Sunday, September 2, 2007

African Women under pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial state

The purpose of this paper is to find answers to the question whether the collusion of colonial Western values with pre-colonial patriarch attitudes to exclude women from participating in meaningful production undermined the economic and political power of African women. This theme has generated considerable debate on whether African women’s gendered status improved or worsened with colonialism. In articulating these debates the paper analyzes scholarly views of most African and Western-centric feminist critiques. The debate is centered on pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial patterns of gender relations. The paper also suggests areas of further research and it relies mainly on inter-disciplinary works on gender and status.
The conceptual issues outlined in this debate focus attention on two concerns: 1) the need to keep in mind at all times African historical experiences and interaction between pre-colonial, colonial, post colonial and importance of expanding political concepts originally construed by men, to include women and gender relations. Both theoretically and in practical sense, it is my view that a gender lens alters the view of decision-making arenas. I discuss these arenas in terms of the domestic sphere, the economic sector and political office, and 2), the significance of a politics of transformation. It is true that as women are included in decision-making at all levels, there is the expectation of significant change in the organization of society, resources available to the disadvantaged, and women's confidence in their own contributions.
Gender Inequality VS. Economics and Politics in Precolonial Patriarchy
It has been observed that an important theoretical strand of work within African feminist theory revisits the precolonial period to reassess women’s roles and statuses. Challenging imperialist views about the victimization of traditional third- world women, many anthropologists and historians are increasingly stressing women's powers during this period . Mama's (1995) study comments on the paucity of research into women's roles and gender relations during the precolonial period, going on to observe that many writers have dwelt on mythological aspects. Recent seminal and anthropological and historical works, however, suggest significant shifts. For example, in a bibliographic essay published in 2000, Margaret Snyder writes that, “New research raises questions about earlier theories that women were quite autonomous in precolonial times”(2000:1038). In my opinion, Snyder tends to deal with one strand in the research, and yet the range of writings on this period, writings that embrace history, anthropology and interdisciplinary research, indicate that theorists have advanced strikingly different conclusions.
Two broadly diverging arguments emerge in studies produced since the early 1980s on women in pre-colonial Africa. On one level, historical work, as exemplified in studies like Sandra Green (1996), Barbara Cooper (1997). and Marcia Wright( 1993) the distinct forms of pre-colonial period gender inequalities and hierarchies. Dealing with differences and connections between gender relations during the colonial and pre-colonial period, these works offer evidence of the value of the gender concept, rather than jettison it. In my view, they are also, however, strongly concerned with the agency of African women during the pre-colonial period. For example, Greene draws on an array of oral and archival sources to consider how women, between the 17th and 20th centuries , negotiated authority was undermined with the colonial practice of buttressing chiefs and male elders.
In contrast to scholarship foregrounding gender hierarchies during the pre-colonial period are studies that both contest that gender was a significant social category and that affirm women's spiritual and secular authorities, a situation that changed with colonialism. Ifi Amadiume (1987), taking this approach to an extreme, has established an influential paradigm for this thesis, and her prolific output from the eighties to the present day draws on a range of evidence. A recent work which draws similar conclusions in interpreting pre-colonial African women is by Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997). Her study is anchored in an ambitious discussion of Western philosophical, conceptual and linguistic traditions and agues that patterns of defining human bodies in social and cultural terms is not a feature of the African society. Although Oyewumi stresses that African society was strongly hierarchical, she insists that gender, a concept foreign to the pre-colonial world-view, did not play any meaningful role in determining power relations and subjectivity. I think the value of Oyewume's work, lies in its analysis the cultural framing of “gender”, and, more broadly, of the cultural biases that inevitably underpin feminist terms and assumptions. Thus her argument is grounded in a lengthy linguistic and philosophical analysis of power, subjectivity and relations between men and women in pre-colonial Africa, acknowledging how complicatedly language and social relations reflect gender hierarchies, even when those hierarchies are very different from the patterns manifested in other extensively theorized contexts.
Pat McFadden has spoken out strongly against the tendency among scholars like Amadiume and Oyewumi to jettison “gender” as un-African:
“Interestingly, their common dismissal of the of gender as 'Western' comes from a peculiar reliance upon the very intellectual traditions that underpin the disciplines of social anthropology. The academic drawn largely from the stock of traditional ethnographical and anthropological sense making, different only in that it is applied via a claim that because it is an African female academic who is using the language, it therefore assumes a different meaning.”(2001:60)
I think what is also worth noting here is the extent to which Oyewumi, like Amadiume, appears to contest a Western-centric tradition of stereotyping African women, yet capitulates to a colonial tradition of mythologizing and exoticizing their mysterious powers. Indeed, the mythic figure of the powerful African matriarch, prominent in early studies such as Denise Paulme(1963) has enjoyed enormous sway as a symbolic construct. The reliance on this construct is an alarming indication of the impact of Western discursive inventions of African women, where anthropological units of analysis have been used to demonstrate (or inscribe) the essentialized difference of African from Western Societies.
For my part, arguments offered by Oyewumi and Amadiumi, although open to contestation, create a suggestive conceptual space for reassessing the apparently universal concepts that have too long been central to influential feminist research. I therefore would like to believe that while the powers that Amadiumi invests in African women may not entirely reflect women's pre-colonial positions, and while the absence of gender as a linguistic term does not necessarily disprove the existence of power relations between men and women, Amadiume and Oyewumi's unsettling of many concepts and hypotheses has helped generate new research into pre-colonial African women, and created a receptive context for further work in the field.
This innovative work is evidenced in Heike Becker's recent work on Namibia (2000). Becker takes as her central thesis the idea that women in the past had a significant share in political power, ritual leadership, and the transmission of oral history and traditions. They were also able to negotiate significant forms and degrees of power in the sexual and economic lives. She goes on to show that careful historical investigations indicate that “gender” was not the only determinant of a woman's margin of power and identity, and that factors such as age and class significantly influenced women's powers in secular and religious domains. Becker's ideas resonate with the insights of Oyewumi and others who have critiqued the universality of cultural and linguistic expressions of gender hierarchies, although they enlist more rigorous analysis and historical evidence. These ideas are also manifested in Sylvia Tamale's research on Ugandan women's contemporary participation. Here, she traces their public roles in the present to political participation in the past to show that pre-colonial women “wielded social and political influence through indirect methods; physical absence did not equal political passivity” (1999:5). Challenging the assumptions of African male scholars and Euro-centric commentators who have reduced women to victims, I believe, Tamale identifies a space for African feminist scholarship which is both cognisant of women's agency during the pre-colonial period and marked by historical and critical insight.
Gender Inequality vs. Economics in Colonial Patriarchy
Colonial policies have had far -reaching consequences on women's present positions; consequences which the male biases in post-colonial policy-making have done little to correct. Much research on education demonstrates that the period immediately after decolonization often witnessed dwindling numbers of girls in schools. Dealing with Zimbabwe, Rudo Gaidzanwa identifies “a decline in in the proportion of girls in the senior secondary school since 1980 despite the expansion of free primary schooling and growth in numbers of secondary schools” (1997:288). It is my opinion that explaining these patterns only with reference to gender blindness of the post-colonial state does not address the long term impact of colonial policy in structurally entrenching gendered divisions of labor, the demonstration of women and deep-seated stereotypes of women statuses and roles. It is true that with growth of the mining and agricultural industries under colonialism, men were rapidly recruited to work in mines and on farms, a practice that went hand in hand with women's systematic exclusion from waged labor. In most cases, colonial policy entrenched women's positions in pre-capitalist economies instituting a cult of domesticity entirely at odds with women's actual roles. While men were “legitimately” employed in the capitalist economy, women often migrated unlawfully to the cities to meet the demands of cash economies. This led to their employment in the informal sector as, for example, traders, petty commodity producers, sex workers or manufacturers and retailers of food and liquor. As much research on this period shows, all of these activities, as well as the migration of women, were strictly policed by different colonial administrations.
Colonial definitions of women's urban work as peripheral and unlawful, together with stereotypes surrounding their presence in towns, continue in the post-colonial period. Describing public perceptions of women's informal trading in Ghana, Tsikata notes the dominance of the perception of “market women in the urban areas as undifferentiated mass of...corrupt elements who bear responsibility for Ghana's economic problems” (1987:39-44). Dennis (in Afsar, 1987:22) makes similar observations about women traders in Nigeria. She shows how the military government of the eighties blamed women traders for economic crises, with the state's modernizing and disciplining missions instituting a formidable array of mechanisms against working women in cities. Dealing with Zimbabwe, Jacobs and Howard show how the government, immediately after independence, instituted policies of urban population control targeting women in ruthless round-ups (1987:39-44). Throughout Africa , the low status, demonizing and scapegoating of women's urban economic activity continues to affect their battles-often to meet subsistence levels-in the informal sectors.
Another feature of colonial economic policy was the marginalization of women farmers. While women in the rural areas often took responsibility for farming , colonial policies buttressed highly autocratic patriarchal relations of ownership, inheritance and law. As Mbilinyi shows in relation to Tanzanian women (1991), this meant that land ownership and control were firmly vested in men, even though women were the primary agriculturalists in rural areas. The disempowerment of women farmers persists in the present, with post-colonial policy-making often capitulating to rigid patriarchal definitions of customary law or perpetuating gender blindness in such legislation as inheritance laws.
Women's exclusion from the formal economy was mirrored in their exclusion from the colonial political administration. Colonial states generally developed strong relationships with men as workers, administrators and officials. In Francophone, Lusophone and Anglophone Africa, women were generally positioned in Catholic, Victorian and other paradigms of domesticity. Needless to say, these paradigms entirely distorted the women's de facto activities as farmers, breadwinners, household heads or political activists. I therefore think that the cult of domesticity imposed through colonial rule and ideology has had enormous practical and ideological implications for many African women. It can also be noted that from an ideological perspective, it has been central to ways in which nationalism -articulated by male elites schooled in the colonial educational system-defined decorous roles for women as mothers of the nation or the handmaidens of anti-colonial struggles. Overall, the cult of domesticity shaped by colonialism set major ideological constrains for conceptualizing powerful roles for women. Rooted in colonial prescriptions for “civilized” and “feminine” positions for African women, the view that women's legitimate duties were to their immediate families and homes has been all pervasive. Tsikata's Ghanian examples of opposition to some of the government's progressive gender legislation are revealing here. She shows that legislation aimed at promoting opportunities for women was solidly contested by Members of Parliament claiming that women, rather than compete for employment opportunities with men, had primary responsibilities to their families, with the government's new legislation threatening to promote delinquency and emotional stress for children. Focusing on Nigeria, Dennis locates efforts to police women's altruism and wifely duties in the context of the War Against Indiscipline and the military dictatorships of the eighties (in Asfar, 1987: 19-22). In my view, capturing the aggressive conservatism of the backlash against gender equity, these examples highlight the hegemony of views endorsing arch-typically feminine roles for women in post-colonial nation building.
Gender Inequality Vs Politics in Post-colonial Patriarchy
Studies of women and gender in relation to the state focus both on women's access to and powers in the state and the law, and on women's role in governance and the gender dynamics of governance, policy-making and political participation. The first wave of scholarship on women and post-colonial patriarchy dealt with the impact of the colonial and post-colonial state on women, with studies of women participation in policy-making and governance emerging mainly later. Since the mid-nineties, the number of studies of women and statecraft has risen considerably, with studies of women in statecraft having formed a growing field during the last five years. Earlier studies like Tsikata's (1989), and Kabira et al.(1993), have been supplemented by work by Albertyn (1995), Derryck (1997), and Longwe (2000).
In the sphere of women's access to the state and its impact on African women, an important basis has been provided by Parpart and Staudt (1998). The collection of essays is framed by an introductory theoretical debate which, in my opinion, sets provocative agendas for ongoing research. The volume includes case studies of Nigeria, Zaire, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe and highlights the importance of the intersection of private and public spheres for African women. Later contributions which suggestively open up questions for further research on women's relation to the state have centered on citizenship studies, an area that conceptualizes their constitutional and legal status and rights, as well as their social standing and “belonging” within national communities and civil society. These latter positions often prove more difficult to monitor and investigate, since they are shaped by ideology, popular culture and everyday practice, rather than by laws, formal structures and institutions. Citizenship for African women in the 21st century presents a very different scenario from the struggle for citizenship shaped by the suffragette movement in the West. Because African women played key roles throughout the 20th century, I think that their battles have not taken the form of breaking out of constricting domesticity into male-dominated public spheres. Instead, it would seem, their struggles have involved hierarchically gendered entries into and access in the public spheres of politics and productive labor. Generally, it has been demonstrated that citizenship for African women has very distinctive meanings and histories in Africa. Sylvia Walby explores these in the following way: “In most First World countries there is a period of several decades between the granting of political citizenship to men and to women. This is quite different from the circumstances of many Third World countries, where women won the franchise at the same time as men at the moment of national independence from colonial power...For third world women citizenship is typically achieved before civil citizenship, the reverse of the order for men” (1996:246).
With the transition to independence, the new ruling parties set about consolidating and unifying the diverse and militant women's organizations that had mushroomed during struggles against colonialism. The militancy and independence of women's movements in countries like Algeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa rapidly dissipated as women's wings were yoked to the new ruling parties. With this co-opting of many grassroots and local women's movements, political lines of difference ( which might have sparked off important realignments, mobilization and consolidation for radical women's organization in the post-colonial period) were reduced to personality struggles and petty conflicts. Tsikata demonstrates this situation in Ghana (1997:393) while Gaidzannwa reflects on the co-opting of women's movement in Zimbabwe and South Africa (1985). Extending the argument to Kenya, Tripp shows how the Kenyan African Union steadily increased its grip on women’s organizations to turn the dominant Maendelo ya Wanawake into a party wing eventually declared the sole representative of Kenyan Women (2000:9-10). Lazreg develops similar conclusions in her discussion on how women involved in Algeria's armed struggle were later confined by the patriarchal agendas of post-independent Algerian nation-building (1994). In an important contrastive study, Tripp shows how Ugandan women's organizations were able to elude state co-option. Focusing on the concept of “societal autonomy”, her study is an important discussion of shaping the independence of Ugandan Women's movements, a position that has generated the vigorous gender struggles in the country today (2000).
A final consideration in explaining the general impact of state policy on gender concerns is the fragmentation and conservatism of post-colonial policy-making. Generalizing about the state policy on gender in third world, Haleh Afsar writes:
“Third World states in not have coherent policies about women, nor
do they usually have structural facilities for coordinating their decisions.
Given the tension within bureaucracies and the almost total absence of
discussion between the separate branches of the executive, it is not
surprising to find the introduction of policies which have radically
opposed implication for the lives of women and make at one and
and the same time contradictory demands of them (1987:3).”
Many of the pioneering feminist studies of African state policy today, including Tsikata's (1997), Tamale's (1999), and Tripp's (2000) demonstrate that it is often liberal or Women in Development approaches that frame state policy and generate funding. Post-colonial governments, under pressure to democratize from donor agencies and an international community, have been quick to embrace ad hoc, piecemeal and uncoordinated gender initiatives. My observation is that this creates situations where gender is arbitrarily woven into policy-making in the absence of any long- term vision or context for meaningful gender transformation. In fact. At times, legislation may be surprisingly radical. Yet this is not connected to legislation in all areas, so that concerted policy-making in certain sectors may be out of step with its absence in others, or particular pieces of progressive legislation may be undermined by unmonitored gender discrimination in the wider society. Tripp expands this bleak picture of state control over gender advocacy by showing how many African governments have regulated funding sources for progressive activism and planning (2000:10-11) By monitoring non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many African governments have sought to ensure that funding potentially aimed at progressive and state independent gender initiatives is channeled through the state's agendas for development and policy-making.
The coordination of gender advocacy mainly under the impetus of indigenous patriarchal anxieties about meaningful gender equity, external pressure and western prescriptions has had far-reaching consequences for African women. Although the picture that emerges is of vigorous and high- profile gender activism, planning and policy-making, the reality often evidence of government's nominal engagement with women's rights. Feminist in the field of labor, the economy, and health all focus critically on state initiatives. Yet, in my opinion, it is usually the legacies and patterns traced above, rather than this insight and rigor that infiltrates policy-making. A notable recent effort to demonstrate the value of critical gender analysis and research to policy-making is Gender Training in Ghana: Politics, Issues and Tools, edited by Tsikata (2000). My observation, however, is that the emphasis among many African governments on liberal and externally driven models of development for women is an enduring problem at the start of in the 21st century. I also think that the salience of the state in gender initiatives can easily create the impression that it offers a flourishing source of gender research and documentation. It is easy to assume that the voluminous research, mechanisms and information generated by different governments creates an encouraging climate for future work, especially when these are linked to significant donor support and international mechanisms. I think the fact the fact that they have not done so should pose a crucial challenge to African feminists seeking to forge connections between their intellectual work and radical activism.
One way in which this challenge has been met is through feminist scholars' active intervention into sites created or opened up by donor organizations and the state. For example the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research team in Ghana, whose findings were published in 1998 as the Women in Public Life Research Report, made a comprehensive to survey the roles and status of women in public life. The detailed report includes empirical information, analysis and recommendations rooted in feminist agendas. These have been ratified by the Ghanian government and I believe are reflected in its future planning.
Gender Inequality vs. Customary Law in Post-colonial Patriarchy
With the post-colonial period, questions of citizenship have acquired key importance and have been approached from a variety of angles. One of these revolves on customary law. Here Ann Stewart's contribution, a collection edited by Rai and Lievessley (1996), proves suggestive. Using case studies of four women from Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana, Stewart plots their claims to rights ranging from land claims to citizenship. She shows how “customary law has articulated with metropolitan state law to place women in particularly invidious situations in asserting their rights. While the heavy elitism of the state has coexisted with a nominal commitment to women's rights, the populism of customary law has often given women even fewer opportunities to assert or pursue their rights”(1999:38). Developing this argument, Jacobs and Howard's discussion of state policy in Zimbabwe describes women's extreme vulnerability in the face of dual laws. The Legal Age of Majority Act, which gave women new powers in divorce, marriage and custody, is contradicted by their designation as infants in customary law, with many “men being able to refer to the law they find most beneficial” (Jacobs and Howard, 1997:32).
In fact, my observation is that the precariousness of women's positions in Africa in relation to metropolitan, as well as customary law has been pronounced in most parts of Africa, where the where the colonial powers instituted systems, ostensibly based on tradition, which caricatured aspects of pre-colonial governance and both increased and solidified the powers of male chiefs and elders. Generally, gender relations and identities have been integral to the construction and reproduction of colonial state strategies and apparatuses. This is suggestively explored in Martin Chanock(1985) and (2001). Indeed, it was quite noticeable after independence that governments either came under pressure to maintain the “customary” patterns of authority instituted under colonialism or had vested interests in their preservation. Green, citing Jana Everett, observes that “it is during the process of state consolidation and expansion that gender inequalities become particularly instrumental in elite survival strategies...This is true of even the most progressive, revolutionary states, which, in an effort to co-opt traditional elements, have routinely disappointed women. Whether the state is authoritarian or democratic, traditional leaders are crucial interest group that the state needs to satisfy” (1999:77). It is in this context that I believe the consequences of the state capitulation to customary law have often been disastrous for poor and rural women when they turn to the justice system to defend their land or human rights. This makes the subject of authentic and traditional, an area that sharply distinguishes the field of gender, the law and rights in Africa from discussions in contexts that use only one legal system.
Recommendations for Research
In my opinion research should be a continuous process covering short and long-term goals. My paper therefore suggests that in the short run information needs to be gathered on what policies, laws, constitutional reform , machinery and so on exists in each African nation. I also realize that studies on gender relations cannot be over-emphasized since women are in power relations with men as well as with other women. What are men doing individually and collectively to empower women? Even among academics, a cursory look at work on democracy and governance by African men shows that they pay minimum attention to gender. In fact, I observe that the male counterparts write about politics as if women do not exist. The citizen is still male. Scholars can begin to take gender seriously at this level. I think theory building among scholars is an important resource that needs to be tapped and research presently runs the risk of ghettorizing the study of women and governance. Unfortunately, progress toward full participation is not guaranteed. It is my observation that women have lost the right to vote or run for office in the past ( Egypt, Algeria ). I also note that they can also lose representation, as occurred in the recent elections in my own country, Zimbabwe. The number of female representatives elected to parliament in that country fell from 21 to 12 in the 2005 elections.
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great sir,,,,i omo kimonge thomas,,,a maseno based political science scholar greatly appreciate your work

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Great article.

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