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Journal of Women's History 15.3 (2003) 153-157

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Mother Politics
Anti-colonial Nationalism and the Woman Question in Africa

Joyce M. Chadya

All nationalisms are gendered, . . . they represent relations to political power . . . legitimizing, or limiting, people's access to the rights and resources of the nation state. 1

Anne McClintock's comment on nationalism succinctly captures the position of women during anti-colonial nationalism on the African continent. Across the continent, especially since World War II, women played a crucial role in the ousting of colonial/apartheid minority governments. However, the top leadership of most, if not all, of the nationalist movements was exclusively male. There was, therefore, a gender bias right from the creation of nationalist movements. This scenario was to be replicated in independent Africa when most of the senior government posts were (and continue to be) held by men. Women still find themselves at the margins of political and economic decisions at party and government level.

Using examples from sub-Saharan Africa, I examine the role that African women played in the formation and building of African nationalisms and how those historical origins affected their position in the postcolonial state. I argue that African nationalism accomplished it objectives at the expense of women's subordination. African nationalists' support of women's causes was part of a tactic of social and political inclusion that was meant to yoke as many people as possible to the nationalist struggle. I further suggest that women's position in the postcolonial African state is distressed by the origins of the woman question which continue to eclipse its outlook. Almost without exception, the struggle for women's rights in Africa rose alongside nationalist movements in the form of anticolonial resistance. Hence, as many feminists argue, colonial women were fighting a two-pronged struggle. For the most part, in these struggles, nationalist interests overshadowed women's issues as women were encouraged to focus on nationalist goals first. The rest would be addressed later. Consequently, women's movements have co-existed with these nationalist movements in a love-hate relationship in which nationalists dominate.

During the liberation struggles, nationalists played upon the patriarchal ideology of women as caregivers and nurturers, upholders of traditions and customs, reservoirs of culture, and, as a result, nationalist propagators of mother politics. They talked about the "motherland" [versus the "fatherland" in the West] and mothers of the nation/revolution. 2 However, when nationalists talked about fathers of the revolution, it was [End Page 153] a single male, usually the one had who spearheaded the revolution. This construction of women prevailed despite the fact that many nationalist movements developed out of the organizational skills of largely uneducated women. 3 Women themselves also internalized this link between maternity and the struggle and thus appropriated the iconography of motherhood. In the name of motherhood and family, they moved into politics. For example, Bibi Titi Mohammed of Tanzania claimed in an interview: "We gave birth to all these men. Women are the power in this world . . . Those you see [men] with their coats and caps are from here [pointing to her tummy.]" 4 While during the struggle, "those" men, such as Nyerere of Tanzania, were sons who had to be taken care of; after independence, they became the fathers who had to be listened to. 5 That in itself denoted dependence and powerlessness on the part of the women.

As much as Nyerere of Tanzania acknowledged the role women played during the anti-colonial struggle, at independence he regarded the uneducated women as activists-to-be who lacked leadership skills. Therefore, only a few minor government posts were given, not to these activists, but rather to educated women who had shunned politics during the struggle. Disappointed at the way uneducated Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) women were treated after independence, Binti Kupara recalled long after independence and still with fury, "I was all right during the independence struggle, I used to jump and cheer, I collected money for TANU." 6 Her disgruntlement emanated from the fact that...


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