Queen mothers (Africa)
Queen mothers (also Queenmothers) are leaders and women of power in Africa. There is no "one size fits all" description of a queen mother. Generally, queen mothers play an important role in local government and "wield social power and influence." The amount of power they currently hold has been diminished since pre-colonial times.
Queen mothers are an important part of the Akan tradition which is based on matrilineal descent. They are found in such groupings as the Ashanti Kingdom, which is part of the Akan ethnic group. In areas of Ghana where the Akan culture is prominent, each town has a chief and a queen mother who rule alongside the modern political system.
Queen mothers have also been recorded in the tradition of the Pabir in northern Nigeria, as part of the Benin culture in Nigeria's south, and in the Krobo area. The Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin and Togo also have a number of women that make use of the honorific "titled mother of the king".
At the start of the 21st century, queen mothers are seeing a resurgence in power and influence in Africa. A great many of them are members of the African Queens and Women Cultural Leaders Network, a voluntary organization.
During the pre-colonial period, Africa was "organized around the authority of chiefs, kings and queen mothers."
Queen mothers were once important political figures who commanded respect prior to the colonial era. In some instances, they were even considered to be autonomous rulers. Amongst certain tribes, there were traditionally male and female "counterparts" in all aspects of the political hierarchy.
Colonists from Europe, due to their own sexism, negotiated only with titled men in the areas that they operated in. As a result, the power of the titled women diminished over time. In addition, queen mothers in Africa were not recognized as important and were often referred to in historical documents as "sisters" of the men in power by missionaries and colonists.
Queen mothers, along with other women on the continent under colonial rule, lost "social, religious, constitutional, and political privileges and rights."
Post-colonial governments "continued with policies that undermined women's traditional authority." Women's absence in politics and, particularly, traditional institutions has created an unequal distribution of power and resulted in women's "concerns and rights not being adequately addressed."
In 1988, the Ashanti Queen Mother Association was formed. It now has around forty-four women leaders from the Ashanti region as members. The group attends to issues relating to women.
The 1992 Constitution of Ghana included Article 277 which defines chieftaincy. Article 277 defines a chief as a person who has been properly nominated from the correct lineage and "enstooled, enskinned or installed as a Chief or a Queen Mother in accordance with the relevant customary law and usage." In the summer of 2010, the National House of Chiefs in Ghana announced the inclusion of 20 queen mothers. Queen mothers are appointed to the house for four-year terms.
More recently, areas such as the Upper West Region of Ghana, where the tradition of having queen mothers has not been practiced, have been encouraged to "reinstall" queen mothers by advocates of women's empowerment. More women have been installed as queen mothers in the northern part of Ghana, an occurrence which has raised the status of women in the area.
In 2014, the Ghanaian Chieftaincy Minister, Henry Seidu Danaa, declared that queen mothers' participation in the House of Chiefs was constitutional.
Description and duties
The title of queen mother is an English compound word used to collectively describe women in traditional African leadership roles. The Akan peoples use the term ohemmaa, which means "female ruler." In the Ga tradition, they are called manye or "community mother". In the Pabir tradition, they are known as maigira, a word that means "female monarch." In the Benin tradition, queen mothers are known as iyobas. In the traditions of Yorubaland, a woman who is ritually invested with the title is known as an iya oba or "titled mother of the king".
The office of the queen mother is also known as the "stool". In Ghana, queen mothers are selected from the royal family of each town and village. It is the head of the royal family and the elders who choose both the chief and the queen mother, a pair that might be related to one another. The royal families are made up of the first settlers of an area.
In the Akan tradition, queen mothers rule alongside the chief or the king in their area. Queen mothers are considered the spiritual head of their community and the keeper of genealogical knowledge. They have veto power of the king or chief and may appoint their own ministers. Queen mothers also select candidates for the next chief if the chief's "stool" is vacant. Queen mothers preside over courts which hear cases about disputes brought to the court by women. In their courtrooms, queen mothers and their court officials "wield power over disputants." When necessary, queen mothers can "assume full control of central authority." In some instances, they have "acted as war leaders."
The Kingdom of Benin did not have queen mothers until after the end of the fifteenth century when there was a conflict for the throne. During the conflict, women gained power and the first of their number became a queen mother. Queen mothers in the Benin tradition are, like those in Western monarchies, the literal mothers of the kings. Benin queen mothers had a great deal of power and were venerated as the protectors of the kings.
Among the Krobo, there is the "paramount queen mother" and several "lesser" queen mothers ruling under her. Krobo queen mothers have less power than the queen mothers of the Akan tradition do. It is speculated the tradition of the queen mother may have been adopted from the Akan.
The Krobo select queen mothers through a secret election by the elders. After her selection, she is notified of her new role by having white clay smeared on her arm. A ritual installation is performed where she is taught, advised, given a new name and then presented to the chief. Krobo queen mothers are seen as "mothers" of their community and while there is an emphasis on women's affairs for the queen mother, she helps both men and women.
Amongst the Swazi people of Southern Africa, the queen mother is known as the Ndlovukati. Joining her son the king, or Ingwenyama of Swaziland, she rules the kingdom of Swaziland in what is essentially a diarchy. Although most of the day-to-day functions of administration are performed by the ingwenyama, the ndlovukati is spiritually prominent due to her officiating during the annual Reed Dance rite.
Amongst the Tswana people, the queen mother is referred to as the Mohumagadi Mma Kgosi. She serves as an advisor to her son the chief, and is generally held in high esteem by the members of the tribe that he rules.
Women of varying ages and ancestries are installed as the "titled mothers of the kings" of the Yoruba. They also have a variety of different functions.
In the kingdom of Lagos, for example, the Erelu Kuti is ranked third in the order of precedence. She serves as regent when the "stool" of the king, or Oba of Lagos, is vacant. As part of the coronation ceremonies for a new oba, she also publicly blesses the candidate prior to his installation. For these reasons, she is regarded as the queen mother of the realm.
Elsewhere, in Egbaland, the Moshade is another example. A titled courtier in the service of the king, or Alake of Egbaland, she is the functionary charged with the responsibility of crowning him. Following this, she also conducts the installations of all of his subordinate chiefs. Due to this, she too claims queen mother as part of her ceremonial style.
In addition to these and other women in Yorubaland that hold the title "iya oba", there is also a class of women that are known as oba obirin or "king of the women". Usually holders of the principal title iyalode, these figures oversee women's affairs in the various kingdoms and represent their gender in the privy councils of the kings.
Queen mothers today
Some queen mothers have said that their authority is not as respected as much as the authority of the male chiefs. While many queen mothers and other women in traditional roles have faced obstacles for creating lasting change for women, they continue to organize in order to be represented "in formal political processes." They pursue educational opportunities, like the legal literacy training at libraries in Ghana or workshops.
In Ghana, queen mothers have started the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association (MKQMA) in order to help children who have been orphaned because of HIV and AIDS. The group was started by Nana Okleyo. Studies of the association's work in the Manya Krobo District found that it was a good model of how to address the issue of orphans in West Africa, though it did have some limitations  There are approximately 370 queen mothers involved in MKQMA. In addition, the MKQMA, under the leadership of Manye Esther, has developed HIV/AIDS prevention programs and helped support more than 400 orphans.
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