Queen mothers: gender, power and contemporary female traditional authority in Ghana

Paper ID: 157

In the abundant literature about matrilineal Akan chiefdoms in Ghana, a distinction is made between 'chiefs' or 'kings' and 'queen mothers', which denotes a correlation between gender identity and tasks. The term 'queen mother' is widely used in Ghana to refer to female political leaders who occupy a stool in parallel to a chief. In Akan matrilineal tradition, queen mothers hold important positions, such as in selecting candidates from the royal family for a vacant chief's stool and being authorities on kinship matters and in girls' initiation rites. However, different writers have stressed that women became politically and economically subordinated and marginalized when European administrators imposed a legal and cultural apparatus that undermined women’s traditional bases of power, and that today, women in Africa remain politically underrepresented and economically disadvantaged. For example, in Ghana, then Gold Coast, female rulers were conspicuously absent from local administration under the various colonial ordinances setting up native courts and tribunals. While indigenous tribunals of male chiefs and elders were recognised and their powers and jurisdiction delineated, nowhere were women accorded any recognition. According to Rattray (1955 [1923]) the position and influence of the Asante queen mothers was rapidly declining. The more recent study of Stoeltje (1995) and others, however, shows that although the Asante queen mother's position was influenced by colonization and modernization, it nevertheless has remained vital and is adapting to the modern world. She points at the expansion of the queen mother's position and the trend for patrilineal societies to create queen mothers for the first time in their history. Another recent phenomenon is the formation of queen mothers’ associations. These associations appear to be a reaction to the apparent neglect or the peripheral position the queen mothers find themselves in. The associations show concerns for local issues, and address the basic needs for health, water, education and family sustenance. The dominant function of queen mothers thus seems to be shifting to the welfare of women. In this paper I will mainly focus on the case of the appearance and organization of queen mothers on the patrilineal Krobo scene. I will sketch the little known origin of Krobo queen mothers, who are hardly mentioned in historical accounts or in oral history, and study the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association, which in recent years has become very active in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It is necessary to redirect attention to the complexity of power relations in which gender differences are expressed in parallel lines of authority, male and female. In these relations, Ghanaian women have to be seen as active agents, responding to their changing circumstances, to understand some of the dilemmas of contemporary traditional leadership.