The Dancing Women’s Movement of 1925 and the Nigerian Women’s War of 1929

The historical context which shaped the nature as well as the content of the political actions undertaken at the time of the Dancing Women’s Movement (Nwaobiala) of 1925 and the Women’s War of 1929 that took place in Nigeria will be considered in determining whether this was a Feminist action.

The British colonial administrative system conducted a census in 1926 which was followed by, and resulted in the taxing system. It was a time of economic instability as a result of a change in the pricing methods, lower prices for palm oil, a rise in the prices of imported goods, bribes being stopped, and the introduction of the inspection of produce. (Mba, 1982: 74). The women’s war was primarily a movement by women to protect their political and economic interests which was endangered by the economic crisis, taxation, and the actions by the warrant chiefs (Mba, 1982: 90).

The Nwaobiala showed a rejection of the new social system by women. The political, economic, and social innovations of colonialism was seen as a threat to their social and moral order (Mba, 1982: 70). Following the Nwaobiala, whose protests seemed to have been largely directed toward south-eastern Nigerian male elites, a number of events appear to have convinced Igbo women that the colonial administration was the new power. These events included the implementation of the household census, taxation of men, the extension of government roads and lines of rail, the development of modern marketplaces, unchecked colonial monetization, and the rising price of imported commodities and bride wealth, coupled with the falling value of produce (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 264).

In October 1929, counting of women, men, and livestock by an assistant District Officer, Mark Emeruwa, triggered the women’s war in Oloko. The people assumed that this counting was proof of the intention to tax women, and this was reinforced by the actions of the warrant chiefs in the area, who had misunderstood their instructions and also believed that women were to be taxed (Mba, 1982: 76). Nwanyeruwa of Oloko was credited with beginning the Women’s War, on or around the 23 November 1929 (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 262) when she had an argument and a physical fight with Emeruwa. However, the movement eventually became a revolt against all forms of established authority and control (Mba, 1982: 79).

A continuousness exists between Igbo and other southern women’s demands in the 1925 Nwaobiala (Dancing Women‘s Movement), which can be seen as a women’s purification movement, and the demands made in 1929 in the women’s war (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 264). Similar methods of protest was used but for different reasons and to portray different messages.

During the Nwaobiala, the women demanded a return to the pre-colonial social system, and for the currency not to be changed from brass rods and cowrie shells to coins and notes. They opposed inter-marriage, fixed prices of cassava and fowls, and the levy on water. They did not want cassava to continue to be grown, and demanded the restoration of old bush paths as opposed to the tarred roads. In some areas, women’s prostitution was opposed. While women in other areas stated that women should not charge too much for prostitution services, and married women should be allowed to commit adultery without the fear of being taken to the native court. They also demanded that unmarried girls be allowed to be naked (Mba, 1982: 70-71).

During the women’s war, the women objected the system of having chiefs imposed and objected warrant chiefs. They demanded that chiefs rather be elected for a fixed period of time, and that women have a say in the selection of chiefs (Mba, 1982: 87-88). They rejected the native courts, and the taxation system for women, as well as tax disks for men who paid taxes. What makes the Women’s War different to the Nwaobiala, is that there is not much evidence of any cultural or religious protest in the women’s war, with the exception of their opposition to interference by the warrant chiefs in the case of marriage (Mba, 1982: 89). Also, during the Nwaobiala, the women’s livelihood was not being threatened, while the women’s war was dominated by thoughts, and directed by actions about livelihoods (Mba, 1982: 90).

The political action undertaken by the women during the women’s war was directed against government policies or actions which had threatened women’s interests (Mba, 1982: 68). Afigbo argues that the women’s war was essentially anti-government; in fighting for the old political and moral order, the women were asking for the ending of British colonial rule (Mba, 1982: 78). Van Allen also states a similar belief; she says that the women’s war was mainly a political war in which they used their traditional means of protest, such as ‘sitting on a man’, on a larger scale to regain the political participatory power that they had had under pre-colonial society (Mba, 1982: 78).

The Western influence by the British when colonising Nigeria weakened the women’s traditional autonomy and bases of strength without providing them with any modern forms of autonomy and power in exchange (Van Allen, 1972: 165). The British attempted at creating specialised political institutions which demanded monopolised force and authority, as opposed to the traditional Igbo political system of fluid and informal leadership, and shared rights of enforcement (Van Allen, 1972: 166).

Women undertook collective action against the forces and symbols of colonial rule (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 9). The women united to defend their economic interests which they thought to be at risk, and they used bodily insult to demonstrate their pride in themselves as women (Ifeka-Moller, 1975: 143). Women’s use of their bodies as a disciplinary technique affirms the stability of sexual ideologies throughout the early 20th century, and the reality of male domination (Ifeka-Moller, 1975: 144).

During the movement of 1925, the women requested that small sums of cash and other fines be given to them for their song and dance labours, but by 1929 they had progressed to more substantial requirements. Throughout the war, they demanded material tokens of their mastery over men. They took caps from warrant chiefs, then tore down the colonised men’s houses, even going so far as to take up chiefs’ yams and roast them over fires built of the mats that primarily roofed yam barns (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 265).

The women also engaged in actions directed against the hated government roads, cars and trucks, railroad stations, fences surrounding public areas, mercantile buildings like the “factories” (warehouses) that housed the palm oil and foreign commodities trade, and the most obvious sites of colonial work, including native court buildings, colonial administrative headquarters, and jails (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 261).

The women assembled in large crowds with varied clothing, such as green creepers in their hair, wreaths of grass around their necks, heads and knees, or as a tail (vultures), and they carried sticks as if they were possessed by evil spirits. These public protests were lead by old nude woman, and accompanied by obscene gestures. Some women carried machetes, but most women were unarmed while effectively destroying buildings, looting factories, and assaulting chiefs and administrative officials (Ifeka-Moller, 1975: 129).

There were strong levels of solidarity between the Igbo women, as they regularly worked together in protests. They took part in actions such as ‘sitting on men’, burning courts, releasing prisoners from jail, and confiscating the caps of Districts Officer’s. They also use their bodies and clothing as symbols of group solidarity (Van Allen, 1972: 174). According to Judith van Allen, “’Sitting on a man’, and boycotts and strikes were the women’s main weapons. Briefly, to ‘sit on’ or ‘make war on’ a man involved gathering at his compound, dancing, and singing songs which detailed the women’s grievances against him. This would continue until he repented and promised to change his ways. In the Igbo society, this was considered legitimate and no man would consider intervening” (Van Allen, 1972:170).

Caroline Ifeka-Moller’s (1973: 143) view of ‘sitting on men’ is different to that of Van Allen. She says it was not used as a tactic in the war. She states that the practice is rather an informal restriction which takes place within a local community and is very different from the inter-community mobilisation of women that occurred during the riots. Not only does she say that the scale of the movement was far removed from that of ‘sitting on a man’, but she also states that women destroyed property, raided factories, dressed in typically of war-like clothing, sang of death and blood, made obscene gestures, and even became possessed by spirits on certain occasions.

This is similar to the traditional action of ‘sitting of men’, but in a more extreme manner and on a larger scale. During the war, the women placed roadblocks on the British-constructed roadways and clogged the major thoroughfares between colonial towns with their bodies. The women also made it clear that they were not pleased with the continued intrusion of men into trade and the marketplace (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 266).

Feminism is the struggle by women against patriarchal control and exclusion (McFadden, SARIPS). Patricia McFadden also sees feminism as a resistance against injustice in the human narrative, although it has to be known or recognised. She sees it as a struggle against the appropriation of one’s integrity and personhood (SARIPS).

During the war, the women desired equitable and culturally appropriate social and economic order. (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 267). A common theme of liberal feminism are rights, rationality, self-development, and self-fulfilment. Liberal theory sees a need for a division of human endeavours into public and private spheres. In summary, the liberal views liberation for women as the freedom to determine our own social role and to compete with men on terms that are as equal and possible (Kensinger, 1997: 184).

Southeastern Nigerian women saw themselves as active participants in their own societies (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 269). This is evident in the testimonies given by women before the commission. They consistently demanded that women be represented in the new institutions which had been set up by the colonial government (Ejikeme, 2009). The main argument provided by liberal feminists is that an individual woman should be able to determine her social role with as much freedom as a man can (Kensinger, 1997: 184).

There had been no leadership roles prior to 1929. When the leaders did come to existence however, there was a leader for each village group. There were a few women in each village as spokeswomen for the crisis, and this was based on selection. Most of these leadership positions were filled by middle-aged women who had had children already. While these women tended to be illiterate, they did have courage to face colonial commissions (Mba, 1982: 83). Clearly, age and experience still played a factor in the selection of leaders, while education did not. This is typically factors that are in play in patriarchy in the selection of leaders, like strength and bravery.

The women’s war could be seen as a contest of gender categories, with each side attempting to situate and stabilise local concepts of femininity and masculinity in the rapidly transforming context of high colonialism (Allman, Geiger & Musisi, 2002: 270). Nina Mba views the women’s war as a feminist movement because of the conscious role the women played as women, the importance they placed on women in society, as well as the way they ensured their rights as women (1982: 91). What is not feminist about their actions however, is that they did not demand equal political participation with men (Mba, 1982: 91).

McFadden states that societies become deeply patriarchal once they are colonised (SARIPS). Colonisation almost always implies a relation of structural domination, and a broad or political suppression of the heterogeneity of the subject or subjects in question (Mohanty, 1988: 61). Since the colonisation of Nigeria is patriarchal, the women who were fighting against colonialism in the were inherently fighting the system of patriarchy. While we cannot conclude that they were feminists (only they can define their identities as such), we can conclude, based on the above definition by Patricia McFadden that the actions undertaken by the women during the war like using female leadership to subvert the hierarchy in place, and struggling against social injustices, were feminist.

It is difficult simply name these female activists as feminist since it is problematic to categorise and identify someone as feminist without them consenting and claiming this identity. It is also difficult to name these women as feminists as they could not possibly oppose something that they were unaware of. Given the fact that these women were illiterate and the war took place in Nigeria in the 1920’s, it is highly unlikely that they were unaware of the discourses revolving around patriarchy and feminism.

We can surely conclude that the women’s war was a social movement. According to Shamillah Wilson, the feminist movement is a social movement that is engaged in the fight for equality and justice. While, Sunila Abeysekera views social movements as conscious, collective activities that aim to promote social change, and sees it as representing a protest against the established power structure and dominant norms and values (Wilson, 2005: 233). As mentioned above, the women’s social movement was one against the British colonial power structure, hence making their social movement a feminist movement.

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