Africa Badass women Feminism History

Only if you are old, rich and from a specific region

When I read the title of Minna Salami’s most recent post, “There were no matriarchies in precolonial Africa”, my first thought was “oh no but this is a generalisation!” I approached the post carefully and by the time I had finished reading it, I found that I agreed with most of Salami’s points. Especially when she says that arguing about mythical matriarchies that existed before the evil Westerners came and destroyed everything “numbs the anger of the persisting patriarchy we have found ourselves in for centuries…curbs revolution…controls feminist activism…reinforces gender stereotypes…[and] lets male privilege off the hook when inhabited by men who “at least” are aware of how motherly women warriors once ruled in some distant age”.

Salami’s post gave me a lot to think about, and as I ruminated over the post and comments, several questions came to mind.

“Queen Nzingha”

Is matriarchy truly good for all women?
What did woman power in precolonial African societies truly mean for all women? We know patriarchy benefits some men more than others, and does affect men albeit in different ways. As bell hooks eloquently puts it in her essay “Understanding Patriarchy”, “patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation”. Following this train of thought, perhaps matriarchy does not mean good things for all women in a given society.

That some African cultures today still have traces of matrilineal practices suggests that these societies may have been matriarchal at some point in history. However, while some may cheer upon seeing “matri…” anything, these practices are not always beneficial to women. Initially, I would not have considered that matrilineal practices may be more disadvantageous for women yet now I know it happens. This recent article examines matrilineal inheritance among the Balues of Cameroon. In Balue society, inheritance is passed through the female line, but women do not inherit instead when a man dies the first son of his sister inherits his property. Here we have a matrilineal society that completely ignores women in favour of the sons they birth. It is interesting that a Balue woman labels matrilineality “the worst tradition that the Balue people have” and that women have formed groups to challenge this tradition.

As it may be, the presence of matrilineal inheritance, not matter that this tradition does not exactly profit women, suggests that the Balue were a matriarchal society once upon a time. It is entirely possible that there were African societies that progressed from matriarchal to patriarchal systems. Examples can be seen in the male appropriation of ritual power a topic I have discussed on this blog as it has been dissected in African cinema (see here and here). There are countless African societies that have myths of early Queens. Queen Ebulejonu is said to have founded the Kingdom of Igala and all the kings of Igalaland pierce their ears in memory of Queen Ebulejonu. Ancient Queens were mentioned in Dr Gus Casely-Hayford’s show “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Bunyoro and Buganda“. Another example is with the BaChokwe who “say that the female ruler Ruwej was overthrown by her brothers. (Another version says that Ruwej married a BaLuba chief who took over her political functions and imposed patrilineal descent.) To preserve their matrilineal ways, BaChokwe oral history says that they split off from the BaLunda and migrated south to Angola. Among the BaLunda themselves, the name Ruwej remained as one of the titles of female officers in court councils”. In addition, recall the Hausa oral tradition of Bayajida who is said to have married the Queen of Daura, their seven sons founded the seven Hausa city-states. It is conceivable that Daura was a matriarchal society before their Queen married Bayajida and the system changed from woman power to man power.

I am not one who believes that “matriarchies” never existed in Africa, and elsewhere. At the same time I am aware that systems of power can abuse and may not always benefit the groups of people whose lives the system claims to improve. There can be no denying that there have been countless African women, most of their names forgotten, who wielded enormous amounts of power. However at the risk of imagining utopia, we should not take these facts to mean that all African women had access to the same levels of power.

“Queen Amina”

The requirements
Now regarding the title of this post, “Only if you are old, rich and from a specific region”. The most powerful women in several African communities were usually the oldest women in the lineage. Respect and admiration for women was usually linked to birth, motherhood and age as can be seen in the Yoruba gelede tradition. Even in societies that were generally free for all there were still avenues that were the sole maintenance of “full men”. For example, women in precolonial Igbo society were very free, Igbo women could own property and pass this property to their daughters, sex work was not a crime, gender and sex were fluid, women had the right to divorce…yet women were forbidden to see masquerades. That is all women except for the oldest born woman in the community who could become the girlfriend of a masquerade. At the same time it is necessary to mention that “full women” had their own avenues that “full men” could not dream of getting close to. (Here I use “full men” and “full women” because in societies where men could become women and women could become men, there were sections of society that were not open to transgendered people).

The most powerful women from African history whose names are popularised in most spaces on African history today were old, rich and came from specific regions that allowed women to attain established levels of power. I find it mildly annoying when the popular few remembered historical women, Yaa Asantewa of Ghana, Queen Amina of Nigeria and Queen Nzingha of Angola are portrayed as young women in art or fiction. This is not only factually wrong but gives a very false impression that any woman, young or not, in any part of Africa could have risen to power and controlled armies. Yaa Asantewa, Queen Amina and Queen Nzingha all came from royal families, they were also not young when they utilised their woman power. Yaa Asantewa is said to have been a grandmother when she rallied her people to fight against the colonising British while Queen Nzingha was not the only powerful woman in that area at the time. Similarly Queen Amina is said to have come to the throne (not immediately) after another similarly powerful Queen who may have been her mother.

(This is not to say that there were no young women who came from poor backgrounds and/or societies that were hostile to “woman power”, it is just telling that the names of these women are largely forgotten today. Similarly when we talk of how African men in the past married several wives, we forget that not all men had the wealth or ability to marry multiple wives. Unless one believes in that utopia, that every man in any precolonial African society was either rich, or poor, that is on the same level, it is wrong to assume that every man from the King, chief or clan head, to the blacksmith, the labourer or the slave could afford to marry more than one wife.)

It is fascinating that those who try to convince me that African women do not need feminism because of the supposed abundance of “matriarchies” in the African past, can only provide those three names (Yaa Asantewa, Queen Amina and Queen Nzingha) when there are more women to remember. Dahia al-Kahina, the Amazigh priestess who fought against Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century and Kimpa Vita of Congo are relatively well-known. Others such as Wanankhucha of Somalia, Nehanda Nyakasikana of Zimbabwe, Muhumusa of Uganda, Nomtetha Nkwenkwe of South Africa, Alinesitoué Diatta of Senegal, and Gudit Isat of Ethiopia who challenged the Christian Azumite empire and founded the Zagwe dynasty, are not so celebrated outside specific spaces. Now, even though I happen to known of several powerful women in pre-colonial Africa, I would never agree that feminism is something African women should not bother with.

“Yaa Asantewaa”

So, what exactly is matriarchy?
In the end it will depend on what you classify as matriarchy and how you would measure woman power. Which brings me to my third pondering, how has living under a patriarchal system affected understandings of what woman power was like in the past? Max Dashu puts forward matrix (from the Latin for “womb”) cultures which are “built on the act of women bearing and sustaining life”, their social, economic and cultural organization follows kinship through mothers…without having to be concerned about determining paternity, or enforcing patrilineage through a sexual double standard”. Based on this one could argue precolonial Igbo society qualifies as a matrix, woman right culture, although as I’ve suggested not all women had access to the same amounts of power.

Dashu challenges the assumption that male domination has governed human society forever and instead posits that patriarchy is simply a historical development. I have personally encountered people who blame the emergence of patriarchy on women, because of earlier “matriarchy”. However Dashu claims that matrix societies are usually egalitarian, they do not, for example place female deities over male ones. Matrix societies did not “enforce a patriarchal double standard around sexuality, property, public office and space; that did not make females legal minors under the control of fathers, brothers, and husbands, without protection from physical and sexual abuse by same…[or] confine, seclude, veil, or bind female bodies, nor amputate or deform parts of those bodies…[There] have been cultures that accorded women public leadership roles and a range of arts and professions, as well as freedom of movement, speech, and rights to make personal decisions”.

I must say that I prefer “matrix cultures” to “matriarchy” even though I do not subscribe to the believe that matriarchy is the exact opposite of patriarchy and is just as dominating. The topic of a mythical matriarchal past has come up before, though not in African contexts. The former quoted sentence is part of Dashu’s response to the feminist book by Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.

To round up, it is just as discounting to argue that women have always been subordinate to men’s dominance as it is to argue that the existence of matriarchies destroyed all manifestations of the subjugation of women. Models that were not completely patriarchal or matriarchal have existed in the past. And in those societies that were patriarchal, the degree of domination was not always equal. Reality is always complex especially when looking at the enormous and diverse African continent.


I have recently completed reading The Female Colonial King of Nigeria by Nwando Achebe. The Female Colonial King of Nigeria is entirely fascinating and I highly recommend it. I have failed at updating my blog as scheduled for the past three Wednesdays, but inshallah, two weeks from now I will launch a series of posts centred around Nwando Achebe’s historical biography. I hope to raise more insight on female power in pre-colonial and colonial Nigeria with the upcoming posts, as well as to further illustrate why and how female leadership does not necessarily mean better things for all women. Not to mention how woman power could be curtailed in even those societies that were reasonably free for women.


  1. Nice analysis. As I grapple with the numerous drawbacks of existing in a patriarchal system that has lost it’s footing, it’s interesting to think of the alternatives and examples in history. I look forward to your next installments.

    1. I apologise that it has taken me so long to put up the next installments. I plan to have them up before this week ends, working on them has taken more time than I thought.

  2. Thanks for the references to my article and for all the informative links!
    @blacklooks introduced to me a third term – ‘Kyriarchy’ explained and differentiated from patriarchy as follows;

    “Kyriarchy seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression. ” Which is further complicated within a colonial and post-colonial context to include sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, normativity [hetero/homo] and so on. See here for more :

    It was a great read too.

    You write: “…it is just as discounting to argue that women have always been subordinate to men’s dominance as it is to argue that the existence of matriarchies destroyed all manifestations of the subjugation of women.”

    That especially resonates with me, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that also in patriarchal rule there are women who aren’t subordinate. As we know even from looking at our societies today.

    I’m keen to keep exploring this theme and exploring the concept of matriarchy, I think this history is vital for us to try to understand as part of attempts to make things clearer for ourselves/women today and for future gens. I find that the general interest in history is constantly diminishing and it’s somewhat frightening.

  3. Interesting and informative read. As an uninformed young man, I always imagined that some of these matriachies that were said to have existed in africa were mirror images of patriachies with women taking the lead in such societies. You are indeed right that existence of matriachies in the past does not negate the need for a push for women’s rights and that patriachy might not be necessarily good for all men or matriachy good for women. Interesting perspective about Matrix societies, never read about them.

  4. What I find most interesting is the semantic implications of verbal and written arguments in topics such as this. Linguistically, matriarchy and patriarchy are opposites but in reality, they are compatriots but not opposite – both in form and substance. (Why this is so can be grappled with in numerous ways ranging from freudian deconstructions as to how & why men and women are different to common (in the epicenic sense) formulations that decry in varying degrees accepted gender/sex distinction. )

    How do we maintain a salient discussion, (given the complexity of the objects in question) without being to lost in the murky details separating things.

    1. Linguistically, matriarchy and patriarchy are opposites but in reality, they are compatriots but not opposite – both in form and substance.

      I’m inclined to agree with this. Semantics can be an insurmountable problem, I just hope to show examples of how things are not limited to our modern day beliefs/understanding.

  5. Excellent discussion! I agree that a matriarchy is only the flip side of a patriarchy. Rulers, whether male or female, are seldom kind and benevolent. In short, who wants to be “ruled?” And the existence of female hegemonies does not negate the need for feminism among African women. It calls to mind Bell Hooks’s brilliant work, Ain’t I a Woman, in which she talked about White feminists during 1960s (70s?) pointing to Black women working at low income jobs as evidence that they were “liberated.” Another example, in this same vein I believe, are Black writers who romanticized sexism during the Black Power movement. As if having a Black patriarch, somehow made it better.

    1. bell hooks is my heroine, and Ain’t I a Woman is a very profound piece of work. I think the general idea some people hold is that when the “underdog” rules, things are suddenly better.

Comments are closed.