Women in Colonial Nigeria

Maria Rojas '94 (English 32, 1990)

The colonization of Africa by European powers including Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal brought Africa into the world economic system as a major target for exploitation. Africa not only provided Europeans with a source of raw materials but it also provided them with what they viewed as raw, uncivilized people -- if Europeans considered Africans people at all -- on whom they could impose their views and whom they could exploit at the same time they exploited the land. For example, with the incorporation of Nigeria into the international economy as a supplier of raw materials, new patriarchal conceptions of the appropriate social role for women dictated by colonial administrators and missionaries changed the position of women in economic, and therefore social, endeavors. Males began to dominate the cultivation of cash crops for the international market and confined women to the growing of food crops which received lower returns. By focusing on men, the cash crop farmers, bureaucratic efforts to improve agriculture further encouraged the separation of economic roles of men and women that had previously complemented each other. The importing of cheap manufactured goods from Europe, and later from Japan, led to the decline of craft industry, except for a limited range of luxury goods which in some regions affected the significant proportion of women engaged in such manufacture. The creation of the colonial economy thus tended to marginalize the position of the majority of women.

Colonial administrators and Christian missionaries introduced the assumptions of European patriarchy into Nigerian society. Their ideas of the appropriate social role for women differed greatly from the traditional role of women in indigenous Nigerian societies. The ideas of the colonizers resembled the patriarchal European assumption that women belonged in the home, engaged in child rearing--an exclusively female responsibility--and other domestic chores. The colonizers expected African societies to consider women as subordinate to men because Europeans considered women subordinate to men. They thought that if a woman obtained financial independence she might not give her husband and his family their entitled respect. In pre-colonial indigenous Nigerian societies, however, a woman's role included providing for her family by means of financial support; therefore, her traditional responsibility required her financial independence. Furthermore, many members of the extended family helped to rear the children, not only the mother.

The restrictions that colonial governments placed on women changed the position of women in indigenous societies. In Nigeria, the colonial state passed legislation restricting women, indirectly preventing them from performing their duties towards their families. The extent of the changes inspired many Nigerian women to hold a series of protests throughout the colonial period against particular colonial policies and against colonialism itself. Colonialism disrupted the traditional system of production in indigenous Nigerian societies, reinforcing the existing systems of social inequality and introducing oppressive forms of social stratification throughout the state.


Women in Africa and the African Diaspora, edited by Rosaly Terborg-Penn, Sharon Harley, and Andrea Benton Rushing

Women, State, and Ideology: Studies from Africa and Asia , edited by Haleh Afshar

Postcolonial OV Africa OV Nigeria