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Gender Expressions and Transformations in Africa’s Matrilineal Belt (1400-1800 CE)

This research project investigates gender expressions and transformations in Africa’s matrilineal belt between 1400 and 1800 CE. Numerous studies exist on African gender relations in the colonial and postcolonial periods, yet there is a dearth of studies on gender in precolonial eras. This gap in historical analysis has resulted in myriad misrepresentations of institutions in Africa and its Atlantic Diaspora. To fill this need in the scholarship and rectify misconceptions, Drs. Fourshey, Gonzales, Saidi, and Vieira-Martinez propose to conduct research and from the analysis produce the first comprehensive book on precolonial gender for Central and Eastern Africa, accompanied by an online data research archive, and web-based teaching tools. This team will jointly collect and analyze historical data relevant to gender. We will build on preliminary evidence that comes from work Saidi conducted in Zambia, Malawi and Katanga-DRC, combined with research Gonzales completed in central-east Tanzania, fieldwork Vieira-Martinez carried out in northern Angola, and the study Fourshey undertook between Tanzania and Zambia. Evidence from these localized historical studies suggests that matrilineal institutions have been far more critical in politics and societal developments than previously acknowledged in the scholarship. The point of this collaboration is to explain definitions, diversity, and transformations of gender in a region where matrilineality has long shaped decision-making. NEH funding will allow us to consolidate, augment, and analyze data to produce a comprehensive historical study.

Our research is significant in that it is the first to apply new theoretical frameworks of African gender studies to precolonial eras. This work redresses two erroneous assumptions regarding African women—that their status was always lower than that of men, and that they have been perpetually oppressed. We offer a refined critical analysis of gender identities, which historically intersected with the tensions and realities of life stage, generation, lineage, status, and origin. The methodological tools we use—comparative historical linguistics, oral traditions, and GIS analysis—are innovative, valuable means
for recapturing gendered social histories. This interdisciplinary approach permits us to 1) establish the historical depth of gender relations of matrilineal societies before the nineteenth century, 2) add nuance to discussions of historical power, victimhood, and oppression, and 3) build a historical geography of gendered expressions.

In line with our analysis, several Africanist scholars rightly demonstrate that gender concepts and relations in Africa cannot be described or analyzed through paradigms appropriate to western contexts; Africa’s gender constructs are distinct (Sacks 1981; Oyewumi 1997, 2005; Cole, Manuh and Miescher 2007). We build on this using historical cases from what we term the Bantu matrilineal belt—the area stretching from modern-day Angola in West-Central Africa, east to Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and south to Mozambique. People inhabiting the region historically shared a
set of institutions, practices, and worldviews that privileged tracing of inheritance, identity, and belonging through one’s mother’s lineage. In the matrilineal belt prior to the nineteenth century, significant levels of economic, political, and social control were in the hands of women. People viewed status, power, and gender as complementary dynamics that had to be managed to balance social tensions.

The history we propose will be groundbreaking. It will be the first to trace the complexity and importance of this region’s social organizations and the deep historical roots of matrilineal institutions. The products of this research will provide a wealth of materials and inspire new ways of thinking about gender, history, culture, politics, and economics within Africa and its Atlantic Diaspora. The findings will also hold implications for policy decisions on development, poverty alleviation, and women’s empowerment. In this work we demonstrate the ways researchers can address greater humanities challenges of our times.

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