Ownership and Power: Baule Women in Charge

The Baule society are a subgroup of the Akan people living in Cote d’ivoire. Though a lot of information has yet to be found about their origin it is believed that they settled in the Ivory Coast during the 17th Century and are mainly recognized as farmers. Being that this was a matrilineal society many of the interactions between men and women were that of choice.  In her essay, Women and Men: Cloth and Colonization: The Transformation of Production Distribution Relations among the Baule (Ivory Coast), Mona Etienne notes how marriage was mainly a freedom of choice. This is an important characteristic about the society as a whole because it sets up a parallel between the way marriage works in their society with production and ownership of cloth is understood. Etienne again talks about women’s right to ownership saying “ no indication of clearly established relationships of subordination-domination and no mechanisms where husbands where husbands or elders could systematically appropriate the surplus production of wives or juniors. (ettiene, 43)”

Production before colonialism in Cote d’Ivoire was divided by sex. This division of sex played a key role in their society because the person that was responsible for making the product had ownership over it.  They control how it is made and shared in the home, community, and in trade. In the Baule Society cloth was a necessary for men and children but also was a symbol of womanhood for woman who began wearing it and letting it fall below their knees.  Women who were married and had children wore pagnes. In Cote d’Ivoire women were the ones who began the production of cloth, allowing them to be the owners of it and decide how it would be distributed. The use of cloth at funerals, burials,  and in sacred treasures made both its production and its producers very important.

Once made the Cloth could be traded for iron, cattle, and captives (ettiene 46).  This form of currency allowed women to have autonomy in their relationships though men were able to reduce the amount of ownership that they had. In a marriage the husband would set a aside a separate plot of land for his wife where she would grow yams,  peppers, and cotton in order to provide for her children.  Women were the ones who cleaned the cotton and dealt with everything in the initial stages but men in the Baule Society were the only ones who weaved and sewed it.  This allowed men to set up relations with other women outside of marriage if their wife was not as good at producing cotton as another woman who did not have a husband. Still, the woman for the most part remained in control of cloth because she was where the production began.

While reading this essay I tried to tease through all the information in order to find out how much control women really had. I was never able to really find a definite answer but I do believe that the autonomy that Baule women had was based on the agreed relationship between men and women when it came to production. This changed tremendously once Europeans powers like the French began colonizing West Africa. The Europeans decide that cloth needs to be produced in a rapid manner. In 1923 textile factory was set up outside of Bouake and is able to produce cloth and thread at a faster rate (ettiene, 52). Weavers (still men) could now use cash to buy thread from the factory instead of getting it from their wives which essentially stripped them of the power that they had over cotton. The freedom that it gave them in their society. The French brought their patriarchal society to Cote d’Ivoire changing the relationship between

Etienne, Mona.”Women and Men, Cloth and Colonization: The Transformation of Production-Distribution Relations among the Baule.” Cahiers d’Études Africaines, Vol. 17, Cahier 65, Des Femmes sur L’Afrique des Femmes (1977), pp. 41-64