One of the aspects of Western society that has long disturbed me is the distinct division in gender identities. When any of my students states something along the lines of “Well, men always…” or “Well, that’s because you’re a woman…”, I call them on it. I call them on it because I frequently fit into the male category. (Example: I’m terrible at decorating my home.) I argue that men and women alike should be treated as individuals and not relegated to categories as though they aren’t unique.
Gender roles in Africa are generally even more circumscribed than what we find in the Western world. Although colonialism and modernity changed many of the traditions in different African societies, including puberty rites, sexual division of labor and resources and roles has remained fairly consistent, although time and again, scholars find women who break out of those roles and are thus considered “wicked.”
Among the Igbo (Ibo) society in southeastern Nigeria, gender division is usually strict, but there are some unique exceptions to this rule that suggest more fluidity between gender roles. Ifi Amadiume explores this in her classic book Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society.
Amadiume’s analysis of pre-colonial Igbo society focuses on the flexibility of gender roles, which were not associated with sex (15). Linguistically, Igbo language has a nondistinctive subject pronoun, which allows for fewer linguistic distinctions between sexes (89). In general, however, this “flexibility” applied to women. Thus, daughters could assume male roles and become sons or husbands. (Amadiume gives only one example of gender flexibility wherein a man takes on a female role, the case of Eze Agba, the priest of the goddess Idemili’s shrine—“a ‘female man’ in the sense that he had to tie his wrapper like women and not wear it loincloth fashion, like men” ).
Male daughters were instituted as part of the patrilineage and inheritance rights associated with land. If men did not have a son, they could pass land and trees to daughters if their daughters were recognized, through ritual, as having the rights of “sons.” Likewise, wealthy and influential females could obtain wives. The children borne by these wives to their “female husbands” belonged to the patrilineal obi and had inheritance rights accordingly.
Women further had power through women’s organizations like the Women’s Council was an important pro-female organization that created female solidarity. Women could collectively choose to go on “strike,” walking out of the village and/or refusing to perform traditional duties, including sexual services, cooking, and childcare. This collective form of power allowed women to make changes in customs they felt were detrimental (67). Amadiume argues that “their demands were never unreasonable,” and usually consisted of things like protecting young girls from lewd behavior (67). They also had power through religious ritual to the goddess Idemili, a goddess associated with the river.
During the colonial era, women’s power was eroded, according to Amadiume, as Christianity made polygyny immoral and colonial law failed to uphold traditional customs such as widows being passed on to their husband’s brother after their husband’s death. Amadiume argues that polygyny, in particular out of cultural customs, was advantageous to women because it allowed women autonomy within marriage—a woman could choose to be more or less intimate with her husband—and it provided a support system for childcare and domestic duties, allowing women to be involved in economic and political activities (142-143). However, other cultural customs of particular importance to women included goddess worship (Idemili), which all but ceased during the colonial era, replaced by a male god in Christianity and a cultural value on submissive women who bowed before male authority.
In the post-independence era, she argues, women are still further alienated from traditional sources of power, although they now have more access to education, virtually denied to them during the colonial era. (Amadiume appears to indicate that this is the fault of colonial and church administrations, but I find it difficult to believe that traditional culture did not also play a part in making it difficult for women to obtain a western-style education.)
In her conclusion, Amadiume suggests that there should be a redefinition of the word “matriarchy.” Traditionally, the term matriarchy describes a society where women hold “all” the power, a society that is historically mythical. No society on earth has structured itself that way; but no society on earth has structured itself so that men have “all” the power either and yet we generously apply the term “patriarchy” to the majority of societies (Amadiume, 189).
Reading this book reminded me of the novel The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, which reveals in acute detail the pain and agony of one woman whose expectations, built by the traditional ideology of motherhood, are denied by the realities of colonial-era Nigeria. As her children go to school and become Westernized, they fail to treat their mother with the respect generally accorded to her in traditional society. As is often the case, the novel demonstrates how ideology and practice are out of sync, and Amadiume confirms this reality in Male Daughters/Female Husbands as she discusses post-independence Igboland.
One of the more interesting aspects to Amadiume’s argument is her treatment of Western feminists in relationship to African scholarship. She argues that Western feminists are racist and never deal with the question of color in their writings; further, their portrayals of Third World women betray their class and cultural assumptions (Amadiume, 2-10). She found it amazing, in the 1970s, that anthropologists could “collapse the whole of Third World women into one book,” and asserts that, since this is true, “surely British women will not require more than one book” (6). With such limitations in understanding, how could scholars ever probe the relationship between gender and power found in societies like that of southeastern Nigeria among the Igbo, both traditionally and during the modern era?
Although much work has been done to rectify this problem since Amadiume and others pointed it out, her book serves as an important milestone in the historiography of gender and West Africa.