African Women’s Role in Resistance against Colonization

by Cassidy Flood

Women resistance colonization image

In westernizing Africa, the English colonizers failed to acknowledge African women and their substantial role in society. The English projected their gender roles onto a complex society in an attempt to transform the economic structure to a growing, capitalist economy. However, their fundamental misunderstanding of the extent of women’s role and their participation in society and the economy served as the impetus for women’s participation in resistance movements. The economic policies the English colonizers imposed oppressed the role of women in the economy and exploited their labor. The colonists’ lack of tact in invading the land and economy produced a tension between the women and their subsequent policies as women’s roots were more deeply entrenched in society than the Europeans anticipated. Women occupied a large sector of different aspects of the society from labor, to the market, to the home. Therefore, any colonial policy affected them in some way and interfered with their lifestyle. When the women defied the colonists for their interference, the colonists attempted to thwart the opposition by redefining their role in society and placing women within a sphere that adhered to European cultural norms. While the original motive for colonial policies was strictly economic, the women’s defiance and resistance forced a response from the colonists and an expansion of policy. Resistant women were punished, imprisoned or reeducated. Reeducation taught the women the appropriate role to occupy in society according to the English. Simply, the colonists attempted to project their gender roles on a different society as a means of control so that they possessed the ability to westernize the land without opposition.

The colonization of Africa by Europeans began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth. The commercial extraction of quinine, the active ingredient in the effective anti-malarial medicine, cinchora or “Peruvian bark,” in the early nineteenth century provided the opportunity for Europeans to finally venture, protected, into uncharted Africa.[1] Armed with this new medical advancement, the scramble for Africa amongst European powers began as the countries penetrated the interior of the unexplored continent. European countries were eager to possess these new territories made available to them and to remake the land in their image. The English, specifically, claimed a significant portion of land and, in this move towards the westernization of Africa, attempted to transform the established economic structure to a growing capitalist economy. However, the English lacked a fundamental understanding of the society and its entwinement with the economy. As a result, in enacting new economic policies, the English disrupted the existing role for women in society. These policies oppressed the women who were heavily established in the economy and exploited their labor. In response to the unfamiliar economic policies and a newly prescribed social space, women engaged in various forms of resistance towards colonial rule across regions of Africa. Their resistance was a result of the festered tension that grew as English colonizers projected their gender roles onto vastly different societies.

The traditional role of women in Africa differed from her European counterpart. In West Africa, women occupied a larger space within agriculture and the local market. Most able-bodied women were farmers or heavily involved in the market, or both.[2] In contrast, even as Europe industrialized and women entered the work force, women’s primary responsibility remained in the home and their social influence lessened. In England, by the mid-nineteenth century, “a new equilibrium between home and work was [established] by the near-total absence of women from the public and organized life of the working class.”[3] However, in Africa, women dominated the majority of the labor pool and were responsible for maintaining the family and a large part of the family’s financial well-being. Their social influence was uncontested until colonization. African women had always held a firm position in the production and agricultural sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, women entering the work force in Europe altered the cultural dynamic and presented a threat to the male-saturated work force. This was the largest divergence between the cultures. African women were an essential part of the economy from the labor they provided to produce in agriculture to their presence in the local markets where they sold their agricultural surpluses. Women and the economic health of Africa were bound.

Therefore, while the social stratification of Africa resembled that of Europe, the undercurrents of the society differed. African women were, like European women, responsible for the home. However, as African women maintained a heavy role in both production and the home, their domain in society was more flexible which allowed for a growth of importance and a social sphere. African society placed fewer limitations on women with less-binding gender roles and, therefore, African women were active members of the public and held rights in the public domain be it the right to property and inheritance, the right to representation, or the right to discuss political policies.[4] Their heavy involvement in agriculture and the market provided the conditions for them to organize. Their role in the distributive sector of the economy fostered a group consciousness that had the potential to develop into something larger given the need, as seen with the development of the Lagos Market Women’s Association in Nigeria.

The Lagos Market Women’s Association is an example of the colonialist miscalculation about women’s role within society and the market. The LMWA began within the mid-1920s and was an interest group focused on “promoting and protecting” women’s rights in colonial Nigeria.[5] The leader, Madam Alimotu Pelewura, was a fish trader and an important leader of market women in Lagos. In the 1920s, she was elected Alaga, head market women, of the Ereko market which was the most prosperous meat market in Lagos.[6] Pelewura is proof that women not only existed in the local market but were capable of organizing and controlling affairs within it while her involvement in the Ereko market is an indication of the organization of the markets themselves. Despite a lack of traditional education and a high rate of illiteracy, women were active participants in organizations like ones that evolved from the market to political organizations and even movements for independent schools. Furthermore, women actively strove to protect themselves within these market structures. For example, Ereko traders paid three pence a week to create a fund allocated to the hiring of literate clerks and lawyers, when necessary. This type of institution is evidence of the organization of women despite their educational limitations and also served as the basic structure the LMWA employed to resist colonial rule.

The LMWA continually challenged regulations and government policies. In 1932, rumors surrounding a tax on Lagosian women arose, and in response the association formed a committee that went to the Government House and met with the Administrator of the Colony, C. T. Lawrence, where the committee was assured there was no intention of taxation as they feared.[7] However, eight years later in 1939, war-time regulations called for an Income Tax Ordinance to generate revenue that sought to tax women with annual incomes of 50 pounds or more alongside the right to obtain supplies for the forces and regulate prices of commodities. In response, the LMWA conducted mass protests that appealed to both their role in society and to tradition. Women drafted a petition outlining the “history of opposition” to taxing women and argued “female taxation was contrary to custom.” [8]To show support, 200 illiterate market women signed the petition with their thumbprints.[9] In a further show of resistance, women closed the markets the next day and marched to the commissioner, yet again. In an attempt to placate the group, the commissioner assured them the tax was only for wealthy women. Colonists expected the women of Lagos to be content with the divide between wealthy and poor. There was little anticipation of the show of solidarity between these market women. Pelewura, and the LMWA, were not mollified with the faint division in the regulation and contended that the tax would eventually expand to include all women.

Women resistance colonization image

Women’s show of solidarity and importance in the market compelled policy change. In yet another show of unity, all the women agreed to suffer the consequence of not adhering to the income tax: imprisonment. In a discussion with Pelewura, the commissioner stated, “English women pay tax,” to which she responded that Africans were poor “owing to many factors over which they had no control.”[10] Her response indicated the frustration the women felt about being subverted, controlled, and exploited for causes beyond their control while the commissioner’s response reflected the colonists’ attempts to project their cultural dynamics onto a different type of society. However, not only did African women control the market and therefore were essential to revenue, but the complexities of their existence were markedly different than the English women referenced by the commissioner. Due to the exertion of influence and power of the Lagos Market Women’s Association, the commissioner was compelled to concede slightly, and the income tax bracket for women was raised from 50 pounds to 200 pounds.[11] Although women were still taxed, the efforts of the LMWA showed colonists that women in Nigeria were different than the women at home.

The family dynamic that existed within the African home differed from the European dynamic. Although, like Europeans, women were not equal to men in any aspect of society, African women held more influence in the home than colonists anticipated. In the male-dominated Kenyan Kikuyu society, women held a unique role due to their position in agriculture and therefore, exerted more power than the casual observer realized. Within this society, men increased their social standing by amassing a following of males that were not part of the family. To do so it was common to use food to feed the followers and thus gain support. As they dealt with the production and allocation of food, the women held special influence in society as the men pursued power.[12] This is an example of how Africa was laced with complexities within society that were unable to be recognized without keen observation or knowledge of the culture.

The economic policies imposed by the English strained colonial relations as they exploited women’s labor. Traditionally, the lack of agricultural expansion hinged on the lack of available labor, or women.[13] However, when the English colonized Kenya, they enacted regulations to increase agricultural product and therefore increased the women’s labor. The exploitation of the women’s work led to resistance movements and led the women to develop more political awareness and engage in and aid existing decolonization movements. The Kikuyu people of Kenya, like most Africans, were laborers with the women doing most work at home while the men found work across the country. Following World War II, the British mandated all cattle be vaccinated and all hilly landscapes be terraced to increase production, and women resisted the increased work load. Those who resisted the mandates were dealt with severely, as seen in their oral histories, for their lack of cooperation in improving agricultural conditions.[14]

As most African women were illiterate, oral tradition and songs remained essential for conveying history, movement, and sentiments and, when examined today, showcase the women’s role in colonial resistance. Song for Murang’a Women explores the consequences given to these uncooperative women and highlights the inhumanity of the colonists by playing heavily upon the traditional role of women in society. The song begins with the women admitting to their resistance but then sharply contrasts with “upon refusing, we were all imprisoned.”[15] The juxtaposition points to the harsh consequences for relatively passive acts. The chorus of the song emphasizes the traditional role of women even more by appealing to their position as nurturers and caretakers, and finally, the middle of the song peaks with the depiction of colonists’ cruelty as the “many patriots” already imprisoned were “shocked to hear children wailing.”[16] The song calls attention to the viciousness of the English while not being hypocritical or feigning innocence with the women’s own patriotic acts. Instead, the song called for a sliding scale of consequences.

The punitive action of the English towards the resistant women was a representation of their interpretation of gender roles. The women’s passive resistance, as seen by their defiance of new farming regulations, and their active resistance within the Mau Mau, a violent men’s organization that was an expression of Kenyan nationalism, was treated as the English intended to view it and therefore not necessarily recognized with the validity it deserved. The colonial reaction against the passive wing of the movement was a useful indicator of the way in which the colonial authorities conceived the involvement of women in Mau Mau.[17] While the participation of women in the Mau Mau was a “demonstration of the maturity of these women’s political consciousness,” colonial governments saw the protest as “an instrument of men’s political action.” [18] However, the women, as members of this nationalist, political movement, followed the same rules for inclusion as men which included taking part in the oath that came with Mau Mau involvement. The oath was shrouded in ritual and secrecy and inherently violent. Yet it appealed to these women because it represented “ethnic and cultural cohesion.”[19] The oath and the movement, though violent, represented a means to an end of restrictive and oppressive colonial policies that altered their role in society. The women, in taking this oath, gained new responsibilities in the struggle against colonial power in spite of the English’s attempt to minimize their role both within the movement and within society. Despite the evidence to the contrary, the colonists continued to maintain the construction of an innocent, docile woman. When the colonists discovered the females did not fit this prescribed mold, they increased oppression through punitive measures to lessen female influence.

The English attempted to reconstruct the role of women in Kikuyu society to adhere to this European norm. In reconstructing the role, the English hoped to break down the active and passive wings of the Mau Mau movement where they suspected women gave support. The “general but ill-defined awareness of a female presence” in colonial documents about the Mau Mau shows the colonialists’ lack of understanding of their fundamental role and, furthermore, their reluctance to recognize the women’s activism in the movement.[20] Despite the English’s unease with formal recognition, reports exist that show the colonists’ continual weariness for this specific, yet seemingly innocent faction of society.[21] The report on resistance activity held claims of hymns sung by women, which incited anxiety because they appeared to be prayers for the Mau Mau dead, and therefore showed the women’s affinity for the movement. The report also recorded a quiz within a school where the Kikuyu youth seemed to be following a nationalist curriculum and therefore indicates the British’s fear for the innocent youth evolving into the violent, nationalistic body.[22] The English clearly recognized the children as the future and as a result, monitored them as the pulse for the country. Women, as mothers and moral educators of these children, were penalized and were instructed to undergo a rehabilitation that included a destruction of Mau Mau ideology and a construction of acceptable female standards. Therefore, the only true recognition of female involvement within the anti-colonist movement came when the women were acting within the social space the colonists were familiar with women occupying.

The rehabilitation of women during the Kenyan Emergency that was the Mau Mau movement was the direct attempt to subvert the women into suitable European gender roles. In the deconstruction process, women had to renounce the movement and accept new values.[23] The construction was the imposition of familiar gender roles. Women were taught to dedicate themselves to the home, crafts, sewing, and cooking.[24] There was less emphasis on labor as this was the avenue to group organization and power. The reeducation activities were activities that “kept with the roles which women had played in their society before Mau Mau ideology had corrupted their minds.”[25] However, the idea of the women needing reeducation and “guidance through ideals and violence” reinforced the colonists’ vision of the women as weak and inferior. Even after seeing the women’s involvement in the movement, the colonists failed to recognize its substantial validity and, in an effort to reorganize the society, attempted to diminish their traditional roles in society.

Colonists’ lack of recognition concerning women and their role in society was the impetus for women’s participation in resistance movements. The economic policies of the colonizers oppressed the role of women in the economy and exploited their labor. However, the motive for these policies was purely economic until the women met the policies defiantly. The colonists’ lack of tact in invading the land and economy produced a tension between the women and their subsequent policies as women’s roots were more deeply entrenched in society than the Europeans anticipated. Women occupied a large sector of different aspects of the society from labor to the market to the home. Therefore, any colonial policy affected them in some way and interfered with their lifestyle. When the women defied the colonists for their interference, the colonists attempted to thwart the opposition by redefining their role in society and placing women within a sphere that adhered to European cultural norms. The more women resisted, the more the colonists attempted to push the women back into suitable roles. The colonists tried to project their gender roles on a different society as a means of control so that they were able to westernize the land without opposition.


[1] Paula E. Brentlinger. 2006. “Health, Human Rights, and Malaria Control: Historical Background and Current Challenges”. Health and Human Rights 9 (2). The President and Fellows of Harvard College: 22. doi:10.2307/4065400.

[2] Johnson, Cheryl. 1982. “Grass Roots Organizing: Women in Anticolonial Activity in Southwestern Nigeria”. African Studies Review 25 (2/3). African Studies Association: 137.

[3] Morgan, Carol E.. 1992. “Women, Work and Consciousness in the Mid-nineteenth-century English Cotton Industry”. Social History 17 (1). Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 23.

[4] Johnson, 138.

[5] Ibid., 137.

[6] Ibid., 139.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 140.

[9] Ibid..

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Strobel, Margaret. 1982. “African Women”. Signs 8 (1). The University of Chicago Press: 111.

[13] Ibid., 114.

[14] Shepard, Todd. Voices of Decolonization: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, Mass. [u.a.: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015, 73.

[15] Ibid., 74.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Santoru, Marina E. 1996. “The Colonial Idea of Women and Direct Intervention: The Mau Mau Case”. African Affairs 95 (379). [Royal African Society, Oxford University Press]: 257.

[18] Ibid., 256.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Shepard, 76.

[22] Ibid., 77.

[23] Santoru, 264.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

Citation style: Chicago

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