This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.
In French Algeria during the 1860s, the “sleeping baby” controversy arose. It turned into a legal, judicial, and medical dispute that eventually reached the appellate court in the capital, Algiers. Many North Africans, both Muslims and Jews, traditionally believed that gestation in the womb could be delayed for as long as five years. The benefits to widowed, divorced, or abandoned women and their children are obvious; the sluggish fetus could be declared legitimate, thereby assuring protection and inheritance rights. Colonial jurists and scientific authorities resoundingly proclaimed sleeping babies a legal fiction. And the “primitive” notion of slumbering fetuses in utero provided opponents of Islamic justice and all things Muslim with yet another weapon, and attack they did.
This survey of French colonialism (1830–1962) in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco from the vantage point of women and gender does so within a comparative framework, contrasting the North African regimes with France’s possessions worldwide, as well as with other modern empires. Modern Euro-American colonialism was never uni-directional, radiating out from the Metropole or imperial center, nor did power circulate principally between mother country and colony. Rather, the exercise of power was webbed, bumpy, contradictory, and subject to complex local negotiation and the play of serendipity—the law of unintended consequences. Rival empires such as the British, French, Italian, and Spanish in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) emulated each other’s policies and practices. As important, the binary distinction between “colonial overlords” and “colonized natives” is no longer tenable. Nevertheless, the distinction made between Euro-American settler colonies and other kinds of imperial properties and possessions is a significant one.
The voices of those labeled unsatisfactorily as “the colonized,” particularly women and/or subalterns, have often gone missing—especially for the 19th century—because the documentary corpus is lacking, inaccessible, recondite, or was destroyed during warfare. Therefore, the essay assesses the current state of the field, mainly secondary historical literature on women, gender, and empire, and provides a broad-brush portrait of what the archives—state, colonial, missionary, and otherwise—look like.
Apartheid, the system of racial and ethnic separation introduced in South Africa in 1948, was a gendered project. The immediate goal of the white Afrikaner men who led the apartheid state was to control black men: to turn black men from perceived political and criminal threats into compliant workers. Under apartheid, African men would travel to work for whites in towns and on mines, but their homes would be in rural ethnic “reserves,” known as “homelands” or “Bantustans.” This vision depended on the labors of African women: while their men migrated to work, women were to maintain their families in the increasingly overcrowded and desolate countryside, reproducing the workforce cheaply while instilling a sense of ethnic difference in their children. “Coloured” (mixed-race) and Indian women were similarly charged with social reproduction on a shoestring, in segregated rural and urban areas. White women uniquely had the franchise and freedom of movement, but they were also constrained by sexually repressive laws.
Apartheid’s gendered vision of production and social reproduction faced continual resistance, and it ultimately failed. First, it failed because African women increasingly moved from rural areas to urban centers, despite laws limiting their mobility. Second, it failed because some women organized across ethnic and racial lines. They often organized as mothers, demanding a better world for a new generation. Both their nationally and internationally resonant campaigns—against pass laws, educational and health care inequities, police brutality, and military conscription—and the fact of their collective organization gradually undermined apartheid. Officials generally underestimated the power of women, and their contributions have continued to be under-appreciated since apartheid ended in 1994, because women’s political style emphasized personal and familial concerns. But because apartheid was premised on transforming how families lived, actions of women in fact undermined the system from its core.
Aili Mari Tripp
While women were never fully equal to men in the political sphere, women in precolonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, launched military conquests, and founded states. Some governed as sole rulers often as queens, while others governed together with a king, as a mother or sister of the king. A third arrangement involved a tripartite sharing of power among the king, mother, and sister, and a fourth arrangement involved societies in which an age set or group of elders governed the society and in which women exerted either direct or indirect power.
Women lost out in such arrangements, first, with the spread of Islam and Christianity and later with colonization. Women participated actively in nationalist movements, but their motivations sometimes differed from those of men, and were related, for example, to taxation and the desire to improve female education. After independence, women were further sidelined from political life with a few exceptions. It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders. This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role for women. The decline of conflict after 2000 created greater stability that enhanced these trends. Pressures from the United Nations after 1995 and from foreign donors strengthened domestic actors pressing for women’s-rights reforms in the area of political representation.