Association for Free Research and International Cooperation

The historical role of women in Africa

Article from AFRIC editorial
The woman has always been considered as the mother of humanity but is usually the one that bears the cruelty of the society. The woman has always been treated as the inferior being in the society and is most of the time relegated to the background. Their opinion is not always considered valuable, their works not appreciated and little or no respect is given to them in some societies around the world. They have little or no say, especially in rural parts of Africa and the Muslim world.

Over the years, a lot of controversy has always surrounded the role played by women in Africa. Many have perceived the role of the African woman as one of submissiveness, often seen and not heard. Present-day happenings have even depicted the African woman as an asset to be acquired and traded or transferred at will.

There has been a limitation of the African woman and a range of convenient walls have been successfully built around her, ranging from religion to culture and in some cases it is simply placed on human nature. However, going down memory lane, it will be discovered that women played quite a great role in molding the continent into what it is today.

Research has proven that in most African cultures, the woman is usually the hardest labourer when it concerns contributing to the growth of the family. This added to her natural roles of child bearing and home keeping disproves the concept of the woman being the weaker sex, which is generally the approved reason for her relegation. Today, the world and Africa especially, is coming to terms to the power of the woman. Going by historical facts, the African continent is filled with great women.

From medieval times to present day, the shining star of a brave African woman cannot be ignored. Women have proven their worth in what is largely seen as a man’s world.  They have led roles from political, to religious and even social.

Political Role of Women in African History

The pre-capitalist and matriarchal societies throughout Africa granted women the opportunity to have substantial control over politics. A typical example of this cultural practice was found in ancient Egypt. Back in 3,000 BC, Egyptian women managed real estate properties, slaves, livestock, donations, and incomes.

One of the best examples of female political leadership was the role of queen mother. This role was made up of several high roles of governance and administration including owning land, levying taxes, decreeing laws, and gaining revenues. In some countries, like Ghana, queen mothers had the additional role of securing a quality education for the women and children of society. Examples of such women include:

  • Queen Amina of Zaria who took the Ancient City of Zauzau to new heights through her bravery and mastery of the art of warfare.
  • Queen Nzinga in what is modern day Angola is known to have assigned women to important offices in present day Angola. She organized a powerful guerilla army, conquered some of her enemies and developed alliances to control slave routes. She is said to have even allied with the Dutch to help her stop the Portuguese advancement.

Other than being the queen mother, there were other women that implanted their roots in the history of Africa through their bravery in the battlefield. One of such women is Nana Yaa Asantewa of the Asante state Edweso in Ghana, popularly known as the Commander in Chief. She is renowned for her reactions and responses to European power. She was the military leader of what is known as the ‘Yaa Asantewa War’, which was the last war between the Asante and the British, and during which she became referred to by the British as the ‘Joan D’Arc of Africa’.

Still in the political sphere, a name like Winnie Mandela cannot be left out. She stood by her husband Nelson Mandela (hero of South African Anti-apartheid politics) through the 27 years he was incarcerated. Her activist work, leadership and outspoken opposition to white minority rule played an equal role in the anti-apartheid campaign.

Social Role of Women in African History

Women have equally left their footprints in the social milieu in Africa. Years before the second wave of feminism began to take form in the West, there was a woman making activist waves in Nigeria. Woman nationalist  Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti used her feminism and democratic socialism to achieve the creation of The Abeokuta women’s union (AWU) and later Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), organisations and movements that aided Kuti to promote women’s rights to education, employment and to political participation.

Miriam Makeba, who was commonly referred to as the mother of Africa was an activist and a prominent outspoken and visible opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime. She was not only involved in radical activity against apartheid but also in the civil rights movement and then black power.

These are just a few of women who have played quite a role in Africa’s history. There are many others whom have not been mentioned, but who equally left their mark in Africa being what it is today. In general, women have contributed and are still contributing greatly in leading the continent to what it is today.

Article from AFRIC editorial.

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