Call for Papers for Edited Volume on Gendered Implications of Matriliny in Africa, Past and Present

Matriliny is relatively widespread across Africa, even today. Modern matrilineal families create communities and social safety nets that offer alternative ways for survival in contrast to failed policies proposed by African national governments and development organizations. Matriliny has proved remarkably resilient, despite other social and socio-economic changes, but often it has gone under the radar.

Generally, matriliny has been ignored, or considered insignificant or maligned in much anthropological, historical, political science, cultural, development, and even feminist literature. The starting premise of this edited volume is that this dismissal of matriliny (and subsequent lack of critical analytical attention) has severely limited our understanding of gender in African pasts and presents as well as of gendered historical processes of change.

Early scholarship on matriliny (and especially the idea of the ‘Matrilineal Puzzle’), as feminist scholars have shown, was based on ‘male mythologies’; in other words, it was characterized by a persistent tendency to assume male dominance and female subordination (see e.g. Arnfred 2011; Peters 1997; Watson-Franke 1992; Poewe 1981). Since the late 1990s, however, feminist scholarship has increasingly shown how the gendered histories of power assume different shapes across matrilineal and patrilineal societies. Gender scholars now recognize that women generally have had better access to political power in matrilineal societies. Although this does not indicate any straightforward relation between matrilineal descent and female leadership; for instance, many female leaders exist in societies reckoning descent and inheritance through patrilines. Still, despite increased studies on gender in matrilineal contexts, only a few studies have focused on historicizing matriliny (see e.g. Saidi 2010; Gonzales 2014), and none have looked at matriliny in a comparative perspective in Africa.

This volume will examine past and present implications of matriliny in Africa. It will explore matriliny historically, looking into the ways matriliny has changed over time. It will also examine the relevance and meanings of matriliny in modern Africa, and the lessons this form of social organization can contribute to social justice issues currently debated internationally.

A central aim of this volume is to explore matriliny as a way of rethinking gender in Africa. Mainstream taken-for-granted conceptualizations of gender build on notions of dichotomous hierarchical relations of male dominance/female subordination, all inscribed in a heterosexual matrix. In this volume, we will explore implications of matriliny in terms of different epistemologies of gender and sexuality. The volume thus aims to contribute to decolonial feminist epistemological debates and to future understandings of gender – in Africa and elsewhere.

We invite contributions based on field work among matrilineal peoples, historical research on matrilineal communities, as well as conceptual studies on gender/sexuality and matriliny in Africa. We are interested in analytical papers and encourage interdisciplinary approaches. Papers can focus on different time periods and draw on a variety of sources (e.g., oral histories, historical linguistics, archeological research, visual and performing arts). Comparative studies are also welcome.

Editors of the volume are Jonna Katto (University of Helsinki), Signe Arnfred (Roskilde University), and Christine Saidi (Kutztown University).


Submission of proposals

Abstract (400-600 words) and short author biography should be submitted to Jonna Katto (

The proposal will be sent to Helsinki University Press (a fully open access University Press; see


Schedule for authors

Deadline for submission of the abstracts is December 15, 2023.

Selection of the abstracts announced to the authors January 26, 2024.



Arnfred, Signe. Sexuality and Gender Politics in Mozambique: Rethinking Gender in Africa. Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2011.

Gonzales, Rhonda M. Societies, Religion, and History: Central-East Tanzanians and the World They Created c. 200 B.C.E. to 1800 C.E. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009

Peters, Pauline. “Introduction: Revisiting the Puzzle of Matriliny in South-Central Africa.” Critique of Anthropology 17 (1997): 125–146.

Poewe, Karla O. Matrilineal Ideology: Male-Female Dynamics in Luapula, Zambia. London: Academic Press, 1981.

Saidi, Christine. Women’s Authority and Society in Early East-Central Africa. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2010.

Watson-Franke, Maria-Barbara. “Masculinity and the ‘Matrilineal Puzzle’.” Anthropos 87 (1992): 475–488.