Colonial Legal Regimes, Customary Law and Gender Justice among Maasai Pastoralists in Tanganyika, 1916-1961

Historians, anthropologists and other scholars of gender have long looked to the implementation and interaction of colonial and customary legal regimes as rich sites through which to explore colonial gender productions and contestations. Some scholars have examined how colonial efforts to codify customary laws fixed previously fluid and dynamic considerations and decisions into written legal principles that reinforced the power and privileges of elder men over women and junior men, especially in the realms of marriage, divorce, bridewealth and adultery. Others have documented how some African women took advantage of the presence of new colonial judicial bodies to circumvent customary mechanisms for dispute resolution. Few of these studies, however, take a step back to consider what the colonial insistence on creating and naming a discrete field of social relations as the realm of “law” meant for the complex moral, political, and social ideas, relations, and mechanisms of gendered justice among Africans: How did the colonial codification of customary law and creation of legal institutions like native courts marginalize other understandings of and approaches to justice, including those deployed by women? What were the gendered consequences of reinforcing androcentric forms and forums of “law” predicated on principles of individual rights, secularism, rationality, and neutrality for alternative conceptions of justice premised on ideas of morality, respect, and social interdependence? To explore these questions, I draw on long-term archival, oral historical, and ethnographic research about and among Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania to analyze the gendered consequences of the creation and implementation of customary law and colonial legal institutions for not just relations between and among men and women, but for broader Maasai ideas and practices of justice, respect and morality in which women and the (primarily female-identified) Maasai divinity Eng’ai were significant.

Dorothy L. Hodgson is Professor of Anthropology & Director, Institute for Research on Women of Rutgers University (New Brunswick). She is the author of Once Intrepid Warriors”: Gender, Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Paperback edition, 2004 ; The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters between Maasai and Missionaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005 ; and Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neocolonial World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (in press).