'Women Wars' in Afrika
African women’s history has many instances of women leading large-scale and successful revolts against abusive male chiefs or against colonial authorities. Although gender oppression in the form of domestic and societal patriarchy did exist in precolonial Sub-Sahara Africa, women encountered increased and intensified forms of economic and political gender oppression with the introduction of European colonialism. The 20th century has seen the steady destruction of women’s livelihoods, the marginalization of women’s political organizations and women’s shrinking access to social and political decision-making. There is a close link between women's economic role and their access to power. In both matrilineal and patrilineal societies market women played important roles, and taxation or pricing issues triggered several ‘women’s wars’.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, such ‘Women’s Wars’ occurred throughout Africa. Dahomey, Ghana (then the gold Coast), Togo, South Africa, Transvaal, Uganda, Tanganyika are some of the names mentioned in specialized history books read only by small audiences; unfortunately, only local people remember the names of the women who spearheaded the protests. Whether ‘cocoa holdups’, ‘coffee wars’, ‘beer wars’, protests against exploitative ‘warrant chiefs’, calls for national independence, they usually involved a conflict between subsistence farming geared to local consumption and cash-crops geared for export, issues of women’s land-ownership, resistance to colonial taxation, and attempts to hold back the steady deterioration of women’s power-base.
Traders often were the first to take the initiatives, and would be joined by peasant women and townswomen. Together, they had the social power to withhold food from the cities. With tactics ranging from dramatic techniques like chants, dances, comical skits to closing down markets, road blockades to prevent the passage of food for the cities or cash crops for the colonial authorities, they could effectively paralyze a trading system within which women still held considerable assets. Not only was food denied the cities, but cash crops were denied the colonial authorities and their merchant allies in repeated confrontations over who should determine prices, what taxes would be paid, or the composition of ruling councils.
The Igbo Ogu Umunwanyi, or Women's War, occurred in the Calabar and Owerri provinces in southeastern Nigeria in November 1927 and continued for more than a month with demonstrations, attacks on administrative centers, and damage to property. Before colonial rule, the Igbo women held political power and status in a dual-sex system. The physical conflict between Nwanyeruwa, a woman, and a male official can be seen as serving as a catalyst for feminist discourse and collective actions. The Women’s War began when the Colonial District officer started counting households and property for taxation purposes. Women leaders, Ikonnia, Nwannedie, and Nwugo, called a mikiri, general meeting, at the Orie market, a traditional center of women's discourse and activity, to discuss and plan further actions. The mikiri held by the three Igbo women became a forum for gender and class awareness. Individual fears of economic oppression began to evolve into collective resistance against gender oppression. The women's resistance covered an area of 6,000 square miles, with over two million people. On two occasions police and troops fired on the women, killing 50 and wounding another 50. The Women's War was successful in deferring for a while the taxation of women and in getting rid of the corrupt system of warrant chiefs. (...) .
The Igbo Ogu Umunwani, as a resistance movement that outwardly reflected women's opposition to colonial taxation and economic impositions, was more than that. Opposition to patriarchy, which was equally important in formulating their economic demands against taxation of their produce and animals, for example: traditional Igbo women's rights, for instance to refuse a suitor, for example, were linked to rights to land and resources (...)
The Pare women's uprising in northwest Shambaai, Tanzania, occurred in early 1945 and continued with demonstrations into 1946, involving thousands of women. It began in Usangi, one of the chiefdoms, when the district commissioner arrived for discussions with the local chief. A crowd of five hundred women appeared, demanding an explanation of mbiru, a recently introduced system of graduated taxation. When the commissioner tried to leave without addressing the women, they became enraged and mobbed the assembled officials. Two days later, women surrounded the chief’s house singing songs, and ultimately stoned officials and battled police.
Pare women's resistance caused the graduated-tax idea to be dropped the following year, and the king appointed four women to the tribal council in 1948 (Feierman, 1990). The success of their resistance, however temporary, is extraordinary in view of the failure of earlier, male resistance. Organized resistance by the women of Pare is one example of a number of women’s protests in the Shambaai region at the time. Women performed, individually and collectively, numerous acts of sabotage against colonial agricultural schemes affecting their lives, for example, using inappropriate tools in performing forced agricultural labor. In 1953, women invaded a number of subchief's meetings, expressing opposition to plans for their removal from mountain lands. They also organized around other gender related interests, which included men's interest as well.(...)
In Tanzania's nationalist movement, peasant women were organized along gender lines to press for independence. Women had a common gender interest - working for race and class liberation, through male political leaders, in the hope of achieving gender liberation.
Pare women played a role in nationalist politics, working for the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU)’ s struggle for national independence. TANU were formed by members of an educated class who sought to gain power at the expense of chiefs. In January 1956, the chief of Bungu, prohibited anyone from attending a TANU meeting. Caught in the middle of this conflict were women who revolted against the chief and their husbands in order to attend a rally to see the leader of TANU's women's section, Bibi Titi Mohammed. To punish the men's lack of courage in resisting the chief and supporting the nationalist struggle, women refused to cook, fetch water, or farm. The men relented and sent a delegation inviting Nyerere and Bibi Titi Mohammed to speak in Bungu. A former singer of a women's dance organization explained:
" The women urged their leaders to bring Mr. Nyerere, and told them they also wanted to meet the strong woman. They said they wanted to see Bibi Titi in Vugiri. "We have heard and read about her but we have never seen her. If you don't want to listen to the strong words of Mr. Nyerere, that is up to you. We want to see Bibi Titi, our colleague" (Feierman, 1990).
In Buloho in Eastern Zaire, women revolted against forced taxation on their produce. The revolt began on day in early April 1982 when a woman refused to pay a cassava-toll at a bridge. A scuffle ensued between her and the male tax collector. When the woman informed colleagues in a Catholic support group, this gender conflict served to elaborate awareness of gender and economic oppression, and to press for change. On April 25, women from three areas, over one hundred, met with the local chief and registered a complaint. It was the first time in the history of the area that women took independent action in the (modern) political sphere.
The women persisted in a follow up to their complaint and sent a delegation of six to the offices of the Collectivity. On May 5, when the chief finally met with the women’s delegation, he grew scornful and wanted to know who gave them the idea to petition him about the tolls. A delegation member answered:
" Where we found the idea? We didn't have to go far, and we haven't been advised by anyone other than the fatigue from cassava, because we get very tired. How do we get tired? When we arrive where a barrier is located they seize cassava from us, or money; we arrive there where there's another barrier, and they take more cassava. Now despite that we don't know what that money is used for, yet we're exhausting ourselves carrying cassava. "
By the end of the 20th century, the issues remained the same: colonial authorities having in the meantime been replaced by multinational corporations and colonial taxation now coming under the name of structural adjustment.
Nigerian Women Fighting Oil Corporations
Under Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti’s leadership, song, dance and ridicule - along with market embargoes and sheer force of numbers - were employed in the 1940s’ struggles of Abeokuta women to unseat an exploitative Yoruba chief whom the British were supporting. In 1949, with a membership of some 100,000 the Abeokuta Women's Union was able to force the Alake of Abeokuta out of office for abusing his power as an indirect ruler.
In the 1980s, faced with the Nigerian military’s attempt to impose structural adjustment packages one of whose key element is higher taxes, the women of Ughelli community, in the oil states, plugged directly into this female tradition of protest and laid siege to the local chief’s palace. They berated the local king for supporting the taxation of women, taunting him with reminders that his own mother and grandmother had participated in one of the historic tax revolts by women. How could he, of all people, plan to push through such an outrageous plan? Where, they demanded, were his mother’s and grandmothers’ tax receipts from the colonial authorities? In a matter of days, the anti-tax protest had spread throughout the state and neighboring areas. Market women in Benin City closed the markets, threatening to blockade the sale of food, in protest against taxes and World Bank-mandated school fees. The revolt was successful, and the tax-plan was withdrawn.
Similar uprisings were staged in 1984 and 1986 against the oil companies. In the 1984 Ogharefe uprising, protesting the erosion of their farmland by landgrabs and massive pollution from the oil fields, 10,000 women used a traditional ‘weapon’: public nakedness used as a curse against male dealers and representatives of a U.S. oil company in support of their demand for financial compensation for pollution and alienation of land. In 1986, women shut down the core of the whole oil region. One key feature of the 1980’s struggles, which is studied by Terisa Turner, is the extent to which success in these uprisings hinged partly upon the solidarity that was struck between women and ‘junior males’, often their sons, leading to structural ties within, for instance, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Interestingly, this latter movement is known to the world at large by the name of one its male leaders, the executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, whereas very little is known about his kinswomen, around whom and from whom he acquired his political consciousness. Similarly while the name of the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka is known the world over for his political activism, no one outside of Nigeria is aware of the importance as a role model of his own mother Ade Soyinka’s and her activism in the 1940’s ‘women’s wars’, when she was Fumyio Ransome-Kuti right arm.
In every case, the women were protesting the drastic shrinking or loss of their access to productive resources, the alienation of farmland, the loss of water resources, the loss of productive work for their children, the general weakening of their economic base, thus embracing a full range of social and economic human rights issues.