African culture and the status of Women: the Yoruba example.

Author:Familusi, O.O.


Discourse on the rights of women in Africa has been a major focus of contemporary scholarship in Africa. Many scholars of feminist studies have been largely unanimous that aspects of African culture are hostile to women, hence the need for a paradigm shift so that the supposed hitherto marginalised woman will be emancipated, this paper discusses the right of African women in a Yoruba context with emphasis placed on two divides of culture as possible agents of women oppression and therefore, its relevance in promoting rights of women. Hence, this is a way of correcting misconception about culture in relation to the gender question.

Culture has been variously defined; it is understood as a way of life of a people. Thus, culture is made up the customs, traditions, beliefs, behaviour, dress, language, works of art and craft, attitude to life among others, which varies from society to society and suggests that cultural values are largely relative. And similarly, E.B. Tylor has acceptingly defined culture as "That complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habit acquired by man as a member of society". (Edo 2005:2)

The Woman in Yoruba Culture

The Yoruba people predominantly belong to the Oyo, Ogun, Ondo, Osun, Ekiti and Lagos States. Theyequally formparts of Edo, Kwara and Kogi states; (Awolalu and Dopamu1979:3) and some parts ofRepublic of Benin and Togo. The question of their origin is debatableand in the present state of knowledge,not much is categorically known about it. (Idowu 1996:4) However,two different answers are found in oral traditions.The first holds that their founding fathers were immigrants from a northern source variously identified as Egyppt,Meroe,Yemen or Arabia while it is claimed in the second body of traditions that Ile-Ife was the the first habitable place created on earth,from which all earthly creation began.For this reason,Ile-Ife is referred to as the cradle of the Yoruba race. (Akintoye2004:1) In this paper, emphasis is on the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The Yoruba nation like many other African societies is essentially patriarchal; hence men are understood to be more privileged than women. Such a society is described by (Ubrurhe 1999:82) as that which is characterized by male super ordination and female subordination. Men show superiority over their women counterparts, who are usually relegated to the background. Therefore, socially, politically, economically and religiously women are to a very large extent, disadvantaged since decision were taken mostly by women the males. This has consistently manifested in various way as shall be established in this section. According to Adetunji, (2001 :106) the cultural and gender problem, which African women have been facing dates back to their birth as in many homes the birth of a baby girl does not receive the kind of enthusiastic reception that is usually given to that of a baby boy. Thus is somebody is treated with inferiority right from birth, it may be difficult for such a person not to be perpetually caught in the web of such a treatment. Olabode (2009:136) is also affirmative that:

Immediately a child is born, the question that will be posed will centre on sex, not minding of health of the mother. If the baby is a female, the mother will be scolded and treated as a lazy, good for nothing woman. On the other hand if the child is a male, praise will be showered on the mother, not considering the fact that Biology has shown that it is the father who determines the sex of an offspring.

Oduyoye 's view is that African culture is replete with language that enables the community to diminish the humanity of women.(Oduyoye 2001:3) While Akintunde believes that African culture has been a long tale of discrimination and injustice to women as there has not been equity in the opportunity, dignity and power between men and women. Her reason is that there are various aspects of African culture which restrict them from attaining equal status with men. (Akintunde 1999:74) This is often the story of Yoruba women. Let us discuss manifestation of gender discrimination in Yoruba culture one after the other.


Inheritance as a cultural practice among the Yoruba is not women friendly. Traditionally the issue of will was non- existent. Thus after the burial of the deceased, the oracle was consulted to fix a time for the sharing of the property (human -wives, offices and material). Sharing of offices is male centred as women cannot be made the head of the family. No matter how young a male child is, he is superior to female children in this regard no matter how old they may be. However, it is not impossibility for female children to inherit property especially when they are single, but this is not always the case for married women because of the belief that they in their entirety belong to their husbands. Of course, it is not dignifying for a married woman to claim any right regarding inheriting her father's property. What obtains in Igbo land is more hostile to women as they do not have any right to inherit anything from their fathers. (Oke 2001:52) If a man dies without having a son, his belongings go to his brother or uncle, and his name is believed to have been lost. This is why having a male child in the area is sacrosanct and the relevance of the name Ahamefula- My name is not lost.1Hence, it important to note that while a woman may not inherit, she could be inherited, thus, traditionally wives of the deceased were part of his property. In such a situation, she could be inherited by somebody too old for her or somebody who may be younger than her own son.

Proverbs and Taboos

Proverb is defined as a concise statement, in general use, expressing a shrewd perception about everyday life or a universally recognized truth. Most proverbs are rooted in folklore and have been preserved by oral tradition. (Encarta 2009) A proverb is a short sentence usually, usually known by many people, stating something commonly experienced or giving advice. (Tiamiyu and Olaleye 2009:116). Proverbs are very significant in traditional Africa, hence the saying among the Yoruba Owe lesin oro , oro lesin owe; ti oro ba sonu owe la fin nwa - meaning A proverb is a guide to a word and a word is a guide to a proverb; when a word is lost, a proverb is used to find it. Corroborating this Achebe 1986:5 says that "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten." They are intimately related to culture of a people and they address themselves to many themes and areas of knowledge. Also they are collections of wisdom of people and they carry authority in respect of social relationship. (Olabode 2009:131)

As relevant as proverbs are in Yoruba society, they are used to portray women as less important and immoral entity. The following proverbs and their explanation will lend credence to this claim. Owu ti iya gbon lomo n ran. The attitudes of the mother are emulated by her offspring. This proverb is related to conduct or behaviour. In this case the mother is seen as immoral and ill-mannered; and every bad behave child takes after her and summarily belong to her. The father is exonerated as good children belong to him and he is always proud of such children. Hence the saying "Omo to dara nim ti baba eyi ti ko dara niti iya" a well behaved child belongs to the mother and vice versa. The reservation men have about a bad child could be expressed beyond proportion as they could disown him or her and accuse the mother of unconfirmed case of adultery. Another proverb that expresses women being disadvantaged is Ai lokurin nile lobinrin njogun ada--the absence of male affords a female the opportunity of inheriting a...

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