Holding the World Together

African Women in Changing Perspective

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Nwando Achebe, Claire C. Robertson
Women in Africa and the Diaspora
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , April
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As gender studies continue to contribute to scholarship by rethinking knowledge categories, and as new frameworks, such as intersectionality emerge to enhance interdisciplinarity in feminist studies, Holding the World Together: African Women in Changing Perspective, edited by Nwando Achebe and Claire Robertson, adds to this scholarship in its review of the status and roles of women in Africa. This fascinating, timely book explores the diverse ways African women have expressed themselves over time since pre-colonial period to the present.  In bringing together scholars across generations, nationalities, disciplines, races, gender, ethnicities, continents, and religions to engage interdisciplinary reflection of the ever-changing field, Achebe and Robertson highlight the nuanced discourse about gender studies in Africa while recognizing the ongoing desire to contest inappropriate stereotypes about African women.

Themes that are explored in the volume include agency, religion, politics, culture, society, and economics. The history of African women over the ages is narrated and challenges they still face is highlighted. The volume, which is divided into four parts, describes the representations and misrepresentations of African women over time, despite their contribution to social development in the changing social economic times. Their role in national liberation movements, their experiences of religious fundamentalism, the challenges of changing family and marriage systems, and especially the impact of the world economy on their lives, health, and their livelihoods are highlighted. The power that women wield in the African society is clearly outlined.

 The sixteen chapters overs topics like the diversity and unity of African women’s experience in historical context and their contribution to film, politics, national resistance, activist movements, and economic development. In her chapter, “Front and Center on the Global Stage: African Women in Contemporary Novels” (21-39), Elizabeth Perego describes how modern women authors of Africa have depicted women in historical contexts. In chapter 2, Cajetan Iheka critics the mindset that has represented and depicted women’s work in cinema in colonized, abnormal and savagery language even as some positive, respectful evolutionary language is contradicted with depictions in the industry as African women have proved their worth.

The centrality of the female principle in African social welfare is articulated in chapter 3, “Politico-Religious Systems and African Women’s Power” (61-79). Achebe critics the colonial reconstructions of secular and religious authority that have marginalized African women ignoring the involvement of women in nationalist resistance movements as leaders, participants, and instigators which saw the success of independence in Africa. While the role of women was complementary in a variety of African social contexts due to the high regard they received in these communities, especially where they held positions as queens and princesses, their role in African anti-colonial nationalist and liberation movements was significant, as argued by Sheldon in “Colonialism and Resistance: Protests and National Liberation Movements” (81-102). The influence of fundamentalism on gender-based violence and girl education is discussed in Alidou’s chapter on “Religious Fundamentalism and Women in Contemporary Africa” (103-124).  The question of agency, also discussed in Alicia Decker and Andrea Arrington-Sirois chapter “African Women Organize” (125-44), describes how women organized for social change; a point that is elaborated further in Aili Mari Tripp chapter , “Women in Politics in Africa” (145-168) which also recognizes how women’s efforts and participation in politics continue to encounter significant challenges.

Economic development and the empowerment of women is discussed in chapter 3. Gracia Clark describes the significant strides that women have made in economic development despite social constraints, in “African Women in the Real Economy: Prehistoric, Precolonial, Colonial, and Contemporary Transitions” (169-90). In “Women and Slavery: Changes and Continuities” (191-210),” Claire Robertson discusses the enslavement of women since precolonial times and how modern slavery continues in the form of human trafficking. The effects on the economic status of women in racist, classicist, and modern society is significant, she argues (191-210). Josephine Beoku-Betts examines gender disparity in sub-Saharan educational systems in her chapter “Education for African Girls: Still Striving for Equality” (211-234). While recognizing the slow progress on improve gender equality in education, she urges broader structural changes that include the legal, social, political, economic, and religious changes to address patriarchal norms that inhibit gender equality. In “Urbanizing Women: Merging the Personal, Political and Spiritual” (235-254), Teresa Barnes describes the impact of colonialism on women’s urban migration and how the intermingling of the personal and the economic in family relations has granted them opportunities for reexamining and reconstructing cultural meanings of gender. Cavanda Vehey discusses the experience of immigrants and refugees in the African diaspora in “Women and the New African Diaspora” (255-74) and how they rely on community networks and alliances they form.

 Under the theme of “Love Marriage and Women’s Bodies: Past and Present,” discussed in part four,  Rachel Jean-Baptiste and Emily Burrill examines how women’s bodies are used to frame role and status in “Love Marriage, and Families in Africa” (275-94). They elucidate how marriage and household are significant in understanding women’s contributions in production and reproduction. Sigma Arnfred draw on the feminist theoretical framework to examine implications of colonial construction on gender and sexuality among African Christians in “Gender and Sexuality: Gradations, Contestations” (295-316) while Henryetta Ballah and December Green examine violence against women in the male dominant context in “Violence against Women: Household, Wars, Refugees, and Resistance” (317-36).  While acknowledging that gender-based violence in Africa is complex women have overcome violence using strategic coping techniques that include “becoming combatants themselves” (331). Karen Flint engages health disparities in “African Woman and Health” (337-56), to highlight the many challenges that African women face with regards to basic structure and access to service.

Overall, the focus of this volume is the affirmation of the African woman’s role and status and to ensure a balanced and accurate representation. The portrayal of the multiple roles that women hold, their agency in historical contexts and subjectivities in politico-religious, precolonial, and colonial times must be acknowledged sui generis.  This volume which is wonderfully written achieves its objective of describing the influence of African women in their historical trajectory. It is a statement by the most accomplished scholars on gender in Africa, a powerful, collective assertion of power to challenge socially constructed challenges. The explicit utilization of intersectionality framework to interrogate the experience of African women in a variety of contexts and to engage the various forms of oppression, is an affirmation of how layered and interconnected social identities and experience are, as articulated in Iris Marion Young in Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 1990: 39-65). The contribution to gender studies in Africa and the Africa diaspora is significant.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Nyangweso is Associate Professor and Distinguished Chair of Religious Studies at East Carolina University.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nwando Achebe is Jack and Margaret Sweet Endowed Professor of History at Michigan State University and the founding editor of the Journal of West African History.

Claire C. Robertson is Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies and history at the Ohio State University.


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