Equality or complementarity: Gender relations seen through African eyes

by Eucharia Madueke


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Among people of traditional culture in southeastern Nigeria where I am from, and in other traditional African cultures, gender is not a fundamental organizing principle. Nor is human anatomy a major defining factor in gender relations.

People here believe that being a man or a woman is generally irrelevant to individuals’ social roles and relationships. Rather, they perceive the individuals’ social power, as well as social role, as dependent mostly on age and seniority, position at birth, and their contributions to family and community development. The community recognizes anatomic female and male categories, but they are not a defining factor for social roles.

For that reason, the local language lacks gender discriminatory words. Individuals, man or woman, are referred to as mmadu, “the beauty of life,” instead of he or she. In fact, in this community, gender categories are neither opposite nor antagonistic.

These complex and unique social relations are rooted in the African cosmology of duality and partnership, rather than equality. My own narrative highlights a society with a fluid and flexible gender system that is always negotiating and balancing power among genders to ensure peaceful co-existence and full participation of individuals. Perhaps the world community at large has something to learn from this society?

The institution of marriage among the southeastern Nigerian community allows gender flexibility; one individual of a particular gender category can play the role of the other in a particular situation and yet another gender in another situation. This fluidity is especially evident in the cultural practice of the people where being a wife to one member of the family means being a wife to all members of that family, regardless of their gender.

In the tradition, a woman married into a family becomes nwanye anyi, “our wife,” to both male and female members of the family. In this case, my uncle’s wife, my brothers’ wives, and all women married into my immediate and extended families are my wives and I their husband. On the other hand, while the married women are nwunye anyi, “our wives,” in the family of their marriages, they are “husbands” to women married into their own families. 

It is important to note that such marriage relationships do not include or even allow sexual activities between the individuals, but are rather an expression of affection and welcome into the family – assurance of family integration, care, and protection for the new-comer.

Growing up in this community, I learned very early in life that all women married into my family and kindred are my wives and I am their husband. Accepting this notion, I act towards these women with respect, ensuring that they have equal rights in the family, as well as ensuring that their well-being is maintained. Every time I go home with little gifts such as soaps, body cream or clothing for “my wives,” I get songs of praise for these small kindnesses, songs that often motivate me to do more when possible for these women.

Another cultural marriage practice worth noting in this community is the longstanding traditional institution of male daughters and female husbands. This cultural practice, which is also practiced across African traditional society such as among the Kikuyu people of Kenya and hosts of other African societies, provides an illuminating insight into the complex gender relations and social roles in these African communities. Here, society allows women, especially barren women, widows or women without a male child, to marry a younger woman for the purpose of child bearing only.

It is also a common and acceptable practice among the people to accord a daughter the status of a son, allowing the daughter to perform the male role in a family without male children. A few years ago, my late uncle’s daughter, Adaku, married a young woman, Nnena, as my uncle had no male child to continue his linage. Following the community rituals, Adaku adopted the status of a male child and was allowed by the community to marry another woman to enable her to continue her father’s linage. Today my cousin Adaku is considered legally married to Nnena, and the children of this marriage – even though their biological father(s) are unknown to the community – have all due entitlement as members of my family, kindred and the larger community.

As a caveat, in southeastern Nigerian society and in most African communities, sexual pressure, sexual relations and behaviors are secondary in marriage, discussed behind closed doors. Also public expression of sexual affection is mostly unacceptable. What defines the marriage relations and in fact, the core of marriage, are the begetting of children and raising them for the continuity of family lineage, the integrating of the individuals into the family and community circles, and the performance of social roles. It is to be noted, too, that in this community the knowledge of the biological father is immaterial; the community believes that the children are given to the community and must be welcomed by the community irrespective of the knowledge of their biological fathers.

Gender and power

Social power and authority are believed to be gifts of God to virtuous individuals, irrespective of gender. For this reason, power and authority, whether political or religious, are not limited to a particular gender groups; rather social power is always negotiated and balanced among genders.

For example, in family and kindred decision-making and conflict settlement, both male and female genders, the adas (“the first daughters”) and the okpalas (“the first sons”) in the family play key and complementary roles. As first daughter of the family of six (I have four older brothers and a sister), I and my eldest brother have the family mandate to have final say in family matters, and both of us are simultaneously and always consulted; our consent is sought before the conclusion of any important family decision.

The power and authority attached to being the first daughter or first son of the family are often taken seriously by both the individuals and family members. It is indicative of peoples’ belief that power and authority are given to both man and woman and that God places man and women in a particular position of authority and power, with the expectation that through these, the society continues to negotiate and balance power mutually among gender categories.

A further area of gender negotiation and balancing is in their kinship relationship. The community is mostly a male focused one, meaning that descent is traced from the father. However, the mother is the reference point for siblings’ relationships.

It is often said in economics that whoever runs the market rules and controls the economy. Among the southeastern Nigerian people, agriculture is the major economic activity of the people, and women are the economic engine of the society. They are chief farmers and producers of food and they dominate trade in agricultural produce. As chief farmers, women control whatever is planted and influence production, yet, even though they are key famers, controlling what is produced, and deciding market prices, they do not own land, the major capital of production. This is because the community believes that God entrusted land to the community of men and women.

Family lineage is traced through the fathers, and the family lands are placed in the special care of the male gender by the people to ensure that this capital remains within the community. Entrusting community and family land to the male gender would seem to limit women’s access to land or capital of production; however, as wives and mothers, women have access to family land. They also have the authority as wives and mothers to decide what is planted in the land and how land is to be used. It is to be noted that when community land is violated, both genders are involved and responsible for the cleansing and restoring of land’s purity.

My narrative is drawn from a traditional culture that recognizes gender differences and roles, but is not trapped or limited by human sexuality and anatomic gender differences in its social relations. It highlights a society where what you sense overrides what you see.

This way of social relations created a stability and progressive traditional society. Openness to understanding its deeper values could help hone social relations within a community and the world community at large, creating a more stable pattern of human activities.

[Eucharia Madueke is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur completing doctoral studies in Development and Public Policy in the department of African Studies at Howard University, Washington D.C. A Nigerian and a social worker, she is happy to introduce us the intricacies of Nigerian Family relationships to a wider audience.]