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Gender Roles Explored

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

The erroneous belief that the values and traditions of the Igbo are organized into a framework that explicitly preaches and promotes the subjugation and disenfranchisement of females from power, politics, religion, commerce, and other facets of society is detrimental to the integrity of our culture and can only be amended through education. The common pre-European configuration of our society employed a relationship in which both genders stood symmetrically on a plane, each having its share of responsibilities and areas in which it enjoyed considerable dominance. However, the late 19th century intrusion of Westerners and their foreign ideologies and creeds regarding the “correct” nature of relations between the genders resulted in nearly a century of disempowerment for women, which in-turn contributed to the birth of many of the following misconceptions.

“Igbo society is completely patrilineal”

Although most pre-colonial Igbo societies were patrilineal, there were—and to this day still are—communities and regions that trace descent on the basis of the matrilineage or dual descent. In the eastern region of Igboland, in places such Ohafia and Afikpo, women are traditionally the sole inheritors of land and property and descent is traced via the matrilineage. In order to ensure that wealth remains firmly within the matrilineage, groups in this area are primarily endogamous and prefer to marry amongst themselves. “Same-sex relations never existed”

Same-sex relations between females are nothing new to the Igbo. The practice of female-husbandry has been an age-old norm, which although declining in popularity due to Western and Christian influences, is still practiced in remote areas to this day. Unlike lesbianism, Igbo female-husbandry does not involve any romance, attraction, or sexual relations between the parties involved. It is simply a social contract in which a usually older or wealthier woman—due to pressures such as barrenness or childlessness—would perform marital rites on behalf of a younger girl and legally marry her as would a man. The young bride would then be impregnated by the woman’s husband (if she were married) or by an outsider in order to provide children which she would take as her own. “Males are traditionally regarded as superior to females”

If anything, there is enough evidence to suggest the reverse. The most popular and most important deity in Igbo spirituality, Ala—who also goes by ‘Ali’, ‘Ani’, and ‘Ana’—is female. As the nurturer of all living things and the very earth upon which we stand, all life and civilization is made possible through her. River deities as such as Orashi, Idemili,and Njaba, who provided water for drinking, bathing, and transportation, are all female as well. Being egalitarian, pre-colonial Igbo society valued individual achievement rather than emphasizing one’s biological sex as a basis of judgement. As a result, well-accomplished females often grew as powerful as their male counterparts.

The roles of both genders are not rigid and can be malleable if need be. In families in which no male heirs are present, a daughter could assume the position of a “female son” in order to give birth to male offspring and further the patrilineage. She would inherit all of her father’s property and enjoy all of the privileges a traditional okpara, or first-son, would.

In the 20th century, the advent of British Victorianism, which essentially professed that women were too fragile for anything other than Bible-reading, sewing, and other domestic duties, totally excluded Igbo women from the new colonial structure, and at the same time, destroyed many of the traditional institutions that upheld women’s rights. With a complete lack of regard for native traditions that were already in place, all-male court systems were established and warrant chiefs—men who were given immense colonial jurisdiction—made an imbalance of power in Igbo village assemblies.

As boys were sent to school in great numbers, girls were often encouraged to pick up domestic trades (like their European counterparts), while even the few who did manage to get an education were advised to study “soft” sciences and leave stressful studies such as engineering, science, politics, and business for men. #igbohistory


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