Thesis Number: #7 (Page 1 of 8)

Their formative role in the evolution of the human species was secured by customs and practices that guaranteed to females the right of access to the resources of nature. This enabled women to fulfil their functions at the heart of the family hearth. Their rights were degraded when the sacred status of land was profaned. A culture of violence replaced society’s nurturing, life-affirming processes. Re-allotting the right to share in nature’s and society’s riches is the pre-condition for resolving the war between the sexes.

 The Woman’s Lot


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PROTO HUMANS emerged out of the primate species by creating social networks that made possible the evolution of Homo sapiens. The social networks were fragile and yet resilient. They had to accommodate two imperatives. The first was biological: ensuring the continuity of families through the generations. DNA-based instincts were gradually replaced in importance by the wisdom that had to be transmitted orally, a wisdom that came to be framed by symbols and rituals. People ensured harmony with their neighbours so that the household economy could function effectively through generations.

The second imperative was ecological. Humans needed long-term stability within their habitats. They relied on the repetition of the seasons to meet their material needs. Respect for nature was one way of showing respect for other people. Nature and society were organically integrated through the realms of psychology and moral values, making it possible for early humans to fulfil their unique biological and intellectual potential.

The social network was the mosaic of life which could be enriched by the further accumulation of knowledge and resources. Dynamic change was constructed as people added value to the social galaxy that they were establishing within the natural universe. This additive process revealed a unique capacity in humans to create. This creative capacity drove the expansion of culture that enabled humans to extend their range of opportunities. This creativity was the essence of what is meant by freedom.

It was not possible to alter one of the foundation pillars of this matrix without disturbing the other components. A dysfunctional change would necessarily disrupt the social edifice, with potentially disastrous consequences. Such was the case when men ruptured the tenure rights of women.

The Biological Origins of Land Tenure

The earliest societies formalised the right of women to access the resources of nature. From this, it is tempting to subscribe to the hypothesis that those communities were founded on a matriarchal structure.

Through their fieldwork in the 19th and early 20th centuries, social anthropologists popularised the notion that pre-historical communities were matriarchal. Max Gluckman (1911–1975), a professor of social anthropology, provided a synoptic treatment of tribal law which concluded that “Matrilineal (as it became known) succession must have been the earliest stage of human society” (Gluckman 1971:12).

The inheritance of land rights through the female line is a well attested fact. That, however, does not necessarily mean that society could be characterised as matriarchal. That hypothesis is now contested (Lerner 1986:31). For the purpose of defining the conditions under which the traditional freedoms enjoyed by women would be restored, the dispute does not need to be resolved. What is beyond challenge is that pre-literate communities did recognise the rights of women to access the land that was needed if they were to nurture the food out of the soil to sustain their families. This was a natural arrangement. Inheritance was a human custom which combined biological imperatives (the need for stable unions between men and women to facilitate procreation) with the right to use land. Without land, life was impossible.1

This nexus – women and land rights at the heart of the household economy – was the building bloc on which culture-bearing evolution became possible. Women bore the children and suckled them from birth to adulthood. Custom and practises embedded the right of access to the resources of nature, first through gathering, then through gardening. Thus was the status of women established and preserved.

Superior rights over the resource base were held in common. The home hearth corresponded to specifiable plots of land, the rights over which were linked to specific individuals. Within this framework, women cultivated the nearby gardens. The extended home range was accessed by both male and female hunting bands. The community as a whole “owned” the territory.

Modern literature records ample evidence of how tribal societies passed land rights down the generations on a matrilineal basis. This practise was sustained through millennia to secure the capacity of humans to negotiate their way across the planet and into the future as they expanded their awareness of the natural universe. That consciousness enabled them to probe deeper into nature’s secrets, the laws which enabled the natural universe to reproduce the energy that is life itself.

As early humans plumbed the carrying capacity of their habitats, they further enriched their culture. This was an incremental process of voyaging upwards and outwards from nature into an ever more complex social galaxy, a process of discovery and invention that relied on the preservation of inter-personal harmony. As women fulfilled the biological role of reproducing the generations, men served as guardians of their communities. Threats from within the home territory came in the form of predator species. External threats might come at the edges of the territories from other humans whose intrusion could upset the delicate demographic/resource balance. Land tenure was at the heart of the symbiotic relationships that mediated the unique evolution of the human species.

The pre-colonial status of women in Africa was recalled by Nigerian barrister T. Olawale Elias, a commissioner for justice under the British. He noted:

In many African households the woman is usually, but not always, the mistress of the family. Her predominance is unquestionable in those social organisations which have the matrilineal and matrilocal systems of kinship arrangement, since the husband is then generally in a position of dependence upon the wife’s family. The man’s position is, however, often better where the kinship system is matrilineal but marriage is patrilocal (as among the Ashanti, for instance), although even here the woman retains and often embarrassingly asserts her independence of her husband. The children of such marriages look upon, or until recently used to look upon, their maternal uncles as more important than their fathers (Elias 1956:101).

African traditions before Europe’s colonial intervention reveal the rights and responsibilities associated with land. The general rule was that ownership was vested in the group, and the individual held rights of possession. Possessory rights were secure but not absolute. The non-use or ineffectual occupation of land resulted in forfeiture and re-allocation to someone willing to put it to productive use (Elias 1956:163).

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