Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Colonial Policies and Women's Participation in Public Life: The Case of British Southern Cameroons

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Colonial Policies and Women's Participation in Public Life: The Case of British Southern Cameroons

Article excerpt

Abstract: Much of the literature on colonial policies towards women has highlighted the ways that these policies spread Western notions of domesticity and narrowed the space available for African women to participate in public life. Drawing from the case of British Southern Cameroons, this paper argues that colonial policies and encounters were in fact more complex. While certain policies did seek to propagate European notions of domesticity and to confine African women to the private space of the home, others opened new opportunities for education, salaried employment, and participation in women's organizations. The paper stresses that colonial encounters often had multiple, and even contradictory, effects and that African women were not merely passive subjects, but agents capable of rejecting and transforming colonial policies and ideologies that did not meet their needs.


Colonial encounters in Southern Cameroons affected women in complex and contradictory ways. As multiple scholars have demonstrated, many colonial policies spread Western notions of domesticity, constricting the space available for women to participate in public life. (1) Other policies, however, opened new opportunities to women for education, salaried employment, travel abroad, and activism in local and international organizations. In this paper, I use the case of Southern Cameroons to demonstrate that British colonial and missionary policies did not seek solely to domesticate African women. Although certain colonial projects did aim to create "good" Christian wives and mothers for educated African men, others, particularly during the last decade of colonial rule, sought to promote women's participation in public life. This case study supports and extends recent, nuanced work on colonial encounters that complicates relations between Europeans and Africans, demonstrating that African women were frequently active agents, rejecting and transforming colonial ideologies that did not meet their needs. (2)


Colonial encounters between African and European women have frequently been studied through the lens of domesticity. This perspective emphasizes that colonial and missionary institutions played an important role in diffusing Christianity, European languages, and Western norms throughout Africa. This focus on domesticity also emphasizes the role that colonial and mission policies played in socializing African women into European gender norms and "appropriate" forms of social organization. In general, this literature argues that European influences--including colonial administrations, missions, and informal organizations--narrowed women's sphere of activities and increasingly confined them to the home and family. (3) These influences propagated "an ideology of female domesticity that laid stress on women's reproductive and nurturing roles above their autonomy and productivity." (4) The major focus of this literature is on how the colonial state and Christian missions contributed to the "housewifisation" of African women. (5)

Nancy Rose Hunt, for example, examines the links between gender and domesticity in the Belgian Congo. Describing the foyers sociaux established by missionaries, social-service agencies, and colonial women's associations with the support of the Belgian colonial administration, Hunt argues that they are a key component in a "Belgian colonial project to refashion gender roles and instill a Western family ideology into African urban life." (6) Within the foyers sociaux, women participated in classes on sewing, cooking, housekeeping, and maternal hygiene. They also took part in home visits, decorating contests, graduation ceremonies, and other public rituals, all of which, according to Hunt, attempted to re-define gender roles and domesticate African women.

Similarly, Deborah Gaitskell has examined the diffusion of ideologies of domesticity through colonial and mission institutions in Southern Africa. …

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