How Nigeria’s Igbo women forced the hands of the British Authorities with petitions to fight injustice

The petitions

Selected petitions and written correspondence between Igbo women and British officials between 1892 and 1960 shed fresh light on how women navigated male-dominated colonial institutions and structures of the time.

African women acted in varied and complex ways to the situations they found themselves in. This ranged from subtle to overt opposition, and sometimes violent resistance.

One response was through petition writing as women took to the pen to articulate their concerns. In my research, I examined several petitions written by Igbo women to British officials during the colonial period. I found that petition writing was part of the complex power politics between the women and the colonial state.

On June 5, 1885, Great Britain proclaimed Nigeria as a colony. It declared a protectorate over territories on the coast between the British Protectorate of Lagos and both banks of the Rivers Niger and Benue (The London Gazette, June 5, 1885). Although treaties were signed with rulers by 1885, actual British control of northern and southern Nigeria was not attained until 1900. Colonial rule lasted until 1960 and was resisted in various forms. In Igboland, this included warfare, protests, tax evasion and petition writing.

The petitions enable us to understand the circumstances under which women turned to the government for assistance and under which the authorities granted or rejected their requests. Women opened up debates and dialogues using petitions. This offers insights into their relationships with indigenous men and with British officers.

My research shows that petition writing granted women agency and opportunities for far greater female assertiveness and civic engagement. In this sense, petitions served a political purpose and proved a powerful tool for the disenfranchised — a group that included more than just women.

What the petitions tell us

Petition writing demonstrates the “politics from below” which regularly featured resistance by women during the colonial era. Women, along with their male counterparts, took advantage of opportunities to seek redress and inform the government of their needs and complaints.

Petitioning was an avenue to interact with colonial authorities despite the social distance that separated ordinary subjects from the colonial ruling elite. Seeking redress through petitions was a powerful tool that helped bridge the gap between men and women in a rigidly patriarchal colonial system. While women understood and respected this distance, they certainly were not entirely powerless or voiceless.

Petition writing also offered a legal means to bridge the gap. It gave female subjects, who generally had no other direct contact with the authorities, a legal mechanism to press the government to fulfil its obligations.

Additionally, they demonstrate that women were not passive and voiceless subjects of the empire, as much of the colonial historiography would have one believe. On the contrary, women understood their qualifications as petitioners and their rights even as they stood before an administration that was male dominated.

Petitioning allowed women to occupy (as much as possible) colonial spaces that were constructed as quintessentially male. Since they occupied substantially diminished roles, Igbo women evolved their roles into a semblance of their pre-colonial expressions of political and socioeconomic power. By petitioning, they could be heard in the corridors of power that were otherwise unapproachable to them. Sometimes they managed to get the upper levels of colonial government to address a manifest wrong.

Even when the administration did not resolve their problems, analysis of these sources reveals a pattern of interaction between the colonizer and colonized, one that hasn’t been recognized before.

Indeed, a study of “female voices on ink” demonstrates the need to shift narratives and focus on neglected but unsung female heroes of the colonial period. We must recognize these women for who they were – contestants and agents of power in a male-dominated, British colonial society.