Women in Egypt have always played key roles in society in different historical eras. In the modern period, women were at the forefront of the modernization project that gained momentum at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. “The woman question” occupied center stage in debates about the new modern nation in the making and against the background of colonial domination as Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882. The period from the 1920s to the early 1950s is noted as a period that was particularly vibrant in the history of the women’s movement and witnessed rapid developments in women’s participation in the public sphere. Women founded magazines, established civil society organizations in all fields, joined the national movement for independence, and contributed to key ongoing debates on the modernization project. In 1952, the Free Officers Revolution resulted in a radical shift in the political sphere: the end of British colonialism, the transformation of Egypt from a monarchy to a socialist republic, and the start of a new era. The new order promoted women’s education and access to the labor market but restricted political rights and freedoms in general, a new reality that inevitably impacted the development of an independent women’s movement. In the 1970s, women’s rights assumed center stage in international politics, a development that had an impact on women in general and Egyptian women in particular. Egyptian women entered the diplomatic corps and participated in drafting international conventions, in representing their country in international forums, and in joining international civil society campaigns for women’s rights. They also established a new generation of civil society organizations that advocated for women’s rights both locally and on the international stage. The year 2011 marks an important moment in the history of Egypt. The wave of revolutions that swept the Arab world resulted in the opening of the political sphere in an unprecedented manner. Women’s rights activists rose to the challenge, and more and more women were active participants in the movement for change. Women joined new political parties that were established in the aftermath of revolutions; they were active participants in numerous political and social initiatives and movements; and they played a prominent role in marches for political and social freedoms. In sum, women in modern Egypt have played key roles in the making of modern Egypt. The story of their contributions and achievements is the story of a movement for change toward a better future.
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.
In the colonial and postcolonial period, African women have advocated for legal reforms that would improve the status of women across the continent. During the colonial period, European common and civil law systems greatly influenced African indigenous legal systems and further entrenched patriarchal aspects of the law. In the years since independence, women’s rights advocates have fought, with varying degrees of success, for women’s equality within the constitution, the family, the political arena, property rights, rights to inheritance, rights to be free from gender-based violence, rights to control their reproductive lives and health, rights to education, and many other aspects of life. Legal developments at the international, national, and local levels reflect the efforts of countless African women’s rights activists to improve the status of women within the region.
Anika Wilson and Sitinga Kachipande
The status, rights, and roles of women in Malawi have been in constant flux since at the least the mid-19th century. In the pre-colonial period, principles of matriliny organized social structures within many communities in Malawi, affording women rights to land, property, products of labor, and children, and influence in group decision-making. The mid-19th century ushered in a period of disturbances and social transformations that led to changes in economic, political, religious, and familial practices. Changes in key institutions impacted women’s access to land and their influence in governance. Women in Malawi were excluded from new commercial and political opportunities as long-distance commerce increased in the region. Increasing commodification of people endangered women within intensified trade and military conflict. Patterns of increasing exclusion and endangerment of women continued beyond the mid-19th century after the slave trade was challenged. In the period immediately preceding colonial rule and also during the colonial period, women actively sought to maintain rights and influence through their involvement in Christian institutions, their appeal to courts, public protests, and through their subversive expression in songs, stories, and possession cults. In post-colonial Malawi, women did not gain the freedom that they had struggled for during the anti-colonial movements. Kamuzu Banda marginalized women from access to power and decision-making. He maintained a paternalistic approach to women’s issues which included controlling every aspect of their lives. The constitution adopted in 1994 with democratic reforms laid a strong foundation for women achieving rights and improving their socio-economic status. However, women still faced obstacles in fully realizing their rights and continued to be marginalized by Banda’s successors. Women’s participation in leadership was limited to showing support for the president. The election of Joyce Banda as the first female president did little to improve the status of women. Backlash against her ascendance to the position eroded women’s access to decision-making posts in the government. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the government of Malawi responded to pressures from women’s rights advocates to legislate against gender-based violence and child marriage. However, there has been little evidence of sustained and coordinated women’s movements and activism aimed at improving women’s socio-economic status. Much of the work women do to improve their position and that of their families and communities takes place on a small scale or involves cooperation with precariously funded nongovernmental organizations and community-based organizations.
African law and justice systems in the early 21st century are the result of over a thousand years of religious and cultural influences and political change on the continent. As customary and Islamic laws became reinterpreted and formalized by colonial states, women experienced the effects of successive periods of religious and political conquest as an entrenching of patriarchal control in the family and personal law sphere. The 20th century saw African women’s resistance rise from the grass roots as an important force for national liberation. African women’s legal activism grew after political independence and African women lawyers were part of global feminist movements. In the wake of dramatic political changes across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the global sphere of rights post-1989 became an enabling frame for women’s legal activism. Political transitions to multiparty democracy, the liberalization of African economies, and a wave of constitutional reforms strengthened women’s rights and gender equality guarantees. The 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of regional and pan-African women’s legal activist organizations, including the Action Committee of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Women in Law and Development in Africa as well as the adoption of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. In the 21st century, while social, economic, and legal inequalities persist in spite of many gains for women’s rights, some African women lawyers have risen to occupy the highest echelons of the judiciary in several countries and in international courts.
African feminist thought refers to the dynamic ideas, reflections, theories and other expressions of intellectual practices by politically radical African women concerned with liberating Africa by focusing women’s liberation, and as such cannot be easily defined or captured. However, the conditions out of which Africa’s feminist movements form, and the intellectual labor that they carry out in the pursuit of women’s rights and freedoms can be explored and discussed. African feminist thought is the potentially limitless product of movements that are themselves constantly in the making, succeeding in changing the conditions of their formation by their very existence. African feminist political thought can be traced to the world’s women’s movements that formed in the context of transnational liberal and emancipatory political discourses of the late 19th and 20th centuries of European empire. Out of these liberal emancipatory reformist, international labor, communist, socialist revolutionary, and Pan-African Diasporic and African nationalist movements were all formed. However, following the flag independence of over fifty nation-states, women who joined the anti-colonial freedom movements have had to pursue further struggles in independent nation-states, because Africa’s new states often hesitated or reverted to conservative patriarchal views when it came to extending freedom and equality to African women. It is as citizens of new nations that 20th century African women have formed independent feminist movements that continue to demand freedom, equality and rights, for example, by seeking freedom of movement, political representation, educational and economic equality, and perhaps most commonly of all, freedom from sex and gender-based violence. Contemporary publications and writings by African feminists are the primary sources consulted here, because of the need to correct the spurious mis-representation of African feminism as “un-African,” a position that hinges on the definition of feminism as exclusively Western. This view is advanced by conservative African men and women who seek the restoration of pre-colonial cultures, as well as in some of the early scholarly literature on the subject. African feminism is a radical proposition: it refers to the liberatory political philosophies, theories, writings, research and cultural production, as well as the organizing work of the transnational community of feminists from Africa. These respond to objective conditions of global systemic inequality that have led African women to resume the struggle for freedom and liberation. African feminists in 2019 identify with earlier generations of women freedom fighters but enunciate visions of a future in which the women of Africa will be afforded human rights and freedoms, on a continent liberated from a global neoliberal capitalist system that continues to marginalize the vast majority of the world’s peoples and exploits natural and human resources to a degree that now threatens planetary survival.
This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.