Societies and communities are built on shared bodies of beliefs, practices, and knowledge, consisting of established cultural systems that provide classifications to categorize and shape people. Many cultural systems come with a reinforcement of authority worship where people blindly accept concepts taught to them. Certainly, every generation must respect their traditional ways of thinking, however, they should also have the capability to question it. As a female artist, I am very critical of the visibility of women and boundaries imposed on them – on us by socially constructed ideas. Rather than reproducing reality, I incline to create works that re-interpret reality, making the unnoticeable or neglected visible. Exploring the classification of women, my recent work “A Social Construct” reflects the now patriarchal African societies and the truth of the concepts associated with women.

“Who is a woman?”

“How was the social perception of a woman developed?”

In terms of gender relations, the words “femininity” and “woman” are closely aligned but the term “woman” is more so classified as a female subject exhibiting expressions of corresponding gender performance and expectations. This falls under the realms of a patriarchal constitution imposed through colonialism on African societies. Whether through a biological or social lens, a woman is defined in relation to a man, which was not the case in many African cultures pre-colonialism. 

Presently, on a social lens, a woman is socially constructed to perform a role (gendered expectations) as a wife, prostitute, or servant where her body should look and function as a sexual object – womanhood. That same body is biologically expected to conceive and deliver offspring under reproductive policies implemented by male-dominated parties – motherhood. It simply highlights how under our current societal constructions, women cannot represent their own existence and that of their bodies without the social and political manipulation and control of men.

These concepts are very challenging for me to grasp and accept because my African roots suggest a woman to be of importance as an essential individual within the community and its integral history. Pre-colonial era, some African societies were matrilineal where women were seen as grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters before they were viewed as wives. Status and authority were not determined by gender and societal roles were not constructively distinct or limited to an intended nature. Women had diverse roles in all aspects of the society, from politics to economics to religion. 

Politically, even with the spread of religion such as Islam, there is a vast history of Muslim female rulers in different African regions. A prominent female ruler is Queen Amina of Zazzau (now Zaria, Nigeria), who served as an important representation of female leadership in Northern Nigerian history. Like many African women, she influenced the economic development of Hausa- Fulani societies as she advanced trade routes and financed wars. Culturally, women also served as a symbol of dignity and beauty hence a women’s dowry included Kayan daki, which were decorated plates, and brass bowls. These items were collected before a woman’s marriage and encouraged women to engage in economic activities in the markets. Ultimately, women played a role in handicraft production and trade. Women who didn’t have political or social ranks engaged in other productive activities that were not necessarily in the domestic sphere. As African men, especially from the Fulani tribe, were dominantly involved in cattle rearing, the women were valued as agricultural producers.

With Europeans and colonialism arriving on the continent, a new structure was seen to replace that in which Africans knew; even though some ideologies still remain the same, they were heavily influenced. African women simply did not align with the Eurocentric definition of a woman. Therefore, the heterarchy was then of course replaced by hierarchy, where the women were placed at the bottom of the social order into the boundaries of static, domestic spheres. As the European educational system was introduced, further change in gender relations and implementation of patriarchy was seen as it supported more men than women. 

Subsequently, a woman’s definition transitioned to a submissive female subject, overshadowed by gender disparities, poverty, and lack of access to education. Gender classifications involve social power that may serve ulterior motives such as the categorization of women for the benefit of men. As the classifications impact our way of thinking and how we act in the world, reformation is needed where African societies are returned to their pre-colonial structure whilst sustaining beneficial innovation and modern developments. In addition, there is a need for impactful global discussions with prominent female participation where the issues women constantly face are voiced and addressed.

About the Artist:

Halima Aliyu is descended from the Fulani tribe in Nigeria. At a very young age, she emigrated to Egypt. Having to navigate both African and Arabian backgrounds enabled her to define her identity and heritage. It also sparked her curiosity and desire to narrate her experiences through writing and art.

Halima is a visual artist and a passionate advocate for women’s issues in Northern Nigeria.