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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AFRICAN HISTORY ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 09 July 2020

Summary and Keywords

The sty of women in East Africa did not begin until the 1970s and 1980s. Knowledge of times past comes from colonial records, filtered through the lenses of late Victorian-era men and from casting back the structures of early colonial years to create imaginaries of preexisting realities. Living in age-grade social systems that featured gendered lines of authority, men occupied societal institutions of power while women were informal political actors. Women were highly subordinated to their menfolk in some societies but held positions as chiefs in others. A gendered division of labor confined females to the domestic sphere, including subsistence production. We know little about intergender relationships, less about sexuality—studied in those eras almost exclusively in terms of the physical desires and behaviors that were morally right, appropriate, and “natural” and how those ideas were used to create unequal access to status, power, privileges, and resources.

The extractive focus of the colonial era transformed women’s lives and relationships as taxation and wage labor incrementally located and oriented males outside family and community spheres. Colonists dealt mainly with men, rendering women mostly silent. Missionaries taught a new morality and way of life that framed the concepts of marriage, family, and sexuality, and provided openings into unknown spaces as well as new possibilities. The trajectory of women’s lives, gender, and sexuality in East Africa is shaped by the continuation of policies and forces set in motion during the colonial period. Some, particularly the educated, have been able to pursue careers and become producers and consumers. Immersed increasingly in the social values of individuality and personal satisfaction, women are expanding their horizons to control their own lives. Their sexuality is increasingly considered as a dimension of personhood, rather than as a domain of externally imposed social control.

Keywords: women, gender, sexuality, precolonial, colonial, postcolonial, marriage, status, rural, urban

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