserves,” known as “homelands” or “Bantustans.” This vision depended on the labors of African women: while their men migrated to work, women were to maintain their families in the increasingly overcrowded and desolate countryside, reproducing the workforce cheaply while instilling a sense of ethnic difference in their children. “Coloured” (mixed-race) and Indian women were similarly charged with social reproduction on a shoestring, in segregated rural and urban areas. White women uniquely had the franchise and freedom of movement, but they were also constrained by sexually repressive laws. Apartheid’s gendered vision of production and social reproduction faced continual resistance, and it ultimately failed. First, it failed because African women increasingly moved from rural areas to urban centers, despite laws limiting their mobility. Second, it failed because some women organized across ethnic and racial lines. They often organized as mothers, demanding a better world for a new generation. Both their nationally and internationally resonant campaigns—against pass laws, educational and health care inequities, police brutality, and military conscription—and the fact of their collective organization gradually undermined apartheid. Officials generally underestimated the power of women, and their contributions have continued to be under-appreciated since apartheid ended in 1994, because women’s political style emphasized personal and familial concerns. But because apartheid was premised on transforming how families lived, actions of women in fact undermined the system from its core.
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project. Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
Cameroon is a nation-state in West Central Africa. Historical evidence about the precolonial period has revealed the diverse ways women valued their motherhood and fertility, knowledge of agriculture production, membership in secret societies, and their role in transitioning deceased women and men through dance and ritual. Women exercised varying levels of power and experienced a spectrum of belonging as wives, mothers, concubines, slaves, queen mothers, and political intermediaries. Near the turn of the 19th century, political centralization and the expansion of long-distance trade produced new forms of inequality for women as wealth became more concentrated in the hands of elite men who sought to control women’s labor and sexuality. With colonial rule and postcolonial nationhood in the 20th century, Cameroonian women were increasingly integrated into a capitalist political economy that supported local patriarchal authority, changed women’s relationships to land, and engendered new socioeconomic inequalities. At the same time, women worked to check gendered disempowerment through secret societies, cooperative groups, schooling, religious conversion, changes in marriage and family structure, entrepreneurship, and new avenues for political engagement. In so doing, Cameroonian women transformed gender roles, struggled against new forms of discrimination, and altered lines of difference among themselves.
Ndubueze L. Mbah
As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?