Women in African Colonial Histories

Article excerpt

Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi, eds. Women in African Colonial Histories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. 338 pp. Photographs. Notes. Maps. Index. $54.95. Cloth. $24.95. Paper.

Reaching into the interior spaces of African social life, the authors of the thirteen chapters in this volume of pathbreaking research reveal the lengths to which the agents of colonialism were willing to extend their authority. The great distinction of the collection, however, lies in its central problematic: women's modes of adjustment, negotiation, and resistance. Maintained throughout, this theme permits a close view of women's encounters with colonialism in the various regions of sub-Saharan Africa. The scrutiny the authors bring to bear on these encounters, the wide range of resources they employ, the attention they devote to context, and the combination of methodologies they apply, all underscore the complexities of women's experience in colonial Africa and provide a link to contemporary scholarly issues. As the editors explain, "The specific topic of a chapter becomes the door through which the reader encounters an overarching theme in the literature" (4). Not the first historical study of African women, the anthology is located within "a burgeoning historiography" (2) which the editors review concisely as they assess the field of African women's history.

Each chapter raises several themes or issues, and these echo throughout the volume. Particularly prominent is the issue of spousal relations or marriage. Though societies varied widely in how relations between the sexes were arranged, maintained, and/or dissolved, several chapters show that everywhere in Africa the agents of colonialism were preoccupied with regularizing marriage and defining women's position within it. In his study of the colonial courts in the Northern Territories of Ghana, where marriage was considered by the colonial administrators to be the "ever recurring problem" (119), Scan Hawkins argues that the greatest challenge to British colonial rule of the LoDagaa was the relative autonomy women enjoyed outside of the courts, in spite of the concerted efforts of colonial administrators to impose Western-style forms of marriage. Commenting on colonial courts as his resource, he considers them to have been at the heart of the exercise of colonial power. Hawkins integrates the classic anthropological studies carried out in the Northern Territories with legal concepts and historical methods applied to the court documents to explain categories of sexual offenses and to show that men gained a new proprietorial sense of control over wives as a consequence of the colonial courts. …


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