The Gender Discourse in the Philosophy of Yoruba and Akan Societies

Academic Paper, 2019
16 Pages, Grade: 1

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Scope and aim of the essay

Introduction: Definition of key terms: gender, discourse, philosophy

Gender discourse and African philosophy

The debate on gender discourse and African philosophy


Scope and aim of the essay

The concepts of gender (genre) and women (feminine) are generally misunderstood. Gender is not just a concept or terminology that describes the two sexes male and female but it also connotes a social structure, which is dynamic. The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the gender discourse in African philosophy. The essay is divided into three sections. This essay examines the gender discourse from Yoruba and Akan perspectives using Oyewumi’s (1997) The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses and Owusu & Bosiwah’s (2015) Constructions of Masculinity among the Akan People of Ghana respectively. The first section explains the key concepts: gender, discourse, philosophy. The second section discusses the debate of gender discourse in African philosophy among the Yoruba and Akan society from the works listed above and the third section examines the importance of gender discourse in African philosophy.

Introduction: Definition of key terms: gender, discourse, philosophy

Since the 1950s, an increasing use of the term gender has been seen in the academic literature and the public discourse for distinguishing gender identity from biological sex. In order to distinguish biological differences from social/psychological ones and to talk about the latter, feminists appropriated the term ‘gender’. Psychologists writing on transsexuality were the first to employ gender terminology in this sense. Money and Hampson (1955) defined the term gender as what a person says or does to reveal that he or she has the status of being a boy or a girl, man or woman (masculinity or femininity of a person). Gender is a complex issue, constituents of which encompass styles of dressing, patterns of moving as well as ways of talking rather than just being limited to biological sex. In Goffman’s (1976) terminology, ‘gender display’ focuses on behavioral aspects of being men or woman. Rubin (1975:159) employed this system to articulate that “part of social life which is the locus of the oppression of women” describing gender as the “socially imposed division of the sexes” (1975:179) Gender is “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category. Gender activities emerge from and bolster claims to membership in a sex category” (Lorber & Farrell, 1991:7). Ifi Amadiume (1987) in Male daughters, female husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society, argues that the gendered nature of personhood is one that ensures that there is complementarity between males and females. Over the years, the perception of the issue ‘gender’ has been changing and developing from essentialism to social constructionism. Gender is something does, and does recurrently, in interaction with others (West & Zimmerman, 1991). Essentialism suggests that gender is a biological sex; by contrast, social constructionism suggests that gender is constructed within a social and cultural discourse. Due to its complex nature, gender intrigues numerous debates over the extent to which gender is a biological construct or a social construct (Changxue, 2008). Discourse in terms of gender refers to “a whole range of different symbolic activities, including style of dress, patterns of consumption, ways of moving, as well as talking” (Edley, 2001:191).

Gender discourse and African philosophy

All the rigorous and well-made arguments rationalized out by scholars to defend and project African philosophy have prepared the ground for the establishment of African identity. The African personality, the African values and how, as a corpus of knowledge stretching over the millennia has, in its own right, sought to contribute positively to the growth of world knowledge in philosophy, science and other areas of human endeavor (Casimir, 2013). African philosophy has therefore, entered a new pro-active phase of its growth when more rigorous and profound creative epistemic efforts needed to be made in defining the knowledge portals where it could contribute seminally to global philosophy and help in the solution of problems that challenge mankind such as de-valuation of morals and values, globalization and injustice against women.

Gender discourse in African philosophy has been contaminated by what Professor Dukor (2002:147) calls its “loss of focus because of the tendency to leave out the gaps in culture created by colonial experience, modernity’s assaults and un-Africanness in ontology and essence”. He goes on to state that: “the fulcrum for a legitimate feminist doctrine is theistic humanism, African philosophy exposes the epistemological and metaphysical basis of rightful and ethical place of women in the society without injury, injustice and abuse on womanhood (Casimir, 2013). Theistic humanism as an ontology and cosmology abhors class struggle between husbands and wives, sons etc. Class struggle between men and women degenerated from the oneness of being ontology and gender community where husbands and wives were happily married with different complementary social roles for the preservation of society” (Idowu, 1975). In essence, gender discourse is based on the superstructure of humanism and African theism that validates and sustains the concept feminine justice, gender balance and gives womanhood gender value in the social context. However, it is to be noted that postmodernism, colonialism, post modernity and globalization have distorted and created problems with this pure gender concept suffused with African values. This has created the problems of gender injustice and marital instability which are fundamentally common social problems resulting from western civilization and values (Casimir, 2013).

African philosophy could be seen as essentially an activity, a project, a systematic, coherent inquiry into African experience and worldview and how he conceives and interprets the activities happening in the universe. According to Iroegbu, (1994:116) African philosophy is the reflective inquiry into the marvels and problems that confront one in the African worldview of producing systematic explanation and sustained responses to them”. African philosophy should take cognizance of the African past and present experience in openness for the future through searching, critical inquiry and well-informed criticisms, not only to rediscover, discover, know and interpret his world, but also to master it and enhance it. When looking at the history of African philosophy, we note that much debate has been had regarding oppression. Mainstream debates have focused on race and gender.

The debate on gender discourse and African philosophy

The idea of gender is a social construct during the pre-colonial and post-colonial period in African societies. African societies enforce the concept of gender especially among the Akan and the Yoruba society in various ways using folklores, proverbs and religious codes. An Yoruba proverb Owu ti iya gbon lomo n ran translated as the attitudes of the mother are emulated by her offspring. This proverb is related to conduct or behaviour. In this case, the mother is seen as immoral and ill mannered; and every bad behave child takes after her and summarily belong to her. The father is exonerated as good children belong to him and he is always proud of such children. Hence, the saying “Omo to dara nim ti baba eyi ti ko dara niti iya” a well-behaved child belongs to the mother and vice versa (Familusi, 2012:301). One of the most patriarchal and chauvinist arrangements in Akan society is the fact that childbearing and childrearing are regarded as the sole responsibility of women. There is an Akan proverb, “Obaa anuonyamne se wa ware” (only a married woman commands respect). This high value placed on fertility means that girls, even in their teens, are under tremendous pressure to marry and bear children. Obaa wo mpempem a, obarima na ohwe ne so (If a woman has thousands and thousands, it is a man that looks after her). Thus, whatever a woman may do or have, she needs a man (Asimeng-Boahene, 2013:127). Professor Maduabuch Dukor (2010:p. 27) consummates this philosophical quest for justice for the African woman by giving an insight which is as mysterious as it is cosmological and ontological thus:

The relation of man to woman in African context is cultural and metaphysical. Just like the Genesis account of creation, African cosmology and ontology see the concept of womanhood as an extraction from the concept of manhood. Similarly, social and political organizations are culturally patterned to reflect the mystery and superiority of manhood. Justice is also maintained in the communal ownership of lands and landed properties and their equitable distributions (Casimir, 2013:182).

The concept of gender, which I can articulate in this essay, though is a social-construct is stereotypical in its orientation. The African concept of gender is always perceived as woman’s subordination to male dominance or the submissiveness of women in a patriarchal society. Even from biblical context, men are to dominate and women are to serve. The next section examines the works of Owusu & Bosiwah and Bakare-Yusuf on gender discourse.

Owusu & Bosiwah’s work Constructions of Masculinity among the Akan People of Ghana (2015) will be used a unit of analysis. Using evidence from Akan constructions of masculinity, the paper supports the conventional view that gender is primarily biological and that people perform their social roles based on their biological make up. According to Owusu and Bosiwah, among the Akan of Ghana, nature and humanity are divided into two: male (banyin, barima) and female (basia, ɔbaa). For example, a man (banyin, barima) is expected to show certain characteristics, an important one being bravery. A lack of bravery or any other masculine characteristic could earn a man the dishonourable categorization of being genderless or gender neutral (ɔbaa barima or Kodwo basia) and instructively possessing more female genes than male; such a man could be referred to as feminine (ɔbaa).

In spite of the Akan confirmation of the theory of performativity in the performance of gender roles, it is important to note that the only reason a man stood in danger of being emasculated was that he was first considered to be among the league of men based on his biological possession of phallic attributes at birth. A woman on the other hand could be said to have male attributes (ex. bravery) as a compliment. This was the case of Ejisuhemaa Nana Yaa Asantewa who is known to have organized and led the Asante attack on the British in 1901 (Owusu, 2009:21-24). At other times when a woman is said to have manly qualities due to her behaviour or physique, it is an insult because her femininity is being questioned. The theory of gender performativity as expressed in Butler’s 1989 edition of Gender Troubles, dangerously gave substance to generalizations and universalisms by launching a clarion call to gender practitioners all over the world to discard the conventional definition of male and female and accept a western concept of gender neutrality. Nana Kobina Nketsia V agreed with the fact that the Akan are theocentric and therefore, construct their cultural philosophy on cosmic balance. He further stated that, in Akan religious and philosophical thinking, the Akan live in two interacting worlds: the world of nature, which is imposed and the world of culture, which is man-made. The pursuit of cosmic and societal balance gave birth to the assignment of complementary roles. Among Fante speakers, the world of nature and of man can be divided into two gender categories ‘nyin’ (male) and ‘bere’ (female). In Fante ‘bere’ may mean ripe, or time. Therefore, ‘akokɔnyin’ is ‘akokɔ (fowl)’ + nyin (cockerel) - male and ‘akokɔbere’ is akokɔ (fowl) + bere (hen) – female. In the same way, some plants are categorized as male and female. An example is pawpaw. A pawpaw tree with fruits is female and the one without fruits is male. The male pawpaw tree is normally used for medicinal purposes. The days of the week are also gendered because particular deities who possess qualities distinctively masculine or feminine control them. The female days are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The female days are accorded with production and so the Twi speakers of Akan call the earth ‘Asaase Yaa’ (Earth Thursday).

Oyewumi (1997) The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, the central thesis of Oyewumi’s provocative book was to deny that gender is a fundamental social category in all cultures. Drawing her examples from the Oyo-Yoruba in western Nigeria, Oyewumi argues that gender has not historically been an important organizing principle or a first order issue. Contra European discourse, amongst the Yoruba, biology was not used to explain or establish social relations, subjectivity, positioning and hierarchy. She suggests that in European culture and intellectual history, participation in the polis and cultural significance is determined by the meaning ascribed to the body.

Here, her argument resonates with other critiques of the European schism between ‘mind’ and ‘body’. The body is regarded as the site of irrationality, passion and moral corruption. The mind, in contrast, functions as the seat of reason and restraint. This dualism enabled the association of certain groups with the body and bodily functions, and others with reason and spirit. Those conceived as irrefutably embodied were visibly marked out for enslavement, oppression and cultural manipulation. Spelman argued that (1989:129) the oppression of women is located in ‘the meanings assigned to having a woman’s body by male oppressors’ and the oppression of black people has ‘been linked to the meanings assigned to having a black body by white oppressors’ Oyewumi argues that the entire western episteme on gender bases its categories and hierarchies on visual modes and binary distinctions: male and female, white and black, homosexual and heterosexual etc. The physical body is therefore always linked to the social body (Oyewumi1997). Instead of the visual logic informing social division and hierarchy, through structures such as gender, sexuality, race and class, Oyewumi argues that it is in fact seniority that orders and divides Yoruba society. Seniority refers primarily to chronological age difference. However, it also refers to an agent’s positioning within the kinship structure.

Oyewumi rejects a similarly visualist mechanism at work in African societies. Her key claim is that unlike Europe, African cultures are not and have not historically been ordered according to a logic of vision, but rather through other senses. In this way, she suggests that the notion of a “worldview” is only appropriate to the European context. She proposes that “world sense” better matches the African way of knowing. At base, Oyewumi contests the idea that a western categorical schema for understanding society and social dynamics can simply be exported elsewhere.

Oyewumi’s claim for the absence of gender in Yoruba culture and the centrality of seniority as an organizing principle is based on two factors: a) there is no mark of gender in the Yoruba language (whereas seniority is linguistically marked and is therefore an essential component of Yoruba identity); and b) Yoruba social institutions and practices do not make social distinctions in terms of anatomical difference. Oyewumi elaborates the first claim by arguing that language is central to the formation of social identity. Language 'represents major sources of information in constituting world-sense, mapping historical changes, and interpreting the social structure' (1997:32). As such, African languages have not been taken as seriously as they ought to be by students of Africa. Unlike many European languages, where the category “ woman” or “ female” is often excluded or marked as Other to “man” or “ male” who functions as the norm (in terms of generic usage of pronouns and at a general level of language use), in Yoruba, gender distinctions only occur in terms of anatomical sex difference.

I agree with Oyewumi’s contention that gender and patriarchy originated from Western European epistemologies and misrepresented African women’s realities but in place of these, seniority, motherhood and matriarchy are theorized as the basis for social organization in African societies. This highly provocative work questioned the usefulness of gender as an analytical category and its hegemonic influence on African knowledge production, the identity of women, marriage and bride wealth, gender division of labor, women’s control of property and women’s sexuality (Afonja, 2018). Irrespective of epistemological and ideological differences, it is the consensus that African women enjoyed some degree of autonomy and operated autonomous institutions predating colonialism. However, in order to reconcile this autonomous status with pre-colonial and post-colonial hierarchies, it may be necessary to chart the distinctions along a continuum with matriarchy at one end, patriarchy at the other and an overlap in between. Where a society was located in the past and is at present would undoubtedly be a function of the historical, economic and political processes that shaped the kinship structure and social relations.

However, it is significant that the central position given to women’s autonomy was supported by some of the micro studies included in the Reader: African Gender Studies (2005) and deconstructions of joint property, citizenship and legal rights, power and sexuality in most of the existing literature. For instance, that African households are not unitary structures like Western households is now widely accepted in Western feminism and is slowly being incorporated into development programs. In the revisions of the household economics model, Afonja (1981, 1986) and Pittin (1991) drew attention to the phenomenon of ‘separate spheres’, gendered patterns of property entitlements and women’s loss of their rights under colonialism and capitalism. Oyewumi may not have succeeded in restructuring Yoruba history but she articulated her ideas about the division of labor, property and the intensification of gender difference, women’s workload and poverty under colonialism and capitalism thus confirming these earlier findings.

Gender discourses on power run counter to colonial representations of women’s access to power and suggest that structuring African democracies after the Western patterns may in fact continue to curtail female representation in governance and decision-making. There is enough support for the thesis that women’s spheres of influence and power before colonization were eroded in restructuring the state (Wright, 1993; Tamale, 1999; Becker, 2000). The gradual disengagement of local women from local governance and de-radicalization of the women’s movements since the colonial era as discussed by Mama (1996) and Okome (2000) are consistent with Oyewumis’ conclusion that colonialism eroded the political position of African women. We can understand that African women and Western women are related to power and political participation in different ways and would require different modes of democratic participation and empowerment in modern political systems.

In conclusion, two major problems of development that African feminists must therefore grapple with are the exclusion of local women from participatory development projects and the increasingly poor capacity of local women’s organizations to perform political roles. However, the communities’ diversity and multiple lines of division along ethnic, religious, race, class and gender lines are obstacles to full participation. The language and practice of participation have been found to obscure women’s worlds and gender relations (Guitj and Shah, 1998; Cornwall, 2000) and underestimate the ability of local notables to manipulate the process to advantage (Boone, 2003). Because women’s interests are usually subsumed under community interests and by internal divisions, women’s solidarity groups must be inclusive groups that will avoid top down approaches and manipulation by more powerful interests.

Gender analysis have unfolded the critical issues in the subordination of women as well as the sources of women’s authority. While exploring for theories that are more relevant and policies, the intellectual dialogue must be enlarged to include research into the gaps between theory and policy and how these can be bridged. Feminist knowledge in Africa must be enlarged to include the complex relationship between gender images, construction, practices and behavior, the ways in which they perpetuate gender inequality and negate empowerment programs for women. Research must continue to focus on local women’s definition of their realities and what autonomy really means to them.

In brief, if we agree that matriarchy and patriarchy were and are represented in varying degrees in all societies at different times and hierarchy is historical, what appears to me to be the alternative epistemology for understanding cultural difference including gender difference is ‘equity’. Equity is defined here as the principle or the philosophy for organizing relationships, social locations and entitlements in all human societies. Its analysis is fundamental to understanding all forms of difference, hierarchy and identity. In all, we must recognize existing collaborative work among feminists internationally, advance this process and strengthen collaboration with other feminists internationally to insert cultural realities into contemporary knowledge, policies and policymaking. An international research agenda on understanding equity may be a good means of reinvigorating international collaboration, respecting diversity and advancing the achievements of feminism internationally.


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The Gender Discourse in the Philosophy of Yoruba and Akan Societies
University of Cape Coast  (Centre for International Studies)
African Philosophy
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gender, discourse, philosophy, yoruba, akan, societies
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Gideon Asante (Author), 2019, The Gender Discourse in the Philosophy of Yoruba and Akan Societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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