WOMEN IN PRE-COLONIAL NIGERIA

 

Women held a basically complementary, rather than subordinate, work-position to men in much of indigenous pre-colonial Nigerian society, which based power on seniority rather than gender. The absence of gender in the pronouns of many African languages and the interchangeability of first names among females and males strikes Niara Sudarkasa, author of "'The Status of Women in Indigenous African Societies" in the anthology Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, as a further relation of the social de-emphasis on gender as a designation for behavior. She observers that "many other areas of traditional culture, including personal dress and adornment, religious ceremonials, and intra-gender patterns of comportment, suggest that Africans often de-emphasize gender in relation to seniority and other insignia of status" (36). However, despite the lack of emphasis placed on gender by Nigeria's indigenous societies, the colonial state and its bureaucracy tried to dictate the lifestyles of women, endorsing the domesticity of women and the unwaged services they provided for the family. Much of the legislation concerning women, therefore, attempted to control them, their sexuality and fertility, further defining their subordination. The beginning of colonial rule brought to Africa the European notion that women belonged in the home, nurturing their family. At the same time the societies expected women to work--work which the society considered complementary to that done by men--the state and the beginning of colonial rule began to change the roles of women by means of legislation restricting women and the focusing of colonial economics on men.

 

Review Questions

  1. Describe how we might think that Africans socially de-emphasized gender as a designation for behavior?
  2. What might Africans in places like Nigeria emphasize instead?
  3. What did the beginning of colonial rule mean for the way women were perceived?
  4. What was the method by which the colonial state attempted to redefine the roles of women?

 

We must note that the position of women in pre-colonial Nigeria obviously differed between the vast number of tribes in Nigeria. A woman's position varied according to the (1) kinship structure of the tribe and (2) role of women within the economic structure of the society. Common factors among women of different tribes, however, included the domestically oriented jobs and the range of economic activities that the societies reserved for women. Women in pre-colonial societies held a complementary position to men although patrilineal and patriarchal kinship structures predominated Nigerian societies. The kinship group expected women who married into a Yoruba or Igbo patrilineage to give birth to sons to ensure the future of the group. Furthermore, the position of a young wife improved as she grew older, bore children, and earned approval from its older members. She gained assistance from younger wives as she grew older, thus allowing her to spend less time in the home and more time engaging in activities outside the household--activities such as farming and craft making which allowed her to provide the material resources needed in order to care for her family. Yoruba society offered the greatest opportunities for women to participate in other economic activities such as manufacturing and trade. In Yoruba society, the responsibility of a woman to provide for her family included providing the material resources for such care. Women believed that providing such resources met their responsibility as women and citizens of the tribe. Their society considered the work the women did complementary to the work of men, and some women achieved impressive status in the economic and social realms of Yoruba life. However, more commonly, women achieved power by means of their lineage or by means of marriage into ruling families. By achieving such power, they obtained indirect political influence, but they rarely showed their influence in public.

 

Review Questions

  1. Describe the two ways that a woman's position varied in pre-colonial Nigeria from tribe to tribe.
  2. What are some of the common factors among women of different tribes?
  3. What are the two kinship structures that predominated in Nigerian societies?
  4. How did the position/power of a wife improve as she grew older?