Family Structures & the Socialization of Women in West Afrika

Street Scene Nigeria
Family Structures & the Socialization of Women in West Afrika
Scherin Barlow Massay | 2020 - January to March | Africa
In the second part of her two part series, Scherin explores the role of women in West African societies.

The Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria had a social structure founded on patrilineal lines, and like the matrilineal Akans, their social, economic and political structures were held together by common lineage. Each individual was bound together by the bonds of family kinship and each family member’s rights and civil liberties were the concern of all. This concept of Erinma - shared aims - played a crucial role for both men and women both before and during the slave trade.  

As Lockwood (1995) pointed out, in many parts of Afrika, lineage often determined a wide range of behaviors, from marriage to the transmission of property, and most West Afrikan cultures viewed family and kinship in very different ways to those in Europe. West Afrikan family life included a wide network of extended relationships and in those cultures, women had a recognized role in consolidating family relationships; European culture focused more on social and cultural obligations to the nuclear family, with great emphasis on properties, peerages and trades being passed down from father to son.     

While European class structures were primarily based on the acquisition of land, money and titles, in West Afrika, social structures were based on such things as age, wisdom, monarchy and women who held positions as Queen Mothers. This title was in existence before the Christian era in Meroitic Kush (Sudan), where the title of Kentake or Candace, meant Queen Mother.

In most West Afrikan cultures, sexual relationships were prohibited before a girl underwent puberty rites (I am not speaking of FGM) to symbolize her ability to become a wife and mother. In the Akan culture, a girl who became pregnant before the performance of these rites brought disgrace - not only upon herself, but also upon her kin, as individuals had an emotional stake in each other. Such rites marked the transition from childhood to womanhood and prepared the girl for her role as a woman and wife. Without these rites, one was not considered an adult. Once these rites were performed, it was traditional to be publicly acknowledged by the Queen Mother.

Chastity was held in high esteem, and a bride who was not a virgin was sometimes punished by flogging until she revealed the name of her violator, so that her husband could be compensated financially for the loss of her virginity. Anyone who violated another man’s wife was fined heavily because the culture viewed such conduct as sacrilege. Evil consequences could result from pre-marital sex and any sexual activity before the performance of these were a criminal offence; it brought evil down upon the society in which it existed, and as a result, that society would need purification.   

If the man was wealthy, his family were also made to suffer financially. Death was also a penalty for adultery, and a woman caught committing it could lose her life. Although polygamy was practiced, it was regulated and based on the man’s ability to afford the bridal price and to support his wives and children.

Unregulated sexual relationships were not in the fabric of West Afrikan society for numerous reasons. Collective social and economic ostracism acted as a deterrent. Bonded women were also chosen and dedicated to prostitution. Each town had two or three such women who lived on its peripheries and were obliged never to refuse a man the use of her body. Because they were culturally raised to view sex before marriage as a moral and social evil, and because of their interdependence on each other through the philosophy of Erinma, these women would have had a heightened perception of the violations perpetrated against them by their enslavers.

Afrikans had their own established cultural and familial value systems. However, enslavement by Europeans, and environmental and social factors, all served to destabilize these systems. Once enslaved, the autonomy that women had, and the constitution emphasizing their value, changed. The family structure changed to a matrifocal model, with the matrilineal system losing its advantages and becoming the only means of determining lineage in a slave system where paternity went unacknowledged. Over time, many aspects of the original cultural practices were lost, obscured or merged with different practices, thus forming a new cultural reference point - new, but with its roots grounded within an Afrikan context.