Yoruba: Gender in their Culture
In Nigeria, there are three major ethnic groups, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo. I will be talking about the Yoruba people and their culture which make up twenty-one percent of the population in Nigeria (Ember 1624). Some quick facts about this ethnic group include that their spoken language is Yoruban, they live in the southeast region of Nigeria called Yorubaland, and they are also located in Togo and Benin (Ember 1624). While all those facts are interesting and good to know, I will be focusing on gender in Yoruba culture. I believe that contact with the Western world influenced the gender roles in Yoruba culture. I will cover Yoruba gender roles compared to other countries, gender roles in marriage, religion’s effect on the construction of gender roles, gender in the government, and the view of children based on sex.
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Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí argues that gender is a Western idea that was introduced into the Yoruba people and the Yoruba people had no notion of gender previous to that. One of her reasonings is that there are no specific words in regard to gender. Other scholars such as Olajubu disagree with her statement saying that the Yoruba people have allowed gender to play a massive role in religion and traditions. She says that sex is a natural thing and gender is a constructed concept of classification. I think this goes along with the Nature vs. Nurture argument that one thing may be natural and we are born with it, while human nature is learned through teachings and observations. One argument that throws a new outlook into this two sided debate states that gender does play a role, but not in the way that our society views it, as either male or female. So what is the truth, have the Yoruba people always allowed gender to play a role in their culture or was it taught to them by Westerners?
To get these answer, I began to read about the differences in gender normality’s across different countries. I found that in over sixteen countries people believe that men have the first right to jobs, that they believe males are more fit for political positions, and that women should have children to be fulfilled (Weziak-Bialowolska). In Yoruba I found that as time has changed and more outside influences were in contact with the Yoruba, the more the gender roles in Yoruba shifted. I don’t think that they shifted negatively for women, I believe it gave women more opportunity to have careers that they wished. According to McIntosh in her book Yoruba Women, Work, and Social Change, she summarizes that independent roles were played by women on agriculture and trade until colonial ideas about “female professions” changed the career paths of women (McIntosh). In a review of McIntosh’s book, another scholar Insa Nolte, concluded that, “Yoruba women adapted their skills to support more widespread cultural notions as well as continuing their domestic roles” (Nolte).
Speaking of domestic roles, one interesting place to study is the Yoruba culture’s marriages and traditions in regards to gender roles. In Yoruba, marriage is expected of each sex at the socially deemed appropriate age, women in their twenties and men in their thirties. A woman’s place in society was once based on her being a daughter of her father and one of the
wives in her husbands lineage (Denzer). A woman was considered to be a possession of the family that she marries into, being passed to a brother if her husband died or the family having rights to the children she bore (Johnson). One thing that does seem to have changed is that divorce was not a common occurrence in precolonial times and now a days a man has the free privilege to divorce a wife (Johnson). Also according to Johnson, the Yoruba people were traditionally monogamous and polygamy was reserved for the wealthy. That is not the case today, one prime example of expressing polygamy is the Ooni of Ife. The leader of the Yoruba people, King Ojaja, has three wives and a recent divorce to his would have been fourth wife (Oonirisa.org). There has been an obvious increase in polygamous marriages and I think that this stems from the encounter of new religions brought during colonialism.
Let’s explore what the effects of religion has been in regards to gender roles. Fifty percent of Nigeria are Muslims, forty percent are Christian, and ten percent practice ingenious religions (Ember). The largest findings of Muslim and Christians followers are in the Yoruba ethnic group. What it interesting is that in Yoruban religion, women are typically the most respected of traditional priests (Ember). In Africa, more specifically, Yoruba, we have to understand that the Yoruba people worship many gods who did not have genders placed upon them (Peel).The influence of other religions started to help differentiate and define gender. Christian pastors and Muslim Babalawo were predominately men. One consequence of this primary gender being the heads of religion is that the Yoruba people began to establish a hierarchy in religion based on gender (Peel). At one point in history, a woman must pray to her husband’s Ifa and find her spiritual fate through her husbands (Peel). Based on this, I would say that religion effected gender roles in Yoruba culture by simply making the people aware of gender and it’s hierarchy in certain religions.
Finally, how does the role of gender play into their societies government? To first answer this we need to know what type of government they conduct. “Yoruba history and politics in Nigeria are dynamic rather than static.” Is how author Falola who studies African Affairs described the Yoruba government (Yoruba Identity). How is that possible you might ask? There are three types of courts for legal matters disputes in Yoruba. The first of the court systems were the customary courts at the local level, men were expected to sit on one side and women on the other, everyone voting on public matters (Yoruba Legal Systems). This court handles family and land matters primarily. The second and next level, is the District Court that is based on the British System, where more high level legal matters were handled and connected to the state system of government and hierarchy (Mary M. Johnson). The final and third level of their government system is based on the Islamic law system and not an active office since there is not a predominate Muslim community (Yoruba Legal Systems). So we can see that at least in their government and courts, women are equal in their attendance and vote and the influence of British and Islam legal systems do not change this fact.
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Do their views or lack of views on gender have an effect on the way that their children are raised or treated? Men show superiority over their women counterparts, who are usually relegated to the background. Therefore, socially, politically, economically and religiously women are to a very large extent, disadvantaged since decision were taken mostly by women the males. (Ubrurhe). Scholar and Author Olabode, who wrote about birth rights of female children in Africa is quoted saying,
Immediately a child is born, the question that will be posed will centre on sex, not minding of health of the mother. If the baby is a female, the mother will be scolded and treated as a lazy, good for nothing woman. On the other hand if the child is a male, praise will be showered on the mother, not considering the fact that Biology has shown that it is the father who determines the sex of an offspring (Olabode).
I think this is a great example of how women are disadvantaged from birth and considered “less than” male children who are celebrated and praised. One mythology story from their culture demonstrates the Yoruba belief that women are inferior to the cunning and overpowering man. “He held a whip. He changed his voice to that of an eegun to disguise himself . When Odu saw the eegun in the new guise she was afraid. This was how men cunningly overpowered women.” (Olajubu). I also, take this to mean that men might have feared the power of women and felt threatened enough to try and control them. I think the balance of power between the sexes is a worldwide issue and this is an example of it in the Yoruba culture.
To conclude, I would like to restate that I believe Western influence changed the gender roles in the Yoruba culture. I cannot determine if there were or were not slight gender constrictions before Western influence and I cannot say if the influence was for worse or for better. However, I do believe that most certainly “gender” has become a concept in Yoruba and roles have shifted based on the research and data I have collected. If anything can be said for certain, it is that gender concept in Yoruba is anything except a singularly defined idea. Gender roles change and have a fluidity to them with each different aspect of their culture from marriage to religion to government.
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