Gender, Anti-Colonialism and Nationalism The Anti-Colonial Legacies of African Women

That African women’s participation in anti-colonial and nationalist struggles may not be as obvious in existing literature does not mean such participation was peripheral.

Walking into the headquarters of the African Union at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one is quickly confronted at the entrance by a display of about 50 Africans, all men, ascribed with the legacy of African nationalists. These men are noted to have worked towards attaining independence or rebuilding Africa. Sadly, not a single woman’s image adorns this seeming ‘historical wall’. Men, apparently, monopolize the nationalist narrative in Africa. Very few accounts or writings depict women conspicuously as political players or avid influencers of the anti-colonialism discourse. While Africa’s anti-colonialism and nationalism discourse hardly include the role that women played as nationalists, the fact remains that women distinguished themselves in the colonial and nationalist struggle as powerful, self-determining and yet matriarchal.

Feminism is having a marked impact on studies of colonialism, especially on the gender dimensions of nationalist movements and ideologies. Africa’s reaction to European intrusion into Africa was not uniform; throughout the period of the scramble for Africa, European colonizers faced resistance in many parts of Africa. There are advantages to viewing the workings of such resistance through the lens of gender because gendered dynamics illuminate valuable, under-discussed aspects of anti-colonial struggles.

The repudiation of colonialism in Africa occurred in diverse forms, sometimes subtle and at other times aggressive, including a readiness to suppress ruthlessly. Undeniably, there was a shared focus of the anti-colonial reactions, and it was the irresistible pursuit of nationalism. African nationalism and anti-colonial efforts involved the collective efforts of men and women, who focused on overthrowing European colonial domination, achieving independence and building new nation-states.


There were varied feminine and masculine cultures in the colonial context and these had political consequences. In the same way that custom and tradition were key domains for determining feminine cultures and women’s behaviour, colonial agitations and nationalism were also crucial in defining the place of women and how they responded to colonialism. Although the colonial enterprise had its effects on gender relations and the status of women in the local colonized African societies, women responded to the shifting patterns of political authority, economy and sometimes Empire-sponsored propaganda in diverse ways. Across the continent, women used demonstrations, protests, revolts, riots and other local institutions such as song and dance groups to express colonial agitation. Others responded to the changing political and economic system by collective attacks on colonial and native authorities or defiantly refusing to obey orders.


Song and dance were common modes of individual and collective communication for African women, whether informal dance groups in Tanganyika or organized dance protests in Nigeria and South Africa. In 1925, women in Eastern Nigeria produced a new form of dance they called Nwaobiala in response to colonial and missionary interventions. The style, form, and content of these performances provided a means for women to resist and critique colonial practices and policies. Practices such as sweeping, which Igbo women incorporated into their performances, signified the need to clean out the pollution of moral and social disorders brought by colonizers and missionaries. The bands would usually appear in the marketplace suddenly, and charismatically announce their presence by ritualized and prolonged sweeping of public spaces. The dancers eventually drew the attention of colonial officers. These women took over the political space, advised men and even made demands on a note that promised the potential for sanctions if the opportunity presents itself. Misty Bastian points out that although the British Colonial Administration had suggested that this women’s movement might have been influenced by men, male influence was unlikely because the demands made during the Nwaobiala often ran counter to the interests of male authority, a fact recognized by some colonial administrators and native authorities.

The Somalian poetry case also exemplifies how women were also involved in the anti-colonial project through informal platforms. The distinctly female genre of poetry known as ‘buranbur’ was a socially acceptable means for women to protest their grievances. Their poetry became especially politicized, as they articulated and spread nationalist consciousness. Hawa Jibril was one member of the Somali Youth League (SYL), which encouraged female articulation of political consciousness through poetry. Her poetry spoke of the determined struggles of women against colonial domination. In the colonial era, it was often the inspirational female leaders owning and developing tradition that enjoyed great social and political legitimacy. Additionally, the Somali nationalist movement gave women the opportunity through poetry to also claim a stake in their own powerful traditions.

Tanzania’s Tanganyika women participated in nationalist struggles through dance groups. Community tensions in Ujiji, Tanzania increased in late 1929 when the colonial administration (for the first time since the beginning of British rule) imposed new taxes and men were expected to pay full tax for their houses and one-half for each wife. Women expressed their discontent in their rival dance competitions and as early as 1930 the British provincial commissioner, worried about the female dance competitions in Ujiji for fear it could lead to riots, banned the dance performance. At the very least, the temporary banning and the surveillance for trouble revealed the ‘anti-colonial anxiety’ women provoked in the British colonial administrators.


Among the Akan of Ghana, the importance of ‘queen mothers’ is derived from the system of matrilineal descent. The queen mother was a kind of ‘king-maker’. It was her duty to put forward the name of her chosen candidate for chief to the stool elders who made the election. In exceptional circumstances, she may even act as a war leader, as in the 1900 ‘Yaa Asantewa’ war in Ashanti. The Asante-British War of 1900-1901 is also known as the war of the ‘Golden Stool’ and the Yaa Asantewaa War in Ghana, named after the Queen of Edweso, its principal inspiration. Ghanaian historian, Albert Adu Boahen, acknowledges Yaa Asantewaa’s leadership and role in the war and emphasizes her in the colonial historical accounts. Boahen documents that in the Ashanti Kingdom during the Ashanti-British War, with their king and many leading chiefs already in exile, the Asante faced a new crisis with the British governor’s demands for additional tribute and the symbolic Golden Stool. According to Arhin Brempong, it was Yaa Asantewaa who rallied Asante resistance with her fiery and provocative speeches and gender-conscious challenges. Yaa Asantewaa’s dream for an Asante free of British rule was realized on 06 March 1957 when the Asante protectorate gained independence as part of Ghana, the first African nation to achieve this feat. Till date, she remains lauded in Ghanaian history for the courage she displayed in confronting colonial domination.

There is also the legacy of Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo of the Ndebele people of Matabele, Zimbabwe. Queen Lozikeyi was King Lobengula’s first wife. She was an intelligence officer and adviser on security issues and relationships with White colonial missionaries and settlers. By signing the Rudd Concession, King Lobengula did not realize that he had given away the country and its wealth for 100 pounds per month, 1,000 breach-loader Martin-Henry rifles, 10,000 cartridges and a gun boat on the Zambezi River. And yet, the British did not honour the promise. The British colonizers attacked Lobengula at Bulawayo. Without enough ammunition, Lobengula fled, leaving Bulawayo on fire. When he tragically died, leaving the war unfinished, Queen Lozikeyi took control of the Ndebele nation. An account by Nduta Waweru notes that Lozikeyi was respected by the chiefs and her people. People from Zambia and Kalanga also paid her homage and the Europeans respected her very much and saluted her as queen. Eventually enraged by the British settlers, Queen Lozikeyi led troops against the British in the 1896 Anglo-Matabele War, also called the ‘Battle of the Red Axe’. Months of war followed, leading to the defeat of the Ndebele due to the Europeans’ advantage in superiority of weapons. Despite losing the war, Queen Lozikeyi still exercised power as leader of the Ndebele State.

Anti-colonial and liberation struggles across Africa are also replete with examples of women leading as actual combatants. Take for instance the gendered roles in the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, where women worked as soldiers alongside men. The Mau Mau Uprising (1952–1964), also known as the Mau Mau Rebellion and the Mau Mau Revolt, was a war in the British Kenya colony. The armed rebellion of the Mau Mau was the culminating response to colonial rule. Although there had been previous instances of violent resistance to colonialism, the Mau Mau revolt was the most prolonged and violent anti-colonial warfare in the British Kenya colony.  Till date, members of Mau Mau are recognized by the Kenyan government as freedom-independence ‘heroes and heroines’ who sacrificed their lives in order to free Kenyans from colonial rule.

Several of the women who became prominent in the movement had a highly developed political consciousness and a high sense of commitment to Mau Mau ideology. Mau Mau supporters began the political process by taking a series of oaths of loyalty as they rose through the ranks of the movement. The highest oaths required the greatest level of commitment to the cause with the expectation of sacrifices for the movement such as helping the men hide from the British, providing and bringing food and even weapons for the men and fighting alongside the men. Mau Mau women were also subjected to propaganda, violence, torture and prison detention by the British officials. Oaths served to build solidarity and intensify the political consciousness among movement members. Wambui Otieno was an example of a committed supporter of the Mau Mau and took her first oath at age 16. Overall, women were integral to the Mau Mau movement. They were intrinsically involved and undertook responsibilities which made them pivotal for the Kenyan nationalist struggles.


Women also became active organizers of their own protests. These organizations of women arguably opened the possibility for widespread organized protest and political activity, unprecedented in African society. In 1920s eastern Nigeria, when the British colonial administration—in pursuit of the policy of indirect rule—introduced male-dominated authorities and adopted regulations and controls which prejudiced the economic interests of female producers of cash crops, resentment among the women mounted. This resentment was brought to a head in late 1929, when successive incidents in the Owerri province persuaded women that taxation established for men in 1928 was to be extended to their activities. As a result, women’s solidarity organizations were activated in widespread protests, demanding among other things the appointment of women as district officers and warrant chiefs. In the ensuing uprising, tens of thousands of women mobilized in Calabar and Owerri provinces; native courts were attacked and the warrant chiefs ridiculed, as women drew upon networks and ritual traditions that had maintained their status in pre-colonial society. The movement was put down by force of arms, leaving over 50 dead. Unfortunately, this epic legacy is simply remembered in colonial discussions with the seemingly dismissive term of ‘Aba Women riots’ or ‘Ogu Umunwanyi’.

Cameroon’s Anlu uprising of 1959 also shows women gaining political relevance in the African nationalist era. From 1958 to 1961, women in western Cameroon cast aside their regular domestic and agricultural duties to engage in a revolt against British administrative interference in agriculture. In keeping with the practices of Anlu, a women’s organization generally deployed against people who violated the Kom moral code, women interfered with burial rituals, hurled insults at men in public and demanded the closing of schools, courts, and markets. They set up roadblocks, destroyed and burned property, and defied both traditional and British authorities in the Bamenda Grassfields of western Cameroon. Their tactics included stripping naked in front of men. While local men considered the sight of the vagina in public to be a bad portent and thus understood the seriousness of the revolt, flabbergasted British officials had no idea what was to come. By seizing control of resources and demonstrating in public, women disturbed local political power and protested British rule in the Cameroons. During that time, Anlu participants engaged in subversive actions against those who opposed them and strengthened their anti-colonial protest.

In South Africa, women demonstrated publicly, tore up passes and courted imprisonment from 1913-1918. This was the period of the anti-pass campaigns and women made efforts to challenge the repressive system in their country. At that time, anti-colonial response through protest was gendered with women in particular leading bus boycotts and demonstrations against the application of pass laws to women. A strong and sustained series of women’s protest movements in the Cape Town province revealed how colonialism affected women through institutions such as male-only labour compounds, the policing of migration, the feminization of rural poverty and the attempt to divide Black workers and their families.


South African sociologist, Cherryl Walker, argues that during protests in South Africa women did not just act as mothers but were politicized by participating in protests. Writing about the Federation of South African Women (FSAW), which she argues was a feminist organization, Walker notes that ‘women did campaign far more actively against passes than did the African National Congress (ANC) movement as a whole, and ANC men do seem to have disapproved of the FSAWtaking too independent a line.’ Walker also writes about the participation of South African women in politics. According to her, in its attempt to build up mass membership in the 1940s, the ANC leadership identified women as a previously neglected constituency. Accordingly, at the 1943 annual conference, women were granted full membership status and the right to vote and participate in congress affairs. The ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) was, therefore, established with a task of reaching a specific sector: ‘to arouse the interest of African women in the struggle for freedom and equality and assist the widespread organization of women; [and] to take up special problems and issues affecting women.’

During the colonial era, women’s organizations and associations were also emerging across East Africa. The growing role of such organizations in fuelling nationalist movements is well exemplified in Uganda. Such associations often started as missionary projects, aimed at educating girls under Christianity and often expanded into organizations founded for women. These organizations opened up the possibility for widespread organized protest and political activity. In the 1930s and 40s, the Ugandan Women’s League was active in establishing nursery schools and educating teachers and formed the basis of the Ugandan Council of Women, which lobbied government on women’s rights and national interests.

Similar organizations founded out of female solidarity before moving to become more political were mirrored across East Africa. Lady Twining’s Tanganyika Council of Women, which was founded in 1951, was especially active in mobilizing women towards working together in a more political space. Nationalist movements also blossomed with the development of exclusively female wings of political parties. The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) programme under Julius Nyerere in Tanganyika, for example, saw the creation of a women’s section in 1955, encouraging women to participate in nationalist politics, and according to Susan Geiger, to work as nation builders ‘shoulder to shoulder with their menfolk’. Women visibly organizing themselves into separate spheres through women’s associations, therefore, saw their quick infiltration into the political space, contributing to the creation of the nationalist ideology and the struggles.

It is imperative not to forget the role of miners’ wives in the struggles between African labourers and the copper companies in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) during the colonial period (1926-64). There are further accounts of named women who contributed to the colonial struggles; for example, in Somalia, Hawa Taako was an iconic female nationalist leader who worked exceptionally in British Somaliland. Killed by Italian policing forces during the Mogadishu anti-colonial riots of 1948 whilst acting as a leader of the Somali Youth League, Hawa became a metaphor for the tyranny of colonialism and a great figure of Somali independence during the 1950s.


Evidence of political consciousness is fundamental to examining social movements and, importantly, the extent of feminist consciousness in such movements. That women’s participation in anti-colonial and nationalist struggles may not be as obvious in existing literature does not mean such participation was peripheral. Looking at gender-specific spaces reflects how, in an era of intense social disruption, women’s dynamism and creative ideas exerted considerable power over the anti-colonial agenda.

It is important to recognize the role of female agency in anti-colonial struggles. The efforts of anti-colonial women enabled them to acquire a political status also suited to the needs of the nationalist struggles. These efforts challenge the existing masculine narrative of African nationalism. Many African women including those already mentioned left anti-colonial legacies. Such incredible women, who transformed and influenced anti-colonial narratives in Africa, cannot be ignored. Women were not simply an audience for the nationalist and anti-colonialism narrative; they should be placed at the core of the discourse and recognized for the impacts they made

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].