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Article

Mariana Bracks Fonseca

Njinga Mbande was a sovereign of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in the 17th century. She is remembered as a strong leader who challenged the Portuguese conquest of Angola. As heir to the Ndongo kingdom, she negotiated peace agreements with the Portuguese administration and was baptized. But diplomacy was not enough to guarantee the peace, security, and integrity of the Ndongo state. Military resistance was necessary to resist Portuguese advances and guarantee her political survival. Njinga Mbande defied the Portuguese armies and became the leader of a group of nomadic warriors called Jagas. Leading powerful battalions, she retreated inland and conquered the Matamba kingdom, which was ruled by women. The military superiority of Njinga’s army and her ability to build alliances made her the most feared figure in the Angolan wars in the 17th century. With great bravery and wisdom, she effectively defended her state and resisted Portuguese expansion in the region. For more than thirty years, Njinga resisted her enemies, defeating and deceiving them many times. She died when she was more than eighty years old without ever being captured or subjected. In the 20th century, Njinga Mbande’s public memory was transformed to represent nationalist resistance to earlier colonialism in Angola. She became known as the Angolan Queen, a national heroine in independent Angola, and is also remembered in the folk traditions of peoples of African descent in the Americas. It is important to stress, however, that she was the ruler of two states, and she never ruled the entire territory of what is now Angola.

Article

Kamal Salhi

North African historiography is interested in the history of mankind, though it tends to overlook the contribution of half of humanity: women. Women are often characterized by virtues of sobriety and purity, or the conventional attributes of wives, mothers, and mistresses common in pre-Roman times. Within an erroneously interpreted Muslim tradition, prevalent since the Ottoman period, the Algerian woman was under patriarchal protection and considered a genitor, destined to perpetuate the group. It was expected that she stayed in a private, enclosed space, inaccessible to any foreign male gaze. The veil she wore created around her body an impermissible mobile believed to control her desires. In reality, the fantasizing of its representations has contributed key points to the Western—mostly French—history of women in Muslim-influenced Algeria. The haremic image of polygamy in general essentially problematizes Western Muslim societies. The Western imagination of the past, as well as that of all contemporary societies, has long nurtured the Muslim East, characterized by the appealing odalisque, far removed from any consideration and daily concerns. The examination of the contexts in which Algerian women have become hypervisible as centers of debate and protest is no less essential to the understanding of Algeria than the history of the successive roles and challenges women have taken and experienced. Political attitudes, predominantly male, led to the introduction of the restrictive Algerian Family Law in postcolonial Algeria. Women have become the focal point for a contemporary dutiful discourse that presents itself as saving Muslim women, and that can be construed to pose a dilemma to the Western emancipation model. Women’s critical role in the unpredictably rapidly developing nation has marked events and national realizations. Despite Algerian women’s participation in various struggles and the roles assigned to them in nation-building, or even the centrality of social, political, and religious life consequential in gender relations, they demonstrate predispositions for transformational roles.

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

Penda Choppy

Seychellois society is generally perceived to be matrifocal. This is because women’s influence is considered all pervasive, from the family unit to church and political activities and public service institutions. Since its social revolution in the last quarter of the 20th century, Seychelles has been considered very avant-garde in its promotion of women in responsible positions. It is important to note, however, that though this promotion of women has not specifically targeted any social class, it is working-class women who have benefited the most from it. In the first place, the working class in Seychelles has always been a much larger majority. The landowning and merchant class have, since the early settlement period and throughout colonial history, been restricted to a few but very influential people. Thus, though women in these classes have also benefited from social reform and emancipation, it has not been the norm to assess changes within their ranks simply because their numbers are negligible compared to the working class. Second, social reform in Seychelles was led by a socialist government, which emphasized a classless society, with the intention of leveling the field for working-class people. Thus, women’s emancipation has almost always been seen from a working-class perspective. If there is an economic middle class in 21st-century Seychelles, it has emerged from the working class. Thus, this article tends to focus on the working class. It is also important to note that a result of women’s emancipation and accession to prominent positions in government and middle management has been the perceived tendency to emphasize the failures of the male population. With no less than ten women’s associations in existence and the current global push for promoting women’s causes, Seychellois men have begun to feel marginalized and have formed their own associations to promote their cause and image. However, the matrifocal nature of Seychellois society might indeed be just a perception. In effect, men still hold the top positions in key domains of power such as the Cabinet and Parliament. Women ministers are often perceived as having been promoted through the benevolence of a male presidency. In fact, there is a certain amount of gender power conflict in Seychelles, which might result from (a) the clashing of patriarchal and matriarchal systems imposed by colonialism, (b) male subjugation and female exploitation during and after slavery, and (c) female emancipation during the socialist era.

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

Chambi Chachage and Jacqueline Mgumia

African women were at the forefront of nationalistic struggles for independence in Africa that were at their height in the 1950s. In mainland Tanzania, then known as Tanganyika, Bibi Titi Mohamed emerged as a leading voice in building the liberation movement through a political party known as the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU). As a leader of the women’s wing of TANU, she traveled throughout the country to mobilize both women and men to join the party that led to the independence of Tanganyika in the early 1960s. During the transition to full independence, she became a member of the Legislative Council, agitating for inclusive improvement in the welfare of all citizens. Her contribution in the parliamentary debates focused on rural development and equal access to employment, education, and provision of healthcare, with special attention to women in general and the girl child, in particular. After independence, she became the Junior Minister for Community Development and a leading advocate of people-centered development and gender equality. During the second half of the 1960s, Bibi Titi’s promising political career took a downward turn, bringing it to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. Her downfall started in 1965 when she lost her parliamentary seat in the general elections. Since one had to be an MP in order to be a Minister, she also lost her ministerial position in the government. Although she continued to serve as a notable member of the ruling party’s executive organs and vocal leader of its women’s wing, her career hit another snag when TANU issued the Arusha Declaration on Socialism and Self-Reliance in 1967. She would appear to have disagreed with provisions of the Arusha Declaration’s Leadership Code that barred leaders from owning rentable properties as well as being of the opinion that the process used in adopting the Declaration had been inadequately consultative. On this account, she resigned from all party positions. One would have assumed that after the resignation she would have had a quiet retirement from her momentous political career, but this was not to be. Three years later, she was charged for treason and then jailed for life prior to getting a presidential pardon in 1972. Bibi Titi’s life after imprisonment went on unrecorded and unnoticed. She largely lived out of the public limelight that characterized the first decade of her political career. One of the most recognized names in the country partly faded from the public for almost an entire generation. Reference to her name and contribution to national his/herstory disappeared from party and government official records, almost extinguishing her significant role in the early years of Tanzanian history. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, her name started to re-emerge, not least because of the rise of the feminist movement, life histories, and gender and women studies. Hers is the story that ought to be told and retold—of the muting and unmuting of a leading voice of freedom. It is a story that will continue to manifest itself in various debates on the nature and character of the leadership of liberation movements, with specific reference to women leaders in Africa.

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

Njinga a Mbande (1582–1663) is the most famous and controversial historical figure in the history of the West-Central Africa region during the 17th century, the region of present-day Angola. Her political trajectory contributes to the understanding of the troubled context of the Portuguese expansion in the region and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade. The Ndongo state was at the very core of this struggle, a state mainly comprised of the Mbundu peoples. It was also the Queen’s original birthplace and a major area in the dispute for ensuring control of the trade routes between the inland and coastal regions. The Portuguese arrived in the region in 1575, and settled on the coast. Luanda was the first area of the Portuguese occupation. From there the Portuguese waged wars of conquest, moving toward the sertão (hinterland). On the Portuguese side, the action unfolded in the constant attempt to control the sobas, the local authorities, the construction of fortresses in the Mbundu territory, and the wars that were initially meant to obtain captives and form an African Army (Guerra Preta). The army would later serve Portuguese interests in controlling the routes and fairs (i.e., the hubs, or centers, of slave trade). On the Mbundu authorities’ side, even before the queen’s reign, and later on at her command, the struggles took many forms: the deterrence of the fairs’ functioning; the disorganization of the “tax” system, in which the Portuguese charged the sobas; and the welcoming of hundreds of escaped slaves, as well as other central actions such as wars and diplomatic negotiations. Njinga a Mbande took on the title Ngola (1624), the position of greatest authority and prestige in the Ndongo. In 1626, after a major campaign by Portuguese settlers, she was expelled from her territory. But by 1631 she re-emerged as a leader, now in another region, Matamba, an important base for her attacks on the areas controlled by the Portuguese. From this region, she made a peace agreement, governing until her natural death at the age of 82. In the 21st century, historiographical questions abound: how was the leadership of this female figure viewed in terms of legitimacy and gender identity within the power structures of the Ndongo, how was her image publicly projected throughout the region, how did she rise in prominence in European reports, and what was her fundamental impact on the oral tradition of different peoples of West-Central Africa. The presence of Queen Njinga crossed the Atlantic and figures in the imagery of popular and mythical narratives in the Americas.

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

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.

Article

Nakanyike B. Musisi

Described as a “woman of character” by her son, Kabaka (King) Sir Edward Mutesa II, Irene Drusilla Namaganda (1896–1957) was the earliest of the three queens who graced 20th-century Buganda. Yet quite independent of her personality, Namaganda was born, educated, and became queen during a momentous period in Buganda’s history. While occupying the office of queen mother following the death of her husband King Daudi Chwa II (1939), Namaganda became sexually involved with and pregnant by Simoni Petero Kigozi, a commoner almost twenty years her junior. For this behavior they were both tried for “An Abominable Crime” in a criminal court and pronounced guilty, and Namaganda was dethroned and sent into an internal exile. In later years, Namaganda converted to the radical Christianity of the Balokole movement. She died of uterus cancer in 1957 leaving behind a legacy of being first on many fronts but, above all, the first rebellious Buganda queen mother to ever be dethroned. Namaganda’s legacy also lies in her unmasking of the colonial misreadings of “native” protest strategies. Neither the colonialists nor the Buganda bureaucracy ever read Namaganda’s choice of becoming pregnant and subsequent strategies as a protest ploy aimed at exposing and ending the colonization of her body and the office she represented. Namaganda’s rebellion was neither a “simple palace matter,” “sad thing,” nor about sex or marriage, as it has been argued. It was about ending one form of patriarchal colonization (her body) and exposing the limitations of another (British).

Article

Though seemingly innocent, descriptive, and even commendatory, both “spirits” and “healing” are problematic terms in the history of African studies. Rather than identifying well-bounded domains of African life, both of them have evolved from the history of European attitudes toward Africa. “Spirits” often give rise to problems of well-being that “healing” is called upon to solve. Despite this close connection, spirits have been the primary subject matter of religious studies, whereas healing is among the concerns of anthropology. The study of African religion has thus come to be divided between two disciplines embodying the distinction between “belief” and “knowledge,” the irrational and the rational, developed in Europe during the Enlightenment. Anthropology itself has long divided social life into the separate domains of religion, politics, and economics, assigning the study of each to a different discipline with its own preoccupations and specialized vocabulary. This ethnocentric template misrepresented African societies whose institutions were unlike those of Europe. In the forest zones of West and Central Africa a particular set of beliefs and practices regulated the use of power for personal and collective well-being. Power, or the ability to effect change for good or ill, was and is still thought to be derived from forces called “spirits,” which are in fact as much material as spiritual. Following special procedures, gifted persons obtain power from an otherworld that is simultaneously the earth itself and the land of “the living dead,” who are buried in it. The uses of such power to kill or to cure, for collective or private benefit, define a contrast set of four roles—called for convenience chief, priest, witch, and magician—whose functions are simultaneously moral, political, economic, and therapeutic. This system is open to novel revelations within a stable cognitive framework, and adapts to new conditions. Different ideologies and practices of social regulation are found in other parts of Africa.