Gender & Power

May 8th, 2013

Gender & Power: Yoruba, Maasai, Igbo


Colonialism was a force that shaped and reshaped many cultures in Africa, including the Maasai, Igbo and Yoruba peoples (Hodgson I, II, 1999) (Usman 2012).  Not only did the colonial government control rules and regulations but social structures and people’s duties also became controlled by the colonial government.  The case studies presented herein give insight to how the shifts of power in colonial rule gave rise to deep social changes, including the meaning of gender roles and their relative behaviors.  The invasive, western model shapes power around gender and sex systems (Matory 1994).  In both the Maasai and Igbo societies gender roles were based around interaction with natural resources such as crops and livestock products (HodgsonI, II, 1999) (Korieh, 2007).  In the Yoruba case, gender was not a defining concept; people were not divided by sex but rather by lineage (Oyěwùmí 1997).  We intend to explain how by replacing gender systems that had logical bearing within traditional societies, colonialism caused the female role to become defined by its opposition to the male role rather than by natural resources or lineage.  When women were defined by lineage or natural resources, they had access to a self-determined, or true power (Oyěwùmí 1997). The case studies will highlight how the imposed colonial gender roles did not give women a sphere of their own; therefore they become defined as a second sex, without the means to access power.

What is gender?

In Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, she introduces the idea that sex and gender are not linked. Sex is the biological difference in maleness or femaleness while gender is a socially and culturally-constructed and maintained set of ideals and standards, that are performed to define the status of maleness or femaleness. However, she also refutes the fact of sex as well due to their need to be distinguished on the falsely gendered terms of male and female. Therefore Butler has theorized that both sex and gender are constructed and therefore characteristics of bodies are not able to be classified by the cultural binary as it exists. This leaves gender open for cultural interpretation and construct in every level, making the idea of a global ‘gender truth’ impossible, which allows us to better understand how the African traditional gender roles we are exploring vary so greatly from the gender ideologies of western-influenced cultures.

What is power?

Power and autonomy is a sense of volition and influence over the relationships and behaviors of the persons in a system. If the system is simply the self, self-determination and the ability to promote decisive changes are characteristics of power. In addition, a gender, or group of people whose importance, usefulness, or even existence is dependent on the presence of another sex or group of people, is a population without autonomy or power.  Such a group of people were seen in the “Helpmates” the Christian missionaries tried to make of women in parts of Nigeria (Bastian 2000).   These people would not have power, just as Simone de Beauvoir describes the second sex as not having power, since a place or other person defines them. This means there is no inherent reason or purpose for the second sex without the presence of another.  This leaves that person with no access to authority outside of the sphere upon which they’re dependently defined (Beauvoir 1953).


 Pre-colonial Yoruba:

           The Yoruba case is a clear depiction of a society where power relations were traced through their age-grading culture. The Yoruba people are located mainly in southern Nigeria.  Until missionaries and colonialism influenced the area, most of the Yoruba were genderless beings.  Instead of having a culture that was divided through gender expectations and hierarchies, the Yoruba people used seniority as an organizing system.  This system separated power relations by age and lineage, not gender (Oyěwùmí  1997).  The only real gendered aspect of the Yoruba society concerned the different roles in pregnancy and arguably the beginning of marriage (“The Yoruba Family” 2013).

When people married in Yoruba society, typically a female-sexed person would marry into a male-sexed person’s family.  The newcomer, as the person would be referred to, would be ranked below all the members of the family she married in to.  Although it seems like this person is now stuck on the bottom of an immovable power hierarchy, this was not the case.  The newcomer has the ability to move throughout the power system by having children.  By adding to the family lineage one would move up in seniority (Oyěwùmí 1997).  This system not only allowed for people to fill many different roles (compared to western society in which people may only fill the roles allowed to their gender) but it also allows for all people to have access to power in all spheres.

Pre-colonial Maasai:

The Maasai of Tanzania is a case that provides a clear depiction of a pastoral society, subsisting traditionally on nomadic livestock. This way of relating to the environment seemed to express very subtle yet impactful differences in gender ideology found in the social dynamics of the culture. Men were largely in control of ‘consultations, decision-making, and conflict resolution, over the age-grades, sections, and clans as well as over homesteads, clans, and communities.’ Family dynamics were mostly regulated by the role of bridewealth among the Maasai (Willis, 1999). Wives therefore become somewhat of the property of husbands among the Maasai since they pay a fee of cattle and other livestock to the wives’ family in exchange for her to live and work with him, and his cattle (Hodgson I, II, 1999) (Willis, 1999). These cattle would be paid to the father and the mother of the bride as well as in some instances with partitions paid to the bride herself (Hodgson I, 1999) (Wangui, 2008). Daughters therefore pose an important sense of wealth themselves to families due to their marriageable quality with which to acquire bridewealth for their family.

Women of the Maasai are largely in control of ‘house construction, cleanliness, food preparation, reproduction, and caregiving’, as well as ‘milking, care of young and sick animals, cleaning animal sheds’ (Wangui 1999)(Curry, 1996), as well as ‘management of milk and milk products’, which could be exchanged for cash or labor or used to build goodwill or reputation with friends or kin. Property dynamics were largely regulated through meaningful exchanges at birth, naming ceremonies, circumcisions of males and females, marriage, status changes associated with age-grade, and peace-making ceremonies. Cattle possession and the success and proliferation of cattle lead to power by whomever was the owner- the overseer of this process being men.

Pre-colonial Igbo

The Igbo people of Nigeria provide detailed accounts of agrarian subsistence methods and how their culture is regulated by such a lifestyle. The underlying powers of the female deity Idemili (Amadiume, 1987), as discussed in the Igbo case, provides a backbone to the realized belief that women have characteristic powers of industriousness as well as strong powers which maintain family structure in essential and sustaining ways.

Igbo agrarian societies have traditionally followed careful gender divisions of crops such as the male yam and female cassava plants. Power is won within gender groups by attaining success in fruition of crops for subsistence as well as crops for trade and cash markets. These crops become the crux of social developments as the gender paradigms become reliant on the relative success of their agricultural efforts (Amadiume, 1987). Land was inherited patrilineally, therefore communal developments relied on these male foundations, and individual developments of wives and offspring would be influenced by their underlying possession by men as their husbands and fathers.  Due to their polygamous practices, men were able to have many wives. In this way they were able to gain labor power from their wives’ characteristic industriousness. Female industriousness is stressed in relationship not only to work, but also in communications and oversight of crop production and economy, in particular societies which tend to have an overarching focus and reverence for female deities (Kalu, 1991).

The Igbo case particularly illuminates new aspects of gender by introducing us to what is often referred to as a more “flexible” gender system (Amadiume, 1987), and one that has a dual focus rather than the singular, dominant patriarchy that was introduced by European, monarchy-derived cultures (HodgsonI, II, 1999)(Curry, 1996).

Traditional ties to the land as seen in the case studies of still extant groups of Igbo and Maasai illuminate the ancestral residues of indigenous rituals and relationships to their environment to the degree that specific natural resources have valued meanings for the sexes- therefore creating a gendered association and domain for the groups to practice and regulate their culture.  It is through the particularities and guidelines about these natural resources, that cultural domains for men and women are strengthened and reinforced. These gendered segregations can create a sort of interplay of resources, which acts as a regulating force – in that an actual yam could be seen as a male domain and its relative flourishing then influences how males can perform the rituals and customs associated with such fruit.  In these ways the cultural space that is made by gender roles, is based on the ecological environment that the Igbo and Massai groups are situated within.


All of these groups have been affected by colonization, thus experiencing shifts in politics and economy that weigh heavily in the shifts of their domains of labor, which are traditionally very specifically gendered. Of course as globalization spreads through Africa, all of the neoliberal incentives that have been burrowed into the colonial and post-colonial nations become activated as binding ties to the global, westernized economy and therefore politics.

The available research certainly points to a clear distinction in cultural practices following the onset of colonial rule from various European countries as partitioned in their famous “Scramble for Africa” (Wyckoff et al, 2013). In order to establish imperial control of the existing populations, the colonists had to program systematic means of indoctrination, mostly based on Christianity and other modes of “civilized” life. The brutal study of colonialism is softened by Africans’ having an intelligent and subtle resistance to this oppression which can be seen through their rapid independence movement post-colonization (Wyckoff et al, 2013), allowing some veins of original knowledge to be kept active. The conglomeration of cultures via colonialism developed into somewhat of a hybridized state of cultural values (Hodgson, 1999)(Curry, 1996)(Abbot et al, 2004).

Women and colonization:

British colonialism tended to practice indirect rule, in which the British government had absolute control over the laws in Nigeria, but assigned native leaders from villages, who had authority over the villagers and enforced the colonial rules (Usman 2012).  Often times the people who were assigned as “native authorities” were male.  The British assumed African’s sex and gender system to be the same as theirs, so they believed ‘males’ to be the only candidates for authority (Callaway 1987).  This discrimination created a ruling system dominated by men and was compounded by the belief that women did not have a place in colonization. It was almost as if after first assigning a gender to “women”, the outside forces then made these “women” nonexistent (Callaway 1987).  They became nonexistent because they no longer had a place in traditional authority and there was no “female sphere” into which they could retreat. Separating the sexes and assuming societal position based on a person’s sex enhanced the new gender definitions.  The implementation of indirect rulers would also, continue to reproduce the colonial standards.

Missionaries aided in the production of a gender binary and assumed a place in African societies through institutionalized education.  The patriarchal rhetoric of Christianity enforced the assumptions of binary gender role assignments.  Christian missionaries set up schools in attempts to teach young people Christianity (Oyěwùmí 1997).  The Christian belief that two genders were fixed by sex, manufactured institutionalized lessons on maintaining the sex-linked gender definitions.  Christian missionaries specifically influenced the structure of society by altering family relations.  For example, marriage practices of Yoruba were not in accordance with Christianity, so as missionaries’ began penetrating society, they attempted to change the traditional marriage practices.   One such practice, was that a newcomer who married into a family, would be obliged to marry the next oldest in the family after their first spouse died (Usman 2012).  Effecting change on this and similar practices, the missionaries altered the ability ‘women’ to obtain power since marriage and reproduction were the ways for them to strengthen their position in Yoruba society.

Colonial to Post-Colonial Yoruba:

During the colonization of Yorubaland by Britain and the influence of other outside factors, the delineation of power changed.  When the west assigned gender to individuals according to sex, women had no sphere of influence. There were very few roles women could maintain, that would give them access to power.  This is true because the Yoruba had no place for “women”.  All people had previously had no gender, therefore leadership, authority positions, decision making, productive roles, etc, were by all non-gendered people (Matory 1994).  Non-gendered to western world equated to men.   Because women are seen as the other, or the gendered person (Beauvoir 1953), the male role took over what had been non-gendered roles, leaving these newfound “women” on the outside of society and without a role that would allow them access power.

Gender did not fade out post-colonization (Semley 2011).  The model of male and female genders remains, in large part due to British government and missionaries building gender into their institutions and social structures.  What resulted is that women created a place for themselves in society.  As colonialism caused society to cast women on the outside, women used backdoors to access power and carve out a space for themselves in already formed social structures (McIntosh 2009).

Colonial to Post-Colonial Maasai:

When the Europeans divided the territories of Africa, the redistribution of land, creation of boundaries by fences, and governmental changes (Hodgson I, 1999), forced the Maasai group to change from stable and productive gender domains to the hybridized and irregulated gender modes of the present day(Curry, 1996). Hodgson explains how colonialism taught the Maasai people monetization and commodification, ideologies that greatly affected their barter system and female dominant trade economy (Hodgson I, 1999). These shifts lead to women being demoded of their economic power (Curry 1996), as well as the simultaneous promotion and dis-identification of men (Hodgson I, 1999) (Wangui, 2008). The gendered division of labor in the Maasai was more susceptible to structural colonization adjustments due to the privatization of land (Abbot et al, 2004)(Hodgson I, II, 1999). Politically, most of the power for Maasai has ended up in the hands of men since they have that ingrained ‘nature of external relations and decision-making’ (Willis, 1999).

Colonial changes have mostly pushed women to become secret brunt of labor as the global economic influences shift and require the political and economic attention of men in those important positions of leadership. Similarly to Agrarian societies, commercialization tends to put women into a role as a “hidden farmer”, an idea brought forth in several other pieces on pastoralism and agriculture (Wangui, 2008) (Willis, 1999) (Curry, 1996). “Women now contribute more labor to livestock production than do men” p. 373, although on the other hand, since women are creating such a successful milk market “men, are increasingly becoming involved in the sale of milk” p. 374 (Wangui, 2008).

Colonial to Post-Colonial Igbo:

Colonial changes caused a radical shift for the Igbo, where Amadiume describes- “womens’ agricultural work was rendered virtually ‘invisible’ as a result of male bias in service provision and policy.” P. 7 Women become the secret brunt of labor – as men are called off to duties in other fields (global/urban politics and economics) (Curry, 1996). Therefore, women are found planting yams and “female crops” (Ezumah & Di Domenico, 1995) (Korieh, 2007). Although the opposite could be found as well, where men may become responsible for “female crops” if they are the focus of the subsisting agriculture (Korieh, 2007).

This ideology of maleness and yams was strongly influential in Igbo personal and trade economies until the 20th century, when Cassava became more important (Korieh, 2007). Although this gender shift is deeply controlled by land access, which maintains the patriarchal “dominance” and makes women invisible (Curry, 1996), as the subsistence economy evolves and typically female crops become centralized- therefore either men are doing “women’s work” and less “men’s work” or women are doing “women’s work” but men are getting credit for it as agriculture and the agricultural economy have largely become recognized through cultural changes, as “men’s work”- not only from colonial ideologies but from western and global ideologies as well (Ezumah & Di Domenico, 1995).

Many researchers contribute to the modern idea that female power in agriculture is increasing as the market becomes further commercialized and male attention is drawn to other political and economic matters (Korieh, 2007) (Ezumah & Di Domenico, 1995). Therefore there is a definite association between notions of gender, including the various implications of power and control, and practicalities of culturally relationships to the environment, “there is, then a clear interrelationship between ecological factors, economic production, and gender ideas.” p 30 (Amadiume, 1987).


The focus on these case studies gives anecdotal support to the narrative of colonialism and how it has affected the deep social cultures of these African societies. Through the radical nature of the changes, we can see how notions of gender can be regulated through exchanges and assignments of power. By replacing gender systems that had logical bearing within these societies with a western system, colonialism caused ‘women’ to become defined in opposition to ‘men’ rather than by natural resources as in the Igbo and Maasai cases, or lineage as in the Yoruba case. We see how as gender is created or changed to mock another model of gender, power no longer flows through a system; it becomes inaccessible to those who are put into a gender system with no logical bearing.

The academic works used to support the explorations of gender and power in this essay, provided the anthological evidence for the nature of our research.  They focus on case studies wherein we can observe how gender and power dynamics have transformed via colonization.  Although this blog focuses on three specific cases, it attempts a broader theoretical approach to understanding what tour findings indicate about how the construction of gender can create, limit and change power.  A developmental perspective might have focused more on statistical analysis of the quantities of women and men in positions of power before and after the changes in gender to see the relative economic and political contributions.

As development progresses into an increasingly globalized economy, it seems the deconstruction of not only ecological diversity, but also cultural and structural diversity, pose a threat to the African meaning of gender and its useful value as part of a functioning system. The post-colonial gender roles and their congruency with western values do not reflect what may be healthy for the ecological niche or the cultural styles of Africans and women in particular. This is clear in the evidence cropping up about true production systems and women’s role as the “hidden farmer”. In the case of the Yoruba, it is evident how the introduction of sex-linked gender ideologies has disempowered women and disaggregated the functional dynamics of their social system.


Additional Works:








“Yoruba Traditions and African American Women’s Narratives”

The following link is a video of a lecture given at Villanova by Dr Tracey Hucks.  The lecture is about Yoruba people and traditions.  This is a wonderful source for further information on how the Yoruba live their lives with gender as their organizing system.

“History Book Review: The Church of Women: Gendered Encounters between Maasai and Missionaries”

This video is an audible book review of The Church of Women by Dorothy Hodgson.  This book was referenced in the blog post and is extremely helpful in understanding the Massai case and, even broader, interactions between Africans and missionaries.  This review is a brief overview of the book information; it helps to illuminate the Maasai case.

“Igbo Yam Festival, Igbo Women Dance Troupe”

This video shows a dance from an Igbo Yam Festival.  This is a tradition that stems from the Igbo’s original gender structure that was based around interaction with ecological resources.  This video shows how traditions that are built around the original gender systems are played out today in post-colonial Igboland.


Works Cited: 

Abbot, J., Biran, A., and Mace, R. Families and Firewood: A Comparative Analysis of the Costs and Benefits of Children in Firewood Collection and Use in Two Rural Communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. Human Ecology Vol. 32, No. 1. (Feb 2004) 

Amadiume, Ifi. Male Daughters, Female Husbands. Zed Books, Ltd. (1987) New Jersey 

Bastian, Misty. 2000. “Young Converts: Christian Missions, Gender and Youth in Onitsha, Nigeria 1880-1929. ” Anthropological Quarterly 73

Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex;. New York: Knopf, 1953. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge Publishing, 1990. 256 pp.

Callaway, Helen. Gender, Culture, and Empire: European Women in Colonial Nigeria. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987. Print.

Ezumah, Nkoli N. and Di Domenico, Catherine M. Enhancing the Role of Women in Crop Production: A Case Study of Igbo Women in Nigeria. World Development Vol. 23, No. 10 (1995) pp. 1731-1744 Downloaded as PDF from JSTOR March 2013.

Hodgson, Dorothy L. “Once Intrepid Warriors”: Modernity and the Production of Maasai Masculinities. Ethnology Vol. 38, No. 2 (1999) pp. 121-150

Hodgson, Dorothy L. Pastoralism, Patriarchy, and History: Changing Gender Relations among Maasai in Tanganyika, 1890-1940. The Journal of African History Vol. 40, No. 1 (1999) pp. 41-65

Kalu, Ogbu U. Gender Ideology in Igbo Religion: The Changing Religious Role of Women in Igboland. Africa: Revista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto per l’Africa e l’Oriente Anno 46. No 2 (Giugno 1991) pp. 184-202

Korieh, Chima J. Yam is King! But Cassava us the Mother of all Crops: Farming, Culture, and Identity in Igbo Agrarian Economy. Dialectical Anthropology Vol 31 (2007) pp. 221-232

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, 1994. Print.

McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Yoruba Women, Work, and Social Change. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009. Print.

Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997. Print.

Semley, Lorelle D. Mother Is Gold, Father Is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2011. Print.

Usman, Aribidesi Adisa. The Yoruba Frontier: A Regional History of Community Formation, Experience, and Changes in West Africa. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2012. Print.

“The Yoruba Family.” United Nations University Archive. The United Nations University, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Wangui, Elizabeth E. Development interventions, Changing Livelihoods, and the Making of Female Pastoralists. Agric Hum Values Vol 25 (2008) pp. 365-378

Willis, Justin. Enkurma sikitoi: commoditization, drink and power among the Maasai. International Journal of African Historical Studies Vol. 32, Issue 2-3 (1999)

Wyckoff, W., Martin, L., Price, M., Rowntree, L. Diversity Amid Globalization: World Regions, Environment, and Development. Pearson Education Inc., 2013 pp. 235-237

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