CFP: African Widowhood Practices in Historical Perspective

Rhiannon Stephens's picture

Dear Colleagues,

Gbenga Emmanuel Afolayan, Julie Stewart and Stella Nyanzi have issued the following call for book chapter contributions that they asked me to share with the list. Please contact them with any questions or expressions of interest.

all best,

Rhiannon Stephens, 
Assistant Professor (African History), 
Columbia University,


African Widowhood Practices in Historical Perspective: Context, Contradictions and Constraints

Gbenga Emmanuel Afolayan (PSC, The Federal Polytechnic Ilaro, Nigeria), Julie Stewart (Director of SEARCWL and Professor at University of Zimbabwe), Stella Nyanzi (Research Fellow, Makerere Institute of Social Research, Uganda)

The study of widowhood practices has significantly gained recognition as an area of study and therefore worthy of its own literature. Previously, widowhood practices in African history had received little in-depth consideration in historical writings. Much literature on widowhood practices in Sub-Saharan Africa focused almost entirely on widespread grief, bereavement, rituals, forced remarriages, human rights abuses, loneliness and discrimination in asset and property inheritance following the death of a spouse, resulting in poverty for widows and their children—but they lacked historical perspective. In particular, they glossed over the historical trajectories of socio-cultural, religious and economic systems which explain the context and (perceived) reasons for widowhood practices, contradictions and the constraints associated with the survival of widows in African societies. There had been no consistent attempt to study closely oral traditions—the main source of African history—with a view to eliciting information about widowhood practices in Sub-Saharan Africa. Women and Law in Southern Africa’s (WLSA) work did focus on this but it is just for a few countries. Most popular oral traditions concentrated on those areas where men predominated and exercised authority—for example, war and the battlefield. Also, the British colonialists paid scant attention to the widowhood rites, although they responded to the Women’s War (i.e. Aba Women’s Riot) of 1929 in Nigeria. Therefore, the task of piercing together the historical trajectory of widowhood practices has been difficult.

The last thirty-nine years, however, have witnessed a new interest in discourses on issues relating to women, society and human rights. For example, the United Nations Decade for all Women (1975-1985), four World conferences on discriminatory practices against women all over the world and the need to end them (held in Mexico city in 1995; Copenhagen in 1980; Nairobi in 1985; Beijing in 1995), and other more general conferences (Vienna Conference on Human Rights of 1993, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the 1995 Copenhagen World Summit of Social Development) and other relevant conventions on women’s rights (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights), provided a great stimulus in this direction.

Despite the significant strides highlighted above, widows still seem to be historically marginalised in development process. Africa has undergone many historical experiences, each of which has left its mark on the widowhood practices experienced by African widows in their societies and on their ability to interact with their societies. In the process, widows have become increasingly marginalised. While there has been an encouraging decrease in the widowhood practices and rituals in Africa, the fluidity of family relationships, institutional support for widowhood practices, traditional beliefs about death, moral values, sexual division of labour (feminine roles), inheritance, family structure, engendered colonial and post-colonial narrative of gender-based violence (and the accompanying counter neo-liberal narratives) have led to the reconfiguration of widowhood practices and the emergence of unconventional women activism and strategies aimed at addressing these issues and promote women’s rights in Africa.

Thus, examining widowhood practices from historical perspective provides one useful avenue for an understanding of the possibilities of African widows’ involvement in development, while also raising key questions about ethnicity, legal pluralism, religion, gender relations and family relationships, customs and traditional beliefs, patriarchy, economic interests and political will of community leaders, traditional authority and leaders. It points to the need for a critical reanalysis of our cultural, social, and economic evolution, as well as oral traditions, surviving religious cults and extant political institutions, which have the potency to attest to various widowhood practices in Sub- Saharan Africa. This collection aims to provide historical bases for sexual equality or inequality, and to contribute to the analysis which must always accompany action for fundamental social change. In addition, the collection aims to provide analysis on the roles of widows, and on widows’ own experience of these roles, and sensitize us to the complexities of patriarchy (male supremacy) in most African societies in which these are expressed.

Widowhood rites may be understood in institutional contexts, interpersonal relationships, traditional beliefs about death, inheritance, femine roles and cosmology of the community. We are particularly interested in the gendered, classed and patriarchal dimensions to widowhood rites. Africa provides a good starting point for this investigation of widowhood rites in the past. It can boast of a fairly rich source of oral traditions, traditional customs and life-styles as well as eye-witness accounts by visitors to the continent within the last one hundred and seventy-years. This volume intends to cover broad sweeps of history ranging from the pre-colonial and colonial periods to the independence era, and draw attention on any (internal/external) factors that have influenced widowhood rites and status of widows in Africa.

Suggested Range of Possible Chapter Topics
The editors welcome original and unpublished submissions focusing on (but not limited to):

  • The origin of the family, primate African socieities and the position of women

  • Widowhood Practices in Pre-Colonial and Colonial African Societies

  • The Status of Widows in Pre-Colonial and Colonial Era (Legal status, social status, etc)

  • A Social History of Marriage law and Widow inheritance in Africa

  • African Customary laws, Colonialism and Widowhood Practices

  • Widowhood and Mourning Rituals in Sub-Saharan Africa: Perspectives from the Domains of Public and Private Sphere.

  • Traditionalism, Gender Relations and Widowhood Practices

  • Culture, Widowhood Practices and Women’s Rights

  • Widowhood Practices in the Post-Colonial Africa

  • Contradictions and Constraints of Widowhood Practices

  • Law Reform, Constitutional Reform and Widowhood

We could also explore the links between widowhood practices and other social issues like religion, spirituality, among others. We are particularly interested in chapters that explore these issues from an historical perspective (within a case study-specific), as well as interdisciplinary perspective which draws from history, social anthropology, sociology, law, religious and cultural studies and other relevant disciplines in the social scienes. In particular, we emphasize country and ethnicity- based or religious and intersectional approaches by country or region. This is because of the distortions that are created due to the challenge of broad generalisations that are easily made. For example, the term ‘cleasing ceremony’ has so many different meanings and implications, as well as profound differences in its content and practice. All these need to be examined in a situational context.


Interested contributors should submit 500-word proposals, including a one-page bibliography of working sources and a 100-word author bio or resume by October 6, 2014 to Proposals should include a title and a brief description of the issue(s) examined, the methodological and conceptual/theoretical approaches guiding the chapter, the main arguments made, and the tentative conclusions offered, as relevant. Selection of the chapters for the volume will be based on the quality of the proposal, including innovation and relevance to the thematic focus for the book project. Accepted proposals will be notified not later than October 31st, 2014 and complete drafts will be due January 31, 2015. Completed chapters will be approximately 20-25 pages in length. All chapters need to be formatted utilising APA publications standards, and with 12-pt Times New Roman font.

Please feel free to contact any of the editors directly with your inquiry or concerns:

Gbenga Emmanuel Afolayan (

Julie Stewart (

Stella Nyanzi (


Categories: CFP