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Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930-1972

Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930-1972

by Jessica Cammaert
Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930-1972

Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930-1972

by Jessica Cammaert


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Undesirable Practices examines both the intended and the unintended consequences of “imperial feminism” and British colonial interventions in “undesirable” cultural practices in northern Ghana. Jessica Cammaert addresses the state management of social practices such as female circumcision, nudity, prostitution, and “illicit” adoption as well as the hesitation to impose severe punishments for the slave dealing of females, particularly female children. She examines the gendered power relations and colonial attitudes that targeted women and children spanning pre- and postcolonial periods, the early postindependence years, and post-Nkrumah policies. In particular, Cammaert examines the limits of the male colonial gaze and argues that the power lay not in the gaze itself but in the act of “looking away,” a calculated aversion of attention intended to maintain the tribal community and retain control over the movement, sexuality, and labor of women and children.

With its examination of broader time periods and topics and its complex analytical arguments, Undesirable Practices makes a valuable contribution to literature in African studies, contemporary advocacy discourse, women and gender studies, and critical postcolonial studies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803286948
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Series: Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
File size: 525 KB

About the Author

Jessica Cammaert is an instructor in African history at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.

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Undesirable Practices

Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930â"1972

By Jessica Cammaert


Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8694-8


Die a Natural Death

Responses to the Questionnaire on "Customs Affecting the Status of Women in West Africa," ca. 1930

In The Enigma of Colonialism: British Policy in West Africa, Anne Phillips writes, "The acute sensitivity to unrest, often long before events would confirm the initial suspicions, indicates the weakness at the heart of the colonial service. Suspended as they were over societies in the throes of transition, lacking as they did even the partial legitimacy of elected governments, administrators took the path of least resistance." Phillips does not take up the gendered nature of these "paths of least resistance," despite the fact that shifting gender relations in 1930s West Africa had provoked officials to view inquiries regarding women and women's status with great unease. This chapter discusses the West Africa department's responses in 1930 to a questionnaire titled "Customs Affecting the Status of Women" and reveals how, in their eagerness to tighten patriarchal control and prevent unrest, officials in West Africa hesitated to address interwar parliamentary concerns regarding female circumcision practices. The responses to the questionnaire demonstrate precisely the extent to which regional colonial policy governed questions concerning women in West Africa.

Responding to the questionnaire, the governors of the Gold Coast, Gambia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone stated that the status of women in Africa was equal to if not better than the status of men and that the extent of female circumcision practices in West Africa did not merit legislation. It was a questionnaire birthed from the earlier inquiries of Eleanor Rathbone, Katherine, Duchess of Atholl, and Colonel Wedgwood into the question of initiation and clitoridectomy of Kikuyu girls in Kenya, East Africa. In the latter 1920s significant backlash had resulted from the Select Committee on Rights and Status of Colonial Women's efforts to intervene in the practice, and in certain districts Kikuyu employed various strategies to protest abolition of the initiation rite. With Governor, Sir Edward Grigg, left to manage the controversy in Kenya, the Committee turned its attention beyond British enclaves of white settlers and missionaries. By 1929 the issue of female circumcision had become contentious in Kenya and Atholl began devising a questionnaire for Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Sidney Webb Passfield, to send out to colonial governors concerning the status of women. It reads as follows:

Suggested Questions for Circulation to Governors and High Commissioners of Colonies and Protected and Mandated Territories

1. Do the following customs exist among the tribes under your jurisdiction? If so, among what tribes do they exist, and what information can you supply as to their nature, and as to the injuries they inflict on the health, morale and status of girls and women and the health of children who may be born to them? What efforts, direct or indirect, are being made by Government or other agencies, to combat them; what official protection is afforded to any girl who desired to escape from them; and what further action do you consider to be possible?

Have you any information as to the origins of these customs, and what evidences are there that native opinion is turning against them?

(1) Circumcision of girls as a preliminary to marriage (All forms of this custom).

(2) Forced fattening of girls as a preliminary to marriage.

2. Do you know of any other customs injurious to girls or women? If so please deal with them as above.

3. Are there any injurious or barbarous customs practiced in childbirth, or in connection with sick or dying people? If so, what steps official or unofficial are being taken to combat these? What further action is possible?

4. Do abnormally born or twin children and their mothers suffer in any special way? If so, how is this evil being dealt with and what further action is possible?

5. Are vital statistics available? If so, what were a) the birth rate, b) infant mortality rate, c) maternal mortality rate, for the last ten years? If no vital statistics are available, would there be serious difficulty in securing them?

6. What is the extent of the provision of hospitals, midwives, infant welfare and any other health services made a) by Government direct and b) by missions aided by Government grant? How far do women take advantage of these hospitals, and in how many are there women on the staff? What extension of these services do you consider to be most urgent, and how do you consider they can be best provided?

What is the nature and extent of education for girls; how far is this provided direct by the Government and how far by missionary bodies aided by grant? In what direction do you feel extension most desirable, and how would you propose to secure this? What difficulties if any, bar the way?

What protection does a) the law, b) British Administration, provide for women who wish to avoid a marriage they hate, or to escape from a brutal husband? What limits are there to what relations and husbands may do? Is cruelty of this sort condoned by native public opinion? How is marital infidelity in a woman punished? How far is the woman free, how far the property of father or husband[?] What right has a wife to her children?

What is the person status of a woman as respects [sic] her own rights over her person, her minor children, or her husband's property? Is there any social stigma attached to the widow? What is being done to remedy this if it exists? If a widow has no property rights what status of livelihood are open to her?

Is there much prostitution? If so, do any special native customs minister to it? Is there any procuring of girls?

To what extent can native women own a) personal and b) real property?

Are women given any protection against the performance of heavy labour, such as road-making?

Generally, what can be done 1) by legislation 2) by education, 3) financial assistance to unofficial bodies

a) to put an end to cruelty to women?

b) to raise the status of women?

Passfield was hesitant to send the questionnaire to West Africa because he felt its questions particularly unsuited to the region, given its steady population growth. African women under colonial rule were viewed in primarily productive and reproductive terms. They were especially valued as slaves in Africa for these very reasons, and as slavery and related forms of dependency continued after formal colonial rule, women remained implicated within larger questions of free and unfree labor. By 1930 the question of women's status in the colonies had become particularly pressing. British women activists in particular linked slavery and African women's status, framing the latter as something akin to slavery. Atholl's Select Committee on Rights and Status of Colonial Women found support in the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, which petitioned Passfield to take the questionnaire seriously. In 1930 it was circulated to all British colonies, dependencies, and territories in Africa.

Passfield was aware the questionnaire would incite resentment among officials in Africa. In his dispatch he noted how pressed governments already were for funds and was quick to acknowledge the existing efforts of medical and sanitation departments to promote health and welfare on these slight budgets. The questionnaire's suggestions on how to improve women's status required funds where funds did not exist. Moreover there was the added concern of manpower, since in order to answer the questionnaire, colonial officials would have to ascertain detailed information on women and women's customs. Thus the problem was not only that of funds but also how male officials, who were at best amateur ethnographers, would gain access to such sensitive information. Overall governors throughout British Africa viewed the questionnaire as bothersome. In West Africa the implications of such an extensive inquiry raised a number of unique concerns. The backlash against European intervention in Kikuyu initiation (irua) which involved the excision of females as well as males buttressed existing nationalist sentiments in East Africa. West African officials worried about what would happen to nonsettler, cash crop, communalist West Africa if the questionnaire sparked similar unrest. These fears were voiced throughout British West Africa, and the potential impact of the questionnaire was even commented on in the newspaper the Sierra Leone Guardian:

According to West Africa a Duchess in Parliament [Atholl] asked certain questions and the answer she got leads one to infer that the Government anticipate interfering with the "Bundo Society." I have not the paper by me but as far as I remember, she suggested that the "Cruel practice of excision" be stopped. Now the question arises, What does this aristocrat know about Bundo? And further, have the African women ever complained about it? Does she know that this Society is for the most part highly respected by the natives of Africa, and that the idea of excision is to lessen the carnal desire in a girl destined to be the wife of a husband openly or covertly polygamous? The issues involved are serious, and if the Labour Government is looking for trouble in Africa let them interfere forcibly with the Bundo or kindred Societies entirely feminine. They will get it. And I am afraid that as in the Nigerian incident blood may be shed. The women will not take it lying down. The Slogan should be "CA CANNY" for the African woman is extremely conservative. The Bundo and similar societies, all over the coast date from antiquity, and more they are secret societies, therefore any reformation must come from within. Reformation by legislation spells trouble and I hope other West African Journals will express an opinion on the subject and not leave the "Guardian" crying in the wilderness.

This letter to the Sierra Leone Guardian demonstrates the patronizing tone of trusteeship undergirding officials' attitudes toward African women. The impossibility of a women aristocrat knowing more about African women than male colonial officials and the presumptions of those same officials that an African woman could and would look to them to intervene in the practice in the first place all point to the naïve worldview indulged by members of the colonial bureaucracy. The excerpt's warning that, "as in the Nigerian incident, blood may be shed" is indicative of how fearful officials were to provoke "conservative" women's unrest following the 1929 Women's War in southeastern Nigeria. Women's protest in Owerri province of southeastern Nigeria had seemed to officials to come as a "lightning bolt out of the sky." They were completely unaware that changes — even rumors of changes — in census and tax collection might spark unrest among market women. The Women's War affected the way officials perceived the Committee's questionnaire. Male, likely Creole, editors expressed a clear desire to speak for African women not so much to give them a voice or demonstrate a genuine concern for their status but to tighten patriarchal control and prevent women's revolt and bloodshed. The apparent abruptness with which the protests began demonstrated to them how little they knew about women and what could provoke their unrest.

The questionnaire was full of detailed suggestions for changes or improvements to women's health and status in Africa, and its focus on initiation and secret societies raised fears among officials. Initiation was gendered, and secret societies in which female circumcision was practiced were the prerogative of women. Since initiation societies were present throughout British West Africa, Atholl's questionnaire had the potential to elicit protest on a much larger regional scale than the 1929 incident. Officials therefore chose to take the path of least resistance. The West Africa department's responses to Atholl's questionnaire were constructed in a way that would dissuade further interest in women's status and female circumcision. Their fears were not exaggerated. Official logic in West Africa governed the myth of an economically and politically stable region, and measures thought to have the potential to destabilize were quickly shelved. This is particularly clear where officials' comments are geared toward disentangling questions of women's status from questions of slavery. Since concerns about female circumcision had much to do with the perceived brutality of the practice, officials also sought to disentangle initiation from circumcision and circumcision in West Africa from those forms practiced in Kenya, which were perceived to be more severe.

Responses from each department differ in length and detail. Questions pertaining to women's rights and labor, education and female associations within which female circumcision was practiced were given particular attention. It is clear the departments aimed to alter the Committee's preconceptions of African women's status and above all discourage disruptive legislation. To accomplish this governors used the paternalistic language of trusteeship. This paternalist rhetoric is most pronounced in the Gold Coast and Nigerian responses, as these were colonies most important to trade and thus colonial policy in West Africa. Furthermore the interior regions of these colonies, as well as the Northern Protectorate of Sierra Leone, heavily referenced existing women's associations. One reason for this is that initiation and secret societies were governed by age relations, and in regions where indirect rule systems were in place patriarchal institutions were perceived to regulate and support native authority. Embedded within this concern for indirect rule was the question of religion. Officials in the Gambia and northern Nigeria with large Muslim populations wrote about female circumcision within the broader context of Islam. In these interior regions legislation against female circumcision was viewed as both precipitous and unenforceable. Instead gradual education was viewed as an acceptable solution. But even the suggestion of training African midwives was not without issue, and governors discussed the potential benefits and hazards of expanding maternity hospitals and midwifery training beyond coastal areas. A tone of hesitancy pervades all responses, for governors desired the customs affecting native women and children to simply die out gradually as West African societies progressed along the steep slope to "civilization."

These concerns shaped the tone of the departmental responses. As Barbara Cooper notes, colonial archives often do not mention women much or do so in a perfunctory fashion, limiting discussion to reproductive terms. Scholars such as Nakanyike Musisi initially refused to work with colonial archives on account of this overwhelming male bias. Though limited in terms of African women's own experiences, the departmental responses reveal how officials perceived and responded to women's issues. As the architects of colonial policy in a region devoid of settler interests officials implemented the policies that would affect the transformations in the economy of gender relations in the 1930s. Therefore understanding male officials' attitudes toward African women and their status under colonial rule is imperative. The newspaper excerpts, anecdotes and opinions from district officials and amateur ethnographers, and reports from British-commissioned studies indicate increasing official concerns about women and the control of women during this period of transformation and upheaval. Ultimately this tells us much about the sorts of livelihood strategies women deployed in the new colonial economy.

This discussion of male bias is suggestive of how and for what audience the West Africa department responses were shaped in a region influenced by indirect and direct styles of colonial rule. In the 1930s the French government, for example, was also conducting inquiries into the status of women in West Africa, but did not rely on male informants alone. Ghislaine Lydon notes this in her analysis of an underexamined 1930s report on women in francophone West Africa entitled "La famille en AOF: Condition de la femme." The report, conducted by Denise Moral Savineau, totals one thousand pages and was commissioned by the governor-general of French West Africa (AOF). Unlike its British counterpart, it seems to have involved extensive traveling by Savineau, who conducted interviews with both men and women throughout francophone West Africa. While both British and French inquiries reflect increasing metropolitan interest in the status of African women and children, Savineau undertook fieldwork herself and largely distrusted commentary from colonial officials. Lydon's work points to the differing methodologies of British and French governments; such differences tell us much about variations between direct and indirect rule and the importance of gender in shaping colonial policy in British West Africa.


Excerpted from Undesirable Practices by Jessica Cammaert. Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Abbreviations,
1. Die a Natural Death: Responses to the Questionnaire on "Customs Affecting the Status of Women in West Africa," ca. 1930,
2. R. S. Rattray, Anthropology, and the Making of Undesirable Practices in Northern Ghana,
3. Female Circumcision as Undesirable in the Northeast, ca. 1930–1933,
4. Child Slavery, Pawning, and Trafficking in Late-Colonial Bawku, 1941–1948,
5. Put Some Clothes On or Nkrumah Will Get You! Antinudity Campaigns in the Nkrumah Era, 1958–1966,
6. Orphaned Children and Unruly Girls: Youth and Undesirability After Nkrumah, 1965–1972,
Conclusion: Undesirable Practices in Africa: Averting the Male Gaze,

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