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Before Christianity and Islam, Women’s Empowerment Was a Big Deal In African Societies

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Frequently when people learn of the status of girls during ancient Egyptian society, they’re perplexed by the quantity of human rights women enjoyed in a civilization that existed thus far back in history.

On a reported visit to Egypt, fifth century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, surprised by the women’s position within the society, recorded. “Women attend the market and are employed in trade, while men occupy the home and do the weaving.” The Egyptians, he concluded, “in their manners and customs seem to possess reversed the standard practices of mankind.”

In a recent CNN article, Egyptologist Valentina Santini said, “The women of ancient Egypt — the mighty and therefore the modest — were considered adequate to men,” Santini added, “They could divorce. They might own property. that they had many rights that ladies in subsequent civilizations didn’t have.”

The subsequent civilizations Santini is probably going about are ancient Western civilizations like Greece and Rome, where women were relegated to second-class status. Greek and Roman women were prohibited from owning or inheriting property. European women within the Middle Ages lived under similar restrictions. Although Santini didn’t address other ancient African civilizations, there’s a plethora of scholarly work that has tied ancient Egypt culturally to Sub-Saharan Africa. Numerous historians have highlighted a number of the traditional Egyptian customs that are seen in other pre-colonial/pre-Islamic cultures throughout the African continent. The empowerment of girls in domestic and public domains is one such tradition.

In his book “The Cultural Unity of Black Africa,” Senegalese scholar Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop argued that there exists a cultural continuity throughout sub-Saharan African cultures. He specifically points out the status of girls, stating, “The African woman, even after marriage, retains all her individuality and her legal rights; she continues in touch the name of her family, in contrast to the Indo-European woman who loses hers to require thereon of her husband.”

Aside from being empowered in marriage, precolonial African society had several avenues for ladies to exercise power. Throughout African history, we’ve numerous samples of women as queens who ruled, warriors who bleed, and traders and merchants who built immense fortunes.

Vanderbilt professor, Dr. Sandra Barnes, posits that “women in Africa were “one of history’s most politically viable female populations.” Queens, like Egypt’s Hatshepsut and Ethiopia’s Makeda (thought to be the biblical queen of Sheba), were known for using their leadership and wisdom to guard, expand, and enhance their nations.

Queen mothers were once vital political figures who commanded respect before the colonial era. In some instances, they were even considered to be autonomous rulers. Within the Akan tradition, consistent with a piece of writing out of the journal Institute of African Studies: Research Review, queen mothers ruled alongside the chief or the king. They held veto power of the king or chieftain, appointed their ministers, and presided over courts that addressed cases brought by women. The authors of the book “The Swazi, a South African Kingdom,” describes the queen mother’s position within the kingdom of Swaziland as “essentially a diarchy.” within the book “Women in African Colonial Histories,” Holly Hanson writes, In precolonial Buganda, “the queen dowager participated during a system of gendered political power during which the mother of the king had autonomous authority, which she wont to check his excesses and protect the state .”

Ahosi or Mino Dahomey
Ahosi or Mino Dahomey

Some African women were soldiers or held leadership roles within the military. Warrior queens like Queen Yaa Asantewa of the Ashanti people, Queen Nzinga of the Matamba, and Queen Amina of the Hausa demonstrated military skills that rivaled their male contemporaries. These women-led military campaigns that embarrassed empires. Interestingly, the fictional Dora Milaje warriors who protect King T’Challa — The Black Panther — in comic books and on-screen are supported by the so-called “Dahomey Amazons,” adequately referred to as the Ahosi (king’s wives) or Mino (our mothers) within the Fon language. The Fon was the people of the dominion of Dahomy (1600 until 1894), which was located in what’s now the present-day Republic of Benin.

ghanian queen mothers
ghanian queen mothers

Indeed, not all African women were queens, chiefs, or warriors. Dr. Tarikhu Farrar, anthropology professor at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, says in his article The Queen-mother, Matriarchy, and therefore the Question of Female Political Authority in Precolonial West African Monarchy that “using the status of royal and aristocratic women as an indicator of the status of girls generally could end in a comparatively inaccurate portrayal of the general status of girls and of prevailing gender relations.” However, there’s evidence that even common women had rights above any known within the Western world at the time.

In the book “African Women: a contemporary History,” French author Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch explains that in West Africa, women were artisans who traveled far and wide to sell their goods. She notes that though East African women weren’t thought to be as active in trade, they were also involved within the business of livestock and foodstuffs. In some parts of the region, the food couldn’t be touched nor the livestock sold without a woman’s permission.

All this doesn’t mean that Africa was a utopia of gender equality. Dr. Farrar noted that men and ladies did have different spheres of influence in African societies, in which older men held most leadership positions. Still, it does suggest that African women were valued in ways not seen in most places outside of Africa.

Many modern-day African women aren’t enjoying an equivalent level of freedom as their ancestors. This begs the question, if ancient African societies valued women such a lot, what happened? Why did some communities within the diaspora reverse course and decided to subjugate women during a way that seems foreign to African traditions?

Many aspects of colonialism resulted in reduced public roles for African women. Dr. Ambe Njoh, professor of ecology and Policy at the University of South Florida, wrote in his book “Tradition, Culture, and Development in Africa,” “Most of the socio-economic and political problems which African women face have their roots in European colonial development policies, which were designed to discriminate against women.” He notes that beginning within the colonial era, women were barred from trading, attending school, holding jobs, or participating within the economy in any way.

“Colonial rulers erased the balance that ladies provided within the political structures of African Societies by systematically preventing them from any participation within the new political order,” wrote Dr. Toyin Falola within the book “Women’s Roles in Sub-Sharan Africa.” European colonizers would avoid discussions of political matters with African women, even the queen mothers, who they often mentioned in historical documents as “sisters” of the lads in power. Post-colonial governments continued with policies that suppressed women’s traditional authority.

Furthermore, as Europeans took control of African land and agriculture, the perceived value of women’s contribution to society was significantly reduced. In a piece of writing titled Women and Development in Africa: From Marginalization to Gender Inequality, the authors argue that the “establishment of commercialized agriculture also contributed to the loss of women’s economic power. In Africa, commercialization begun under colonialism, often led to the granting of state titles to the land. Consequently, the effect was to transfer farmland that had been controlled by women to [white] male ownership.

Adoption of foreign cultural and non-secular values may have also helped changed the way African women were valued. During a paper about the impact of faith on women in African society, Wenpanga Eric Segunda, a writer from Burkina Faso, wrote that in contrast to traditional African religions, Christianity and Islam demanded inferiority for ladies. He notes that “Islamic and Christian teachings led Africans to deny their perceptions of things, viewing them as primitive, backward, and worthless,” a perception that was encouraged by those touting the new religions.

“Arabs, hence Islam, found tons wrong with indigenous African norms, traditional practices, and beliefs,” write the authors of a 2001 paper “The Impact of faith on Women Empowerment as a Millennium Development Goal in Africa,” published by Springer Science+Media B.V. The researchers specified that “this was very true regarding gender relations in both the domestic and public spheres. Consequently, disciples of Islam wasted no time in altering these relations within the areas of the continent they successfully penetrated.”

Christianity had an identical impact on the status of girls in African cultures. University of South Africa theology professor Matsobane J Manala says in his paper “The Impact of Christianity on Sub-Saharan Africa ,” that the faith “led to the demise of African customs, which is viewed as pagan and evil; the faith also led to the implementation of apartheid (to which it gave its theological support), and undermined the leadership role of girls .”

As stated before, Africa wasn’t free from gender tensions, and gender equity had not been achieved. But because the world moves towards the direction of gender equity, it’s essential to understand that the Western world was never a far better example — despite what proportion it avows women’s equality and plan to impose its conceptualization of it onto others. Though there could also be specific Western concepts, Africans can use to enhance the status of girls in relationship to men, and traditional African cultures provide some great solutions for the planet too.