No Decolonization without Women’s Liberation: Women’s Liberation in the PAIGC’s Theoretical Discourse

Author Bio: 

Zeyad el Nabolsy is a PhD candidate in Africana Studies at Cornell University. He has an M.A. in philosophy and a B. Eng. (in chemical engineering) from McMaster University. He specializes in modern African intellectual history and philosophy. He has published on the intellectual history of Afro-Asian solidarity, Amílcar Cabral’s philosophy of culture, Paulin Hountondji’s theory of scientific dependency, debates about the theory of imperialism in East African Marxism, Amílcar Cabral’s theory of history, and the history of African studies in Egypt, amongst other topics.


I gratefully acknowledge Judith Byfield’s tremendously helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. I also wish to express my gratitude to all the participants in the workshop, which was organized by Alina Sajed and Sara Salem, for discussing the papers in this special issue. I also wish to recognize the helpful suggestions which were made by an anonymous reviewer for Kohl. Alina Sajed and Sara Salem also provided me with tremendously helpful comments on the final draft of this paper.

Cite This: 
Zeyad el Nabolsy. "No Decolonization without Women’s Liberation: Women’s Liberation in the PAIGC’s Theoretical Discourse". Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research Vol. 9 No. 1 (23 January 2023): pp. 141-155. (Last accessed on 22 March 2023). Available at:

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Les Femmes D'Alger, 2012

Asad Faulwell



The African struggle for political independence was in full swing by the mid-twentieth century and many African countries had attained independence by the 1960s. However, this was not the case for the Portuguese colonies on the continent, where Africans had to fight bitter wars and had to wait until the 1970s to attain independence. Yet this enforced delay turned out to be advantageous in some ways, at least insofar as the leadership of these independence movements could observe and learn from the mistakes made by the first generation of independence leaders on the African continent. In this paper, I focus on one such movement and its leadership, namely the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) which led a war of independence in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde that lasted from 1963 to 1974. The leader of the PAIGC, Amílcar Cabral, argued that upon reflection on the experiences of earlier independence movements one discovers that the primary error that they committed was that they lacked a clear theory of social transformation to guide their struggle. Cabral thought that it must be clear to everyone involved in the PAIGC that the goal is not just to attain political independence but also “to destroy everything that would be an obstacle to the progress of our people, all the relations that there are in our society (in Guinea and Cape Verde), be they against the progress of our people or against the liberty of our people. At the end of the day, we want the following: concrete and equal possibilities for any child of our land, man or woman, to advance as a human being, to give all of his or her capacity, to develop his or her body and spirit, in order to be a man or a woman at the height of his or her actual ability” (Cabral 2016, 77). Amongst such obstacles to the full actualization of the capacities of the women and men of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral paid special attention to gender inequalities and restrictions on the rights of women. While this is widely recognized, the philosophical grounding of Cabral’s commitment to women’s liberation has not been explored.

In this paper I argue that the emphasis, which was placed by the PAIGC’s leadership, and specifically by Amílcar Cabral, on the importance of advancing women’s rights and women’s liberation should be understood as being a consequence of Cabral’s modernist philosophical orientation. Moreover, I argue that women played an essential part in the struggle for liberation from Portuguese colonialism. In the first section, I characterize Cabral’s modernist philosophical orientation and the way it influenced his views on the necessity of women’s liberation. I emphasize the philosophical commitment to autonomy as a guiding normative principle. In the second section, I argue that women played a key role in pressuring the PAIGC to integrate them into its structure, i.e., they were active agents and not just passive subjects waiting for somebody to “liberate them.” In the third and concluding section, I describe the limits of the PAIGC’s commitment to women’s liberation, and I discuss why some members of the party’s leadership (e.g., Luis Cabral) disagreed with Amílcar Cabral regarding the importance of women’s liberation. This paper thus approaches the question of feminist anti-colonial imaginaries both from the perspective of the hopes which attended a partially feminist-inflected African liberation struggle, as well the betrayal of these hopes by men in leadership positions. Those leaders never took seriously the idea that the liberation of women was a necessary condition for the creation of a social environment which would allow for the full actualization of the capacities of men and women in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde.


The Modernist Philosophical Roots of the PAIGC’s Discourse on Women’s Liberation

Cabral’s philosophy of culture can be understood as an instantiation of the philosophical discourse of modernity. The essential elements of this discourse are the principle of subjectivity, the centrality of reason, and the belief in progress. For our purposes in this paper, the essential element in this discourse is the emphasis on the principle of subjectivity. By the “principle of subjectivity,” one refers to Hegel’s idea that what distinguishes modernity as a historical epoch and as a philosophical discourse from other historical epochs and other philosophical discourses is the axiological importance assigned to the individual’s ability to choose what to do with his or her life and the idea that whatever the subject is to recognize as valid should be perceived by it as good (Táíwò 2010, 76). At the political level and social level this commitment to the principle of subjectivity involves a commitment to self-governance. By 1972, the PAIGC controlled large swathes of land in Guinea-Bissau, and in these liberated zones they proceeded to create schools and hospitals, where previously there had been none. This is evidenced by the testimony of the head of the United Nations’ Special Mission to Guinea-Bissau in April 1972 (Borja 1973). Cabral conceived of the role of the PAIGC in the liberated areas in terms of assisting people in setting up structures that would enable them to govern themselves: “we must be permanently mobilizing, organizing our people, helping our village committees to hold their meetings to discuss their difficulties, helping our people to govern themselves, to solve their own difficulties” [my emphasis] (Cabral 1979a, 101). Autonomy is here conceived of in both individual terms, i.e., the right of the individual to structure her own life, and in collective terms, i.e., the right of the people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde to govern themselves and not to be subjugated by the Portuguese.

A possible objection to this argument is to what extent it is possible for us to ascribe a commitment to individual autonomy to the PAIGC given that historically this commitment to individual autonomy has been described by some scholars as a feature of liberalism which developed in conjunction with the rise of the capitalist mode of production, as well as the fact that the PAIGC's ideology has been described as Marxist in orientation by several scholars (Rudebeck 1974, 103; Mendy 2019, 202; Davidson 2017 [1981], 115). A complete answer to this important question can only be provided if one undertakes an exhaustive analysis of the conceptual and historical relations between Marxism and liberalism, which is beyond the scope of this paper; however, one can make some remarks by way of illustrating how an answer to this question can be developed. While the philosophical discourse of modernity had its genesis in the rise of liberalism and capitalism, this does not imply that a theoretical orientation that breaks with liberalism and capitalism must break with the philosophical discourse of modernity. In fact, we can understand Marx’s critique of liberalism (and subsequent Marxist critiques of liberalism) as being carried out from the standpoint of the philosophical discourse of modernity. Marx thought that the negative freedom of bourgeois society constituted an important step in human development at least in so far as it breaks ties of personal dependence (Sayer 1991, 17-37), but he thought that this negative freedom needed to be sublated [aufgehoben] (to put it in Hegelian terms), i.e., that it needed to be overcome by a development that preserves its positive aspects while allowing for community. As Sean Sayers notes, “like Hegel, Marx divides history into three basic stages: an initial condition of immediate unity [most fully developed in the ethical life of the Greek polis], followed by a stage of division and alienation [i.e., the negative freedom of the moderns], and finally a synthesis of the early stages, a higher form of unity in which concrete individuality can develop within community [for Marx, this is freedom in communism]” (Sayers 2007, 99). In other words, we can think of Marx as undertaking a critique of capitalism as a mode of production and of liberalism as its theoretical framework of justification in the name of individual autonomy (or specifically the individual freedom of the moderns) and not through its repudiation. We can thus understand how it is possible to characterize the PAIGC’s orientation as both Marxist inspired and as involving a defence of individual autonomy.

Elsewhere, I have provided an extensive textual and conceptual argument to support the thesis that Cabral should be read as a modernist in the sense that he ascribed to the philosophical discourse of modernity with its emphasis discourse on the principle of subjectivity/autonomy, the centrality of reason, and the belief in progress (El Nabolsy 2020). I contend that this commitment to individual autonomy shaped Cabral’s commitment to women’s liberation. The question arises of why we must invoke Cabral’s commitment to the individual autonomy of the modern individual subject to explain his stance towards women’s rights. Could we not explain this stance by referring to “traditional African” (I use this category merely as an actors’ category, but I believe it to be analytically inadequate) norms about gender? Cabral and the PAIGC’s policies with respect to the gender-based division of labour show that this is not the case. The party’s attempt to break down gender-based divisions of labour at the school level requires some clarification. Some scholars have argued that the existence of a rigid gender-based division of labour in some African societies did not and does not imply the existence of gender-based oppression or inequality. For example, the Nigerian philosopher Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu has argued in her analysis of Igbo family structures, that equality between Igbo men and Igbo women is not conceived of “in terms of some abstract notions of sameness but in terms of concrete sociopolitical duties and responsibilities that both sexes possess” (Nzegwu 2006, 193). Nzegwu argues that the existence of a rigid gender-based division of labor is not conceptually incompatible with the existence of equality between men and women in Igbo society. Even if we concede that Nzegwu is right to point out that the implications of a rigid gender-based division of labour for gender inequality or equality have been misunderstood, it does not follow from this that one cannot criticize rigid gender-based divisions of labour from the standpoint of the philosophical discourse of modernity by appealing to the axiological importance of individual autonomy or more specifically personal freedom. For the existence of a rigid gender-based division of labour does in fact violate individual autonomy. In fact, it violates the individual autonomy of both men and women insofar as it prevents women from taking up “men’s work” if they wish to choose to do so, and insofar as it prevents men from taking up “women’s work” if they want to. Note that this would remain the case even if “men’s work” and “women’s work” were equally valued. A society can be said to place equal value on “men’s work” and “women’s work” while also restricting the autonomy of individual men and women. Thus, the point is that framing the issue in terms of inequality and equality is somewhat misleading.

Cabral’s emphasis on individual autonomy is not in fact compatible with communal or communitarian conceptions of freedom which are often attributed to “traditional African societies” (e.g., in Ikuenobe 2006). Thus, appeal to the alleged communal or communitarian values of African societies played almost no role in Cabral’s political philosophy. Cabral’s commitment to the autonomy of the individual meant that in situations where there was a conflict between individual rights on the one hand, and specifically the rights of women qua autonomous agents, and customary practices in a given community on the other hand, the individual right of a woman to choose the shape of her own life was upheld against customary practices. The party’s directive to its cadres was “protect and develop manifestations of our people’s culture, respect and ensure respect for the usages, customs and traditions of our land, so long as they are not against human dignity, against the respect we must have for every man, women, and child” (Cabral 1979b, 243). Custom was directly opposed only when it impinged on the PAIGC commitment to gender equality in the party’s program: “men and women will have the same status with regard to family, work, and public activities” (LSM 1974, 11). This was the case with attitudes towards the question of the right to divorce amongst some ethnic groups in Guinea-Bissau. Among some groups, men could divorce their wives (or “repudiate them” in the words of Fidelis Almada), but women could not do the same (LSM 1978, 84). In such situations the party cadres used the philosophical discourse which was used to justify and demand independence from the Portuguese, namely a modernist philosophical discourse which emphasized individual autonomy, to persuade men that based on the very same principles upon which they had argued against the negation of their autonomy under Portuguese colonialism, the men must accept that women too could repudiate their husbands (LSM 1978, 84), since women also possessed the properties by virtue of which the men claimed autonomy from Portuguese colonial rule.

It may be that the philosophical discourse of modernity first emerged exclusively in early modern Europe, although even that is not a wholly settled manner (see Sumner 1999). However, even if we conceded that, it would not follow that it cannot be assimilated as an African cultural component; moreover, if someone like Hegel held racist views about Africa and its place in history, this by itself does not settle the question of whether some elements of his thought could not be seen as useful for African emancipative struggles (Camara 2011). One should not simply assume that philosophers have a privileged epistemic access to relations of entailment between the propositions that they believe. As Kant pointed out long ago, “when we compare the thoughts that an author expresses about a subject, in ordinary speech as well as in writings, it is not at all unusual to find that we understand him even better than he understood himself” (B 370). I am arguing that one could not come with an emancipative discourse about women that has the specific determinate features I have noted above (i.e., is non-communitarian and individually oriented) without recourse to a philosophical discourse that emphasizes individual autonomy.


Women as Self-Recruiting Cadres of the PAIGC

The PAIGC’s commitment to autonomy was also reflected in its discourse on the necessity of having women act as the primary agents of their own liberation: “from the outset this leadership stated clearly that women’s liberation, like any freedom, is not given, it is a right, but it has to be taken [by the women themselves]” (Urdang 1979, 17). Moreover, Cabral self-consciously spoke of women’s liberation as something that was demanded by women, and not something that was imposed by the party on women. Specifically, he was careful to note that in many cases it was women who first came to the party asking to participate in the struggle: “in the beginning of our struggle young women came without being called and asked for weapons to fight, hundreds and hundreds” [my emphasis] (Cabral 1973, 86). In other words, the party’s official discourse did not represent Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean women as helpless victims who were the objects of the party’s benevolence. Rather the party represented them as eager to participate in their own liberation and in their country’s liberation from colonial domination.

This is evidenced by the fact that some of the women who joined the PAIGC and later attained high administrative positions in the party structure had been involved in anti-colonial organizations before they joined the PAIGC. For example, Francisca Pereira, who was one of the first women to join the PAIGC, left Bissau when she was fifteen years old for Conakry and joined the “Movement for the Liberation of the Portuguese Colonies, a structure created by Africans coordinating with Portuguese colonial residents in Conakry during the mid-1950s and the Guinea-Bissau residents in the Conakry Association” (Ly 2015, 367). She joined the PAIGC in 1960, after the PAIGC had begun its self-imposed exile in Conakry. Moreover, Francisca Pereira claimed that, for the PAIGC, women were the easiest segment of the population to mobilize: “it was the women who were the easiest to mobilize. They realized that this was a great opportunity for their liberation. They knew the attitudes of the party [regarding women’s liberation]” (quoted from Urdang 1979, 123-124). Francisca Pereira’s rise in the party ranks was remarkably quick. By the age of seventeen she was living in a PAIGC house in Conakry and working full time for the party. In 1965 she was selected along with two other women who later became prominent leaders in the PAIGC, Titina Silá and Carmen Pereira, to study nursing in the Soviet Union for a year, and upon her return she was appointed as a health responsavel (party official responsible for health issues) in the northern front (Urdang 1979, 212). Continuing her rise through the ranks she later came to represent the PAIGC at the Pan African Women’s Congress and she represented the party in Algeria until the end of the liberation war. While it is true that Francisca Pereira’s quick ascendance through the party ranks was exceptional, it also demonstrates that at least some women could rise to important leadership positions within the PAIGC. Moreover, her ascendance was a result of her persistence in face of opposition from some male members of the party. As she recounts, “in the beginning they [some of the male militants] treated me as inferior. Even those with whom I had equal responsibility would keep thinking that whatever a woman does cannot be as good as what they do…it is a continual fight even now. However, things have changed enormously since those early days. But this does not mean that the problem has disappeared. Men need to be polished! I am still having to fight with my comrades about these attitudes” (quoted from Urdang 1979, 212). Moreover, it is important to note that frequently, it was other women who helped recruit more women to the PAIGC. For example, Francisca Pereira emphasized the role of Cabral’s first wife, Maria Helena Vihena Rodrigues, in explaining to her the party’s theoretical justification for waging the war for independence, as well as the party’s aims in launching the war: “The only thing I knew was our country was occupied by the Portuguese. It was Cabral’s first wife, Maria Helena Vihena Rodrigues, who explained to me and other young Portuguese Guineans whenever we visited her what colonialism was and its implications in our daily lives” (quoted from Ly 2018, 154).

In line with our emphasis on the role of women as active leaders in the struggle for their own liberation, it is important to recognize that initially there was strong resistance from some of the party leadership towards the incorporation of women, and this resistance persisted amongst some members of the party’s leadership. According to the Aliou Ly, it was only when the party moved to Conakry after the crackdown in Bissau in 1959 (the party having been founded three years earlier in 1956), that the party attempted to integrate Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean women into its structure. In Conakry, the party’s leadership was able to observe the manner in which Guinean women were the main force behind Sékou Touré's progressive agenda (Ly 2018, 155). Elizabeth Schmidt argues that women played a key role in the RDA’s activities in Guinea-Conakry. They were active in supporting workers’ strikes (Schmidt 2005, 56-67), the general strike of 1953 (Schmidt 2005, 84-87), and they played a key role in producing the songs which both shaped and conveyed the RDA’s political messages (Schmidt 2005, 129). Schmidt also registers other features of the RDA which came to be instantiated in the PAIGC. One such commonality was that many male members of the RDA were not keen on their leadership’s emphasis on women’s emancipation (Schmidt 2005, 138).

This transformation in the party’s general strategy and the party’s attitudes towards the role of women in the struggle allowed relatively new recruits such as Carmen Pereira to ascend the ranks relatively quickly. Carmen Pereira joined the party in 1962, upon discovering that her husband was secretly a member. She then went to study nursing in the Soviet Union for ten months in 1963 (Urdang 1979, 202-203). Upon her return she quickly rose through the party ranks, first becoming appointed as a health official in the interior of Guinea-Bissau. In 1967 she was appointed as the political commissar for the southern front (Urdang 1979, 203). By this point she was sufficiently influential that the Portuguese colonialist armed forces were explicitly targeting her (Urdang 1979, 199). Pereira would go on to become the only women to sit on the 24-member Executive Council of the Struggle (Mendy 2019, 83). After independence she was appointed the deputy president of the Guinea-Bissau National Assembly and was later appointed as the minister of health and social services and was made a member of the council of state (Ly 2014, 38-39).

The small number of women who occupied leadership positions in the PAIGC might lead us to think that Francisca Pereira and Carmen Pereira are the exceptions that prove the rule. In fact, both Francisca Pereira and Carmen Pereira came from relatively privileged petit-bourgeois “assimilated” backgrounds (like Amílcar Cabral himself). This might explain why they were able to attain leadership roles within the party that remained unattainable by other women who did not come from petit-bourgeois backgrounds and who labored under the legal status of being considered “indigenous” in the context of Portuguese colonial rule (Galvão and Laranjeiro 2019, 103-105). However, while acknowledging that the number of women who managed to ascend to high-ranking positions in the party was small in absolute terms, we should acknowledge that relative to the pool of “Western-educated” women the numbers were not insignificant. For one must recognize that African women were deprived of educational opportunities by the Portuguese colonial authorities in a more systematic manner than African men (Campbell 2006, 92; Jackson 2002, 192). In general, the opportunities for attaining any kind of formal education in Guinea-Bissau under colonial Portuguese rule were quite slim (Ferreira 1974). However, for women the issue was compounded insofar as “the vast majority of women…did not receive Western education and were not literate in the language of the colonial state” (Byfield 2018, 156). Given that the language of instruction in the PAIGC’s schools was Portuguese (Borges 2019, 151), this placed girls and women at a relative disadvantage when it came to access to schooling. Lack of training in Portuguese and other European languages might also partially explain the pronounced gender imbalances in the demographics of the students who were sent by the PAIGC to pursue their studies abroad, mostly through scholarships funded by the states of the socialist bloc. From 1963 to 1975 a total of 354 students were sent to study abroad, of those 298 were men and only 56 were women (Borges 2019, 99). Lack of knowledge of European languages placed significant practical obstacles in the face of girls and women who wanted to pursue technical-scientific education in the states of the socialist bloc.

The PAIGC recognized the obstacles that girls faced, and it attempted to correct for them by implementing a policy of affirmative action at the primary level, such that girls who were older could still be provided with an opportunity to enter the primary education system that was set up by the party in the liberated zones. This was in response to the fact that the opportunity cost, for parents, of sending girls to school tends to decrease when their younger sisters and brothers had matured enough to be able to help their parents with the tasks which had been carried out by the older sisters, so girls tended to be “free” to enter the formal educational system at an older age (Urdang 1979, 174). This is an example of the manner in which the party tried to understand the basis of the resistance of some communities to schooling for girls. It seems that despite the existence of religious determinants for such resistance, religion was not the decisive factor. Rather economic considerations such as the need for domestic labour were more significant (Borges 2019, 67). The general advice provided by Cabral was that the school calendars should be developed in relation to the agricultural cycle so that students would be able to study when their labour power was least needed by their parents (Rudebeck 1974, 207). However, the party was also willing to accommodate girls who fled to the party in the face of parental opposition. Mamai Bandica, for example, ran away from her family in order to attend school: “I always wanted to learn how to read. One of the youngsters who studied in the barracks told me about schools in the barracks, about the teachers and that they had already started to give classes. I ran away from my family [to go to school], and I stayed there. The barrack’s name was Faier. It was between the Farim River and Senegal, and it was located in the forest” (quoted from Borges 2019, 69).

The party leadership recognized that if boys learned to share in household chores, their sisters might be freed from carrying the burden on their own, and hence, this would allow them to perform better in school. Thus, in the schools which were set up by the PAIGC, the gender-based division of labor was often switched around, with young boys being encouraged to take on domestic tasks in school (cooking, cleaning, washing, etc.), and girls being encouraged to engage in activities which were usually undertaken by men, e.g., the construction of housing (LSM 1974, 46). Moreover, the party attempted to ensure that tasks which in some social formations in Guinea-Bissau were historically gendered as women’s work, such as cleaning, were not used as punishment. Thus, in the document entitled Regulation of the Schools of the Party, it is explicitly stated in article 7 that “students that show undisciplined behaviour will be punished. It is absolutely prohibited to use the cleaning tasks as a punishment, to hit the children or to cane anyone with a stick” (quoted from Borges 2019, 198). We may compare this with the manner in which the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) would later use “women’s work”, e.g., making enjera bread, as a punishment (Bernal 2001, 136).

The PAIGC’s curriculum attempted to undermine the normative legitimacy of rigid gender-based divisions of labour. There was thus an attempt to incorporate prominent women members of the party, qua militants, in the school curriculum in order to provide adequate role models for girls attending the schools (Borges 2019, 141). It seems that on some level the party succeeded in making gains on this front. For by 1974, there was an increase in the number of girls who were attending school; around 33% of the students enrolled were girls (Urdang 1979, 175). In the mid to late 1970s, the schools that had been set up by the PAIGC were often the most progressive institutions in the villages on issues pertaining to gender relations (Rudebeck 1988).

Moreover, we should recognize that women themselves took part in this process of education, by persuading both women and men that women’s liberation must be viewed as an essential part of the national liberation struggle. For example, the pilot school [Escola Piloto], which was established by the party in Conakry in 1965 and functioned as the most highly developed school that was established by the party during the war for the purpose of training future cadres, was headed by Maria da Luz (Lilica) Boal from 1969 to 1974 (Borges 2019, 122-124). Relative to other schools set up by the party, the representation of girls at the pilot school was quite high; girls made up one third of the one hundred and twenty students who were enrolled in the school in 1974 (Urdang 1979, 175). Another Cape Verdean woman, Maria Dulce Almada, also taught at the pilot school and helped edit the PAIGC’s journal (Coutinho 2017). Amélia Rodrigues de Sá Sanches Araujo also served in an important capacity as a producer of and speaker on the party’s radio station (Coutinho 2017). Hence, one can see that women were entrusted with very sensitive positions, insofar as such positions allowed them to influence the political and cultural training of future party cadres. This was in turn a reflection of the crucial role that women had played in the liberation struggle from its inception: women had offered their homes as refuges for the party during its early stages, they had helped in developing and distributing party propaganda, they had assisted the party in mobilizing their villages, they had carried arms and engaged directly in combat (in the early part of the struggle until 1967), and they had played a crucial role in maintaining the logistical network which made the success of the guerillas possible (Gomes 2006, 75). In fact, some of the scholarly articles on the war of liberation which have been written from the standpoint of military history do not mention the role of women at all (e.g., Dhada 1998). This omission is quite strange, for women played a key role in the logistical network which made it possible for the guerillas to launch their attacks against the military forces of the Portuguese colonial state apparatus. As one woman named Media Te put it: “[it was] women who give food and water to the soldiers are also in the struggle and pulls the triggers of the gun. Our contribution is as essential as anybody else’s” (quoted from Rudebeck 1974, 130).

However, even though women played a prominent role in the party’s elite pilot school, they were underrepresented in the PAIGC’s cadre of teachers in the liberated areas (Rudebeck 1974, 210). While this can partially be explained by the fact that fewer women had the requisite level of education, it is also possible that the PAIGC had to make certain concessions in the face of pressures against employing women as teachers in some areas of the country. The party was wary of completely alienating the local population for obvious reasons; no guerilla army can survive in the long run if it alienates the local population. Hence, while I think that we can reconstruct the theoretical framework, i.e., the philosophical discourse of modernity, which allowed Cabral to articulate the significance of stressing women’s rights, we cannot discount the significance of material constraints and other pragmatic considerations which prevented the PAIGC from laying the foundations which would have allowed for the institutionalization of its discourse around women’s rights.


Concluding Remarks: The Problem of Ideological Mobilization

In fact, it appears that at the level of ideological mobilization the party encountered serious difficulties, both in terms of persuading male cadres (especially those in the leadership) and the general population of the importance of women’s liberation. This is clear in terms of the problems that the party faced when implementing its marriage policies. Considering the aforementioned commitment to individual autonomy, the PAIGC, under the leadership of Cabral, attempted to ensure that women and young girls had the right to have their arranged marriages annulled (LSM 1978, 44). The significance of the party’s emphasis on the importance of individual consent can be better understood when we consider that the judges of the village tribunals in the liberated areas were allowed to pass judgments by relying on “customary laws,” as long as these laws did not contradict the PAIGC’s principles, except for judgments pertaining to marriage (Dhada 1993, 119). Note that the party, while making arranged marriages illegal, did not annul marriages which were initially arranged but to which both parties eventually gave their consent after they had been married. However, the PAIGC ensured that women who were not satisfied by their arranged marriages could get divorced, even when the war for liberation was still being waged. As the secretary of justice Fidelis Almada put it, “during the war, in the liberated areas, many betrothed young women raised this question when they become conscious of their new freedom. Even when the parents had arranged a marriage, our laws gave the daughter the right to go the people’s court which would then confirm her freedom” (LSM 1978, 83). However, the party did not just promulgate laws; it took into account the concrete socio-economic circumstances which might have prevented the implementation of such laws. For instance, in the case of arranged marriages, the family of the woman might be left in the difficult position of having to repay the bride wealth which they received from the husband. To avoid such situations, the party attempted to relieve pressure on the woman’s family by gradually attempting to phase out bride wealth. The party might have been encouraged in taking this step by the fact that among the Balante, who constituted the backbone of the party’s mobilization efforts for the war of liberation across Guinea-Bissau, women could divorce their husbands without having to restore bride wealth (Temudo 2019, 5). However, in areas of the country inhabited by other ethnic groups the party had to make some concessions by ensuring that the bride wealth that was provided by the first husband would be repaid back to him by the new husband that the woman chose (LSM 1978, 83). This was a serious concession insofar as it implied that women could have greater room for maneuver in choosing their husbands, but they did not have much autonomy when it came to the issue of whether to remarry or not. In some areas, it seems that the institution of arranged marriage was successfully undermined, while in others it persisted (Rudebeck 1974, 130).

The party leadership’s concessions also reflected an understanding that existing practices had a functional role in the reproduction of society and that they were not simply “irrational practices.” Hence, there was an emphasis on persuasion as pointed out by Fidelis Almada, “if we had merely passed a law, there would have been a lot of opposition to these ideas. Instead, our cadres spent a great deal of time discussing the new ideas [i.e., a woman’s right to choose her partner] with the people. Nothing was imposed; we simply let the logic of liberation prevail” (LSM 1978, 84). The emphasis on persuasion is in keeping with the general party line as formulated by Cabral, of “struggle without unnecessary violence against all the negative aspects, harmful to man [i.e., humans], which still form part of our beliefs and traditions” (Cabral 1979b, 243). This does not, however, imply that in practice coercion was always absent from the party’s relationship with the people who lived in the liberated areas. In fact, there are recorded cases of coercion where party militants abused their power through coercing women to join them in marriage (Galvão and Laranjeiro 2019, 102). Moreover, some army commanders were guilty of participating in witch hunts and in killing women who were accused of witchcraft (Mendy 2019, 132). It was in part in response to those problems that the PAIGC convened the first party congress in Cassaca in 1964. The congress re-established party discipline by punishing the guilty military commanders. Some commanders were executed, and some were imprisoned and demoted depending on the severity of their crimes (Mendy 2019, 135).

However, it is important to recognize that some of these aforementioned concessions would have been welcomed by other members of the leadership, who in fact did not take seriously the party line regarding women’s liberation. Cabral was aware of the existence of resistance to attempts to transform social relations and especially gender relations: “a particular instance was the occasional stubborn, silent resistance to the presence of women among the leadership. Some comrades do their utmost to prevent women taking charge, even when there are women who have more ability to lead than they do…but the men comrades, some, do not want to understand that liberty for our people means women’s liberation as well…Many folk say that Cabral has an obsession about giving women leadership positions as well. They say: ‘let him do it, but we shall sabotage it afterwards.’ That comes from folk who have not yet understood anything” (Cabral 1979a, 71).

The party, under the leadership of Cabral, had created the Democratic Union of Women of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (UDEMU) in 1961, in order to institutionalize the policies of the party in relation to issues of gender equality. However, by 1966, the UDEMU had been disbanded. Francisca Pereira argued that one of the main reasons why the UDEMU failed was because of a lack of adequate support from the male leadership in the party. Francisca Pereira claimed that some of the party’s leaders treated the women who had attained leadership positions in the party in a disrespectful manner: “many of the leaders regarded me and my two colleagues as just secretaries, and some of them did not hesitate to scream at us or ask us to make them coffee (quoted from Ly 2015, 366). In his interviews with former organizers of the UDEMU, Aliou Ly arrived at the conclusion that the general perception was that while Amílcar Cabral was quite committed to the importance of gender equality, his half-brother, Luis Cabral, disagreed with him on this point (Ly 2015, 366). In general, it seems that some members of the party’s leadership were not as committed as Cabral to social progress as a normative ideal especially in relation gender issues. The result was that “few women experienced full emancipation after independence” (Sheldon and Rodrigues 2008, 430).

We may also note that at the level of the mobilization, many of the women who had been active members of the PAIGC were not directly interested in social transformations with respect to gender relations (Ly 2015, 368). In oral interviews with the women who participated in the liberation struggles, “women's emancipation was not recalled as one of the PAIGC’s political principles” (Galvão and Laranjeiro 2019, 107). It seems that if we were to assess the failure of the PAIGC to bring about a social revolution in gender relations, we have to specify “failure” from whose perspective, i.e., it would not have been experienced as a failure by women who did not wish to transform gender relations. It seems that in Guinea-Bissau the situation was similar to the situation in Guinea-Conakry where many women violated gender norms in order to bring about the conditions which would make it possible for them to resume their “traditional” gender roles (Schmidt 2002, 296). Commitment to one’s inherited gender role can lead one to temporarily violate it if the conditions for the reproduction of one’s inherited gender role have been undermined. The violation of one’s inherited gender role in this case would have as its goal the restoration of the conditions which would allow for the continued reproduction of one’s inherited gender role. To this extent we may say that women’s emancipation was not a goal that was shared by all or perhaps even most of the women who participated in the PAIGC’s liberation struggle. There may have been a split between women from relatively privileged petit-bourgeois backgrounds, like Carmen Pereira and Francisca Pereira, who articulated a demand for women’s emancipation, and peasant women from rural areas who did not explicitly mobilize around an agenda of women’s rights or women’s emancipation. This would indicate that there were significant problems with the PAIGC’s efforts at ideological mobilization. Cabral was correct to note that the absence of a clear ideological orientation was a weakness of earlier independence movements. However, while Cabral provided a clear theoretical orientation to the PAIGC, he failed to come up with an adequate solution to the problem of ideological propagation and mobilization.


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