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Reviewed by:
  • African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, 1900-50
  • Maurice N. Amutabi
Kanogo, Tabitha . 2005. African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, 1900–50. Oxford: James Currey; Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. 268 pp. $24.95 (paper).

In African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya, 1900–50, Tabitha Kanogo utilizes archival sources and interviews to interrogate political and sociocultural structures and practices that shaped and controlled women's lives in colonial Kenya. She shows how colonial administration, missionaries, and indigenous customs variously used clitoridectomy, dowry, marriage, maternity, and motherhood to control African women.

In the first chapter, Kanogo examines the dilemma of African women within the milieu of two oppositional legal frameworks—precolonial and colonial—and how women dealt with them, with varying degree of success. She casts women as victims whose morality, sexuality, and physical and socioeconomic mobility society sought to control. She implies that Europeans [End Page 118] and African elders seem to have conspired to oppress women legally, so that "under the colonial administration . . . virtually no one in authority . . . could express much satisfaction with the way that women's legal status was defined" (p. 17).

The second chapter suggests that the colonial system allowed female agency to flourish. Kanogo shows how "the intervention of the formal procedures of colonial law influenced the cultural status of women and allowed them to find new avenues for self assertion and agency within the confines of [culture] and customary law" (p. 42). Contrary to previous studies, which have presented women in colonial spaces as helpless, hers finds that those in colonial Kenya had ways in which they negotiated against adversity, and even influenced diverse social processes. In the same chapter, she intimates at some gender conspiracy, of men against women—which neutralizes her previous representation of the colonial system as "liberating" and "privileging" to the agency of African women.

Kanogo argues that in colonial Kenya, African women were oppressed and had a lower status than that of African men. Though this type of separation between men and women in studies of colonial projects in Africa has been seen as artificial (Oyewumi, 1997), through cases of the pawning of women, she shows how women surmounted obstacles to survive. Her examples suggest that it was women, and not men, who were pawned; however, there seems to be a thin line between pawning and forced marriage (pp. 50–55), to which distinction the author seems ambivalent. Discussing rape, she draws the conclusion that "social representations of the rape crime treated women as social capital, to the exclusion of their individual legal personhood" (p. 55). From the way fines were levied on rapists, she contends that women's "personal suffering was irrelevant" (p. 55). Did colonial laws rescue African women? Kanogo thinks they did when she says, "Colonial sensibilities tended toward the reworking of social hierarchies to the advantage of women" (p. 59). Though claims that men were privileged by the colonial system under paternalism have been rejected as inaccurate (Zeleza, 1997; 2003), Kanogo shows how African men continued to dominate knowledge-creation on various issues: they sanitized their gender while dragging that of women in sludge. In Maragoli, for example, she says "venereal diseases came to be referred to us urukuzu rwa avakali, women's diseases, after World War I" (p. 61), making it look as if men innocently contracted diseases from women, making men victims while female bodies are pathologically characterized as carriers of diseases.

In the third chapter, Kanogo connects female circumcision with ethnic identity, gender reproduction, land claims, morality, sexuality, and patriarchal and state authority and religion, in interesting ways. She discusses female circumcision (using its technical name, clitoridectomy) and womanhood. She focuses not on the physical form (the surgery), but on the cultural function, where "the rite delineated right from wrong, purity from impurity, insiders from outsiders" (p. 74). She explains how the female body was positioned at the center of the refashioning of Kenyan societies that have [End Page 119] practiced female circumcision and still practice it, making the female body a site of negotiation, contestation, and prescription in the encounter between indigenous culture and modernity. Using case studies, she dramatizes the impact of female circumcision on Kenyan societies, often in fascinating ways...


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pp. 118-121
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