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Maasai gender relations during the colonial period: A patriarchal transformation

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  1. Introduction
  2. Response to the claims
  3. The dichotomized debate
  4. Direct rule and indirect rule
  5. The colonial policy
  6. The primary deterrent to Maasai female
  7. Destruction of female autonomy and power
  8. Position of women in Maasai society
  9. Conditions and responsibilities of marriage
  10. Consequences of colonial law
  11. The German colonial law
  12. Economic and legal structures
  13. The experiences of a Maasai woman
  14. Conclusion
  15. Bibliography

The imposition of colonial power in Africa disrupted all aspects of indigenous society. Not only were Africans robbed of political independence, but pre-colonial social structures were also destroyed or transformed based on the mercy of certain colonial powers. The Maasai, a pastoral people in eastern Africa, are a prime example of this shifting social organization, specifically the gendered identities and relationships between men and women. Though Maasai society is complex, and gender is thus a necessarily shifting definition, it is clear that through specific colonial policies the rights, status and independence of Maasai women were undermined, overpowered or erased during the period of colonial rule. Through a variety of legal, economic, agricultural, religious and medical policies, Maasai women were devalued and subjugated, removed of their previously equal and valued position in society.

What Durba Ghosh calls the ?feminization of imperial history? , has been a recent process in the history of colonialism. A major focus of this branch of study has been a growing debate between historians as to the status of pre-colonial African women. Paul Spencer's arguments form one side of this debate, as he contends that Maasai women and men agreed on the ?undisputed right of men to own women as ?possessions'.? He goes on to insist that, ?the position of Maasai women appears to have remained unchanged throughout the colonial period,? and that ?there is no clear evidence that women had more rights in the past.? Spencer is not alone in these determined arguments regarding the status of pre-colonial African women. Historians such as Melissa Llewelyn-Davies (1978, 1981), and Harold Schneider (1979) join Spencer in attempting to prove female subordination in Maasai society before colonialism. Schneider claims pastoral societies are inherently patriarchal, placing men in control of livestock and women, who were ?usually thoroughly subordinated to men and thus unable to establish an independent identity as a productive force

[...] (1990), p.228. Koreih, Invisible Farmer??, (2001), p.118. Hodgson, Once Intrepid Warriors. (2001), p.189. Citing Hatfield, C. (1977). Impact of Social and Technical Change in Masailand and its Implications for Future Development.? Report Prepared for Food and Agriculture Officer, USAID, Dar es Salaam. (Possession of D. Hodgson) p.20. Isaac Sindiga, ?Fertility Control and Population Growth Among the Masai? Human Ecology, Vol.15 no.1 (1987), p.59. [...]


[...] Colin Leys makes the distinction between prostitution of sexual relations, and ?prostitution' of female companionship and performance of female duties. He says, is a mistake to imagine that sexual desire is the sole source of these conditions . the fact that a boy who works outside all day wants someone to cook for him is of equal importance.?[108] Many women also chose prostitution as a benefit to their families. ?Such prostitution - the sale of tasks normally only available through marriage - returned to the woman's family the exchange value of those tasks, often far in excess of the values that under normal or better circumstances her marriage would have transmitted to her.?[109] This is especially valid in discussing Maasai families who experienced rapid loss of livestock in the late 1890s and early 1900s.[110] Prostitution, though only one economic option, was possibly the most profitable and beneficial form of female agency in escaping patriarchy. [...]


[...] In this role Maasai women were the intermediaries between their society and the outside world. Any outside products were purchased and delivered by Maasai women. A prime example of this is the umbrella which, when discovered and purchased by trading women, became widely popular among the Maasai.[30] These arguments are supported through accounts from European travellers among the Maasai in the pre-colonial period. Mortiz Merker and Joseph Thomson both documented descriptions of long distance female Maasai traders. Thomson wrote of women trader, ?well dressed in bullock's hide and loaded with wire, beads and chains, [who] appeared driving a donkey before her as she wended her way fearlessly towards Kibonoto to buy the vegetable food eaten by married people and children.?[31] And goes on to describe the traders would buckle up their skirts, and forgetful of years or grey hairs, tear out pell-mell.?[32] Merker directly documents their independence in this form of labour, writing: this she is in no way supervised by her husband.?[33] While labour in pre-colonial society was divided between male and female, this should not be taken as a sign of female inferiority. [...]


[...] Gender Relations and their Changing Meaning in Kipsigis Society, Kenya.? Journal of the International African Institute, Vol.62 no.4, (1992) p Thomas Spear and Robert Waller, ed. Being Maasai: Ethnicity and Identity in East Africa. (London: James Curry Ltd., 1993) p.249 n.3. Spencer, Time Space and the Unknown. (2003), p.227. Marja-Liisa Swantz, Women in Development: A Creative Role Denied? The Case of Tanzania. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985). Kaj Arhem, The Maasai and the State: The Impact of Rural Development Policiae on a Pastoral People in Tanzania. [...]


[...] In navigating these conflicts, colonial officials consulted Maasai elder men to define ?traditional' marriage. One colonial official asked elder male members of the Lukumai clan, ?According to the traditional customs of the Maasai, does a girl have the freedom to be able to search for a man that she likes?? they answered, is not able.?[57] According to Shadle, ?court elders usually agreed with fathers and husbands.?[58] Women were also subjugated through divorce courts through their limited available grounds for divorce. [...]

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