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  • Mothers of Invention:Gender, Strategic Essentialism, and Women's Genital Power in West Africa

Across West Africa, postmenopausal women, whom Laura Grillo calls the "Mothers," have expressed outrage at male political mismanagement by exposing their breasts and genitalia. This essay explores the contributions of and tensions within Grillo's analysis of the Mothers' history of protest, referencing Grillo's superb ethnographic and historical account. [End Page 299]


Côte d'Ivoire, female genital power, gender, West Africa, women

Laura Grillo's revolutionary research centers on Côte d'Ivoire, a West African country still suffering the consequences of a political crisis that lasted from 2002 to 2011. The trouble began when an attempted coup d'état became a rebellion that split the country in two, severing north from south. The crisis ended provisionally in a brief but bloody civil war. Grillo's book is therefore, among other things, a "secret history" of Côte d'Ivoire's virtual collapse, one that challenges that reigning analysis of the crisis by anthropologist Mike McGovern.1 Grillo reads the gendered dynamics of the crisis as central, rather than peripheral, to the political history of both Côte d'Ivoire and West Africa. In this brief essay, I explore Grillo's new understanding of the Ivoirian crisis, the hidden gender dynamics that have offered hope for its resolution, and the moral authority and ritual resources of the women who have succeeded in stabilizing West Africa for centuries.

An Intimate Rebuke provocatively returns readers to a moment that McGovern experienced while traveling across Côte d'Ivoire about a decade and a half ago.2 At the time, roadblocks were ubiquitous along the country's interior highways, turning a normally nine-hour bus trip between Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire's largest city) and the northwestern part of the country where I work, for example, into a thirteen-hour ordeal. McGovern narrates:

On one … minibus ride I was on, the security forces kept us a bit too long for … several older women who were bringing their goods to a nearby market. They suddenly switched out of the mode of silent, simmering anger … and began to berate the soldiers and police. "You are our sons. Why are you holding us up like this? There are no rebels in this bus, you know that! We're your mothers and we are tired. We have been working since dawn, and we have places to go. Give us our papers and give the driver his papers before we curse you." After a slight pause that did not do much to help them save face, the soldiers decided that our papers were in order and we were on our way.3

Grillo remarks that this is one of the few times that women appear as agents in McGovern's account.4 Thankfully, her book illuminates in great detail the power of these postmenopausal women, to whom Grillo refers as the "Mothers." [End Page 300]

Grillo shows why their initiatives were more than "obscure artifact[s] of an antiquated tradition."5 In the violent encounters that Grillo recounts between rebels or state authorities, on one hand, and the Mothers, on the other, armed men violated and murdered such women. In Sakassou in 2002, rebels arrested the elderly Koffi N'goran "for having sounded the bell" that called other Mothers to protest rebel misconduct. Rebels then abducted five of these women, whom they "raped, tortured, and killed."6 Later, in 2011, "government soldiers shot seven women dead" during a march in the Abobo borough of Abidjan at an event that bore all the hallmarks of a display of what Grillo calls "female genital power."7 By this phrase, Grillo means the performative display with which the Mothers remind the public of their "innate spiritual power and … moral authority. The locus of this power is the female genitals. In times of social calamity, female elders strip naked, wield branches or old pestles, and dance 'lewdly,' slapping their genitals and breasts to curse the forces of evil."8 In Abobo, women exhibited some of these same behaviors.9 Grillo rightly views such women as exemplary social critics for censuring and averting conflict in Côte d'Ivoire and beyond.

In 2003, during the Liberian civil war, for instance, an independent delegation of Liberian women led by Leymah Gbowee took dramatic action when the "male representatives seemed to be enjoying the perks and privileges of the spotlight and posh hotels rather than seriously negotiating peace."10 They linked arms to block exits from the conference venue until participants agreed to a peace accord: "When authorities came to arrest Gbowee for 'obstructing justice' … she announced, 'I am going to strip naked' [and] the police immediately backed down. … This marked the turning point that forced the talks, in Gbowee's words, 'to be real peace talks and not a circus.'"11 The Mothers clearly possess the authority to restore moral order in its absence beyond standard democratic and largely male-dominated procedures. They have mastered the art of what Elizabeth Jean Wood fittingly calls "democracy from below."12

Across the lagoon and forest regions of southern Côte d'Ivoire—and from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Mali, Togo, Nigeria, and Cameroon, and farther still to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—women have both historically and recently danced, marched, stripped, slapped their breasts and genitals, and urinated in proximity to those men whom they accuse of violating the public good. Such protests are simultaneously public and intimate rebukes against which there is virtually no appeal.

Following Ifi Amadiume's pioneering work on Igbo women in Nigeria, Grillo proposes a "matrifocal" morality as the standard by which to judge [End Page 301] political legitimacy in West Africa.13 Her proposal is exceptional when we consider how few women sit at the negotiation tables where political conflicts are resolved. Amadiume and Grillo both point to vestiges of an original matrifocality at the base of West African social organization, specifically to the persistent importance of the roles of mothers' brothers and sisters' sons in patrilineal systems, on one hand, and to the primacy of the "mother-child bond," on the other, which prevails "especially in the matrilineal societies … of West Africa."14

The Mothers have moral power, though, rather than social-structural leverage, a capacity inherent in and essential to the bodies of women their age, Grillo writes.15 Their essentialism is strategic, however—reducible neither to the nurturing power of motherhood nor to an outright refusal of male authority. They jealously guard women's prerogatives and wield justice "with ruthless righteousness" when men intrude into women's domains or upset the matrifocal social contract grounded in the genitals that the Mothers have and display when men violate it.16 Since colonial times, women have struck fear into their communities with shows of power that have led, invisibly or otherwise, to the deaths of men who transgressed fundamental social mores.17 In precolonial times, such performances paralleled but also parodied men's war efforts,18 aiming "to strike a mortal blow to the enemy" as well as to "to press [men] into military service," drive "war-shirkers to suicide," or even castrate men who avoided battle.19 The history of female genital power therefore suggests a possible historical advocacy of the martial violence that the Mothers now condemn, especially given that Mothers on each side of a conflict may have cheered it on. Advocating for social morality need not have prevented the Mothers from disagreeing about who best upheld it.

But times have changed, and the moral reckonings of the Mothers today offer a critical lens through which to analyze, ideally prevent, and effectively remedy the consequences of strife in West Africa and across the continent. If policy makers were more aware of how local women have negotiated and resolved African conflicts, then perhaps diplomats could broaden their approaches to conflict resolution. Grillo wisely offers no policy prescriptions, but readers may wonder how African politics might change if the media were to pay more attention to women like Koffi N'goran and Leymah Gbowee, whose local voices appeal to continent-wide principles. Indeed, their universal appeal comes from their rootedness in regional histories and in how they have invented and sustained political alliances across cultural, geographical, historical, and linguistic frontiers.

On these grounds, Grillo calls McGovern to account for dismissing the notion that ethnic differences and cross-ethnic ties can, and once did, unify rather than divide Côte d'Ivoire. McGovern claims that ethnic rhetoric [End Page 302] partitioned the country based on arbitrary cultural distinctions that lacked any historical depth, especially in southern Côte d'Ivoire.20 His position is the "classic," postmodern critique of ethnicity. Grillo argues, in contrast, for the integrity of ethnic distinctions as maintained by Ivoirians themselves, especially in the southeastern lagoon region where she worked.21 She observed firsthand the region's dramatic, daytime Dipri festival, which reflects such cultural diversity. Although Dipri was the creation of the indigenous Abidji, the Adioukrou-speakers who subsequently migrated to the area adopted Dipri from their Abidji hosts in order to ally themselves with them.22

During Dipri, young men mutilate then heal themselves instantly with medicine derived from the power of a river spirit, who, according to male Abidji elder Gnangra N'Guessan Bertin, is a woman.23 The spirit granted local people this power in exchange for the sacrifice of one of their baby girls. Women thus doubly mediate local people's relationships with their home areas, giving the local population title to its land. Grillo concludes that "female blood and the powerful female forces associated with the earth and earthly places, especially the rivers, are the founding powers on which society depends and that establish the very grounds of home."24

Not surprisingly, during migrations in precolonial West Africa, "the matriclan was conceived of in terms of alliance rather than descent," that is, as a lateral, more residential, rather than lineal kind of affiliation, a corporate body to which allies could assimilate, especially through marriage,25 rather than a kinship-related project devoted primarily to generating descendants through biological reproduction.26 The "strategy was to strengthen the [Adioukrou] matriline through exogamous marriage [to the patrilineal Abidji]. The off-spring of such marital alliances stood to benefit from a double inheritance"—both matrilineal and patrilineal—"thereby enriching the collective holdings of the matrilineage."27 Women thus played a key role here in creating an interlinguistic community of Adioukrou migrants and Abidji hosts. Dipri reflects this historical, transethnic process.

Preceding the performance of Dipri, however, is the practice of Egbiki, the "chilling" sounds of which Grillo recorded from inside a local home. Egbiki occurs in the early morning hours, when older women, absent all men and other women, roam the village naked, pounding worn pestles menacingly onto the earth to do battle against the evil that would keep those men who wound themselves at Dipri from healing. Men's magic, in this case, depends on women's, while women's assures the health and well-being of the entire community.28 Together, Dipri and Egbiki enact an enduring alliance between Abidji and Adioukrou based on women's "salvific power,"29 giving the Mothers a political importance unrecognized by most scholars and policy makers but relevant [End Page 303] to understanding recent Ivoirian history, especially given the manipulation of ethnicity for political ends that inflamed the Ivoirian crisis.30

Grillo claims, then, to have identified the substratum of West Africa's public sphere. Female genital power—or "bottom power," in Yoruba—defines the boundaries of decency, it seems, by crossing them.31 It marks oppressive situations as intolerable by setting them apart in ways that only ritual—or "ritualization," in Catherine Bell's terms—can.32 The Mothers define moral boundaries as beyond men's ultimate control. Bottom power invokes and enacts a situation so extreme that men fear the curse it may bring. Such force never attempts to disempower men as a whole, according to Grillo, but reminds them, when necessary, of a power beyond their attainment in order to frighten them back into right conduct. When men transgress limits, the Mothers reimpose them—through righteous transgression.

Women transcend not just ethnicity, however, but gender too. Postmenopausal West African women attain a status not so much male as gender-entire, encompassing both female and male. The Mothers have surpassed the state of biological fecundity—much as the feminized or castrated rulers of precolonial Ségou in Mali outstripped gendered differences.33 And West Africa's queen mothers have never needed to be biological mothers to hold moral authority over kings. Like West African queens, the queen mothers' "spiritual and moral authority" shaped and legitimized their "secular might."34

Due to such capacities, the Mothers have been able to both generate and regenerate society by standing as its moral compass. Origin stories from Côte d'Ivoire's lagoon and forest regions tell of populations led by women like Queen Pokou, who sacrificed her baby to a river spirit to enable her people to move across the water to elude enemy pursuers and establish a new home for themselves. In a related story, Adya avenged the murder of her son by his uncle (her brother) following the son's adultery with his uncle's wife; Adya called on Queen Pokou to chase the murderer from his home for his offense against his matriline. He fled to found another new community, proving that even violations of matrifocal morality may enhance social growth.35 Likewise, men rely on women's menstrual blood to forge oaths between themselves.36 The moral weight of women's genital power precipitates political action, having generated new polities on the West African frontier and alliances between and among their members.

In sum, the Mothers have strategically essentialized their power as a transformative force based in the vulva rather than the womb, generative of society yet free of an obligation to nurture, and capable of violence when necessary to restore moral equilibrium. Their postmenopausal state embodies women's historical contributions to West African civilization, building on women's moral [End Page 304] precedence over men's. Grillo's vision leaves the reader breathless with its erudition, provoking multiple insights and questions about the dynamism and complexity of the people and processes she portrays.

Readers, in response, might want to resolve the apparent paradox that female genital power, according to Grillo, defies parturition, even as women's menstrual blood, a sign of fertility, figures in men's oaths. How, too, can the lineal mother-child bond be so essential to matriliny if lateral relations, as Grillo writes, prevailed over descent as key components of frontier expansion? And what can we make of the claim by Mr. Chia, the British colonial appointee stationed in Cameroon whom the Mothers aggressively resisted when he tried to force them to do contour farming: "Be careful with our mothers," he warned.37 Did he mean "mothers" in Grillo's sense of the term, or did he imply that the Mothers occupied the same structural position as his own mother because they belonged to her generation, through a kind of "analogic kinship" that demands respect for all women of their age, many of whom have born or adopted children?38 Whereas Grillo distinguishes the Mothers' power from parturition,39 she also grounds their "principles of justice and respect … in the primacy of the mother-child unit and matrilineal kinship."40

And how might Grillo's work help us square Ivoirian anthropologist Memel-Fotê Harris's dueling claims about southern Côte d'Ivoire: namely, that its "ethnic unity was historically worked out from a primal diversity"41 or that "beneath [this] diversity … was unity"?42 Finally, are there risks in privileging essentialist perspectives on gender and ethnicity when, on just such grounds, Christians and Muslims have publicly condemned lesbian women and gay men in Côte d'Ivoire, and President Ouattara has favored his northern-descended Muslim constituency by appointing them to state jobs to compensate for the discrimination they faced under previous administrations?

The complex world of the Mothers' invention will surely continue to reward inquiries as brilliant, pathbreaking, and profound as Laura Grillo's by generating new questions and knowledge for decades to come.

Joseph Hellweg
Florida State University


1. Mike McGovern, Making War in Côte d'Ivoire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

2. Laura Grillo, An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2018), 166–67.

3. McGovern, Making War, 188.

4. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 167.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., 187.

7. Ibid., 195.

8. Ibid., 2.

9. Ibid., 196.

10. Ibid., 107.

11. Ibid., 107–8; Gini Reticker, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, DVD, 2008,

12. Elisabeth Jean Wood, Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

13. Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Zed, 1987); Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 15, 76.

14. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 43, 76, 131.

15. Ibid., 16, 44, 76.

16. Ibid., 76.

17. Ibid., 87–116.

18. Ibid., 101–2.

19. Ibid., 73, 75.

20. McGovern, Making War, 64; Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 124.

21. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 129.

22. Ibid., 129, 145–46.

23. Ibid., 27–28.

24. Ibid., 27.

25. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon, 1969 [1949]). Lévi-Strauss makes this point for all systems of descent in fact.

26. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 140; Emmanuel Akyeampong and Pashington Obeng, "Spirituality, Gender and Power in Asante History," in African Gender Studies: A Reader, ed. Oyewùmí Oyèronké (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 29.

27. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 141–42.

28. Ibid., 24–25, 35.

29. Ibid., 31.

30. Joseph Hellweg, Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d'Ivoire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 42–45, 50–51. Whereas Presidents Henri Konan Bédié, Robert Guéï, and Laurent Gbagbo recruited largely southern-originated, Christian constituencies to legitimize their authority against the country's northern-originated, Muslim populations, the current president, Alassane Ouattara, has relied on the latter for support.

31. On the idea of "bottom power," see Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 46; and Jacob Olupona, City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 222.

32. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

33. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 44, 55–57.

34. Ibid., 59–60.

35. Ibid., 130–31.

36. Ibid., 149–50.

37. Ibid., 96–97.

38. Roy Wagner, "Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example," American Ethnologist 4, no. 4 (1977): 623–42.

39. Grillo, An Intimate Rebuke, 2.

40. Ibid., 76.

41. Ibid., 129; Harris Memel-Fotê, Le système politique de Lodjoukrou: une société lignagère à classes d'âge (Côte d'Ivoire) (Paris: Présence africaine, 1980), 63.

42. Grillo, Intimate Rebuke, 126; Harris Memel-Fotê and Joseph Brunet-Jailly, L'esclavage des sociétés lignagères de la forêt ivoirienne, XVIIe–XXe siècle (Abidjan: CERAP, 2007), 217.

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