Friday, April 1, 2011

Are African women oppressed?

Guess who does the farmwork? In sub-Saharan Africa, women do most of the labor. On the other hand, they have more control over the fruits of their labor.

Are African women oppressed? For many, the answer is ‘yes’:

Much popular writing and many popular ideas about gender in Africa continue to rest on the belief that women in all societies in the entire world are oppressed and that African women are particularly oppressed. Even in scholarly studies, the assumption of universal male dominance of African social and economic relations persists. (Saidi, 2010, p. 12)

It’s true that women do most of the labor in sub-Saharan Africa. They are, in fact, largely self-reliant in providing for themselves and their children:

In sub-Saharan Africa, the labor of women was usually the work of daily subsistence. […] Hunting and warfare, usually the activities of men, could in contrast produce either a big windfall or nothing at all in terms of male production. […] Therefore, in a very simplistic way, it can be argued that female labor was the necessary labor—the labor from which surplus could be derived—whereas male labor could produce the luxury items, the status items. (Saidi, 2010, p. 15)

This argument ignores, however, the greater power of African women over the fruits of their labor. Often, this power was totally in the hands of women, typically older matriarchs:

The labor of young women, and young men, for that matter, in many East-Central African societies, particularly among the Sabi-speaking group of peoples, was historically controlled by the older female matrilineal kin of the young women, not by men at all. (Saidi, 2010, p. 16)

Indeed, one could argue that African men tended to occupy a peripheral role within the family:

Poewe found in her fieldwork that the marriage institution was highly flexible and discouraged strong, intense, or lasting solidarity between husband and wife. The male in these matrilineal societies did not produce for his progeny or for himself, but usually for a matriclan with whom he might or might not reside. His role, as husband, was to sexually satisfy and impregnate his wife and to take care of her during her pregnancies, but under no circumstances should a man be the object of “exclusive emotional investment or focus of attention. Instead, women are socialized to invest their emotions and material wealth in their respective matrilineages.” (Saidi, 2010, p. 16).

This situation has changed since the colonial era, largely under the impact of Christianity and Islam. Efforts have been made to restructure the African family, specifically to make the marriage bond monogamous, exclusive, and longer-lasting and to increase paternal investment in offspring.

Interestingly, there is evidence that this trend actually began some two centuries before the colonial era. Previously, the African family had been even more matrilineal, matrilocal, and matriarchal:

Murdock proves beyond reasonable doubt that the most ancient form of unilineal descent among the Niger-Congo, and therefore among the Bantu-speaking peoples (whose languages belong to the Niger-Congo family), was matriliny. He specifically reconstructs this feature for the proto-Bantu. He demonstrates it through his mapping of the scattered, relict preservation of matriliny all across the Niger-Congo-speaking regions, even in the Kordofanian branch of the Niger-Congo languages, which is spoken far away from the rest of the family in Sudan.

[…] The oral traditions of the Kanyok, who belong to the Central Savanna Bantu subgroup, still remember their shift from matrilineal to patrilineal descent a number of centuries ago, as John Yoder reveals. Most telling of all, the founders of the clans of the Gikuyu of Kenya are female, even though today the Gikuyu are strongly patrilineal. By definition, matrilineal clans must have female founders; therefore, this is undisputed evidence for prior matriliny among the Bantu-speaking peoples of the eastern Kenya highlands.

[…] The historical priority of matriliny among the Niger-Congo peoples in general—as well as among peoples speaking languages of the Bantu subgroup of Niger-Congo—is extensively and convincingly demonstrated by the comparative ethnographic evidence. Recent work in linguistic reconstruction directly supports the view that the early Bantu communities, who established themselves successively more widely in the rainforest and then in the southern savannas and eastern Africa during the last three thousand years BCE, observed unilineal descent in the form of matrilineages and/or matriclans. (Saidi, 2010, pp. 13-14)

According to Saidi (2010, pp. 12-19), sub-Saharan Africa saw a relative shift of power from women to men from around 1500 onward—apparently as a result of warfare induced by the slave trade. On the one hand, war enhanced the prestige of men through the plundered wealth they brought to their communities. On the other, women looked to men for protection during times of war.

Was there previously, then, a golden age of non-oppression? And are African women now oppressed? In truth, words like ‘oppression’ are easily abused in a context where the goal of life is not self-maximization. Yes, African women produce far beyond their own needs, but the economic surplus goes primarily to their children. If anyone is getting something for nothing, it is surely the children.

But that’s not how Africans themselves see it—or for that matter humans in any traditional society. Children are literally seen as the ‘after-life.’ It’s not out of masochism that African mothers make sacrifices for them. It’s out of a profound belief that “no one gets out of here alive”—other than one’s children and their descendents.


Saidi, C. (2010). Women’s Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa, University of Rochester Press.


Anonymous said...

Black female with cargo from 'John Frum':

Henry Harpending said...

Peter a nice complement to your post is Pat Draper's article on African Marriage Systems:

Tod said...

"Hunting and warfare, usually the activities of men, could in contrast produce either a big windfall or nothing at all in terms of male production. […] Therefore, in a very simplistic way, it can be argued that female labor was the necessary labor—the labor from which surplus could be derived—whereas male labor could produce the luxury items, the status items. (Saidi, 2010, p. 15)"

Yes but hunters of meat are obtaining something which is of great practical value for people on a diet of cereal grain crops which in sunny Nigeria cause nutritional rickets
"Nutritional rickets has long been considered a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency, but recent data indicate that inadequate dietary calcium intake is an important cause of rickets, particularly in tropical countries.When given vitamin D, children with rickets have a marked increase in 1,25(OH)(2) D concentrations without any change in fractional calcium absorption. No positive relationship was found between fractional calcium absorption and serum 25(OH)D concentrations in [Nigerian] children on low-calcium diets."

Please note that meat has value not because "there is plenty of vitamin D in meat" but because :- Meat consumption reduces the risk of nutritional rickets and osteomalacia by a mechanism [...] which appears independent of revised estimates of meat vitamin D content."

So this does not support the idea that agriculture caused European skin to lighten

And here is another line of evidence which casts doubt on the skin lightening for increased vitamin D synthesis in early agriculturists. Extremely brief exposure to European levels of sun results in a rise in vitamin D levels that would require the consumption of an incredibly large amount of meat.

Bogh (2011) "Vitamin D can be produced by only a few minutes of sun exposure [assuming the UV index (UVI) is three in the middle of a clear sky day] on ∼24% of the body surface area. In addition, our results support the guidelines given by public health campaigns, which recommend a few short sun exposures in a week during the summer. Accordingly, our study shows (Table 3) that given the same baseline 25(OH)D level (31·4 nmol L−1) and a UVI of 3, a sufficient level of vitamin D (> 50 nmol L−1) would be reached by four exposures of either 15 min sun exposure (0·75 SED) to ∼24% of the body surface area or 30 min sun exposure (1·5 SED) to only ∼6% of the body surface area. "

carli said...

Nothing seems to have changed--African American women in the US still do the work while the men don't--- at least those women who hat don't sit home collecting welfare checks between babies.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure Carli also believes that all Asians eat dogs and fly around doing kung fu. Or more accurately, simply does not care about who is hurt by his/her overgeneralizations, buying into propaganda and misrepresentation, and outright lies.

Seriously, what did that comment contribute? How did it uplift? Did it make you proud?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2,

The point seems to have struck a nerve; this most often happens when the truth is painful. HDB, you know?

What was contributed was...get ready now....the truth: genetics shapes culture; culture shapes genetics. No surprise in that, unless you're a hopeless blank slatist.

My comment was a perfectly reasonable and pertinent point to make on an anthro blog. Most African-American women are still carrying the load, are they not? At least those that aren't living on the largess of the state.

Perhaps Peter can put this observation to good use in a post down the line. I know he isn't frightened by pc.

Alex Warren said...

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.

Tod said...

Draper's article- "It is likely that a major cause of the failure of contemporary Africans to respond in ways that It is likely that a major cause of the failure of contemporary Africans to respond in ways that Western analysts perceive to be rational is that African social systems share a recent historical background of unimpeded expansion into regions well suited for expanding immigrant groups. It would not be surprising to
find that many of their social institutions were or are adapted to actual resource

It's perfectly rational to stick with the expansionist strategy as there are areas well suited for immigrant groups which are being opened up: the West. The population pressure in Africa (and elsewhere) is going to be relieved by mass migration.

These children of polygyny are going to be part of a non-white majority in the West in a few generations. Nothing can stop that now but it's interesting to know what is causing it.

Peter Frost said...


Thanks! I've just started reading the article ...

Carli and Anon,

Do either of you have data on the relative importance of maternal vs paternal investment among African Americans? I'm not being facetious. Just curious.


This is one point where I disagree with Phil Rushton. The r-type reproductive strategy of sub-Saharan agricultural peoples is not a 'primitive' trait. In fact, it's relatively recent on the human time scale. The shift from hunting/gathering to agriculture was also a shift from K to r.

Tod said...

Women don't seem to have much choice about things in Africa. I am not sure they are working for children or because they were born into a culture where they are expected to make their (gallous)man rich. I think what they get out of it is gallous sons who are going to be reproductively successful. As females all get mated it doesn't much matter what daughters are like. In polygyny the sons face intense competition between men but a son also has the possibility of hitting a reproductive jackpot. A caring sharing man would probably father sons who were relatively unsuccessful in that environment.

The curse of 'juju' that drives sex slaves to Europe ""I know it will be a better place for me," she says when we meet for the last time. I tell her about the women I saw at the roadside outside Milan, about the cold, the beatings, and the €50,000 debt that Rita is still paying off, five years on. "I don't think so. Mine won't be like that," Vivian frowns. "If you are hard-working, you won't suffer. I know how to plait hair. There are lots of things I know how to do," she insists. Then she pauses. "I've made up my mind that I will go there, and I must go there. I chose it."

Europe's trafficking statistics are made up of Edo women like Vivian who do not conform to the stereotype of passive "victims". It is the most determined and driven who fall prey to Nigeria's traffickers – those without dreams to exploit are left alone. No matter how strong these women might be, the juju oath leaves them manipulated, abused and utterly trapped. Without faith in ancient, traditional beliefs, this modern form of slavery would not exist. And without a thriving market for their services, no Nigerian woman would be trafficked to Europe in the first place."