Date of Award


Degree Name

MA in History




Matthew Hopper


Women in vaKaranga society of the 15th to 17th centuries have been portrayed as oppressed by an "extremely patriarchal" system, but the reality, while still fitting the simple classification of a 'patriarchal' monarchy, indicates quite a bit more negotiation of gendered powers than women, as a class, experienced in the Mediterranean or East Asia. The vaKaranga were the architects of Great Zimbabwe, the capital of a growing state, colonizing their cousins of the Zambezi river, which their Kusi-Mashariki Bantu forefathers had traversed southward a millennium before. Civil war had (apparently) split one nation into two states, Mutapa (Monomotapa) and Khami (Torwa, Toroa, Changamire) immediately before Portuguese ships arrived at Sofala in 1502. Statements like "women are dust, one does not count dust" have been used to illustrate the traditional social outlook of the Shona, descendants of the vaKaranga and a major population in present-day Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and central Moçambique. However, close reading of early Portuguese-language sources on women in vaKaranga society suggests that, prior to influence from these original European colonists, vaKaranga women negotiated everyday and political power in a near-even exchange with men, predicated on the imbalance of power women held in the metaphysical dimension, their control of industries from gold production to staple crop production and a strategy for minimizing economic risk for a king transacting a brideprice or 'rovora' exchange. In this, vaKaranga women are exceptions to the theory that societies must become more gender imbalanced as they begin to form classes and state-level monarchies.