1-15 of 15 Results

  • Keywords: African women’s history x
Clear all

Article

Meron Zeleke Eresso

There are number of Ethiopian women from different historical epochs known for their military prowess or diplomatic skills, renowned as religious figures, and more. Some played a significant role in fighting against the predominant patriarchal value system, including Ye Kake Yewerdewt in the early 19th century. Born in Gurage Zone, she advocated for women’s rights and condemned many of the common cultural values and practices in her community, such as polygamy, exclusive property inheritance rights for male children and male family members, and the practice of arranged and forced marriage. Among the Arsi Oromo, women have been actively engaged in sociojudicial decision-making processes, as the case of the Sinqee institution, a women-led customary institution for dispute resolution, shows. This reflects the leading role and status women enjoyed in traditional Arsi Oromo society, both within the family and in the wider community. In Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in eastern Ethiopia, female Muslim scholars have played a significant role in teaching and handing down Islamic learning. One such religious figure was the Harari scholar Ay Amatullāh (1851–1893). Another prominent female religious figure from Arsi area, Sittī Momina (d. 1929), was known for her spiritual practices and healing powers. A shrine in eastern Ethiopia dedicated to Sittī Momina is visited by Muslim and Christian pilgrims from across the country. Despite the significant and multifaceted role played by women in the Ethiopian community, however, there is a paucity of data illustrating the place women had and have in Ethiopia’s cultural and historical milieu.

Article

Margarida Paredes

Deolinda Rodrigues is a prominent figure in the Angolan history of the Liberation Struggle. Her thought and life history are relatively unknown in and outside Angola. Reflection on her life and thought is also hampered by the fact that there are few analytical works of literature produced about her life and literary work. Rodrigues is also marginalized in the nationalist historiography on Angola. Rodrigues’s story is an important one. She was a political activist and nationalist thinker and a woman who struggled in Angola while in exile against the gendered stereotypes of the day and of her compatriots. Studying her life and work opens up late colonial life in Angola for those from the educated classes who fought for their country’s independence from the political, social, economic, and intellectual oppression of Portuguese imperialism. While Rodrigues is considered a heroine in Angola, few Angolans know much about her writing or thinking. Outside Angola she is virtually unknown, yet her life points to the intersection of radical black politics, liberation movements, gendered forms of nationalism, and international beneficence networks that can enrich our understanding of each of these elements. Rodrigues’s autobiographical work, posthumously published by her brother, Roberto de Almeida, “Diário de um Exílio sem Regresso” (Diary of an exile with no return), 2003 edition, and “Cartas de Langidila e outros Documentos” (Langidila’s letters and other documents), 2004 edition, have made this study possible.

Article

Ousseina D. Alidou and Halimatou Hima

Nigerien women played important cultural, economic, and political leadership roles throughout history. Women across ethnicities contributed to the economic life in precolonial Nigerien societies and their public presence in indigenous markets have been recorded by both Arab chroniclers as well as European colonial explorers, authorities, and historians. Women also occupied important positions in the political sphere and played important roles within their indigenous religious traditions and pantheons. The advent of Islam in the region in the 11th century changed the nature of preexisting spaces. However, a syncretism between Islam and indigenous religions developed, and this created yet another space for women across Nigerien ethnic groups to continue the preservation of some practices tied to their indigenous culture. As predominantly Muslims, most Nigerien women and men have been exposed to Arabic and Qur’anic literacy, and women of clerical lineage and those married to Qur’anic teachers have played a major role in the propagation of Islamic literacy in Nigerien precolonial societies, and continue to do so in the postcolonial dispensation. Ethnic and regional diversity accounts for the degree of authority that women may enjoy within the family structure, and women from rural and urban areas experience patriarchal structures in distinct ways. In relation to contemporary participation in political leadership, the year 1991, with the historic women’s march, marked a turning point in the history of women’s political leadership. The democratization process opened the way for multiparty democracy and greater women’s participation; it also fostered a religious pluralism that has engendered manifestations with women playing distinctive roles in the religious moral economy, including in minority religions. However, democratic pluralism has inadvertently created the conditions for the growth of violent religious fundamentalist movements undermining the rights of girls and women. Unequal gendered and power relations continue to hinder Nigerien women’s emergence at high levels of public leadership, with consequences for economic development and women’s rights. While there has been a steady increase in women’s participation in parliament and high-level appointed positions in government owing to a quota law, which was revisited in 2019, Nigerien women still have some way to go to achieve representative parity not only in politics but also in other public and private sectors of employment and elective positions in society. In terms of human development, Niger continues to register poor development indicators, especially those relating to women’s and girls’ welfare and well-being in rural areas including high rates of child marriage as well as high infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. The status of women in Nigerien societies continues to experience major mutations as women consolidate their roles as a visible and vocal political force as well as one of the main drivers of economic development.

Article

Kabiru Kinyanjui

The life of Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) was strongly shaped by her rural environment, missionary education, and exposure to university education in the United States and Germany. Her interactions with other women—her mother, teachers, and grassroots women—also had a great impact on her work and commitment. In the midst of enormous challenges and obstacles, she created a formidable Green Belt Movement (GBM) to empower grassroots women. By mobilizing women to plant and care for trees, Maathai changed the thinking and practices of conserving the environment at a time when dominant global thinking on the environment and women’s role in society was grappling for transformation. Hence the dynamics of local and international forces coalesced in the work of the GBM. Local experiences also infused global thinking and appreciation of struggles for democratic governance, peace, and sustainable development. Consequently, Professor Maathai’s ingenuity and persistence were widely recognized and honored, and earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Article

While women in certain regions of Africa have always enjoyed relatively equal access to view performances and perform publicly, many have not always enjoyed the same access to public performances of their craft. The role of women in music, theater, and performance in Africa has been diminished often by its demotion to the lyrical performances of women to enliven life’s transitions, from celebration of births to rites-of-passage ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. However, African women have always instigated social and political protests through songs and musical performances, imitation, and meaning-charged lyrics. The record and achievements of women as individuals or band-associated public performers were available mostly from the middle of the 20th century. Many African women have broken barriers in the categories of music, theater, and performance through exceptional demonstration of their crafts and talents. Some of them, like Sonah Jobarteh and Jalil Baccar, mostly wielded influence within a specific region of the continent, while some, like Miriam Makeba and Cesária Évora, were well known throughout the continent and globally. These African women compelled the continent, and sometimes the world, to stop and ponder on their talents in the arts of music, theater, and performance.

Article

While African women in film have distinct histories and trajectories, at the same time they have common goals and objectives. Hence, “African women in film” is a concept, an idea, with a shared story and path. While there has always been the hope of creating national cinemas, even the very notion of African cinema(s) in the plural has been pan-African since its early history. And women have taken part in the formation of an African cinema infrastructure from the beginning. The emergence of an “African women in cinema movement” developed from this larger picture. The boundaries of women’s work extend to the global African diaspora. Language, geography, and colonial legacies add to the complexity of African cinema history. Women have drawn from the richness that this multiplicity offers, contributing on local, national, continental, and global levels as practitioners, activists, cultural producers, and stakeholders.

Article

Madina Thiam

Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.

Article

Jennie Burnet

Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.

Article

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.

Article

Harmony O'Rourke

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.

Article

Chinyere Ukpokolo

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.

Article

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.

Article

Omotayo Jolaosho

Miriam Makeba (March 4, 1932–November 9, 2008) was among the first to popularize African music on a global scale. Nelson Mandela named her South Africa’s first lady of song; she was also nicknamed Mama Africa. Makeba has been credited with inaugurating the “world music” movement, a designation that she did not like as it marginalized music from a so-called Third World. Already renowned in her native South Africa as a sophisticated and highly sought-after performer in her own right, Makeba’s arrival in the United States in 1959 transformed that country’s music scene. She was a contemporary of Nina Simone and Odetta, with the three women credited for a resurgence of folk music in the United States as they drew songs of everyday life onto the concert stage. South Africa’s apartheid government revoked Makeba’s passport in 1960, when she sought to return home to bury her mother. She was a vocal critic of apartheid in exile, appearing before the United Nations (UN) on at least four occasions (including twice as a delegate of Guinea) to urge sanctions against the apartheid regime and mobilize support for Black South Africans caught under apartheid’s yoke. She supported US civil rights movement organizations and activists, and through her activism embedded US struggles for civil rights within a continuum of African liberation struggles, including anti-apartheid and anti-colonial liberation movements on the continent. She was a cultural ambassador who bore witness to the independence of many African countries through song, with countries for which her performances contributed to the ushering in of independent regimes including Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique. She was the only performer at the inaugural conference of the Organization for African Unity. As South Africa’s apartheid government began transitioning power, Makeba was able to return home in 1992 for a brief visit and subsequently decided to permanently return. Under South Africa’s democratically elected regime, Makeba was appointed an FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) Goodwill ambassador for the UN. She continued performing in her later years, but in November 2008 she collapsed following a performance in Italy and died from cardiac arrest. Her legacy continues through the work of the ZM Makeba Foundation.

Article

In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.

Article

Women were the majority of enslaved people in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was transformed and expanded in the context of so-called “legitimate commerce” that followed the abolition of oceanic slave trading. Abolition proclamations followed, in British colonies in the 1830s, and elsewhere from the 1870s through much of the 20th century, but abolition did not equate to freedom. Gender was at the heart of emancipation everywhere. Colonial merchants and officials colluded with local male elites to ensure the least disruption possible to the status quo. For these male allies, emancipation was a contradiction in terms for women, because masculine authority and control over women was assumed. In many regions, it was difficult for Europeans to distinguish between marriage, pawnship, and slavery. Women engaged strategically with colonial institutions like the courts over such distinctions to assert some form of control over their own lives, labor, and bodies. Where slavery and marriage were categorically distinct, again women might engage with Western gender stereotypes of marriage to extricate themselves from the authority of former slaveholders, or they might withdraw their labor by fleeing from the farms. Whereas for Europeans women were ideally defined as subservient wives within nuclear families, for many women themselves motherhood and access to their children were key to struggles toward emancipation. Women’s decisions about their emancipation were influenced by many factors, including whether or not they were mothers, if they were born into slavery or enslaved as children or adults, their experiences of coercion and cruelty including sexual violence, their status within the slaveholding, and their relationships of dependency and support. Topography and location mattered; urban contexts offered different kinds of post-slavery opportunity for many, and access to land and other economic opportunities and limitations were critical. The abolition of slavery by European colonial officials did not emancipate women, but it did provide the context in which some women might negotiate or claim their own rights to freedom as they defined it—which in some cases meant walking away from systems of involuntary servitude. Some women engaged colonial officers and institutions directly to demand a change in status, whereas others decided to stay in relationships that, in many cases, were subtly redefined.