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The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses

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The “woman question,” this book asserts, is a Western one, and not a proper lens for viewing African society. A work that rethinks gender as a Western construction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures. Author Oyeronke Oyewumi reveals an ideology of biological determinism at the heart of Western social categories-the ide The “woman question,” this book asserts, is a Western one, and not a proper lens for viewing African society. A work that rethinks gender as a Western construction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures. Author Oyeronke Oyewumi reveals an ideology of biological determinism at the heart of Western social categories-the idea that biology provides the rationale for organizing the social world. And yet, she writes, the concept of “woman,” central to this ideology and to Western gender discourses, simply did not exist in Yorubaland, where the body was not the basis of social roles. Oyewumi traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies. Her analysis shows the paradoxical nature of two fundamental assumptions of feminist theory: that gender is socially constructed and that the subordination of women is universal. The Invention of Women demonstrates, to the contrary, that gender was not constructed in old Yoruba society, and that social organization was determined by relative age. A meticulous historical and epistemological account of an African culture on its own terms, this book makes a persuasive argument for a cultural, context-dependent interpretation of social reality. It calls for a reconception of gender discourse and the categories on which such study relies. More than that, the book lays bare the hidden assumptions in the ways these different cultures think. A truly comparative sociology of an African culture and the Western tradition, it will change the way African studies and gender studies proceed.


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The “woman question,” this book asserts, is a Western one, and not a proper lens for viewing African society. A work that rethinks gender as a Western construction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures. Author Oyeronke Oyewumi reveals an ideology of biological determinism at the heart of Western social categories-the ide The “woman question,” this book asserts, is a Western one, and not a proper lens for viewing African society. A work that rethinks gender as a Western construction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures. Author Oyeronke Oyewumi reveals an ideology of biological determinism at the heart of Western social categories-the idea that biology provides the rationale for organizing the social world. And yet, she writes, the concept of “woman,” central to this ideology and to Western gender discourses, simply did not exist in Yorubaland, where the body was not the basis of social roles. Oyewumi traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies. Her analysis shows the paradoxical nature of two fundamental assumptions of feminist theory: that gender is socially constructed and that the subordination of women is universal. The Invention of Women demonstrates, to the contrary, that gender was not constructed in old Yoruba society, and that social organization was determined by relative age. A meticulous historical and epistemological account of an African culture on its own terms, this book makes a persuasive argument for a cultural, context-dependent interpretation of social reality. It calls for a reconception of gender discourse and the categories on which such study relies. More than that, the book lays bare the hidden assumptions in the ways these different cultures think. A truly comparative sociology of an African culture and the Western tradition, it will change the way African studies and gender studies proceed.

30 review for The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    People who challenge gender norms are often dismissed as prioritizing “theory” over “reality.” This is historically incorrect. The reality is that Indigenous peoples across the world have long lived outside of the Western gender binary system. They were (and continue to be) forcibly assimilated into Western gender as a tactic of colonization. In her work, Nigerian scholar Oyeronke Oyěwùmí draws from the history of her Yoruba culture to show how the category “woman” did not exist in Yorubaland pri People who challenge gender norms are often dismissed as prioritizing “theory” over “reality.” This is historically incorrect. The reality is that Indigenous peoples across the world have long lived outside of the Western gender binary system. They were (and continue to be) forcibly assimilated into Western gender as a tactic of colonization. In her work, Nigerian scholar Oyeronke Oyěwùmí draws from the history of her Yoruba culture to show how the category “woman” did not exist in Yorubaland prior to European colonization. She critiques how the West maintains the fictions that 1) gender categories are universal 2) gender is a fundamental organizing principle in all societies 3) there is a universal category of woman 4) the category of “woman” exists preculture, fixed in time and place in opposition to the category “man.” This was not the case in Yoruba society where the primary feature of social hierarchy was age, not gender. Yoruba peoples acknowledged distinct reproductive roles (obìnrin and ọkunrin) without using them to establish social hierarchy and distribute power. The category of “woman” only emerged from the policies and practices of the newly imposed European state. It wasn’t just that women were disenfranchised by the law, it’s that the very categories of “women” and “men” – defined by anatomy and hierarchy – were instituted by the colonial authority. As Oyěwùmí argues, the “creation of women as a category was one of the very first accomplishments of the colonial state” (124). Historically gender-neutral gods were replaced with male ones. Despite the fact that non-men had long participated in political and public life, the new colonial authority only recognized “male” leaders and refused to acknowledge the existence of “female” chiefs, effectively excluding “women” from all colonial state structures. Yoruba people were forcibly assimilated into Western patriarchy which regulated marriage, divorce, and pregnancy, legally defining women as second-class to their husbands. “Women” were denied access to education and therefore the ability to negotiate the “modern world,” leading to “men” gaining more wealth, status, and leadership roles over them and worsening gender inequality. Because the colonial state defined “men” as breadwinners, “women” were discriminated against in the taxation system, leading to even more economic dependence and instability. A completely new public sphere was created exclusively for men, a feature that became “the hallmark and symbol of colonial progress” (154). The British later used this newly established gender inequality to justify their presence, using the imperialist narrative that they were protecting and empowering native women from native men. Oyěwùmí argues that African women were thrown into “the very bottom of a history that was not theirs…the unenviable position of European women became theirs by imposition, even as European women were lifted over Africans because their race was privileged” (33). The invention of womanhood in Yoruba society was instrumental in establishing the subordination of people who had previously exercised more freedom, autonomy, and influence. So often when people say “man or woman” what they actually mean is “white man or white woman.” Gender and sex cannot be discussed as universal concepts, they must be located within specific cultural systems, histories, and societies.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Heidi

    In The Invention of Women, author Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí examines how the process of Western colonization has imposed the gender binary on one of Africa's largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba. In pre-colonial Yorubaland, there was no language to distinguish male from female, except in the context of parenthood and marriage. A "female trader" was simply a trader, a "female leader" was simply a leader, and so on. Social hierarchies and roles were primarily determined by age and how recently one had joined In The Invention of Women, author Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí examines how the process of Western colonization has imposed the gender binary on one of Africa's largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba. In pre-colonial Yorubaland, there was no language to distinguish male from female, except in the context of parenthood and marriage. A "female trader" was simply a trader, a "female leader" was simply a leader, and so on. Social hierarchies and roles were primarily determined by age and how recently one had joined a lineage by either birth or marriage. In other words, biology wasn't a justification for excluding any person from a particular role. While the Yoruba have shaped their society in terms of what can be sensed—passing culture and history down through oral tradition, speaking a language in which different meanings can be derived based on the tone of one's voice, and making no distinction between physical and the spiritual realms in storytelling—Western culture has mainly privileged what can be seen, allowing for the creation of social roles based on skin color, genitalia, cranium size, weight, ability, and so on in a process Oyěwùmí calls "body reasoning". This visual logic has led to a hierarchy that privileges bodies which can be read by the Western gaze as inherently superior. When British colonization of Yorubaland began, those with bodies read as female were stripped of power and relegated to the status of housewives, while those with bodies read as male and lifted to high status positions were made omnipotent, given more power than had ever been granted to an individual in precolonial times. The written word took precedence over oral tradition, and genderless gods and rulers were assumed male and written into history accordingly. This should be interesting food for thought for anyone wondering why feminists have had so much to say about the term "history" (despite its innocent etymological origins). But while academic feminism has been indispensable for elucidating the notion of gender as a social construct, it hasn't fared so well in applying a critical lens in African studies, often imposing gender and patriarchy where it didn't exist in the first place. Feminism's potential as a global and cross-culture revolutionary movement is thus recuperated by the same colonizing forces that perpetuate and uphold the patriarchy it seeks to defeat. Oyěwùmí has written an excellent and provocative book that details the importance of the gender binary in the project of colonization. Applying her work more broadly, it's easy to see how Western thought has failed to produce alternatives to capitalism for the future, as we're still failing to challenge the baseline assumptions that limit our construction of humanity's past and present. Highly recommended for anyone looking to decolonize their thinking on gender and biology-driven reasoning.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Riccardo Mazzocchio

    Molte civiltà africane precoloniali erano organizzate in base al ruolo e alla posizione sociale (raggiunta per capacità relazionale o ereditata per consanguineità) in uno scambio di rapporti regolato dall’anzianità di grado, indipendentemente da differenze bioanatomiche, cioè ignorando attributi e compiti previsti/attesi dalla categorizzazione secondo il sesso di appartenenza. Un rapporto quindi fluido, dinamico nel senso che l’anziano/a diventa giovane e viceversa, a seconda del contesto. Comun Molte civiltà africane precoloniali erano organizzate in base al ruolo e alla posizione sociale (raggiunta per capacità relazionale o ereditata per consanguineità) in uno scambio di rapporti regolato dall’anzianità di grado, indipendentemente da differenze bioanatomiche, cioè ignorando attributi e compiti previsti/attesi dalla categorizzazione secondo il sesso di appartenenza. Un rapporto quindi fluido, dinamico nel senso che l’anziano/a diventa giovane e viceversa, a seconda del contesto. Comunque, mai monolitico e rigido come quello impostosi con il colonialismo, espressione del patriarcato, cioè degli interessi del genere maschile a tutti i livelli. Analizzare queste civiltà secondo il punto di vista occidentale non solo è un errore ma è anche un ostacolo alla ricerca della conoscenza. Nello specifico, l'autrice è critica verso programmi e prese di posizioni internazionali che assumono che la condizione della donna sia la stessa ovunque nel mondo. "Colonization, besides being a racist process, instituted and legitimized male hegemony in African societies throwing African women to the very bottom of a history that was not theirs. Thus, the unenviable position of European women became theirs by imposition."

  4. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    The central thesis of the book concerning gender (or lack thereof) in Yoruba society is well-argued but its post-structuralist trappings (especially in the first chapter) are iffy

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sara Salem

    A very thought-provoking book about the ways in which Western gender categories have been imposed on African contexts. She shows that in Nigeria, society was not stratified along the lines of a binary understanding of gender, but more along the lines of elder/youth.

  6. 4 out of 5

    venlandiahymni

    suosittelen isosti

  7. 5 out of 5

    M. Ainomugisha

    This is the steadiest I’ve ready any work on gender and rightfully so. In this text, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí asks us to seek a de-relegation of biological determinism in our social thought which undeniably has its tentacles in Western and colonial cultural histories that don’t satisfy the larger sense of our world. Oyèrónkẹ́ dives deeply into processes that disrobed the Yorùbá language of its genderlessness or “gender-freedom” as well as other continental African languages and dialects. It’s a tight b This is the steadiest I’ve ready any work on gender and rightfully so. In this text, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí asks us to seek a de-relegation of biological determinism in our social thought which undeniably has its tentacles in Western and colonial cultural histories that don’t satisfy the larger sense of our world. Oyèrónkẹ́ dives deeply into processes that disrobed the Yorùbá language of its genderlessness or “gender-freedom” as well as other continental African languages and dialects. It’s a tight body of work that will leave you doing a lot of inventory regarding our society’s biologically insidious impositions of gender and the use of gender as a social organizing tool.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tam Sanami

    As an African and a Nigerian to be specific, this book is really thought provoking in a good way. It makes every non western person to question their true cultures and traditions before the west interrupted. It is really a great book that any non western can learn one or two things from in relation to culture, social, and belief system.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Claudia

    Liked most of it. Learnt a lot. Some sections were very dense and hard to go through, interesting tho, but... Would recommend it to everyone havign this in mind. I specially liked the part about senses and hot they define how we experience and conceive the world. It was eye-opening.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jorge Schumacher

    Uma obra que explica como a ocidentalização da cultura acaba influenciando no sexismo e machismo da sociedade Yorubá. Muito bem escrita.

  11. 4 out of 5

    6655321

    So this is more a 3.5 star book because a lot of it is critiques that you can find in a lot of publications at this point (although this is a very early articulation of them), i.e. "woman" as constructed in western discourse and "sex" as a corollary are socially defined terms that contain inherent metaphysical properties. However, this is also a really awesome book on investigating that claim by comparing how male/female were imposed colonially in and how pre-contact systems of sociability and e So this is more a 3.5 star book because a lot of it is critiques that you can find in a lot of publications at this point (although this is a very early articulation of them), i.e. "woman" as constructed in western discourse and "sex" as a corollary are socially defined terms that contain inherent metaphysical properties. However, this is also a really awesome book on investigating that claim by comparing how male/female were imposed colonially in and how pre-contact systems of sociability and economics and politics were mediated by skills rather than by gender/sex. For Oyewumi the importance of genital sex was simply a question of who could marry whom and how children are made and there are no other social questions related to that. Which, tbh is really interesting although the term anamale and anafemale (to refer explicitly to how people are discussed in this context) sounds really TERF-y without this context. Anyway, this is a really good critique with some really interesting anthropology.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    "En la estela de los conflictos y controversias entre las mujeres occidentales y las no-occidentales, durante las conferencias de la Década de las Naciones Unidas para las Mujeres, hubo una pregunta recurrente: ¿cuál sería un interés común para las mujeres de todo el mundo? Aline K. Wong, una académica de Singapur, afirmó correctamente: “lo que yo pienso es ¿Las mujeres querrán ser mujeres?” Pero además, una debería preguntarse por qué se eligió esta categoría de “mujeres” y cuál es la composi "En la estela de los conflictos y controversias entre las mujeres occidentales y las no-occidentales, durante las conferencias de la Década de las Naciones Unidas para las Mujeres, hubo una pregunta recurrente: ¿cuál sería un interés común para las mujeres de todo el mundo? Aline K. Wong, una académica de Singapur, afirmó correctamente: “lo que yo pienso es ¿Las mujeres querrán ser mujeres?” Pero además, una debería preguntarse por qué se eligió esta categoría de “mujeres” y cuál es la composición de dicho grupo" una lectura fundamental para acercarse al análisis decolonial del género (y por consiguiente, del sexo) en contraste con los postulados de la academia y feminismo occidental que asumen al género no sólo como una noción universal y atemporal, sino también como una categoría de estudio inamovible.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Pacific Bird

    Great anthropological account of the history of social organization in Old Ọ̀yọ́ Yoruba and the history of its interpretation as gendered, as well as the history of the material gendering of Yoruba society through colonialism and capitalism. Dense, information-packed, and overwhelmingly thorough, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí examines cultural, cognitive, material, and institutional facets of Yoruba society and its history. Particularly interesting to me is the necessary combatting of Western Feminism and i Great anthropological account of the history of social organization in Old Ọ̀yọ́ Yoruba and the history of its interpretation as gendered, as well as the history of the material gendering of Yoruba society through colonialism and capitalism. Dense, information-packed, and overwhelmingly thorough, Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí examines cultural, cognitive, material, and institutional facets of Yoruba society and its history. Particularly interesting to me is the necessary combatting of Western Feminism and its ethnocentric projections onto African society displayed in this text.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Yvonne Gough

    Truly insightful book, definitely would recommend — makes you think about gender in a completely new way, even if you think you know about the social construct of gender already. Language and concepts could be slightly challenging for those who haven’t read sociologically based books or papers before.

  15. 4 out of 5

    caroline

    Highly, highly recommended. Very accessibly written and I aspire to have the author’s grasp of history and culture.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Antje Schrupp

    https://antjeschrupp.com/2020/01/11/g... https://antjeschrupp.com/2020/01/11/g...

  17. 5 out of 5

    KT

    Interesting read on how Western norms have influenced research on gender and more generally gender norms in Yorùbáland; raising the question of whether it is possible to have independent research questions and interests given the Western origins of most disciplines and the continued Western dominance of the world Particular highlights include: Gender was not an organising principle in Yorùbá society prior to Western colonisation, rather it was seniority as shown through an analysis of the Yorùbà l Interesting read on how Western norms have influenced research on gender and more generally gender norms in Yorùbáland; raising the question of whether it is possible to have independent research questions and interests given the Western origins of most disciplines and the continued Western dominance of the world Particular highlights include: Gender was not an organising principle in Yorùbá society prior to Western colonisation, rather it was seniority as shown through an analysis of the Yorùbà language Also found it interesting how the adoption of English-derived words and the gendering of Yorùbá words that were once non-gender-specific have led to the linguistic gendering of authority in Yorùbáland

  18. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    Haven't gotten to it yet but really want to read it. Haven't gotten to it yet but really want to read it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    Very dense book on literature theory, gender and colonialism. If you're into that give it a whirl. Very dense book on literature theory, gender and colonialism. If you're into that give it a whirl.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Parmer

  21. 4 out of 5

    Pernille

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rasier

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ghadeer Hussein

  24. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Vieira-Martinez

  25. 5 out of 5

    sha-LACE-uh

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristen Laurene

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jumoke Akil

  28. 4 out of 5

    Paula

  29. 4 out of 5

    Francesca

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jacki

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