One of the aspects of the fight for gender equality in Africa that has been particularly frustrating for women activists is that much of this inequality is the continuing legacy of colonialism, which has altered the empowered role that African women once had in traditional African societies.
For example, women activists in Swaziland have lamented the loss of traditional Swazi society which once respected women. In response to many of the sexist laws that exist in Swaziland, an activist named Cynthia Simelane said:
All these laws that make Swazi women second-class human beings, they were not part of traditional Swazi life because we did not live under Western laws. Swazi women want to return to the way it was when we were equal.
Recently the Nigerian Senate voted against a gender equality bill. Even more disturbing than the mere fact that such a bill could be defeated in a nation that is in dire need of gender equality is the fact that the Bible was invoked as an argument against the bill. There is a hint of irony in the fact that the Bible of all texts is used to justify denying African women equal rights. Two of the most powerful women in the Bible are African women, the Queen of Sheba and the Kandake of Kush. The only other queens mentioned in the Bible are queens because of their marriage to the ruling king, but the Queen of Sheba and the Kandake of Kush are mentioned independently of a male ruler. In fact, according to Ethiopian tradition the Queen of Sheba was unmarried at the time that she visited Solomon.
The role of African women in the Bible speaks to the important role women played in African history. This includes women such as Queen Nzinga, Yaa Asantewaa, and Amanishakheto. The Rain Queen was the most powerful position among the Balobedu people. Among the Akan people it was the queen mother who nominated candidates to become chief, and if the candidate is successfully elected as the chief the queen mother serves as his adviser.
Speaking of Nigeria specifically, among the Ibo women there was a practice known as “sitting on a man,” which was essentially a form of protest that was used against a man who had disrespected an Ibo woman. These same protest tactics were used against the colonial government in Nigeria.
One of the negative legacies of colonialism in Africa is that it upended many traditional African practices. In the case of women, they lost whatever traditional powers that they had. The traditions in African society that allowed women to wield significant political power or to protect themselves against certain abuses by men were largely erased. In its place arose the present day situation we find in places such as Nigeria and Swaziland in which women have become essentially voiceless.