University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series > Contesting Compliance; Tales of ‘Women's Empowerment’ from Nineteenth-Century SW Nigeria

Contesting Compliance; Tales of ‘Women's Empowerment’ from Nineteenth-Century SW Nigeria

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This Talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Lent term Seminar Series: Gender in Africa

Development agencies’ representations of women’s empowerment often make use of the iconic image of brightly clad African women, cultivating a field, holding out cupped hands full of grain, carrying babies, buckets and firewood. Meshing together the image of the African woman as the ‘poor, powerless and pregnant’ (Win 2004) object of development’s rescue and uplift, with a narrative that positions such women as ‘agents of change’ (DFID 2012), these portrayals invoke and affirm the myth of development, and with it, the idea that African women need developing – and that it is development’s interventions that can “empower” them. The empowered African woman evoked in development agencies’ narrative is supremely virtuous; she is the quintessential good woman, whose selfless devotion to her family ensures that whatever money she is able to make goes on furthering her children’s education and well-being, and whose sexuality is contained within heterosexual monogamous marriage. Women who fail to correspond with this idealised image of maternal altruism and diligence appear not as anti-heroines, but as victims, trafficked into hopeless sexual slavery or forced into lives as prostitutes by poverty and lack of opportunity. The very possibility that women might use some of their ‘empowerment’ to make choices that take them away from the normative roles carved out for them by development agencies is barely even countenanced. Setting understandings of the situation of African women purveyed by contemporary development agencies in the longer durée of the colonisation of mores and mindsets by their imperial forebears offers an interesting perspective on today’s discourses of the empowerment of the African woman. This paper looks back more than a century to a series of scenes of encounters between women and the colonial administrator who first set up shop in the town of Badagry, in what was to become SW Nigeria under colonial rule, to whom they and their estranged husbands came to petition for a dissolution of their marital arrangements. Working with the transcripts of these cases, transcribed into the first official civil record book of the colonial administration, and with subsequent cases brought to courts some miles further into the interior, I explore the ways in which women contested compliance and manifested an ‘empowerment’ that is rarely attributed to the contemporary African woman in development narratives.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series series.

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