African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

5
Female Identity and Culture

We know almost nothing about precolonial women's world. Did they have a certain way of looking at themselves and their place in this world? What forms did their affectivity and their sexuality take? What were their sexual beliefs and practices? The only observers who approached women in the early colonial period were missionaries and the occasional civil servant-- teacher or health worker. The early missionaries' views were distorted by their prejudices; they found the traditional African kinship model and methods of upbringing incompatible with Christianity and emphasized women's apparent "licentiousness and shamelessness . . . and the atrocious disorderliness into which [each woman] throws herself entirely." 1 This image draws heavily on the Christian and particularly Catholic notion of woman as demoniacal seductress and tool of Satan. Colonial novels also abused the stereotypically agreeable African woman by portraying her as impure and hedonistic. The error of these judgments became clear only with the arrival of the first anthropologists, and by this time profound shifts had occurred in African societies.

Individual accounts passed down by women themselves are rare. They exist, as we have seen, especially among slave women, less subject to patriarchal ideology than others, but even these tend to celebrate the great deeds of male heroes. This is the case with the Tanbasire of the Soninke ( Mali), a group of songs composed and sung by women that dates to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. It was said to be the work of the six sisters of Hammadi, immortalizing their brother. These first women composers' names have not come down to us, and with one exception the rare women cited in the songs are identified only as female relatives or descendants of male heroes. 2

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