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Thread started 07/29/08 6:26pm


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.

A traditional Ibo marriage was arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. However, if either objected to the marriage, it would not occur. In fact, Ibo women could object to the marriage publicly as late as the marriage ceremony:

“Before the marriage feast began, the bride was called and given a small gourd containing palm wine. She drank from it and then gave the rest to the groom. This symbolized that the girl had agreed to the marriage, that she was not being forced into a marriage she resents.”

-Solome C. Nnoromele, Life Among the Ibo Women of Nigeria

Once married, an Ibo woman was expected to bear children, maintain the household, grow crops, buy and sell at the village market, and do some type of craftwork. Although an Ibo woman worked very hard to support her husband, he provided for her in return:

“The husband’s main duty to his wife is to provide the conditions for her to maintain a thriving and expanding household. He must provide the domestic setting in which his wife works, and furnish her with a reliable supply of major staple foods from his farms. He must allot a household garden to each wife and provide palm fruits from his trees for the domestic use and for trade. The husband is also expected to allocate his cotton crop for his wife’s trade, and to give periodic trade advances in money to finance her market activities.”

-Victor Uchendu, The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria

However, if the Ibo husband was not living up to his responsibilities, or was abusing or neglecting her, an Ibo wife could easily obtain a divorce. After the divorce, a woman was able to remarry if she chose.

In traditional Ibo society, polygamy was the ideal. Several scholars have argued that polygamy degraded Ibo women. However, it served many practical purposes as well. In the agricultural Ibo society, wives meant more children in a family leading to more hands to plant and gather crops. Also, there were no means of contraception in Ibo culture. Due to the value of children, most women did not consider abortion an option. Multiple wives allowed women the option to space their pregnancies in two to three year periods, ensuring their health. In fact, many women preferred that their husband take more than one wife:

“To be the one and only wife is humiliating. It is a sure indication that her husband is a poor man. She would rather be the mistress controlling a number of other women than be a person of no importance. Also, instead of being alone, she prefers to have companions about her; in any case, there will be others with whom to share the household chores. The wife of a polygamous husband stands to gain considerably. She has more honor and respect from the community, freedom from loneliness and domestic helpers at her beck and call.

-G.T. Badsen, Niger Ibos

A widow in Ibo society was well protected. As long as she did not remarry, her husband’s family was expected to help take care of her and her children. She also had the option to return to her motherland. If she did, her sons were able to go back to their father’s home to claim their property once they were grown.

In traditional Ibo society, motherhood was greatly respected. Women were respectfully called “the trees that bear fruit,” because the tribe knew that without women to bear children, there would be no future for the clan. New mothers were greatly pampered, receiving a month totally devoid of work after the birth of their child. The ideal number of children was seven, because seven meant completeness or perfection in the tribal culture. If a woman had more children she was considered exceptional. If a woman had ten children a celebratory ritual was held in her honor. After his ceremony, called igbu ewu ukwu, the woman was considered one of the blessed “queen of mothers” and gained great respect and status in the tribe.

In the Ibo system of government there were separate councils for men and women. Each council was in charge of decisions considering its respective member’s genders. Nkiru Nzegwu describes the system in her essay, “Recovering Igbo Traditions”:

“The political culture of the Igbos could be theoretically described as dual-sex. Under this structure, women had their own governing councils…to address their specific concerns and needs as women. The councils protected women’s social and economic interests, and guided the community’s development. The dual symmetrical structure accorded immense political profile to women…The socio-political structure required and depended on the active participation of women in the community life. Their views were deemed critical, not because they were women, but because of the special insight they brought to issue by virtue of their spiritual, market and trading duties and their maternal roles.

The women’s council, also known as the Otu or Ogbo, was led by a woman usually called the Omu, who achieved her status on account of merit. Her roles included leading clan ceremonies, disciplining the women of the community, representing the female population at village meetings, and advising the women of the tribe. Women known as Ilogo advised the Omu. Together this group ruled the women of the tribe. However, when larger community meetings were held for important decisions, all the women of the tribe were expected to be present. Once there, every woman had one vote on the issue in question and the majority won. If a woman broke one of the laws of the council, the other women ostracized her until she repented. If a man broke one of the rules of the council, a ritual known as “sitting on a man” was performed:

“When a man violated the rules of the Women’s Council, the women sometimes used the ritual known as “sitting on a man” to force the individual to comply. Sitting on a man meant “making his life miserable” This often included destroying his property, calling him names, and singing songs that questioned his manhood.”

Solome C. Nnoromele, Life Among the Ibo Women of Nigeria

Although the man being “sat on” could defend himself, he was not allowed to retaliate physically. The women relented when the man in question apologized and righted his wrong.

Women had a large role in the agricultural aspect of Ibo life. They grew such crops as maize, beans, coco yams, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers, okra and other green leafed vegetables. They raised livestock as well. Women were not allowed to grow yams, but still helped the men weed and harvest their yam farms. At first, the fact that only men grew yams may seem odd. However it is easily understood when one realizes that the farms cultivated to grow yams had to be larger and farther away from the house due to the size of the yams (which could reach as much as a hundred pounds). Although women could not plant yams, Leith Ross states that, “…in reality [this] meant that the women were responsible for growing the larger part of the food stuff and for feeding the family for the greater part of the year when yams grown by the men were no longer available.”

After harvest and before planting season, women spent a period of about four months practicing various crafts. Women made items such as pottery, baskets, mats, jewelry, and cloth. Most of the crafts created by a woman were used by her family. However, she was able to sell her surplus goods at the market and keep the profits (surplus crows were sold there for profit as well).

In Ibo culture the market place was considered the women’s realm. There they haggled and bartered for goods for themselves and their families. A few Ibo women even made great profits for themselves through these trades, receiving high status and much respect because of it.
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Reply #1 posted 07/30/08 6:37am



cool. thanx for posting this.

the anasazi indians of the southweatern USA are/were also a matriarchal culture.
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Reply #2 posted 07/30/08 10:23am



Very interesting. Thanks!
By St. Boogar and all the saints at the backside door of Purgatory!
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Reply #3 posted 07/30/08 5:22pm


Thanks for posting another interesting article...I may even forgive you for dissing the harmonica players.
Prince, in you I found a kindred spirit...Rest In Paradise.
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Reply #4 posted 07/30/08 10:28pm


babynoz said:

Thanks for posting another interesting article...I may even forgive you for dissing the harmonica players.

:making another anti-KAZOO thread:
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