African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview
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Conclusion: The Future

Two themes run through this modern reflection on women in Africa-- emancipation and development.

Are women on a path to emancipation? To answer, we have to decide what we mean. After the suffragettes who fought for political rights and the marxists who called for economic equality, feminists, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, gave the term its very individualized sense, in line with the Western human rights tradition. Here it means the right of every woman to claim her autonomy and even her independence, to make her own decisions in her soul and conscience as an individual unto herself, to exercise freedom of choice over her body, her desires, and her aspirations. There has been a lack of understanding between Western women and women from the developing nations, especially African women, no doubt because they have not yet reached this point but especially because the assumptions governing their lives are different. It is especially hard to talk about the struggle as an individual in a society that specifically denies the individual in favor of the group and prefers consensus to freedom of individual choice.

Everything depends on what level of emancipation one means. From a legal perspective, in tradition or in modern legal codes, with few exceptions (mainly in what were the socialist countries) women remain inferior to men on paper even though they have gained the right to vote almost everywhere (only in 1970 in Zaire and in 1977 in northern Nigeria). This is obvious in marriage laws (which generally maintain the notion of a family "head"), in the way in which property and inheritance rights are implemented, and even in the choice of a burial site for one's husband. A 1987 appeals court denied the widow of a renowned Kenyan jurist the right to bury her husband in Nairobi. His Luo family won the case even though culturally he had broken

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