Cheikh AntaDiop’s theory of Matriarchal values as the basis for African Cultural Unity
Excerpt by Ifi Amadiume
Cheikh Anta Diop’s position is that matriarchy is specific, not general, given the influence of ecology on
social systems. He therefore put forward his hypothesis of a double cradle and went ahead to argue two geographical zones of North and South, using Africa to illustrate his argument, while patriarchy originated in the North, being nomadic. The middle belt was the Mediterranean basin, where matriarchy preceded patriarchy. Whereas, inWestern Asia, both systems were superimposed on each other.
Comparing these North and South cultures on the basis of the status of women, systems of inheritance, dowry and kinship affiliation, Diop shows how the Northern Indo-European cultures denied women rights and subjugated them under the private institutions of the patriarchal family, as was argued by Engels. The Northern patriarchs had women under their armpit, confining them to the home and denying them a public role and power. In this system, a husband or father had the right of life and death over a woman. The traveling out of women for marriage compounded this patriarchal control. This Northern system was characterized by dowry, fire-worship and
In contrast, in the matriarchal culture of the South, typified by the agricultural system and burial system, husbands came to wives. Wives were mistresses of the house and keepers of the food. Woman was the agriculturalist. Man was the hunter. Woman’s power was based on her important economic role. This system was also characterized by brideswealth and the strong tie between brother and sister. Even in the marriage, where a woman traveled out, this bond was not completely severed. Most of the funeral rules prescribed the return of a wife’s corpse to her natal home. Funeral exchanges also indicated compensation for the loss of a woman.
This Southern matriarchal system was also marked by the sacredness of the mother and her unlimited authority.
There were oaths invoking the power of the mother, that is, the ritualization of that matricentric, mother and child, ‘closest bond of love’ even in Eumenides. This is the ‘spirit of common motherhood’, generally symbolized in African religions.
Thus, Diop was able to present two polar systems of values for his North and South cradles. Africa, as representative of the Southern cradle of matriarchy, valued the matriarchal family, territorial state, the emancipation of women in domestic life, the ideal of peace and justice, goodness and optimism. Its favored literatures were novels, tales, fables, and comedy. Its moral ethic was based on social collectivism.
The contrasting Northern cradles, as exemplified by the culture of Aryan Greece and Rome, valued the patriarchal family, the city-state, moral and material solitude. Its literature was characterized by tragedy, ideals of war, violence, crime and conquests. Guilt and original sin, pessimism, all pervaded its moral ethic which was based
Diop, having thus contrasted one system with the other, went on to provide a general history of both cradles and their areas of influence. In order to prove his point that African women were already Queens and warriors, participating in public life and politics, while their Indo-European contemporaries were still subordinated and
subjugated under the patriarchal family, Diop presents us with an array of powerful ancient African Queens and their achievements. In Ethiopia, there were Queen of Sheba and Queen Candace, who fought the invading army of Augustus Caesar. In Egypt, there was Queen Hatshepsut, described as ‘the first queen in the history of humanity’. Cleopatra was titled ‘Queen of Kings’. Even in the huge and powerful empires of Ghana in the 3rd century A.D., matriarchal values were the norm. It was the same in the Mali Empire.
It can however be argued that as a result of the basic matriarchal differences in social values, centralization and feudalism in Africa would throw up ‘Queen Bees’, sitting comfortably on their female selves, while Indo-European patriarchal values and centralization would produce the Boadiceas and iron maidens, generally alienated from their female selves.
This debate was also taken on by Diop, when he deconstructed the classical Amazon myth, showing how it was derived from the Eurasian cradle, where ‘a ferocious patriarchy reigned’. It is the patriarchal malice against women,
fabricated in the classical Amazon myth, which led Diop to make this statement:
‘Matriarchy is not an absolute and cynical triumph of woman over man; it is a harmonious dualism, an association accepted by both sexes, the better to build a sedentary society where each and everyone could fully develop by following the activity best suited to her/his physiological nature. A matriarchal regime, far from being imposed on man by circumstances independent of his will, is accepted and defended by him’.
As Diop says correctly of militant or military female contingents in Africa, ‘the hatred of men is foreign to them and they possess the consciousness of being ‘soldiers’ struggling only for the liberation of their country’.
What is important to us today is not the legacy of warrior queens, but a thorough analysis of the primary system of social organization around an economically self-sufficient or self-supporting matricentric cultural unit and a gender free or flexible gender linguistic system, which is the legacy of African matriarchy. We need to understand its associated goddess-focused religions and culture which helped women organize effectively to fight the subordinating and controlling forces of patriarchy, thereby achieving a kind of system of checks and balances.
This is basically what the so-called monotheistic and abstract religions of Islam and Christianity ruling Africa today subverted and continue to attack. The fundamental question to those proposing these religions as a possible means of achieving a pan- African unity of federation is this: are these religions able to accept and accommodate our goddesses and matriarchy, that is, African women’s true primordial cultures in the present politics of primordialism, manipulated by nationalists and fundamentalist?
Hinterland Africa proper which had such structures which favored the rule of goddesses, matriarchy, queens, etc., is indeed still present with us today. But, these systems are facing erosion, as elite African men manipulate the new and borrowed patriarchies to forge a most formidable ‘masculine imperialism’, yet unknown in our history. How are we every going to subvert this, since the first casualty has been the autonomy and power of the indigenous women’s
In contrast to the seeming collusion of present-day African daughters of the establishment, the issue of women’s role and status in society, far from being a 19th century debate, has since the 60s gathered a new force in Western Feminist literature and scholarship. In Germany, for example, inquiry into matriarchy is taken very seriously. In the U.S. and Latin America, women’s search for spirituality predominates. In Britain, it is a search for ancient goddesses. There is also a revival of witchcraft cults. The whole Green and Ecological movement derives its concept and ideology from the so-called African animism, which is now being acknowledged as a worship of nature. In all this, African ethnography serves as a databank, but with little acknowledgement from the users. Did the history of Greek appropriation of African philosophy and science in the nineteenth century repeat itself at the eve of the 20th Century?
Because Diop took on the fundamental issue of matriarchy from an Afrocentric perspective and interest, as opposed to a compromised struggle for women’s rights in patriarchal systems, what scholar will match the Feminism of Cheikh Anta Diop? For him, matriarchy is an ‘ensemble of institutions favorable to womanhood and to mankind in general’. As he said, male controlled social science has only seen in this ‘dangerous freedom which is almost diabolical’. One wonders why Western matriarchy theorist do not cite the work of Diop?