On Feminists, Functionalists, and Friends: Lobola and the Gender Politics of Imperial Trusteeship in Interwar Britain

TitleOn Feminists, Functionalists, and Friends: Lobola and the Gender Politics of Imperial Trusteeship in Interwar Britain
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsPrevost, Elizabeth
JournalThe Journal of Modern History
Date Published09/2017

The liberal tension between reform and noninterference that perpetually plagued British colonial policy often pivoted around the cultural axes of gender and sexuality. This article examines one such case from the interwar period centering on marriage practices in East and Southern Africa, and in particular on the institution of bridewealth: the presentation of cattle or other goods, services, and currency by a husband’s family to his wife’s family before, during, and/or after a marriage to seal the union as a legal and social bond. Suffragette Nina Boyle and anthropologists alike called this institution lobola (or lobolo), a term used by several Nguni groups, which Boyle appropriated from her South African experience and applied universally to all analogous social practices in sub-Saharan Africa that could be interpreted as buying and selling wives. Bridewealth constituted a basis for a persistent and illuminating series of British inquiries into African social relations and colonial policy in the 1920s and 1930s, and the debate about whether marriage practices and customary law constituted slavery—a pointed question in the midst of the 1933 centenary and the League of Nations’ commitment to eradicating modern slavery “in all its forms”—helped raise the stakes of these investigations. Further, lobola was one of a number of contemporary feminist rallying points connected with the colonial control and international arbitration of women’s bodies that provoked similar debates and involved many of the same players. These included clitoridectomy in Kenya and the mu tsai sex trafficking system in Hong Kong; indeed, Susan Pedersen has shown how a humanitarian and medical discourse prevailed in the one and a maternalist discourse in the other, forcing policy makers to rethink and sometimes suspend the premise of cultural nonintervention. Boyle’s anti-lobola campaign, by contrast, never really enjoyed the same traction, leadership, or success, lacking the others’ convincing evidence of a human-rights crisis—which begs the question of why the meaning of the institution was contested with such intensity.

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