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  • The Ambiguity of Gender:Ifi Amadiume and the Writing of Gender History in Igboland
  • Marion G. Mendy (bio) and Assan Sarr (bio)

Prior to the late 1960s and 1970s, not enough was known about the "African woman" in Western Europe and the United States. In fact, for a long time, Western Europeans and Americans knew very little about the African continent and its diverse peoples. A recent book, for instance, has discussed Western Europeans' limited knowledge of Africa beyond the Mediterranean coast of northern Africa. Michael F. Robinson notes that knowledge about sub-Saharan Africa was difficult to obtain due to geographical barriers, epidemiological factors, racial prejudice, and political and religious obstacles.1 Although in the fifteenth century things were about to change as Europeans began traveling to the continent, the African interior remained a mystery to Europe, a very big hole, until the nineteenth century.2 But this lack of knowledge did not prevent "early" Western commentators from making statements about women and gender in African societies. Using outside lenses, sources, and frameworks, these commentators, mostly anthropologists, Christian missionaries, and later Western feminists, approached African gender topics with non-African centered perspectives. The consensus was that African women were victims of patriarchy and backward customs. No matter where in Africa or what time period they lived in, the concept of the "woman" evoked images of an exploited class of people.3 Africa and Africans in general were perceived in Western societies as the "Other."4 Africa was indeed different from Western societies. The problem was the reading of the African gender worlds through Western eyes and source materials was grossly inadequate and misleading.5 [End Page 109]

In the 1970s, the treatment of the "woman" as an analytical category in the field of African studies changed significantly. Generations of African gender specialists began to challenge many of the long-held assumptions in Western scholarship about African gender norms and practices, and today the view that in the past many African women wielded significant degrees of authority politically, socially, and economically is largely uncontested.6 Judith Van Allen, Kamene Okonjo, Nancy Hafkin, Edna Bay, and others are among the most noted scholars who have revolutionized our thinking on gender in Africa from a very "early" start.7

However, Ifi Amadiume's pioneering work, Male Daughters, Female Husbands, published in 1987, is arguably one of the most radical scholarly interventions that had been made at that time in the growing field of women and gender in African studies. It is undeniable that prior to the publication of Male Daughters, Female Husbands, major advances in the scholarship on gender in Igboland were already being made. Van Allen's 1972 "Sitting on a Man" had challenged the myth that Western European colonialism emancipated Igbo and/or African women. She demonstrated that colonialism weakened or destroyed women's autonomy and power. Prior to the imposition of European rule over southeastern Nigeria, women's political power lay in their collective sense of togetherness as embodied in women associations.8 Igbo women later reacted to the overbearing political, economic, and social pressures colonialism put on them by waging the "Aba Riots" against the colonial establishment in 1929.9 Okonjo also noted that the imposition of British colonial rule over southeastern Nigeria marked the beginning of women's loss of power as the omu (a female leader) was relegated to a lower political position whereas that of the male obi had a relatively more favorable treatment.10

To be sure, both Van Allen and Okonjo's works opened up possibilities for more research on the changing nature of female power and authority in Africa at a time when the gendered nature of many African political organizations was still not well understood. These early publications on gender in southeastern Nigeria revealed that there is a danger in imposing foreign frames of reference to explain gender dynamics in anyone society. Furthermore, Amadiume builds on the works of Van Allen and Okonjo in new and profound ways by discussing the ways in which the growth of Christianity and the development of colonial institutions weakened female authority in Igbo society.11 But her work departs from that of her predecessors by...


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pp. 109-116
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