There are several ways one can look at the status of women in any society. During the last decade at least three approaches, not necessarily mutually exclusive, were discernible. One was to examine the common demographic indicators that give an overall picture of women’s relative standing vis-?-vis men. According to the 1981 census, the se ratio stood at 933 females per 1000 males. The literacy rate was 46.89 per cent for males and 24.82 per cent for females. The life expectancy at birth for females was 50 years and for males it was 50.9 years. The average age at marriage for females was 18.32 years and for males it was 23.27 years. The female work participation rate was 13.99 percent and the male work participation rate was 51.62 percent. Figures regarding economic participation rate for women have very little meaning as the definition of a worker has changed from one census to other. (Rehana Ghadially 1988 p.5)
As a study by Australian demographer John C. Caldwell powerfully demonstrates, for both men and women in Ibo traditional society many children have been the surest and stronger source of prestige. In the Ibo society, remaining unmarried is an extreme social divergence. It was considered central to man’s nature to beget, and women’s to conceive and bear, children. For women, marriage traditionally brought a variety of economic responsibilities and often only one source of both honor and security: their children. According to the Ibo tradition the man had to pay the family of the bride a bride price to secure her marriage. The payment was given in exchange for the economic value of woman to her husband in her labor and her children. Hence, for the husband and wife marriage was as much as anything else an economic compact.
(James L. Newman, 1995, p.122)
Customs governing division of labor, rights to land and to children varied widely. However, while a woman was married her husband generally held her labor and its fruits firmly within its grasp. In addition, the brides usually went to live with her husband’s kin, and she was dependent on this group in which she was a virtual outsider.
(Jennifer Seymour Whitaker, 1990, p. 99)
Once involved with her new household, an Ibo woman often lived a life quite separate economically from that of her husband, in which the basic unit was herself and her children. She was usually expected to cook her husband’s food, to bear children regularly, and to feed and clothe the children as well. Her husband traditionally provided
her with a hut and some land to farm. She supported her family by working the land allotted to her and by trading. Women usually did most of the cultivation. Therefore, it was accepted that women got plentiful land, and had rights to portions of family land for their own use, Often their surplus was theirs to keep; at other times they sold it to their husbands; sometimes their husbands kept it themselves. In any event, even though the women also did most of the cultivation on their husband’s land, they did not share in their husband’s income. Nor, when their husbands died, did the women inherit their property, which went to their sons or sometimes, to the sons of the husband’s sisters. (P.98)
Moreover, a woman herself is often inherited by her husband’s brother, who marries her to give her home and keep her procreative powers in the family. However, ultimately, even more than men, women had to depend on their children for their economic well being, and, in their old age, for their survival. Between husband and wife, mutual respect was the most important personal bond. Intimate companionship or “love” in the sense we describe it was rare. Ibo women were expected to share their husbands with other wives. And in their competition for their husband’s regard, honor grew most of all with the numbers of children one gave her husband and his family. (p. 97-102)
As I mention before, being a mother was the most important role for an Ibo woman. It brings her prestige, pride, respect, and happiness. Therefore, traditionally, a failure to give birth would bring despair to the infertile woman. Her husband’s reaction would be cruel. In Buchi Emecheta’s novel The Joys Of Motherhood, for example, Nnu
Ego’s first husband tells her frankly why he no longer wants her, saying, “I am a busy man. I have no time to waste my precious male seed on a woman who is infertile. I have to raise children for my line” (p.32)
In addition, the woman’s status would change; if she must return to her own family, her kin are often loath to take back a barren woman whose bride price maybe forfeit forever; if he stays in her husband’s compound, her status will be less than that of other wives, and in times of troubles she might be turned a scapegoat. At this point, she might be suspected of being a witch. In any event, she is left with no acceptable role to play in the world she was reared to inhabit. (Whitaker, p. 101)
Women of the same natal village or village group might marry far and wide, but traditionally they would come together periodically in meetings often called ogbo (an Ibo word for gathering”). The umuada’s (daughters of a lineage) most ritual function was at funerals of lineage members, since no one could have a proper funeral without their ritual participation. This gave these women a significant measure of power. They also helped to settle disputes among their natal and marital lineages. During the british colonial period the term “gathering” came to be called mikri or mitri ( the igbo version of the English “meeting”). ” The Mikri appears to have performed the major role in daily self rule among in daily self rule among women and to have articulated women’s intersts as opposed to those of men. Mikri provided womenwith a forum in which to develop their
political talents and with a means of protecting their interests as traders, farmers, wives, and mothers.” (Judit Van Allen, 1990, p.24)
They, for instance, made decisions to protect their fruitfulnessof women and of their farms. And if violations against one of them was occurred, they used to “sit on” the offender or go on strike. At this point, I would like to point out that the men of the Ibo society regarded the mikri as legitimate. (p.24)
Looking at the present situtation, it is very difficult to know how firmly fixed traditional beliefs remian. What is clear is that the desire of the Ibo and africans in general to have many children reamins much higher than that of people in any other region of the world. Still given the primacy of fertility, it is not surprising that in many African societies motherhood is endowed with a mystique of near sacredness and carried with strong emotion. Among Nigeria’s Ibo today, many village women aspire above all to belong to the society of Those Whom God Have Blessed. To join those ranks, a woman must have ten pregnancies. (Whitaker, p. 103 100)
The position of women in Nigerian and African society appears to be a mojor contibuting cause of Africa’s food shotages. As I mentioned before, women were always subordiante to men. Nevertheless, women’s control of their economic destinies has declined since the British colonial era. The British created a system that weakened women’s position in the Ibo society. As a result these women rebelled against this
phenomenon and taxation. Althouhg it had been hard to end this women’s war, their situation did not change at all.
Today, in total, women work much longer hours than most men with consequent effects on their productivity as farmers. The land is still commonly passed to the eldest son. Women’s access to land most often depends on having a living husband. For the most part women do not control the use of the land; they are not allowed to decide what crops to plant. And moreover, wives are dependent on their husband’s approval before starting a farming operation, employing a sharecropper or getting a loan from the local credit union. (p.152-153)
Almost everywhere women’s negligible rights to land make it extremely difficult for them to gian credit ontheir own. In many instances, women are not permitted to participate in the cooperatives that often control credit as well as transport and marketing. Nor do wives have the right to to receive the income from cash crops. (p.154) Hence, one can conclude that the Ibo women’s rights to land since the colonial era has become worse than before.
In Marlise Simon’s article “African Women in France BattlingPloygamy,” on can notice that the tradition of having more than one woman as wife has lasted. There is a widespread practice of polygamy in France; The only difference is that these Africans immigrants, who brought this custom, are Muslims. “In Paris area alone, it is estimated
that 200,000 people live in polygamous families.” Simons says that African women in France are fighting the tradition ; they rebel against the phenomenon and their husband’s abuse. He also adds theat ” The Interior Ministry has already said it will not give a residence permit to more than one wife.” In any event, Polygamy has not restricted in the African society, and there is a long way until it will be enforced.
In general, the colonial period has worsened the position of most women, whether in daily life or work. They were more manipulated than before. When husbands and brothers had to leave home on forced labor, or as migants seeking the money to pay tax and to buy useful things as farming tools, wives and sisters were left with more work than before: in gardens, in the fields, in the home. Through all the long social crisis of the Great Depression and the Second World War, women had to bear the heaviest burdens of poverty and oppersion. These burdens, for example, are depicted in Emecheta’s Joys of Motherhood.
Gross inequalities between men and women have generally prevailed. However, some progress has been made against them, and continues to be made. Girls and young women found new educational opportunities, and adult women have also joined in the drive for education, attending literacy classes and various forms of vocational training, while a wider range of jobs has become available for women in towns. Beyond this, women, too, have begun to join to gether in self defence so as to claim, and sometimes, get a better status in society. Several African countries, by the 1980’s, had vigorous
organizations for the advancement of women, staffed and run by women, forming their own programs for the benefit of women. None of this had been possible during colonial times.
(Basil Davidson, 1994, p.186-191)