Globalization, Feminism and Power: An African Perspective

Globalization, Feminism and Power: An African Perspective
Ibadan, Nigeria: Published by John Archers for Programme on Ethnic and Federal Studies (PEFS), 2003

Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome
Brooklyn College, CUNY

Introduction: African Women, Gender, and Globalization
This is a brand new century. It is an exciting new day. In order to stimulate the flows of new and different, critical, and timely intellectual ideas, I suggest that we look both to the past and future. From the past, we can consider the record of victories won, gains made, and challenges that continue to move us to action. In the future lies the possibility of making change through the inspirational force of ideas, the mobilizational impetus of action that points out the shortcomings of the past and present, and provides worthwhile alternatives.
I have tremendous optimism for the future, but would like to point to the dangers of the unwarranted cosmopolitanism of African women scholars and activists. I bring up this issue first because numerous changes and developments are afoot in this new, global world. Neoliberalism reigns supreme. For feminist critics of neoliberalism, old gains have been eroded because the corporate elements of old feminist movements that generated inclusionary politics have been swept away, while there are no new supports for feminist struggles to advance the cause of marginalized women.
Two observations occur to me at this point. First, I question the benefits of the politics of inclusion. Second, I concur with socialist feminists that the presumed benefits of globalization do not extend to African and other third world women. For African women, this is very serious business. While the politics of inclusion produced the heady idealism of a united front of all women against the marginalization and oppression of patriarchy, the promise of unity in the face of adversary never materialized because there was a hierarchy that privileged Western women, being the controllers or conduits of funding, the published scholars whose ideas were widely disseminated worldwide, the advisors that recommended and prescribed solutions to women in other regions of the world, the dominant voice at international conferences, workshops and negotiations to whose advantage the mobilization of bias worked, since they were able to set the agenda that women from other parts of the world respond to.
The problem did not begin with this latest manifestation of globalization. It was also present in the pre-1985 period when the progressive forces in the development field talked excitedly about, and campaigned vigorously for the adoption of the New International Economic Order. The problem with the most recent incarnation of globalization is that it acts in a catalytic manner that intensifies old tensions, and produces new challenges. Although the neoliberal proponents of globalization argue that the phenomenon presents numerous possibilities of benefits to humanity, and although one can clearly see how advances in communications technology have made the world smaller, the advantages are not enjoyed equally by all people. While most have control over, and access to the latest technology, others do not have the means to purchase such technology. While technological advances have eased a lot of the tedium of modern life, they are responsible for a myriad of problems that affect the environment, and consequently, the health and well being of the consumers of technology and the labor that produces technological goods, sometimes without the financial ability to purchase and use such technology.
Indeed most African women feel the challenges of globalization in a myriad of ways. In most African countries, the idea of the welfare state is non-existent. People must fend for themselves from birth to death, with the largesse or benevolence of the extended family as the only cushion against the vagaries of an uncertain world. For these women, globalization has caused tremendous dislocations, since the opportunities that exist for them to participate are often as low paid overworked, no-benefit labor. Some neo-liberal economists contend that any job is better than no job, and that it matters little what jobs pay, as long as one is employed. However, this is often the argument of those that feel like veritable masters of the universe, who know that no such adversity can possibly be visited upon them. For those that have access to only the most menial jobs, having no choice does not mean wanting nothing better.
Globalization has also broadened the spectrum in terms of locale of employment. Those African women who are participants in the labor market could either work at home, in their country of origin, but given the dearth of foreign direct investment in most African countries, participation in the global job markets where there is better pay, and better conditions of service is increasingly, only available abroad. Regardless of geographical location, many African women must begin from the lowest rungs and claw their way up to some semblance of regular, decent employment.
When they migrate or emigrate to seek employment, African women find that the jobs that are most easily available are those that entail child or elder care, or care of the sick as home health aides, or cleaning jobs, or piece work in sweatshops. Other African women are highly qualified. When they are nurses, medical doctors, pharmacists, attorneys, university professors and the like, they are able to take professional jobs. However, when they emigrate or migrate in search of employment or of a more stable political, economic, and social system many of them often begin their first few years in the labor market by doing the same menial jobs as their less educated sisters. They only have access to the better paying jobs if they have skills that are in short supply in the country of settlement, and were recruited from their home countries with guarantees. Even in these circumstances, immigrant African women are still subjected to manipulation, coercion, even extortion by some fraudulent recruitment agencies.
Additional pressures come from the family. Women who are undocumented aliens are subjected to varying levels of overt or covert pressures by spouses and other family members. When the spouse has documentation, the dependence of his wife on his sponsorship could, and is sometimes used as a bargaining chip that keeps her in line. Disobedient/disrespectful wives are often disciplined by being denied sponsorship. Such women perform the unpaid labor that subsidizes the family’s expenses. When they take employment, they tend to work “under the table”, “off the books”, and can only find the worst paying jobs that offer no protection from employer abuse, or security for the future. Of course, some women are students, and some professionals.
Many African women students must of necessity combine schooling with part or full time employment. Some may be mothers as well. The professional women are somewhat better off financially. However, when they are mothers, they have to grapple with the challenges of how to provide decent care for their children, and how to juggle the responsibilities of professional life with those of being a parent, and sometimes spouse. When possible, some depend on family members for child care, but it is often younger or older female relatives that provide such services, often without financial remuneration. Being able to draw upon family support for child care also is a function of having family members in the country of migration/emigration. Most pay for childcare. The ability to pay determines the quality of care that the woman expects, although it does not necessarily determine the quality of childcare that is provided.
Many African women immigrants who have jobs in child/elder/sick care also have children of their own that are left without care or in sub-standard situations so that they can work. Some leave children behind in their home countries, again, in the care of female relatives. This causes much heartache for both mother and child/children, although the financial remuneration that is regularly dispatched home pays the bills and may give such children extra goodies that may not have been affordable or available if their mother was home. Some problems may also lurk in the future as children may feel emotionally and physically abandoned, and may have trouble bonding with a mother that they perceive as responsible for such abandonment when there is a reunion.
Given that majority of immigrant African women live such marginal lives, when women are brought into contact with women in their country of migration/emigration as a result of globalization, what do they share in common? What divides them? It is clear that sameness and difference characterizes the relationship between women. In this respect, race and class must be taken into consideration. For many African immigrant women, being undocumented does not block access to employment. However, it restricts the universe of opportunities, constrains choice, and affects life chances. It also subsumes African women to Western women in a hierarchy of employer to employee, supervisor to supervised, citizen to undocumented alien.
Cosmopolitanism and Hybridity
In the global world of the 21st century, hybridity is in. It has become de rigueur to claim multiple cultures and origins, to be multidimensional and multifaceted. In this bold new age when all people of good will mull over thoughts of how better to connect with the progressive trends of a new future, what of the woman question? Is there an essential woman out there that is a hybridized amalgamation of all women worldwide? If there is an essential woman, whose stories are presented as representative of this “ideal type”? Is the woman experience monolithic regardless of time and place?
Since the ethos of the age of post modern globalism is to consider the local and how it crosscuts with the global, it is worthwhile to foreground cosmopolitanism, globalization and hybridity. Cosmopolitanism implies multiple origins, being worldly, being au courant, being experienced in the ways of the world, being complex rather than simple, being all-inclusive, pervasive, being able to exist in, and affect the whole world. Globalization also implies the ability to cover a wide scope. It implies pervasiveness, inclusivity, and world-wide trends. Similarly, hybridity also carries notions of melding, mixing, and multiple origins.
The immigrant African woman actually seems to be the ultimate hybrid that stands bestride two worlds, the home country and the country of sojourn/immigration. She is bilingual or even multilingual, adept at negotiating two different worlds, cooking two different cuisines, understands two worlds. However, scholars should ask, what part of the hybrid’s multiple origins is privileged and valued? Which of the values are judged to be important? What part of the repertoire of the hybrid is considered the norm? Whichever part is privileged, normalized, believed to be important is that which really determines the hybrid. Are other points of origin, values, and behaviors expected to be subsumed in order that the hybrid might realize the full potential of this multiply determined identity? Moreover, if we are hybrids, is each and every one of us a hybrid in the same ways?
Globalization implies a coordination of the world’s political, economic, political and even social systems. It is a coming together of the world in a never-before experienced manner. Within this burgeoning new world, gender in conceptual analysis and its application and applicability to African women’s issues and experiences must be subjected to critical examination. Gender studies lay open the possibility of considering the world’s women as one single unit of analysis, and it has been deployed in this manner. It also creates the distinct opportunity of looking at the world’s women in its regions and sub regions in their particularity. The particularity of women’s experiences is especially relevant if we take seriously the contention that gender is socially constructed. Naturally, such construction, if it is to be conceptually relevant, must be understood as emerging out of the particularity of a people’s history. It ought to stand to reason then that in each and every instance, constructions of gender react to and reflect the social, political and economic realities of the cultures from which they are drawn. Why then does one see constructions of gender that seem to be made from one cookie cutter? Why the presumption of universality and essentialism? The universalization and essentialization of the woman question erases or at best, trivializes the natural multidimensionality of social, economic and political realities of entire areas of the world.
The question of whether the homogenized woman exists is not a trivial one. Taken to its logical consequence, hybridity entails having a woman that is composed of a mish-mash of influences, a woman that is neither hither nor thither, a woman who differs not whether found in a village in the Catskills region of Upstate New York, New York City, or Tokyo, or Hong Kong, or Rio de Janeiro, or Lagos, Nigeria. Such a woman is also progressive, and thus Western. The hybrid woman owes her existence to the reality that there is a Western hegemony in scholarship, funding and in the production of knowledge. In consequence, hybridity and cosmopolitanism have become the new and dominant ideologies. As this question relates to Africa, many studies are produced that do not explain very much, and Africa remains the enigma that it has always been in the Western imagination. More seriously, Africa becomes even more of a mystery when Africans favor a variety of hybridity and cosmopolitanism that erases African cultural philosophies as irrelevant to the constitution of ideals and desired values. Africa was colonized by Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, and other European countries from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries. This too, was part of the globalization process. Colonization was a means to the end of extending the reach of profit-seeking capitalists countries by taking proprietary control of areas of the world from which wealth could be extracted for the benefit of the metropolitan colonizer.
Today, a new kind of colonization is underway that does not require physical control, but recognizes the power and right of capital to range through the world in a never-ending search for profit. Such exercise of power is most apparent when countries are coerced or persuaded or advised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to integrate their economies into the world’s economic mainstream. The right of labor to similarly range for profit-making opportunities is only reserved for a privileged few who have whatever marketable skills are adjudged to be relevant to the global economy at any given moment in time. Since some countries are more powerful economically, they are able to reach in a proprietary manner into the rest of the world to pull out resources of any kind, be it commodities, human beings, or intellectual property. Since these countries are also more stable politically, economically, and socially, they have another kind of pull. Like magnets, they draw people who flee from political, economic and social uncertainty and conflict. Africa and the rest of the third world then come to resemble labor reserves from which both brain and brawn are drawn to service the hungry global economy. Women who are recruited either at home or abroad into this global economy are not incorporated on an equal footing with the women of the new metropole. They are unequal, less privileged, and more vulnerable. Those who succeed more than others because they have skills may also bear tremendous responsibilities on the home front because their extended family expects them to assist with future immigration, remittances, and accommodation when they visit.
When women meet in the global terrain, they are not meeting as equals. They are bound together by sameness and difference. To fully underscore the importance of this observation, Babalolá Olábîyí Yáì’s recommendation to scholars of African studies that they avoid the promotion of “dubious universals” as well as “intransitive discourses” that refuse to ground the concepts and ideas that are deployed in their analysis in African indigenous philosophies is particularly apposite. Yáì’s injunction is that “We Africanist scholars must humbly acknowledge the limitations of our models and methodologies. The overwhelming nature of the colonial situations and ideologies of which we all are victims – but to which through constant vigilance we must endeavor not to remain involuntary accomplices–induces us to inadvertently smuggle false issues, nonissues, and extraneous notions and concepts into the disciplines of African studies.” (Yáì, 1999). This injunction is particularly relevant to the scholars and activists that undertake gender studies. Doing good research and worthwhile advocacy involves more than good intentions. It also involves more than the deployment of the most current theories.
Being mindful of Yáì’s prescription, scholars ought to constantly ask themselves, whether the issues that they pursue so vigorously are flawed. For African scholars, the question is: are we sufficiently decolonized to engage the subject matter meaningfully? Or do we value cosmopolitanism, hybridity and unquestioned adherence to globality so much that we become blinded to the reality, choosing instead to focus on how far Africa is from a universal ideal that is utterly meaningless to the lives of the people that one purports to study. More troubling, is a universal ideal desirable in each and every case?
Many look upon Africa, and conclude that the continents is so poor, so marginalized, that its women are the most embattled, the most oppressed, the most impoverished people on earth. Being all of the above, could these same women be powerful? Particularly, given the foregrounding of my discussion with the manner in which the African women in the global economy are embattled, and given the relative absence of their faces and bodies at worldwide conferences and activist gatherings, given the relative absence of their voices in intellectual discourse, given their relative scarcity among the official power holders in their countries of origin, how could one possibly not consider them voiceless, powerless, more likely to be acted upon, than to act on their own behalf. In order to begin to challenge the pervasive cosmopolitanism that homogenizes and essentializes women’s experiences, I will explore the multiple ways in which African women exercise and deploy power, and this, despite the social, economic and political constraints that they face. Thus, I will address both constraints and possibilities that shape the actions and reactions of African women in this era of globalization.
It has become generally accepted that women are disadvantaged and discriminated against worldwide. One of the most valuable contributions of feminism as a movement is that it lays out the nature, form and extent the evidences that exist of man’s inhumanity to woman. Contemporary feminists have shown evidence of the inequities and inequalities that proliferate in all parts of the world against women (Rosaldo & Lamphere, 1974). Against this background, I ask the questions: How does one properly read and interpret the woman question in Africa? Are all African powerless? Do women have any power in African society? Under what circumstances? These questions are asked because I am a Yorùbá woman who in my personal experience, is aware that the studies that posit the automatic powerlessness of women as a group vis a vis all men do not explain my own experience or my understanding of history. Many of the studies also may indicate the existence of oppression as a very real human situation, but do not give any idea of the richness and vibrancy of life as it exists, and as I know it. Many of these studies do not also ask whether there are relations of equality between African women and their Western sisters, particularly when the forces of globalization push African out of the continent and pull them into Western countries. When African women become part of the undocumented workers, and are hired as nannies, house cleaners, home health aides, security personnel, and janitors by Western women, are they hired as full equals? Who has power in such relationships? When African and Western women professionals meet in the workplace, are they equal? Do African women become more powerful by becoming hybrids? When they are so hybridized, does any part of their multiply-determined origins predominate over others? Which one is predominant? When poor African women encounter their wealthy sisters, whether African or Western, are they meeting as equals?
To demonstrate what I mean, let me quickly make the following observations:
Awé, Johnson-Odim and Mba give us examples of women who have taken leadership roles in their societies. From these studies, it is clear that when we speak of women, we ought to specify that there are class differences among them which imply that some women are granted social, political, and economic privileges that are not open to others. These privileges are also not open to majority of men in society. Examples abound all through Africa (Awé, 1992; Johnson-Odim & Mba, 1997). If an African woman decides to claim hybridity that emphasizes Western origins, she essentially turns her back on the possibility of drawing upon the illustrious history of strength among her female predecessors. Instead, locating progress and power in the West, the history of Western women’s achievements is what she draws upon for inspiration. As a result of colonization, African culture was interpreted as a disability, the terrain of reprehensible traditions that hold women back rather than liberate them. Subsequently, to be modern was taken to mean the abandonment of the African for the culture of the Western colonizer. The worldwide spread of capitalism that has been intensified as a result of globalization also pressures Africans to further abandon whatever vestiges of their culture remain in order to better fit with the world. To the extent that this is the agenda of the hybrid, the goals are more in line with the agenda of the emergent global culture that is purveyed by capitalist businesses whose primary desire is to make profits. If hybridity were to consciously, consistently privilege all origins, and draw upon each and every tradition, it would transcend this challenge.
If we take the feminist contention that gender is socially constructed seriously, it is inevitable that constructions of gender differ from one geographical location to another. Thus, the gendering of society in Africa does not automatically take on the same form as we observe in the western world. Africa has 54 countries. Nigeria, which has the largest population, has more than 250 ethnic groups. It is to be expected that a myriad of cultural differences make the social constructions of any category more complex than in the West. Consequently, African and Africanist scholars must conduct studies that deliberately focus on each of the continent’s ethnic groups in analysis that consider the relevance and applicability of gender. No conclusions can be made on the relevance of gender to African social analysis prior to doing this initial groundwork.
Since almost the entire continent of Africa was colonized, today, one observes the combination of pre-colonial culture with elements absorbed as a result of the experience of colonization. Colonization continues today, facilitated by the neo-liberal economic ideology of integration, by the technological innovation that have eased communication, thus increasing the ability of owners of technology to have tremendous cultural influences on those who lack it, or who lack the most powerful or the most recent technology. An MTV and CNN generation is not only to be found within the borders of the Western world, but wherever people have access to satellite signals. Languages, values, consumption patterns, aesthetics, style, mannerisms, are all influenced. The promise of globalization is that such change will bring the world closer together by increasing the menu from which people can draw. However, the reality falls far short, because countries with more power in technology have an undue influence. The United States of America tends to be the biggest beneficiary. As some of the anti-globalists’ campaigns show, even Europeans fear that globalization would really come to mean the Americanization or MacDonaldization of their world. To further underline the dangers of this development, not all Americans win. Only big business wins, and the extent to which the America that is being sold to the whole world reflects the reality as Americans live it, is questionable.
Women and Power in African Society
To return to the question of women’s power in African society, and the circumstances under which they may have power, and the influence of women’s power or weakness, I make the following initial claims: Women may have power in society in the following institutions: the family, kinship group, community, ethnic group, state. In the context of African indigenous culture, instances of power would include women’s power as mothers vis a vis children, regardless of age. As wives in a polygynous family, the first wife has more power than other co-wives. As political officials, there are examples of women who are queen mothers e.g. the Edo of Nigeria, the Buganda of Uganda, the Akan of Ghana. Women can also have economic power based on their ability to own the means of production, or the ability to control the gains that they make from exchange. There are also examples of women’s ritual power. Some are priestesses, deities.
A second set of issues arise. To what extent does globalization affect the extent to which women possess, and exercise power? Given that globalization empowers the richer, more technologically and militarily strong countries at the expense of their poorer, less technologically and militarily strong counterparts, the imperialism of globalization endangers the culture of the latter while it strengthens the former. African traditions that invest women’s with the right to hold and exercise power must be recovered from the detritus of past and contemporary history. Such recovery can be construed as facilitating the improvement in our understanding of not just what the mores and ethos of African cultural traditions are, but of the restoration of the philosophies and deep meanings that underlie social practices. Scholarly responsibility entails saving from obscurity those valuable practices that define the essence of the human experience in African traditions. If such effort bears fruit, the wounds inflicted by past skewed and biased interpretations can be healed, and the values that undergird the recognition of the importance of women in society preserved. In consequence, ideals will be reestablished and values revived, and renewed.
In the effort to undertake the excavation and recovery of progressive African traditions, consider the feminist contention that women are commonly oppressed by male patriarchy. It is relevant to ask the following questions: What are the defining characteristics of femaleness and maleness, strength, and weakness? Have these characteristics remained the same over time? When did they change? The comprehensive answer to these questions can only be answered through deep, focused research in all of Africa’s regions. My analysis will focus specifically on the Yorùbá of Southern Nigeria. Among the Òyó Yorùbá, historically, seniority, and not gender was the definitive category (Oyewumi, 1997). Contemporary Yorùbá adoption of Western gender categories is a direct consequence of the incorporation of the Yorùbá into the world economy, first through trade relations, rapidly followed by the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the “legitimate trade,” European exploration, the scramble for territories in Africa by the various European powers of the late 19th century, colonization, and decolonization. The postcolonial history of the Yorùbá is necessarily deeply impacted by this historical progression from trade to decolonization. This progression also should be seen as part of the process of globalization. The most current phase of globalization continues to have a deep impact on the Yorùbá and other African ethnic groups. Despite such impact, scholarship that excavates people’s history for deep philosophical meaning will reveal a world-sense that differs from the Western.
The application of Western gender categories to Òyó Yorùbá society constitutes an erasure of the real lived experiences of people. This is because one and the same woman may be a daughter, wife, mother, sister, grandmother, and mother in law, political official. Each status can be advantageous or disadvantageous. Such advantages and disadvantages are relational because they are held vis a vis other individuals in society, who may be male or female. Women are not precluded from exercising power, even women who are materially poor.
Within the context of the Yorùbá culture, as a daughter, a woman has rights in her natal family vis a vis the wives in the family. As a matter of fact, other women who marry into this kinship group refer to her and all the “children of the house” as “oko” {husband). Women who are oko have privileges and entitlements that arise from this status. They also have rights to their family’s land; inherit from their father through the unit that is headed by a mother (in a polygynous family). As ìyàwó, this same woman has little power vis a vis her sisters in law and mother in law in her husband’s family. She gives the women in her husband’s family the respect that is due to these statuses without in any way abridging her rights and entitlements in her natal family. As first wife, a woman has more power than subsequent wives. She is no longer responsible for the drudgery of everyday chores when junior wives are married. She must be consulted in all matters including the marrying of the co-wives. As mother, a woman has remarkable power over her children, regardless of their age. She is entitled to this power by virtue of ìkúnlè abiyamo [the pains of the labor process]. As a sister, a woman has power vis a vis younger siblings. She has less power vis a vis older ones. As a mother in law, she has enormous power vis a vis her daughter in law. She can decide to use this power in a just manner, or choose to be oppressive vis a vis her daughters in law. As a grandmother, a woman is respected by all that are junior to her as having attained the heights of old age, and thus as having become wise. The Yorùbá say that such women, ti g’òkè àgbà.
While there are conditions under which women are legitimately able to exercise power, t each and everyone cannot perform identically. Personal capacity matters. Also, social and political institutions can intervene to empower or disempower individuals and groups in society. When we also consider the question of what constitutes the defining characteristics of maleness and femaleness, these characteristics may not be attached to males or females as a function of institutions assigning roles in an immutable, unchanging manner, but as part of a fluid, hegemonic process where the hegemons of the day define for everyone else what the common sense understandings of the world should be. As a result of the operation of a hegemonic process, powerful groups in society can then generate a definition of strength and weakness and the assignment of gender roles to fit the common sense understandings of the world. What those roles are for African in the pre-colonial era differ from what they came to be in the colonial era, which also differ from what we observe today. In this most recent phase of globalization, the hegemonic attempts are observable in the campaign for a worldwide women’s movement that is less interested in developing a rich, varied, and complex mosaic based on the contributions of women from all parts of the world, than in producing homogenized and hybridized women that are replicas of the Western model.
There is a tendency to use tradition and modernity interchangeably with Africa (the former) and the West (the latter). Most scholars in treating Africa as the sphere of tradition and the West as that of modernity fall into the fallacy of claiming that African societies will continuously wallow in "traditionalism." Thus, they lose the everyday sense of 'modern' as 'new' as 'contemporary' as something that each and every society undergoes without implying that any/all new evolutionary change is Western. The modern and modernity must be de-linked from the W. tern so that we can meaningfully tract changes that are homegrown, neighbors‑influenced, and/or Asia‑inspired from those that are western‑influenced. If we do not do this then we run the additional risk of conceding autonomy to the West.
To all intents and purposes, what we see in African countries today is that people, including scholars draw a dichotomizing line between modernity and tradition which affects not only practices, values, principles and behaviors that humans manifest, but also the geographical spaces that they occupy. The city under this dichotomizing scheme is modern, the village, traditional. Wearing a Yorùbá ìró and bùbá [wrap and loose top] is traditional, wearing a skirt and blouse is modern. Cooking with a gas stove, using aluminum and stainless steel pots and pans is modern; using wood in an àdògán, [wood-burning stove] clay pots, some kinds of cast iron and wooden spoons is traditional. If a woman cooks, that is tradition. If a man does, it’s modern. If a person lives in a mud hut, that’s traditional, in a concrete house with corrugated iron with galvanized steel roofing, it’s modern. A traditional woman is weakened by traditional structures. She has to cook, clean, take care of children and the old, the sick and visitors. She cannot have any perception of herself as an individual. The community defines her. She is the property of her husband, a jural minor, is likely to have had some genital surgery imposed on her, to have experienced high levels of infant mortality, to be illiterate, poor, overworked, unappreciated, and totally marginalized. A modern woman is not. (Okome, Jenda 1:1, 2001)
The question we need to ask and answer is: If the traditional woman is traditional, what makes her so? That she resides in the traditional milieu? When did tradition stop and modernity begin? Did tradition weaken people due to some intrinsic quality in tradition, while the logic of modernity is intrinsically to empower, to free the individual from parochial ties that ultimately marginalize? Most people tend to date modernity from the 15th Century contact between Africa and the West, a contact that ultimately denuded all Africans, male and female, of any meaningful power. If we think of tradition and modernity as constructs that define a moment of domination, we begin to see that what we take as “tradition” today has a strong overlay of the “modern”. What one observes in Africa then is not necessarily tradition versus modernity, but the dragging of Africans into the European-dominated world system to perform the menial tasks. The dragging in was not only the exercise of physical power but of hegemonic power where the new conquerors influenced society in a profound way to define the conquered as “savages” and themselves as the “civilized liberators”. Tradition and modernity, properly construed would include an understanding that each and every human society has the old and the new. This is true for Africa as it is for the West. In point of fact, the Yorùbá conceptualize change and the motive forces that drive it in human society as combining with continuity to constitute the norm. They speak of òlàjú (enlightenment), ìdàgbàsókè (growth), ìlosíwájú (progress/moving forward) at the same time as they use the adage: “kò s’óun titun kan l’ábé oòrùn (there’s nothing new under the sun), e jé ká seé bí wón ti nseé, k’ó le rí b’ó ti nrí” (let’s do it as they do it [as it ought to be done] so that it turns out as it is ought to). The Yorùbá also distinguish between ayé òde òní (today’s world) and ayé àtijó (the world of the past). Similar claims can be made of other African ethnic groups. Change is inevitable, and social practices are constructed and re-constructed in response to the challenges that confront a people. African peoples are not isolated from the currents of change and their societies, and culture. They ought not to be studied as such. (Okome, Jenda 1:1, 2001)
Being the conquerors in the wars of pacification that preceded the colonial occupation meant that the Europeans could define the conquered Africans as “savages”, as people who had no hope of salvation but for the benevolence of their magnanimous conquerors. Many think that this perception died out with the end of colonialism, but it is alive and well when contemporary scholars refuse to acknowledge that many pre-colonial African societies had traits that are now attributed to modernity. Those traits were not only discouraged by the Europeans who considered themselves the epitome of modernity, they were subjected to wanton destruction. The surviving societies tried to stave off the assault of by maintaining some practices, fashioning new ones to ward off the calamities that beset them. All these societies are now presented as traditional, and as manifesting the pathological traits of backwardness.
The question of whether a society can forever be frozen into a “traditional” milieu that repels change arises. Contrary to the assumption that tradition is lodged permanently in the African continent, it is more productive to consider the admixture of continuity and change, the coexistence of modernizing and traditional processes in society. It is also immensely worthwhile to consider the assumption that only from the repertoire of the Western bag of tricks can Africans learn. To the contrary, there is much that each of Africa’s ethnic groups can learn from the others. Much of this may also be modern. Through this framework, the role of African women in society can be examined.
Accompanying the gross exploitation of Africa’s human and material resources, were attempts to establish the conquerors’ hegemony such that their world view and philosophy become the new norms. Conquered people are expected to embrace the notion that their world view and philosophy are illicit, illegal, and ignorant. Whereas in African women had important roles in society, prior to colonization, these are defined out of existence. Although in their religion, the colonized had indispensable roles for women to play both as deities and priestesses, with the imposition of Christianity, such roles were defined out of existence, and sometimes even criminalized. Whereas motherhood formerly implied power, it now came to be seen as an impediment. Whereas motherhood and gainful employment were not mutually exclusive, they were soon construed as such with the unrelenting imposition of Westernization upon Africa. Although being a woman was not coterminous with being the weaker sex, this became the norm. Indeed, one of the most important institutions upon which a woman’s claim of power could be made - motherhood- became irrelevant because of the separation between the public and private spheres that was an integral part of the colonial enterprise. As actors that were restricted to the private realm, women were domesticated and subject to the discipline of those recognized as the heads of households - men.
We look now at women all over Africa and maintain that “tradition” is the problem. If we are among the more progressive, we argue that women are oppressed by patriarchy that besets them from two sources - the tradition of patriarchy and that set in motion by colonization. To make this claim depends on the extent to which we can maintain that the societies of Africa at the inception of colonization were “traditional”. To claim that they remained pristine, immutable and unchanging, conservative and reactionary in the face of centuries of countervailing influences from within and without. This is wrong because between the prehistoric age and the15th Century, history reveals evidences of continuity and change in the African continent. Thus the wholesale assumption that there is a dichotomous relationship between tradition and modernity must be nullified. Change is as much a part of the pre-colonial as it is of post-colonial Africa. However, the pace of change, and the extent to which phenomena such as urbanization and the establishment of large-scale mines and plantations generated deep shifts that were extremely dislocating can be examined as creating new dynamics. Necessarily, what these dynamics are will differ from country to country, and from community to community.
To take the various roles of African women that were heretofore identified as indicators of instances where they may be able to exercise power, as mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, mothers in law, political official, owners of capital, monarchs, nobility/aristocracy, deities, religious leaders. It is necessary to focus first on the ideal, and on what is possible under the best possible scenario.
Motherhood Òrìsà bí ìyá ò sí, ìyá l’à bá sìn. [There is no deity like the mother; mothers are the ones that we ought to worship].

It is widely posited that motherhood is important in all of Africa’s societies or communities. Of course, the requirement that all women ought to be mothers may also operate in an oppressive manner to discipline those who are not able to bear children. I want to start with the ideal. Ideally, what are the powers, privileges, and entitlements that motherhood gives a woman? The Yorùbá say, Ìyá ni wúrà, baba ni jígí [Mother is gold, father is a mirror]. Mother is gold, strong, valuable, true, central to a child’s existence, wise, also self-denying. As a mother, ìkúnlè abiyamo - the kneeling position that is assumed at the moment of birth - confers privileges on a mother. Ideally, mothers ought to be respected, ought to be heeded, ought to be able to ask their offspring to transcend the limits of doing just enough. Mothers also ought to be respected by society at large. The very act of childbirth is to say the very least, one of the most difficult things that a human being undertakes in life. Prior to this, a mother carries the child in uteri for nine months, and subsequently, nurtures the child, guaranteeing not only physical survival, but moral development and the development of a social conscience.
Among the Yorùbá, motherhood confers privileges, privileges that hark back to the very foundations of society and women’s presumed roles in it. Women symbolize fertility, fecundity, fruitfulness. Women also are feared. They are believed to be capable of deploying, even of having the capacity to unleash powerful forces of darkness. Those who have studied the rituals associated with Gèlèdé ritual performances among the Ègbádò and Ìgbómìnà demonstrate the underpinning of female power and the visible demonstration of the power of women for both good and evil, the power to create and destroy, to critique social behavior and to use the power of satire to check transgressors. Gèlèdé is a display of the power of women to create new life and to undermine the very essence of society if not properly worshiped (Lawal 1996). A similar portrayal of women’s power in the spiritual realm is observable in Ifá, in the worship of Yemoja, Oya, Òsun, all very powerful female deities. They are referred to as Ìyá by all their worshipers and devotees who are both men and women. These deities are also ministered to by both men and women. Priests and priestesses who are fully initiated into the service of these òrìsà are referred to as the ìyàwó, prior to gaining the full stature of priest, When male Yorùbá priests are in this final preparatory stage, they dress in “women’s” clothing, a factor that has generated the observation among some scholars that this entails cross-dressing. Moreover, the donning of women’s clothing by such priests is regarded as a mark of transvestitism. (Matory 1994: 6‑7, 183‑215; Wescott and Morton-Williams, 1962, 25; Drewal, 1992, 121, 137, 177, 185, 190).

Women as Ìyàwó
As aya or ìyàwó [wives] who marry into an ìdílé [patrilineage] and have patrilocal residence in an agbo’lé [family compound], Yorùbá women are essentially the outsiders within the ebí [family]. One side of the equation that most analysts and scholars fail to consider is also that a male that marries into an ìdílé does not have superior rights within that ìdílé to the women in the ìdílé. As outsiders, they only participate in decision making through the agency of their wives who are part of the ìdílé. There are also social obligations that men who are outsiders to the ìdílé by virtue of being married into it must perform. To concentrate our attention on women, being an ìyàwó is the site where women’s biological reality of being sexually and anatomically female conjoins with the social reality of being women, and thus less powerful than males. As ìyàwó, a woman who marries into the ìdílé has a lower status than the oko [male and female members of the ìdílé within the ebí, a status that pays no attention to anatomical maleness, or femaleness but one that privileges membership in the ìdílé. This is why all the descendants of the ìdílé have superior rights to those who marry into it. All ìyàwó labor can be demanded by their husbands (including all members of the patriliny) and is expected to be graciously given. ìyàwó also occupy a lower status, a fact that is demonstrated by the deference shown to oko (all members of the patrilineage into which they marry). Due to the erasure of the philosophical underpinnings of Yorùbá social practices that has occurred over time, it is necessary to explain to many educated Yorùbá that the reason why mothers call their male and female children oko is an indicator of the mother’s outsider status and an affirmation of the children’s insider position vis-a-vis their own mother. Despite the intrusion of new principles and institutions over time, such relationships can be observed in contemporary Yorùbá families. When women act as oko within the ìdílé, they are often presented by scholarly observers as examples of woman’s inhumanity to woman (Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1996).
Among ìyàwó, the first wife is more powerful than others by virtue of being the first- comer into the family, and thus having seniority vis a vis other ìyàwó within the family. Of course, since no family is immune to the effects of politics, there are cases in which the favorite wife threatens the supremacy of the first wife. Wives have also been known to cooperatively challenge an unjust oko, whether spouse or the members of the ìdílé. What is clear in the relations among women is that one cannot make an ad hoc assumption about the commonality of the female experience.

Women as Oko
As members of an ìdílé into which other women marry, the women are regarded as the oko [husbands], and thus have a great deal of power. They are entitled by the norms of Yorùbá society, to demand and expect the labor of the wives of the family. In return, they are expected to comport themselves with dignity, and to lawó [be open-handed or generous] toward their ìyàwó. The categorization of women members of an ìdílé as oko is not to be taken as indicating any sexual relations with the ìyàwó. Instead, it indicates that Yorùbá societies do not have the same gendering imperatives that one finds in the West. Unfortunately, since most scholars of Africa have the tendency to adopt Western categories as given, and since they apply the categories without inquiring into whether they fit, Western-style gender categorizations have become de rigueur in African scholarship.

Women’s religious and ritual powers
As deities and ritual leaders, there are no gendered differences in the social experiences of men and women. Many Yorùbá deities combine male and female properties and qualities. There are even examples of one and the same deity being designated male in certain locales within Yorùbáland and as females in others (Ìdòwú, 1962). Oya, one of the principal deities of the Yorùbá, for whom the river Niger is named Odò Oya by the Yorùbá, is reputed to have been one of the wives of Sango, the fourth monarch of the Yorùbá. Her symbols are two naked swords and buffalo horns. For Johnson, “As thunder and lightning are attributed to Sango, so tornado and violent thunderstorms, rending trees and leveling high towers and houses are attributed to Oya. They signify her displeasure.” (Johnson, 36). These are not female characteristics in a gendered world that sees women as kind and gentle, nurturing and docile. Within the Yorùbá philosophy of life, there is nothing intrinsically male and female. An anatomical male can be both gentle and ruthless and so can an anatomical female. What matters more is for such qualities to be deployed appropriately.

Women as political officials
Political power is not limited to men within Yorùbá society. Yorùbá princesses can marry commoners who may then be conferred with titles (including obaship, as Johnson claims is the case of the Olowu, son of the first born of Oduduwa (a princess) and her father’s aláwo [priest] (Johnson, 8). There are still contemporary examples of female ìjòyè [chiefs] abound. Ìyálôde, Erelú, Yèyé Oba are just a few of such female positions. Today, as with the Obaships, these positions are denuded of power, being only ceremonial vestiges of their pre-colonial manifestations. That they remain, and that the holders attract the respect and admiration of the public is an indicator of the persistence of norms and values that do not conform to a Western-delimited understanding of gender. The Òyó empire and other Yorùbá states show us evidence of the institutionalization of women’s political power into centralized political realms in a manner that demonstrate that anatomical and biological femaleness was not considered coterminous with a disadvantaged gender. Social status and power was multiply determined and whether an individual exercised power depended on scope and domain. As Ìyálôde, we have the examples of Efúnsetán Aníwúrà of Ibadan, Madam Tinubú of Abéòkúta (Awé, 1977) as powerful women of their times who exercised the power with which their office was endowed, and in the case of Efúnsetán Aníwúrà, were not averse to engaging in power struggle and participating actively in war, albeit through surrogates, as did many of their male counterparts.
In the Òyó Empire, the Ìlàrí, who were variously regarded as the keepers of the king’s head, or his body guard were both male and female. According to Johnson, “Every male Ìlàrí has a female counterpart who is called his companion. The Ìlàrí themselves by courtesy call them their “mother.” They are both created at one and the same time and they are supposed to seek each other’s interest, although there must be no intimacy between them; the female Ìlàrí being the denizens of the King’s harem; the only attention they are allowed to pay each other is to make exchange of presents at the yearly festivals.” (62). In addition, Johnson also identified “Ladies of the Palace” who included eight titled ladies, eight Priestesses, other ladies of rank, Ayaba (king’s wives). As residents in the palace, all the women were termed Ayaba, which is no indication of their being married to him. As indicated by Johnson, the highest ranked women are listed in order of importance as follows:

1. Ìyá Oba
2. Ìyá kéré
3. Ìyá-Naso
4. Ìyá-monari

5. Ìyá-fin-Ikú
6. Ìyálagbon
7. Orun-kumefun
8. Are-orite

As the king’s official mother, the Ìyá Oba acted the part of a mother and was empowered to jointly worship Òrun with the Oba and Bashòrun every September. According to Johnson, “She is the feudal head of the Bashòrun. Great deference is the due of the Ìyá Oba, but the Ìyá kéré wields more power within the palace, being in charge of the royal treasury as well as the royal insignia and all paraphernalia used on state occasions”. Being in control meant that she could prevent any state ceremony when the Oba incurred her wrath. She was also the official mother of all Ìlàrí, be they male or female. In recognition of her motherhood, they were created in her quarters (63). Ìyá kéré was also the feudal head of Ìséyìn, Ìwó and Ògbómòsó.
Among the Ìjèbú, women are members of the Òsùgbó, the same institution as the Ègbá Ògbóni, of which women are also members. In the pre-colonial era, this institution served the functions of schooling members in oratory and jurisprudence. It also functioned as the national court of appeals. It had jurisdiction over criminal cases and was mandated to execute those convicted where warranted. The Ògbóni house was also used as a state prison when necessary. Most importantly, the institution was mandated to prevent monarchical absolutism as well as mass lawlessness (Ayandele, 1966, particularly p. 170). In the new Òyó Empire, a female official of the Ògbóni represented the Aláàfin and reported back to him on the council’s deliberations. The institutional function of the Ògbóni included serving as a check against the abuse of power Òyó Mèsì.
The institution of Ìyálóde has replaced the important institutionalized women’s political positions of the pre-colonial era. Among the Ìjèbú, the Erelú serves in the same capacity. Although today’s Ìyálóde still have a great deal of power, particularly in the sphere of exchange and commerce, where market administration and adjudication are their purview, and even though we know of the famous Ìyálóde of yore like Efúnsetán Aníwúrà of Ìbàdàn, Madam Tinúbú of Abéòkúta, this position too is denuded of much of the formal powers that it had in the past. Today, the Ìyálóde is the title that denotes seniority among the female political officials in some Yoruba indigenous governance systems. In Lagos, the Ìyálóde remains an important official, being subordinate in standing only to the Oba of Lagos. The Ìyálóde also participates actively in the appointment and installation of the Oba. Among the Òndó, women have a hierarchical line of chiefs that parallels men’s chiefships. Oyewumi’s research also draws on evidence of women monarchs among the Òyó Yorùbá (Oyewumi, 1998).

Women as owners of capital and controllers of economic power
Yorùbá women have gained more recognition as holders, controllers and wielders of economic power than for any other kind of power that they exercise. Many studies point to the active participation and contribution of Yorùbá women in the economy, but also accurately decry the lack of recognition by post-colonial Nigerian governments for this contribution (Awé 1992). Curiously, active participation in the economy has also not been successfully parlayed into post-colonial political power (Awé, 1992). The same assessment can be made of women’s experiences throughout Africa, which ought to be translated into a realization of the depth of the success of the colonial project. A homogenized existence that does not reflect the pre-colonial realities now runs rampant because there is no observable difference between one African country and others (this is in spite of South Africa’s appointment of many women into political positions and the election of many female legislators. What is needed is not necessarily just more women in power, but having many women in power who have a deep understanding of the needs, goals and objectives of women (as multiple as these may be given differences in their class and regional interests). This is a difficult, but not impossible agenda that will continue to challenge us in the future

When viewed from the perspective of scholarly works on gender, we see that the gendering of society may in and of itself render women as mothers not only powerless but as marginal to social, political and economic life. The burdens of motherhood may be so heavy that a woman is never able to develop a sense of her self. She is most likely to be impoverished, most likely to be irrelevant. Constantly, we are reminded that women are the weaker sex. Wars affect them more, economic crises prostrate them, and they are the epitome of wretchedness. Statistics are deployed to confirm the reality of these depictions. I am not denying that women are burdened, I am not contesting the existence of patriarchy, and I am not saying that there are no instances of gender-based oppressions in contemporary Yorùbá society. What I claim, the assumption that will undergird this work in progress, is that women in African society exercise power in multiple ways that are difficult to acknowledge, or recognize when we use the tools that are designed to study Western societies. In order to properly study African societies, we have to as an initial condition, consider the reality that stares us in the face - African societies are different. We can learn valuable lessons on the human condition if we take them seriously. Gender is not deployed in the same manner in African societies as it is in the west. There are multiple conditions that we cannot explain with the tools of western scholarship.
I contend that if we really understand Yorùbá culture. we will find a way of conveying meaning to what is observed in a manner that does what Yáì refers to as the task of the gbénugbénu (orator/verbal carver/critic) who continues the gbénàgbénà’s (carver) job after the latter has completed carving a piece. The gbénugbénu as the orator, the one who carves language with the mouth in presenting the verbal gloss on the work of the sculptor must understand and successfully convey the meaning of concepts in a manner that captures both the spirit and letter of the philosophical intent of the people in whose culture a practice is grounded. Most Africanists neglect to be worthwhile gbénugbénu when they invent out of whole cloth, the relevance of practices that they only understand within the scope of western ideological systems of thought. Unfortunately, the desire to hybridize, to be cosmopolitan and to be global leads African scholars into the pitfall of taking these Western glosses as gospel, and contributing to their dissemination in a highly unconscious, unreflecting manner. Further, if we contrast the cross dressing claim with the fact that when Catholic and protestant priests wear robes, they are not considered as cross-dressing. In addition, when Catholic priests become the “brides of Christ” at the final moment of their initiation, and are given rings that symbolize this relationship, it is not cast as transvestitism. Why then use such characterization to describe Yorùbá ritual? In large part, this is due to scholars’ use of concepts that are meaningful in the context of their own social and historical experience. To some degree, it is also due to a lack of genuine and deep understanding of philosophical underpinnings of external phenomena.
Another very important factor to realize is that if we accept that contemporary women are commonly oppressed by patriarchy, the agency that is primarily responsible is the state. The contemporary state was not created by Africans. It is a colonial imposition. Being so imposed, it bore, to paraphrase Amina Mama, the racial hierarchy and gender politics of nineteenth century Europe as a result of which Africa was “indoctrinated into all-male European administrative systems, and the insidious paternalism of the new religious and educational systems” This “has persistently affected all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life in postcolonial African states.” (Mama, 47).
Harkening back to Yáì, what are the false issues? What are the non-issues? Which are the extraneous notions and concepts that might be/are smuggled into the studies of African women in the 21st century? Is the identification of such issues, notions and concepts counter-productive to the development of an international women’s movement? When Yáì talks about the duties of the gbénugbénu as complementing the gbénàgbénà, his injunctions ought to be taken to heart. Not to do so is to directly embrace the perils of cosmopolitanism and hybridization. The consequences for African gender scholars are dire and calamitous since they portend rootlessness, disjointed-ness and profound loss of autonomy. Although my focus in this paper is on gender studies, the problems are not limited to this area, but apply to the all disciplines under the rubric of African studies. If we do not maintain constant vigilance against unwarranted cosmopolitanism and rootless hybridization, what results is a profound lack of self-determination from the level of the individual scholar up to the level of the nation. Thus we find examples of scholars and entire countries that take up the theories, concepts and solutions that were designed to explain and solve problems in other places with historically distinct legacies and embrace them wholesale, and without much critical examination. Under the lens of those theories and concepts, everything African begins to look absurd and pathological. Under the influence of the imported solutions, African states and societies reel from one botched remedy to the next. Cosmopolitan and hybridized scholars then turn on the powerful imported lenses once again to proclaim that “tradition” is the problem.
Finally, I appeal to my fellow laborers in the fields of the academy to pose, and examine the same questions that I raised from a variety of African locations. To the extent that we do, we will produce the revolutionary, groundbreaking analysis that is possible, yet neglected thus far.

Works Cited

Awé, Bólánlé, ed. Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective. (Lagos: Sankore/Bookcraft, 1992).

Awé, Bólánlé, "The Iyalode in the Traditional Yoruba Political System," Schlegel, Alice, ed., Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View, New York: (Columbia University Press, 1977).

Ayandele, E.A. Missionary Influence on Modern Nigeria, 1842-1914 A Political and Social Analysis, (London: Longmans, 1966).

Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine African Women: A Modern History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).

Drewal, Margaret Thompson Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1992).

Ìdòwú, E. Bólájí Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London: Longmans, 1962)

Johnson, Samuel The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate (Lagos, Nigeria: CSS Bookshop, 1997 reprint).

Johnson-Odim, Cheryl and Nina Emma Mba, For Women and the Nation: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

Lawal, Babatunde. The Gèèlèèdéé Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996).

Mama, Amina “Sheroes and Villains: Conceptualizing Colonial and Contemporary Violence Against Women in Africa” in M. Jaqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, eds. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures (New York: Routledge, 1997).

Matory, James Lorand Sex and the Empire that is No More : Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Mba, Nina. Nigeria Women Mobilized (Berkeley: International and Area Studies University of Berkeley, 1982)

Nzegwu, Nkiru “Recovering Igbo Women's Traditions for Development: The Case of Ikporo Onitsha,” Women, Culture and Development, eds., Martha Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995), 444-465.

Oy rónké Oy wùmí The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1998).

Wescott, Joan and Peter Morton-Williams “The Symbolism and Ritual Context of the Yoruba Laba Shango” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (92:1, January-June 1962), 23-37.

Yáì, Babalolá Olábîyí “Tradition and the Yorùbá Artist” African Arts, Spring 99, vol. 32:1, 32-35.

Rosaldo, Michelle. 1974. Woman, Culture and Society: A Theoretical Overview. In Rosaldo, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds, Woman, Culture and Society (Stanford 1974), 1-42.


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