Abosede A. George, Making Modern Girls: a history of girlhood, labor, and social development in colonial Lagos.
Making Modern Girls is an important addition to the burgeoning repertoire of literature on women and gender in south-west Nigeria. While joining other authors of Yoruba women's history such as Helen Callaway, Judith Byfield and Marjorie McIntosh, this book's uniqueness lies in its core focus on girls--or, more accurately, the perception and construction of girlhood in colonial Lagos. It therefore deviates from the normative inquiries into womanhood to focus on girlhood, an under-researched subject in African and Nigerian history. Using a broad range of archival data and rich oral sources, George provides an informed and perceptive assessment of girlhood and social development in colonial Lagos.
George begins her inquiry with a description of the social geography of early colonial Lagos. Importantly, she explores the lives of the educated elite women who would later play a crucial role in the creation of the welfare state. These women, who differed from their would-be girl beneficiaries in almost every respect, including class, religion, education and sometimes language, would come to define the ideal parameters of all girlhood. George is especially skilled at revealing how state health and educational concerns led to the first intrusion into the sacred space of the Yoruba household, an incursion that would later set the tone for more invasive colonial interventions. She then goes on to explore the rise of humanitarianism in the 1920s and 1930s and the heightening colonial concern for universal childhood. George argues that the construction of a global class of children isolated the child from the Lagos family unit for the first time and made children the targets of colonial social and juvenile reform. This universal 'child', however, was conceived as male, which makes the role of Lagos elite women in placing the female child on the colonial agenda even more notable. George then explores the creation of the Colonial Welfare Office and its dealings with elite women. Here, George problematizes hegemonic discourses in African colonial histories which depict the relationship between European colonialists and their African subjects as one of hierarchy. Taking women from what she calls the 'backdrop' of the literature on colonial governance, she convincingly demonstrates that elite Lagos women did not consider themselves inferior to European Salvationists. This, however, led to the gender, racial, generational and class tensions that later divided the 'like-minded' groups.
Using a clear and accessible approach, George then highlights the transformation of the category of the female street hawker from that of an active economic actor crucial to the sustenance of her household to that of a streetwalker. These child hawkers were constructed as beings in peril, in perpetual risk of male sexual and physical abuse, and as beings of peril as carriers of disease and archetypes of the demise of childhood innocence. She explores the narrative of underage prostitution and the roles played by various indigenous customs, including child fostering and proxy marriages, in intensifying local anxieties and Salvationist narratives about young girls and young hawkers in danger. With the criminalization of underage prostitution, George highlights the movement of girls through the juvenile system and examines the dichotomy between male and female reform. While male juvenile reform was centred on education and on vocation, aimed at creating economic actors, that of girls focused instead on making housewives, a category that was fundamentally in opposition to Yoruba conceptions of womanhood, wifehood and femininity. The book ends with a note about the untenable position and eventual decline of Salvationists and the welfare state amidst the anti-colonial and nationalist agitations of the 1940s and 1950s, which sought to rebuff Western ideals in defence of indigenous constructions of girlhood.
While Making Modern Girls is an important and timely study of female childhood, my main concern with the narrative is its tendency to portray girls in colonial Lagos in monolithic and homogeneous terms, obscuring their heterogeneity. Indeed, the only clear difference made between girls was in the first chapter when the author states that the book is a history of the girlhood experiences of the non-educated elite in Lagos. Nevertheless, this indiscriminate classification of non-educated girls into one group is problematic because, throughout colonialism, Lagos became an increasingly diverse city as people of various ethnicities moved to the urban capital. An analysis of the traditional elite, their experiences and their position within welfare discourses, for instance, would have given this book more depth. Furthermore, George seems to move unproblematically between a Yoruba girlhood characterized by hawking and those of non-Yoruba descent who nevertheless fell victim to sexual exploitation. While the author, quite subtly, draws the reader's attention to this, this book would have benefited from a robust distinction between Yoruba and non-Yoruba routes to childhood prostitution and the cultural differences that prevented exploitative child fosterage or proxy marriages among the Yoruba while simultaneously protecting non-Yoruba girls from risks associated with hawking. Besides, rather than girlhood as a whole, George's book is about the construction of female childhood delinquency in Lagos. Needless to say, female delinquents would have been a minority. Juxtaposing their histories with those of the majority, who would have experienced non-delinquent or 'normal' childhoods, would have given the already excellent narrative an increased complexity.
These points notwithstanding, Making Modern Girls is an innovative and astute study, which makes a significant contribution to social and gender history through its exploration of an often-overlooked aspect of colonial Nigeria.
University of Exeter
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2015|
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