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10-08-2015, 22:55

African Women

One of the consequences of colonialism and independence has been a change in the relationship between men and women. In most precolonial African societies, men and women had distinctly different roles. Women in sub- Saharan Africa, however, generally did not live under the severe legal and social disabilities that we have seen in such societies as China and India, and their relationship with men was complementary rather than subordinate. Within the family, wives normally showed a degree of deference to their husbands, and polygamy was not uncommon. But because society was usually arranged on communal lines, property was often held in common, and production tasks were divided on a cooperative rather than hierarchical basis. The status of women tended to rise as they moved through the life cycle. Women became more important as they reared children; in old age, they often became eligible to serve in senior roles within the family, lineage, or village. In some societies, such as the Ashanti kingdom inWest Africa, women such as the queen mother were eligible to hold senior political positions. Some observers argue that polygamy was beneficial for women because it promoted communal and cooperative attitudes within the community and divided up the task of motherhood among several wives. Sexual relationships changed profoundly during the colonial era, sometimes in ways that could justly be described as beneficial. Colonial governments attempted to bring an end to forced marriage, bodily mutilation such as clitoridectomy, and polygamy. Missionaries introduced women to Western education and encouraged them to organize themselves to defend their interests. But the new system had some unfavorable consequences as well. Like men, women now became a labor resource. As African males were taken from the villages to serve as forced labor on construction projects, the traditional division of labor was disrupted, and women were forced to play a more prominent role in the economy. At the same time, their role in the broader society was constricted. In British colonies, Victorian attitudes of sexual repression and female subordination led to restrictions on women’s freedom, and the positions in government they had formerly held were closed to them. Independence also had a significant impact on gender roles in African society. Almost without exception, the new governments established the principle of sexual equality and permitted women to vote and run for political office. Yet as elsewhere, women continue to operate at a disability in a world dominated by males. Politics remains a male preserve, and although a few professions, such as teaching, child care, and clerical work, are dominated by women, most African women are employed in menial positions such as agricultural labor, factory work, and retail trade or as domestics. Education is open to all at the elementary level, but women comprise less than 20 percent of students at the upper levels in most African societies today. Not surprisingly, women have made the greatest strides in the cities. Most urban women, like men, now marry on the basis of personal choice, although a significant minority are still willing to accept their parents’ choice. After marriage, African women appear to occupy a more equal position than their counterparts in most Asian countries. Each marriage partner tends to maintain a separate income, and women often have the right to possess property separate from their husbands. While many wives still defer to their husbands in the traditional manner, others are like the woman in Abioseh Nicol’s story “A Truly Married Woman,” who, after years as living as a common-law wife with her husband, is finally able to provide the price and finalize the marriage. After the wedding, she declares, “For twelve years I have got up every morning at five to make tea for you and breakfast. Now I am a truly married woman [and] you must treat me with a little more respect. You are now my husband and not a lover. Get up and make yourself a cup of tea.” In general, sexual relationships between men and women in contemporary Africa are relatively relaxed, as they were in traditional society. Sexual activity among adolescents is customary in most societies, and only a minority of women are still virgins at the time of marriage. Most marriages are monogamous. Males seem to be more likely to have extramarital relationships, often with bar girls or prostitutes (sometimes known as “walk-about women”), but adultery on the part of women is not rare. In some Muslim societies, efforts to apply Shari’a law have led to greater restrictions on the freedom of women. In northern Nigeria, a woman was recently sentenced to death for committing the act of adultery. The sentence was later reversed on appeal. There is a growing feminist movement in Africa, but it is firmly based on conditions in the local environment. Many African women writers, for example, refuse to be defined by Western dogma and opt instead for a brand of African feminism much like that of Ama Ata Aidoo, a Ghanaian novelist, whose ultimate objective is to free African society as a whole, not just its female inhabitants. After receiving her education at a girls’ school in the Gold Coast and attending classes at Stanford University in the United States, she embarked on a writing career in which, as she notes, she has committed herself to the betterment of the African people. Every African women and every man, she insists, “should be a feminist, especially if they believe that Africans should take charge of our land, its wealth, our lives, and the burden of our development. Because it is not possible to advocate independence for our continent without also believing that African women must have the best that the environment can offer.”9 In a few cases, women are even going into politics. One example is Margaret Dongo of Zimbabwe, where a black African government under Robert Mugabe succeeded white rule in the former Southern Rhodesia in 1980. Now an independent member of Zimbabwe’s Parliament, she is labeled “the ant in the elephant’s trunk” for her determined effort to root out corruption and bring about social and economic reforms to improve the lot of the general population. “We didn’t fight to remove white skins,” she remarks. “We fought discrimination against blacks in land distribution, education, employment. If we are being exploited again by our black leaders, then what did we fight for?” 10 In general, then, women in urban areas in contemporary Africa have been able to hold their own. Although they are still sometimes held to different standards than men (African men often expect their wives to be both modern and traditional, fashionable and demure, wage earners and housekeepers) and do not possess the full range of career opportunities that men do, they are manifestly better off than women in many Asian societies. The same cannot necessarily be said about women in rural areas, where traditional attitudes continue to exert a strong influence and individuals may still be subordinated to communalism. In some societies, clitoridectomy is still widely practiced. Polygamy is also not uncommon, and arranged marriages are still the rule rather than the exception. To a villager in Africa as elsewhere, an African city often looks like the fount of evil, decadence, and corruption. Women in particular have suffered from the tension between the pull of the city and the village. As men are drawn to the cities in search of employment and excitement, their wives and girlfriends are left behind, both literally and figuratively, in the native village. Nowhere has this been more vividly described than in the anguished cry of Lawino, the abandoned wife in Ugandan author p’Bitek Okot’s Song of Lawino. Lawino laments not just her husband’s decision to take a modern urban wife, who dusts powder over her face to look like a white woman and has red-hot lips like glowing charcoal, but his rejection of his roots. He in turn lashes out in frustration at what he considers the poverty, backwardness, and ignorance of the rural environment.