African Women and Colonisation

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Many of the approaches used to analyse African colonial politics, economies, societies, and cultures were often gender-blind and tended to ignore women’s lives, experiences, contributions, voices, perceptions, representations, and struggles. It is evident that colonialism led to a definite decline in women economic independence as well as their socio-political status in society. This resilience and ingenuity of African women is seen in the acts such as the Aba women’s war (1929) where women came together in protest of certain colonial policies. Queen Sarraounia (1899) of Azna defended her nation from French invaders, while Mekatilili wa Mennza mobilised her community to protest against the British. Women formed associations and unions as a statement of their unity as well as to contribute to the push toward independence. African women did not appreciate the new form of foreign and local patriarchal domination that was being meted out to them due to colonialism. As the field of women’s studies has expanded, African women have become more differentiated in terms of class, culture, and status, and their complex engagements, encounters, and negotiations with, and contestations against, the wide range of forces described as colonial are now clearer. Women are at the frontlines of humanity as mothers and primary caregivers. Therefore, in nurturing and building them, we are building the whole nation and continent. Although women were working hard for the colonisers, the men did not take over their domestic duties, which led to a massive decrease in their personal productivity. Here’s a study by Brajesh, as part of the Special Feature on International Women’s Day (IWD), exclusively in Different Truths.

In the early twenty-first century, it became well established that colonialism had a contradictory impact on different groups of women, although the dominant tendency was to undermine the position of women as a whole. We have an idea of the general status of African women before colonialism. Women play an integral role in societies, both modern and ancient. They are responsible for the upkeep of the household, agriculture, reproduction and the rearing and discipline of the children. Indeed, African states had engaged in international trade from the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, and West Africa specifically had developed extensive international trading systems during the eras of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. African women did not appreciate the new form of foreign and local patriarchal domination that was being meted out to them due to colonialism. I want to understand the construction of this indifference so as to make it unavoidably recognisable by those claiming to be involved in laboratory struggles. This indifference is insidious since it places tremendous barriers in the path of the struggles of women of colour for our own freedom, integrity, and wellbeing and in the path of the correlative struggles towards communal integrity. Many of the approaches used to analyse African colonial politics, economies, societies, and cultures were often gender-blind and tended to ignore women’s lives, experiences, contributions, voices, perceptions, representations, and struggles. Although women were working hard for the colonizers, the men did not take over their domestic duties, which led to a massive decrease in their personal productivity. African women have become more differentiated in terms of class, culture, and status, and their complex engagements, encounters, and negotiations with and contestations against the wide range of forces described as colonial are now clearer.  In constituting this social classification, colonialist permeates all aspects of social existence and gives rise to new social and geo cultural identities. (Quijano, 2000b, 342) “America” and “Europe” are among the new geo cultural identities. “European,” “Indian,” “African” are among the “racial” identities. This classification is “the deepest and most enduring expression of colonial domination.” (Quijano, 2001-2, p. 1)The African women soon felt their position and influence in society being snatched away from under them, despite their crucial role in establishing the homes and raising the children of their men.

The study of the impact of colonisation on the traditional roles and status of the Native women in Africa, one is immediately struck by the scarcity of material available, and the diverse interpretations of it. Considerable controversy exists with regard to the position of Native women in pre-contact societies, the nature and effect of White influence, and the evolution of Native women’s roles over time. Women of Colour feminists have made clear what is revealed in terms of violent domination and exploitation once the epistemological perspective focuses on the intersection of these categories. Colonialism negatively impacted women by introducing wage labour.

Women were directly affected because they were required, by law in some cases, to provide wage labor for the European plantation economies. Women appear to have been more personally affected by this land alienation. This is because, ‘As women lost access and control of land they became more economically dependent on men. Traditionally, certain pieces of land were associated with the growth of certain crops. Thus, the variety of soils was required to ensure food security. Moreover, land loss meant women were restricted to smaller tracts of land for cultivation. In many areas bride wealth had evolved from being a payment made in livestock to a cash exchange. As a result bride wealth was inflated and became a way of putting monetary value on the bride’s wealth. Thus, instead of the bride wealth process being one that affirmed the woman’s worth, it became one that judged the woman’s worth.  Women are not thought to be disputing for control over sexual access. The differences are thought of in terms of how society reads reproductive biology. Females excluded from that description were not just their subordinates. They were also understood to be animals in a sense that went further than the identification of white women with nature, infants, and small animals. They were understood as animals in the deep sense of “without gender,” sexually marked as female, but without the characteristics of femininity. Women radicalised as inferior were turned from animals into various modified versions of “women” as it fit the processes of Euro cantered global capitalism. African women in the past (and even, to a significant extent, the present) were and are responsible for finding water, sowing seeds, tilling, harvesting, caring for the animals, keeping the home in order, feeding the family, caring for the children and so on. In “Definitional Dilemmas” Julie Greenberg (2002) tells us that legal institutions have the power to assign individuals to a particular racial or sexual category, ‘Sex is still presumed to be binary and easily determinable by an analysis of biological factors. Despite anthropological and medical studies to the contrary; society presumes an unambiguous binary sex paradigm in which all individuals can be classified neatly as male or female (112).’

She argues that throughout U.S. history the law has failed to recognise intersexual, in spite of the fact that one to four per cent of the world’s population is intersexes, that is, they do not fit neatly into unambiguous sex categories:

“They have some biological indicators that are traditionally associated with males and some biological indicators that are traditionally associated with females. (My emphasis) The manner in which the law defines the terms male, female, and sex will have a profound impact on these individuals.” (112)

The imposition of colonialism on Africa altered its history forever. African modes of thought, patterns of cultural development, and ways of life were forever impacted by the change in political structure brought about by colonialism. Colonialism increased the levels of awareness in women about their situation, their rights and the ability they themselves had to alter their environment.  Sometimes the women submitted, at others, they preferred the degradation of imprisonment to the companionship of their former mates. The Jesuit, Paul Le Jeune, sought to correct what he viewed as dangerous female ascendancy among the Montagnais-Naskapi:

The women have great power here. A man may promise you something, and if he does not keep his promise, he thinks he is sufficiently excused when he tells you that his wife did not wish to do it. I told him then that he was not the master, and that in France women do not rule their husbands… (Thwaites, 1906:93).

As Parpart explains, women used the court system in colonial Zambia to their advantage, ‘They (women) learnt the value of protest and the need to frame arguments in certain ways.’ Thus, women adapted to their new realties and gleaned methods of self-empowerment in the process. The impact of colonialism affected Africans in other ways as well. While economic policies were designed to keep prices low, under colonialism, agriculture became increasingly commercialized. The position of Queen mother seen across Africa in Ghana among the Akan, Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda but to name a few, gave women prominent and visible political authority in running the nation. Dangarembga’s acclaimed first novel tells of the coming-of- age of Tambu and, through her, also offers a profound portrait of African society. In awarding Nervous Conditions the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa, in 1989, the judges described the book as “a beautiful and sensitive exploration of the plight and struggle of an African people…. A distinguishing feature of this work is its courageous honest and devastating understatement.”

Conclusion: In the development of twentieth century feminisms, the connection between genders, class, and heterosexuality as radicalised was not made explicit. However, as a display of their resilience, these women responded, in many cases, by learning to protest and stand up for their rights. They adapted as they needed to, and were determined to preserve their identities. Colonialism encouraged this development in some areas, but in many others severely retarded the natural progress of the continent. Education reforms were introduced and in many areas, modem state systems implemented.When colonialists moved into the area from Europe, they claimed the land that had been cared for and cultivated by these women. The women were suddenly alienated from what had, for so long, defined them and their role in society. Also, the technological and industrial development that had been occurring in Africa was stalled by the imposition of colonialism. Colonialism also changed patterns of work and gender roles. The demands of the cash crop economy forced many women and children into the production system. This began to change following the rise of the feminist movement, which emerged out of both localized and transnational trajectories and intellectual and political struggles within and outside the academy. While the struggles to mainstream women and genders are far from over, African women have become increasingly more visible in histories of colonialism, which has disrupted the binaries and chronologies that tend to frame colonialism in Africa. The individual subjects of the various colonial empires did experience some gains in wealth, income, and standard of living, but nothing comparable to the resources they developed. Africa was a net exporter of its wealth during this period.

Notes & References

1.     ‘Women and Colonialism’ by Kathleen Sheldon.

2.    Colonial Development: an Econometric Study by Thomas Bimberg & Stephen Resnick.

3.    African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen.

4.    Greenberg, Julie. A. 2002. “Definitional Dilemmas: Male or Female? Black or White? The Law’s Failure to Recognize Intersexuals and Multiracials.” In Gender Nonconformity, Race, and Sexuality. Charting the Connections. Edited by Toni Lester. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

©Brajesh Kumar Gupta

Photos from the internet.

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Dr. Gupta has mentored many and also assisted many in unleashing his creative potential. Through his talks, seminar presentations, creativity workshops and personal interactions, he has popularized many new concepts in management and leadership. Some of his articles
publish in “We The Power” and “Green Plant” magazines. His thesis on “Treatment And Glorification Of Love And Sex In The Novels Of D. H. Lawrence”. His first book of poetry “The Rain” has published by Onlinegatha Publication of Lucknow.