Five things you didn’t know about women’s status in ‘traditional’ Africa

A tribeswoman wears traditional clothes during preparations for the independence day ceremony, scheduled for July 9, in Juba July 1, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Alex Whiting

LONDON (TrustLaw) – From elderly ladies terrifying enemy fighters to Igbo women “sitting on” corrupt leaders, a whirlwind tour of African history reveals women bucking gender stereotypes in “traditional” African cultures.

Here are five snippets:


If an elderly woman from the Zande clan in Central African Republic threatened to strip her clothes off in front of enemy soldiers, more often than not they’d lay down their weapons. Because if the woman carried out her threat, it would be a curse on those soldiers. Elderly women were held in high respect and played a key role in keeping the peace. Women still play an important role in resolving conflicts in parts of Africa.

The practice of stripping naked continues in some areas – Kenyan women did this in 1992 to protest the injustices and dictatorship of the KANU regime.


African history is full of examples of female rulers, including Queen Amina who ruled the Kingdom of Songhai in Niger in the 15th century. Oral traditions say she was a warrior who founded cities and extended her empire to the Atlantic coast.


Regiments of female warriors – called Amazons – guarded the royal palace in Abomey, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey in modern-day Benin. From the early 18th century until the kingdom was defeated by colonialists in the late 19th century, they acted as the king’s personal bodyguard and army and were renowned for their military skill.


The Igbo women in Nigeria held assemblies that set rules about trading in local markets – rules which applied to men too. If a man broke these rules, mistreated his wife, or allowed his cows to eat the women’s crops, the women would “sit on” the man – gather at his compound, sing songs about his failings, bang on his hut with pestles and sometimes demolish it or rough him up until he promised to mend his ways. This was considered legitimate and no man would consider intervening.

In 1929, thousands of Igbo women protesting British colonial taxation, decided to “sit on” corrupt tribal leaders who were imposing British orders on the rest of the tribe, and burn down their “huts” – in this case Native Court buildings.

“Sitting on a man” became illegal when the British banned individuals from using force to punish wrongdoers. Although wrongdoers could be dealt with by the courts, these were expensive and were presided over by men. The result was that women became dependent on men to protect them from other men.


In northern Namibia/southern Angola, women in Ovambo communities used to be reasonably independent and could easily divorce their husbands without negative consequences. This changed with the arrival of Christianity in the late 19th century, which made it difficult for women to opt out of a marriage.

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