African Women: A Modern History

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

Introduction

In different ways at different times, the women of sub-Saharan Africa have led, and continue to lead, difficult lives. In barely a century, their situation-- or, rather, situations, because the subcontinent is huge, and widely divergent in types of social organization--has changed drastically. Ancient and modern ways mingle uniquely in each case. 1

Femaleness is of course a common factor, but the woman is also a peasant or a city-dweller, intellectual or working-class, overburdened and overworked mother, independent, single, or divorced; all these factors play their role. And these life circumstances are experienced differently by women in Africa than in Western societies.

African women have at least one other point in common: they have no time. They have always worked more than men (which is not to say that men did nothing, a false idea that is widespread). Today they work differently but, with few exceptions, just as hard. They are so overburdened with tasks of all kinds that they hardly have time to bemoan their fate or even to wonder about it. Their image of themselves remains cloudy.

The image that African men have of them--and African men, like men throughout the world, love to watch women--has been the more distorted for having been perverted by others, particularly but not exclusively Western observers. All these observers have been men, for it is men who have traveled to Africa from earliest times. Thus, even more than that of women in general, the image of African women is stereotyped: from the fertile and nurturing Earth Mother to the lazy, debauched young beauty. These images do not interest me.

The point of this work is primarily to understand why African women have lacked the leisure and often even the right to observe themselves. How have they used the time so parsimoniously allotted to them, and how would they like to use it? I have learned about these women through their lives and their activity. They have been and are still the nurturers. What did they do in

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