Did you know that women had a lot of power in traditional African societies? Many different societies across sub-Saharan treated women and men the same. They rewarded any adult who helped the community. This changed with colonialism which excluded women from political and economic life.
MEN AND WOMEN IN TRADITIONAL IGBO SOCIETY
In traditional Igbo society both men and women wielded political authority. Hierarchy mostly depended on age, experience, ability, marital status and initiation. Individuals earned power and respect because of their leadership ability, generosity, military service or powers of persuasion. Valued attributes could be possessed either by men or women. Women as well as men could become chiefs and participated in village meetings.
Pre-colonial Igbo society was also organised so that women could exercise strong political powers. Women had their own secret societies, market societies and courts. This kept Igbo society fairly balanced in terms of gender.
Royal women had also played important political roles. In Aboh (in present-day Delta state, Nigeria) some of the traditional king’s wives were very powerful. They owned war canoes and were able to exercise political authority more than male council members and men who held similar titles.
THE ARRIVAL OF THE BRITISH
By 1914 the British had invaded and combined northern and southern Nigeria into one colonial state. They established their own courts and chose native chiefs to be in charge. These new chiefs were not elected and ignored traditional Igbo rules.
Also, British imposed their ideas of politics and the family on the Igbo. They separated men and women by making it very difficult for women to participate in politics. The British gave more power to male-dominated authorities and institutions and ignored the pre-colonial female institutions.
Colonial officers prevented women from getting a Western education. This was needed for good employment and meant that men were often employed in much higher-paying jobs. Those girls who were in education were pushed toward domestic training. Boys on the other hand, were encouraged to be technical.
POLITICAL PARTICIPATION OF IGBO WOMEN TODAY
The changes that occurred in Igbo society during colonialism still have a strong presence today. For example, from 1991 to 1993 only four Igbo women were elected to the Igbo State Houses of Assembly which total 146 members. Also, most of Igbo voters are women but their involvement in governance and decision-making does not reflect this.
Since the colonial period, Igbo women have not been able to regain the “traditional” system of fairness where male and females shared power quite equally. The Igbo are just one of the many traditional African societies where women had much more power than they do today. It has become much harder for women to protect their interests. Historians often focus on African societies after colonialism, but it is important to also look at pre-colonial societies.