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.
Considered as the leader of the women’s renaissance in Tunisia, Bchira Ben M’rad marked the feminist movement. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were hardly visible, as their lives were severely controlled by social and cultural norms. Current events taking place throughout the country had paved the way for this formidable event to take place in spite of male domination and the fact that women’s lives were controlled by Shari’a law. Cases of women suing close relatives for wrongs inflicted on them were probably the seeds of the feminism that Bchira Ben Mrad was to espouse and work for.
In those decades that marked the early 20th century, Tunisian women lived in the intimacy of their home. The men went in and out, but women had to stay home. Women’s worlds were concentrated on housework, cooking, sewing, breeding children, and reading the Qur’an. When they happened to go out, they were veiled. They were also often illiterate. Some, however, were lucky to have an open-minded father, brother, or husband and had private tutors at home. Bchira Ben Mrad (1993–1913) was one of those lucky women. She was the daughter of Salouha Belkhodja and Mohamed Salah Ben Mrad, a Hanfi Islam Sheikh. She was hardly ten years old when her mother died. A well-learned and open-minded man, her father had his four daughters tutored by the best teachers of El Zeituna who taught them “fikh” (philology), grammar, arithmetic, and Farabi’s logical reasoning and syllogism.
In 1936, set on devoting her life to women’s emancipation, she founded UMFT (Muslim Union of Tunisian Women), the first in Tunisia and the second in Africa and in the Arab world. Bchira chaired this organization until its dissolution in 1956 by Habib Bourguiba, who then founded the UNFT (The National Union of Tunisian Women), regretfully never acknowledging the work she had done. Bchira took her inspiration from the Egyptian Huda Shaaraoui and the Tunisian princess Aziza Uthmana. She used to say that women’s education was necessary for the development of a country, a statement used later on by Bourguiba. During twenty-five years of relentless fighting, Bchira spared no efforts to provide for girls’ and boys’ education.
Bchira and the other activist women who had founded other organizations had opportunities to establish contacts and acquire knowledge as well as trainings from other women they were able to meet, for example, when they attended an international Women’s Congress in Paris, the Women’s International Democratic Federation, on May 26, 1945, following which, March 8 became Women’s Day from 1946 to 1952 in spite of strong opposition from the French authorities that were ruling the country.
At independence from France in 1956, Habib Bourguiba promulgated the Code of Personal Status (CSP), establishing a fundamental principle: the equality of men and women, which was to accelerate the development of the country. However, because this initiative had been “a reform from above,” and not from a movement initiated by women, it became currently known as “state feminism.”
The workings of modern empire can better be viewed through the lens of gender because gendered hierarchies illuminate broad, intersecting aspects of the colonial project.
Community, kinship, household economies, religion, education, sexuality, social engineering, nationalism, and transnational reform movements were all inflected by imperial patriarchy in various guises. This perspective is especially rich for “French” North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) from 1830 until 1962 since the region and its peoples were subjected to intense forms of “European” settler colonialism. From the start, the “woman question” assumed particularly fraught and contentious dimensions whose repercussions can be detected even today. Nevertheless, colonial North Africa did not represent a self-enclosed container. Transimperial and global processes shaped the sociopolitical terrain, and in turn. Policies, practices, and resistance in the Maghrib exerted a powerful torque far beyond its limits. Key to understanding women, gender, and settler colonialism is the state of the “archive,” the sprawling corpus of records, writings, words, things, and images left in an empire’s wake. The voices of women, children, and “ordinary” people, those labeled “the colonized,” have until recently been missing in conventional narratives. As Antoinette Burton observed, the archives themselves structure “the conceptual frameworks of women’s and gender history.” In the imperial historical context, the task of recuperating and restoring lost voices is all the more problematic, yet urgent. One might also add that the fundamental question is “whether ‘women’ is a category at all.”
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.
Gretchen Bauer, Akosua Darkwah, and Donna Patterson
Building upon their participation in anti-colonial struggles across Africa in the mid-20th century, African women have taken on many political roles in the post-independence period. While military rule and single-party rule precluded access to elected office in many countries in the early years after independence, female combatants fought alongside their male counterparts in ongoing struggles for national liberation in other parts of Africa, especially southern Africa, into the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, national gender machineries established in the 1970s provided an institutional infrastructure for pursuing women’s rights even if they were often not fully implemented. State feminism, articulated through First Ladyism and state-led national women’s associations, sought to co-opt women’s struggles for political gain. In some instances, it did ameliorate women’s economic hardships and promote political participation. Women’s mobilization in the 1980s, in part a response to the severe impact of structural adjustment programs on devastated African economies, led to local-level organizing and eventually to a focus on women’s access to political office. Since the political transitions that swept the continent beginning in the early 1990s, women have accessed political office in all three branches of government in unprecedented numbers just as new forms of mobilization have emerged around issues like the rights of sexual minorities.