Gender Fictions and Gender Tensions Involving “Traditional” Asante Market Women

by Gracia Clark

Abstract

This paper analyses the changing relations between organised women market traders and rulers in a West African context, from a distant past to the present. It shows how political elites have used market traders as loyal supporters and as scapegoats for many centuries. These relations have taken a convoluted path that alternates between alliance and repression, in the context of shifts in the political and economic environment. Notorious episodes of price control and market demolitions from 1979 to 1984 are only the most dramatic moments in a long history of official intervention in trade and suspicion of prominent traders. Protecting traders as local citizens alternated with attacking traders as scapegoats for the ills and frustrations of national economic life. The paper focuses on “traditional” forms of organisation among market women, describing their political role, in terms of their interactions between their female leaders and the authorities. It shows how the constant need for negotiation reinforced group loyalty and how such forms of organisation have displayed resilience and adapted to various economic and political shifts.

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Gracia Clark has been working with traders in Kumasi Central Market since 1978, earning her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in Social Anthropology. She consulted for the International Labor Office and UNIFEM before teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and currently at the University of Indiana-Bloomington. Books include Onions Are My Husband ( 1994), African Market Women: Seven Life Histories from Kumasi Central Market ( 2010) and three edited volumes, Traders Versus the State (1988), Gender at Work in Economic Life (2003) and Trading Up ( 2008). Her published articles and chapters have addressed commercial policy, price controls, structural adjustment, credit, food security, gender, marriage, motherhood and group leadership.