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  • Judith Van Allen, "Sitting on a Man," and the Foundation of Igbo Women's Studies
  • Ndubueze L. Mbah (bio)

In his critical appraisal of Western scholars' writing on African women, Kirk Hoppe cautioned against an essentialist rendering of African gender relations through a search for "universal human experiences."1 Two decades earlier, Judith Van Allen's work had exemplified a clear methodology for representing African women's lives against imperialist discourses. Igbo women, argued Van Allen, were not merely victims ravaged by colonialism. Rather, they maintained traditional sociopolitical institutions despite British colonial administrative efforts to destroy such structures of female power, missionary education that sought to reproduce male political leaders and female domestics, and a Victorian ideology that espoused women's sociopolitical invisibility. Against these odds, Igbo women mobilized their precolonial solidarity institutions and enforcement mechanisms to make war on the British colonial government in 1929.

Writings on Igbo women in the colonial period were imbued with evolutionist and racialized images of women's bodies and sexualities, and Igbo women appeared in colonial and missionary writings as oppressed beasts of burden, subject to drudgery and degrading marriage practices. When women's voices were captured, they were mediated through European male ethnographers. Thus, Igbo women's perspectives were absent in orthodox historiography. However, the Igbo Women's War of 1929 against the British colonial government encouraged colonial anthropologists to investigate the gendered economic and political [End Page 156] systems in Igbo societies. As a result, Sylvia Leith-Ross carried out the first historical study on Igbo women. She observed that Igbo women were "economically and politically . . . the equal of the men," and "because of their economic importance both as mothers, farm cultivators, and traders, [they] have rather more power than is generally thought."2 Despite this finding, Igbo women and their traditional sociopolitical institutions remained invisible in early postcolonial scholarship.

Hence, Van Allen examined the roots of Igbo women's historical invisibility. She argued that Western influence weakened and destroyed Igbo women's traditional autonomy and power without providing modern forms of autonomy or power in exchange. Igbo women's power in the precolonial period was based on group solidarity expressed in their own political institutions (e.g., market networks and associations) and kinship groups (e.g., assemblies of wives and daughters), as well as their use of strikes, boycotts, and force to effect their political decisions. If women's political mandate to their communities were ignored, they launched a boycott or a strike to force men to police themselves or they might decide to "sit on" or "make war on" the offender. Sitting on a man, boycotts, and strikes became Igbo women's main weapons. To "sit on" a man involved gathering at his compound, sometimes late at night, dancing, singing scurrilous songs that detailed the individual's offense and challenged his manhood, banging on his house with pestles, demolishing his house or plastering it with mud, and beating the individual. In dealing with men as a group, women used boycotts and strikes in which they refused to cook, refused to trade, withheld sex, or emigrated from their communities until their demands were met. For both men and women, status was achieved, not ascribed. However, because the resources available to men in patrilineal Igbo societies were greater than those available to women, Igbo women's solidarity politics effectively ensured a dual-sex political system.3

Failing to see the political roles and power of Igbo women, male British colonial administrators made no effort to ensure women's participation in the modern institutions they created in 1900. British colonial administrative reforms ignored the diffuse and dual-sex political power structure in Igboland, and created composite Native Court Areas that violated the autonomy of villages, and appointed male warrant chiefs who asserted arbitrary powers. Women in particular suffered under the abusive rule of warrant chiefs, who reportedly seized young girls as wives without fulfilling customary marital obligations, and extorted agricultural products and livestock from women. Van Allen emphasized, "British reforms undermined and weakened the power of the women by removing many political functions from mikiri [Igbo Women's Assembly]. . . . The British also weakened women's power by outlawing 'self-help' . . . [and] made...


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pp. 156-165
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