Feminism has always existed in Africa

Feminist activism has always been a part of African society and in a radical way.

By radical, I don’t mean the strand of the western feminist movement that very necessarily revolutionized western societies in the 1960s and 1970s, but rather, I mean the mobilized commitment to uprooting patriarchy, imperialism and human injustice to women.

In much of premodern Africa, there were women who possessed economic, political and spiritual power. To name only a few there were warrior women like the Amazons or Fon women of Dahomey. Or royalty who used their powers to demand justice like Makeda of Ethiopia, Nzinga of Angola or Mnkabayi of Zululand.

However, it is also true that women who weren’t lucky to be born into spiritually empowered clans or who weren’t wealthy traders or chiefly women, would face subjugation due to their gender. They would, for example, often be married off at a young age. Contrary to popular belief, monogamy was as common in many African societies as polygamy was. Not by choice necessarily but because only wealthy men could afford several wives. This is an example of how men also are marginalized by patriarchy, and why we must always remember that patriarchy is a system not a person.

Either way, with the exception of lovers who would flee their communities so that they could peacefully live together without intervention, the purchase of several wives was the end goal for many households, wealthy or not. And in this way they contributed to a structure that saw wives as the property of the husband and his lineage.

That is not to say that married life was all that mattered to women, or that polygamy didn’t come with advantages for women, like independent trading, finances and legal rights.
But available records of married life at the time suggest that although a majority of women may have found the marital institution agreeable, or at least not revolted against it, there were those who did. And those women were simultaneously feared, respected and in some historical eras, persecuted. The Atinga cult which spread from what is now Ghana to Nigeria is an example of a group that killed women who were considered social pariahs. The words used to describe these women in many African languages translate into associations with spiritual power, nature and motherhood but when European languages were adopted they became known as witches.

Modern African feminism can be traced back to philosophers and activists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa or the Egyptian Feminist Union, which activist Huda Sharaawi established in the 1920s. Or activists like Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Wambui Otieno, Lilian Ngoyi and Margaret Ekpo to name but a few.
During the era of colonial dictatorship, women revolted not only against patriarchy but also against imperialism, which made women even more marginalised.
For example, when the Alake (king) of Egbaland in Nigeria, wanted to impose colonial taxes on women who weren’t otherwise allowed equal representation in society, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti and her activist group, AWU, went to protest singing in Yoruba:
“Alake, for a long time you have used your penis as a mark of authority that you are our husband. Today we shall reverse the order and use our vagina to play the role of husband.” Due to their protests, the king was eventually forced to resign.

The term ‘feminism’ in Africa is obviously an import just like every other English or French or Portuguese term is. However, the feministic concept is not an import in the very slightest. They didn’t always call it feminism (the noun) but there have always been women who were feminist (the adjective).

Do you agree? Disagree?
Share your thoughts!

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • fallbackandrelax

    I don’t think it’s accurate to define ancient African women as feminists. The societal contexts in which ancient African societies flourished and the present-day nearly global Westernized context are markedly different. Ancient African societies were not predominantly patriarchal. Feminism is a necessity in a patriarchal society, however, in a matriarchy other social issues (besides sexism and patriarchy) become prominent like zenophilia (willingness and openness to strangers) which Chancellor Williams describes as particularly difficult problem for African countries during encounters with the European colonialists. Furthermore, the idea of a feminist in the ancient context is also unnecessary because the gender binary in which men are privileged and women denied, in which gender determines human worth and social value, doesn’t even exist in the Akan and Yoruba languages as Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí describes in The Invention of Women. So while the backmapping of feminist identities may reinforce present-day struggles for women’s rights, I don’t think the historical record validates it.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Great comment!

      Can you give an example of matriarchal societies in Africa?

      Although Oyewumi’s work challenged western ideas of gender paradigms successfully, and necessarily, I think that the criticism of her work (especially those by other Yoruba scholars) is essential reading to understanding the entire issue of gender in precolonial times.

      Knowing that Yoruba society is gendered, I’m inclined to appreciate her work for its value in putting hegemonic definitions to question, and so vigorously, but I nevertheless question it thoroughly for its accuracy.

  • fallbackandrelax

    Thank you!

    Ancient Egyptian society has been described as having “matriarchal consciousness” because of divine pairings of male and female divinities. Women were prominent then as the wives and mothers of Pharoahs, equal in status to male-headed rulership–with the exception of Queen Hapshetsut who was the female ruler of ancient Egypt. But in ancient Egypt the notions of gender were balanced as equally divine and important. Men were the personification of divine authority and women were the guardians of royal lineage. Chiekh Anta Diop also notes that Egypt continued the matriarchal kinship succession of Ghana and Mali (therefore reinforcing the divine role of women in relationship to the role of governance). And, in addition, to the female divinities and matriarchal lineage, women held positions of governance in ancient Ethiopia for two thousand years. The Candaces and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia leave the strongest examples of the matriarchal presence in ancient Africa because they point to concrete manifestations of female power and agency.

    I think that the divine status of the feminine and the actual practice of female power in these ancient civilizations are concrete examples of the kind of female agency and power that feminist discourse seeks to generate. But the agency and power of women has not eternally been suppressed: Patriarchy is an import which modern societies have adopted, but matriarchy is a practice of pre-colonial Africa that the modern world can and should return to.

    • MsAfropolitan

      There’s a huge difference between ‘matriarchal consciousness’ and matriarchy, a society which is governed by women and where women are the head of the family.
      in fact, I don’t know what you mean with matriarchal consciousness. Would you say Britain has such seeing its monarch is a female?

      There were and still are societies that were matrilineal, which again is quite different to matriarchy. Matrifocal societies are another type that exist but are rare.

      Unlike you, I’m not wishing that societies were matriarchal but equal, cherishing the masculine and the feminine, the male and the female in all aspeccts of society to bring balance.

      Patriarchy was not imported from Europeans. There’s too much historical evidence of patriarchal systems in historical Africa to even go near such a claim. It’s true that colonialism and judeo-christian and Islamic religion gave ammo to the gender inequality machinery but that’s not the entire picture. We shouldn’t frame history as though Africans stopped thinking for themselves during colonialism.
      If society was matriarchal there is no way that colonialism would have happened. There was often a necessary relationship between colonial officials and African leaders. When it came to controlling women, often times colonials ‘tolerated’ practices such as dowry and polygamy so that they could keep their authority and chiefs and kings too accepted the import of patriarchal western values so that they could maintain the economic benefits they gained.

      Thanks for the examples, but I guess we should assert that the further back in history we go, the more muddled with mythology it gets. I’m referring to the periods we have solid documentation and before colonialism.

      • fallbackandrelax

        I’m borrowing the term “matriarchal consciousness” from Marimba Ani’s discussion of divinity in ancient Egpyt so I’m not sure how she would use the term to apply to Britain. I’m not sure either about whether or not Britain has traditionally matriarchal to know whether or not we could identify a “matriarchal consciousness”.

        The matriarchal society that I referred to was ancient Ethiopia. There is concrete evidence of female queenhood during that ancient period. I only mentioned matrilineal societies to show trends of matriarchy rather than patriarchy in the specific societies I mentioned in their specific historical periods.

        And I’m not assuming that matriarchal societies of pre-colonial Africa did not have their problems. Chancellor Williams describes the matriarchal tendency to be open and inviting to different social groups and cultures as one of the reasons ancient societies were overtaken by European colonialists. The colonialists had the intent to colonize when they were invited into pre-colonial African societies.

        We agree that both the masculine and feminine should be respected and appreciated. All I’m saying is that the historical evidence for that appreciation has occurred in matrilineal and/or matriarchal societies.

        No problem. The evidence is important. It’s the best way of sorting through what history tells us.

        • MsAfropolitan

          You’re unclear about matrilineage and matriarchy. Wikipedia or google may help.

          • fallbackandrelax

            You continue to evade the substance of my arguments with these consistently false claims about how I misunderstand “matrilineage” and “matriarchy,”–terms that I’ve consistently defined and used correctly throughout our exchange. And you have yet to evaluate or discuss or refute my actual arguments or evidence. Your attempts at derailing reveal the quality of your evidence and strength of your position.

            I don’t think you wanted to seriously and judiciously talk about the evidence or genuinely engage opposition to your position. I truly did appreciate your article, however. I only wish our exchange would’ve revealed more light than heat.

            I appreciate your exchange with me about this topic and in raising this issue for discussion. Thank you again MsAfropolitan.

          • MsAfropolitan

            Dear commenter, I will happily engage with you in this most delightful topic if you can answer in simple clear words to support your argument:
            1. What is matriarchy and where in Africa at the time colonialism began was it the norm? (IE> not half-mythological ‘matriarchs’ in annum BC)
            2. What is the exact definition of ‘matriarchal consciousness’ and is the UK an example + all other nations with female monarchs? If not, why?

            If we are clear on what we are actually arguing, our dialogue will be much more fruitful for us both + my readers. Trust me, the argument of whether matriarchy exists in Africa is one I’d love to be wrong about.

            However, it doesn’t negate that feminism (defined as explained in the article) has always existed in Africa.

        • http://selfra.blogspot.com dantresomi

          What you are describing is Matrilineage. In Egypt and Ethiopia, the heir to the throne was given to the child of the King’s sister but it had to be a male child. That’s Matrilineal NOT matriarchy. and yes Diop points that out in his “PreColonial Africa” and Dr. Charles Finch describes it in “Echoes of the Old Dark Land.”

          It is true that there was a period of time in Ethiopia when they were ruled by women monarchs and in that sense it was a matriarchy but they are the exception to the rule.

          I find that Marimba Ani uses “matriarchal consciousness” incorrectly when describing pre-colonial Africa. Those societies, like most societies around the world before the advent of Christianity and Islam, were polyatheists and worshipped several deities of both genders. In that sense, there were women who were head of cult houses as well as priestesses. But we can consider those societies more egalitarian then matriarchal.

          • MsAfropolitan

            Thanks for this clarification, with great info to back up your point. It’s telling that those ancient societies where women had equal or fractions of power have become known as matriarchies.

  • http://www.adventuresfrom.com Nana Darkoa

    I agree that those acts of ‘insubordination’ that lead to women being described as feminist has always existed in Africa. Women who are regarded as feminist (and I am not talking about those who have self identified) tend to be those women who do not comply unquestioningly to societal norms, and blaze their own paths in life. I have spent a fair amount of time interviewing my (now 95 year old) Grand Aunt, and when I listen to her tell me about how she used to travel to the Northern region of Ghana to buy goods to trade in, or how she chose her 2nd husband because she loved him (she broke up with her 1st husband who was not the man of her choice), and when I look at the role she plays within the extended family she is very much feminist in her practice.

    • MsAfropolitan

      I hope you will share your Grand aunt’s story somewhere, I’m intrigued to hear more!

      In every society and in every era there have always been women who like you say ‘blaze their own paths in life’. Whilst the terminology changes what seems to always be common is their to varying extents being ostracized by the societies they live in.

  • fallbackandrelax


    1. Matriarchy is a political environment where women have the central role in political office, land ownership, defining moral rules, and have superior status in society. Besides the ancient examples, I will use the Igbo as an example. Igbo societies feature the veneration of women, female control of the marketplace, and the assumption that women were superior (nneka). A concrete example of this is the Aba Women’s Riot in 1929. The army and the planning of this conflict was woman-led on the behalf of men. In a patriarchy, women are largely protected and men are the defenders. In this example we have the reverse and hence the society is a matriarchy.
    2. “Matriarchal consciousness” is the presence of matriarchal tendencies in a patriarchal society (like matrilinearity). So yes, if the UK is a patriarchal nation with female leadership then it represents “matriarchal consciousness”. The difference between “matriarchal consciousness” and matriarchy is that in a matriarchy the fundamental nature of society is woman-centered.

    Also if we can agree that the Igbo are a specific case of matriarchy in Africa, then feminism would not be a description of that society. There is no need for feminism in an environment that is woman-centered. Patriarchy is not be an element of matriarchal societies to which feminism would have to engage or react to.

    • MsAfropolitan

      1. Igbo society was not matriarchal! Goodness. The riot was in fact an anti-patriarchal anti-imperialist act as (again) local chiefs had been in collaboration with colonial administrators and as a result undermining women’s rights. For more on precolonial Igbo society, check out Ifi Amadiume’ in-depth anthropological studies on gender in Male Daughters, Female husbands. She proves that although there were powers associated with women as unseen in many parts of our world, they were not, I stress, a matriarchy.

      2. Hence this ‘matriarchal consciousness”-business is completely irrelevant and a distraction to this particular discussion as I initially suspected.

      Thanks and all due respect.

  • fallbackandrelax

    No problem. Thanks for the book recommendation.

    1. I do know that Ifi Amadiume writes explicitly about the presence of an African matriarchy in her foreword to The Cultural Unity of Africa:
    “a possible means of achieving a pan-African unity [is] to accept and accommodate our goddesses and matriarchy, that is, African women’s true primordial cultures” (xvii)

    2. “Matriarchal consciousness” is a way to resist patriarchal power. You might define these activities as “feminist”. But these acts are “matriarchal consciousness” because African women’s resistance is reflective of their earlier forms of matriarchal governance and not just a reaction to their present-day confrontations with colonizers. “Matriarchal consciousness” is more inclusive of the African historical context than “feminism”.

  • Markgoye

    A very interesting debate you are having here, I haven’t come across the term ‘matriarchal consciousness’ in my feminist readings but I’m aware of the term ‘conscious’ in Social change discourse. Im just curious as to when the term matriarchal consciousness was first used? As a basis for the attempt to replace it with feminism in the African context

    • fallbackandrelax

      Erick Neumann has the earliest use (1951) of ‘matriarchal consciousness’ to describe a specific cultural orientation towards spirituality, rather than reason without emotion (‘patriarchal consciousness’). Marimba Ani (1994) argues in her book Yurugu that African’s belief in the basic spirituality of the universe is evidence of ‘matriarchal consciousness’. I have applied Ani’s reasoning here to argue that ‘matriarchal consciousness’ describes African societies better than feminism because ‘matriarchal consciousness’ takes the historical context of African societies into account.

  • MsAfropolitan

    Semantic analyses rarely are productive. African feminism “takes the historical context of African societies into account” as the term implies.

    It makes no difference to me if you wanna call feminist activism matriarchal consciousness, as long as you are challenging patriarchy, imperialism, homophobia, oppressive traditions and poverty. However, from what I see there is no group of MC activists doing this work?

    • fallbackandrelax

      I have no interest in “semantic analyses”. You still continue to dismiss my evidence at your convenience because you prefer the feminist perspective. But names are nothing to me, doing right work is important.

      There is a consistent tradition of MC scholar-activists doing that work on the ground and at the universities, educating and working directly in communities, as I’m sure could also be said about the African feminists. They don’t have nearly the same visibility though.

  • Markgoye

    Either way it seems they’re both describing the same thing, an attempt (ideas or set of actions) to challenge a patriarchial system. True about there being no activists dealing with those issues. Based on my short experience in East African womens civil society they try to avoid being abrasive for two historical reasons, the strong patriarchial social structures in African society and the intolerant autocratic regimes.

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for your comments. Yeah, there’s something numbing about those two factors.

  • http://www.blacklooks.org Sokari

    I very much agree with your argument which is similar to the one that LGB’ and gender non-conforming / transgender people have always existed across the continent – in some cases there is more historical evidence than others but that does not discount existence.

    Regards terminology “matriarchal consciousness’ or ‘feminism’ -being a feminist one has to have a certain consciousness of being which includes the historical and as well as an understanding of a sense of mind, body as we are part of an ecological system which one could call spirituality. So here I really dont see the the two as being different. What is important is the lived action, the being.

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  • Justin

    The debate was as good as the article!
    FallbackandRelax looks a very astute opponent. I feel he/she did what you asked. You asked for examples of matriarchal societies, FB offered up Egypt and Ethiopia. I can understand the mix up over the choice of wording but what I can’t understand is, how comes FBs’ historical referencing of ‘matriarchal societies being too open and allowing colonists easy access…’ Went completely unanswered?!?!?
    This seems like a major point but was silenced by debating a word. I’d be interested to know more about this. It’s quite easy to critique patriarchal African societies and the injustices that follow, historically and present and a lot of black historians romanticise pre-colonial Africa, based on our current situation (or not so current). However, is female rule not guilty of that very same factor? Is matriarchal rule not romanticised in much the same way based on the current female situation (or not so current)? I understand why feminism is definitely necessary, I would like to know on what grounds does it align itself with like minded men because historically Egypt (mythology) suggests that there was periods when this happened. Division is good to get to the root of a situation, however our DNA requires us to multiply, so unfortunately, men might have to be factored in.

    • MsAfropolitan

      In pre-modern days in Africa, it was not only Egypt and Ethiopia which had women leaders, there was others such as Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh and other Fon women of Dahomey, Queen Nzinga of Angola and Mnkabayi of Zululand. Also the Ghanaian & the Beninese queen mothers, the wealthy traders (Iyalodes) of Yorubaland and many more across the continent can be included in the timeline of influential women who held economic, political and spiritual power, which they used to demand justice in a protofeministic way..
      However, this particular discussion with FB took a turn to being about whether or not matriarchy existed in precolonial Africa (and my subsequent post directly asked that question). I do not feel it can be useful to argue about whether matriarchy existed if one does not define matriarchy and is muddling up matrifocal, matrilineal, matriarchal consciousness. I make no claim that such was and is not present. A matriarchy, however, is the worst nightmare of patriarchy, the reverse image of today’s world, it is a world where women have authority over men, are ruthless leaders and control the resources of humanity and prevent men from having access to it. Such a society has not been documented in African history to my knowledge (but if it has I would gladly be proven wrong) and also, just in case it be misunderstood, I do not find the idea of such a society any more desirable than the patriarchal ones we currently have,

      Thanks for your comment, nice one. I’m not entirely clear on what you were meaning about female rule being guilty of the same factor? What factor? Of romanticising African history?
      Feminism aligns with likeminded men absolutely in my opinion. What we should be striving for is balance and equal distribution of power not dominance by one over the other.

      • shimljaw alemnew

        Ethiopia has never been colonized .So how this is so( if she was matriarchal society why changed in to patriarchal society ))

  • Justin

    However the chancellor Williams point that FB made, still goes unanswered. Im looking forward to hearing your thoughts on ‘women societies/leaders being to open and allowing outsiders in’.
    If there wasn’t matriarchal societies (not sure if pre-colonial patriarchal societies would of been run as the European one today, which you eluded to) then how have you concluded that they’d be run in the same manner as today’s post colonial patriarchal Africa? Is that based on the evidence of female rule? What is that based on? And yes I was referring to female rule being romanticised in much the same way historians romanticise Egypt and pre colonial Africa.

    • MsAfropolitan

      This is the very definition of matriarchy, not a conclusion of mine.

      Yes, female rule is romanticised if we imagine that women rule better than men simply because of their sex. Women may rule better because she knows what it means to be oppressed and to be a good leader one must understand as many layers of the society one is to lead as possible.

  • Medusa

    Contrary to popular belief, monogamy was as common in many African societies as polygamy was. Not by choice necessarily but because only wealthy men could afford several wives. This is an example of how men also are marginalized by patriarchy, and why we must always remember that patriarchy is a system not a person.
    Really? NOT being able to buy multiple women is men being marginalized?

    • MsAfropolitan

      Thanks for the Q, I should indeed clarify what I meant there. Marginalized in the sense that if the pinnacle of maleness in relationship is defined by a society as polygamous then all those men who aren’t would feel unable to fulfil their roles. The statement is situated in the possible frame of mind at the time.

      • Medusa

        fair enough, thanks for the clarification. I suppose this is an example of the common feminist line that “patriarchy affects men too.” I just don’t think the men are the ones marginalized in a society that accepts/advocates polygamy, especially when the polygamy is always one man/multiple wives. (Of course, the other way around wouldn’t necessarily be a whole lot better for the women- I’m thinking about societies in the west of China where brothers can only afford one woman so they “share” a wife.)

  • Yusuph mtavangu

    Am yusuph,a student who pursuing degree of literature,i like ur article bt u hv failed to differentiate the issue of monogamy and polygamy. The truth is that,AFRICAN FEMINIST,were not against polygamy,but their focus was on inqualities between men to women..that they are not given their rights as women,therefore,to African Feminists,polygamy is not a threat.

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  • LordInit

    I agree that modern Western notions of ‘feminism’ should not apply to Africa which have very ancient and indeed prehistoric institutions of female power. Although patriarchy developed in certain societies in Africa independently before Arab-Islamic or European-Christian invasions, these systems were in some way compromised by the older institutes of female power. It was only when the foreign imperial powers of Arab-Islamism and Euro-Christianity that these institutions became greatly eroded or in many cases eradicated. By the way, I suggest you look up the Suppressed Histories website by feminist scholar Max Dashu for a complete look at the history of women in societies throughout the world not just in Africa.

    • http://www.msafropolitan.com/ MsAfropolitan

      “I agree that modern Western notions of ‘feminism’ should not apply to Africa which have very ancient and indeed prehistoric institutions of female power.”

      How about modern African notions of feminism?

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