Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Haile Selassie, Samory Touré, names of African decolonization’s leading figures you might know. We often value the African activists who get involved in their country’s liberation. What about African women? The involvement of African women activists in the anti-colonial struggle remains underestimated, less discussed but no less important. African women activists contributed as much as men to this crucial period in the continent’s history.
Hannah Kudjoe is one of the important figures of Ghana’s independence. Her first meeting in 1947 with Kwame Nkrumah, insisting on the importance of women in politics, was so striking that a year later, Hanna Kudjoe decided to get involved in politics. When the founders of the UGCC, an independent party to which Kwame Nkrumah belongs, are arrested, Hanna Kudjoe led a campaign for their liberation. After the country’s independence in 1957, Hannah Kudjoe founded the All-African Women’s League and was also involved in other activities to improve the status of women.
In the 1960s, Hannah Kudjoe got involved in the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development as secretary of Ghana Day Nurseries. In 1965, she was dismissed from her position and disappeared from the collective memory during the 1966 coup d’état against Kwame Nkrumah, since very few archives of the Nkrumah government are preserved. We know very little about her. Here are her last words in public, two days before her death, when she was the guest of honour at a Women’s Day event at the Accra Community Center and told about her entry into politics :
‘Somewhere in June 1947, we received a charming gentleman, he was introduced to me by my brother as Kwame Nkrumah, General-Secretary of the UGCC. During the day, my brother went out with Nkrumah to address various meetings of the local UGCC branch in town. . . . One day, as they came back and I was serving Kwame Nkrumah, he asked me why I have not been attending the UGCC meetings in town. I was amazed by his question and I honestly told him I thought politics was only men’s business. For the next twenty or so minutes, Kwame Nkrumah explained to me all they were doing and the importance of everybody, especially women, to get involved. By the time Kwame Nkrumah left. . . my interest was aroused in politics. At work, I began explaining issues to my colleague seamstresses and customers. Whenever I was travelling to visit my dressmaking clients, I talked on trains about the need for our liberation and urging people to join the Tarkwa branch of the UGCC and summoned people together to hear news of the campaign for self-government.’
Also known as Baya Allaouchiche, she devoted her entire life to the anti-colonial and feminist struggle. She was forced to marry at the age of fourteen and this turning point triggers her anti-sentiment to the patriarchal dominance. She decided to stop wearing the hijab and to engage in social and political activism. From 1941, Baya became a member of the Algerian Communist Party and served as a liaison officer with imprisoned Communist MPs. In 1949, Baya was promoted to secretary of the Algerian Women’s Union and attended several international conferences of communist women.
The beginning of the Algerian war in 1954, caused the weakening of the communist party and dissolved in 1955 (to be rebuilt a few years later). Baya then joined the National Liberation Front in 1956, and the same year was deported to Marseille. Due to the special powers voted in March 1956, the government of the time had a free hand to ‘maintain law and order’, which justified arbitrary arrests, torture, kidnappings, rapes, and internment camps throughout Algeria.
In her new hometown, Baya Allaouchiche pursued her struggle for the independence of Algeria, obtained in 1962. In May 1968, she took an active part in the demolition of the slums and the defence of Marseille’s immigrants against the National Front. During the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, she organized facilities in Marseille for orphans’. She died in 2007.
Another figure among African women activists fighting against colonization, including the National Liberation Front, is Djamila Bouhired, who has received a lot of coverage.
From a very young age, Djamila Bouhired protested against colonial domination. Attending a French school, the pupils had to sing a hymn including her few sentences ‘France is our mother’. Djamila used to sing ‘Algeria is our mother’, and was severely punished for doing so. At the age of nineteen, she joined the National Liberation Front and became part of the ‘bomb network’. In 1957, she was arrested and accused of planting bombs in French restaurants around the Algerian capital. She was tortured and raped by the special units.
In July 1957, Djamila Bouhired was sentenced to death and her lawyer Jacques Vergès published a manifesto for her liberation. As a result, immense pressure was being put on France due to media coverage and support across borders. Youssef Chahine, an Egyptian film director, depicted Djamila Bouhired’s life in Jamila, the Algerian. The Lebanese singer Fairuz dedicated a song to him, ‘Letter to Djamila’. Government leaders such as Gamal Abdul Naser and Jawaharlal Nehru asked for her liberation. Thanks to such support, Djamila Bouhired was released in 1962.
In 2019, she participated in student protests to demand Bouteflika’s resignation.
In an interview with the newspaper As-Safir she said : ‘I am still a rebel because the Arab woman has to carry an axe in her right arm to build, and shed a tear in her eye hoping to move the men of the nation’. Such bravery and courage can also be found among one of the African women anti-colonial activists, facing colonial oppression, in all its various forms of violence, Aoua Keïta.
Aoua Keïta was a feminist, anti-colonial activist, and Malian midwife. In 1923, Aoua Keïta was enrolled in girls’ school and five years late continued her studies at the Dakar Medical School. A few years later, Aoua took up her first position as a midwife in Gao. When Aoua realized she was raising suspicion by her look, she decided to start sewing, hoping to forge links through her business. She gradually gained the confidence of the locals and was more and more requested for childbirths.
Her expertise, combining traditional customs and medical knowledge, contributed greatly to her notoriety. Aoua also took an increasing interest in politics when she married her husband Daouda Diawara, who was concerned about the situation in Mali (French Sudan). Then, she observed with great attention Ethiopia, one of the only few African countries not colonized.
Under the political influence, she joined the Sudanese Union-African Democratic Rally (US-RDA), an anti-colonial political party. Together with women’s groups from the party, they travelled through the villages to encourage participation in the parliamentary elections. Aoua Keïta renounced her French nationality and insisted on as much transparency as possible during these elections. Her commitment was not risk-free as her influence grew.
‘For more than 12 years, she was systematically persecuted by the vindictiveness of a desperate administration which, unable to lay her off, inflicted numerous bullying, rebukes, sanctions and transfers to the remotest corners of the country, not to mention a temporary expulsion from Sudan. A group of personalities – including the Health Inspector in French West Africa, field administrators, hospital directors, colleagues, and other personalities – encouraged her to stop pursuing political activities’.
Aoua never stopped getting involved in the workplace. In 1957, together with Aissata Sow, she founded Aoua never stopped getting involved in the workplace. In 1957, together with Aissata Sow, she founded the Bamako Union of Women Workers, giving women in the labour market a political voice. She also contributed to the creation of the General Union of Black Africa. In 1958, Aoua participated in the drafting of a constitution for the Federation of Mali. Four years later, she participated in the drafting of a Marriage and Guardianship Code of Mali guaranteeing several rights: the consent of both parties (art. 10), prohibited repudiation (art. 58), and a limited dowry threshold (art. 3). In 1967, she was ousted from government and joined her husband in the Congo, where she continued to work for the women’s cause. She published her biography in 1975 and died in 1979.
Let us leave West Africa and go further south, where anti-colonial African women activists such as Bibi Titi Mohamed have also committed themselves to improve conditions for women.
Bibi Titi Mohamed
Bibi Titi Mohamed was a feminist and political activist. She was born in 1926 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city. Her mother influenced her greatly in the feminist cause. Granting great importance to education, she decided to enroll her daughter in school after the death of her husband.
1950 is the year of her political debut. Together with Julius Nyere, she founded the political party The Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), a party fighting for the independence of Tanganyika (a former East African country that became Tanzania). She also created the women’s section of the party called the Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania and within a few months she managed to convince more than 5000 women to join the party. This section contributed to making the anti-colonial struggle known among women and to have a stronger mobilization. Having gained independence, Bibi Titi Mohamed kept involved in politics at several levels, being in charge of the development of local communities, creating other women’s political organizations to encourage their mobilization and involvement in the political arena.
The loss of her seat in Parliament in 1965 outlined the end of her career. She resigned two years later and was accused of participating in a plot to overthrow the Nyerere government. As a result, she was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1972, by presidential pardon, Bibi Titi Mohamed was released and disappeared from the political scene. She remained a prominent feminist and anti-colonial figure who worked throughout her political career for the independence of Tanzania and the status of women.
An exceptional woman who risked her life for the citizens of her country. Vera Chirwa was a human rights activist and lawyer from Malawi. She joined Rose Chibambo in founding the Nyasaland African Women’s League and working with the Nyasaland African Congress political party to achieve independence. The Nyasaland African Congress political party became the Malawi Congress Party in 1959.
In 1961, the party won the legislative elections and Vera’s husband became an emblematic figure in the government, as Minister of Justice and Attorney General. But things got worse and Vera Chirwa and her husband were forced to flee the country. They went into exile in Tanzania. In December 1981, they were kidnapped by members of the Malawian security forces. ‘They are held in inhuman conditions, deprived of medical care, malnourished, locked in their cells incommunicado, chained at night, without any contact’.
In January 1993 Vera Chirwa was released and founded the Malawi Carer organisation, offering free legal advice, education programmes for women and also involved in the fight against AIDS. In 2000, Vera Chirwa was appointed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention and Policing in Africa.
A history to be taught and commemorated
Many other anti-colonial African women activists left their mark on the colonial period such as Meriem Belmihoub, Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Djamila Bouazza, Touria Zekkat, to name a few. One would think those women who have been involved in improving women’s conditions can be considered as anti-colonial and feminist activists.
‘Above all, they showed the capacity of women to resist the colonial order with their political commitment. At this level, they are our “heroes”. They did not question the patriarchal order,’ says sociologist Fatou Sow, in an interview for la Revue Tiers Monde (the third world revue in English, a very controversial name).
The Algerian War is the period in which anti-colonial African women activists are most visible. In doing my research, it was quite difficult to find dense and accurate information about the background of many activists when they were not involved in the Algerian War. This situation shows us how important it is to commemorate the memory of these women who risked their lives for the liberation of their countries. Then, the portraits of these anti-colonial activists also show us that the narrative is dominated by the masculine narrative, the lack of representativeness underlines how this part of history has been forgotten and how important is it to honour it.