How single unmarried women thrived in one pre-colonial West African society

I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering how single women could have made do in West African history. The non-existent yet much spoken of “African culture” of today paints a picture that such things never happened even though there are several renowned women who we remember today that never married, whether it is Queen Amina of Zaria, or Sarrounia, or Pa Sini Jobu, or even King Ahebi Ugbabe. Yet, most of us believe that independent minded women who are not interested in marriage only came to be so due to colonial European influence. Or assume that it must have been hard for unmarried women back when. In this post, I use Baule women of Ivory Coast as an example to show that it was not impossible to be unmarried and childless in a pre-colonial West African society.

It was a great pleasure coming across Mona Etienne’s “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, in Christine Oppong’s Female and Male in West Africa. In a chapter, Etienne begins by mentioning that modern Baule women are known for being independent, noting that many middle aged and elderly Baule women who live in towns are unmarried yet acquire enough wealth to support those that are dependent on them and to maintain social networks. Some of these women have educated adult children or foster children who earn high salaries and are thus able to support their incomes, ensure that the women are taken care of in old age, and that they will have a “presitgious” funeral when they die. Young women holding these older women as role models, view marriage as “incompatible” with their personal goals of becoming wealth, or view marriage as a means through which they can get wealth as “a generous husband may help them attain wealth and success”.

Etienne boldly states that “this type of situation is not unusual in Africa, especially in West Africa”, and I believe that she means among modern West African women in urban environments. However among Baule women, even those in rural areas resist marriage despite pressure and the limited economic opportunities available to single women in the village, putting marriage aside because they want to go to the city or wanting to escape to the city because they do not want to marry. Both in the urban cities and rural villages, there are Baule women who are more concerned with achieving economic autonomy. Etienne traces this reluctance to marry, and this view of marriage as an unwanted convenience or “as an outright exploitation” to pre-colonial Baule society. Baule society has always placed premium in personal autonomy and individual freedom of choice for women and men.

Early European observers remarked on the high positions Baule women held. They had a voice in the decision making process in affairs that concerned the village. Furthermore all adult women were part of a secret society whose rituals were forbidden for men to see/watch. As part of this society, women defended the interests of the community against foreign threats, they also defended the interests of women against women although Etienne states that the more import role was safeguarding the community interests in times of illness and warfare. The support of women was absolutely crucial in affairs concerning the community, for example it was believed that men who went to war without the support of women would surely meet defeat and death. It should be noted that men also had their own secret society that women could not be part of.

It seems it was only in ritual that Baule women and men were divided as there was hardly any other case of separation between the sexes, and gender attributes were not rigidly defined. The division of labour in which men and women were assigned different tasks were apparently upheld due to efficiency in production and were not enforced by supernatural or civil sanctions. Deviations were acceptable when necessary or convenient meaning that men could perform women’s labour tasks when the situation called for it and vice versa. Finding a partner of the opposite sex to aid with labour did not necessarily mean finding a husband or wife, but could mean finding a “sister” or a “brother”. Deviations were only rare in the cases of apprenticeship though healers and diviners could be men or women.

Women chiefs were important, although they grew less in number at the time of colonisation. Women could attract vast amounts of wealth and dependants (both men and women), they played their role in trading and gold prospecting expeditions, and acquired domestic slaves in their own rights. Etienne mentions the traditions and histories contemporary women have of business minded grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and guesses that these women may have been encouraged by their own mothers hinting at a chain of enterprising Baule women who inspired their daughters over time. So Baule women’s search for independence and wealth is not new but rooted in history and traditional models.

Among the Baule, early stages of marriage were marked by long periods of duolocality, that is the wife continued to live with her kin and the husband did the same. Marriage was not thought to be complete until the wife took up residence with her husband. It is due to this that noble women, women who belong to families that held high political office, are said to not marry. Such women could not be expected to move and take residence with their husbands if they did marry because they had a chance at a political office. And apparently the same thing happens today, even though the traditional political office does not hold as much important in this post-colonial age. Yet there are women who refuse marriage because they are heirs to a political seat, or whose families oppose their marriages for the same reason. Etienne states that these cases must be less frequent that in the past, because colonial and post-colonial administrations does not encourage women holding traditional political positions. In pre-colonial times when this discrimination was non-existent, there would have been more noble women refusing to marry or whose families refused their marriages. There would have also been noble women who married but did not live with their husbands as they did not want to risk losing their chance at a political seat. Thus for politically ambitious women, marriage was a constraint and noble women were not anxious to married, or if they did get married often divorced to claim their political office with their kin.

Baule women retain economic rights in their own kin group. They have rights to the labour of a brother or any other kinsman with whom they could launch an economic partnership similar to that between spouses. Basically, unmarried women could form ‘marriage-like” partnerships with their kinsmen on solely economic grounds. Kinship relations among the Baule are traced from both parents, rather from either a father and a mother, with succession and inheritance being generally matrilineal. In this cognatic system, people continually sought to attract dependants from all sides of the family tree that they could rely on, and who could rely on them in turn. Elders looked to attract dependants in order to increase their own wealth while juniors wanted to establish ties with elders who were rich enough to finance entrepreneurial undertakings and who were generous enough to offer dependants a share in the profits. Kin group membership was not rigidly ascribed and there was less gerontocracy or autocracy. Elders did demand respect and had some authority, however rigidly enforcing authority could led to the departure of dependants and even the eventual dying out of a kin group due to all the members leaving.

Riches came from having a large number of dependants to contribute to one’s revenue. No elders or chiefs could completely take the labour or revenue of their dependants, meaning that dependants always could keep a little something to themselves. The elders held on to a bonus which increased their own wealth. People acquired wealth and personal property either from their labour and also from estates inherited matrilineally. Relationships of dependency were flexible, all adults had the possibility of building their own group of personal dependants. A son who remained with his father’s kin was a “child of male” and could not inherit there, and neither could his children unless he married a woman in the same kin group as his father. In order to inherit, one had to be a “child of a female”. A man could return to his maternal kin in order to inherit there. Or he could build his own group, with his sisters, or his sister’s children, or by attracting maternal kin unrelated to his father. These people would show allegiance only to their “brother” and contribute their labour to his estate while receiving some revenue for themselves.

A women who chose to live with their husband had access to similar opportunities. She could create her own group by holding on to her unmarried or divorced daughters. These would be joined by her dependants unrelated to her husband, her domestic slaves, and younger members of her own kin group. By fostering and adopting children, a married woman could grow the number of people who depended on her. Usually when a woman took up residence with her husband, she was given a child in adoption and would adopt other children as time went on. Junior dependants would join her group if she had a reputation of wealth and generosity. All a married woman’s dependants owed allegiance to her alone, and respect to her husband. Through this, a married woman essentially she aided the people in her own kin group and maintained ties with them even though she now lived with her husband.

Etienne argues that marriage in Baule society was more of an “association of a woman and man for purposes of reproduction and production with shared rights in both children and products”. Children owed labour and allegiance to both parents, but this could be circumstantial depending on the child’s desires and ambitions. A married woman controlled the products of her labour and gained new wealth from surplus production. Gender equality was so that the two most important products in pre-colonial Baule society were controlled by men and women; yam for men and cloth for women. Division of labour meant that both men and women contributed to the production of both. Women and men controlled surplus production by controlling the labour of their dependants, domestic slaves, children and junior kin. And by controlling male dependants who worked in yam farming for example, a woman could use her surplus production to fund other opportunities such as long-distance trade and gold prospecting.

Of course colonialism changed things considerably. The introduction of cash crop lead to Baule women losing control over production. And losing control over production lead to losing control over dependants, as reduced productivity reduced a woman’s ability to attract dependants, and less dependants reduced a woman’s productive capacity. There is more to be said on how Baule gender relations and marriages were affected by colonialism and urban migration, however that is not the purpose of this post so I will end things here hoping that those who read this post have a clearer idea of how single unmarried women thrived in pre-colonial Baule society.

What I read
Etienne Mona, “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, pp. 309-319 in Female and Male in West Africa (1983) edited by Christine Oppong

Pre-colonial Igboland: On Woman-to-Woman Marriage

Nwando Achebe writes that “woman-to-woman marriage in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality” (emphasis hers)…and I actually agree with this…kind of. While I strongly believe in pre-colonial lesbian secret societies littered across the African continent, at the risk of falling into the trap of Eurocentric and Western (mis)understanding of African social institutions, it should be made clear that the institution in which women were allowed to marry women was not created to facilitate gay marriage. In fact, another researcher, Kenneth Chukwuemeka labels woman-to-woman marriage “an improvisation to sustain patriarchy” and “simply an instrument for the preservation and extension of patriarchy and its traditions”, the basic argument being that in Igbo society the male child was of utmost importance and it was in this obsession to have a male child to continue the lineage that woman-to-woman marriage came about* (and also apparently because when a female husband wants to marry a wife, a male relative is required to do the talking for her).

Reading Achebe’s The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, one could be forgiven in believing that woman-to-woman marriage was unique among the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. It wasn’t. This institution can be found across the African continent among various ethnic groups, with slight differences in norms and practices. Even I was surprised to discover, among the Yoruba where a widow who wanted to remain with her in-laws could marry a female relative when there were no men in the family as considerable options. In other societies, women who could not have children, and widows took wives and claimed the children their wives had as their own. In others women who did not have sons could marry a woman who would act as a daughter-in-law, in fact married to the female husband’s non-existent son. In all societies where this was practised, female husbands occupied high statuses in the community.

In Igboland women who were considered exceptional in the eyes of society due to their wealth and/or social standing, and those who were past menopause could marry wives for themselves, for their husbands, for their sons, and/or for their siblings. These influential women were usually viewed as men, due to the fluidity of gender in the pre-colonial Igbo context, by marrying women their status was elevated mostly due to female husbands paying bride-price. Woman-to-woman marriage allowed for greater freedom of sexuality for the wives, they could have boyfriends, anonymous men whose only duty was to supply sperm, henceforth “male sperm donors”, and this was socially accepted. Any child they had were taken care of by their female husband, and carried her name and this was legitimate in the eyes of society.

Children were very important to this society, apparently women who had given birth to ten or more children were honoured by receiving the title, Lolo. It was also common for a man who had no sons to appoint a daughter who would become a female son. This female son would be required to remain in her father’s home (as opposed to leaving for marriage) and would receive his inheritance. A daughter could become a son after secret rituals were carried out to aid this transformation. The female husband did not have to go through this, they simply had to go out and marry whoever they wanted and by doing so became men and husbands. The female husband was treated like a man and enjoyed equal privilege with her male counterparts, she sometimes even associated with the male elders, however there were some restrictions.

Kenneth Chukwuemeka suggests that while the wife married to the female husband had her own companions, the female husband too always had a male companion (emphasis mine). This male companion, “satisfied her erotic desires and supported her when the biological realities became inevitable”. Which suggests that all women have an emotional and biological need to be with a man. Which I find laughable, as well as problematic. Even though apparently all female husbands had male lovers, they could not be seen openly with them, and if she had a child with it was considered illegitimate and treated as an outcast.

Every single African researcher I’ve read says with the utmost conviction that the practice of woman-to-woman marriage did not involve sexual relationship between the couple, it was not lesbianism because none of the women who married other women was romantically or sexually attracted to other women. They were only interested in children, every single woman who became a female husband just wanted a child that was considered legitimate in society’s eyes.

If woman-to-woman marriage was an ingenious way through which women manipulated the existing system to achiever higher and economic status, as this page suggests, what is to say that only heterosexual women took advantage of this? Is it impossible that lesbian-like women in the pre-colonial past could not have similarly manipulated the society sanctioned woman-to-woman marriage to achieve personal goals? Could the one lesbian in the village employed woman-to-woman marriage to be with a woman she loved? Then again I am still unsure of what pre-colonial Igbo reactions were to homosexuality, whether it was a taboo that lead to exile or something that was accepted, or something in between. Practices such as woman-to-woman marriage suggest fluidity between gender roles in pre-colonial Igbo culture yet they don’t really say much else. As sexual practices in Africa past remain under-researched, largely because most if not all of our scholars and researchers today are heterosexist and believe that everyone was heterosexual because children are everything, I doubt we’ll ever really find out what other kinds of sexual practices took place among female husbands and their wives. Especially those female husbands who were apparently single and wealthy women.

Woman-to-woman marriage is still practised in Nigeria today. Since writing this post, two of my friends have revealed that they have relatives who are female husbands and have wives.

*I personally question this obsession, really, all African societies apparently had for children from the dawn of time. On one hand it does make sense for people in any part of the world to want to continue their lineage and pass on their heritage, but I wonder why Africans seem to solely occupy this domain of fascinating over children. Some say it is due to high mortality rates, but was this really unique to Africa past, or present even. It is almost as if wanting the preservation of a culture is unique to us?

What I Read

Achebe, Nwando (2011), The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Indiana University Press
Chukwuemeka, Kenneth (2012), “Female Husbands in Igbo Land: Southeast Nigeria”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 5, No.1 (link goes to pdf files)
Cadigan, R. Jean (1998), “Woman-to-Woman Marriage: Practices and Benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1

Pre-colonial Igboland: Sex work

As can be expected with most things related to African history there is extremely little information on sex work in pre-colonial African societies out there. It is for this reason that I was doubly excited that Nwando Achebe dedicated part of her research to revealing the intricacies of sex work in Igboland (particularly among the Nsukka Igbo) and Igalaland in her book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe.

Sex work as we know it today, in modern Africa, is a vestige of colonialism. As Luise White, who wrote about sex work in colonial Nairobi put it “sex work as a full-time form of labour was invented during the colonial period”. This is not to say that there was no sex work in the pre-colonial period, only that it was entirely different from how we know it today.

Sex work existed in Africa in the pre-colonial era. Back in the day, the female sex worker worked out of the house she was born in. She was a single woman, a woman who was never going to marry, and her clients were usually men who wanted to have affairs (as in most communities, and all but a few situations, it was taboo for a man to have sex with a married woman).

With the advent of European colonialism, sex workers in Igbo- and Igala- lands had to transform their labours as well and became more organised so as to earn more money. Colonialism brought about increased competition among sex workers who grew to become more aggressive. There was a time when sex work in Nigeria was a serious thriving industry, some may argue that it still is. A colonial British officer described sex work in Nigerian cities as extremely profitable with Nigerian sex workers being literal “gold mines”.

We know the words in our different languages that are ascribed to sex workers or “free women”. Achebe uses Igbo words to draw images of the various kinds of sex work that existed in pre-colonial and colonial Igboland*.
One such word is mgboto which apparently means “a person who goes naked”. In precolonial Igboland, girls and adolescents usually walked around naked. Older and married women however did not. The Nsukka people referred to sex workers as “mgboto” because sex workers apparently took off their clothes very easily. The mgboto worked from her home, and is believed to have been the earliest known form of sex work in Igboland.

During the colonial period, the mgboto became the adana. Adana also worked from her home, providing services to a few loyal clients. The adana would serve their clients palm wine, other forms of alcohol and cigarettes. Some adana opened businesses in front of their homes, maintaining palm-wine parlours or restaurants. The adana managed long-term relationships with her client(s), she also had children from these unions. She was paid in money sometimes, at other times the adana’s client would work on her farm, buy her foodstuff, or help in maintaining her home.

As competition grew among sex work due to the urbanisation brought in by colonialism, sex workers became know as ikweli or okuenu, words that described the newly gained feisty attitudes they adopted. The ikweli and okuenu were different from the adana and mgboto because they were so aggressive, this was something they needed to be in order to draw more attention to themselves.

Among the Nsukka Igbo of the time, the “free woman” was viewed as independent, assertive, bold, and was admired by the community. She was not marginalised by society and had access to forms of power. According to Achebe, the members of society realised that sex work was integral to the life of society, this lead to them respecting sex workers. In some places, the adana’s home was popular throughout the village as a place where men went to in order to relax. This was in no way strange because in early Igbo society, sex was not viewed negatively and a woman had a right to her own body and was generally expected to use her body as she pleased before marriage. A woman was expected to have engaged in sexual activities and have as many boyfriends as she wanted. In a society that was so sex positive, it is not surprising that sex workers in pre-colonial Igboland had full control of their bodies and the money they gained from their work.

However in Igalaland which shares a border with Igboland in the north, things were very different for women. Women in Igalaland had their sexuality kept under a tight leash by society as there were many restrictions on chastity before marriage. While in Igboland, a young bride-to-be would could tell her mother and aunts how many boyfriends she had slept with, in Igalaland a bride-to-be had to swear before an oracle that she was a virgin or face death if she was lying. Parents controlled the sexuality of their daughters by employing powerful deities to ensure that they remained chaste. This is not to suggest that there were no sex workers or “unchaste” women in Igalaland, there were but this was all kept private and was viewed with disdain (unless they were concubines).

To conclude this section, in Igalaland, prostitutes were known by Igala, Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo words and the Igbo word used for prostitute in Igala country was agalacha, “someone will lick” or “someone will be licked” I’m just going to leave this here and let your imagination take you wherever.

*The exact time span would be from 1895 to 1916 when Ahebi left her hometown for Igalaland where she worked as a sex worker, her clients included the Igala kings and aspiring European colonists.

Only if you are old, rich and from a specific region

When I read the title of Minna Salami’s most recent post, “There were no matriarchies in precolonial Africa”, my first thought was “oh no but this is a generalisation!” I approached the post carefully and by the time I had finished reading it, I found that I agreed with most of Salami’s points. Especially when she says that arguing about mythical matriarchies that existed before the evil Westerners came and destroyed everything “numbs the anger of the persisting patriarchy we have found ourselves in for centuries…curbs revolution…controls feminist activism…reinforces gender stereotypes…[and] lets male privilege off the hook when inhabited by men who “at least” are aware of how motherly women warriors once ruled in some distant age”.

Salami’s post gave me a lot to think about, and as I ruminated over the post and comments, several questions came to mind.

“Queen Nzingha”

Is matriarchy truly good for all women?
What did woman power in precolonial African societies truly mean for all women? We know patriarchy benefits some men more than others, and does affect men albeit in different ways. As bell hooks eloquently puts it in her essay “Understanding Patriarchy”, “patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation”. Following this train of thought, perhaps matriarchy does not mean good things for all women in a given society.

That some African cultures today still have traces of matrilineal practices suggests that these societies may have been matriarchal at some point in history. However, while some may cheer upon seeing “matri…” anything, these practices are not always beneficial to women. Initially, I would not have considered that matrilineal practices may be more disadvantageous for women yet now I know it happens. This recent article examines matrilineal inheritance among the Balues of Cameroon. In Balue society, inheritance is passed through the female line, but women do not inherit instead when a man dies the first son of his sister inherits his property. Here we have a matrilineal society that completely ignores women in favour of the sons they birth. It is interesting that a Balue woman labels matrilineality “the worst tradition that the Balue people have” and that women have formed groups to challenge this tradition.

As it may be, the presence of matrilineal inheritance, not matter that this tradition does not exactly profit women, suggests that the Balue were a matriarchal society once upon a time. It is entirely possible that there were African societies that progressed from matriarchal to patriarchal systems. Examples can be seen in the male appropriation of ritual power a topic I have discussed on this blog as it has been dissected in African cinema (see here and here). There are countless African societies that have myths of early Queens. Queen Ebulejonu is said to have founded the Kingdom of Igala and all the kings of Igalaland pierce their ears in memory of Queen Ebulejonu. Ancient Queens were mentioned in Dr Gus Casely-Hayford’s show “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Bunyoro and Buganda“. Another example is with the BaChokwe who “say that the female ruler Ruwej was overthrown by her brothers. (Another version says that Ruwej married a BaLuba chief who took over her political functions and imposed patrilineal descent.) To preserve their matrilineal ways, BaChokwe oral history says that they split off from the BaLunda and migrated south to Angola. Among the BaLunda themselves, the name Ruwej remained as one of the titles of female officers in court councils”. In addition, recall the Hausa oral tradition of Bayajida who is said to have married the Queen of Daura, their seven sons founded the seven Hausa city-states. It is conceivable that Daura was a matriarchal society before their Queen married Bayajida and the system changed from woman power to man power.

I am not one who believes that “matriarchies” never existed in Africa, and elsewhere. At the same time I am aware that systems of power can abuse and may not always benefit the groups of people whose lives the system claims to improve. There can be no denying that there have been countless African women, most of their names forgotten, who wielded enormous amounts of power. However at the risk of imagining utopia, we should not take these facts to mean that all African women had access to the same levels of power.

“Queen Amina”

The requirements
Now regarding the title of this post, “Only if you are old, rich and from a specific region”. The most powerful women in several African communities were usually the oldest women in the lineage. Respect and admiration for women was usually linked to birth, motherhood and age as can be seen in the Yoruba gelede tradition. Even in societies that were generally free for all there were still avenues that were the sole maintenance of “full men”. For example, women in precolonial Igbo society were very free, Igbo women could own property and pass this property to their daughters, sex work was not a crime, gender and sex were fluid, women had the right to divorce…yet women were forbidden to see masquerades. That is all women except for the oldest born woman in the community who could become the girlfriend of a masquerade. At the same time it is necessary to mention that “full women” had their own avenues that “full men” could not dream of getting close to. (Here I use “full men” and “full women” because in societies where men could become women and women could become men, there were sections of society that were not open to transgendered people).

The most powerful women from African history whose names are popularised in most spaces on African history today were old, rich and came from specific regions that allowed women to attain established levels of power. I find it mildly annoying when the popular few remembered historical women, Yaa Asantewa of Ghana, Queen Amina of Nigeria and Queen Nzingha of Angola are portrayed as young women in art or fiction. This is not only factually wrong but gives a very false impression that any woman, young or not, in any part of Africa could have risen to power and controlled armies. Yaa Asantewa, Queen Amina and Queen Nzingha all came from royal families, they were also not young when they utilised their woman power. Yaa Asantewa is said to have been a grandmother when she rallied her people to fight against the colonising British while Queen Nzingha was not the only powerful woman in that area at the time. Similarly Queen Amina is said to have come to the throne (not immediately) after another similarly powerful Queen who may have been her mother.

(This is not to say that there were no young women who came from poor backgrounds and/or societies that were hostile to “woman power”, it is just telling that the names of these women are largely forgotten today. Similarly when we talk of how African men in the past married several wives, we forget that not all men had the wealth or ability to marry multiple wives. Unless one believes in that utopia, that every man in any precolonial African society was either rich, or poor, that is on the same level, it is wrong to assume that every man from the King, chief or clan head, to the blacksmith, the labourer or the slave could afford to marry more than one wife.)

It is fascinating that those who try to convince me that African women do not need feminism because of the supposed abundance of “matriarchies” in the African past, can only provide those three names (Yaa Asantewa, Queen Amina and Queen Nzingha) when there are more women to remember. Dahia al-Kahina, the Amazigh priestess who fought against Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century and Kimpa Vita of Congo are relatively well-known. Others such as Wanankhucha of Somalia, Nehanda Nyakasikana of Zimbabwe, Muhumusa of Uganda, Nomtetha Nkwenkwe of South Africa, Alinesitoué Diatta of Senegal, and Gudit Isat of Ethiopia who challenged the Christian Azumite empire and founded the Zagwe dynasty, are not so celebrated outside specific spaces. Now, even though I happen to known of several powerful women in pre-colonial Africa, I would never agree that feminism is something African women should not bother with.

“Yaa Asantewaa”

So, what exactly is matriarchy?
In the end it will depend on what you classify as matriarchy and how you would measure woman power. Which brings me to my third pondering, how has living under a patriarchal system affected understandings of what woman power was like in the past? Max Dashu puts forward matrix (from the Latin for “womb”) cultures which are “built on the act of women bearing and sustaining life”, their social, economic and cultural organization follows kinship through mothers…without having to be concerned about determining paternity, or enforcing patrilineage through a sexual double standard”. Based on this one could argue precolonial Igbo society qualifies as a matrix, woman right culture, although as I’ve suggested not all women had access to the same amounts of power.

Dashu challenges the assumption that male domination has governed human society forever and instead posits that patriarchy is simply a historical development. I have personally encountered people who blame the emergence of patriarchy on women, because of earlier “matriarchy”. However Dashu claims that matrix societies are usually egalitarian, they do not, for example place female deities over male ones. Matrix societies did not “enforce a patriarchal double standard around sexuality, property, public office and space; that did not make females legal minors under the control of fathers, brothers, and husbands, without protection from physical and sexual abuse by same…[or] confine, seclude, veil, or bind female bodies, nor amputate or deform parts of those bodies…[There] have been cultures that accorded women public leadership roles and a range of arts and professions, as well as freedom of movement, speech, and rights to make personal decisions”.

I must say that I prefer “matrix cultures” to “matriarchy” even though I do not subscribe to the believe that matriarchy is the exact opposite of patriarchy and is just as dominating. The topic of a mythical matriarchal past has come up before, though not in African contexts. The former quoted sentence is part of Dashu’s response to the feminist book by Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.

To round up, it is just as discounting to argue that women have always been subordinate to men’s dominance as it is to argue that the existence of matriarchies destroyed all manifestations of the subjugation of women. Models that were not completely patriarchal or matriarchal have existed in the past. And in those societies that were patriarchal, the degree of domination was not always equal. Reality is always complex especially when looking at the enormous and diverse African continent.


I have recently completed reading The Female Colonial King of Nigeria by Nwando Achebe. The Female Colonial King of Nigeria is entirely fascinating and I highly recommend it. I have failed at updating my blog as scheduled for the past three Wednesdays, but inshallah, two weeks from now I will launch a series of posts centred around Nwando Achebe’s historical biography. I hope to raise more insight on female power in pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria with the upcoming posts, as well as to further illustrate why and how female leadership does not necessarily mean better things for all women. Not to mention how woman power could be curtailed in even those societies that were reasonably free for women.