In pre-colonial days women had clear economic opportunities within the social system. In fact, before the middle of the twentieth century, Nigerian women traditionally played a more significant role in society than did western women.
Women held a basically complementary, rather than subordinate, position to men in indigenous pre-colonial Nigerian society, which based power on seniority rather than gender. This is shown with the absence of gender in the pronouns (he/she) of many African languages and the interchangeability of several first names among females and males in quite a number of nationalities, including, for example, Yoruba.
Traditional, pre-colonial societies expected women to be significant income earners. They laboured in farming, fishing, herding, and commerce (for instance, pottery, cloth-making, and craft work) alongside men. In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Igboland, women traders, most of whom were involved in “petty trading,” dominated the marketplaces.
The position of women in pre-colonial Nigeria obviously differed in the vast number of ethnic groups. Common factors among women of different ethnic groups, however, included the domestically oriented jobs and the range of economic activities that the societies reserved for women.
Yoruba society offered the greatest opportunities for women to participate in other economic activities such as manufacturing and trade. In Yoruba society, the responsibility of a woman to provide for her family included providing the material resources for such care. Women believed that providing such resources was their responsibility as women and citizens.
Their society considered the work the women did complementary to the work of men, and some women achieved impressive status in the economic and social realms of Yoruba life. However, more commonly, women achieved power by means of their lineage or by means of marriage into ruling families. By achieving such power, they obtained indirect political influence.
According to Carolyne Dennis, “The religions of many Nigerian societies recognised the social importance of women by emphasising the place of female gods of fertility and social peace, but women were also associated with witchcraft which appeared to symbolise the potential social danger of women exercising power uncontrolled by men”.
In societies that did not confine women to the household as the Hausa did, women held important roles in agriculture, manufacturing, and trade, and women also possessed an important, if restricted, religious role. However, religion was also used as an important means of controlling women by explaining that women acting outside what men claimed the gods designed as their appropriate social role would lead to dangerous results.
Thus, despite the lack of emphasis placed on gender by indigenous societies, the state and its bureaucracy tried to dictate the lifestyles of women, endorsing the domesticity of women and the unwaged services they provided for the family. Much of the legislation concerning women, therefore, attempted to control them, their sexuality and fertility, further defining their subordination.
The beginning of colonial rule brought to Africa the European notion of that time, that women belonged in the home, nurturing their family. At the same time the societies expected women to work. The state and the beginning of colonial rule began to change the roles of women by means of legislation restricting women and the focusing of colonial economics on men.
by Tina NDI