Authority of West African Women

  by Demi Armstrong

Asante Queen Mother’s stool (Wiki Commons)

Power and women. Women are powerful. for years women have birthed and created life; most female predatory animals hunt and protect their offspring. Despite this, especially in the past, society has perceived women as vulnerable, fragile and inferior to men. For instance, in most Nigerian art and literature many female subjects reflect the predominant understanding of women as passive, subservient and sexualised. This stereotypical view of women as irrational and emotional beings restricted by the expectation of motherhood and domestic roles is significantly linked to the Eurocentric, colonial male gaze. 

Contrasting this westernised ideal of a woman, precolonial western African societies valued women as equals within their communities with political, social and spiritual influences, mainly due to the principle of the importance of female spirituality. West Africans perceive two words within their own - the physical, visible world and the non-human spiritual world. Therefore some female political authority was informed by the ability of women who could interpret unseen forces in the spiritual world, which are personified by priestesses, healers and similar positions. In the spiritual world, their god is neither a male nor female, which creates the concept of balanced forces - equality. Under a god, their deities are the personifications of natural occurrences. These gods are served by female priests, equally these goddesses are served by male priests.

In the physical world, society is further defined by centralized and secondary, small-scale societies. In a centralized society, there are kings, queens and queen mothers by divine rule as in any monarchy. Queen mothers, alongside kings, were co-rulers, they decided inheritance, succession and the fundamental rights and obligations of citizens. They guided and advised kings, had the right to publicly rebuke the king and had an authoritative place on the governing council. Within society women had the same opportunity to demonstrate their achievements and authority as a man; warriors were both men and women; able-bodied men and women work and all children had the same education opportunities.

In secondary societies, politics were again divided into two governments, male and female, each managed and controlled their own matters and concerns. There were two branches of the female government, the otu umuada and the otu inyomdi. The umuada was made up of unmarried, widowed, divorced and essentially women of an all-female household in a community. They settled disputes, became political pressure groups in their villages, but they also performed purification rituals on adulterous women and women who were remarried, which were notably not traditions enforced onto men. The inyomdi were the wives of the village, the leader being the woman married the longest. They looked after other wives, decided and enacted punishments for husbands who mistreated their wives and oversaw agricultural responsibilities. Occasionally both branches of this female government unified as the women’s assembly. They discussed issues that affected all women. Women gathered to vocalise their opinions on situations that affected them, these meetings would serve as a support network that women depended on, to reprimand offending men. In particular instances, after failed negotiations with the synonymous male government, women could enact boycotts and strikes from work or their households. Suppose that all the women in a community collectively refused to cook food for their husbands, men couldn’t go to their sister or mothers and although women weren’t constricted to domestic work traditionally in precolonial western African women cooked. The men would either learn to cook for themselves or more likely, agree to the Women’s assembly’s proposal. 

Precolonial West Africa inevitably and undeniably had significant faults, as any society, but in regards to the authority of women… women were respected and influential and powerful, rightfully. Colonialism ordained the wrongful control over land, communities and societies with their own pre-established cultures, religions and infrastructures. Significantly, women endured the greatest loss of power. Female political and spiritual organisations lost authority to colonial rule and Christianity. Girls had less access to education than boys in missionary schools. 

Our perception of women throughout history had been distorted by western patriarchal ideals. Women have been in significant positions of authority despite the illusion that suggests otherwise. More notable women who throughout history have held authority and power. Harriet Tubman, born into slavery and found her own freedom via the Underground Railway, freed 300 enslaved people and in the American Civil War as a spy, assisted the liberation of over 700 enslaved people. Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835 during the Chinese Qing dynasty and daughter of a low-ranking official, became one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s concubines and quickly exceeded her fellow concubines. After the emperor’s death she became the unofficial but powerful empress until she died in 1908. Frida Kahlo, despite spending much of her early life bedridden and in agonizing pain, later became one of the most celebrated and recognized artists of the 20th century. Women are powerful.