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Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society

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Challenging the received orthodoxies of social anthropology, Ifi Amadiume argues that in precolonial society, sex and gender did not necessarily coincide. Examining the structures that enabled women to achieve power, she shows that roles were neither rigidly masculinized nor feminized. Economic changes in colonial times undermined women’s status and reduced their political Challenging the received orthodoxies of social anthropology, Ifi Amadiume argues that in precolonial society, sex and gender did not necessarily coincide. Examining the structures that enabled women to achieve power, she shows that roles were neither rigidly masculinized nor feminized. Economic changes in colonial times undermined women’s status and reduced their political role and Dr Amadiume maintains, patriarchal tendencies introduced by colonialism persist today, to the detriment of women.Critical of the chauvinist stereotypes established by colonial anthropology, the author stresses the importance of recognizing women’s economic activities as as essential basis of their power. She is also critical of those western feminists who, when relating to African women, tend to accept the same outmoded projections.


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Challenging the received orthodoxies of social anthropology, Ifi Amadiume argues that in precolonial society, sex and gender did not necessarily coincide. Examining the structures that enabled women to achieve power, she shows that roles were neither rigidly masculinized nor feminized. Economic changes in colonial times undermined women’s status and reduced their political Challenging the received orthodoxies of social anthropology, Ifi Amadiume argues that in precolonial society, sex and gender did not necessarily coincide. Examining the structures that enabled women to achieve power, she shows that roles were neither rigidly masculinized nor feminized. Economic changes in colonial times undermined women’s status and reduced their political role and Dr Amadiume maintains, patriarchal tendencies introduced by colonialism persist today, to the detriment of women.Critical of the chauvinist stereotypes established by colonial anthropology, the author stresses the importance of recognizing women’s economic activities as as essential basis of their power. She is also critical of those western feminists who, when relating to African women, tend to accept the same outmoded projections.

30 review for Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society

  1. 4 out of 5

    Cameron Sant

    I bought Male Daughters, Female Husbands on the title alone, expecting it to be an anthropological study discussing how an indigenous society had made space and roles for queer people. I was very wrong. Instead, Ifi Amadiune presents a brilliant study of how the Nnobi of Nigeria made space and roles for women, and how the Christian patriarchy took those roles away. Amadiune challenges her fellow anthropologists and western feminists about their assumptions about African societies. (Namely, that c I bought Male Daughters, Female Husbands on the title alone, expecting it to be an anthropological study discussing how an indigenous society had made space and roles for queer people. I was very wrong. Instead, Ifi Amadiune presents a brilliant study of how the Nnobi of Nigeria made space and roles for women, and how the Christian patriarchy took those roles away. Amadiune challenges her fellow anthropologists and western feminists about their assumptions about African societies. (Namely, that colonialism helped African women get out from under the thumb of bad African men, yet they still need western feminists to save them further. Amadiune clearly demonstrates how neither of these things are true and how these kinds of simplified views of any indigenous society are steeped in racism.) This book is simultaneously scholarly and readable (a feat for scholarship! I'm looking at you, Judith Butler) and occasionally even funny. 28 years after its publication, even though some of the local political events detailed are now long in the past, the big issues aren't dated at all, and Amadiune's big ideas about colonialism, feminism, racism, and religion are still (tragically) relevant for the world at large. The book's only detriment is there's one type of women Amadiune isn't really interested in advocating for: lesbian/bisexual/queer women. In the introduction, Amadiune derides lesbian western black women (namely, the great Audre Lorde) for looking to women-to-women marriages in Nnobi and elsewhere in Igboland as sources of lesbian history. Though Amadiune is sympathetic with their search for their African roots, she argues that these marriages aren't LBQ, and are the result of a complex social system which these western women are imposing their identities on. This is legitimate, and something western LGBTQ people need to learn to pipe down about. We love to point to indigenous societies and point at the Christian church and say "Hey, look, these people would have accepted us, you ruined everything!" However, when we make these arguments, all we're doing is making assumptions about societies we don't understand in order to prove our points to other western people, which is straight-up cultural appropriation. (If I hear one more argument about the ancient Greeks being great and accepting, I swear--those people hated all women and their only accepted model of queerness was pedophilic men. Calm down people.) However, in this quote, Amadiune's dismissive tone implies that queer women do not exist in Nnobi at all. (She finds ideas like Lorde's "shocking and offensive to Nnobi women" "there is a limit to how far facts can be bent or our own wishes and fantasies imposed") I've seen these quotes extrapolated by internet commenters to argue that queer people do not exist in the entirety of Africa, which I find alarming. (Queer women come up directly once more in the book: A woman, whose female husband is dead, drunkenly jokes that she isn't getting any, and another woman jokes that she will satisfy her later. Amadiune witnessed this conversation and presents it neutrally, though the details about the joking and the drinking make me wonder.) There is so much here that Amadiune is saying that is really important that I don't want people to strike down the book based on a paragraph in the preface. This book was written in 1987, when it was still in vogue to loudly hate queers (at least) in the western world. I hope that in the 28 years since, Amadiune has come around and become an ally.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mia

    Read for my Anthropology of Gender class. This is an incredibly thorough ethnography that traces the history, colonisation, and modern traditions of a small area in Nigeria. Amadiume doesn’t just reclaim, explain, and evaluate the customs of the Igbo people from the town where she was born, she also demonstrates the long history of how colonialism has distorted, misconstrued, and tried to erase them. It makes me wonder how many indigenous religions we’ve completely lost due to the efforts of col Read for my Anthropology of Gender class. This is an incredibly thorough ethnography that traces the history, colonisation, and modern traditions of a small area in Nigeria. Amadiume doesn’t just reclaim, explain, and evaluate the customs of the Igbo people from the town where she was born, she also demonstrates the long history of how colonialism has distorted, misconstrued, and tried to erase them. It makes me wonder how many indigenous religions we’ve completely lost due to the efforts of colonisation trying to either mould them to the “White Christian ideal” or wipe them out completely. It’s a sad thought, but I’m still glad Ifi Amadiume is here to speak for herself, taking back the fierce power of anthropology from those who would use it for ill.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Chino

    This is one of those books where you literally need to have discussions with other (like minded) people (well at least for me). You need to be actively decolonizing your mind and desist from using the western lens when reading this book. I love that she presents the facts and its up to the reader to decide what they want to do with it or how to proceed further, and even better, the facts she presents are thought provoking. I also appreciate the fact that she has a list of questions or prompts wh This is one of those books where you literally need to have discussions with other (like minded) people (well at least for me). You need to be actively decolonizing your mind and desist from using the western lens when reading this book. I love that she presents the facts and its up to the reader to decide what they want to do with it or how to proceed further, and even better, the facts she presents are thought provoking. I also appreciate the fact that she has a list of questions or prompts where further research can be done on this subject. The part that made my heart really happy was when she started talking about what really needs to happen in the then modern day Nigerian society. I couldn't help but notice that her solutions/advice were in line with Sankara's speech/book on "Women's Liberation and the African freedom struggle", this made me so glad. "In my opinion, any organization truly committed to the achievement of economic and social justice for women must be guided by a socialist ideology".

  4. 5 out of 5

    Clivemichael

    Intense study, academically focused and illustrated with the author's numerous personal observations and editorial reflections of previous similar studies. Well described review of the deterioration of female authority within Nigerian Igbo culture. Intense study, academically focused and illustrated with the author's numerous personal observations and editorial reflections of previous similar studies. Well described review of the deterioration of female authority within Nigerian Igbo culture.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lulu Cao

    In this book, Amadiume provides vivid details on how myths, ecology, and division of labor have created a flexible gender system in the traditional Nnobi society in Nigeria. One manifestation of the flexibility of this gender system is in the special roles of male daughters and female husbands. In Nnobi, women don't have the right to own the land and only male descendants can inherit the land from previous generations. But in some rare cases, daughters can inherit the land in the absence of a so In this book, Amadiume provides vivid details on how myths, ecology, and division of labor have created a flexible gender system in the traditional Nnobi society in Nigeria. One manifestation of the flexibility of this gender system is in the special roles of male daughters and female husbands. In Nnobi, women don't have the right to own the land and only male descendants can inherit the land from previous generations. But in some rare cases, daughters can inherit the land in the absence of a son. As this position is deemed to belong to men, these daughters are given full male status and called male daughters. Thus, there is a possibility for females to play males' roles. Female husbands refer to a male's wife, who has bought another woman as her wife. In Chapter 2, Amadiume talks about the possibility of woman-to-woman marriage thanks to the flexibility of the Knobi gender system. A female from another town came to a Knobi wife. The Knobi wife might find a male husband for this female but adopt the role of her mother and claim her service, or let her stay and work directly as her wife. In the latter case, the Knobi wife becomes her female husband. Amadiume distinguishes this practice from lesbianism (see Preface; many people criticize Amadiume for holding an adversarial attitude towards lesbians based on her remark here). The Knobi wife's purchase of another wife, according to Amadiume, is like purchasing a slave or a worker (CH2). These two manifestations, in my view, can be put in doubt. As Amadiume says, male daughters only happen in rare cases. It is not clear that the gender system can be said to be "flexible" due to some exceptional cases. Similarly with female husbands. As the commonality of these roles is unaddressed, more evidence is needed to prove the "flexibility". As this book is titled Male Daughters, Female Husbands, I thought these two roles would be the main justifications. Amadiume does provide other evidence. In a Nnobi family, she says, wives have access to land (though not ownership). Wives grow different kinds of food, market and sell them, and keep their profits. Some wives become much more wealthy and powerful than their husbands and their husbands are referred to as their husbands, rather than being referred to in their own names. However, the thread still seems to be patriarchal, as wives have to rely on their male husbands to access the land. Males have to be their original source of wealth and power. In Chapter 13, Amadiume concludes that Nnobi is a matriarchal society that is connected with motherliness and love. My friends comment that, however, previous chapters have addressed this point far from enough for Amadiume to conclude this point. In this book, Amadiume makes contributions in revising feminism. For example, she criticizes the basic assumption under white feminism that claims that society becomes gendered due to different functionality that men and women perform with regard to reproduction. According to that view, women are occupied with child-rearing and become subordinated to men who are responsible for subsistence. Amadiume argues instead that in Africa, women contribute more in subsistence and gain power by their household management. In the traditional Nnobi society in Africa, there is a dual-sex political system where both women and men have political power. But colonialism breaks the balance, bringing a rigid gender ideology. Thereby local men successfully marginalized women in politics. Amadiume suggests that there should be equal numbers of women and men in Nnobi political institutions (CH13). Without knowing the proportion of different genders and other specifics, I would not evaluate whether this suggestion for a straightforward divide is justified. My friend also comments that many factors play a role in deciding the representatives' number. Female identity does not make a woman fight for women's interests. Some women might care about transgender issues, while others might defend males' interests. But an equal number could be a good starting point. Amadiume suggests that women outside this area should not intervene with local reforms unless invited. Both of these suggestions look dictatorial. But Amadiume does provide some reasons for readers to believe that she can provide an objective account while being a Nnobi daughter (see note 1 in CH1). I do think outsiders should pay their respect to Amadiume's work and advice, given how invasive previous scholars are in studying African society. Besides, Amadiume is a socialist and she advocates for a socialist society in Nnobi. This might be an interesting point for me to come back to in the future.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Anekwe Obinna U

    Very very informative

  7. 5 out of 5

    Luke

    fascinating & saddening - though very technically written

  8. 4 out of 5

    Eurethius Péllitièr

    A brilliant and informative read. While the book is written like a research paper it reveals raw distinctions between gender perceptions that are alternatives to biological essentialism

  9. 4 out of 5

    Maggie

    I love being forced to read ethnographies for religion classes.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Michaela

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Miller

  12. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

  13. 4 out of 5

    Luz

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay

  15. 5 out of 5

    Kere

  16. 4 out of 5

    karineyn

  17. 4 out of 5

    Igor

  18. 5 out of 5

    Shira and Ari Evergreen

  19. 4 out of 5

    Grâce

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lira

  21. 4 out of 5

    M.E. Rolle

  22. 4 out of 5

    kirkhusa

  23. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Fox

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nick Fortna

  26. 5 out of 5

    Motaz Larnaouti

  27. 4 out of 5

    alise

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jan Brasching

  29. 4 out of 5

    Meli

  30. 5 out of 5

    Zoe

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