22. Women Have No Tribe: Gender in African Tradition

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What archeology, ethnography, and philosophical interpretation tell us about the diverse and often ambiguous roles of men and women in traditional African societies.



Further Reading

• I. Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: 1987).

• I. Amadiume, Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion and Culture (New York: 1997).

• A. Cornwall (ed.), Readings in Gender in Africa (Bloomington: 2005).

• C.A. Diop, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: the Domains of Patriarchy and of Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity (London: 1989, orig. pub. Paris: 1963).

• S. Kent, Gender in African Prehistory (Walnut Creek: 1998).

• O. Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: 1997).

• J.D.Y. Peel, “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change,” Journal of Religion in Africa 32 (2002), 136-66.

• J.B. Shetler (ed.), Gendering Ethnicity in African Women’s Lives (Madison: 2015).

• B. Wambui, “Conversations: Women, Children, Goats, Land,” in C. Jeffers (ed.), Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy (Albany: 2013).


Thomas Mirus on 18 February 2019

Cheikh Anta Diop rang a bell.

Cheikh Anta Diop rang a bell. It's the name of one of the tracks of a CD I have by the Senegalese master drummer Doudou N'Diaye Rose.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thomas Mirus on 2 March 2019

True story: I had a

True story: I had a Senegalese Uber driver in NYC a couple years ago who told me she grew up next door to Rose in Dakar and had a few drum lessons with him. Small world these days.

Xavier Young on 13 June 2024

Gender and Gender Roles

When you were discussing the idea that some African cultures had a social arrangement of female husbands and male daughters, and you made the comment that in these societies a woman according to body could become a man according to gender, do you see any difference between the terms 'gender' and 'gender roles'? If so, what is it?


Because it seemed to me that those situations mentioned in the episode would seem far less earth shaking to a mid century European if they were phrased not as "woman can become men in pre-colonial African societies" and were phrased instead as "in pre-colonial African society women could perform a variety of social roles".

In reply to by Xavier Young

Peter Adamson on 13 June 2024


Yes that's a good point. In general I would follow the now widely accepted distinction between biological sex and gender, the latter being a matter of social construction. So by that understanding "gender" pretty much equates to "gender roles." I think you're right that this is the level on which we need to understand the phenomena discussed in this episode, but it is still noteworthy (if not earth shaking) that gender roles were considered to be so fluid, since I think we tend to assume that a gender dichotomy would be much more rigorously enforced in "traditional" societies.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Andrew on 13 June 2024

Gender and sex

Gender and gender roles are different though. Consider a relationship with a stay at home dad and a working mom. Is the dad somehow now a women, just by taking on what is traditionally a women's role? Vice versa question for the mom. So gender can't just be reduced to roles that people take on.

Also, by widely accepted, do you mean among the general public, or in academia? If the latter, that isn't really true. Lots of feminist and queer theorists have views that, if not deny, then at least complicate that distinction. The biggest example that comes to mind is Judith Butler, who believes that sex just as well is socially constructed. This isn't a "denial of biology", as most think it is, but, to quote the SEP, that in as far as we take the material body to be the foundation for gender, we socially construct the body as if it does provide that foundation, if that makes sense. Ásta, to use another example, while not collapsing the distinction, argues that both sex and gender are conferred properties. Sex is conferred by legal institutions to track what are considered sex-stereotypical characteristics. The least boat shaking view, while still complicating the distinction a bit, is from Fausto-Sterling, who makes the point which seems obvious after it is pointed out is that we shape our bodies in various ways according to cultural and societal practice. Think of diet, exercise etc. So some things we take to be examples of secondary sex characteristics might just be the outcome of these differing social practices, like difference in strength, size, bone strength etc (as a side note, I kind of see this as the bodily flip side of old feminist arguments about the intelligence of women and the need of education). In any case, it is hard to separate sex, or what we understand as sex, from society.

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