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Article

Aili Marie Tripp

While women were never fully equal to men in the political sphere, women in precolonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, launched military conquests, and founded states. Some governed as sole rulers often as queens, while others governed together with a king, as a mother or sister of the king. A third arrangement involved a tripartite sharing of power among the king, mother, and sister, and a fourth arrangement involved societies in which an age set or group of elders governed the society and in which women exerted either direct or indirect power. Women lost out in such arrangements, first, with the spread of Islam and Christianity and later with colonization. Women participated actively in nationalist movements, but their motivations sometimes differed from those of men, and were related, for example, to taxation and the desire to improve female education. After independence, women were further sidelined from political life with a few exceptions. It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders. This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role for women. The decline of conflict after 2000 created greater stability that enhanced these trends. Pressures from the United Nations after 1995 and from foreign donors strengthened domestic actors pressing for women’s-rights reforms in the area of political representation.

Article

Bala Saho

Oral history tells of an indigenous trader who lived in the middle belts of the River Gambia known as Kambi. His wealth and popularity transcended boundaries, villages, and communities from the interior of western Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. When the Portuguese arrived in the region during the first half of the 15th century, they immediately realized that Kambi wielded economic and social authority because of the frequent movements of traders up and down the river. The traders told the Portuguese that they visited Kambi-yaa (or Kambi’s place in Mandinka) in order to trade, and the Portuguese decided to name the region Gambia. Whether the above oral narrative is accurate is not of great concern. What is important is that the account provides a glimpse of the history of the region and the changes that were already under way by the 15th century. It is evident that the ancestors of present-day Gambians had arrived in waves, or series of migrations, and were fully established on both banks of the Gambia River when Portuguese explorers first arrived in the 15th century. The Portuguese reported having found Mandinka kings on the river who claimed to be vassals of the king of “Melle.” In 1620, Richard Jobson also reported that the Mandingo were the “lords and commanders” of all the Gambia. These early 15th century contacts, led to a continuous Europeans’ presence in the River Gambia that still persist. By 1816, Bathurst was established as the new capital of the Gambia but it was not until nearly 100 years later that the entire territory we now know as Gambia came firmly under British influence. British rule lasted until 1965, when a new era of self-rule began. The country has since witnessed three republics, the first ending in 1994, the second in 2016, and the third still existing as of 2018.

Article

At the end of World War II, Britain and France tried to find new bases for the legitimacy of empire. Their hesitant moves created openings that African political movements exploited. Scholars have tried to capture the excitement of this process, first focusing on the drive to create nation-states, then exploring other possibilities, both regions within territorial states and federations among them. Historians have drawn on archives and interviews as well as a wide variety of texts produced by political movements. Although Africans had long conducted politics through both local idioms and pan-African connections, the postwar openings led political movements to focus on arenas where they could achieve results. In French Africa, this entailed a partially successful struggle for French citizenship, representation in both the French and territorial legislatures, and social and economic equality with other French citizens. Eventually the French government tried to diffuse claim-making by devolving internal autonomy to territorial governments. When Guinea obtained independence in 1958 and other African leaders differed over whether they should create a francophone African federation within a Franco-African confederation or participate as equals in a French federation, the movements shifted to seeking independence and a new relationship with France. Britain failed to get African politicians to focus on local governance. Instead, politicians demanded power in each colony. Meanwhile, Britain tried to appease African social movements with a program of economic development only to face escalating demands and heightened conflict. Although fearful of disorder and corruption, the government decided that the best it could hope for was to have attracted Africans to a British way of life and to achieve friendly relations with African governments that, led by Ghana, came into power.

Article

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.

Article

Women’s involvement in the processes of state formation is marked by a strong ambivalence in Guinea: female political mobilizations appear as an indispensable advantage for state power when they are deployed in support of it, but these mobilizations can likewise disrupt and generate major problems for the state when they are directed against it. The efficacy of female political involvement is closely linked to the historiography of relationships between women and the state in Guinea, a country that helped construct an image of female activism outside of areas considered to be exclusively political, and as a guarantor of social justice. During the colonial period, as was the case for many other countries under French colonial rule, the influence of women was restricted to the domestic sphere: once households ceased to constitute a political resource for the colonial regimes (in contrast to the precolonial era), the influence that women were able to wield within, for example, matrimonial alliances was considerably reduced. Yet, women played a highly important role in nationalist conflicts and under the regime of Sékou Touré, who served as Guinea’s first president from 1958 to 1984. Presented as the “women’s man,” Touré sought high integration of women into his political party, based on structures inspired by the Soviet socialist model. This was a Guinean political originality. In this context, even though women were given official prominence, their demands nonetheless drew on conservative models that relied on a politicization of the maternal figure. Yet the domestic and apolitical character of female mobilization still lends it a spontaneous efficacy in a context in which laws supporting women are seldom enforced and in which the situation seems to have become increasingly precarious for women due to male emigration and inequalities in property rights.

Article

Selina Makana

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.

Article

MacKenzie Moon Ryan

Women have long played a large role in the production and consumption of fashion and textiles in Africa. Women spin, weave, dye, embroider, and otherwise create textiles using specific technologies. They also adorn themselves in jewelry, beadwork, and headwear; some also choose to veil. Women serve as designers and seamstresses to tailor clothing from textiles, and the dominant buyers and sellers of textiles are women. As such, textiles and clothing play a defining role in women’s wealth. Textiles often feature prominently at momentous occasions throughout the lives of women, for example at adolescent rites, engagement and marriage, births of children, and as burial shrouds. Women use dress practices—including wrapped textiles, tailored clothing, and personal adornment—to display aspects of their identities. Research has explored women’s varied roles related to textiles and fashion in Africa since the late 19th century. Women in the colonial era used their clothing choices to take advantage of new opportunities and contest long-standing and newly introduced strictures. During the independence era, struggles for freedom and nationalism informed clothing practices. A rise of women fashion designers in the mid-20th century paved the way for contemporary proliferations in both everyday and high fashion apparel. From accessible secondhand clothing to exclusive runway collections, African women in the 21st century continue to innovate in dress practices, which demonstrates African women’s creativity and dedication to style at all social strata. Therefore, how women in Africa have dressed themselves in fashion and textiles illuminate women’s agency.

Article

Sophie Blanchy

The inhabitants of the Comoros archipelago, situated between the East African coast and the island of Madagascar, are Muslim and at the same time follow a matrilocal residence rule and, in two of the four islands, a matrilineal descent rule. This has consequences for women’s place in society, though their status and power varies according to their age and place in the social hierarchy, and with the political context. This article draws on three examples taken from specific island contexts to illustrate forms of agency accessible to the Comorian women. It shows how, having previously been invisible in political life, women played a leading role in Maore Island to escape the domination of the other islands’ elite by choosing to remain a French territory. It analyzes the way ceremonial exchanges in Ngazidja Island give elder and younger sisters different opportunities and place different constraints upon them in terms of how they behave and lead their lives. Finally, it shows the unexpected impact of an international program addressing Ndzuwani women on their empowerment in a patriarchal social context.

Article

Gabrielle Lynch

Among today’s scholars there is a near consensus that precolonial African identities were relatively fluid, permeable, overlapping, and complex; that ethnic identities are socially constructed; and that a colonial order of delineated control encouraged Africans to rethink group identities and heightened a sense of socioeconomic and political competition along ethnic lines. There is also growing consensus that ethnic identities are nevertheless the subject of ongoing (re)negotiation and that, to find resonance, the politicization of ethnicity, while instrumental in motivation and opportunistic in character, must be rooted in linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic similarities and communal experiences of marginalization, neglect, injustice, and achievement. Many scholars also emphasize how the realities of ethnically delineated political support reflect pragmatism and expectations of patronage in the context of difficult and unequal socioeconomic contexts, as well as the significance of remembered pasts and associated narratives of justice and strategies of acquisition. Such realities and discursive repertoires provide a list of grievances that elites can use to foster a sense of difference and mobilize local support bases, but that also provide nonelites with a means to question and counter intra- and intercommunal differences and thus social and spatial inequalities. Ethnic support then strengthened by a reinforcing cycle of ethnic bias and expectations of greater levels of assistance from co-ethnics. According to such arguments, ethnic identification and political support are rational, but not for the simple reasons that classic primordial, instrumental or neo-patrimonial accounts suggest.

Article

Popular politics have influenced the development of East Africa’s political institutions from roughly two millennia ago up to contemporary times. Among the discernible political dynamics over this time period were pressures to include or exclude peoples from key institutions of belonging, the decisive role of patron–client relationships across all political institutions, the role of generational conflict, the source of political authority based on command of the visible and invisible worlds, and the changing role of indigeneity and “first-comer” status claims. These dynamics can all be found at work in the development of conventional political structures that span this time frame—that is, from the small chieftaincies and kingdoms of the precolonial era; to cults of public healing and medicine making; to engagement with European colonial institutions and the 20th-century creation of “traditional” indigenous authorities; to the growth of associational life that led to political parties, one-party states, and their postliberalization successors. Yet there was also tremendous diversity of these experiences across East Africa, which goes some way toward explaining the differences not only among the region’s contemporary nation-states but even within those nation-states. Popular pressures for inclusion either resulted in the expansion of existing political institutions or created demands for new institutions that directly challenged the exclusionary and often brittle existing political structures.

Article

Jacob Wiebel

The Red Terror was a period of intense political and inter-communal violence in revolutionary Ethiopia during the late 1970s. This violence erupted two years after the revolution of 1974 and was concentrated in the cities and towns of Ethiopia, particularly in Addis Ababa, Gondar, Asmara, and Dessie. In the struggle over the direction and ownership of the revolution, opposition groups of the radical left violently opposed a military regime that itself came to embrace and promulgate Marxist-Leninist language and policies, and that relied heavily on the use of armed force to stifle dissent. While much of the violence was carried out by security personnel, the delegation of the state’s means and instruments of violence to newly formed militias and to armed citizens was a defining feature of the Red Terror. The number of casualties and victims of the Red Terror remains heavily contested and is subject to divergent counting criteria and to definitions of the Terror’s scope in relation to other concurrent conflicts in the region, such as the Eritrean and Tigrayan civil wars; plausible figures suggest more than 50,000 deaths, in addition to many more who were subjected to torture, exile, personal losses, and other forms of violence. To this day, the Red Terror constitutes a period that is remembered in Ethiopia as much for the forms of its violence as for the extent of its harm. Its ramifications, from the support it triggered for the ethno-nationalist insurgencies that overthrew the military regime in 1991, to its role in the emergence of a sizeable Ethiopian diaspora, make the Red Terror an episode of defining and lasting significance in the modern history of Ethiopia.

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

Education was profoundly political in colonial French West Africa (1895–1960), a federation that included the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. It shaped political discourse across the federation as officials, educators, missionaries, African families, and African students weighed in on the type of education they thought best. Dissatisfaction with education policies or with the quality of schools encouraged Africans to become politically active, and the practical skills they learned in school along with the status gained through school attendance prepared young people to agitate for colonial reform and ultimately for independence. Colonial officials engaged in a back and forth with the Catholic missionary orders that provided public schooling in much of the region, especially as they sought to balance early 20th-century metropolitan demands for secularization with the colonies’ need for reliable and inexpensive schools. In the second half of the 19th century, administrators attempted to undermine Qur’an schools through regulation and surveillance, hoping that this would result in increased attendance in French schools. In doing so, they competed directly with popular Islamic leaders and the interests of the Muslim community, which had the unintended effect of involving African Muslims in colonial politics in new ways. Officials also attempted to “adapt” colonial school curricula to the local realities of African communities, usually by decreasing academic content and focusing instead on vocational and agricultural training. Yet over several decades, they encountered significant resistance from urban educated elites and rural farmers alike, all of whom pushed in one way or another for schooling that would allow for social mobility and, ultimately, claims for equality with the French. Finally, education played a crucial role in formal politics in the region, preparing Africans for political candidacy and leadership, mobilizing the voting public, and helping to determine access to voting rights after African subjects became citizens in 1946. Education and politics were thus inextricably linked in colonial French West Africa.

Article

Ângela Sofia Benoliel Coutinho

Born in Bissau in 1936, Carmen Pereira was the daughter of a Guinean lawyer (one of only two Guinean lawyers at the time). She studied at the primary school in Bissau, and married in that city in 1957. In 1961, following her husband’s flight to Senegal to avoid being arrested as a political agitator, Carmen joined the independence movement led by the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde), with three small children in her charge. Guinea-Bissau was then a Portuguese colony, with a far-right dictatorship based in the metropole. So-called Portuguese Guinea was about the size of Belgium or Haiti, and had a tropical, hot, and humid climate; most of its inhabitants, who belonged to more than twenty different peoples, were dedicated to agriculture. In the 1960s the majority of Guinea-Biassau’s inhabitants were Animists; there was also a significant Muslim population, and a few, like Carmen Pereira herself, were Catholics. The guerilla war began in Guinea-Bissau in 1963, and lasted until independence was declared in 1974. During this period Carmen travelled to the Soviet Union, where she studied to be a nurse. On her return to Africa she was given responsibility for the Health sector in the South region, where she also became the Political Commissioner for the areas controlled by the PAIGC, as a consequence of her proven leadership skills, and in accordance with the PAIGC’s policy of giving women equal opportunities and rights within the movement. Carmen Pereira is an important figure in African history, principally because she was the only woman to be elected a member of the Executive Committee (formerly the Political Bureau) of the PAIGC, which is itself significant as one of the few African movements for political liberation that led a successful war for independence. In the new state of Guinea-Bissau, Carmen Pereira was elected President of the Parliament, and appointed Health Minister, Minister for Social Affairs, and State Council member. She died in Bissau in June 2016.

Article

Scott Rosenberg

During the pre-colonial period, women were valued for their productive and reproductive abilities. When women married, their parents received bohali (bridewealth) from the man’s family. During the colonial period women became increasingly responsible for running the household while men were away. Although this gave women more power on a daily basis it also led to increasing domestic violence. In order to support themselves and their families, women have sought out domestic economic opportunities as well as participating in migrant labor. Historically, beer brewing and sex trafficking were two of the economic opportunities available to women in Lesotho and South Africa. Today, women make up the overwhelming majority of labor in the textile factories. Although Lesotho is a patriarchal society, women have made gains in terms of being elected to parliament and serving as regents, yet they are still not allowed to serve as a chief in their own right. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has hit women in Lesotho especially hard.

Article

Katherine Ann Wiley

Women in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania have significantly influenced their country’s social, economic, religious, political, and artistic realms. How they have done so has been affected by the country’s nomadic past, severe droughts, history with slavery, and rapid urbanization following independence. Women have participated in trade, influenced politics, made decisions for their families, shaped their marriages, and contributed to religious scholarship. Mauritanian women have also exercised significant power as compared to some of their counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world, being able to initiate divorce, speak publicly, and act as heads of household. Despite such influence, their gender has also disadvantaged them, making it difficult to access many of the opportunities that are available to men. Likewise, women’s varying social ranks, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities and regional locations have affected their abilities to maneuver and assert power.

Article

Ramola Ramtohul

The Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius has a population made up of the descendants of migrants from France, India, Africa, and China. Mauritius has a multicultural and multi-ethnic population and these divisions impact upon Mauritian women’s rights and political mobilization in the country. Women were expected to support the men of their community and, in the mid 1940s, female suffrage was proposed by men from the elite and wealthy groups to win votes for their communities. There is no evidence of a women’s lobby for the franchise. Despite the controversy surrounding female suffrage, Mauritius had two women members of parliament following the election after proclamation of female suffrage. Under 19th-century Mauritian law the state treated women as the inalienable property of their husbands. The “Code Napoleon” or “Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804,” adopted in 1808 in Mauritius, imposed the status of “minor” on a married woman and was characterized by severe patriarchalism, restricting women to the private domestic sphere. Despite these restrictions, women were not passive and they were drawn into the economic and political struggles of the early 20th century. One of the most vivid memories is that of Anjalay Coopen, a female agricultural laborer who was among the people killed during an uprising on the sugar estates in 1943. Mauritius became independent in 1968 and the role that women played in the negotiations leading to independence remains unclear to this day due to a paucity of research in this area, male domination of the political and historical writings of the country, and the fact that the Mauritian population was highly divided over independence. Women’s-movement activism peaked in the mid-1970s. This was when women’s organizations grouped together on common platforms to lobby for changes in the civil code and laws governing marriage and the Immigration and Deportation Act, which allowed for the deportation of foreign husbands of Mauritian women but not for foreign wives of Mauritian men. Women from different communities rallied together for equal rights for women, generating a strong national women’s movement.

Article

Faranirina V. Rajaonah

Lineage and rootedness in ancestral lands shape the course of women’s lives in Madagascar. Women certainly benefit from this situation, but it also constrains them. Despite the diversity of situations within the social spaces inherited from former kingdoms, women across the island play an essential role in their lineage. Some women have influenced the course of history, at times in ways that extend beyond their social sphere, in the capacity of queens, while others have voiced their disapproval of sovereigns’ decisions. Madagascar has witnessed accelerated change since the 19th century, brought about by the island’s increased integration into global markets dominated by the West, and represented by traders, missionaries, and colonial administrators. Upper-class women and their families have been able to choose from among the novelties offered them in the form of material goods, careers, education, and religion. Women of lesser means have likewise tried to find their way within an enlarged horizon, including through emigration, while their country, since independence, has been confronted by increasing challenges.

Article

Bronwen Everill

The history of humanitarianism in Africa has been shaped largely by the history of unequal power relations and the struggle between preservative and progressive approaches to the unintended consequences of intervention. As foreign powers and individuals became involved in identifying and aiding African “victims,” both action and inaction were fraught with political consequences that required further intervention. These interventions ranged from direct emergency assistance to longer-term development goals; from military aid to post-conflict state-building and capacity-building; from small-scale interventions by individuals through service missions to annual, multi-billion-dollar governmental aid packages. Although the scale and approach to humanitarian assistance varied dramatically over the continent and across two and a half centuries, humanitarian impulses were consistently based on the desire to help and were also consistently critiqued both in Africa and elsewhere. Imperialism and humanitarianism have been overlapping and interlocking ideologies in the African context, but independent African states, individuals, and marginalized groups have also made use of humanitarian language and ideology to further their own goals and promote their own causes across the modern period.

Article

Fadma Ait Mous, Kmar Bendana, and Natalya Vince

The 20th century witnessed the emergence of individual women as political actors, women as a category of political and social actors, and women (or “the woman question”) as a theme for political action across North Africa. This history is both intertwined with, and for a long time has been overshadowed by, that of colonialism, nationalism, and postcolonial state-building. Without being linear or homogeneous, the stages and processes of making women visible and extending women’s rights have been similar across Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria: increasing access to education, the emergence of pioneering female “models,” the mobilization of women as a group in the anti-colonial struggle, postcolonial state feminism and then a shift towards women speaking, writing and organizing themselves as women. Specificities of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan history have also given rise to distinctive features in the history of women and the writing of the history of women in each country. These include the long history of male feminist thought expressed in Arabic in Tunisia, the mass participation of women in armed struggle in Algeria, and the reformist feminism, based on women reinterpreting religious sources and history, which originated in Morocco.