Women in Pre-Colonial Nigeria

Maria Rojas '94 (English 32, 1990)

The position of women in pre-colonial Nigeria obviously differed in the vast number of ethnic groups in Nigeria. A woman's position varied according to the (1) kinship structure of the group and (2) role of women within the economic structure of the society. Common factors among women of different ethnic groups, however, included the domestically oriented jobs and the range of economic activities that the societies reserved for women. Women in pre-colonial societies held a complementary position to men although patrilineal and patriarchal kinship structures predominated Nigerian societies. The kinship group expected women who married into a Yoruba or Igbo patrilineage to give birth to sons to ensure the future of the group. Furthermore, the position of a young wife improved as she grew older, bore children, and earned approval from its older members. She gained assistance from younger wives as she grew older, thus allowing her to spend less time in the home and more time engaging in activities outside the household--activities such as farming and craft making which allowed her to provide the material resources needed in order to care for her family. Yoruba society offered the greatest opportunities for women to participate in other economic activities such as manufacturing and trade. In Yoruba society, the responsibility of a woman to provide for her family included providing the material resources for such care. Women believed that providing such resources met their responsibility as women and citizens. Their society considered the work the women did complementary to the work of men, and some women achieved impressive status in the economic and social realms of Yoruba life. However, more commonly, women achieved power by means of their lineage or by means of marriage into ruling families. By achieving such power, they obtained indirect political influence, but they rarely showed their influence in public.

Like the family and economic structures, the religions of many Nigerian tribal societies conceived the position of women as complementary to that of men. However, the fact remains that the societies of Pre-Colonial Nigeria believed men superior to women and, to some extent, in control of women. According to Carolyne Dennis, writer of Women and State in Nigeria, "The religions of many Nigerian societies recognised the social importance of women by emphasising the place of female gods of fertility and social peace, but women were also associated with witchcraft which appeared to symbolise the potential social danger of women exercising power uncontrolled by men" (15). In societies that did not confine women to the household as the Hausa did, women held important roles in agriculture, manufacturing, and trade, and women also possessed an important, if restricted, religious role. However, religion also provided an important means of controlling women by explaining that women acting outside their appropriate social role, unconfined by menled to dangerous results.

Women held a basically complementary, rather than subordinate, position to men in 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 deemphasis on gender as a designation for behavior. She observers that "many other areas of traditional culture, including personal dress and adornment, religious ceremonials, and intragender patterns of comportment, suggest that Africans often deemphasize 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 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.


Women in Africa and the African Diaspora. edited by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Sharon Harley, and Andrea Benton Rushing

Women, State, and Ideology : Studies from Africa and Asia. edited by Haleh Afsha.

Postcolonial OV Africa OV nigeria OV