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How Did Colonial Rule Restructure the Gender Relations of Colonised People?

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This article aims to evaluate the impact of colonial rule on the restructuring of gender relations with regards to Africa, paying specific attention to Ghana as a case study. It is widely agreed amongst political scholars that colonialism did significantly contribute to the reconstruction of gender relations in Africa. It is somewhat easy to make generalizations in the case of Africa, due to its vast continental size and several nation state divisions that each has its own background and religions. Moreover, Africa was not colonized by a single colonial rule but by a variety of European states that each had their own unique cultural backdrop and therefore left different impacts on distinctive regions of the continent. I wish to pursue the argument that colonialism did influence gender relations and most remarkably culminated in the demeaning and degradation of women’s status in many spectrums.

Colonial rule reinforced the portrayal of women as being substandard and subservient, and depicted images of purity and propensity for child-rearing that did not have as much prominence prior to the influx of colonizers. Such exploitative gender relations were imposed during colonial rule with unfavourable outcomes for women. Unfortunately many of the prejudices have been maintained after decolonization, resulting in the discrimination of women in nationalist movements and in modern African institutions.

This article deals with analysis on how colonizers perceived the representation of women after arrival in Africa and how they went about restructuring and reinventing ‘traditions’ of social, economic, political, and s3xual relations between the two s3xes. In particular, I will investigate effects of altered gender relations in Ghana as a case study, with specific focus on women’s perceptions of gender inequalities. Furthermore, I will explore the repercussions of the reconstructions in gender relations in Africa and furthermore the subsequent impacts on the status of women in post-colonial societies and the weakening of women’s political institutions, and an examination of the work of nationalist movements to ameliorate gender relations of colonized peoples.

Various approaches used to analyze African colonial politics, economies, societies, and cultures are often gender-blind, tending to ignore women’s experiences, contributions, voices, perceptions, representations, and struggles. This started to change following the rise of feminist movements, which emerged out of both localized and transnational trajectories and intellectual and political struggles. While the struggles to mainstream women and gender have been gathering pace, African women have become increasingly more noticeable in histories of colonialism, which has disrupted the chronologies that tend to frame colonialism in Africa.

As the field of women’s studies has expanded, African women have become more differentiated in terms of class, culture, and status, and their complex engagements, encounters, and negotiations with and against the wide range of forces described as colonial are now clearer. From the large and assorted flow of theoretical and methodological literature that has been generated in the last thirty years, vigorous debates are evident. One of the most intriguing is on the validity of the term gender itself, with writers such as Amadiume stressing the relative flexibility of s3x and gender relations in pre-colonial Africa, and denying the existence of gender categories at all.

Indeed, the historiography of colonialism in Africa, many authors have tended to dichotomize the colonial experience between two monolithic groups, the colonial state and its African subjects. In so doing, they obscure the contradictions from each side, thus denying the agency of people whose status did not fit within the normative boundaries of this distinction. Perhaps the greatest injustice of this colonial historiography is its negation of the experiences of African women. By taking the generalized experience of certain African men as a normative reference point, many historians have effectively written African women out of history. Though they present themselves as universal histories of colonialism, these accounts deal exclusively with men’s experiences.

In the early twenty-first century it is well established that colonialism had a paradoxical impact on different groups of women, although the dominant tendency was to undermine the position of women as a whole. Colonialism combined European and African patriarchal ideologies to create new practices, relations, and ideologies. Earlier work on colonial gender regimes focused on women in productive and business-related activities in the rural and urban areas and the acute tensions in gender relations that were created, to which the colonial state responded by tightening already restraining customary law, leading to significant changes in family structure and new forms of patriarchal power.

The area that attracted by far the most consideration was that of women’s resistance to colonial rule. Studies ranged from those that examined specific activists and events to general analyses of women’s involvement in nationalist struggles in various countries that demonstrated conclusively women’s political engagements and contributions. More recent work has focused on issues of s3xuality, constructions of gender identities, and colonial representations.

African s3xuality and its authority and representations were central to ideologies of colonial supremacy. In colonial discourse, female bodies symbolized Africa as the conquered land, and the alleged s3xual profligacy of African men and women made Africa an object of colonial desire and disdain, a wild space of p*rnographic pleasures in need of s3xual regulation. Sexuality was implicated in all forms of colonial rule as an intimate encounter that could be used simultaneously to maintain and to corrode racial difference and as a process essential for reproducing human labor power for the colonial economy, both of which required close surveillance and management, especially of African female s3xuality.

Feminist studies on the construction of gender identities and relations have helped initiate increasing literature on the establishment and transformation of colonial masculinities. Research on Southern Africa suggest that the colonial divisions of class and race produced different masculinities, some of which were dominant and hegemonic, and others, subordinate and subversive, although the latter received a patriarchal surplus over women of their class and race. These masculinities were produced and performed in different institutional contexts, each with its own gender regime and power relations, from the state, church, and school to the workplace and the home. Undeniably, masculinities changed over time and manifested themselves differently in rural and urban areas, where different gender systems existed and patterns of political, social, and political change took place.

Prior to colonization

Sudarkasa describes, in “The Status of Women”, how African women used to occupy advantageous positions within their communities prior to colonization. Referring to societies in West Africa, she argues that women occupied the status of ‘queen-mothers, queen-sisters, princesses, female-chiefs, and holders of other offices in most towns and villages’. Furthermore, division of labour among gender lines promoted mutual efforts whether it was in farming, trading or craft production.

When European missionaries arrived in Africa in the 19th century, they could not help themselves but look at African culture with a sense of racial superiority and a biased masculine gendered perspective. In fact, when they saw that the division of labor was equally divided between men and women they were astonished by the hard labor effectuated by African women and their endurance. They viewed the participation of women in these difficult activities as a sign of inferiority when in fact this labor gave women pride and economic independence. They also saw bride wealth and polygamy as well as other African cultural practices as barbarous and detrimental to women and it confirmed their view that the African people needed to be civilized under Western ideals.

As a result, missionaries actively started to infuse gendered stereotypes, which portrayed African women as victims in need of protection, “primitives” in need of civilization and potential deviants in need of containment. The role of women was limited to being a good mother and an exemplary housewife while men were identified as farmers and workers. It was in fact essential for colonial administrators to control women’s s3xuality and reproductive capacities by keeping them tied to the household because it held them to a virtually cost-free system of subsistence agriculture in the region.

Being the primary food producers, women were made responsible for taking care of the home and feeding the male workers who could therefore work freely for the colonial economy and grow cash crops; therefore the role of colonized women had to bear the costs of subsistence and reproduction of the male labor force. This explains why so much emphasis was put on the importance of monogamy, obedience and dedicated domesticity and why rural-urban migration was excluded for women. Colonized men were soon made accomplices in the subordination of women.

National archives actually show reports of exchanges between colonial officials and native authorities on the problems of women’s s3xuality and the rights of male relatives to control and have exclusive access to women’s s3xual services and reproductive capacities. Punishments and legal pursuits were made official by state law against prostitutes and women committing adultery or desertion. Also, fines were distributed to prohibit the impregnation of unmarried girls and the beating of women. In South Africa on the other hand, control over colonised women was exercised by binding a woman’s legal status to her husband’s therefore the only means for women to have access to citizenship and residence rights and to housing was through marriage.

The exclusion of women from the labor force, especially agriculture, was not only directly promoted through state laws and open gender discrimination but was also indirectly advanced through the industrialization of labor and the modernisation of agriculture. Mackenzie describes how colonisers used the argument that African methods of agriculture were outdated in order to promote European technological farming methods and legitimize policies of land isolation.

Nationalist movements

Colonisers’ methods were imposed without any regard to local gender knowledge or ecological specificities and so female farmers, for whom agriculture was an area of expertise but also a source of income and subsistence, were made invisible and/or replaced by men. As a result, colonial influence on gender relations was incontestably detrimental to women as it precipitated their loss of political authority, their exclusion from agricultural and educational activities and led to the erosion of their rights and entitlements. Colonialism did not only alter gender relations during colonial times but it also affected women’s representation and participation in nationalistic movements during and after decolonization. When nationalistic discourses and ideas started flourishing among male educated elites, they stressed the need to protect and free the nation from the colonizing forces.

The imagined home or nation was linked with ideas of security, familiarity and tradition and so women became central to the construction of nationalist discourses as biological reproducers of national groups, as reproducers of the boundaries of the nation and as transmitters of the cultural narratives of the nation. Thus, authentic culture became firmly attached to ‘the body of the woman’ and so notions of boundary, purity and chastity previously instilled by colonizers became closely linked with the idea of national identity and with the appropriate behavior of the patriotic woman.

The participation of women in the project of nation building has thus remained symbolic in most cases. In Algeria for example, women’s participation in anti-colonial struggles has been effectively erased from the history of Arab nationalism because it does not fit in with the prototype of the ideal Muslim woman that belongs to the private sector, the world of reproduction and motherhood. In South Africa on the other hand, women’s participation and representation in the national struggle is recognized but their role within the movement has remained subordinate and auxiliary: their role is defined by motherhood and is confined to building a nation for their husbands and children.

As a result, women in post-colonial African societies are still viewed as inferior to men. A woman’s role has remained that of a mother and a wife whose sole goal is to maintain and promote traditional values because it is central to the survival of the authentic pre-colonial culture. To reject tradition would mean to reject nationalism and the risk of this is marginalization and de-legitimisation. The gender inequality maintained by African countries thus implies that citizenship has also remained differentially constructed for men and women.

In the next part of this essay, I will focus particularly on women in Ghana and various studies that have researched the their perceptions of gender relations and inequalities in the post-colonialist era in Ghana. Then I aim to explore the repercussions of the reconstructions in gender relations in Africa and furthermore the subsequent impacts on the status of women in post-colonial societies and the legacy left on women’s political institutions.

Women’s perspectives of gender relations in post-colonial Ghana

Women in Ghana, in a post-colonialist setting, still face discrimination and inequality in the Ghanaian society. This situation is still occurring decades after the first women’s international conference and the United Nations CEDAW, as well as the Ghanaian Constitutional provisions of women’s rights and equality.

Ghanaian women, in theory, have the constitutional right to enjoy equal rights and opportunities with their male counterparts, however, in practice they lag behind in almost all public spheres of life. They have lagged behind in political participation and decision-making, and also in expressing and enjoying their s3xual and reproductive rights. Gender inequality has been attributed to institutional and structural barriers, in addition to women’s multiple roles, cultural and customary barriers and negative attitudes and perception about women in general.

Since the first international women’s conference in Mexico in 1975 and other subsequent conferences related to women and gender issues, the world has experienced profound political, economic and social changes that had implications for women everywhere. Ghana has a total population of 18,800,000 million people 51 percent of which are females and 49 percent of males. Many governments, including that of Ghana have endorsed various United Nations conventions and declarations to promote gender equality and to mainstream gender perspectives in all spheres of society. Sub-section 3 of section 27 provides that women shall be guaranteed equal rights without any impediments from any person.

Despite these international conventions and constitutional changes, relatively little has changed in terms of Ghanaian women’s life experiences. They still continue to experience gender-based discrimination, hopelessness and relative poverty and social and political exclusion from active participation in the national development of their country.

In colonial times, women suffered oppression and domination by the patriarchal society in Ghana. Women were taught to accept their position through the socialisation process, including their initiation rites. They were taught to be obedient wives and to respect their elders. They were told that a man could marry more than one woman.

A number of themes emerged from a study by Marie Sossou based on women’s own views, description and understanding of their own living situations in terms of their work loads, s3xual and reproductive rights, food and political decision-making in Ghana. The findings of the study revealed admission of all women in Ghana, rural and urban, educated and uneducated, the lack of gender equality in almost all aspects of their lives in Ghana.

The lack of gender equality for women in Ghana does not differ significantly in terms of education, income and social class. Most had at least post-high school and some college education and they worked as professionals and semi-professionals in their various occupations.

One of the major themes identified as a factor hindering the attainment of gender equality in Ghana is the gender role of motherhood and household duties and chores. The birth of a child is an important aspect of any marriage in Ghana because it ensures the continuity of the family lineage and proof of a woman’s fertility and the number of children she could bear.

On the whole, childbirth was seen as an essential role for women in society, either for the benefits it bestows upon the mother or for the honour it brings to her family. They stated they do all the housework in addition to taking care of the children and their husbands and they have no full control over their s3xual and reproductive issues. Reproduction and work experiences of the women in Ghana are mostly taken for granted and regarded as gender roles. A consequence of the motherhood role is that the responsibility for childcare is seen primarily as a woman’s job, leaving few opportunities for the advancement of urban careers and city networking.

Another factor that women in Ghana did not fully enjoy is s3xual and reproductive rights. The International Conference on population and development held in Cairo in 1994 has accelerated the importance of women’s s3xual and reproductive health issues and gender-based power dynamics with regards to s3xual relationships between men and women and women’s right and control over their bodies. Previous studies have indicated that within marriages in sub-Saharan Africa, men typically have more say than women in the decision to use contraception and in the number of children that the couple wants to have and most couples avoid discussing family planning issues for various reasons.

The determiners of reproductive decisions within the Ghanaian family are members of the conjugal family, the extended family, and certain persons outside the family circle and the authority structure weighs heavily in favour of the men. It is evident that gender-based power in s3xual relationships is unbalanced and women usually have less power than men.

Beliefs exist that women are good as cooks, s3x providers and juniors are still persistent. For example, women are given ministries that are considered useless to the economy and therefore not so demanding. This is simply to prove the point that women cannot take on heavy time-consuming jobs. As a goal, it will not be reached overnight as a process and is ongoing.

The empowerment of women is not just an issue of women, but it is also a gender issue, which necessitates a re-examination of gender relations, which ultimately, will require changes made by men as well as by women. It is also a development issue, in that women who become empowered also become active not only in economic activities, but also active in exerting pressure and influence on political, social, and legal issues concerning women.

According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, patriarchy in addition to poverty, illiteracy and unemployment are other factors that increase women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence and other related s3xually transmitted diseases. It is significant that any meaningful engagement with s3xual and reproductive rights should be addressed in reference to unequal gender relations between men and women.

The use of condoms by both men and women as a means for safe s3x and protection has become a significant public health issue due to the HIV/AID epidemic. A number of educated urban women in Ghana regarded the issue of demanding safe s3x as culturally sensitive and unacceptable to most men. Polygamy is common in many African countries including Ghana. The 1998 demographic health survey in Ghana indicates that 27.7 % of women are engaged in polygamous relationships.

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), have been instrumental in putting women’s socio-economic and political participation and human rights issues on the public domain. Since then, a number of African countries have experienced some high rates of increase in women’s representation and participation in political decision-making and holding of political offices on the continent. For example, Rwanda has become the one African country with the highest of 49 percent of women parliamentarians during that country’s 2003 parliamentary elections.

In Ghana, women have not been very successful in altering their political and economic locations and have not kept pace with their men in gaining much access to political decision-making and participation. In 1995, out of a total of 200 seats, women occupied only 16 seats or formed eight percent of the parliamentary seats. This number has been increased to 10.9 percent or 25 seats out of a total of 230 seats in the national election in 2004.

The case study from above revealed the problems Ghanaian women face daily in their lives and how these problems shaped their views and impressions about themselves. The comments, views and opinions provided and expressed by Ghanaian women have shown the extent of societal discrimination and domination that the women experienced as part of their everyday life. In order to overcome the institutionalised power relations and bring about total transformation in the system, actual processes of empowerment have to occur at several levels. The empowerment process must challenge and modify the set of ideas, attitudes, beliefs and practices in gender relations at grassroots level, in institutions and structures such as in the family, the household, the villages, the market places, the churches and in the local communities. That is to say that change must come from bottom up, targeted in particular at a local level.

Legacy of colonialism as a gendered form of rule

There are numerous post-colonial predicaments, which have left an enduring legacy on African colonized peoples and African institutions. There is a growing tendency that identifies a colonially constructed regime of customary law concerning Africa’s authentic traditions. As colonial states simultaneously attempted to exploit the productive capacity of their colonized subjects and maintain social order, the status of women and the significance of gender changed drastically throughout Africa. Various pre-colonial gender norms interacted with new forms of European colonial s3xism in order to create a new highly gendered socio-political context.

However, African women were active agents in this process and often worked to maintain their economic autonomy and contest the definition of African femininity imposed by colonial authorities. Though they have often been portrayed as a homogenous group, African women were divided by a variety of factors, including class, socio-cultural background and proximity to governing powers. Lovett concludes that analyses of African gender relations must take into account the specifics of each state of affairs.

This rejection of African women’s points of view ignores the gendered nature of colonialism. Perhaps most importantly, the homogenization of African women’s experiences obscures the other factors that influence African women’s lives, such as ethnicity, nationality and class. As part of a broader denial of African diversity within colonial thought, many scholars have made gross generalizations about pre-colonial African societies, contending that all Africans encountered colonialism from similar or identical locations.

The flowing nature of African colonial societies must be emphasized, challenging the dominant colonial perception of African society as a static entity that had been thrust into contact with dynamic colonial powers. State policies aimed at economic exploitation habitually negated plans for social order by engendering adaptation, protest and resistance by those the state sought to control. The state’s attempt to accomplish these goals over many different pre-existing forms of social and economic organization led to new contexts in which gender was redefined and its significance restructured.

Colonialism is often viewed, both positively and negatively, as a one-way process in which the colonial state acted upon malleable, compliant colonial subjects in order to achieve its goals.Colonialism had a profound influence on gender relations in Africa and most remarkably culminated in the demeaning and degradation of women’s status in contemporary Africa, as demonstrated by various studies regarding Ghanaian women.

Colonial rule reinforced the portrayal of women as being inferior and subservient, and reinforced s3xual domination and images of motherhood that did not have as much prominence prior to the influx of colonizers. Such exploitative gender relations were imposed during colonial rule with many unfavourable consequences for women’s status in African society.

Unfortunately many of the prejudices have been maintained and sustained after decolonization, resulting in the discrimination of women in nationalistic movements and in modern African society. Perhaps the greatest injustice can be found in certain colonial historiography that presented negation of the experiences of African women. Women’s participation and representation in nationalist struggles is recognized but their role within the movement has remained subordinate and secondary: their main role is still primarily defined by motherhood and is confined to supporting a nation ruled by their husbands and children.


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