Women and property: some insights from African history

Published on PambazukaNews, by Ng’ng’a wa Muchiri, June 14, 2012.

Although the overarching view that Africa is a hyper-masculine society with no social space for women persists, numerous examples show how resilient and innovative women reacted when faced with patriarchal hegemony.

The more things change the more they remain the same. I’m intrigued by the global decline in children per family – since parents no longer wholly rely on their offspring during old age. Presumably, pension funds and nursing homes have taken over the task of caring for our elderly parents. But as the following two incidents show, perhaps this change is more illusory than real; children are still largely shouldering the burden of caring for aging parents across the world.  

This is especially important to think about since women generally have a longer life expectancy than their male partners. What happens to a woman once her husband passes on? How does she ensure she can comfortably take care of herself? And what implications arise for how we should empower women to relate with, acquire, and accumulate wealth? … //

… As it turns out, African women have not been silent victims of marginalization. They have repeatedly risen up to challenge social bias even as they as remain entrenched in communal ties. Women have used marital ties to raise capital, paralleled patrilineal inheritance with matrilineal bequests of land, and repeatedly subverted gender boundaries and enacted ‘masculinity’ as a route to property. Furthermore, an appreciation of women as more than proverbial ‘beasts of burden’ in pre-colonial African hamlets enables us to review their mundane domestic chores as alternative mechanisms of material acquisition.

Women in Anlo-Ewe, a pre-colonial West African society, despite being primarily wives and mothers, had created a system through which they could pass on land to their daughters. A daughter’s capacity to inherit her mother’s lands gave her access to another crucial resource: material for weaving baskets.[1] The importance of this mother-to-daughter endowment can be further appreciated when we consider that land used for food cultivation was not available to women for re-distribution as they wished. This was purely a male domain. However, the lands on which a woman cultivated and acquired reed and wicker material for her basket work were considered her private domain and she could offer them to her desired heiress.

Although mother-to-daughter bequests of land were only a fleeting moment of success in women’s relationship to property, marriage was a permanent social entity that women also occasionally deployed to their advantage. Women in pre-colonial Africa subverted male demands for the ideal wife and created opportunities for material acquisition. Patriarchy is dependent upon marriage not only as an institution through which to produce more male figures, but also as a space to ‘enact’ masculinity.

Often, a man’s status in society rose appreciably if his wife was beautiful, hardworking and liable to increase his wealth in food stocks and/or livestock. In pre-colonial Yoruba society, just as much emphasis was placed on a young woman’s integrity as on her ability to trade. A woman’s prowess as a merchant at the Onitsha market was the mark of a good potential wife that many men sought. In the same way that the mother-daughter relationship was important in pre-colonial Anlo-Ewe, this same familial network endowed young girls with the trading skills desired by their future husbands.[2] One of the major challenges faced by women traders was access to capital. Taking advantage of men’s interest in a woman’s trading ability, wives sometimes got start-up capital from their husbands. A successful woman trader not only boosted a man’s social status, but also his self-worth.

Women’s initial trading money could come from multiple sources: saving societies or even extended family networks; however, many relied on their husbands for that first injection of resources to launch their trading ventures.[3] Unlike in Anlo-Ewe where women eventually lost access to land rights, Onitsha women could never be dispossessed from their husbands’ farm – even in the case of separation.

The mother-daughter link also proved to be very useful in Africa’s pre-colonial pottery industry. This relationship helped to pass down skills and know-how from older women to their younger protégés.[4] As a result, pottery and its associated benefits in food processing and/or preparation evolved into another avenue via which women could attain property. Although patriarchy sought to circumscribe women’s activities and achievements around the hearth, it is vital to appreciate that the kitchen evolved into a space from within which a woman could transcend such gender bias. Thus, the kitchen eventually became a sanctuary in which women could accumulate property.[5]

Items collected inside the kitchen – such as crockery and pots – became essential markers of a woman’s motherhood as well as helping ‘define her social pride of place.’[6] Pots were a major part of any woman’s assortment of kitchen technology and their production was usually restricted to a select group of women. That female members of Africa’s pre-colonial societies could endow such skilled work to their chosen heiresses was a key factor in enabling material acquisition. It is worth noting that in certain societies, when a husband and wife separated, the woman walked away with all cooking utensils. This, coupled with social taboos against a man preparing his own food effectively rendered a divorced man helpless and unable to feed himself!

In pre-nineteenth century Africa, property consisted of various items including consumer goods such as textiles, instruments of production such as hoes, slaves, and land, but also most importantly: agricultural produce. In some pre-colonial societies, women dominated not only the food processing industry – especially once the food got to the home – but also its production in the farms. In many cases these two economic ventures went hand in hand and combined they offered women access to various tools of production: pots, mortars, and small plots of land; these should all be viewed as important material items. Furthermore, success in food production and processing often led women to diversify their wealth; women who excelled at selling processed food items e.g. beer, were able to accumulate capital to launch their careers as market traders.

In this regard, women’s involvement in food production offered them a chance not only to profitably dispose processed food and drinks but also excess raw food and any small animals – rabbits, chickens, and goats – they would have raised to ensure their family’s food security. All profits raised from such exchange could have been used as starting capital for women traders. Thus it is easy to see that agricultural food production served a dual purpose in pre-colonial Africa: a route to financial and individual well-being. Especially in cases when women were capable of disposing of the products of their agricultural labor as they wished, agriculture had important socially transformative potential some of which helped to transcend male-sanctioned material deprivation of women. Cassava, for example, when harvested successfully could significantly increase a woman’s food surplus thus freeing her from time-consuming child-bearing activities and enabling her to bargain for increased economic power.

Finally, women occasionally crossed socially-ordained gender boundaries as a way to secure their access to property and material wealth. Such transgression offered the twin fruits of wealth and power, two arenas of social life that have suffered from a dearth of female figures in parts of Africa. It is important to neither overestimate nor overlook the challenges women faced … //

… In our contemporary, the legal sphere is one arena that affords women redress from sexism. The African Union’s 2003 Protocol on the Rights of Women categorically asks for the rights of women to access their deceased parents’ and husbands’ wealth. Implementation, of course, is the key to this legislation’s success. Thus, theoretically, my mother could pursue legal proceedings against her siblings for their unfair sharing of my grandmother’s wealth. I would support her for the symbolic significance of this act. It is vital that unfair processes of wealth re-distribution are halted. If my mother is the victim today, surely my sisters, nieces and female cousins will receive similar treatment tomorrow? (full text).

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