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Warriors and Rulers: the roles of African women in African society

In a chance conversation with a visitor from Asia, I was surprised to uncover the view that Africa was a continent plagued by misogyny. Even people from a far flung corner of the globe, who had little exposure to Africa and Africans, had somehow acquired the idea that African men were sexist and violent, and that the lives of African women were disproportionately marred by sexual violence.

Rape certainly occurs in Africa, just as it occurs on other continents. Much of rape in Africa occurs in the context of war, just as wartime rape is common in other parts of the world. But our Asian visitor does not label all Europeans as rapacious because of the gang rapes they perpetuated against fellow Europeans during the World Wars and the recent conflict in the Balkans.

Without doubt, there are some African cultures with misogynistic practices, just as there are European and Asian cultures that have sexist customs. But Africa, like Asia and Europe, is a continent of diverse ethnic groups and social cultures. There is a wide range of African attitudes towards women and any other topic for that matter. It is overly simplistic to see all of Africa (or Asia or Europe) as culturally uniform.

The fact is, Africa has been home to a large number of matrilineal cultures. According to a 1961 article by David Aberle, 20% of "traditional" African societies have matrilineal descent groups; and 43% has descent groups in both male and female lines.1 Among the matrilineal Akan peoples of West Africa (including the Ashanti), the status of women was particularly high, a situation believed to have been altered by the influence of European missionaries.2

Even non-matrilineal cultures of Africa are not necesarily as oppressive towards women as non-Africans often imagine to be. The Igbo of Nigeria are patrilineal and allow polygyny, but marriages are arranged by women and women's associations controlled the markets.3.

The ambilineal the Betsileo of Madagascar allow polygynous marriages but women arrange the marriages.4 Betsileo society gives women a prominent role in agriculture, in contast to European peasant societies such as the French and Spanish, where people think of the house as the domain of women and the field as the domain of men.5 Not surprisingly, gender stratification is a greater problem among French and Spanish peasants than it is among traditional Betsileo farmers.6

Among the Ju/'hoansi, a !Kung ethnic group in southern Africa, the rate of female murder victims compared to male murder victims is extremely low compared to the high level of female homocide victims (20-50%) in most Western societies, something which the anthropologist Richard B. Lee thinks might be related to "women's high status in Ju/'hoan society"7. Lee states, "the many forms of sexual oppression that women experience in other societies, such as rape, wife battering, purdah, enforced chastity, and sexual double-standards are rare or absent in Ju/'hoan society."8

Are the social positions of African women really that much worse off than that of women in other parts of the world? Let's take a brief look at African women's roles in African societies:

Warriors: African women in African society

Leaders and Rulers: the roles of African women in African society

  1. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, "Africa and African Homosexualities: An Introduction", Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, p. 5
  2. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, "Part II Overview", Boy-Wives and Female Husbands, ed. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, pp. 105-106
  3. Conrad Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (10th Edition), pp. 301, 322
  4. Kottak, pp. 271, 300-301
  5. Kottak, p. 328
  6. Kottak, p. 328
  7. Richard B. Lee, The Dobe Ju/'hoansi (3rd Edition), p. 117
  8. Lee, p. 90