Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 452-457
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Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History.
Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History. By IRIS BERGER and E. FRANCES WHITE. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. lxi + 169. $12.95 (paper).
Iris Berger and Frances White's Women in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the volumes in the series Restoring Women to History, more correctly, restoring non-Western women to history. The project began as a comparative resource for teachers and researchers in 1984, resulting in a publication in 1988, revised in 1990, and now the 1999 publications.
There are really three parts to the book--a lengthy series introduction by the series editors Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Margaret Strobel [End Page 452] titled "Conceptualizing the History of Women in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa"; Iris Berger's "Women in East and Southern Africa"; and Frances White's "Women in West and West-Central Africa."
The project of a synthesis is a difficult one; more so when its objective is restorative. You have the challenge of the complexity that is Africa, and another challenge that is women. Refreshingly, the series introduction claims an attempt to move away from a single perspective of women's victimhood and negative practices to the complexity of experiences. But the editors are still grappling with Eurocentric terms like "non-Western" and "Third World" when "South" would have done the job. Theories of women seem as problematic as categories, as the series editors take women's subordination as a starting point by examining "theories that explain the subordinate status of women." They take it that in the division of labor women are in subordinate roles, and therefore search for the cause of women's oppression. Why not theories about women in history if they truly wish to correct past omissions?
What we find is a reworking of old Eurocentric models that led to the disaffection between African women scholars and their Western counterparts. I do not think that this volume requires a series editors' long comparative introduction, for fear that it prejudices the readers with old biases before they get to the main text. The comparisons are not organized in such a way that each issue raised is compared in all the regions. The haphazard use of illustrations results in regional imbalance. Africa, for example, dominates all the other regions in women's involvement in agriculture, trade, politics, and "queens and goddesses" right from Egypt of 3000 B.C.E. One would think that the combination of these factors presents a strong women's model in the socio-cultural system. Readers would therefore want to go straight to the African text to contextualize other issues such as marriage, prostitution, sexuality, and so forth.
If you are doing a history or restoring women to history, who they are, or who they say they are (self-representation), or their contributions to history should precede other issues, except if we are saying that oppression is what women are. The intervention of African feminists who insisted on the trajectory of race, class, gender and sexuality, not just as multiple forms of women's oppression, but also as subjective sites in the debate about voice and appropriation, was needed.
Berger's "East and Southern Africa to 1880" covers early foragers; women in antiquity (including Ancient Egypt, but taking the rest of Egyptian history to the Middle East!); communities in the interior; Islam; and the nineteenth century. This is seen as a period of change, [End Page 453] commerce, and urbanization in Northeast Africa and along the Swahili Coast. Due to patrilineal inheritance and religion, prosperous women experienced more domestication. Women's right to land became more restricted. Women were forced into gender-segregated ceremonies and denied religious office. With the coming of Islam, Muslim women developed their own exclusive practices. In other East and Central African agricultural communities and pastoralist communities there is more continuity with the past, and change is...