Women & Governance In Pre-Colonial Africa [Part two]


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One of the issues involved in the debate on the status of women in pre-colonial Africa is women and governance. It is the general belief that women held very submissive political positions in most of the African countries. There has been a cry from feminists and other women advocates who lament out against the patriarchal system which existed in most countries. Whilst it is true that patriarchy did exist in Africa, women were not entirely removed from political positions.According to C. Magbaily Fyle, although men dominated politics in Africa in the pre-colonial there were a quite a few women who played an active role in politics and government. For example, in the Yoruba political culture, there was the Iyalode who was a member of the Alafin’s council – judiciary body in Yoruba. The Iyalode was a female representative who was responsible for women issues and their spokeswoman at the Alafin’s meetings.[1] Additionally, in Sierra Leone among the Mende and Sherbro people by the 19th century women were heads of towns and sub-regions – a good example is Madame Yoko.[2] Furthermore, according to Fyle the role of queen mother and queen sister gave women influence and leverage in the political sphere of some African countries. In this writer’s opinion, the place held by the women was important politically but did not afford them much power. They ruled but could not exert any power to that place ; some of the Wolof and Serene People had the place of the Linguѐre (King’s mother). Her place was ceremonial, she was in charge of sacred objects and the Awa (king’s first wife) possessed fields and slaves.[3] The two positions did not make decisions that influence the economic or political spheres of the empires or countries.

From the outside looking into the pre-colonial life of many Africans, it may seem like women were totally insubordinate both in the public and private sphere. However, according to Onaiwu W Ogbomo, women sometimes use informal means to influence decisions made in the household. For example, in Owan, Edo State Nigeria before  a title system, the household was the smallest unit of administration. The leader of each household would frequency hold meetings to help discussions between family members; it was here that women got the chance to express their views.[4] Furthermore, women created organizations that served them both in the private and public sphere. For example, in Owan, the Idegbe was a group for the unmarried and married daughters of a particular lineage. Additionally, there were the   Ikhuoho and the Ikposafen groups for married or wives of the family.[5] Since the Owan family line was patrilineal, the Idegbe were as ‘males’ of the family, thus allowed certain authority. According to Ogbomo, they had a great influence on their husbands and brothers that they were able to discuss  family problems such as marriages. In addition, because they operated as a group it gave them strength; the men consulted them before making the  final decision. The Idegbe were active in birth, death and marriage activities, thus demonstrating part of their “social, economic and political consciousness.”[6]

It is interesting to note that for some African women and men power came with titles based on economic gain and prosperity. The title labelled  involuntary because of tradition. For example in Ekwe title in Nnobi came  to a woman or girl whose fortune looks prosperous. Whilst the involuntary title opened to all women,  reservation came for the some men , according to their lineage.[7]

Women also fought in armies in some countries in pre-colonial Africa thus demonstrating the influence that they had in governance. For example, among the Sotho of South Africa, daughters of sub-rulers were women regiments. In addition, the most famous women warriors were the Amazons of Dahomey.[8]

Cotton cultivation and weaving the prerogative of women in the Owan communities – became known as the golden age for women. [Ca.1600-1632] In addition, Ogbomo made a very interesting point when he noted that the wealth obtained from the cotton boom in from the mid-17th century stimulated more  cowries and iron bars. The cowry and iron bar currency influence payment  for  more titles in the Owan. Ogbomo argues that one of the reasons for the increasing the number of titles was to curtail the growing influence of women. The belief was that the traditional prestige of the communities was fading. Furthermore, Ogbomo did point out that women held a few of the titles. However, the shrewd nature of oral traditions, do not clearly define the relationship between the titles held by men and women in respect to equality – on the occasion when it did exist.

[1]C. Magbaily Fyle, Introduction to the History of African Civilization: Pre-colonial Africa ( Maryland, University Press of America, 1999), 97


[3]Catherine Coquetry-Vidrovitch, Africa and Africans in the 19th century: A Turbulent History (New York: Sharpe, 2009), 248

[4]Onaiwu W Ogbomo, When Men and Women Mattered: A History of Gender Relations Among the Owan of Nigeria (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997), 141

[5]Ogbomo, 148

[6]Ibid., 151

[7]I Amadiume, Male Daughters and Female Husbands (New Jersey: Zed Books, 1987), 44

[8]Coquetry-Vidrovitch, 248


4 responses »

  1. It’s also interesting to look at women in Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” – the idealised world of pre-colonial Africa was not at all ideal, women both the objects and subjects of satire. Very interesting to compare with Western history.


    • I have not read Things Fall Apart since A’ Level. I promised to reread it some time this year or next year God willing. Indeed, it would be interesting to do that comparison with western ideologies for women.


  2. This account is very crucial as to malign the ideological thinking that the entire African women were and are still mere subordinates to their male counter parts and if Deo-Volente, let every women around the globe continue stand firm fighting for social, political and economic rights just like these Idegbe women.


    • I think that thinking stemmed from Western perspective because when I began my studies on precolonial Africa, I too wondered what authority any group of women possess. I felt admiration for the roles they played and I continued reading on women across the continent. I am hoping that the various authoritative roles that these women hold both in the public and private sphere. I do appreciate your stop here on your journey, m. willing.


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