Colonialism in Africa - Emma Skelton '19

All over the world, and throughout history, there has been gender inequality. Even now, whether you live in a developed or developing country, gender equality is an issue everyone should be fighting for. This is a big problem in African countries especially. Colonialism in the late eighteen hundreds had an effect on many aspects of African culture, particularly gender roles and women’s rights. European influence changed the ways African women were and are treated and damaged the limited independence they had in their native cultures.

Before European missionaries brought their influence to African villages, native women and men each had a set role in their societies. While the very different positions were not exactly equal, neither was inferior to the other (Bwakali, Web). Women were traditionally found in the kitchen or with their children and men were the hunters and fighters. Women also often tended to the crops and fields. Because they did none of the cooking, men often did not have access to their wives’ kitchens (Kalu, Web). This is also seen in Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Okonkwo becomes extremely angry during the Week of Peace because one of his wives, Ojiugo, is out instead of cooking dinner for him (Achebe, 29). They worked in a balance, men providing the meat, women cooking the meals. That is not to say life was perfect for women pre-colonialism. Polygamy was practiced, and generally expected, in many areas of Africa. Okonkwo had three wives and they were often seen as showing social rank: the more wives you

have the higher and more successful you are. It was also not uncommon to beat your wives, although the reader sees a circumstance in Things Fall Apart where the abuser is punished for beating his wife when she runs away to her brothers (Achebe, 93). Yet despite these things, women often held positions of power too. Priestesses were respected and revered in villages for having contact with the gods. In Ghana, the queen Yaa Asantewaa has a national holiday named after her, in honor of the battle against the British into which she lead her troops (Speaker, Web). While the traditional customs of many African groups were by no means perfect, gender inequality became a larger problem after the Europeans arrived.

During the time period of African colonization, in Europe, gender inequality was very prevalent. Women were seen as the lesser citizens in society and were treated as such. They did not have the right to vote, own property, and their husbands usually had legal power over them (History, Web). This view of women came into play when spreading European influence in African nations. In many forms of Christianity, women’s roles were almost entirely  subservient. Going back as far as the creation stories, Eve was seen as the downfall of man (Speaker, Web). So, as missionaries spread their religion throughout Africa, men were often targeted for conversion over women. When they built schools, they were usually only open to men and women were expected to stay in the kitchen. Therefore, as they were not being given a chance to educate themselves in the new schools, they did not have the qualifications for jobs and increasingly lost out to men. Leadership opportunities and positions of power were never offered to women. Because men were put in positions of leadership, women became more and more dependent on them and less hopeful for a chance of independence (Speaker, Web). Men from Europe who came to colonize Africa saw the “savage women” as barely worth their time and

took advantage of them. Men were expected to do everything, so women were pushed aside. Even in the poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which is essentially speaking against colonialism, the emphasis is put on the white man, never mentioning any women who may have been involved (Kipling). Because of women’s status in the empires of the world, the treatment and expectations of the “savage” women was even worse.

The influence that Europeans had during the time they controlled colonies did not leave when the colonists did. The inferior status of women has continued throughout the years, not only in Africa, but all around the world. Because of the lesser education provided, many girls were not offered the same opportunities as boys were. Even the jobs they did have were often inferior to those of the men. In farming, women were put in charge of the “lesser” crops, like yams and other vegetables for households only, while men controlled the expensive crops such as coffee and cocoa beans to make a profit (Bwakali, Web). Women were not only treated unfairly in their workplace, but at home as well. It is evident in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold… and they boys that the gender inequality formed by colonization continued well through the 1950s. There is a scene in which Hally is speaking to his parents on the telephone and the author, Fugard, clearly emphasizes the tone he uses with his mother versus his father. He yelled and used harsh words when speaking with his mother, but when his father took the phone, his voice became much more respectful (Fugard, 31). It is clear that even years after the colonization of South Africa and after its independence as well, women were still not treated fairly, even by their own children. Yet this problem has persisted far beyond the 1950s and 1960s. Paul Rusesabagina writes the story of the Hutu and Tutsi feud in An Ordinary Man. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, including women and children simply because they were Tutsi. And they were defined as either Hutu or Tutsi based on their father, because of the man’s prevalent role in society. It did not matter whether your mother was Hutu or not. If your father was Tutsi, so were you (Rusesabagina, 38). Women no longer held a place that was remotely equal to men and that has not changed as years have gone by.

Gender inequality in historically colonized countries is relevant even in our so called modernized culture. For example, in Tanzania, students must pass a test to prove they are proficient in English in order to receive a high school education. But many children, mainly girls, do not have the academic or monetary resources they need in order to pass the  English test (Bearor). This creates a vicious cycle where women cannot better themselves because they do not have the qualifications. Because of this, they cannot be hired for many high paying jobs and, in turn cannot provide their own daughters with the means for an education. And as time goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult to break the cycle. As women are often found in the kitchen or doing the “lesser” jobs, likewise men are in positions of power and the leaders of their household.

In many African families when the father is not present the eldest boy steps up as the head of the house, completely overruling the mother. For instance, an interracial couple living in Chad has two teenage boys. When their father is away the eldest boy takes charge; even though he is only fourteen or fifteen years old. Yet his actions go beyond the typical teenage behavior which many people wave away as a phase. When the boys visit their grandmother here in Maine for the summer, the oldest struggles between wanting to be in charge or respecting his elders. He acts in a way that he has been taught is appropriate to treat women, but which we would see as disrespectful (Poirier). Growing up in a household and a society that treats women as inferior influences the way that a child sees the world and his own privileges. If you are taught that you are superior, then you will act as such and teach your children in the same way. Thus begins a cycle very similar to the one mentioned above and equally as difficult to escape from. As mentioned in Things Fall Apart, a man’s wives were his to treat as he pleased in many traditional African cultures. Although Okonkwo may have beaten Ojiugo in the book, sexual activity seems to be mostly consensual. Yet nowadays, statistics say that in South Africa a woman is raped every thirty-six seconds (Bwakali, Web). Despite the fact that there are more laws regarding sexual and physical abuse now, the numbers of sexual assault incidents are higher in the modern era are still extremely high. Even though women in many developed countries, such as Theresa May and Angela Merkel, have been taking great strides forward, when it comes to less developed nations, many women are still taking baby steps.

The European men who colonized Africa were most likely fighting for a prominent place in history. But surely none of them could have predicted the impact they would have on the “savages” they colonized, abused, and overthrew. This impact heavily affected the women of a hundred years ago in the ways they were treated, taught, and expected to behave. Yet it has also had an effect on African women in the recent years. Prior to colonization, women had set roles in their societies and were generally respected. But after Europeans “settled” the land, those standards were changed and gender roles manipulated in a way that has lasted well over a century. Europeans proclaimed they were bringing civilization to the natives and showing them how to be real men. But in reality they suppressed the women and damaged their independence for years to come.


Works’ Cited

Bearor, Meg. Personal Interview. December 29, 2013

Bwakali, David J. "Gender Inequality in Africa." Contemporary Review, 2001., pp.


"History of the Women’s Rights Movement." National Womens History Project. N.p., n.d. Web.

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Kalu, Anthonia C. "Women and the social construction of gender in African development."

Africa Today 43.3 (1996): 269+. Global Issues in Context. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Poirier, Susan. Personal Interview. August 14, 2010.

"Speaker: Women's Role in Pre-Colonial Africa Highly Esteemed." Africa News Service 26 Nov.

2003. Global Issues in Context. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.