Voiceless, Submission, Property, Inferior, Weak, etc., are the common words used while describing a woman in Africa, a common phrase found among the present-day Igbos, who lack historical awareness of the majestic civilization of our ancestors in regard to gender relations and roles. These terms are echoed within the various cultural and non-cultural institutions, among graduates and presumed academics. These words and more are often used to provide an intellectual image of Igbo/African women and how they are perceived in pre-colonial and colonial society by renowned authors and influencers.
It’s highly presumptive of these individuals, that Igbo women were sold by their relatives and owned by their husbands after marriage, with the purpose to serve and breed. This ridiculous assertion has fueled the saying “Nwaanyi m jiri ego wee nuuta”(The woman I married with my money).
In total disregard to these assertions, Igbo pre-colonial society was characterized by balance and equity irrespective of gender or biological determination. This principle of balance and equity wasn’t prevalent within ancient western society, which was built on ownership and silence, a peculiar trait that was imposed on us through the colonial system and its administration.
The Igbo traditional marriage rite of “Igba Nkwu”, has always been used to illustrate the ownership of women, but author and ex-slave, Olaudah Equiano in his memoir “The astonishing adventures of Olaudah” interpreted, this Igbo rite as a system of economic redistribution. He further explained that families are expected to bring gifts and edibles which are to be used during the ceremony. The gifts items which include land, household equipment, animals, etc. are all gifted to the new pair as Dowry. His assertion replaced the idea of “Ime Ego” as the monetary exchange for a woman, which is more or less a recent venture.
According to my grandmother Nnnu ehi “Bride price are basically determined by the father of the bride” In most cases, he can decide to collect as low as (5)Naira, but if the man is greedy he can decide to sell off his ward in the name of bride price, but other than that “We don’t sell our daughters”, Oburo omenaala anyi(Igbo), these assertion is to illustrate the Igbo marital rite and replace the assertion that “Women are being sold, through the rite of Ime Ego-Bride Price”.
The importance of a woman and her magnitude is seen at the core of Igbo spiritual practices “Odinaani”, where the ultimate reverence to the divine feminine is enshrined. For instance; the acknowledgment of God as a woman(Chi-na-eke), the acknowledgment of Ani (the divine mother), and the acknowledgment of cosmic and primordial forces manifesting as Edo, Ogwugwu, Akaette ,Idemmili, etc all divine feminine.
In Igbo pre-colonial, Women had a considerate degree of autonomy and independence, which was a shared “Balance of power” between men and women. Our society wasn’t strictly egalitarian but we enjoyed a certain degree of shared economic and political power. We maintained a parallel socio-political organization indicating the existence of balance. Such parallel organizations include; Umuada and Umunna, Otu Ogbo(Age grades), Nze na Ozo, Iyom Di, etc.
Many assertions has being made by scholars and non-scholars on the submissive nature of Igbo women, some has gone to great lengths to be eternally grateful to Feminism or Europeanization as the messiah that paved way for Igbo woman to own some degree of autonomy and rights. Looking into the lives of these women, they were active in business and helped to maintain serenity within the community, more especially they stood against any form of injustice and punished erring husbands through the process of Inodu Nwoke N’isi.
The women controlled the markets and were active in farm work, the market and its activities had a figurehead who is known as an Omu. She and her cabinet are responsible for the making and implementation of rules that guide the market and its surrounding. This also includes measuring proportional sanctions on any misdemeanor done by either men or women.
While power was diffused between men and women in Igbo pre-colonial society, this cultural element wasn’t prevalent in European patriarchal society, women weren’t allowed to be heard rather they are to be seen, they do not have the power to make decisions and they were not allowed to own properties because they themselves were seen as properties, with this misguided impression, they corrupted our society through the imposition of male-only warrant chiefs. This imposition, carefully excluded women from holding any meaningful political position, they also made laws that prevented women from punishing men that maltreats their women, hence the rise of domestic violence in our society. These laws and imposition made it difficult for women to own properties as they could no longer register their inherited or acquired properties, they, therefore, resulted to registering these acquisitions in the name of their sons and husbands (Obodo adiro mma bu uru ndi nze).
This article, “Fascinating Truths About Women In Igbo Pre-colonial Society” tells us about women-organized organizations such as Omu, Umuada, Umuokpu, Umu Inyom di, and Igba Odu and their respective functions within the community, these organizations helped in the creation of balance within the Igbo community which also influenced “Women Riots” that protested the end of heavy taxations and warrant chiefs.
The diffusion of Power in Igbo precolonial society served as a check and balance to individuals within the community. These women challenged and diced out punishments to the men who engaged in domestic violence, through the practice of ” Inodu Nwoke N’isi-The literal meaning of this practice is different from what it actually implies, what this means is that the women in their numbers move to the man’s hut dancing in circles, destroying his properties and questioning his manhood at the same”.
Chimamanda at the 2018 Igbo conference gave a deep insight into the structure of our society before Colonialism and the consequences of colonialism which was the induction of most European cultural practices and religion as our own which wasn’t a reflection of our Igbo Society.
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 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.
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.
Culture in this modern time is now a tool for silencing women, it appears that our society has moved on from most cultural practices which they call primitive but women are still expected to dwell in an imported idea that the modern man sees as his culture. For instance, women are expected to remain in abusive and loveless marriages in the name of culture and female submission but looking at these elements of our past culture such as woman-to-woman marriage(Female husbands), such practice is centered on procreation which is the second and most important reasons for marriage.
In conclusion, as Igbos, the knowledge of our pre-colonial society is very essential but often times neglected, for us to correct the often-dominant negative narrative, we should try to understand it, not by dispelling it but by putting it in a more appropriate perspective. If we don’t know who we truly are, how can we begin to even implement changes?
We wouldn’t even know where to start and it’s one of the reasons why we still struggle. To move forward in a positive light, we need to have a strong sense of identity steeply rooted in both pre-colonial and post-colonial cultures.
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