Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 2/3 Western acculturation and social gender relations in the 19th century: breaks and transformations

24.07.2020

Written by Koloina Andriamanondehibe
Translated by Aurélie Bugnard

When addressing the issue of the evolution of the condition of women, many historians and sociologists point to the 19th century as a critical time for social gender relations in Madagascar. Christianization and French colonization marked this century, making the island’s traditional values and norms lapse. This social and political reversal took with it the Malagasy matriarchal society: the thesis of men’s superiority then found itself at the heart of religious beliefs, mores, but above all of the law.

How did the Western incursion succeed in tipping Malagasy society from matriarchy to patriarchy in the space of a few decades? We saw in the first part of this article that matriarchy is an integral part of the culture and history of Madagascar1]Voir du même auteur : « Déconstruire l’antagonisme entre féminisme et société à Madagascar 1/3. Le matriarcat à Madagascar : mythe ou réalité ? Retour sur la société précoloniale », juillet 2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique, disponible sur : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1403. Now we are interested in knowing where the current patriarchal values come from, and therefore external to what we call “traditional values”.

Christianity in Madagascar: a new perspective on Madagascan women

Like many African countries at this time, Madagascar was affected by the expansion of Western Christianity, which had the idea of diverting its people from pagan practices, considered immoral in the European mindset. As early as 1818, Christian missionaries settled on the island in order to contribute to the religious teaching of the Malagasy people. Upon their arrival, they were struck by the island’s unique social organization, where gender inequalities were not as marked as in the West. For example, the magazine Colonie de Madagascar reported that among native people, women, as equal to men, could freely take care of their own body and mind2]« Notes, reconnaissances et explorations », janvier 1898, Colonie de Madagascar volume 3, 13ème livraison, p. 66. This observation is supported by Pastor Daniel Keck in 1898: “The position of women was higher there than in all other pagan countries and for more than fifty years, the throne has almost constantly been occupied by women, which has contributed to giving women a great influence in indigenous society3]KECK Daniel, « Histoire des origines du christianisme à Madagascar », Université de Paris, 1898, p.4.”

However, this balance was at odds with the patriarchal values imparted by the teaching of the Bible. In the Christian religion, it is made very clear that whether in the political or family sphere, men are called upon to dominate women entirely. This principle is based on the interpretation of biblical precepts advocating the inferiority of women and their submission to men. As said in the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22 and 23: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord; for the husband is the head of the wife ”. The current name of women “fanaka malemy4]Traduit bibliquement par « sexe faible » mais le plus souvent littéralement par « meuble fragile » à Madagascar. » is also seen by some people as the reflection of the Malagasy perception of women, and has its origin in the Bible5]Premier Épître de Pierre, chapitre 3, verset 7 .

The social and legal regression of women from the 19th century

Driven by religion and a more influential European presence, relationships between men and women in Madagascar gradually transformed. In 1878, the first Christian queen Ranavalona II abolished polyandry6]“Forme de régime matrimonial qui permet l’union légitime d’une femme avec plusieurs hommes” Source: CNRTL. Polyandrie, définition 1, site du CNRTL, en ligne: https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/polyandrie/substantif with a law known as the “Instructions to sakaizambohitra”. Adultery from men was not prohibited until 1881 by the Code of the 305 Articles, along with divorce and marriages of convenience. Despite a custom shift, these legal innovations did not immediately put women in a position inferior to men. It was only after 1897, following the dismissal of the last sovereign Ranavalona III, under the French occupation, that the last ramparts of the matriarchy in Madagascar were destroyed.

The colonial period was then marked by the widening of the gaps between men and women, even though the French administration had committed to ensuring the legal continuity of Malagasy custom. Discrimination against women manifested itself in practice through the institutionalization of social gender roles. It should be remembered that the traditional social organization in Madagascar was based essentially on the caste system7]Le système traditionnel reposait sur l’existence de trois castes, chacune d’entre elles ayant une fonction bien spécifique au sein de la société : les nobles « Andriana », les roturiers et hommes libres « Hova » et les esclaves « Andevo », as well as on a certain form of gerontocracy or respect for “raiamandreny8]elders ». With the exclusive domination of the settlers and the abolition of feudal slavery, the social division of labor affected the relations between men and women. It was decided during colonization that the education of Malagasy women would focus on household education; technical and administrative schools being reserved for boys9]RABENORO Mireille, « Le mythe des femmes au pouvoir, arme de l’antiféminisme à Madagascar », Cahiers du Genre 2012/1 (n° 52), disponible sur : https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2012-1-page-75.htm .

With such practices, it is not surprising that discriminations threatening the condition of women have emerged and persisted. Here is introduced the idea of the systematic intellectual inferiority of women, favoring the ascendancy of men in private and public spheres. Over the years, the notion of “male domination” has increasingly taken greater proportions, making it possible to justify various abuses and discriminations to which women are still subjected today.

The impact of the dual matriarchal and patriarchal heritage today

Following the return to independence of the island in 1960, the reintegration of women into the bodies of power was able to take place gradually. It was not until 1977 that Gisèle Rabesahala became the first woman minister of Madagascar, in charge of revolutionary art and culture.

Until today, no female politician has been able to reach the Supreme Judiciary. The best score achieved by a female presidential candidate is 4.5% of the vote. The following historical paradox can be noted: in 2020, several advances in gender matters can be celebrated, such as the election of the first woman mayor of the capital Antananarivo or the constitution of a government comprising a third of women ministers. Nonetheless, this all seems relatively laughable when we realize that less than 150 years ago, women had the capacity and legitimacy to run the whole country.

Asked about the continued existence of matriarchy in contemporary society, anthropologist Michael Randriamaniraka advances the thesis of the Madagascan unconscious. Even though women do not hold power and are subject to modern patriarchal law, they continue to hold a sacred place in the collective Malagasy imagination. This would explain why the successive Malagasy First Ladies have been granted the unofficial title of “mother of all Malagasy”, and their appearances as well as their absences are the subject of intense public scrutiny.

Conclusion

The history of Madagascar shows that the island has a double facet: that of traditional matriarchy and that of modern patriarchy, imposed during colonization. This situation is rightly reported by Niry Ratsarazaka-Ratsimandresy and Filip Waszczuk: “The real paradox here is found in the fact that Madagascar is anthropologically a matriarchal society while the law is patriarchal1]“. Therefore, it is wrong to claim that the excessive domination of men over women and the weakness of women in general are a legacy of Malagasy tradition. This is largely a myth conveyed by a Westernized culture and which, two centuries later, continues to undermine the emancipation of women in Madagascar.

In the next and final part of this dossier addressing the relationship between feminism and society in Madagascar, the main avenues for reflection on the creation of local feminism will be explored. In the Malagasy context, is it possible to promote gender equality respectful of the particularity of the Malagasy identity? What can the rise of identity-based feminist movements, such as Afrofeminism, teach us today?

References   [ + ]

1. Voir du même auteur : « Déconstruire l’antagonisme entre féminisme et société à Madagascar 1/3. Le matriarcat à Madagascar : mythe ou réalité ? Retour sur la société précoloniale », juillet 2020, Institut du Genre en Géopolitique, disponible sur : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1403
2. « Notes, reconnaissances et explorations », janvier 1898, Colonie de Madagascar volume 3, 13ème livraison, p. 66
3. KECK Daniel, « Histoire des origines du christianisme à Madagascar », Université de Paris, 1898, p.4
4. Traduit bibliquement par « sexe faible » mais le plus souvent littéralement par « meuble fragile » à Madagascar.
5. Premier Épître de Pierre, chapitre 3, verset 7
6. “Forme de régime matrimonial qui permet l’union légitime d’une femme avec plusieurs hommes” Source: CNRTL. Polyandrie, définition 1, site du CNRTL, en ligne: https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/polyandrie/substantif
7. Le système traditionnel reposait sur l’existence de trois castes, chacune d’entre elles ayant une fonction bien spécifique au sein de la société : les nobles « Andriana », les roturiers et hommes libres « Hova » et les esclaves « Andevo »
8. elders
9. RABENORO Mireille, « Le mythe des femmes au pouvoir, arme de l’antiféminisme à Madagascar », Cahiers du Genre 2012/1 (n° 52), disponible sur : https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2012-1-page-75.htm

Check the rest of the series “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar”
1/3 Matriarchy in Madagascar: myth or reality? Back on the pre-colonial society. : https://igg-geo.org/?p=1569&lang=en
3/3 (Re)conciling feminism and society, the new militant challenge in Madagascar : https://igg-geo.org/?p=2153&lang=en

To quote this article : Koloina Andriamanondehibe, “Deconstructing the antagonism between feminism and society in Madagascar 2/3 Western acculturation and social gender relations in the 19th century: breaks and transformations”, 24.07.2020, Gender in Geopolitics Institute.

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