The term gender has recently garnered much interest from all angles and perspectives. There are so many issues associated with the term that there is a quite varied explanation of what gender is. For the purpose of this paper, I would like to quote Oyewumi Oyeronke in her article “Invention of women” explaining gender as being best understood as an institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals (based on their body type), orders the social processes of everyday life, and is built into major social organizations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family and politics.
“But gender is socially constructed: it is historical and culture-bound. Consequently, the assumption that a gender system existed in 0yo society prior to Western colonization is yet another case of Western dominance in the documentation and interpretation of the world, one that is facilitated by the West's global material dominance.” (Oyéwumi 1997, p. 32)
Oyewumi in the above text sought to point out how the concept of gender never existed pre-colonial era in Oyo society, and the fact that there is an assumption that it did, is a clear case of western dominance. In a bid to further explain the above statement, she adopted certain methodologies. She recognized the need to examine social roles, as they were articulated in a number of institutions, including language, lineage, marriage, and the market. In her acknowledgment of the dangers of the mistranslation of key concepts, she used Yoruba terminologies as much as she could, she interrogated a range of feminists, anthropological, sociological, and historical literature and in the process critically evaluated the notion that gender is a timeless and universal category.
According to Oyetumi despite voluminous scholarship showing otherwise, the primary principle of the social organization during Pre-Colonial Yoruba society was seniority defined by relative age. She explained that social categories of “women” and “men” are social constructs deriving from the western assumption that “physical bodies are social bodies”. Oyetumi’s assertion that it’s quite a simplistic notion to think of gender as a natural and universal way of organizing society, and that male privilege is its ultimate manifestation, is consistent with her argument that gender is yet another case of Western dominance in the documentation and interpretation of the world. One that is facilitated by the West’s global material dominance.
I do agree with Oyetumi in her exploration of the concept of gender in Oyo-Yoruba, pre-colonial times, the methodologies as well as the principles she mentioned in her text are consistent with that of one that I can associate well with.
Research has shown that the Akan community I belong to in the country of Ghana, also lived in a genderless society in pre-colonial times. Kwame Arhin in his article Political and Military roles of Akan women cited that “Female stools complemented the hierarchy of male stools, women had a place in the village and town councils and participated in legislative and judicial processes”. Women played a supportive role in encouraging their men by performing dances and songs behind the lines, and history cited one heroine (Yaa Asantewaa) who precipitated the 1900 British siege of Kumasi by defying the governor’s demand to take the Golden stool. Just like the Oyo society of Yoruba, social organization in pre-colonial Ashanti was seniority defined by relative age. Reverence, respect, and privileges were accorded based on seniority and not gender.
In terms of naming, there are common gender-neutral names in the Akan language that is used for both male and female. It is a common practice for a female to bear a male name. Names like Konadu, Adom, Pinaman, and Manu are perfect examples. With respect to language, among Fante speakers, the world of nature and of man can be divided into two gender categories ‘nyin’ (male) and ‘bere’ (female). In Fante ‘bere’ may mean ripe, or time. Therefore, ‘akokɔnyin’ is ‘akokɔ (fowl)’ + nyin (cockerel) - male and ‘akokɔbere’ is akokɔ (fowl) + bere (hen) – female. In the same way, some plants are categorized as male and female. An example is a pawpaw. A pawpaw tree with fruits is female and the one without fruits is male. The male pawpaw tree is normally used for medicinal purposes. The days of the week are also gendered because particular deities who possess qualities distinctively masculine or feminine control them. The female days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The female days are accorded with production and so the Twi speakers of Akan call the earth ‘Asaase Yaa’ (Earth Thursday) Gideon Asante (2019).
I use these examples from Gideon because just like the Yoruba concept language and names used in the Akan community do not translate verbatim to the English terms “male/men” and “female/women. They refer only to physiological marked differences and do not have hierarchical connotations.
Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses
Gideon Asante 2019, The Gender Discourse in the Philosophy of Yoruba and Akan Societies
Arhin, Kwame 1983, Political and Military roles of Akan women