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READ: Decolonizing Women

Although often overlooked, women played an important role in the anti-colonial struggle. Here we look at how women fought for independence in three parts of Africa.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why did African women infrequently appear in official records kept during colonial rule?
  2. How did the roles for African women under European colonial rule differ from women’s roles in pre-colonial societies?
  3. What was the role of “warrant chiefs”? How did colonial rulers create a new structure of authority in Nigerian communities? Why do you think they did this?
  4. Why did European rulers force African women to stick to the boundaries of mothers, wives, and home keepers? How might the pre-colonial roles of women in African society have undermined colonial authority?
  5. How did Egyptian women respond when the anti-colonial party led by Saad Zaghlul was forced into exile?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Historian Rachael Hill makes the claim that “women suffered more under colonial rule than men.” What evidence does the author provide for this statement? Review what you already know about gender expectations and the changing role of women through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in considering Hill’s thesis.
  2. How has the writing of history evolved since what the author describes as the “early histories of the time” that “ignored women’s struggles for independence”? Can you think of reasons why the author believes that “today, history scholars understand that women played important roles”? What has changed in how historians do their work?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Decolonizing Women

A drawn image of five women dressed in simple, wrapped clothing.
By Rachael Hill
Although often overlooked, women played an important role in the anti-colonial struggle. Here we look at how women fought for independence in three parts of Africa.
Although often overlooked, women played an important role in the anti-colonial struggle. Here we look at how women fought for independence in three parts of Africa. Women suffered more under colonial rule than men. In addition, early histories of the time ignore women's struggles for independence. Women don't appear much in the official records of that time because they were forbidden to participate in government or business. In some cases, colonial rulers forced women to live as Europeans thought they should, as mothers, wives and home keepers. But before European occupation those same women may have held positions of power in their community. In other cases, women may have already been forced into domestic-only roles. In either case, because women were not officially allowed any roles outside of the home during colonial rule, the records of the time largely ignored them. But today, history scholars understand that women played important roles in groups fighting for independence and in labor unions, and women even fought in armed struggles against European colonizers. In this article, we will look at the role of women in struggles for independence in three parts of Africa.

Colonial rulers and warrant chiefs in Nigeria

Colonial rulers generally only accepted males in roles of authority. For example, before colonial times, communities in Southeastern Nigeria were run by groups of men and women rather than single leaders. But colonial occupiers would only work with male "chiefs." Since there weren't any, the British chose random men to be leaders and called these men "warrant chiefs." These warrant chiefs―supported by colonial rulers―acted as judges and had a lot of power. This included power often over women who had previously been a part of political rule. Women also struggled to make money under colonial rule. In many West African societies before colonialism, women farmed and participated in local business. Most able-bodied women were either farmers or merchants. In southern Nigeria, for example, all members of a family farmed the family land.
A drawing depicts three officers in tall hats sitting at a table. Next to them are several seated and standing people, the Nigerian chiefs.
British colonial administrators meet with Nigerian warrant chiefs
Women helped produce important crops like palm oil in Igbo societies, and cocoa in the Yoruba societies. However, British colonialists brought the concept of individual land ownership to Nigeria and only allowed men to be landowners, so women found it difficult to make money from these important cash crops. In some areas however, like among the Igbo, women tried to hold on to their historic role as cultivators and market sellers.

Women participate in anti-colonial actions

Igbo women's knowledge of farming and business helped them resist unfair British laws. In 1929, the British began unfairly taxing women in southeastern Nigeria. These women protested at warrant chief's offices and attacked colonial buildings to demand an end to unfair taxes and the warrant chief system. The women used protest methods that were historically used by Igbo women to express their disapproval of men who abused their power. The women danced, sang songs about their poor treatment, and destroyed courthouses. This protest was known as the Aba Women's Rebellion and lasted two months. The protest ended on December 17th, 1929. During the protest, the British military fired into crowds of protestors and killed 55 women. But the protests did help remove warrant chiefs in certain areas and women began to participate in Native Courts. Throughout the time the British were in Nigeria, women protested. Groups like the Market Women's Association led by Alimotu Pelewura and the Abeokuta Women's Union led by Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, pushed for women's rights and helped spread a sense of nationalism―the idea that people should be able to govern themselves. This nationalism eventually led to Nigeria winning independence from the British. Unfortunately, Nigerian male leaders did not support women's rights and downplayed women's role in winning independence.
Drawings of women: on the left, three women stand together. In the center, a woman sits in a chair wearing a stern expression. On the right, two women are drawn next to one another.
Participants in the Aba Women’s Rebellion (left), Alimotu Pelewura of Market Women’s Association (center), and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Abeokuta Women’s Union (wearing glasses, far right).
In Egypt, women fought against colonialism and discrimination. Egypt had fallen heavily in debt to European powers by the late 19th century and was seized by the British in 1882. By the early 20th century, Egyptian nationalism―the desire to self-govern—grew in response to British rule. Saad Zaghloul led Wafd, the first major nationalist party. This party, led by men, fought for independence from Britain but also called for improving the rights of women in Egypt.
Women also spoke out about the need to improve women's education. They argued that women could play important roles in society beyond being mothers and wives. When Zaghloul and his party members were forced to leave Egypt, women helped organize the growing revolution against British rule. On March 15, 1919, women joined in strikes, protests, and marches in Cairo. The next day, the wives of the nationalist leaders were forced to leave Egypt. Safia Zaghloul, Huda Sharawi, and Mana Fahmi Wissa led thousands of women on a march. They carried flags of the crescent and cross, showing that Muslim and Christian women both opposed British rule. These women also led boycotts of British goods and continued to protest throughout the struggle for independence. Huda Shaarawi, wife of a Wafd party organizer and the former leader of the party's women, founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU). The EFU called for full political rights for women, equal education, and changes to the personal status law. (The personal status law ruled women's rights in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, and often unfairly favored men over women). In 1954, a group called the National Liberation Front (FLN) fought against French colonialists in Algeria. Many Muslim women joined the FLN even though they were not allowed to have leadership roles. But during Algeria's war for independence (1954-1962) women supported the FLN by raising money, and as soldiers, spies, nurses, and cooks. They served as spies in the Battle of Algiers from 1956 to 1957. They worked undercover, hiding messages, money, and weapons under their veils. They even dressed as Europeans in order to enter areas where Europeans lived and plant bombs. The roles that women played in the battle for independence were far different than the roles they were allowed in Algeria's pre-colonial male-ruled society. However, when Algeria won independence in 1962, most male Algerian leaders pushed for women to return to traditional roles in the home.
A drawn depiction of a woman sitting at a table, writing on a piece of paper at a desk.
Huda Shaarawi of the Egyptian Feminist Union.

Fighting for independence

European colonizers forced women out of jobs, took property from them, and removed them from government roles. Many things made it difficult for women to be a part of fighting colonialism. They were forced to be dependent on men, had less rights than men, could not own land and could not even earn money. But they still found important ways to help fight for independence.
Author bio
Rachael Hill is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Stanford University where she studies the history of health and medicine in Africa. She has taught African History at the university level and Critical Reading to high school students. Her dissertation research focuses on the history of traditional medicine and medicinal plant research in 20th-century Ethiopia.

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