The position of women in Nigerian society is not easy to analyze. Many aspects of Nigerian society today still retain the effects of the colonial period. One of the residual effects is the existence of two systems of law in Nigeria -- customary (tribal) law and the general (English) law. In considering the status of women in society one must understand that it may differ relative to the system of law governing the woman's given situation (i.e. marriage, divorce, employment, etc.). 1 Besides the existence of two systems of law, another aspect of Nigerian society today is the result of colonial rule. In pre-colonial tribal Nigeria, women were active in political, community, and economic matters. English rule considerably diminished that activity.
A number of West African traditional societies have political systems which can be described as "dual-sex." In these societies, the major interest groups are defined and represented by sex; each sex manages its own affairs and women's interests are represented at every level. 2 Pre-colonial Nigeria was such a dual-sex system. "Women have a very high status under customary law; and in the political field, women exerted great influence. The Aba Riots in Eastern Nigeria in 1929 showed the resentment of the women over the issue of taxes." 3 In 1929, Nigerian women were actually political activists on that issue! Things are different today.
In Nigerian society in general, women's lack of interest in political matters -- or more accurately their invisibility in present-day politics -- is a legacy of the colonial period. 4 With English rule came the sexist Victorian values which were to pervade all aspects of life. To understand the status of Nigerian women today, it is important first to understand their role in pre- colonial society and the changes wrought by colonial rule.
In the traditional Ibo society two local monarchs ruled -- the male obi and the unrelated, female omu. Each of the monarchs had a cabinet of dignitaries and councillors. The obi ruled the men and the omu the women. According to Hafkin and Bay, "the dual nature of the system aimed at a harmonious and effective division of labor by which both sexes would receive adequate attention to their needs." 5 While the omu and the obi were unrelated, they worked both separately and together to provide effective rule for the whole of society.
The omu (and her cabinet) had various functions and responsibilities. One of her major functions was to oversee the community market, held every four days. The omu determined the rules and regulations of the market, including price-fixing and disciplining those who broke market rules. She handled family