Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities. These temporalities arguably converge on a singular leitmotif, namely, the attempt by state power to preserve its privileges and the struggle by social forces to resist the state and draw effective boundaries between the private and public domains. Gloomy for most of the “lost decade” of the 1980s, the prospect for such a project appears brighter today, especially in the aftermath of pivotal shifts in the global and regional political landscapes.
Postcolonial States and Societies in West Africa
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.
Women in Mozambique
Liazzat J. K. Bonate and Jonna Katto
Mozambique is divided into matrilineal north and patrilineal south, while the central part of the country has a mixture of the two. Both types of kinship organization have important implications for the situation of women. Women in matrilineal societies could access land and political and decision-making power. They had their own property and their children belonged to their matrikin. In patrilineal societies, women depended on their husbands and their kin groups in order to access farmland. Children and property belonged to the husband’s clan. During the colonial period (c. 1890–1975), women’s position in Mozambique was affected by the Indigenato regime (1917–1961). The native African population (classified as indígenas) were denied the rights of Portuguese citizenship and placed under the jurisdiction of local “traditional habits and customs” administered by the appointed chiefs. Despite the fact that Portuguese citizenship was extended to all independent of creed and race by the 1961 Overseas Administrative Reform, most rural African areas remained within the Indigenato regime until the end of colonialism in 1974. Portuguese colonialism adopted an assimilationist and “civilizing” stance and tried to domesticate African women and impose a patriarchal Christian model of family and gender relations. Women were active in the independence struggle and liberation war (1964–1974), contributing greatly to ending colonialism in Mozambique. In 1973, Frelimo launched a nationwide women’s organization, Organização da Mulher Moçambicana (Organization of Mozambican Women, OMM). Although women were encouraged to work for wages in the first decade after independence, they remained largely limited to the subsistence economy, especially in rural areas. The OMM upheld the party line describing women as “natural” caregivers. Only with the political and economic liberalizations of the 1990s were many women able to access new opportunities. The merging of various women’s organizations working in the country during this period helped to consolidate decades-long efforts to expand women’s political and legal rights in independent Mozambique. In the early 2000s, these efforts led to the reform of the family law, which was crucial for the improvement of women’s rights and conditions in Mozambique.
Women in Ghana
Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Deborah Atobrah
The academic study of women in Ghana has received considerable attention, particularly from a feminist perspective or gender framework since the 1980s, albeit with some important studies preceding this period. Earlier studies from the 1960s–1970s mainly approached the “woman question” from an anthropological, historical, and later sociological perspective, paying attention to descriptions of women’s lives prior to colonialism and the effects of colonial rule. These studies underscored the importance of the complementary roles women and men played, submitting that colonialism was responsible for introducing forms of gender inequality and domesticity that had not existed hitherto. Prior to colonial rule, women generally enjoyed significant status from their roles not only as wives and mothers, but also as sisters, rulers, priestesses, and performers in their own right. At the same time, some accounts of women’s lives point to the hardships they suffered because they were exploited for their social and economic value, for example as slaves or pawns. Both before and during colonial rule, especially during the years of struggle for independence, women were important organizers, and not just around gender issues. Several studies discuss the important place of women in the Nkrumah-led government just prior to and immediately after independence in 1957; however, women’s relationship with the postcolonial state was not given much attention until the 1980s. After the first UN International Women’s Conference held in Mexico City in 1975, and the establishment of a women’s bureau, the National Council on Women and Development in 1986, more instrumental and also quantitative-survey approaches were employed that described women’s so-called objective status, especially in the areas of education, work, and health. In conformity with the times, a women-in-development approach to examining women’s status was favored by practitioners but also some scholars. By 1994, when the Development and Women’s Studies Programme was established at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, feminist approaches were more common and also brought with them an interrogation of the postcolonial state’s relationship with women. Women’s organizing and activism around such issues as livelihoods, access to land and other resources, and gender-based violence, took center stage as groups like the Network for Women’s Rights (NETRIGHT), the Domestic-Violence Coalition, and the Women’s Manifesto Coalition emerged. The problematics of gender roles and social relations, especially within the context of marriage, received much attention. Contestations among scholar-activists and femocrats are also discussed, as well as the institutional challenges of feminist work. Intergenerational collaborations as well as tensions occupy a significant place in contemporary theorizing and practice since 2000, especially the role of social media feminism.