The Agency of Women in the Igbo culture


Reinventing the Aba Women in the 21st C

The trajectory of the agency of Igbo women as influencers of public opinions, pressure groups and contenders of socio-cultural interests has unfortunately devolved to social media demarketing of the true image and representation of women in the Igbo culture.

A tested and trusted way to gain popularity on social media in recent times has been to make posts like ‘Igbo men are the patriarchal lords and have no honour or regard for their women.’ A certain Facebook post that did good numbers read ‘Igbo women are more vocal about Feminism now because they are the ones that have been caged by their culture for far too long.’ An assertion that is in fact false, but becoming exceptionally popular.
I have analysed this trend and taken time to assess the peculiarity of the Igbo culture and the place of gender. The average Igbo person, both male and female has an air of pride, a strong self-assertiveness, is opinionated and may be supercilious, but a strong allegiance to the Odinani unifies them all. The Igbo culture did not make women physically inferior to the men, nature did.

This is why when the world depended on physical strength for food, long distance trading and territorial expansion, men mostly took the stage. It was a little about the politics of gender and more about power dynamics. It became normal for men who won battles and consolidated territories to make laws that governed societies.

But, what is fascinating about the Igbo culture is the awareness of how brittle one broom stick is and difficult to break, a bundle. This was the position the Igbo culture presented for the women and it worked. The various manifestations of the agency of the Igbo women like the Umuada, market union, town Union and other groups have been long age vehicles through which the Igbo women individually and generally have lobbied, petitioned and fought for their interests. Thus, no, Igbo women have never been passive, but with little thanks to colonialism, the modern women have underused, with many more, ignorant of the platforms that once gave them a voice to influence whatever change they thought was needed. The flexibility and fluidity of gender in the Igbo culture on the basis of grit, experience, age, leadership acumen and military service is also worthy of note, but that’s a topic for another day.

One fine morning in December 1929, in a small town of Oloko, Aba, Nwayeruwa like other women, who was already agitated about a new tax for women, had a physical exchange with Emeruwa, the representative of Okugo, the Warrant Chief, who had come to make a reassessment of taxable wealth. The Igbo women feared that their chickens and livestock, lands and other properties would be taxed in the face of a dwindling economy. They had previously written petitions about the prices the British placed on their wares, and had expressed their dissatisfaction towards the direct tax imposed on their fathers and husbands. They were not going to accept a taxation; not on their lives.

Frontliners of the Aba women’s war.

As at 1929, there was no mobile phone technology, but there was an already established communication linkage amongst the women. Gossip; an effective traditional communication model that could summon women around Aba, Owerri, Utu-Etim, Calabar, Opobo and surrounding areas in the shortest possible time. They marched in their thousands, with palm fronds, a sign that they came for war. Barring everything, including when fire was opened, killing about 50 women, they did not stop until they got what they wanted. British accounts called it a riot, but it was a planned, strategic and well communicated rebellion.
Because the women controlled the market, it was easy to interface with one another and share ideas. They expanded these ideas in their various town groups and made communal decisions. It was at one of such meetings that Nwayeruwa and the women of Oloko decided to ‘sit’ (a custom where Igbo women beat and punish any man that harasses one of their own) on Okugo. This is one of the many examples that show that Igbo women could get whatever they wanted.
It is rather unfortunate that today’s women have given in to the narrative of victimization and marginalisation which have been majorly self-inflicted in a sense.

In the early 1920s, Lord Frederick Lugard, the first Governor General of what was Nigeria, had this to day about the Igbo woman ‘She is ambitious, self reliant, hard working and independent, she claims full equality with the opposite sex and would seem to be the dominant partner’. What was more powerful than managing a family, controlling trade, influencing the crop type to be produced and the price they went for? A perfect complimentary role to that which their male counterparts occupied.

So, what happened to today’s Igbo women? The difference today is what do today’s women discuss? Are today’s women meetings about who ties the latest wrappers and rides the fanciest cars? Can today’s women sacrifice their grace and soft beauty when the chips are down? Are they ready to go beyond social media rants to writing petitions and following them through? Can they come together, unite in purpose, decide what they truly need and work towards it no matter the challenge? Or Are today’s women meetings about who wears thee latest fabric and rides the fanciest cars?

Aba women and the Igbo women of old answered all these questions, ticked all the boxes and made impacts. It is said that power is not given but taken. The men, whether they had the advantage of a superior physical strength or not, took power, but the women took back chunks of this power when they fought together. However, the issue is not only about fighting together, but fighting right.

Consequently, if Igbo women say they are discriminated against or denied a place of honour and prestige, it is because they have not reinvented the Aba women.