The Long Walk to Equality Historical Influences on Women in Igbo Society

History suggests that pre-colonial Igbo women were far from powerless and helpless like contemporary literature portrays them and even less docile than their Western counterparts at the time.

On 11 April 2014, the Supreme Court of Nigeria upheld a ruling in favor of Ms Gladys Ukeje, granting her the right to inherit property from her late father’s estate. This ruling sparked outrage from indigenes of the Igbo society as it allowed Ms Ukeje to circumvent a traditional Igbo custom that prohibits daughters from inheriting property. While the backlash from Igbo men was not unexpected, it was astonishing to find some Igbo women in staunch opposition to a ruling that furthered gender equality. These women failed to see how this ruling favoured them and appeared more concerned with ‘what will happen to their brothers’ and how they could ‘dare to challenge their brothers for their inheritance’. They supported a subjugate practice embedded in Igbo society that is, in actual fact, not ironclad. A daughter is typically excluded from land inheritance as she is expected to marry and move into her husband’s house but in some Igbo communities, for example, a daughter can inherit property as the ‘female son’ where there is no son to carry on the family name. A father may also specifically gift land to his daughter.

History suggests that the pre-colonial women were far from powerless and helpless like contemporary literature portrays them and even less docile than their Western counterparts at the time. The women in pre-colonial Igbo society had a considerable level of autonomy and independence. The society was not strictly egalitarian but there was a ‘balance of power’ between men and women on political, economic, and inheritance matters.

In Igbo societies, Men and women governed through ‘parallel organizations’, with each gender having its separate political, economic, and religious institutions. Pre-colonial women were active businesswomen and contributed to the governance of society. The ‘Ụmụ Inyom’ body, consisting of married women in the community, challenged and meted out punishments to the men who erred against the institution of marriage or engaged in domestic violence and child abuse. Women were also in charge of trade and market activities; the Omu and her cabinet were responsible for making and implementing rules that guided the market and settling market disputes. They also oversaw matters concerning adultery, theft, and other violations of traditional laws and customs in the market, making them extremely influential in the affairs of the community.

A PARADIGM SHIFT

Colonialism was instrumental in stifling the autonomy of Igbo women and altering their position in Igbo society. Gender disparities in land ownership became pronounced during colonialism with the forceful acquisition of lands by the colonial officers. The 1917 Public Lands Acquisition Act gave the colonial government the right to forcefully acquire land irrespective of current ownership, and the majority of the acquired land was repurposed for cash crop production. This included land previously owned by women.

It also became more difficult for women to acquire land during this period as Igbo men were responsible for producing cash crops such as coffee and cotton for export and thus more likely to acquire and manage land. Women, on the other hand, continued to cultivate food crops for immediate consumption, which were considerably less profitable. Men also migrated to urban areas to earn wages from work in the mines, railway, and road construction while the women remained in the rural areas. Western education was initially limited to males, giving them a further advantage over women.  All these changes gave men greater status and widened the economic disparity between the sexes.

One of the most significant colonial changes was the establishment of Native Authorities under the indirect rule system. Colonial masters appointed solely male warrant chiefs to govern in different south-eastern communities and this form of social organization was quite different from the traditional parallelism that had been built into Igbo society. Under this new system, women did not have a role in the established political system and now faced colonial policies that infringed directly on their rights, such as the imposition of a direct tax on their income.

Furthermore, the appointed warrant chiefs frequently abused their power by seizing properties and forcefully acquiring women. Such actions fuelled activism among the Igbo women during this era: they wrote several petitions to the colonial officers to vent their frustrations against some of the policies and protested during the Aba Women’s ‘Riot’ of 1929. Unfortunately, the opposition was stifled after the colonial police killed 50 women and left others wounded in Calabar and Owerri. Although the riots prompted the colonial authorities to reverse the tax policy and curb the powers of the warrant chiefs, women remained excluded from the new socio-political system—the once parallel society transformed into one where women played second fiddle.

The influence of Christianity in the relegation of women in Igbo society cannot be overlooked. Along with embracing Christian doctrines and total obedience to the church, missionaries encouraged women to embrace docility and submissiveness to become the perfect housewives for male converts. Female converts were also tasked with keeping the different church institutions clean and tidy for services. Between having a role in the church and preparing to be a ‘good Christian wife’, women moved from being autonomous decision-makers in social affairs to taking orders from the custodians of the church and their husbands at home. The Western practice of adopting the husband’s surname also became the norm in the Igbo society after the arrival of missionaries. Erroneously, some Igbo lawyers today ascribe adopting the husband’s name as being inherent to Igbo culture and admonish women who choose to retain their maiden name. Traditionally, however, changing one’s surname was irrelevant as a wife was still often addressed by her father’s name or occasionally referred to as ‘nwunye nke -’ (wife of -), as opposed to her adopting a new surname altogether.

LOOKING BACK TO MOVE FORWARD

Hence, although the Supreme Court recently ruled against excluding a daughter from inheriting her father’s property, the actual implementation of this ruling in Igbo society will be difficult. This is because many view the court ruling as an infringement on culture. Men are not willing to acquiesce that the additional power they gained was through colonialism and women continue to be marginalized under the guise of culture.

As history is not studied as part of the Nigerian elementary or secondary school curriculum, many grow up without a true appreciation of the role women played in traditional Igbo society. Undoubtedly, pre-colonial societies had practices that were disadvantageous to the female gender, but women also held positions of socio-political and economic power. Ultimately, the persistent notions regarding a woman’s subservience have been largely influenced by western norms transmitted through colonialism and religion.

If people do not study the history of their society, they not only remain ignorant but also act as a hindrance to progress, among which is gender equality. Where the modern Igbo society is concerned, it becomes necessary to revisit history to discover and potentially restore progressive cultural practices

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