In areas where rice is grown, women do most of the farm work. What tasks associated with growing and harvesting were described?Besides rice production, what other agricultural tasks are women seen to be doing?What is one agricultural chore that women do not do?List as many occupations or jobs done by women as your group can recall after seeing the presentation (8=fair 15=good 20 or over=excellent):
Explain what S.E.W.A. is and what it tries to do to help women:


When asked to name a woman who has been most effective in working with the poor in India, the overwhelming majority of people in the United States mention Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Mother Teresa is a Christian and Roman Catholic nun. Her parents were Albanian but she grew up in Yugoslavia in Eastern Europe. In 1979 she won the Nobel Peace Prize* for her work with the poor and dying of the city of Calucutta, India.

If Indians were asked to name a woman who has been most effective in working with the poor in India, they might mention Ela Bhatt. Ela Bhatt was born and raised in Gujarat and later continued her studies in the United States and Great Britain. Ela Bhatt founded the Self-employed Women's Association (S.E.W.A) of Ahmedabad, India, in 1972. S.E.W.A. is considered by many to be the most successful grassroots women's organization in the world. In 1977 S.E.W.A. and its founder Ela Bhatt received the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation award (the Asian equivalent of the European Nobel Peace Prize) for "...fostering development where it matters most, among the poorest and the weakest..."

Although many Indians admire the work of Mother Teresa, for what specific reasons do you think that people in India might mention Ela Bhatt as a woman who works with the poor of India rather than Mother Teresa?

Why do you think that people in the United States are more likely to know about Mother Teresa?

Even though Ela Bhatt won the Ramon Magsaysay award and founded a successful grassroots organization to help poor women, why do you think that the overwhelming majority of Americans have not heard of her of her work?


A common but erroneous perception outside the Third World is that "the women's movement"-both historically and in contemporary times-originated in Europe and North America. In recent years, media pundits have frequently discussed what they see as the end or diminution of the militancy of the women's movement. These observations may or may not be true of the United States, but they ignore the long history and current militancy and vitality of reform movements for women in many world areas. The following reading focuses primarily on the history of women's movements in India and Sri Lanka but gives brief accounts of reform movements in the other four South Asian countries.


In the history of India it was male feminists who were the original reformers concerned with improving the status of women. The first of these male reformers was Raja Rammohan Roy (1772-1833), a Bengali activist who had been influenced by European liberal thought.1 Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj which aimed at modifying Hindu practices by incorporating into Hinduism reform idea from Europe. One of his major aims was to outlaw the custom of sati where a high-caste widow committed suicide by self-immolation on her husband's funeral pyre.

Although reformers like Roy were influenced by European ideas, the history of modern reform movements in India was complicated by the presence of the British in India as colonizers. Generally the policy of the British East India Company (and later the British government) was that it was better for business if Indian customs were left alone. Some British officials, however, felt that they had to make a stand against widow burning. One of these was the early 19th century British governor William Bentinck who supported Rammohan Roy in his campaign against sati. Roy managed to have sati outlawed in Bengal in 1829 while Bentinck finally had it outlawed in British controlled areas of India in 1840. However, when the British passed the "Widow Remarriage Act" in 1856 many Indians felt that this was an unwarranted intrusion upon Hindu beliefs. At least one historian of India feels, that passing this act was a major long-range cause of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857.2

To avoid identifying with European, particularly British, ideas, some reformers went back to the early Hindu Vedic texts which they felt showed more open roles for women. Dayan and Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj which, while rejecting British liberalism, looked to these early Hindu traditions to justify reforms affecting women. Often these reformers were working to make the same changes but by different means. For example, Saraswati and Roy were both interested in eliminating polygyny (allowed for both Muslims and some high-caste Hindus in the 19th century). Both advocated property and education rights for women. Other late 19th century male reformers included D.K. Karve, a high-caste Brahmin who married a widow to protest the custom forbidding widow remarriage; Mahadev Govind Ranade who championed women's education and, against his family's wishes, tutored his child bride Ramabai Ranade who became an activist in her own right.

There were a number of influential women reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in India. One of the most notable was Pandita Ramabai who founded girls' schools and homes for widows. She was a noted Sanskrit scholar-knowledge which gave her an advantage in arguing the case for reforms for women in a society where customs for women were justified on religious grounds. As a Christian convert, she was helped in her work with widows by funds from American missionaries. Nationalist leaders such as Balwantrao Tilak criticized homes for widows for having as their major goal the conversion of women to Christianity rather than helping the women. The dilemma for Hindu Indians was how to be loyal to their own traditions while working for reforms they saw as necessary.

The political agitation against British imperialism brought many Indian women into public roles which included advocacy of reforms for women. One example among many is writer Swarnakumari Devi (the sister of poet Rabindranath Tagore) who started a women's association called Sakhi Smiti in 1886 to promote local handicrafts made by women. She was one of the first women to attend the Indian National Congress in 1889.

Two women's organizations were founded in the early 20th century which aimed at advancing the status of Indian women and assuring women a larger role in the independence movement against the British. The Women's Indian Association (WIA) was formed in 1917 and the All-India Women's Conference (AIWC) in 1927. Both organizations worked against child marriage and purdah restrictions and for education and and legal reforms for women.

The members of the AIWC and WIA often found themselves caught between their nationalist patriotism and their commitment to women's issues. For example, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, a medical doctor and the first woman member of the Madras Legislative Council, was the founder of the WIA. She felt that women could not afford to put all their efforts into the independence movement because without real improvements in the status of women, they would still find themselves oppressed after independence.

The AIWC claimed to represent all Indian women-Hindu and Muslim, wives of government servants, British women interested in women's rights. They set out to be apolitical and focus on women's issues but many members were caught up in the political struggles against British rule and finally it was agreed that members could make political statements. Many members came to look at freedom for women and for India as one issue. However, because politics were male-dominated, the AIWC and WIA frequently disagreed with the priorities set by those planning for an Indian state. The AIWC and WIA tried to insist that women's issues not be seen as a sidebar to the struggle for independence.4

The stress Mahatma Gandhi placed on nonviolent struggle also allowed for women's participation in the demonstrations against British rule in India. Gandhi urged women to leave their homes and purdah and to take part in nonviolent marches and protests. Both Hindu and Muslim women took part in these demonstrations. The sight of British soldiers arresting Indian women demonstrating peacefully for their cause was a powerful weapon in the nationalistic struggle against the British. Many thousands of women were jailed. Women, like the poet Sarojini Naidu and her sister-in-law Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was considered a radical by many Indians because following her husband's death, she left home to study in Madras and remarried. Bhikaiji Cama was well-known in Europe for her revolutionary activities. She lived in Paris and was associated with Indian revolutionaries considered to be terrorists by the British. Saraledevi Chaudhurani and Har Devi worked with male revolutionaries in India, and the Chhatri Sangha, a group of women in Calcutta, trained women to become revolutionaries.

After independence was achieved, many Indian women assumed that they would take a central role in the new democratic government of India. Many were disappointed at the lack of reforms for women which followed independence. Although the new constitution granted equal rights for women, customs which kept Gandhi, as prime minister of India, was a vivid example of how much political power a woman could achieve in India, but Indira Gandhi's leadership did not translate into revolutionary changes for ordinary women.

In recent years, however, a number of factors have encouraged a militant and widespread women's movement in India. Among these have been:

The declaration of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1975 and commissions set up to investigate and report on conditions for women in countries worldwide. The Indian commission did a remarkably thorough job of investigating and reporting on the roles and status of Indian women. The 480-page report, which revealed a number of serious problems for women, shocked and then galvanized Indian women into renewed action to improve the lives of women in their country.

The revelations by the 1971 census of the enormous disparity between the literacy rates for men and women, the decline in the work participation rate for women from the previous census, and the increasing sex imbalance favoring men were indicators that women's status since independence not only had not improved-but may have worsened in some areas.

In general, violence toward women seemed to be increasing. A well-publicized case involved a young woman who was raped by two policemen. Although the two policemen were found guilty, an appeal was made to the Supreme Court and their sentences were revoked. Prominent lawyers and the national press took up the case; women from all over India reacted with anger and a national anti-rape campaign was started.6 Also, the revelation that some women in India were being murdered-often by burning-if dowry payments were not made (or increased) gained international attention. Publications such as Manushi were founded to make Indians, and the world, aware of these and other women's issues.

There has been a growing recognition that official compilations of national statistics do not take into account the work of women and their economic contributions. The gap between wages of men and women, "double-day," and lack of support systems for women workers such as child care and health-care benefits became part of a national debate in India on the needs of women.

There was an increasing awareness of the connection between women's needs and the environment. Deforestation and inadequate water supplies, for example, have had a major impact on women's lives because it is usually women who walk further and further each day for these scarce resources. Problems of soil erosion may have a negative impact on women. When farms become less productive, men must migrate to cities to work for wages because the farm will no longer feed the family. Women are left to do both field chores, normally done by men, and domestic tasks assigned to women.

In India, then, these were some of the factors that have led to the multiplication of women's organizations working to improve the lives of women economically and socially. A recent estimate indicates that there are 50,000 women's organizations in India today-including private non-governmental organizations and the government organized Mahila Mandals, (meaning 'women's groups').7


The history of Sri Lanka includes many eminent women. The legendary "demon" queen, Kuveni, is thought to have ruled in prehistoric times. Several queens such as Anula Devi, Soma Devi, Lilavati, and the warrior-queen Sugala were monarchs in historic times. In 1960 Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to have a female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike. She was the widow of the assassinated prime minister and had the sympathy of the Sri Lankan people, but the role models of historical queens in Sri Landan history may have also made her acceptance as a female prime minister easier.

The major religion of Sri Lanka is Buddhism. Buddhism offered an alternative occupation for women to that of wife and mother, that of religious nun. Many women in Sri Lankan history took this opportunity and became Buddhist nuns. One woman, who had been the wife of a rush-weaver but chose to become a Buddhist nun, wrote in 80 BC: "O woman well set free! How free am I! How thoroughly free from kitchen drudgery..."8 Many nuns, like this one, became poets. Buddhism helped to protect Sri Lankan women from traditional Hindu customs such as sati and the prohibition against widow remarriage.

Women in Sri Lanka were early advocates of education for girls. In the 1880s the Sangamitta School for Buddhist girls was opened with an English principal and a local woman, Virajini Kumarasinghe, as headmistress. A number of schools for Buddhist girls opened in the early 20th century, often with foreign principals and founders. A lively debate took place among Sri Lankans about what girls should be taught. Some felt the purpose of an education was to make girls good Buddhist wives and mothers while others felt that the goal should be the emancipation of women. But many girls who attended these schools became political activists, particularly in the nationalistic movement of Sri Lanka opposing British rule.

Nancy Wijekoon, a school teacher, became known for her patriotic poetry which urged Sri Lankans to rise up against foreign domination.9 When the Ceylon National Congress was formed in 1919, several women became delegates. In 1931 Sri Lanka became one of the first countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to permit women to vote, and in 1960 Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first female prime minister of a modern nation.

Bandaranaike ran for office following the assassination of her husband then serving as prime minister. Although she may have won partly because of her husband's violent death and the sympathy extended to her as a widow, she was a strong politician. While her husband served as prime minister for three years, she served-off and on-for 12 years. She enacted a new constitution, changed the name of the country from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and continued her husband's policy of making Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese majority, the official language of Sri Lanka. This latter decision has turned out to be a decisive one for Sri Lanka. The sizable Tamil minority speak their own Tamil language and, therefore, English was the common language for both of the major ethnic groups of Sri Lanka-the Sinhalese and Tamils.10 After a time out of office, Sirimavo Bandaranaike ran again for prime minister in 1988 but was narrowly defeated.

Although the case of Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the world's first female prime minister is a dramatic one, the proportion of women serving in parliament during the last three decades has varied between one and four percent. The low percentage of women representatives is similar to a worldwide pattern of low political participation of women in political systems.11 Like Indira Gandhi's regime as prime minister of India, Sirimavo Banaranaike's term as prime minister of Sri Lanka did not provide the leadership for significantly more public roles for Sri Lankan women.

In recent years women in Sri Lanka have formed women's organizations to promote equal work opportunities and other reforms for women. Women workers in Sri Lanka have carried out protests and can look back on a history of activism. In 1978 a Women's Bureau was set up by the government and the non-governmental organization, Kantha Handa (Voice of Women), was founded. Both organizations were initiated partly in response to the United Nations International Women's Year (1975). Hema Goonatilake of the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka, reports that the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-1985) brought about "a new spirit of militancy" especially among factory workers. She feels that the United Nations Decade promoted the idea of focusing on women in development projects.

On March 8, 1983, representatives of several Sri Lankan women's organizations met to celebrate International Women's Day and to form the Women's Action Committee which would campaign for better working conditions for women. In 1985 women for a wide range of ethnic and class backgrounds founded Women for Peace to counteract the rising violence and terrorism leading to civil war between the Tamils in North Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese majority in the south.13

Women of Sri Lanka have held positions of political power, have led spiritual lives as Buddhist nuns, have been poets, teachers, doctors, and laborers on farms and in factories. Until recently they did not challenge working and family conditions that were detrimental to women-perhaps because they suffered less from oppressive customs common to other groups of women in South Asia. The United Nations Decade for Women was an inspiration to women of Sri Lanka to organize and seek reforms that benefit women.


India and Sri Lanka have histories of reforms for women which reflect their particular national histories. Other countries in the area also have distinctive histories of reforms for women. Pakistan, for example, became an independent Muslim nation at the time of India's independence from Great Britain in 1947. But Pakistan can look back at the Muslim kingdoms of 16th and 17th century India for early attempts at reforms for women in the region. For example, the Muslim ruler Akbar the Great attempted to stamp out sati and spoke out against child marriage. He was not successful, perhaps because Hindu Indians saw these attempts as interference in their religious practices.

In their recent book, Women of Pakistan-Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, editors Khawar Mumtaz and Farida Shaheed explain that it has been Islam that is the recurring theme in the political development of Pakistan. "Specifically regarding women, the fifty years preceding independence, progressive Muslim groups justified women's education, emancipation, and rights from within an Islamic framework. As of 1947, having been monopolized by reactionary elements, Islam has been the medium used by those wanting to curb or deny women their rights."14

The formation of the Women's Action Forum (W.A.F.) came about as a way for women to counteract the increasingly conservative "Islamization" of Pakistani laws toward women after the military takeover by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. Specifically, the W.A.F. has worked to repeal recent oppressive laws affecting women's status, particularly those found in the Zia government's Hudood Ordinance of 1979. The Hudood Ordinance specifies, for example, that four Muslim adult men must witness a rape before maximum sentence can be inflicted upon the rapist. A woman, even when she is the victim, cannot testify at the trial of a rapist. A woman who declares to the authorities that she has been raped may be accused of adultery-and may receive a severe punishment of lashing, imprisonment, or fines, while the man involved goes free. The discrimination against women in this and other provisions of the Hudood Ordinance and the resulting unfair trails and convictions of women were the immediate cause of the formation of the W.A.F.

W.A.F. chapters were founded in major cities throughout Pakistan. In May 1982 the Lahore chapter of W.A.F. held a jalsa-an event somewhere between a rally and a meeting-with a central topic, speeches, poems, skits, songs, and resolutions. Instead of serious lectures discussing women's oppression, the jalsa speeches were kept to a minimum and the skits presented were humorous, inviting the audience to laugh along with the organizers and performers at the absurdity of various policies of the government relating to women. The Lahore jalsa was so successful that other W.A.F. chapters have held similar meetings, and other organizations have replicated jalsas throughout Pakistan.

Just how successful W.A.F. will be in advocating women's rights in the future remains to be seen. The military government of Zia supported (some say even started) a rival, more conservative women's organization in Pakistan. After Zia's death in August 1988 democratic elections were held in Pakistan and Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan. Bhutto is the first female leader of a modern Muslim country. What she will do about the Hudood Ordinance and whether she will support the work of the W.A.F. remains to be seen. One observer commented that no matter what the Women's Action Forum does in the future, the "W.A.F. has provided a name around which those concerned with women's rights can rally."15


Bangladesh gained nationhood as a separate Muslim country in 1971 in a civil war with Pakistan with the intervention of India. For Bangladesh it has often been difficult to separate out problems caused by political disruption, poverty, natural disasters, religious conservatism, and the dependent and subservient condition of most women to determine the causes of women's generally low status. A recent survey by the Population Crisis Committee ranking 99 countries on the status o women, considering five criteria: health, marriage, and children, education, employment, and social equality. Bangladesh was ranked at the bottom of the 99 countries judged.16 Pate IV-B discusses a male feminist, Mohammed Yunus, who originated the successful Grameen Bank program in Bangladesh which primarily makes loans to women and is revolutionizing Bangladeshi women's lives at the grass-roots level.


Bhutan, a small mountainous kingdom, was invaded and then dominated by Great Britain in the 19th century. Bhutan was subsidized first by the British and then by the Indian government which controls Bhutan's foreign affairs. In the 1960s Bhutan instigated a policy of modernization which included abolishing slavery and the caste system, enacting land reform, and working toward the emancipation of women. Statistics on contemporary Bhutan reveal the general poverty of the country, with a slightly shorter life expectancy rate for women than for men.


Nepal, also a small mountainous country with a history of British domination, has various cultural traditions for women, depending upon the ethnic group considered. Women of the Buddhist Tibetan groups of North Nepal generally have higher status than women of Hindu Indian groups in the south.

The first formal women's organization in Nepal-the Mahila Samite Women's Committee-was founded in the early 20th century by women who were related to prominent men in the government. One way members of Mahila Samiti focused on the plight of poor women was by sending a package of torn clothing to the prime minister's wife. One of the leaders of Mahila Samiti, Dibya Koirala, and her husband were exiled to India for their political activism and the Mahila Samiti was disbanded.

In 1947 a Nepali woman, Rebanta Kumari Acharya, founded the Adharsa Mahila Sangh, or Model Women's Organization, which worked to abolish child marriage and the ban on widow remarriage and to promote women's rights. Another organization to agitate for women's suffrage was also formed. Women's suffrage was won for Megali women in 1951. When the king of Nepal did not appoint any women to his Advisory Assembly in 1951, women's organizations carried out nonviolent civil disobedience protests. Four women were appointed to the next Advisory Assembly.

Since the 1950s numerous organizations have been formed to address the economic and social needs of Nepali women. The All Nepal Women's Organization (NOW) had over 1000 groups and 60,000 members by the mid-1970s. Shilu Singh, the first practicing woman lawyer in Nepal, founded the Women's Legal Aid Services which worked to inform women of their rights. Presently this organization functions mainly as part of the government programs and clubs for women to further education for women, family planning, and health and hygiene programs.17

As these brief overviews indicate, each of the six countries of South Asia have had unique historical and contemporary women's movements. Just as a wide variety of factors have influenced the history and culture of women in each area-the style, extent, and effectiveness of reform movements for women are similarly shaped by many cultural and economic factors. What is clear from these description, however, is that women, often facing formidable barriers, have joined together to work effectively to improve the lot of women in South Asia.



In 1970 Danish sociologist Ester Boserup published her landmark book, Woman's Role in Economic Development, which demonstrated that by ignoring women in the development process, development projects were often actually detrimental to women in the Third World. In the same year, the Percy Amendment mandated that United States foreign assistance projects must take into consideration their impact on women as agents and beneficiaries of aid.

Following the Percy Amendment, the United States Agency for International Development formulated a policy on women that argued, aside from equity issues, that foreign assistance was utilized more efficiently when it targeted women. Although the data in incomplete on how great the effect is when aid is focused on women, many studies now bear out the positive benefits of aid programs aimed particularly at women. For example, in many world areas loans for income-generating projects given to women generally have a greater impact on the whole family than similar loans to men. When women are targeted for schooling many benefits accrue: Worldwide female education is associated with: later marriages, lower fertility, lover child mortality rates, improved family health, increased earnings, and expanded GNP.1

The recognition of the importance of considering women in development continued throughout the United nations Decade for Women (1975-1985). United States-based organizations, such as the Association for Women in Development, women in development offices on land-grant university campuses, and organizations throughout the world, helped to focus attention on women in development issues.

As the importance of women's labor is made visible and the need to consider the social realities of women is considered, development projects are working to overcome the gender blindness which often leads either to negative results for women or their being ignored. Women throughout the Third World have become more vocal in expressing their needs and in opposing policies, economic conditions, and customs that are detrimental to women.

Part IV-A suggests that there is a long history of women in South Asia working for change and to improve the lives of women. Women in the contemporary life of the area are active in many reform movements for women. This section focuses on India. Three problems for women as workers, as a part of development, and as human beings given along with descriptions of efforts Indian women are making to solve these problems.

Theories That Explain the Subordinate Status of Women

Trained to look to the specifics of place and time rather than to the creation of theory, historians have often left to anthropologists the task of theorizing doubt the origins of women's oppression or the factors that account for women's subordinate status. Yet teaching about the history of women in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East raises questions in students' minds about the ultimate cause of the experience that is being described. For this reason, it is useful to review these theories, recognizing that the debate continues to rage.

A basic division runs between biologically oriented and socioculturally oriented theories. The former finds significance in a relative universality of physical characteristics among humans and of a gender division of labor that assigns men to "public" and women to "private" activities. This commonality is attributed to genetic or physical differences.

The environmentalists stress the equally apparent diversity of humans, physically and culturally, and claim that biology alone cannot cause this diversity. Moreover, they view "natural" features of society as fundamentally culturally and ideologically determined. Even childbirth and lactation, they argue, do not predestine women to stay at home; rather, societies can devise a division of labor that enables such women to be mobile (Africa 4-5).

Embedded in these positions are views about the appropriateness of men's and women's roles. Biologically oriented theories tend to assume that gender differences are best not tampered with. Sociocultural theories tend to see the pattern of women's subordination as subject to change; thus the search for the causes of women's oppression becomes linked to the possibility of creating gender-equal societies.

If the universality of women's subordinate status can be proved untrue, then the possibilities of creating gender-equal societies are strengthened. Hence some scholarship focuses on the search for matriarchies, past or present. While most scholars find evidence lacking, the discussion of matriarchy has raised important questions about the relationship between the actual power of living women in a particular society and a)kinship and residence patterns (e.g., matrilineality and matrilocality) or b) the ideological representations of women in are, ritual, or belief systems.

Another approach to the issue of the causes of women's oppression links women's power or lack of it to economic forces. Research in this area has generated questions about the link between gender inequality and levels of production or technology, class formation, women's and men's control of the products of their labor, etc. furthermore, these theorists dispute the universality of the notions of public and private, arguing that these categories follow historically from the development of more complex societies (Middle East 78).

Feminism challenges both European colonial and indigenous patriarchal ideologies regarding women. The relationship between western and non-western feminist thought has often, however, been adversarial. In part the tension between the two groups results from the explanation given for the oppression of women. Non-western women (even if they identify themselves as feminists, which is often not the case) object to those western feminist theories that posit men as the primary source of oppression. Recently this debate has generated theories that attempt to explain the interrelationship of multiple forms of oppression, such as race, class, imperialism, and gender, without arguing that all oppression derives ultimately from males' oppression of females.

The Inadequacies of the Concepts of Traditional and Modern

The concepts of "traditional" and "modern" are often both ahistorical and value-laden. It may be legitimate to talk about ways people have done/do things "traditionally" (evolving at some unspecified time in the past) or in the "modern" way (coming into use relatively recently). However, for Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, often the term "traditional" describes everything in the long eras before European intervention, and the term "modern" describes those phenomena following European intervention. This establishes a false dichotomy with western civilization as the model and with all things indigenous being "traditional" and all things western being "modern." This usage often implies that the traditional is static and the modern, dynamic; it fails to portray and analyze each regional history within the context of its own internal dynamics, in which encounters with the west prove to be only one element among many. Such a view obscures the fact that most societies were not isolated and had contact with other peoples before western contact, that they are not homogeneous, and that several traditions often co-exist (to more or less peaceful degrees) within the same society or nation-state.

Sometimes this ahistoricity results from equating "modernization" with higher levels of technology; sometimes it is cultural arrogance and implicitly defined "modern/western" as somehow better. Since colonialist ideology in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East often used indigenous "oppression" of women as justification for intervention in these societies, they promoted the belief that the arrival of western civilization would improve women's lives. For example, in India in the early nineteenth century, one of the central arguments British officials employed to legitimate political control based on the use of military force was that British policies would "improve" the status of Indian women (Asia 17). Thus the colonizers made women central to the politics of colonialism.

The study of the lives of third World women, in fact, challenges the legitimacy of the notion of a strict dichotomy between traditional and modern. Women's lives, especially, show that traditional culture is not static, monolithic, or more misogynist that western culture, and that there is no automatic linear progress made in the quality of women's lives by following a western pattern of development. The regional studies that follow give evidence that often the "traditional" ways of doing things, especially in the political and economic arenas, were far less inimical to women's collective interests that the "modernization" that colonialism purported to export.

The concept of tradition has also sometimes been used as a rallying point in anti-colonial/liberation struggles. That is, by conceptualizing their struggle against European domination in "anti-western culture" terms, various peoples have politicized the return to "tradition" as a liberating strategy. Because this "return to tradition" was often formulated during eras of high colonialism, when the promotion of western culture was inseparable from the colonial presence, women were as central to the vision of "tradition" that emerged as they were to justifications for colonialism. Even once the colonial presence was gone, western culture still symbolized continuing economic dominance. Gandhi claimed that women's superior ability at self-sacrifice made them better practitioners of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance (Asia 25). In response to French cultural imperialism, wearing the veil became a political act of resistance in Algeria (Middle East 81). Similarly, veiling became identified with opposition to western influence and to the Shah in Iran (Middle East 89-90). In the 1970s President Mobutu sese Seko of Zaire constructed his policy of authenticity, a major tenet of which was a return to the "traditional" value of women as mothers and housekeepers who obeyed male relatives (Africa 103). These are but a few examples that show women have often been on the losing end of a return to "tradition." Thus ideologies of colonialism and liberation have both fostered misuses of "tradition."

A view of the traditional as dynamic, as well as a better understanding of women's roles in the pre-European-contact periods, can help demythologize the concept of tradition.


Religion has been a source of power for women, or a source of subordination, or both. Religious authorities have often functioned as politically powerful figures. In Inka society, women played important roles in the religious structure, even though male priests held religious and political power. As virgins, or aqlla, they were dedicated as "wives of the Sun" to prepare an alcoholic beverage for religious rituals and officiate at the same (Latin America 10). Even in less stratified societies of a much smaller scale, indeed perhaps more often in these societies, women acted as religious/political leaders. Nehanda, a female spirit medium, led resistance to British colonialism in late nineteenth-century Southern Rhodesia (Africa 25). In the eighteenth century, the legendary Nanny drew upon her mediating relationship with ancestral spirits in leading her maroon community in Jamaica (Latin America 23). Even where they did not hold religious office, women exercised power through religion: in peasant and nomadic regions of the Middle East, women continued, into the twentieth century, to control popular religious activities and thus to exert influence through their intercession with the supernatural (Middle East 86).

Religious beliefs may point to the equality of women as sacred beings or the importance of female life force. Female clay figurines suggest the worship of female deities in Egypt around 3000 BC, but we can infer little about the lives of women in general (Africa 7). Full-breasted female figurines, presumed to be fertility goddesses, are associated with the Indus Valley in south Asia around 2000 BC. (Asia 2). Aztec religion embodied many goddesses associated with fertility, healing, and agriculture. The presence of such goddesses did not signal a society of gender equality but rather of gender complementarily, as in the Inka case (Latin America 8,10).

On the other hand, religious beliefs may both reflect and reinforce the subordination of women. Women in many religious traditions are seen as polluting, particularly because of those bodily functions surrounding menstruation or childbirth (Asia 67). In West Africa, Akan fear of menstruating women limited even elite women's activities: the asantehemaa, the highest female office, could only be held by a post-menopausal woman from the appropriate lineage (Africa 77). Even though such beliefs may ultimately derive from a sense of women's power as procreators, women's status as polluting persons can restrict their activities and power. Moreover, traditions that stress the importance of male children to carry out ancestral rituals, for example, those in Confucianism, contribute to the negative valuation of female children and women (Asia 67). Other customs repressive and/or unhealthy to women, for example, sati (ritual suicide by widows), are sanctioned by religion (Asia 10-11). Finally, the great Traditions of Hinduism, Confucianism, and Christianity all legitimate male authority, particularly patriarchal familial authority, over women, Hinduism in the Laws of Manu (Asia 8-9), Confucianism in the three obediences (Asia 69-70), Islam in the Qur'an's injunction regarding wifely obedience (Middle East 30), and Christianity through Biblical exhortation to the same.

However much the Great Traditions carry profound gender inequalities in theology and in office, these same traditions spawn groupings that attract women (and other lower-status people). In India, the Gupta Period, which saw the Laws of Manu increasing restrictions on Indian women, also witnessed the rise of Saktism, a cult derived from pre-Aryan traditions that envision the divine as feminine. In this set of beliefs, the female divinity appears in three major incarnations: Devi, the Mother goddess; Durga, the unmarried and potentially dangerous woman; and Kali, the goddess of destruction (Asia 12). Subsequently, in the Mughal Period in South Asia, in search of help with fertility or other psychological problems, women flocked to devotional Hinduism, becoming followers of bhakti saints, and to Muslim sufi holy men (Asia 15-16). Women in the Middle East (Middle East 71-72) and in Muslim parts of Africa were also attracted to these mystical sufi orders, which stressed direct union with Allah. Among syncretic Christian offshoots in Africa, women play much more central, albeit often expressive, roles (Africa 39).


Most theories about the origins of the oppression of women see control of female sexuality and the reproductive process as central. For this reason, it is useful to examine basic questions, if not patterns, in societies' construction of female sexuality. Just as gender is socially constructed, so, too, is sexuality.


Throughout history, societies have generated ideological systems that link female identity to female sexuality. African women on several occasions utilized sexual symbolism to protest threats to themselves as women. For example, in the Women's War of 1929, Nigerian women challenged the offending officials to impregnate each of them, drawing upon an indigenous technique to humiliate men: they were protesting men's right to interfere in women's economic power and thus women's obligations as wives and mothers (Africa 91-92). In 1922 Kenyan women challenged their male colleagues to behave more "like men," that is, more bravely, by exposing their buttocks at a public protest against colonial officials' actions (Africa 30).

Religions project varied views of female sexuality. Islam affirms women's sexual pleasure, as it does men's while advocating that it be channeled into marriage (Middle East 30). In contrast, the Mahayana Buddhist views female sexuality as a threat to culture. In this religious group, women have been associated with bondage, suffering, and desire; female sexuality, then, is to be controlled by transcendence (or by motherhood) (Asia 73-74).

Often the control of female sexuality and reproduction is linked to concerns about purity. The Aryan notion of purity was reflected throughout Hindu ritual and beliefs, but in particular it provided the impetus for early marriage and for sati (Asia 8-10). Colonial constraints upon Spanish women's behavior in the New World derived from the elites' desire to maintain blood purity (Latin America 26-27, 31)

Expressed through virginity and chastity, in several cultural traditions a woman's purity had implications for her family. A Muslim woman's behavior affected her family's honor, for example, resulting in the ultimate sanction of death for adultery, (Middle East 28, 33-34, 40). Although Islam neither prescribes nor sanctions infibulations (briefly, the sewing together of the labia), and the practice is found in both Muslim and non-Muslim areas, infibulation is commonly associated with virginity and the control of female sexuality. Although virginity was of little consequence in Inka society, adultery on the part of noblewomen was punishable by death (Latin America 11). In seventeenth-century China, chastity was raised to a symbolic level not found in Japan or Korea. The 1646 Manchu rape law required women to resist rape to the point of death or serious injury; otherwise, they were considered to have participated in illicit intercourse (Asia 84-85).

The point here is not to list the multitude of ways in which women have been unfairly treated, but to understand the cultural construction of female sexuality. These examples, all drawn from Great Traditions of the ideological systems of states, highlight the control of female sexuality. But the earlier African examples remind us that sexuality and sexual symbolism, like all cultural phenomena, are a terrain of struggle, to be manipulated by women as well as used against them. In their critique of Japanese society, Bluestockings, a group of literary feminists in the early twentieth century, saw sexual freedom as an integral aspect of women's rights (Asia 96-97).

V.B. Control of Sexual Access

Societies have controlled sexual access to females through a combination of beliefs, law, custom, and coercion. At times men enforced these sexual rules; at other times women policed themselves as individuals or curtailed the activities of other women-peers, younger women, daughters-in-law.

In addition to marriage, concubinage existed in all the regions covered in this survey. Concubinage legitimated sexual access on the part of a man to more than one woman outside of marriage. Although it clearly represented a double standard, concubinage as an institution offered certain protections or benefits to women. In the New World some Amerindian women gained substantial wealth and status as concubines; in addition, slave concubines might be manumitted at their owner's death and their children legitimized (Latin America 19-20, 27). Similarly, Islamic slave owners manumitted some concubines, encouraged by the belief that such action was rewarded by Allah (Middle East 37). The protections offered by the institution of concubinage, albeit within a grossly unequal relationship, were lost with its abolition, and compensating institutions did not always replace concubinage. Hence abolition in parts of Africa left poorer women, former concubines, without the legal rights of wives or concubines but still dependent financially. In contemporary Africa women who in the past might have become concubines because of their economic or social vulnerability might today have multiple male partners, without the previous assurance that their children will be supported financially by the fathers.

Historically, prostitution has occurred under a variety of conditions that reflect different degrees of control of female sexuality. Prostitution may be seen as a strategy for a family's survival: impoverished Chinese families in the nineteenth century sold their daughters to earn money as prostitutes in the cities (Asia 89). Elsewhere in Asia, prostitutes functioned as part of larger institutions, or even imperial expansion. Hindu devadasi, or temple dancers, served as prostitutes tied to temples (Asia 26). During the period of imperial expansion in the 1930s, Japanese prostitutes were sent to service brothels in outposts of the empire, a process described in the film Sandakan 8 [Brothel Number 8] (Asia 107). Under these circumstances, prostitution did not mean increased autonomy for women, whether or not it provided subsistence.

In some places and times, however, prostitution has offered an alternative of increased autonomy. New colonial towns in Africa created spaces for women to escape from abusive or unwanted marriages. There, operating as entrepreneurs rather than under the supervision of pimps or other authorities, they supported themselves and their children by selling sexual and other domestic services to men, who frequently were migrant laborers. In addition, prostitutes were able to keep their children, an option that was not available to women in patrilineal marriages, where offspring belonged to the husband's patrilineage and were lost to a women who divorced or absconded (Africa 23, 26, 85).

Even under these circumstances in which prostitutes had more control over their sexuality and their lives, it is important not to romanticize prostitution. It has been, and remains, a "choice" made by some women within a context of gender and class inequality.

V.C. Control over Reproduction

The production of offspring (especially male offspring in strongly patrilineal societies) is often a measure of a woman's value. In some African societies, this value is represented by bridewealth, the gifts that a groom must give to the bride's family in order to obtain rights to the offspring in a patrilineal society (Africa 15, 19-20). The production of male offspring is essential for some religious rituals, for example, in Confucianism.

We have little historical information about control of reproduction. But even prior to the recent rise of reproductive technology, women found ways to limit birth. For example, in late nineteenth-century Zaire, slave women limited the number of children they had. In the complex conditions created by the internal African slave trade, slave women saw few advantages to producing children who belonged to their owners and who could not be expected to care for their mothers in old age (Africa 84).

More recently, with the advent of population control programs adopted by nation states and promoted by international agencies, control of reproduction has shifted away from individuality initiated (if probably less effective) actions to highly bureaucratized operations. In that shift, the balance has slipped from birth control, which empowers women by giving them options, to population control, which regulates female reproduction in the interests of a nation-state or a donor country. Women may be encouraged or coerced to have babies for the nation, or the revolution, or conversely, they may be manipulated or coerced into limiting childbirth. Stringent population policies were introduced in India, prompting protests by women's groups (Asia 29), and in China, where urban couples recently have been allowed to have only one child (Asia 112). In Puerto Rico one-third of the women of childbearing age were sterilized by the 1960s in one of the early attempts at widespread population control (Latin America 72). The white regime in South Africa promotes birth control among blacks as part of the larger plan of apartheid (Africa 38). In none of these population policies does birth control unambiguously empower women, since the elements of choice and safety have been compromised.

Domestic Relations

Domestic relationships are at the heart of most societies, since families act as the primary unit of culture-bearing. In pre-industrial societies the family is also an important economic unit. Thus the way that families are organized is linked as much to the relations of production as to culture. Factors such as a sedentary, nomadic, or hunting and gathering lifestyles,, or sex ratios, or the availability of land, among others, can affect family organization-but all of these factors also help determine the relations of production and culture. With few exceptions (Japan, for instance), the areas under discussion are still in the process of industrializing. Even while allowing for different levels of industrialization and cultural specificity, we can make some general observations.

In the Third World, historically and presently, domestic relationships have involved far more people than a nuclear family. The concept of the family most often functionally (not just conceptually) encompasses a wide range of relatives, including grandparents, parents, children, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. Even when these people do not all inhabit the same household or compound, the sense of communal responsibility, obligation, and authority is wide-ranging and strongly felt and encouraged. The importance of the individual, as a general value, is still submerged to that of the collective. Thus, domestic relationships and decision-making even between a husband and wife and their own children are often influenced by a wide variety of individuals and situations. Issues of polygyny, birth control, sexual conduct, education, allocation of economic resources, etc., are often group decisions, with elders frequently carrying more weight than younger members. The authority of a wide group of people to know about and sanction or approve behavior is accepted. Increasingly, however, factors such as class formation, greater mobility, and the proliferation of ideas about greater individual freedom are beginning to disrupt this pattern.


Historically, marriage was an important alliance that could not be viewed as a relationship between individuals, but between two kin groups, because the family was a primary unit for economic production and the concentration of wealth, for the allocation and legitimation of political power, and for conflict resolution. Consequently, marriages were often arranged for both women and men by other family members or by marriage brokers. Among the Aztecs, for instance marriages were arranged by a go-between known as a cihuatlanque. Among the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, however, until 1776 when the Crown enacted new laws requiring parental consent for marriage, as long as a girl was twelve and a boy fourteen they could marry without such consent. Still, marriage was generally seen as an alliance between families by both the Spanish and the Portuguese, especially by those of the upper classes where property was at stake, and marriage between relatives was, in fact, common (Latin America 7, 27-32). In the nineteenth-century Middle East, families exercised close control over marriage arrangements, and first-cousin marriage was frequent as a method for ensuring political alliances and centralizing wealth. Arranged marriages seem to have held less importance for the poor, however (Middle East 72), reflecting less wealth to protect and perhaps even the need to decrease the number of dependent kin. In Africa, also, arranged marriages were a prevalent means of ensuring the continuity of the transfer of resources (Africa 89-90, 99).

Dowry and Bride Wealth

Gifts passed between families and between the bride and groom at the time of marriage. Dowry was brought by a bride to her marital home, and other transfers, for example, bridewealth or brideservice, went from the groom (or his family) to the bride's family. The degree of access to and control over these gifts exercised by a bride varied greatly among the societies discussed here.

The institution of dowry served an important economic as well as social function. The dowry (or dote) was not a requirement for marriage among the Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America, but it served as a way of both compensating a husband for assuming the economic burden of a wife as well as providing a woman with some economic independence. Though it was administered by a husband, it remained the property of the wife and could not be allocated without her consent. If the husband mismanaged the dowry, a woman could petition in court to control it herself, and in the case of divorce, the dowry had to be repaid. In the case of the wife's death, however, the dowry was either divided among the children or returned to the wife's parents (Latin America 28). In India, dowry encompassed both stridhan, which was usually jewelry and clothing belonging to the bride alone, and a broad array of household goods and other valuables that were a gift to the couple and to the groom's family, with whom they lived (Asia 6).

In various societies, wealth moved in the reverse direction, from the groom and his kin to the bride and hers. The system of bridewealth found in Africa was generally a gift from a man to the parents of his bride and signified both their compensation for her loss as well as his rights to the children of the marriage. (Among matrilineal peoples in Central Africa, a groom had to perform brideservice, that is, labor in the bride's family's fields.) Forms of bridewealth varied (including cloth, beads, cattle, and after the introduction of wage labor during the colonial period, cash) and, in the case of divorce, it frequently had to be returned (Africa 19-20). In some places in Africa, women retained control over a portion of their bridewealth (Africa 13). Some East Asian societies had both dowry and bridewealth. Under Islamic law, women retained rights to the personal ownership of their bridal gift, or mahr (Middle East 30, 50, 62).


Polygyny, or the taking of more than one wife, was commonly practiced in a number of places. Sometimes, as noted above, it had an important political function in cementing alliances. In Islamic societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, men could legally wed up to four wives. In non-Islamic areas of Africa and among some early Amerindian societies, such as the Inka in Latin America (Latin America (Latin America 10-11), polygyny also existed, but the number of wives was not limited. Judaism allowed polygyny by A. D. 70 in the Middle East (Middle East 19). The economic obligations entailed by taking more than one wife could operate to curtail the degree to which polygyny was actually practiced; however, since women also produced wealth through trade, agricultural activities, and production of crafts, as well as by the exchange of bridewealth, it was often true that polygyny could be economically advantageous to men. Polygyny could sometimes be economically advantageous to women by allowing them to share household duties and obligations and by affording them more freedom to engage in trade and craft production.

Concubinage (see Section V.B. earlier) or the forging of sexual (and sometimes emotional) extra-marital alliances was common in all four regions. Though concubines were generally in a very vulnerable position, sometimes there were indigenous laws governing their treatment (Africa 61-62) and, because these women often came from poor families, concubinage could represent a way of improving their economic position and even status. For example, Khaizuran, concubine of Caliph al Mahdi during the Abbasid period in Iraq, saw two of her sons succeed their father as caliph, and she intervened in state affairs (Middle East 37-38).

Since one of women's primary responsibilities was considered the production of labor and heirs, infertility could be a devastating circumstance. Many African religious ceremonies were concerned with ensuring women's fertility or with curing infertility. In Sumeria (3000-2000 BC) men could take another wife if their first did not bear children (Middle East 19). Among the Aztecs a sterile woman could be rejected and divorced (Latin America 7).


Some form of divorce or marital separation was available to women nearly everywhere. Among Zoroastrians, only men could divorce (Middle East 20). Although in general divorce was easier for men than women, there were exceptions to this rule. Extreme physical cruelty and neglect of economic duty were fairly common grounds by which women could petition for divorce. Adultery and a wife's inability to produce children, among a much wider range of other less consequential reasons, were common grounds on which men exercised their right to divorce women. In the early Spanish societies of Latin America, marriages could be annulled due to failure to produce children. Legal separation, known as separation cuerpos (or separation of bodies) was also available on grounds of extreme physical cruelty, adultery, prostitution, or paganism, but such a separation forbade remarriage. From the sixteenth century onward, women were often the initiators of divorce in Spanish Latin America (Latin America 29). In Southeast Asia women easily exercised their right to divorce, a situation some historians speculate was due to their economic autonomy (Asia 35). Prior to the twentieth century, however, divorce initiated by women was much harder in other parts of Asia, such as China and Japan. The ease with which divorce could be obtained was sometimes related to class. For instance, the divorce rates among the urban poor in nineteenth-century Egypt was higher than among the upper classes, for whom the economic components of marriage were more complicated (Middle East 72-73). In Africa, because divorce often involved the return of bridewealth, it was sometimes discouraged (Africa 15).


The treatment and rights of widows varied widely. During the Mauryan era in India (322-183 BC), widows could remarry, although they lost their rights to any property inherited from their deceased husbands (Asia 6). During the Gupta era (320-540), however, the Laws of Manu severely proscribed women's rights in marriage, including the banning of widow remarriage (Asia 9). Though its origins are unknown, the ritual suicide of widows among the Hindu known as sati is one of the most controversial treatments of widowhood. A complex practice, it appears to have economic as well as socio-religious foundations (Asia 10-11). Among the Aztecs, widows not only retained the right to remarry but were encouraged to do so, especially if they were of childbearing age (Latin America 7). In the colonial period in Spanish America, widows had the rights of single women who, after a certain age, were considered to have attained a legal majority. They could acquire control over their children or remarry (Latin America 30). In parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, widows were sometimes "inherited" by male kin of their deceased husbands. This practice, known as the levirate, could entail conjugal rights, but could also only mean the assumption of economic responsibility for a widow and her children. Women sometimes retained the right to refuse such a marriage. Among the Kikuyu of East Africa, for instance, women could opt instead to take a lover (Africa 17).

In many places women's activity in reform and nationalist movements, especially in the twentieth century, has been characterized by their struggle to liberalize laws governing marriage and family relationships. The Egyptian feminist union, led by Huda Sha rawi, agitated for reform of laws governing divorce and polygyny in the 1920s and 1930s (Middle East 84). Women (and men) of the May Fourth generation struggled in early twentieth-century China to make the reform of marriage and family law and practice central to their revolutionary effort (Asia 98). Even after the success of the Cuban revolution and the passage of a family code that explicitly give women the same rights as men in economic and political arenas as well as in the family, women's organizations, with state support, continue to work to implement equality (Latin America 68-69). In Africa women and men activists in liberation movements such as the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 1970s clearly articulated the need to transform domestic relations as an important tenet of revolutionary ideology (Africa 9)

Women's roles statuses and power within the family have varied both through time within the same society and from one place to another. As reflections of material culture, they tell us more about societies than about women's place in them. For the regional areas under discussion, we can see the common threads, but we can also distinguish the wide variation.

Women's Economic Activity

In virtually all societies, the sexual division of labor among sedentary peoples associates women with family maintenance. Overwhelmingly, gender segregation and domestic subsistence production has characterized the lives of women in the economic sphere. In the Nubian civilization in ancient Africa, for example, there is evidence that women were involved in the production of pottery for household use, while men specialized in producing wheel-turned pottery for trade (Africa 7). At times there were disincentives for women to be economic actors. In medieval Islamic society, men were cautioned not to marry women who engaged in economic activities in the public arena (Middle East 44-45). But such observations should not be construed as an indication of lack of importance and variety in women's roles in agriculture, craft and textile production, the tending of livestock, trade, and other areas.


In nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, women historically played and continue to play important role in agricultural production (Africa 17,58). In one of the few areas of sub-Saharan Africa where private property in land pre-dated European arrival, among the Amhara of Northeastern Africa, women could control the entire agricultural productive process. They owned, plowed, planted, and harvested their own fields (Africa 16). Amerindian women were important in agricultural production in Latin America before the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese, who then sought to enlist men as agricultural laborers in cash crops (Latin America 3, 11). Although for the early centuries of the slave trade the sex ratio was heavily imbalanced toward males, African women performed important agricultural labor, which was essential to the economies of colonial Latin America and the Caribbean (Latin America 13). Women were cultivators in much of Asia, usually in family-centered production units. Even where women did not cultivate, they often performed other roles associated with agricultural production. In nineteenth-century Egypt, women did not plow land,, but they worked at harvesting and in pest-control activities (Middle East 58).

Crafts and Manufacturing

Women undertook various kinds of manufacturing activities. In the Chewa-Malawi area of nineteenth-century East Africa, women were involved in producing salt and in other manufactures (Africa 18). In the eleventh-century Pagan Empire in southeast Asia, women were important in the spinning of yarn and weaving of cloth (Asia 35). In eighteenth and nineteenth-century Egypt, women were important in the textile crafts, though they were squeezed out by industrialization. In the silk industry in Lebanon and the carpet industry in Iran (Middle East 60). Women were important weavers among the Inka, where they also worked in the mines (Latin America 11). In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women among the Shona of Southern Africa worked in the gold mines (Africa 15).


Perhaps the most ubiquitous economic variety activity undertaken by women was that of trading. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East, women traded agricultural products, cooked food, cloth, beads, handicrafts, and a number of other items. Although women's trading activities were sometimes on a small scale, often referred to as "petty trading," that was not always the case. In Southeast Asia, women in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Burma were engaged in trade that included the large-scale buying and selling of rice and other commodities. They were also identified with the production and trade of a particular foodstuff, betel leaf, for which they made elaborate jeweled containers (Asia 35). Sometimes women engaged in long-distance trade that required their absence from home for periods of time. Among the nineteenth-century Kikuyu of East Africa, women engaged in long-distance trade and retained control over the wealth they accumulated (Africa 18). Even where women engaged in local, small-scale trade, they could be very important to the growth of port towns and urban centers. Such was the case with women traders along the West Coast of Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Africa 62-64).

Residence in a harem and the practice of seclusion placed restraints on women's ability to engage directly in public arena economic activity, thus forcing them to use intermediaries to conduct their business operations. This use of intermediaries, and the higher economic status that seclusion usually implied, meant women sometimes held considerable wealth and became significant economic actors. In the nineteenth century in parts of the Middle East, notably Cairo, Istanbul, Aleppo, and Nablus, upper-class women employed agents to conduct their business transactions in the public arena. They also invested capital as "silent partners" in other ventures and loaned money to men (Middle East 62). Among the Hausa of northern Nigeria, Islamic women who were secluded used pre-pubescent girls to trade for them in public. In some places the strict gender segregation of Islamic societies in fact expanded women's economic alternatives, since only women could perform certain services for other women. In nineteenth-century Egypt women of lower economic status served as entertainers, cosmologists, and midwives to women of higher economic status who were in seclusion (Middle East 61). This practice opened up the professions to women in the late twentieth century, especially in countries where economic resources are plentiful, such as Saudi Arabia.

The absence of male heirs, or the fact of widowhood, could also create economic opportunity for women. Under such circumstances women ran businesses and were important in trades. In sixteenth-century Mexico, Mencia Perez, a mestiza, married a rich merchant. When he died, she took over the business and became one of the wealthiest merchants in the province (Latin America 33). In Syria, the gedik, a license that allowed one to practice a trade, was normally inherited by practicing the trade, they could sell, rent, or bequeath the license (Middle East 61).

Yet women's tremendously varied and important roles in economic activity did not translate into economic, legal, or political equality with men. The more economic autonomy women had, however, the greater their freedoms. Whatever the origins of women's inequality are, the complex processes through which it has been perpetuated will not fall in the face of economic parity alone.

Political Power

In general histories of the Third World, political access is not normally discussed with gender as a factor of analysis, although frequently class, race, ethnicity, and other factors are considered. Historically, the absence, controlled presence, or active participation of women in the political arena was directly related to gender. And being of a particular class, race, or ethnicity could influence women's power and status as much as gender. Still the type and degree of women's political participation both as individual factors and as a group has gone much underreported, and the present has frequently been mistaken for the past.

Direct Power

One of the most obvious ways women exercised direct power was by ruling. Women assumed power in their own right in the ancient African kingdom of Kush as well as sometimes co-ruling with their sons (Africa 7). There were women who ruled in early Austronesian societies from Polynesia to Madagascar, including the Philippines and Indonesia (Asia 37). In tenth-century Abyssinia in Northeast Africa, Gudit was a powerful Queen of the Agao (Africa 10). Two African queens ruled in the sixteenth century, Queen Aminatu or Amina of Zaria and Queen Nzinga of Matamba (Africa 61, 70). The Mende of West Africa also had a tradition of women as chiefs (Africa 78). Mwana Mwema and Fatuma ruled in Zanzibar in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and Mwana Khadija ruled in Pate on the East African coast in the mid-eighteenth century (Africa 14-15).

What the existence of women rulers has to say about women's power qua women is a complex question. Most women who ruled were members of the elite by birth, but then so were ruling men. However, Queen Nzinga certainly achieved rather than inherited her power, moving from the position of palace slave to that of reigning monarch (Africa 70). Although the existence of women rulers indicates that women were not universally absent from the highest seats of power, having a woman ruler did not necessarily reflect the status of other women or empower them.

Women also exercised direct power within arenas viewed as the female province; these varied based upon material culture. In Africa female networks seem to have arisen from the sexual division of labor, and over many centuries women exercised considerable power and autonomy within society as a whole through all-female organizations. Women leaders of women such as the iyalode among the Yoruba and the omu among the Igbo (Africa 63, 43, 38) are examples of such power. The coya, known as the "queen of women" among the Inka, is another example; she even had the power to rule in the absence of the male ruler (Latin America 11). Women exercised considerable within the royal harem in both Turkey and Iran (Middle East 66).

Women exercised power as members of ad hoc collectives of their own sex organized for particular purposes. The Nigerian institution of "sitting on a man" is found in various African societies. This phrase describes ad hoc political activities of women who gathered as a group to protest policies or protect one of their sisters by confronting a man and ridiculing him or making demands, sometimes even destroying his property as punishment for some act against a woman or women as a whole. Women directed this practice against recalcitrant husbands and colonial officials alike (Africa 91-92). There is also evidence of the existence of this kind of activity in early twentieth-century China, where women forced their husbands who had maltreated their wives to march through town wearing dunce caps (Asia 100).

Indirect Power

Women's indirect and influential power is perhaps best illustrated in the existence of the queen mother, normally the progenitor of a male ruler although sometimes a woman appointed as his "mother." These women had power not only over other women but often over men as well. Their power resulted not only because these women had access to the ruler, serving as his "ear," so to speak, but also because they often commanded formidable financial and personnel resources and/or had specific responsibilities over the governed. Queen mothers existed in ancient Kush (Africa 7-8), India (Asia 14), the Ottoman Empire (Middle East 66), and West, East, and Northeast Africa (Africa 67-68, 12, 13), to name a few places. Some queen mothers, such as Shah Turkan of thirteenth-century Delhi, could be very instrumental in installing their sons on the throne and consequently exercised considerable state power (Asia 14). Others, like Mihrisah, mother of the Ottoman ruler Selim II, who ruled in the early nineteenth century, exercised considerable power through largesse; she built a mosque and medical school (Middle East 66). Yaa Kyaa, mother of the West African Asante ruler Osei Yaw, also exercised considerable state power, even signing a peace treaty between the Asante and the British in the 1830s (Africa 77-78). The magijiya, the title given to the queen mother in several of the Hausa states of the Western Sudan in West Africa, even had the power to depose the ruler, or sarki (Africa 60). The queen mother, however, owed her power to her relationship to a male ruler and not to her relationship to other women, and even though she might be regarded as "queen of the women," she did not necessarily represent women's interests as a whole. Still, these women were often at the center of power, and many displayed formidable political acumen.

We also cannot discount the power and influence of women who were the wives, sisters, daughters, and consorts of powerful men. Precisely because of the intimate context in which such situations occurred, they are admittedly hard to document, but evidence exists. For example, Ines Suarez, who accompanied Captain Pedro de Valdivia as his lover in his campaign to conquer Chile, played an important role as a spy and confidante and eventually took part in the conquest (Latin America 14-16). Wives of emperors in the Byzantine empire wielded considerable political influence (Middle East 18). Nineteenth-century Confucian reformers in China were influenced by increased contact with literate women at court and in elite families (Asia 88). The nineteenth-century Islamic reform movement led by Uthman dan Fodio in West Africa was certainly influenced in its ideas on greater education for women by the women in Fodio's own family, which produced five generations of women intellectuals who left bodies of written work in Fula, Arabic, and Hausa (Africa 72). In the West African kingdom of Dahomey, by the eighteenth century at least, no man could become king without the support of the powerful palace women (Africa 68). Royal women in nineteenth century Iran also exercised considerable power and independence, even from inside the harem (Middle East 66-67). There are many other examples which suggest to us that women's influential role in politics was consequential.

Military Activities

Women's military participation as individuals and as organized corps of women fighters was also widespread. In many places women accompanied male troops, such as in Axum and early Ethiopian kingdoms (Africa 8), in early Arabia (Middle East 31), in Latin America (Latin America 15), and elsewhere. But women were also actual combatants. The African Queen Amina of Zaria led troops into battle (Africa 61), as did the renowned Nguni warrior Nyamazana, of early nineteenth-century Southern Africa (Africa 17), and Indian women in Delhi and Bhopal in the second half of the eighteenth century (Asia 16). In eighteenth-century Jamaica, slave women played important roles as combatants in maroon societies composed of runaway slaves. One woman, Nanny, is still revered as a fighter and ruler of one of the most famous maroon communities, Nanny Town (Latin America 22-23). Actual corps of trained women soldiers also existed, such as those in Java (Asia 36), and in the West African kingdom of Dahomey (Africa 67). In eighteenth-century Egypt, women went into battle against Mamluk and the French (Middle East 67). In the nineteenth century women fought in Japan (Asia 91), in the T'aiping Rebellion in China (Asia 88), and in the Mexican Revolution (Latin America 43). In early twentieth-century China, corps of women fought as the "Women's Suicide Brigade" and the "Women's National Army" (Asia 95). Twentieth-century anti-colonial and liberation struggles are replete with examples of women as combatants, for example in the 1950s "Mau Mau" rebellion in Kenya (Africa 35). The role of woman as soldier has not been scarce.

Nationalist Struggles

In addition to serving in military roles, women organized in other capacities with men an din women's groups against colonial policies that they viewed as inimical to their interests. In India at the turn of the twentieth century, women were active in the swadeshi movement, which sought to encourage the use of indigenously made products as opposed to European imports (Asia 24). In the 1930s Indian women participated in anti-colonial protest marches in Bombay and elsewhere (Asia 25). In 1929 the "Women's War" of the Igo and Ibibio of Eastern Nigeria was a massive uprising of women against the threat of female taxation (Africa 91-92). In 1945 the market women in Lagos, Nigeria, were very instrumental in a general strike against economic and political policies of the British (Africa 92). Women in Egypt, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire worked with men in organizations promoting independence from European imperialism by participating in street demonstrations, public speaking, and writing (Middle East 67-68). In the Algerian War of Independence against the French (1954-62), women were couriers of weapons, money, and messages, as well as actual combatants (Middle East 80). Women's participation in general strikes, major protest marches, economic boycots, and actual armed rebellion was prevalent everywhere there was an anti-colonial struggle.

Despite all of this, and despite the fact that improving women's status has often been a central point of anti-colonial ideology, women have usually not become the political and economic equals of men in newly evolving independent societies. In fact, the development of nationalist movements, at least in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has often operated to subordinate women. In nineteenth-century Japan the growth of nationalism and twentieth centuries, has often operated to subordinate women. In nineteenth-century Japan the growth of nationalism and patriotism tended to subjugate women, requiring that they be good wives and mothers as their first "patriotic" duty (Asia 92). Although initially instituting reforms that served to empower women, within a few years the Kuomintang nationalist movement in early twentieth-century China began to repress a developing feminist movement that had supported its rise to power (Asia 92). Although initially instituting reforms that served to empower women, within a few years the Kuomintang nationalist movement in early twentieth-century China began to repress a developing feminist movement that had supported its rise to power (Asia 101). The 1922 Egyptian constitution denied women the right to vote and barred them from the opening of Parliament, despite the active role they had played in the nationalist movement (Middle East 68). After the success of the Algerian Revolution, women's roles in the war were viewed as validation of their "traditional" roles of wife and mother (Middle East 81). After gaining independence, the Indonesian nationalist movement encouraged women to go back into the home to provide "social stability" (Asia 44). In Nigeria, although the nationalist movements of the mid-twentieth century had courted women and counted them as strong supporters in the independence struggle, women remained generally excluded from political power after independence and especially under military rule (Africa 1010). In many disparate places and cultures, nationalism left women unrewarded after independence was achieved.

There are exceptions, as some national liberation movements have challenged sexist ideologies regarding women. FRELIMO in