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Images and stereotypes of women, particularly African women, abound. Indeed, African women have long been perceived as docile, "bound to home and hearth," submissive to male authority, and even politically inert or passive.(1) Jomo Kenyatta, writing about the training of Kikuyu girls, perpetuates these stereotypes:
When a girl is ready to be circumcised she is taught manners such as how to behave when married. [She is taught] that she will be married and bring wealth to her family so that a poor brother can find the guarantee necessary for marriage. She will bear many children . . . and she will provide food for the poor relation. She is taught to behave like a gentlewoman, not to raise her eyes or voice [when] talking to men in public, not to bathe in the open, not to eat in the presence of men other than those of her own age or kinsfolk. . . . Respect for her husband's people is inculcated, [as is] obedience to him.(2)
This pervasive image of women as culturally conditioned to behave in deference to men seems to be found worldwide. Commenting on Ethiopian women's seemingly cultural propensity to defer to men in sociopolitical affairs, a nineteenth-century Italian diplomat remarked that, in fact, "all the daughters of Eve are the same in all latitudes."(3) But recent literature on women abundantly attests to the fact that in many African societies women actually wielded considerable influence and political authority independent of men.(4) Thus, as Audrey Wipper points out, "formal systems, ideologies and codes of etiquette" that present women as always subordinate to male authority or as aloof in sociopolitical affairs are not necessarily "realities."(5) Rather, I shall argue in this article that under certain circumstances women have forcefully "challenged not only male but also colonial authority, sometimes successfully."(6) It is no wonder, therefore, that modern African women have proudly asserted their precolonial power on the one hand and, on the other, have mourned their marginalization in modern political affairs.(7)
The major objective of this article is to present African women as not simply onlookers in African sociopolitical affairs but as the avant-garde of progress. Stated more explicitly, women are perceived as catalysts in the sense that their actions, whether peaceful or otherwise, have resulted in far-reaching social and political change. Thus we are concerned here partly with the deconstruction of gender. For illustrations, I have selected cases from three African countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria.
The Ethiopian-Italian War and Empress Taytu
I begin with Ethiopia, focusing attention on the activities of Empress Taytu (Taitou), the wife of Emperor Menilek (1844-1913). Historical accounts acknowledge her pivotal role in influencing the outcome of the 1895-1896 Ethiopian-Italian crisis. An Italian diplomat, somewhat mesmerized by her beauty and power, said of the empress, "Her Majesty . . . like all Ethiopian women, is very brave. . . . In sum, she is a great lady, who perhaps in another milieu would have been a Christiana of Sweden or a Catherine the Great [of Russia]."(8) Commenting more directly on the empress's role in the Ethiopian-Italian diplomatic squabble, the diplomat noted rather ruefully that had it not been for Empress Taytu's intransigence with regard to the Ethiopian and Italian treaty disputes, there might have been no war.(9)
Let me at this juncture provide a brief historical context for Empress Taytu's preeminent place in modern Ethiopian history. By all accounts, she distinguished herself as an influential woman during the Ethiopian-Italian conflict, which arose from the European scramble for Africa in the late 1880s. Like the other European powers, Italy had claimed portions of Ethiopian territory (now in Eritrea) as belonging to it by treaty. The Italians, it should be remembered, had signed several treaties with Ethiopian rulers, chief among them the Treaty of Wichale signed between Italy and Emperor Menilek on 2 May 1889. Interpretations of Article 17 of this treaty of "amity and commerce," however, became the source of conflict between Ethiopia and Italy. Basically, the Italians claimed in 1891 that Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate.(10) The ensuing diplomatic wrangling led ultimately to the Ethiopian-Italian War of 1895-1896, which resulted in Ethiopian victory at the historic Battle of Adowa in 1896.(11)
The foregoing forms the backdrop against which I shall analyze the critical role played by Empress Taytu prior to the declaration of war. During the diplomatic negotiations relating to the Treaty of Wichale, Empress Taytu reportedly remained unalterably opposed to the Italian political pretensions over Ethiopia. She reminded her husband of the supreme sacrifices made by his predecessors, noting that they even gave up their lives in defense of Ethiopian national honor and territorial integrity. "How is it," she asked Emperor Menilek, "that Emperor Yohannes [your predecessor] never gave up a handful of our soil, fought the Italians and the Egyptians for it, even died for it, and you, with him as an example, want to sell your country! What will history say of you?"(12) Thoroughly disappointed with the emperor's "seemingly compromising attitude towards the Italians," Taytu "raved at Menilek," calling him "weak and stupid."(13) Furthermore, utilizing the symbolic gesture of contempt, the empress "turned her fleshiest part towards [Menilek]" as she spoke these insulting words.(14)
To the Italian negotiators who watched Empress Taytu insult the emperor with dismay, it seemed clear that this "stubborn" woman would pose a great obstacle to any peaceful resolution of the dispute. Surely, said the Italian diplomat involved in the negotiations, the "responsibility for any rupture with Italy would fall on the shoulders" of Empress Taytu, an avowed and uncompromising antagonist.(15) Determined to preserve Ethiopia's sovereignty …