Because gender is a social construct, it’s important to consider how and why it was ever constructed. Oyeronke Oyewumi takes on that task with the example of Yorubaland, which was genderless before western colonization. Individuals were not seen as woman or man in terms of personhood. The only distinctions that related to biological sex was a specific reference to reproduction. Otherwise, social hierarchy was all about lineage and age, so people’s identities weren’t locked into any permanent dichotomies. Institutions such as marriage and education and politics only became gendered during colonization. That process was racist and sexist at the same time.
In this context, Oyewumi finds that topics like “the study of Yoruba women” often misrepresent the nuances of the culture. Her close readings of pre-colonial, colonial, and present day Yorubaland examine the impact westernization has on African history as well as the African psyche. Christian missionaries and British schools projected western values onto Africans who simply had a different worldview. Even translating the language into English turns their word for “leader” into “king.” Now you write down the history (which had an oral tradition) imagining that all the leaders were always men. Oyewumi deconstructs gender discourse like that with ease. This book makes you see difference differently.
Best line: “The importance of language cannot be overemphasized as a code for transmitting or interpreting perceptions and values enframing otherwise factual information.”
-Rachel Wagner 2020