- The Politics and Histories of Sexual and Gender Based Violence
All historical research harbors political implications, although the politics of some topics lay closer to the surface than others. Several decades ago, writing about women’s history was both an intellectual exercise and a challenge to the academy and to society. Today, one is less likely to meet raised eyebrows when telling friends and family outside the academic world that one studies women’s history. To study the history of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) against women nonetheless continues to have real political reverberations, as demonstrated by the volumes under consideration here.
The “Women’s War” of southeast Nigeria has long been beloved by teachers of African history. In mid-November, 1929, rumors circulated that the British colonial government would soon begin to impose taxes on African women. Igbo women resorted to one of their more effective means of dealing with offensive men: “sitting on” them. A group of women proceeded to the compound of one of the highly unpopular, British-appointed chiefs, singing and dancing, expecting that he would rescind the order to take a census of the region. Eight of the women instead left nursing injuries. Over the next several weeks, thousands of women marched, sang, and danced the roads of southeast Nigeria, in some cases destroying property associated [End Page 185] with local courts and merchants. On several separate occasions, British administrators and police opened fire on women. In the end, at least fifty women were killed. The Women’s War provides teachers a wonderful opportunity to explore the brutality of colonialism, or African resistance, or African women’s protests, or British and African notions of gender. Yet few studies have brought together these various threads, and none (other than previous articles by the authors of this book) have provided a truly convincing argument for the women’s motivations and the British reaction. Thanks to the work of Marc Matera (the historian of the British Empire), Misty Bastian (the anthropologist of southern Nigeria), and Susan Kingsley Kent (the historian of, inter alia, gender and politics in early twentieth-century Britain), we now have a much richer understanding of those tragic events.
The authors’ intention is to provide the most comprehensive history of the Women’s War and, using a gendered framework, explain why thousands of women undertook such vocal protests and why British officers so easily resorted to bullets to quell (what they termed) the “women’s riots.” The chapters on Igbo history and culture are exceptional. A detailed, nuanced exploration of Igbo thought demonstrates that men and women saw their gendered duties—to their families, to their villages, to the earth itself—to be largely complementary and necessary for the well being and the very continuity of their world. In myriad ways, colonialism destabilized this system. That is not to argue that all was rosy and functioned smoothly before the British. Colonialism, however, introduced dramatic, unprecedented changes that threatened to destroy (literally, for Igbo) the cosmos. Colonial markets undercut women’s primary source of income and autonomous power. New roads proved dangerous, for their lorries knocked down unwary pedestrians and provided a conduit for influenza and other urban plagues to flow into rural areas. Chiefs and colonial courts interfered with pre-existing (and dispersed) centers of power and adjudication. All...