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The new movie The Woman King tells a fictional story based on the real Agoji warrior women of the West African kingdom of Dahomey. As Africana Studies scholar Gloria Chuku writes, the kinds of power African women held in different times and places is a matter of much debate. In a paper for the International Journal of African Historical Studies, she focuses on Igbo women’s roles in politics.

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Chuku writes that precolonial Igbo society in West Africa was made up of small states with diverse forms of government. Power was often wielded largely by male chiefs or elders, but women had their own forms of authority as well.

In many cases, the Isi Ada, or oldest daughter of a lineage, played a part in political, judicial, and religious institutions. Her reports to the women of her group could lead to collective action opposing the decisions of the male political leaders. Some wives of a chief might also hold power equivalent to that of male elders. And, in some cases, women ruled as monarchs or regents for under-aged kings

Chuku writes that many Igbo societies had dual-sex political systems, with women holding authority over particular sectors. There might be women’s courts, female-run market authorities, and a variety of women’s organizations. A top leader within these structures was often the Omu, the “mother of society.” She might come from the royal family, be elected, or be chosen by an oracle. She dressed like a king and had her own palace, though in most cases she didn’t hold as much authority as a male monarch. She was often in charge of the marketplace and might have religious authority and state power. For example, the Omu Nwagboka of the Onitsha was a signatory to an 1884 treaty with the British.

By 1914, the British colonial government of Nigeria began establishing new monetary, political, and judicial institutions under its own control.

“The British indirect rule system, which was imposed on the Igbo, governed through male authorities and also formalized male institutions,” Chuku writes. “At the same time, the colonial administrative systems ignored female equivalents.”

Village assemblies were replaced with Native Courts, run by British officers and handpicked Igbo men, and women’s oversight of marketplaces was replaced with male market administrators. While women occasionally snagged positions of authority within the colonial system, it was rare.

From the beginning of the colonial government, women organized outside the system, leading boycotts, strikes, and other protests, such as the 1929 Aba Women’s Rebellion. And Igbo women played a role in the decolonization movement of the 1940s and 1950s. But, even after Nigeria gained independence, women remained underrepresented in its political institutions.

“Igbo women, since the colonial period, have struggled to regain the ‘traditional’ dual-gender system of association that fostered community-based modes of female mobilization and enabled them to maintain certain economic, political, and social organizations that protected their interests,” Chuku writes.

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The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2009), pp. 81–103
Boston University African Studies Center