Ancient Africa: Women and Inequality

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Understanding ancient Africa within the context of colonization, the introduction of Christianity and the degrading of cultural values, cultural powers as well as the deliberate reversal of Women’s roles, by the colonial governments, within African culture, sub-culture and context will give this article a clear three dimensional focus and understanding of African Women and Inequality in the 21st century.

Change in Ancient African societies was followed by a disconnect, suffering and disaffection of the African womenfolk. When there is an upheaval of any kind, women are usually the first to suffer as well as children. During the 1896 British Punitive Expedition in Benin (in current day Nigeria), the Oba of Benin Kingdom was forced from his High Palace to the interior because the British wanted monopoly over the Palm Oil trade. The British first attacked the women and children and used this tactic to force a surrender and capitulation of the Benin Kingdom, the eventual surrender and capture of King Ovonramwen Nobaisi who was later killed in exile. (2nd picture from the left, shows the Oba after his surrender and arrest in 1897)


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The scramble for Africa, land grabbing and colonial policies of exploitation, led to great turmoil and hardship. For example women’s access to land, was taken from them by the colonial governments and hence their power. The colonial educational system, the end of traditional systems of education and hence traditional knowledge seized to be passed on.   The failure to pass on traditional educational knowledge is the reason why Africa is under-developed.   The colonial governments Victorian views about women’s roles, which in effect led to the reversal of women’s advanced status in African societies. European women at this time, had no rights of their own and belonged to their husbands or fathers. Whilst one cannot lay blame at the feet of the colonialists for what has happened to Africa one does have to objectively put into context, where the troubles began. Our countries were not the products of natural organic affiliations of common languages, identities or cultures, hence women suffered grave injustices.

The social position, political and economic status of women in pre-colonial Africa was superior to many other cultures around the world. Ibn Battuta a Muslim explorer, documented what he said were the impressive advancements made in the parts of Africa that he visited, and the liberty that African women enjoyed. In what is present day Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and amongst the Berber, and Sudan, for example, women led armies, reigned and in many instances fought against European invasions.   In West Africa, the Kingdom of Dahomey in modern day Benin, had a standing army of female warriors, famously known as the Amazons, whose reputation for their fighting skill and fearlessness struck fear in the hearts of the territories around them.

It is believed by some that Women of Legend such as Stagecoach Mary (1832-1914), the toughest Woman of the Wild West in America (pictured) took her passion and love for brawling, sharp shooting and steel from her ancestors in Dahomey. Her fame as a no nonsense bare-knuckle brawler that broke more men’s noses in WWF wrestling matches, eventually led her to become the lead security for Stagecoach of the US Postal Service. She is today celebrated as the first US Postal Service’s first Black employee.

African women played a central role in governance, politics, family issues and community affairs, in ancient societies and culture. Women had a very powerful role, and were ahead of their western counterparts by centuries, if not thousands of years. Their depictions of beauty were more visible yet salient and non-sexual, The Mbalantu Women of Namibia defined their beauty by the length and thickness of their hair as pictured below.

Similarly, the bible records the queen of Candace of Ethiopia, over two thousand years ago. Women were the major food producers; bridal wealth gave women status and power. Women were the power houses of trade and market exchange, example the Egba women of Nigeria, set up and organized male and female conduct within marriage and often arranged marriages. There existed a dual sexual political system, and bicameralism which Chiek Anta Diop in his book: African Origin of Civilization describes in much detail.

Basil Davidson in his book: The Lost Cities of Africa describes the high position of women in ancient Mali. Chinua Achebe also amongst other authors, gives some insight into the status of women in ancient times. This operated in many African regions in present day countries of, Ghana, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Egypt (before the Arab invasion a thousand years ago), and many other regions. Women participated in running public affairs and had a women’s assembly alongside the men.

Ancient Women were also actively involved in pottery making, body art and painting, traditional medicines and cures, the sciences, technology, and cloth making.

The arrival of the colonizer and foreign empire builders led to the disintegration of the Ancient African cultural systems. Once socialist democratic systems where replaced with paramount Chiefs, stooges and stooge-kings that seized lands and collected taxes for their white overlords to take overseas. Some granted access to their human and natural resources whilst others were forced to wage continuous wars with their neighbours (for slaves) or risk death.

The seizure of farm lands for the cultivation of rubber (as in the Congo, Mozambique etc), cocoa (in Ivory Coast, Buganda (Uganda), coffee (in Ghana-Ashanti) led to the reversal of the roles of African Women in their respective societies. Men were then forced into manual labour planting produce that had no basic value to the local communities. As an example, in Belgium-Congo, over 1m Africans lost their hands or feet as punishment for failure to deliver the required amount of rubber for Belgium export to Europe.

Due to the underlying issues which I have stated above, today African women are for the most part amongst the poorest in Africa and in the world. Many are food producers, but have no access to land.

Today, economically, African women mainly exist in the informal sector, that is the hawkers, hairdressers, market petty traders etc, so are unable to gain access to credit facilities, or other safety nets. In the workplace, they often face discrimination, harassment and exploitation. Politically, they face little representation and are often marginalized. In most African countries, women’s rights are not entrenched into constitutions, nor are they implemented in practice. The judicial system often favours men over women and will often attempt to buy the silence of victims of rape and their families. Socially, women somtimes face rape and violence within marriage, but in most African countries, this isn’t recognized as an offence. Women also face contracting HIV/AIDS from their partners who may refuse to use any form of protection. Culturally, practices such as female genital mutilation are still being practiced.

However, African Women are fighting back! Very much the fabled stories of Stage Coach Mary, African Women and Black Women Worldwide are sharpening their elbows and squaring up for the bare-knuckle fight to be re-granted their rightful position in society.   In Rwanda, there are more female representatives in parliament than there are in the Uk.   Many women all over Africa have been able to access micro- credit finance facilities, which have enabled them to set up businesses, and send their children to school, similar to what is done in some Asian countries.   In others,  such as South Africa, there have been changes in the rape laws.  whilst telephony and the internet have empowered many women.  Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, Deziani Allison-Madueke, Fulorunsho Alakija, Oprah and Malawi’s and Africa’s first female president, Joyce Banda are just a tiny number of examples of the fightback.

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