Literature Review: Yorubas don’t do gender

Tunde Owolabi

The African narrative on gender has been largely distilled from Europe and American experiences, rooted profoundly in Western literature and theoretical concepts. Often the West is considered as the primary source of knowledge, subsequently aligning world cultures, concepts, neuroses and institutions accordingly to the latter source; seldom are Africans the experts of their own realities. Oyewumi presents the inherent problems with western feminist conceptualizations of the African household, arguing the necessity to transcend these confines of gender.


 This literature review contemplates the theory of the ‘absence of gender’ according to Oyeronke Oyewumi’s study of the Oyo-Yorubas, an ethnic group of Nigeria, predominantly situated in Southwest Nigeria. She expounds the theory of kinship as means of defining hierarchical and power relations, thus economic, social and political disparities of the household are intrinsic to age order, rather than the common rule of gender. Essentially, Oyewumi, a Nigerian feminist scholar, debates the contrasting relationship between gendered definitions deriving from the West and the gendered narrative of the African continent. Oyewumi also presents the western mainstream paradigm often applied to the African context, and the implications of universalizing western gender, rendering African realities a sub-category of the ‘Euro/American culture’ and thus Africans remain ‘unknowing’ of their own truths.


Oyewumi confronts the Euro-American hegemonic ideals scattered throughout the African continent- this being the traditional nuclear family and the biological anatomy being the source of difference between their status and other attendant factors by which men and women are differentiated, such as economic, social and political discrimination. Instead, Oyewumi realises an alternative structure in understanding the African household. Gender thus becomes devoid; rather seniority according to chronological age order asserts power distinctions and roles, ‘seniority 'cuts through the distinctions of wealth, of rank, and of sex'. (1)


Oyewumi proposes that Yoruba linguistics are incredibly important in removing gender from the Oyo-Yorubas, the Yoruba language itself indicating the absence of gendered ascriptions. For example, “Within the Yoruba family, omo the word for child is best translated as offspring. There are no single words denoting girl or boy in the first instance. With regard to the categories husband and wife, within the family the category oko, which is usually glossed as the English husband, is non-gender-specific because it encompasses both males and females”. As demonstrated in the Yoruba language there is no difference between a boy and a girl, there is only offspring, in contrast to western languages.


Bibi Bakare Yusuf perceives Oyewumi’s references to language and their denotations as ‘ultimately motivated by a desire to assert the radical Otherness of African culture in relation to European. Yusuf goes on to critique Oyewumi’s theory as alluding to a produce of ‘indigenous knowledge’, the negation of gender in the Yoruba culture, as solely a means of ‘excavating’ one’s own ‘logic of practice’, in order to find a purity or authenticity in the Yoruba context. In spite of the latter, Oyewumi informs readers of a concept largely existing in African realities. Seniority in age is in fact a necessary approach to understanding the Yoruba family structure. Not, however, explicitly as Oyewumi proposes.


Western gendered categories are intrinsic to the nature of men and women and exist in opposing formats (2) in which the male is superior and the female his subordinate. Oyewumi refutes the aforementioned as a category pertaining to the African household. In fact, she states it is ‘alien’ to the majority of African cultures. Paradoxically, Yusuf denounces the claim of the absence of gender and the centrality of seniority as an organising principle. Yusuf summarises Oyewumi’s piece as such: a) there is no mark of gender in the Yoruba language (whereas seniority is linguistically marked and is therefore an essential component of Yoruba identity); and b) Yoruba social institutions and practices do not make social distinctions in terms of anatomical difference.


Regardless of the criticism Yusuf has given of Oyewumi’s project, she nonetheless affirms that seniority should be taken seriously and explored further in order to comprehensively gauge the depth to which seniority plays a role in the African dynamic.  Although Oyewumi makes problematic assumptions of the relation between language and power, it remains a mechanism in understanding the African cultural fabric as language is profoundly recognised as a cultural layer in the African context. The Yoruba’s attribute identity with language is found in names for example, which partly compose one’s identity.


Oyewumi however, needs to explore the ways in which gender inequalities may still exist despite its absence in discourse. Yusuf concludes with the need to ‘reject outright any attempt to assign a particular conceptual category as belonging only to the “West” and therefore inapplicable to the African situation. For millennia, Africa has been part of Europe as Europe has been part of Africa and out of this relation, a whole series of borrowed traditions from both sides have been and continue to be brewed and fermented.”(4)


Both Oyewumi and Yusuf make valid points. However, there is a lack of practicality in their claims; there should perhaps be an exploration of gender outside of speech and a more pragmatic insight into how the household runs according to gender or seniority. A more vivid image needs to be painted in order to effectively communicate their theoretical concepts.



Kaleke Kolawole


AEFJN Gender Policy Intern 




Oyeronke Oyewumi, 2002, "Conceptualizing Gender: the Eurocentric Foundations of Feminist Concepts and the Challenge of African Epistemologies"



Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, “Youruba’s Don’t Do Gender: a critical review of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s: The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses"






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