4. How does colonial rule change gender roles in Igbo society?
In the precolonial period, women in this society had a very strong role in the economy. They were, in fact, the major traders in palm oil. As palm oil becomes a more valuable export commodity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men take over that trade. Women always maintain a role, although it becomes increasingly a subordinate one. But they plainly do have a role in the economy. They also have a role in political life in the precolonial period. There are womens societies that are in charge of regulating the affairs of the marketplace, regulating the affairs of women. There are religious societies that women can be inducted into as priestesses which have some control over men as well as women. It is clearly a male-dominated society and its also a polygamous society, where multiple wives live within one large compound and each will have her own house and kitchen and childrens sleeping quarters. But there is also a role for women and a sense that women have a sphere that is distinct.
When colonial officials come and look at institutions in the society through which they can govern, they are not looking for womens institutions. They are looking for male institutions. Women really lose out in the political realm and then ultimately in the economic realm. They outlaw forced marriage, for example, pledging of children in marriage. The missionaries come in and offer education to both girls and boys, in theory. There are certain ways in which women make gains. They can make gains in the legal sphere. They can take their family to court if they dont want to be forced into a marriage and so forth. But the ways in which colonial officials do not understand this society severely disadvantages women over the long run.
The other thing is that when colonial officials are taxing men, theyre taxing them based on the size of their householdhow much livestock do they have, how many wives, etc. So theres an assumption on the part of colonial officials that the household is an economic unit thats integrated and unified, whereas whats really going on is womens wealth and womens property belongs to them and mens wealth and mens property belongs to them. But with taxation, what happens is the men cant always make the tax and they start borrowing the money from their wives. And increasingly it becomes apparent that theyre not going to be able to pay that money back. It also becomes apparent that theyre using that fact to start encroaching on their wives material wealth and this engenders some bitterness among women. When this last witness says that the mens taxation has affected women as well, this is what she means. Its coming into their material wealth as well as mens material wealth because men are having to borrow from women to pay the tax.
There was no evidence anywhere in the colonial documents that women were going to have to pay tax. This appears to have been a misunderstanding.
To women, it seemed likely that they could be made to pay tax because they have an economic life outside of their husbands economic life. But I suspect the British government probably didnt even tax married British women or they taxed them differently. The women do not understand gender relations back in England. So for them, the idea that they might be taxed is quite viable. The fact, though, that the British system is basically just being planted into this society with its own model of gender relations and womens role in the economy makes it very unlikely that women actually were ever going to be taxed at this time.