This book explores the history of African womanhood in colonial Kenya. By focussing on key sociocultural institutions and practices around which the lives of women were organized, and on the protracted debates that surrounded these institutions and practices during the colonial period, it investigates the nature of indigenous, mission, and colonial control of African women.
The pertinent institutions and practices include the legal and cultural status of women, clitoridectomy, dowry, marriage, maternity and motherhood, and formal education. By following the effects of the all-pervasive ideological shifts that colonialism produced in the lives of women, the study investigates the diverse ways in which a woman’s personhood was enhanced, diminished, or placed in ambiguous predicaments by the consequences, intended and unintended, of colonial rule as administered by both the colonizers and the colonized. The study thus tries to historicize the reworkings of women’s lives under colonial rule. The transformations that resulted from these reworkings involved the negotiation and redefinition of the meaning of individual liberties and of women’s agency, along with the reconceptualization of kinship relations and of community.
These changes resulted in—and often resulted from—increased mobility for Kenyan women, who were enabled to cross physical, cultural, economic, social, and psychological frontiers that had been closed to them prior to colonial rule. The conclusion to which the experiences of women in colonial Kenya points again and again is that for these women, the exercise of individual agency, whether it was newly acquired or repeatedly thwarted, depended in large measure on the unleashing of forces over which no one involved had control. Over and over, women found opportunities to act amid the conflicting policies, unintended consequences, and inconsistent compromises that characterized colonial rule.