SOC 326 Arizona State University The Invention of a Woman Reading Summaries


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Ethics Forum: September 11 and Ethnographic Responsibility
Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
Anthropological Reflections on Cultural
Relativism and Its Others
ABSTRACT This article explores the ethics of the current “War on Terrorism, asking whether anthropology, the discipline devoted
to understanding and dealing with cultural difference, can provide us with critical purchase on the justifications made for American
intervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women. I look first at the dangers of reifying culture, apparent in
the tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics. Then, calling attention
to the resonances of contemporary discourses on equality, freedom, and rights with earlier colonial and missionary rhetoric on Muslim
women, I argue that we need to develop, instead, a serious appreciation of differences among women in the world—as products of
different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires. Further, I argue that
rather than seeking to “save” others (with the superiority it implies and the violences it would entail) we might better think in terms of
(1) working with them in situations that we recognize as always subject to historical transformation and (2) considering our own larger
responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves. I develop
many of these arguments about the limits of “cultural relativism” through a consideration of the burqa and the many meanings of veiling in the Muslim world. [Keywords: cultural relativism, Muslim women, Afghanistan war, freedom, global injustice, colonialism]
HAT ARE THE ETHICS of the current “Wai on
Terrorism, a war that justifies itself by purporting to liberate, or save, Afghan women? Does anthropology have anything to offer in our search for a viable position to take regarding this rationale for war?
I was led to pose the question of my title in part because
of the way I personally experienced the response to the U,S,
war in Afghanistan. Like many colleagues whose work has
focused on women and gender in the Middle East, I was deluged with invitations to speak—not just on news programs
but also to various departments at colleges and universities,
especially women’s studies programs. Why did this not please
me, a scholar who has devoted more than 20 years of her life
to this subject and who has some complicated personal connection to this identity? Here was an opportunity to spread
the word, disseminate my knowledge, and correct misunderstandings. The urgent search for knowledge about our sister
“women of cover” (as President George Bush so marvelously
called them) is laudable and when it comes from women’s
studies programs where “transnational feminism” is now
being taken seriously, it has a certain integrity (see Safire 2001),
My discomfort led me to reflect on why, as feminists in
or from the West, or simply as people who have concerns
about women’s lives, we need to be wary of this response to
the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, 1 want to
point out the minefields—a metaphor that is sadly too apt
for a country like Afghanistan, with the world’s highest
number of mines per capita—of this obsession with the
plight of Muslim women, 1 hope to show some way through
them using insights from anthropology, the discipline whose
charge has been to understand and manage cultural difference, At the same time, I want to remain critical of anthropology’s complicity in the reification of cultural difference,
It is easier to see why one should be skeptical about the focus on the “Muslim woman” if one begins with the U.S.
American Anthropologist
Vol. 104, No. 3 • September 2002
public response. I will analyze two manifestations of this
response: some conversations I had with a reporter from
the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and First Lady Laura Bush’s
radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, The
presenter from the NewsHour show first contacted me in
October to see if I was willing to give some background for
a segment on Women and Islam, I mischievously asked
whether she had done segments on the women of Guatemala, Ireland, Palestine, or Bosnia when the show covered
wars in those regions; but I finally agreed to look at the
questions she was going to pose to panelists, The questions were hopelessly general. Do Muslim women believe
“x”? Are Muslim women “y”? Does Islam allow “z” for
women? 1 asked her: If you were to substitute Christian or
Jewish wherever you have Muslim, would these questions
make sense? I did not imagine she would call me back, But
she did, twice, once with an idea for a segment on the
meaning of Ramadan and another time on Muslim
women in politics. One was in response to the bombing
and the other to the speeches by Laura Bush and Cherie
Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister.
What is striking about these three ideas for news programs is that there was a consistent resort to the cultural,
as if knowing something about women and Islam or the
meaning of a religious ritual would help one understand
the tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center and
the U.S. Pentagon, or how Afghanistan had come to be
ruled by the Taliban, or what interests might have fueled
US, and other interventions in the region over the past 25
years, or what the history of American support for conservative groups funded to undermine the Soviets might
have been, or why the caves and bunkers out of which Bin
Laden was to be smoked “dead or alive, as President Bush
announced on television, were paid for and built by the
In other words, the question is why knowing about
the “culture” of the region, and particularly its religious
beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history, Such
cultural framing, it seemed to me, prevented the serious
exploration of the roots and nature of human suffering in
this part of the world, Instead of political and historical
explanations, experts were being asked to give religiocultural ones, Instead of questions that might lead to the
exploration of global interconnections, we were offered
ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheres—recreating an imaginative geography of West
versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies
give speeches versus others where women shuffle around
silently in burqas,
Most pressing for me was why the Muslim woman in
general, and the Afghan woman in particular, were so crucial to this cultural mode of explanation, which ignored
the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated,
in sometimes surprising alignments, Why were these female symbols being mobilized in this “War against Terror-
ism” in a way they were not in other conflicts? Laura Bush’s
radio address on November 17 reveals the political work
such mobilization accomplishes, On the one hand, her address collapsed important distinctions that should have
been maintained, There was a constant slippage between
the Taliban and the terrorists, so that they became almost
one word—a kind of hyphenated monster identity: the
Taliban-and-the-terrorists. Then there was the blurring of
the very separate causes in Afghanistan of women’s continuing malnutrition, poverty, and ill health, and their
more recent exclusion under the Taliban from employment, schooling, and the joys of wearing nail polish, On
the other hand, her speech reinforced chasmic divides,
primarily between the “civilized people throughout the
world” whose hearts break for the women and children of
Afghanistan and the Taliban-and-the-terrorists, the cultural monsters who want to, as she put it, “impose their
world on the rest of us,”
Most revealingly, the speech enlisted women to justify American bombing and intervention in Afghanistan
and to make a case for the “War on Terrorism” of which it
was allegedly a part, As Laura Bush said, “Because of our
recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are
no longer imprisoned in their homes, They can listen to
music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment,
The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the
rights and dignity of women” (U.S. Government 2002),
These words have haunting resonances for anyone
who has studied colonial history, Many who have worked
on British colonialism in South Asia have noted the use of
the woman question in colonial policies where intervention into sati (the practice of widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres), child marriage,
and other practices was used to justify rule, As Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak (1988) has cynically put it: white men
saving brown women from brown men, The historical record is full of similar cases, including in the Middle East,
In Turn of the Century Egypt, what Leila Ahmed (1992)
has called “colonial feminism” was hard at work, This was
a selective concern about the plight of Egyptian women
that focused on the veil as a sign of oppression but gave
no support to women’s education and was professed loudly
by the same Englishman, Lord Cromer, who opposed women’s suffrage back home.
Sociologist Marnia Lazreg (1994) has offered some
vivid examples of how French colonialism enlisted women to its cause in Algeria, She writes:
Perhaps the most spectacular example of the colonial appropriation of women’s voices, and the silencing of those
among them who had begun to take women revolutionaries . . . as role models by not donning the veil, was the
event of May 16, 1958 [just four years before Algeria finally gained its independence from France after a long
bloody struggle and 130 years of French control—L,A.],
On that day a demonstration was organized by rebellious
French generals in Algiers to show their determination to
keep Algeria French, To give the government of France
evidence that Algerians were in agreement with them, the
Abu-Lughod • Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
generals had a few thousand native men bused in from
nearby villages, along with a few women who were solemnly unveiled by French women. .. Rounding up Algerians and bringing them to demonstrations of loyalty to
France was not in itself an unusual act during the colonial
era, But to unveil women at a well-choreographed ceremony added to the event a symbolic dimension that
dramatized the one constant feature of the Algerian occupation by France: its obsession with women. [Lazreg
Lazreg (1994) also gives memorable examples of the
way in which the French had earlier sought to transform
Arab women and girls, She describes skits at awards ceremonies at the Muslim Girls’ School in Algiers in 1851 and
1852, In the fust skit, wiitten by “a Fiench lady from Algieis,’ two Algerian Arab girls Teminisced about theiT trip
to France with woids including the following:
Oh! Protective France: Oh! Hospitable France!. ..
Noble land, where I felt free
Under Christian skies to pray to our God:.. ,
God bless you for the happiness you bring us!
And you, adoptive mother, who taught us
That we have a share of this world,
We will cherish you forever! [Lazreg 1994:68-69]
These girls are made to invoke the gift of a share of
this world, a world where freedom reigns under Christian
skies. This is not the woild the Taliban-and-the-tenorists
would “like to impose on the Test of us,’
Just as I aigued above that we need to be suspicious
when neat cultural icons aie plastered over messier historical and political nanatives, so we need to be wary when
Loid Ciomei in Biitish-iuled Egypt, Fiench ladies in Algeria, and LauTa Bush, all with military tioops behind them,
claim to be saving or liberating Muslim women,
I want now to look rnoie closely at those Afghan women
Lama Bush claimed were ‘rejoicing” at theiT liberation by
the Americans, This necessitates a discussion of the veil, OT
the bUTqa, because it is so central to contemporary concerns about Muslim women, This will set the stage for a
discussion of how anthropologists, feminist anthropologists in particular, contend with the problem of difference
in a global world. In the conclusion, I will return to the
rhetoric of saving Muslim women and offer an alternative,
It is common popular knowledge that the ultimate
sign of the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban-and-the-terrorists is that they were forced to wear the
burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even
though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban,
women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas.
Someone who has worked in Muslim regions must ask
why this is so surprising, Did we expect that once “free”
from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and
blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits? We need to be
more sensible about the clothing of “women of cover,
and so there is perhaps a need to make some basic points
about veiling,
First, it should be recalled that the Taliban did not invent the burqa, It was the local form of covering that
Pashtun women in one region wore when they went out,
The Pashtun are one of several ethnic groups in Afghanistan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering in
the subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developed
as a convention for symbolizing women’s modesty or respectability. The burqa, like some other forms of “cover”
has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation of
men’s and women’s spheres, as part of the general association of women with family and home, not with public
space where strangers mingled.
Twenty years ago the anthropologist Hanna Papanek
(1982), who worked in Pakistan, described the burqa as
“portable seclusion.’ She noted that many saw it as a liberating invention because it enabled women to move out
of segregated living spaces while still observing the basic
moral requirements of separating and protecting women
from unrelated men. Ever since I came across her phrase
portable seclusion, I have thought of these enveloping
robes as “mobile homes,” Everywhere, such veiling signifies belonging to a particular community and participating in a moral way of life in which families are paramount
in the organization of communities and the home is associated with the sanctity of women.
The obvious question that follows is this: If this were
the case, why would women suddenly become immodest?
Why would they suddenly throw off the markers of their
respectability, markers, whether burqas or other forms of
cover, which were supposed to assure their protection in
the public sphere from the harassment of strange men by
symbolically signaling to all that they were still in the inviolable space of their homes, even though moving in the
public realm? Especially when these are forms of dress that
had become so conventional that most women gave little
thought to their meaning,
To draw some analogies, none of them perfect, why
are we surprised that Afghan women do not throw off
their burqas when we know perfectly well that it would
not be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera? At the time
these discussions of Afghan women’s burqas were raging,
a friend of mine was chided by her husband for suggesting
she wanted to wear a pantsuit to a fancy wedding; “You
know you don’t wear pants to a WASP wedding,’ he reminded her. New Yorkers know that the beautifully coiffed Hasidic women, who look so fashionable next to their
dour husbands in black coats and hats, are wearing wigs,
This is because religious belief and community standards
of propriety require the covering of the hair, They also alter boutique fashions to include high necks and long
sleeves, As anthropologists know perfectly well, people
wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious beliefs, and moral ideals, unless they deliberately
transgress to make a point or are unable to afford proper
cover. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of
American Anthropologist • Vol. 104, No, 3 • September 2002
choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion,’
What had happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban
is that one regional style of covering OT veiling, associated
with a certain Tespectable but not elite class, was imposed
on everyone as “religiously” appropriate, even though previously there had been many different styles, popular or
traditional with different groups and classes—different
ways to mark women’s propriety, or, in more recent times,
religious piety. Although I am not an expert on Afghanistan, I imagine that the majority of women left in Afghanistan by the time the Taliban took control were the
rural or less educated, from nonelite families, since they
were the only ones who could not emigrate to escape the
hardship and violence that has marked Afghanistan’s recent history, If liberated from the enforced wearing of burqas, most of these women would choose some other form
of modest headcovering, like all those living nearby who
were not under the Taliban—their rural Hindu counterparts in the North of India (who cover their heads and veil
their faces from affines) or their Muslim sisters in Pakistan,
Even The New York Times carried an article about Afghan women refugees in Pakistan that attempted to educate readers about this local variety (Fremson 2001), The
article describes and pictures everything from the nowiconic burqa with the embroidered eyeholes, which a
Pashtun woman explains is the proper dress for her community, to large scarves they call chadors, to the new Islamic modest dress that wearers refer to as hijab, Those in
the new Islamic dress are characteristically students heading for professional careers, especially in medicine, just
like their counterparts from Egypt to Malaysia, One wearing the large scarf was a school principal; the other was a
poor street vendor, The telling quote from the young
street vendor is, “If I did [wear the burqa] the refugees
would tease me because the burqa is for ‘good women’
who stay inside the home” (Fremson 2001:14), Here you
can see the local status associated with the burqa—it is for
good respectable women from strong families who are not
forced to make a living selling on the street.
The British newspaper The Guardian published an interview in January 2002 with Dr, Suheila Siddiqi, a respected surgeon in Afghanistan who holds the rank of
lieutenant general in the Afghan medical corps (Goldenberg 2002), A woman in her sixties, she comes from an
elite family and, like her sisters, was educated. Unlike
most women of her class, she chose not to go into exile,
She is presented in the article as “the woman who stood
up to the Taliban” because she refused to wear the burqa.
She had made it a condition of returning to her post as
head of a major hospital when the Taliban came begging
in 1996, just eight months after firing her along with
other women, Siddiqi is described as thin, glamorous, and
confident, But further into the article it is noted that her
graying bouffant hair is covered in a gauzy veil, This is a
reminder that though she refused the burqa, she had no
question about wearing the chador or scarf.
Finally, I need to make a crucial point about veiling,
Not only are there many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities in
which they are used, but also veiling itself must not be
confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency. As I
have argued in my ethnography of a Bedouin community
in Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s (1986), pulling the
black head cloth over the face in front of older respected
men is considered a voluntary act by women who are
deeply committed to being moral and have a sense of
honor tied to family. One of the ways they show their
standing is by covering their faces in certain contexts,
They decide for whom they feel it is appropriate to veil,
To take a very different case, the modern Islamic modest dress that many educated women across the Muslim
world have taken on since the mid-1970s now both publicly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated urban sophistication, a sort of modernity (e.g., Abu-Lughod
1995, 1998; Brenner 1996; El Guindi 1999; MacLeod 1991;
Ong 1990), As Saba Mahmood (2001) has so brilliantly
shown in her ethnography of women in the mosque
movement in Egypt, this new form of dress is also perceived by many of the women who adopt it as part of a
bodily means to cultivate virtue, the outcome of their professed desire to be close to God,
Two points emerge from this fairly basic discussion of
the meanings of veiling in the contemporary Muslim
world, First, we need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s
unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this
form, as in Iran or with the Taliban, (It must be recalled
that the modernizing states of Turkey and Iran had earlier
in the century banned veiling and required men, except
religious clerics, to adopt Western dress.) What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and
historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the
world? Is it not a gross violation of women’s own understandings of what they are doing to simply denounce the
burqa as a medieval imposition? Second, we must take
care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of
millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing,
Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession with
the veil and focus on some serious issues with which feminists and others should indeed be concerned,
Ultimately, the significant political-ethical problem
the burqa raises is how to deal with cultural “others,” How
are we to deal with difference without accepting the passivity implied by the cultural relativism for which anthropologists are justly famous—a relativism that says it’s their
culture and it’s not my business to judge or interfere, only
to try to understand, Cultural relativism is certainly an improvement on ethnocentrism and the racism, cultural imperialism, and imperiousness that underlie it; the problem
is that it is too late not to interfere, The forms of lives we
Abu-Lughod • Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
find around the world are already products of long histories of interactions,
I want to explore the issues of women, cultural relativism, and the problems of “difference” from three angles,
First, I want to consider what feminist anthropologists
(those stuck in that awkward relationship, as Strathern
[1987] has claimed) are to do with strange political bedfellows, I used to feel torn when I received the e-mail petitions circulating for the last few years in defense of Afghan
women under the Taliban, I was not sympathetic to the
dogmatism of the Taliban; I do not support the oppression
of women, But the provenance of the campaign worried
me, I do not usually find myself in political company with
the likes of Hollywood celebrities (see Hirschkind and
Mahmood 2002), I had never received a petition from
such women defending the right of Palestinian women to
safety from Israeli bombing or daily harassment at checkpoints, asking the United States to reconsider its support
for a government that had dispossessed them, closed them
out from work and citizenship rights, refused them the
most basic freedoms. Maybe some of these same people
might be signing petitions to save African women from
genital cutting, or Indian women from dowry deaths,
However, I do not think that it would be as easy to mobilize so many of these American and Ewopean women if it
were not a case of Muslim men oppressing Muslim women—
women of cover for whom they can feel sorry and in relation to whom they can feel smugly superior, Would television diva Oprah Winfrey host the Women in Black, the
women’s peace group from Israel, as she did RAWA, the
Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, who
were also granted the Glamour Magazine Women of the
Year Award? What are we to make of post-Taliban “Reality
Tours” such as the one advertised on the internet by
Global Exchange for March 2002 under the title “Courage
and Tenacity: A Women’s Delegation to Afghanistan”?
The rationale for the $1,400 tour is that “with the removal
of the Taliban government, Afghan women, for the first
time in the past decade, have the opportunity to reclaim
their basic human rights and establish their role as equal
citizens by participating in the rebuilding of their nation,”
The tour’s objective, to celebrate International Women’s
Week, is “to develop awareness of the concerns and issues
the Afghan women are facing as well as to witness the
changing political, economic, and social conditions which
have created new opportunities for the women of Afghanistan” (Global Exchange 2002),
To be critical of this celebration of women’s rights in
Afghanistan is not to pass judgment on any local women’s
organizations, such as RAWA, whose members have courageously worked since 1977 for a democratic secular Afghanistan in which women’s human rights are respected,
against Soviet-backed regimes or U,S,-, Saudi-, and Pakistanisupported conservatives, Their documentation of abuse
and their work through clinics and schools have been
enormously important,
It is also not to fault the campaigns that exposed the
dreadful conditions under which the Taliban placed
women, The Feminist Majority campaign helped put a
stop to a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban and
the U,S, multinational Unocal that was going forward
with U,S, administration support, Western feminist campaigns must not be confused with the hypocrisies of the
new colonial feminism of a Republican president who was
not elected for his progressive stance on feminist issues or
of administrations that played down the terrible record of
violations of women by the United State’s allies in the
Northern Alliance, as documented by Human Rights
Watch and Amnesty International, among others, Rapes
and assaults were widespread in the period of infighting
that devastated Afghanistan before the Taliban came in to
restore order,
It is, however, to suggest that we need to look closely
at what we are supporting (and what we are not) and to
think carefully about why, How should we manage the
complicated politics and ethics of finding ourselves in
agreement with those with whom we normally disagree? I
do not know how many feminists who felt good about
saving Afghan women fTom the Taliban are also asking for
a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that African or Afghan women could have some chance of having what I do
believe should be a universal human right—the right to
freedom from the structural violence of global inequality
and from the ravages of war, the everyday rights of having
enough to eat, having homes for their families in which to
live and thrive, having ways to make decent livings so
their children can grow, and having the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good life, which
might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized,
Suspicion about bedfellows is only a first step; it will
not give us a way to think more positively about what to
do or where to stand, For that, we need to confront two
more big issues. First is the acceptance of the possibility of
difference, Can we only free Afghan women to be like us
or might we have to recognize that even after “liberation”
from the Taliban, they might want different things than
we would want for them? What do we do about that? Second, we need to be vigilant about the rhetoric of saving
people because of what it implies about our attitudes.
Again, when I talk about accepting difference, I am
not implying that we should resign ourselves to being cultural relativists who respect whatever goes on elsewhere as
“just their culture,” I have already discussed the dangers of
“cultural” explanations; “their” cultures are just as much
part of history and an interconnected world as ours are.
What I am advocating is the hard work involved in recognizing and respecting differences—precisely as products of
different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires, We may want justice for women, but can we accept
American Anthropologist • Vol. 104, No, 3 • September 2002
that there might be different ideas about justice and that
different women might want, or choose, different futures
from what we envision as best (see Ong 1988)? We must
consider that they might be called to personhood, so to
speak, in a different language.
Reports from the Bonn peace conference held in late
November to discuss the rebuilding of Afghanistan revealed
significant differences among the few Afghan women
feminists and activists present. RAWA’s position was to reject any conciliatory approach to Islamic governance, According to one report I read, most women activists, especially those based in Afghanistan who are aware of the
realities on the ground, agreed that Islam had to be the
starting point for reform. Fatima Gailani, a U.S.-based advisor to one of the delegations, is quoted as saying, “If I go
to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the
promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell
me to go to hell.’ Instead, according to one report, most
of these women looked for inspiration on how to fight for
equality to a place that might seem surprising. They looked
to Iran as a country in which they saw women making
significant gains within an Islamic framework—in part
through an Islamically oriented feminist movement that
is challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religious
The situation in Iran is itself the subject of heated debate within feminist circles, especially among Iranian
feminists in the West (e.g., Mir-Hosseini 1999; Moghissi
1999; Najmabadi 1998, 2000), It is not clear whether and
in what ways women have made gains and whether the
great increases in literacy, decreases in birthrates, presence
of women in the professions and government, and a feminist flourishing in cultural fields like writing and filmmaking are because of or despite the establishment of a socalled Islamic Republic, The concept of an Islamic
feminism itself is also controversial, Is it an oxymoron or
does it refer to a viable movement forged by brave women
who want a third way?
One of the things we have to be most careful about in
thinking about Third World feminisms, and feminism in
different parts of the Muslim world, is how not to fall into
polarizations that place feminism on the side of the West,
I have written about the dilemmas faced by Arab feminists
when Western feminists initiate campaigns that make
them vulnerable to local denunciations by conservatives
of various sorts, whether Islamist or nationalist, of being
traitors (Abu-Lughod 2001), As some like Afsaneh Najmabadi are now arguing, not only is it wrong to see history simplistically in terms of a putative opposition between Islam and the West (as is happening in the United
States now and has happened in parallel in the Muslim
world), but it is also strategically dangerous to accept this
cultural opposition between Islam and the West, between
fundamentalism and feminism, because those many people within Muslim countries who are trying to find alternatives to present injustices, those who might want to refuse the divide and take from different histories and
cultures, who do not accept that being feminist means being Western, will be under pressure to choose, just as we
are: Are you with us or against us?
My point is to remind us to be aware of differences, respectful of other paths toward social change that might
give women better lives, Can there be a liberation that is
Islamic? And, beyond this, is liberation even a goal for
which all women or people strive? Are emancipation,
equality, and rights part of a universal language we must
use? To quote Saba Mahmood, writing about the women
in Egypt who are seeking to become pious Muslims, “The
desire for freedom and liberation is a historically situated
desire whose motivational force cannot be assumed a priori, but needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires,
aspirations, and capacities that inhere in a culturally and
historically located subject” (2001:223), In other words,
might other desires be more meaningful for different
groups of people? Living in close families? Living in a
godly way? Living without war? I have done fieldwork in
Egypt over more than 20 years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S.
women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie,
driven by individual success rather than morality, or
strangely disrespectful of God,
Mahmood (2001) has pointed out a disturbing thing
that happens when one argues for a respect for other traditions, She notes that there seems to be a difference in the
political demands made on those who work on or are trying to understand Muslims and Islamists and those who
work on secular-humanist projects, She, who studies the
piety movement in Egypt, is consistently pressed to denounce all the harm done by Islamic movements around
the world—otherwise she is accused of being an apologist,
But there never seems to be a parallel demand for those
who study secular humanism and its projects, despite the
terrible violences that have been associated with it over
the last couple of centuries, from world wars to colonialism, from genocides to slavery, We need to have as little
dogmatic faith in secular humanism as in lslamism, and as
open a mind to the complex possibilities of human projects undertaken in one tradition as the other,
Let us return, finally, to my title, “Do Muslim Women
Need Saving?” The discussion of culture, veiling, and how
one can navigate the shoals of cultural difference should
put Laura Bush’s self-congratulation about the rejoicing of
Afghan women liberated by American troops in a different
light, It is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan
woman as someone in need of saving, When you save
someone, you imply that you are saving her from something, You are also saving her to something, What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to
which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women
depend on and TeinfoTce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged,
All one needs to do to appreciate the patronizing quality
of the rhetoric of saving women is to imagine using it today in the United States about disadvantaged gioups such
as African American women or woiking-class women, We
now understand them as suffering from structural violence,
We have become politicized about race and class, but not
As anthropologists, feminists, OT concerned citizens,
we should be waiy of taking on the mantles of those 19thcentury Christian missionary women who devoted theiT
lives to saving theiT Muslim sisteis, One of my favorite
documents fiom that period is a collection called Our Moslem Sisters, the proceedings of a conference of women missionaries held in Cairo in 1906 (Van Sommer and Zwemmer 1907), The subtitle of the book is A Cry of Need from
the Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It,
Speaking of the ignorance, seclusion, polygamy, and veiling that blighted women’s lives across the Muslim world,
the missionary women spoke of theiT responsibility to
make these women’s voices heard, As the introduction
states, “They will never cry for themselves, for they are
down under the yoke of centuries of oppression” (Van
Sommer and Zwemer 1907:15), “This book,’ it begins,
‘with its sad, reiterated story of wrong and oppression is
an indictment and an appeal,
It is an appeal to Christian womanhood to right these wrongs and enlighten this
darkness by sacrifice and service” (Van Sommer and Zwemer 1907:5).
One can hear uncanny echoes of their virtuous goals
today, even though the language is secular, the appeals
not to Jesus but to human rights or the liberal West. The
continuing currency of such imagery and sentiments can
be seen in their deployment for perfectly good humanitarian causes. In February 2002, I received an invitation to a
reception honoring an international medical humanitarian network called Medecins du Monde/Doctors of the
World (MdM), Under the sponsorship of the French Ambassador to the United States, the Head of the delegation
of the European Commission to the United Nations, and a
member of the European Parliament, the cocktail reception was to feature an exhibition of photographs under
the cliched title “Afghan Women: Behind the Veil.”
The invitation was remarkable not just for the colorful
photograph of women in flowing burqas walking across
the barren mountains of Afghanistan but also for the text,
a portion of which I quote:
For 20 years MdM has been ceaselessly struggling to help
those who are most vulnerable. But increasingly, thick
veils cover the victims of the war. When the Taliban came
to power in 1996, Afghan Women became faceless. To unveil one’s face while receiving medical care was to achieve
a sort of intimacy, find a brief space for secret freedom
and recover a little of one’s dignity. In a country where
women had no access to basic medical care because they
did not have the right to appear in public, where women
Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
had no right to practice medicine, MdM’s program stood
as a stubborn reminder of human rights.. . . Please join us
in helping to lift the veil.
Although I cannot take up here the fantasies of intimacy associated with unveiling, fantasies reminiscent of
the French colonial obsessions so brilliantly unmasked by
Alloula in The Colonial Harem (1986), 1 can ask why humanitarian projects and human rights discourse in the
21st century need rely on such constructions of Muslim
Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make
the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is
that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this
privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine
our own responsibilities for the situations in which others
in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand
outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow—or veil—of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world, Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the
intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern
A more productive approach, it seems to me, is to ask
how we might contribute to making the world a more just
place, A world not organized around strategic military and
economic demands; a place where certain kinds of forces
and values that we may still consider important could
have an appeal and where there is the peace necessary for
discussions, debates, and transformations to occur within
communities, We need to ask ourselves what kinds of
world conditions we could contribute to making such that
popular desires will not be overdetermined by an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of forms of
global injustice, Where we seek to be active in the affairs
of distant places, can we do so in the spirit of support for
those within those communities whose goals are to make
women’s (and men’s) lives better (as Walley has argued in
relation to practices of genital cutting in Africa, [1997])?
Can we use a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity, instead of salvation?
Even RAWA, the now celebrated Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which was so instrumental in bringing to U.S. women’s attention the excesses of the Taliban, has opposed the U.S. bombing from
the beginning. They do not see in it Afghan women’s salvation but increased hardship and loss. They have long
called for disarmament and for peacekeeping forces,
Spokespersons point out the dangers of confusing governments with people, the Taliban with innocent Afghans
who will be most harmed. They consistently remind audiences to take a close look at the ways policies are being organized around oil interests, the arms industry, and the
international drug trade. They are not obsessed with the
veil, even though they are the most radical feminists working for a secular democratic Afghanistan. Unfortunately,
American Anthropologist
• Vol. 104, No, 3 • September 2002
only their messages about the excesses of the Taliban have
been heard, even though theiT criticisms of those in poweT
in Afghanistan have included pievious legimes. A first
step in hearing their wideT message is to break with the
language of alien cultures, whether to understand or
eliminate them. Missionary work and colonial feminism
belong in the past, Our task is to critically explore what we
might do to help create a world in which those poor Afghan
women, for whom “the hearts of those in the civilized
world break, can have safety and decent lives,
LILA ABU-LUGHOD Department of Anthropology, Columbia
University, New York, NY 10027
Acknowledgments. 1 want to thank Page Jackson, Fran Mascia-Lees,
Tim Mitchell, Rosalind Morris, Anupama Rao, and members of the
audience at the symposium “Responding to War,” sponsored by
Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (where I presented an earlier version), for helpful comments,
references, clippings, and encouragement.
Abu-Lughod, Lila
1986 Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
1995 Movie Stars and Islamic Moralism in Egypt. Social Text
1998 Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle
East. Princeton; Princeton University Press.
2001 Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies. Feminist Studies 27(l):101-ll3,
Ahmed, Leila
1992 Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
Alloula, Malek
1986 The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Brenner, Suzanne
1996 Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women
and “the Veil.” American Ethnologist 23(4):673-697.
El Guindi, Fadwa
1999 Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg.
Fremson, Ruth
2001 Allure Must Be Covered. Individuality Peeks Through. New
York Times, November 4:14.
Global Exchange
2002 Courage and Tenacity: A Women’s Delegation to Afghanistan. Electronic document,
html. Accessed February 11.
Goldenberg, Suzanne
2002 The Woman Who Stood Up to the Taliban, The Guardian,
January 24, Electronic document,
afghanis tan/story/0,1284,63840,
Hirschkind, Charles, and Saba Mahmood
2002 Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency. Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 75(2): 107-122.
Lazreg, Marnia
1994 The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question,
New York: Routledge,
MacLeod, Arlene
1991 Accommodating Protest. New York; Columbia University
Mahmood, Saba
2001 Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some
Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival, Cultural Anthropology 16(2):202-235.
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba
1999 Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary
Iran. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Moghissi, Haideh
1999 Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, London: Zed Books.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh.
1998 Feminism in an Islamic Republic. In Islam, Gender and Social Change. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito, eds. Pp. 59-84.
New York: Oxford University Press.
2000 (Un)Veiling Feminism. Social Text 64:29-15.
Ong, Aihwa
1988 Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-Presentations of
Women in Non-Western Societies. Inscriptions 3-4:79-93.
1990 State Versus Islam; Malay Families, Women’s Bodies, and the
Body Politic in Malaysia. American Ethnologist 17(2):258-276.
Papanek, Hanna
1982 Purdah in Pakistan: Seclusion and Modern Occupations for
Women. In Separate Worlds. Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault,
eds. Pp. 190-216. Columbus, MO: South Asia Books,
Safire, William
2001 “On Language.” New York Times Magazine, October 28; 22,
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty
1988 Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation
of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Pp.
271-313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Strathern, Marilyn
1987 An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology. Signs 12:276-292.
U.S. Government
1907 Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness
Interpreted by Those Who Heard It. New York: Fleming H,
Re veil Co,
2002 Electronic document,, Accessed January 10,
Walley, Christine
1997 Searching for “Voices”: Feminism, Anthropology, and the
Global Debate over Female Genital Operations. Cultural Anthropology 12(3):405-438.
Chapter 4
Colonizing Bodies and Minds
HEORISTS OF COLONIZATION like Frantz Fanon and Albert
Memmi tell us that the colonial situation, being a Manichaean
world,1 produces two kinds of people: the colonizer and the
colonized (also known as the settler and the native), and what differentiates them is not only skin color but also state of mind.2 One similarity
that is often overlooked is that both colonizers and colonized are presumed male. Colonial rule itself is described as “a manly or husbandly
or lordly prerogative.”3 As a process, it is often described as the taking
away of the manhood of the colonized. While the argument that the
colonizers are men is not difficult to sustain, the idea of the colonized
being uniformly male is less so. Yet the two following passages from
Fanon are typical of the portrayal of the native in the discourses on colonization: “Sometimes people wonder that the native rather than give
his wife a dress, buys instead a transistor radio.”4 And, “The look that
the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it
expresses his dreams of possession — all manner of possession: to sit at
the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possibl
The colonized man is an envious man.”5 But what if the native were
female, as indeed many of them were? How is this feeling of envy and
desire to replace the colonizer manifested or realized for women? Or,
for that matter, does such a feeling exist for women?
The histories of both the colonized and the colonizer have been written from the male point of view — women are peripheral if they appear
at all. While studies of colonization written from this angle are not necessarily irrelevant to understanding what happened to native females,
we must recognize that colonization impacted males and females in similar and dissimilar ways. Colonial custom and practice stemmed from “a
world view which believes in the absolute superiority of the human over
the nonhuman and the subhuman, the masculine over the feminine…,
and the modern or progressive over the traditional or the savage.”6
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
Therefore, the colonizer differentiated between male and female bodies and acted accordingly. Men were the primary target of policy, and,
as such, they were the natives and so were visible. These facts, from
the standpoint of this study, are the justification for considering the
colonial impact in gender terms rather than attempting to see which
group, male or female, was the most exploited. The colonial process
was sex-differentiated insofar as the colonizers were male and used gender identity to determine policy. From the foregoing, it is clear that any
discussion of hierarchy in the colonial situation, in addition to employing race as the basis of distinctions, should take into account its strong
gender component. The two racially distinct and hierarchical categories
of the colonizer and the native should be expanded to four, incorporating the gender factor. However, race and gender categories obviously
emanate from the preoccupation in Western culture with the visual and
hence physical aspects of human reality (see above). Both categories are
a consequence of the bio-logic of Western culture. Thus, in the colonial
situation, there was a hierarchy of four, not two, categories. Beginning
at the top, these were: men (European), women (European), native (African men), and Other (African women). Native women occupied the
residual and unspecified category of the Other.
In more recent times, feminist scholars have sought to rectify the
male bias in the discourses on colonization by focusing on women. One
major thesis that emerged from this effort is that African women suffered a “double colonization”: one form from European domination and
the other from indigenous tradition imposed by African men. Stephanie
Urdang’s book Fighting Two Colonialisms is characteristic of this perspective.7 While the depth of the colonial experience for African women
is expressed succinctly by the idea of doubling, there is no consensus
about what is being doubled. From my perspective, it is not colonization
that is two, but the forms of oppression that flowed from the process
for native females. Hence, it is misleading to postulate two forms of colonization because both manifestations of oppression are rooted in the
hierarchical race/gender relations of the colonial situation. African females were colonized by Europeans as Africans and as African women.
They were dominated, exploited, and inferiorized as Africans together
with African men and then separately inferiorized and marginalized as
African women.
It is important to emphasize the combination of race and gender
factors because European women did not occupy the same position in
the colonial order as African women. A circular issued by the British
colonial government in Nigeria shows the glaringly unequal position
of these two groups of women in the colonial system. It states that
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
“African women should be paid at 75% of the rates paid to the European women.”8 Furthermore, whatever the “status” of indigenous
customs, the relations between African men and women during this period can be neither isolated from the colonial situation nor described as
a form of colonization, particularly because African men were subjects
themselves.9 The racial and gender oppressions experienced by African
women should not be seen in terms of addition, as if they were piled
one on top of the other. In the context of the United States, Elizabeth
Spelman’s comment on the relationship between racism and sexism is
relevant. She writes: “How one form of oppression is experienced is influenced by and influences how another form is experienced.”10 Though
it is necessary to discuss the impact of colonization on specific categories
of people, ultimately its effect on women cannot be separated from its
impact on men because gender relations are not zero-sum — men and
women in any society are inextricably bound.
This chapter will examine specific colonial policies, practices, and ideologies and ascertain how they impacted males and females in different
ways. In this regard, the gender identity of the colonizers is also important. At the level of policy, I shall look at administrative, educational,
legal, and religious systems. It will become clear that certain ideologies and values flowed out of these policies and practices, and in an
often unstated, but no less profound, way they shaped the behavior of
the colonized. Colonization was a multifaceted process involving different kinds of European personnel, including missionaries, traders, and
state officials. Hence, I treat the process of Christianization as an integral part of the colonial process. Finally, colonization was, above all,
the expansion of the European economic system in that “beneath the
surface of colonial political and administrative policy lay the unfolding
process of capital penetration.”11 The capitalist economic system shaped
the particular ways in which colonial domination was effected.
The State of Patriarchy
The imposition of the European state system, with its attendant legal
and bureaucratic machinery, is the most enduring legacy of European
colonial rule in Africa. The international nation-state system as we know
it today is a tribute to the expansion of European traditions of governance and economic organization. One tradition that was exported to
Africa during this period was the exclusion of women from the newly
created colonial public sphere. In Britain, access to power was genderbased; therefore, politics was largely men’s job; and colonization, which
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
is fundamentally a political affair, was no exception. Although both African men and women as conquered peoples were excluded from the
higher echelons of colonial state structures, men were represented at the
lower levels of government. The system of indirect rule introduced by
the British colonial government recognized the male chief’s authority at
the local level but did not acknowledge the existence of female chiefs.
Therefore, women were effectively excluded from all colonial state structures. The process by which women were bypassed by the colonial state
in the arena of politics — an arena in which they had participated during
the precolonial period — is of particular interest in the following section.
The very process by which females were categorized and reduced to
“women” made them ineligible for leadership roles. The basis for this
exclusion was their biology, a process that was a new development in
Yoruba society. The emergence of women as an identifiable category,
defined by their anatomy and subordinated to men in all situations, resulted, in part, from the imposition of a patriarchal colonial state. For
females, colonization was a twofold process of racial inferiorization and
gender subordination. In chapter 2,1 showed that in pre-British Yoruba
society, anafemales, like the anamales, had multiple identities that were
not based on their anatomy. The creation of “women” as a category was
one of the very first accomplishments of the colonial state.
In a book on European women in colonial Nigeria, Helen Callaway
explores the relationship between gender and colonization at the level
of the colonizer. She argues that the colonial state was patriarchal in
many ways. Most obviously, colonial personnel was male. Although
a few European women were present in a professional capacity as
nurses, the administrative branches, which embodied power and authority, excluded women by law.12 Furthermore, she tells us that the
Colonial Service, which was formed for the purpose of governing subject
peoples, was
a male institution in all its aspects: its “masculine” ideology, its
military organisation and processes, its rituals of power and hierarchy, its strong boundaries between the sexes. It would have been
“unthinkable” in the belief system of the time even to consider
the part women might play, other than as nursing sisters, who had
earlier become recognised for their important “feminine” work.13
It is not surprising, therefore, that it was unthinkable for the colonial government to recognize female leaders among the peoples they
colonized, such as the Yoruba.
Likewise, colonization was presented as a “man-sized” job — the ultimate test of manhood — especially because the European death-rate in
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
West Africa at this time was particularly high. Only the brave-hearted
could survive the “white man’s grave,” as West Africa was known at
the time. According to Callaway, Nigeria was described again and again
as a man’s country in which women14 (European women) were “out of
place” in a double sense of physical displacement and the symbolic sense
of being in an exclusively male territory. Mrs. Tremlett, a European
woman who accompanied her husband to Nigeria during this period,
lamented about the position of European women: “I often found myself reflecting rather bitterly on the insignificant position of a woman in
what is practically a man’s country…. If there is one spot on earth where
a woman feels of no importance whatever, it is in Nigeria at the present
day.”15 If the women of the colonizer were so insignificant, then one
could only imagine the position of the “other” women, if their existence
was acknowledged at all.
Yet on the eve of colonization there were female chiefs and officials
all over Yorubaland. Ironically, one of the signatories to the treaty that
was said to have ceded tbadan to the British was Lanlatu, an iyalode,
an anafemale chief.16 The transformation of state power to male-gender
power was accomplished at one level by the exclusion of women from
state structures. This was in sharp contrast to Yoruba state organization,
in which power was not gender-determined.
The alienation of women from state structures was particularly
devastating because the nature of the state itself was undergoing transformation. Unlike the Yoruba state, the colonial state was autocratic.
The African males designated as chiefs by the colonizers had much more
power over the people than was vested in them traditionally. In British
West Africa in the colonial period, (male) chiefs lost their sovereignty
while increasing their powers over the people,17 although we are to believe that their powers derived from “tradition” even where the British
created their own brand of “traditional chiefs.” Martin Chanock’s astute comment on the powers of chiefs in colonial Africa is particularly
applicable to the Yoruba situation: “British officials,… where they came
across a chief,… intended to invest him retroactively not only with a
greater range of authority than he had before but also with authority of
a different type. There seemed to be no way of thinking about chiefly
authority… which did not include judicial power.”18 Thus male chiefs
were invested with more power over the people while female chiefs were
stripped of power. Through lack of recognition, their formal positions
soon became attenuated.
At another level, the transfer of judicial power from the community to the council of male chiefs proved to be particularly negative
for women at a time when the state was extending its tentacles to an
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
increasing number of aspects of life. In pre-British Yoruba society, adjudication of disputes rested with lineage elders. Therefore, very few
matters came under the purview of the ruler and the council of chiefs.
But in the colonial administration, the Native Authority System, with its
customary courts, dealt with all civil cases including marriage, divorce,
and adultery.
It is precisely at the time that the state was becoming omnipotent
that women were excluded from its institutions. This omnipotence of the
state was a new tradition in Yoruba society, as it was in many African
societies. The omnipotence of the state has deep roots in European politics. Fustel De Coulanges’s analysis of the Greek city-states in antiquity
attests to this fact:
There was nothing independent in man; his body belonged to the
state, and was devoted to its defence If the city had need of
money, it could order the women to deliver up their jewels. Private life did not escape the omnipotence of the state. The Athenian
law, in the name of religion, forbade men to remain single. Sparta
punished not only those who remained single, but those who married late. At Athens, the state could prescribe labor, and at Sparta
idleness. It exercised its tyranny in the smallest things; at Locri
the laws forbade men to drink pure wine; at Rome, Miletus and
Marseilles, wine was forbidden to women.19
Remarkably, Edward Shorter, writing about European societies,
echoes De Coulanges’s earlier observations: “Traditional European communities regulated such matters as marital sexuality or the formation of
the couple. What may be startling, however, is the extent to which these
affairs were removed from informal regulation by public opinion and
subjected to public policy.”20 To mention a few examples: there was a
“fornication penalty” against women who were pregnant out of wedlock — no bridal crowns for pregnant brides; and before a man was
allowed to join a guild, the guild insisted “not only that [the] man himself not be illegitimate (or even conceived before marriage), but that his
parents be respectably born as well.”21 Above all, the community had
the power to halt marriages.22 We must not forget that in Europe at this
time women were largely excluded from formal public authority; therefore, the public policy referred to by Shorter was male-constituted. No
doubt, some of these matters were regulated by African societies, but
the regulation was in the hands of the lineage and possibly nonfamilial
opinion. Consequently, the probability that any one category of people,
such as anafemales, could have been excluded from the decision-making
process of the family was much less than in Europe.
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
It was into this unfortunate tradition of male dominance that Africans
were drafted — this was particularly disadvantageous to women because
marriage, divorce, and even pregnancy came under the purview of the
state. Given the foregoing, it is clear that the impact of colonization was
profound and negative for women. Appraisals of the impact of colonization that see certain “benefits” for African women are mistaken in
light of the overarching effect of the colonial state, which effectively defined females as “women” and hence second-class colonial subjects unfit
to determine their own destiny. The postindependence second-class status of African women’s citizenship is rooted in the process of inventing
them as women. Female access to membership in the group is no longer
direct; access to citizenship is now mediated through marriage, through
the “wifization of citizenship.”
Yet a group of scholars maintains that colonization was of some benefit to African women. Let us consider two scholars who hold that, in
some way, African women in relation to African men benefited from
colonial rule. According to Jane Guyer, the idea that African women
experienced a decline in status under European rule is misrepresented;
in reality, according to her, the status gap between men and women
actually narrowed due to a “decline in men’s status.”23 For one thing,
Guyer assumes that gender identities existed for males and females as
groups. Furthermore, this is obviously another way of expressing the
male-biased notion that colonization is experienced as loss of manhood
by the colonized, thereby projecting the erroneous belief that females
had nothing (or nothing as valuable) to lose. This is a narrow interpretation of the effect of colonization in terms of something intangible (called
manhood). The colonized also lost their capacity to make their own history without foreign interference; they lost their labor and their land;
many lost their lives; and because the colonized comprised both males
and females, women, too, evidently suffered these losses. Furthermore,
an analysis of the notion of manhood, which is usually left undefined,
suggests that it is a masculinized version of the concept of the self. Ashis
Nandy has written about the colonial experience as the loss of self for
the native.24 From Nandy’s more inclusive standpoint, we can begin to
analyze the experience of females on the same terms as that of males.
Nina Mba is another scholar who sees some advantages for African women in colonization. In her study of the effects of British rule
on women in southwestern Nigeria, she concludes that the colonial
marriage ordinance increased women’s legal status because it enhanced
women’s right to marital property.25 This view is inaccurate for a number of reasons. To start with, her assumption of the status of wives as
identical with the “status of women” leads to her inability to grasp the
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
fact that in the cultures of southwestern Nigeria, the rights of anafemales
as wives, as daughters, and as sisters derived from different bases. For
example, lack of access to their husband’s property did not constitute
secondary status for “women” because as daughters and sisters they
had rights to both lineages — that is, to their father’s, their mother’s,
and their brothers’ properties. In the past, conjugal gkg could not inherit their aya’s property either. So the apparent provision of “marital
property” rights in colonial law was not necessarily a good thing for
women because the constitution of a new category of property called
marital property meant that wives lost their independent property rights
and that, by the same token, husbands could now take over their wives’
property. Moreover, the positioning of wives as the beneficiaries of husbands also meant that the rights of some other women, such as mothers,
sisters, and daughters, were abrogated as well. We must also remember
that many Nigerian societies had polygamous marriage systems, which
raises the complex question as to which wives inherited what property,
given that some wives had been married to the same husband longer
than others. Mba does not deal with any of these issues. Finally, her
faith in the legal system as a way of “improving women’s status” is unwarranted given that the same colonial system had constituted women
into second-class subjects. Legal systems do not work in a vacuum, and
men, for reasons that will be discussed later, were in a better position
to take advantage of the newfangled legal systems. In sum, the idea that
women, or for that matter any category of people among the colonized,
benefited from colonial rule does not reflect reality.
Upgrading Males: Sex Discrimination
in Colonial Education
The introduction of Christianity and Western education was critical to
the stratification of colonial society along both class and gender lines.
The initial disadvantage of females in the educational system is arguably
the main determinant of women’s inferiority and lack of access to resources in the colonial period and indeed in the contemporary period.
How did this happen? In the first half-century of British colonization in
Yorubaland, Christianity and Western education were inseparable because they were the monopoly of Christian missionaries. The school
was the church, and the church was the school. From the point of
view of missionaries, the process of Christianizing and educating the African heathens was to be a process of Europeanization. The goal of the
missionaries was to transform African societies, not preserve them.
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
As envisaged by the missionaries, the African family system was to
be targeted for reform and, in turn, to be the vehicle for the “civilization” of these societies. One missionary in Yorubaland was to betray
this bias when he posed the question: “Is it proper to apply the sacred
name of a home to a compound occupied by two to six or a dozen men
each perhaps with a plurality of wives?”26 “Spiritual rebirth” and the
reconstruction of African societies were intertwined in the minds of the
To this end, schools were established to facilitate evangelization. Possibly the most important rationale for the establishment of schools in
Yorubaland during this early period of missionary work is summarized
in Baptist missionary T. J. Bowen’s book published in 1857:
Our designs and hopes in regard to Africa, are not simply to bring
as many individuals as possible to the knowledge of Christ. We
desire to establish the Gospel in the hearts and minds and social
life of the people, so that truth and righteousness may remain and
flourish among them, without the instrumentality of foreign missionaries. This cannot be done without civilization. To establish
the Gospel among any people, they must have Bibles, and therefore must have the art to make them or the money to buy them.
They must read the Bible and this implies instruction.27
Two important points stand out. First, the European missions needed
African missionaries for the purpose of Christianizing their own kind.
This is not surprising in that during this period, West Africa was still
known as the white man’s grave because few Europeans could survive
in the environment. Therefore, it was imperative to make use of African
personnel if Christianity was to be firmly planted. Second, the ability to
read the Bible was seen as critical to the maintenance of individual faith.
In light of the foregoing, it is not surprising that males were the target of
missionary education. They were seen as potential clerks, catechists, pastors, and missionaries in the service of the church. There was no place
for women in these professions except as wives, as helpmates to their
husbands, which indeed was the role of the few women missionaries.
In 1842, the very first school was established in Badagri by the Wesleyan mission. By 1845, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had
established a boarding school for boys. Abeokiita, further inland, was
to become the base and education capital of Yorubaland. By 1851,
three thousand Yoruba emigrants commonly called Saro,28 many of
them Christians, had settled in this town. One of the most prominent
among them was Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who was to become the first
African Anglican bishop. Immediately after they arrived in Abeokiita,
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
Crowther and his wife established two schools, one for boys and one
for girls. We are told that Mrs. Crowther’s sewing school was very popular, that “even the babalawos [diviner-priests] brought their little girls
to Mrs. Crowther for instruction.”29 Separate-sex practices were established early, as was reflected even in the curriculum of schools that were
coeducational. Ajayi summarizes the timetable of the CMS schools in
1848 as follows:
9.0 a.m.:
Singing, Rehearsals of Scripture Passages, Reading one chapter of Scripture, Prayers.
9.15-12 noon:
Grammar, Reading, Spelling, Writing, Geography, Tables [except Wednesday, when there was
Catechism in place of Grammar].
2.0-4.0 p.m.:
Ciphering [i.e., Arithmetic], Reading, Spelling,
Meaning of Words.
4.0 p.m.:
Closing Prayers.30
He adds: “This was more or less repeated every day except Friday, which
was devoted to rehearsals of Scripture passages, revision and examinations. Girls followed a similar curriculum, but with important changes.
In the afternoon session, from Monday to Thursday, they had Sewing
and Embroidery.”31
Although males were the primary focus of missionary education, it is
clear that the education of females was not irrelevant to the missionaries’ scheme. In fact, they had a vested interest in producing mothers who
would be the foundation of Christian families. They were clearly concerned that the home influence “could be destroying the good seed sown
in school.”32 The case of the Harrisons and their female wards demonstrates the thinking of missionaries on what this “home influence”
looked like. Mr. and Mrs. Harrison kept the female pupils away from
their mothers, who were presumed to be trying “to keep their daughters down to their old bad ways.”33 T. H. Popleslour, a missionary and
educator, underlined the importance of the family in the education of
the child:
The instruction at school comprehends [sic] but a part in education. That in the mouldering [sic] of a useful and Christian
character the life outside the school must always be taken into
consideration in the influences operating for good or ill… The
parents can play an important part (if they are Christians). How
can a heathen who sees no evil in lying, stealing, deception,
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
fornication… teach morality? How can they teach their children
the fear of God?34
For the Christian missions, both girls and boys needed to be educated,
but for different places in the new society the colonizers were in the
process of fabricating. Thus, priority was given to male education, and
provisions were made for some form of higher education for males in
some places.
In the memoirs of Anna Hinderer we are able to see up close the
gender bias in the ways in which the missionaries trained their Yoruba
wards. David and Anna Hinderer were Anglican missionaries who together spent more than seventeen years in Yorubaland beginning in
1853. In Anna’s memoirs, entitled Seventeen Years in Yoruba Country,
we get a feel for what life was like in nineteenth-century Ibadan. On
arriving in Ibadan, the Hinderers readily found a friend in a prominent
chief who immediately sent his two children — a boy and a girl — to live
with them to acquire an education. Within a short time, they had sixteen children, males and females, as pupils — including children of other
prominent people and a few enslaved children who had been redeemed
by the missionaries.35
However, as in the case of Anglican schools, the Hinderers had a
sex-differentiated curriculum. Mrs. Hinderer tells us that apart from the
regular “four Rs”36 that all the children were taught every day from 9
A.M. until noon, the girls were instructed in sewing and embroidery from
noon until 2 P.M.37 It is only in light of this practice that we understand
a statement made by Mrs. Hinderer that seems to cast a shadow on
the academic ability of the girls. Commenting on the preparation for the
baptisms in 1859, she said, “Their [the children’s] preparation and examination has been extremely interesting to my husband; the boys seem to
have grasped the root of the matter.”38 Her observation is not surprising
considering that the boys had at least an extra two hours of preparation
every day while the girls were learning to sew and embroider.
Apart from the day-to-day example of separate spheres for Mr. and
Mrs. Hinderer, there were more subtle ways in which gender-biased messages were inculcated into the children. For instance, when Mrs. Hinderer received a parcel of “goodies” from England, she gave “each of
the girls one of the nice little handkerchiefs, and a pretty pin to fasten it, to their very great delight; and they looked so neat and tidy the
next Sunday at church. The boys had their share of guns and tops, but
a pencil and piece of paper is their crowning pleasure.”39 The message
was plain: the boys were educated to become clerks, catechists, pastors,
missionaries, diplomats, and even politicians. The role of the girls was
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
to look dainty and attractive, ready to become wives and helpmates of
these potentially powerful men.
In fact, we have enough information about what some of these
pioneering pupils became when they grew up to demonstrate the effectiveness of their gendered training and expectations. Susanna, one of the
foundation pupils, became Mrs. Olubi, the wife of Olubi, the Hinderers’
very first ward. Anna Hinderer wrote of her: “Mrs. Olubi had four children who kept her very busy.”40 The specter of housewifery for women
had appeared on the Yoruba landscape, contrasting with the traditional
Yoruba practice of all adults (anamale and anafemale) being gainfully
employed. In sharp contrast, Susanna’s husband, Olubi, became one of
the most powerful men in nineteenth-century Yorubaland. As an officer
of the Anglican Church and as a diplomat, he negotiated treaties among
the warring Yoruba states and the British. Of course, unlike his wife,
Olubi and some of the other male students had had the benefit of higher
education at the CMS training mission in Abeokuta. There were no such
schools for girls until much later. What about the brother/sister duo,
children of the prominent Ibadan chief who were also foundation pupils
of the Hinderers? Akinyele, the boy, spent fifty-five years as a teacher
and pastor and is remembered for his contribution in establishing the
Anglican church in Ogbomoso, another Yoruba town. His sister, Yejide,
is remembered through her children and does not seem to have established herself in a profession. Konigbagbe, one of the other girls, fared
better. She became a teacher, but disappears early from the record.41
One wonders whether her disappearance had to do with the fact that
she got married and took her husband’s name: a new “tradition” that
was adopted by African families as they became Europeanized.
The disparity between the number of boys and girls in school was
glaring by the turn of the century and was already a personal problem
for educated men who were seeking Western-educated wives. As early
as 1902, the main item on the agenda at the reunion of St. Andrews
College, 0yo, a premier higher institution for men, was “Where shall
we get our wives from and how should they be trained?”42 By 1930
there were thirty-seven thousand boys, but only ten thousand girls, in
approved mission schools. By 1947, the number of girls had increased
to thirty-eight thousand, but this was a mere 25 percent of the total
number of children in school.43
The reason for this gender gap in education is usually attributed to
“tradition,” the idea that parents preferred to educate their sons instead of daughters.44 It is not very clear to me, in the Yoruba case, what
particular tradition created this problem. The only writer I have come
across who offers some specifics about how “tradition” could have been
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
an obstacle to education did not limit the problem to females. According to T. O. Ogunkoya, in mid-nineteenth-century Abeokiita, “The Ifa
Priests (diviner-priests) had circulated it abroad that any black man who
touched a book might be so enfeebled as to become impotent whilst a
woman might become barren. If by 1903, men had successfully crossed
the hurdle, it was not yet for women.”45 Whatever the historicity of this
assertion, the fact that men soon transcended the barriers suggests there
were factors at work other than “tradition.” How, then, do we account
for the persistent underrepresentation of females in the school system?
Historical evidence does not support the conjecture that parents initially preferred to send sons to school over daughters. There is nothing
to suggest that at the inception of the schools, whether in Badagri, Lagos, Abeokiita, or further inland in Ibadan, pupils were overwhelmingly
boys. Apart from enslaved children who became pupils after they were
redeemed by the missionaries themselves, there does not seem to be any
set pattern (gendered or not) in the circumstances of the children. Chief
Ogunbonna in Abeokiita was said to have sent his daughter to one of
the mission houses because her mother had died and there was nobody
to take care of her.46 Chief Olunloyo in Ibadan sent a son and daughter
to live with the Hinderers because he was fascinated by the “magic” of
writing.47 Another young girl ended up with the Hinderers because she
took a fancy to Mrs. Hinderer and insisted on going home with her.48
Even the much-maligned Ifa priests were said to have been eager to send
their daughters to a girls’ school founded by the wife of Yoruba missionary Samuel Crowther in Abeokiita in 1846.49 Other ways in which
pupils were recruited at first included redeeming enslaved children and
receiving “pawns.”50 There is no indication that one sex predominated
in any of these categories.
It is clear that, initially, the response of Yoruba parents to schooling
for children was not that favorable. They were reluctant to lose the services of their children, both male and female, on the farms and in the
markets. Therefore, the missions had to find incentives to get parents
to send their children to school. Thus, in Ijaye, both the Baptist and
CMS paid pupils to come to school. Even in the coastal areas like Lagos
and Badagri, inducements had to be provided. Free gifts from Europe
were one such inducement.51 As time went on, there were complaints
from parents that schoolchildren had become lazy and disrespectful to
elders. The preference for boarding schools was partially related to the
desire of parents to pass the cost of raising their “unproductive” children to missionaries if schooling was to deprive them of the services of
these children. This situation was soon to change as parents realized the
value of education in salaried employment and important positions that
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
the educated came to occupy. None of this was available to females.
It is no wonder, then, that parents subsequently were not as eager to
educate their daughters as their sons. Western schools were very appropriate for educating boys for their future roles, but the training of girls
for the adult life mapped out by the European missionaries and colonial
officials did not require that kind of education.
By the 1870s, among the Lagos elite — the Saro particularly — the
mothers had found a good reason for educating their daughters. Namely,
educated women were sought after for marriage by educated men. Consequently, the creation of female secondary schools by the Methodist,
Anglican, and Catholic missions was due to the effort of women’s organizations. They used their privileged positions as wives and daughters
of prominent men to establish schools for girls.52 In Victorian Lagos,
some of the up-and-coming Yoruba professional men were beginning to
realize what an educated woman could do for their status and career
in colonial society. Kristin Mann, in her pioneering study of marriage
in colonial Lagos, shows that educated women were in demand for
marriage.53 Not surprisingly, the ideal for such women was to become
housewives. Therefore, they had to find men financially capable of entering what came to be known as “ordinance marriages.”54 No doubt, the
Lagos elite families spent considerable sums of money to educate their
sons in England for the preferred professions of medicine and law. But,
in a sense, the education of daughters was paramount because the only
outlet for girls was to “marry well.” The greatest fear of Saro families
was the real possibility that their daughters would make a “bad marriage,” meaning the traditional form of Yoruba marriage, which permits
a man to marry more than one wife.55
By 1882, when the colonial government got involved in education
(which up until that time had been monopolized by the Christian missions), there was already a constituency of Africans, at least in Lagos,
demanding education for all children. In 1909, King’s College, a high
school for boys, was established by the colonial government. It was not
until 1927 that Queen’s College, its female counterpart, was founded. Its
founding was a tribute to the tenacity of the Lagos elite women who, in
their zeal to convince the government that there was a need for female
education, raised £1,000 for the purpose.56 The attitude of colonial government toward female education was undergoing some improvement.
In 1929, E. R. J. Hussey, one of the most outstanding British directors
of education in colonial Nigeria, advocated that more schools be built
based on the Queen’s College model because he “felt it was only when
African women were holding positions of importance in the country that
the population as a whole could be led to value as good an education
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
for their girls as they did for their boys.”57 Hussey’s linking of education and employment was insightful. But apparently this view was not
representative of colonial ideology or policy on education and employment. For instance, in 1923, when the Lagos Women’s League appealed
to the colonial government for the employment of women in the civil
service, the response of the chief secretary was: “It is doubtful whether
the time has arrived when women could be employed generally in the
clerical service in substitution for men.”58 As late as 1951, a circular on
the employment of women in the civil service stated: “Only in exceptional circumstances should a woman be considered for appointment to
senior grade posts.” The exceptions were cases involving well-qualified
women who would be unlikely to “control… staff or labor not of their
own sex.”59 This is one of the most explicit statements of colonial policy
on gender hierarchy. In other words, regardless of qualifications, merit,
or seniority, women were to be subordinated to men in all situations.
Maleness was thus projected as one of the qualifications for employment
in the colonial senior civil service. The promotion of anasex as social
identity and as a determinant of leadership and responsibility is in stark
contrast to the seniority system that was the hallmark of precolonial
Yoruba social organization. Men were to become the “inheritors” of the
colonial state. In many ways, women were dispossessed; their exclusion
from education and employment was profound and proved devastating
over time. Men had more than a head start, not only in numbers but in
what Western education and values came to represent in African societies. The ability to negotiate the “modern” world, which led to wealth,
status, and leadership roles, was increasingly determined by access to
Western education and its use for advancement.
Perhaps the most damaging lasting effect of the association of men
with education, gainful employment, and leadership may be its psychological effect on both men and women. This is reflected both structurally
and ideologically in the school systems. The notion that females are
not as mentally capable as males is commonplace among some of the
Western-educated in contemporary Nigerian society. It is part of the
colonial legacy. For example, Dr. T. Solarin, one of the most prominent educators in Nigeria, has touched on the problem of sex inequality
in education. Mayflower, the high school he founded, became coeducational in 1958. Initially, there was a lot of resistance from male students
who felt that girls would not perform as well as boys in school because
of their mental inferiority.60 Dr. Solarin was to betray the same kind
of thinking. Commenting on the differential achievements of men and
women, he pointed out that Europe had produced women like Joan of
Arc and Madame Curie, but “Africa of all continents had sat ever so
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
long and so cruelly on its womanhood.”61 His sympathy for African
women notwithstanding, it is remarkable that, based on the Western
standards of achievement that he was invoking, Africa has not produced
men of the stature of Madame Curie either. Discounting our history,
Dr. Solarin failed to deduce this fact, believing the Western-propagated
notion that African women are the most oppressed in the world. This
example illustrates the degree to which ideas about racial superiority
of Europeans and patriarchy are intertwined in the minds of the colonized — Solarin assumed that in Europe, women were treated as equal
to men, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. One wonders what
his reaction would have been to the fact that despite Madame Curie’s
exceptional achievement of two Nobel prizes, she was not admitted into
the French Academy of Sciences because of her sex.62
Masculinizing the Orisas: Sex Bias in Godly Places
The introduction of Christianity, which is male-dominant, was another
factor in the process of establishing male dominance in Yoruba society.
Christian missions in Africa have been rightly described as the handmaidens of colonization. Like John the Baptist, they prepared the way.
They did so in Yorubaland, just as in other parts of Africa. Christianity arrived in Yorubaland in the 1840s, decades before most of the area
was brought under British rule. The major missionary groups were the
Church Missionary Society (CMS) (from Britain), the Wesleyan Methodists, the Southern Baptists (from the United States), and the Catholics.
The CMS was the largest and most significant in the early period. The
first mission stations were established in Badagri and Abeokuta, but they
soon expanded to towns such as Ijaye, Ogbomoso, 0yo, and Ibadan.
In general, Christian missionaries were well received by the various
Yoruba states. In fact, there was competition among them to secure
the presence of missionaries within their borders. Although Yoruba religion always had room for the adoption of new gods, the reason Yoruba
rulers sought European missionaries was political, not religious. Yoruba
rulers needed the presence and skills of missionaries in order to secure
access to trade with the Europeans on the coast and to enhance their
position in the power struggle among Yoruba states during this time
period. Abeokuta, which became the center of missionary activities in
Yorubaland, enjoyed the patronage of Europeans, including their military support. The first Christian community in Yorubaland was founded
in Abeokuta. Initially, the community was made up mostly of Saro,
but with time they were able to recruit converts from the local pop-
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
ulation. From the records, it is not very clear what sort of people were
drawn to Christianity and what number of males and females converted.
Among the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, social outcasts and slaves,
that is, marginalized persons, were the first converts. In Yorubaland,
probably because of the presence of an already Christianized Yoruba
population — the Saro — the pattern appears to have been different.
Men seem to have been the primary targets for evangelization, a fact
borne out in the debate over polygamy. The most serious and most
enduring conflict between the church and its Yoruba converts was the
Yoruba custom of multiple marriage. It became the most explosive factor in the relationship between Yoruba would-be Christians and the
evangelists. For the missionaries, having multiple wives was not only
primitive but against God’s law: polygamy was adultery, pure and simple.63 Therefore, the minimum a Yoruba convert was expected to do
before being baptized was to divest himself of all but one of his wives.
J. F. A. Ajayi has noted that it is remarkable that the missions were
so dogmatic in their opposition to polygamy but were tolerant of slavery. The following quote, attributed to the secretary of the CMS, shows
this: “Christianity will ameliorate the relationship between master and
slave; polygamy is an offense against the law of God, and therefore is
incapable of amelioration.”64
From the perspective of this study, what is equally interesting is
how women appear in this debate. One would have thought that since
Yoruba men were the ones who had multiple conjugal partners and thus
fell outside the Christian ethos, the woman would have been the natural target for Christianization. Not so. What we find is this recurring
question: Should the church baptize the wife of a polygamist?65 The fact
that the question arose at all shows that women were not treated as individual souls for the purpose of salvation. Their individual faith was
secondary to the more important question of whose wives they were.
Regardless of the fact that salvation was to be constituted by an individual coming to Christ, women were not viewed as individuals — they
were seen only as wives. Yoruba missionary Ajayi Crowther was quick
to point out to the church that “the wife of a polygamist was an involuntary victim of a social institution and should not be denied baptism
because of that.”66 But were women victims of polygamy or victims
of the church during this period? My point is that if a polygamist became a Christian, it was only then that the question arose as to which
wives were to be discarded and which children were bastards. Women
and children were to be penalized for a cultural conflict that was not of
their own making. In fact, they were being penalized for being good cultural citizens. The implication of conversion was not lost on the Yoruba,
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
yet the church failed to address this thorny issue. The admonition of
some of the Yoruba missionaries that polygamy should be tolerated but
progressively reformed fell on deaf ears.
By 1891, various conflicts between the Yoruba Christian community and the missions resulted in secession. In popular discourse, there
is the claim that the intolerance of the church for polygamy was one
of the main reasons for the break. In 1891, the first African church
independent of the missions was founded in Lagos. J. B. Webster,
in his pioneering study of independent churches in Yorubaland, however, asserts that the emergence of indigenous churches in Yorubaland
was a tribute to how committed the Yoruba had become to Christianity.67 From my standpoint, this Yoruba commitment to Christianity
was necessarily a commitment to Judeo-Christian patriarchy, and this
represented a bad omen for women.
Nevertheless, a new era was dawning in the history of the church
in Yorubaland. In the mission churches, women had been taken for
granted; they had been excluded from the clergy and had had no official role whatsoever. But with the founding of the independent churches,
women began to assume roles that were more prominent and that were
more in tune with the traditional representation of anafemales in Yoruba
religion. As a matter of fact, quite a number of these churches were established by women. The most prominent of them was cofounded by
Abiodun Akinsowon in 1925, but there were many others.68 Women
also played important roles in the day-to-day running of the churches
and as prophets.
Although women’s role in the independent churches was more noticeable than in the European mission churches, it could never parallel the
representation of anafemales in the indigenous Yoruba religion. J. D. Y.
Peel, in his monumental study of independent churches in Yorubaland,
argues that although the independent churches gave more scope for
leadership to women, a “line is… drawn at women heading whole organizations and dominating the men as a group.”69 He claims that in
the case of Abiodun Akinsowon, men were not prepared to let her be
the overall leader of the organization. What is curious about this assertion is that Peel does not give us any evidence other than the “claim”
of some men. In fact, on closer reading of Peel’s study, one finds little
logical support for this interpretation. If it is true that men did not want
female leaders, then why did churches that were publicly acknowledged
(by both men and women) as the brainchildren of women succeed in attracting both male and female members? This question is not addressed
by Peel. There is a certain degree of male bias in the way questions are
posed in his study. Another glaring example of this is Peel’s analysis of
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
the background of church founders as if they were all male. In spite of
the fact that he documents a number of churches founded by women,
in his analysis of the social background of church founders his major
question was posed thus: “What sort of men were the founders of the
Aladura (independent) churches in these years?”70 He goes on to examine various factors such as town of origin, occupation, and education.
Gender was not made an issue because the maleness of church founders
was taken for granted.
The case of Madame Olatunrie, another prominent female leader,
calls into question Peel’s assertion of men’s reluctance to accept female leadership. According to Peel, there was a leadership tussle in the
church between Madame Olatunrie and a man, Mr. Sosan. She had
declared that through a vision, God had made her the head of the
church, and, for all intents and purposes, the church accepted her as
the leader. But Peel tries to minimize her victory over Mr. Sosan by
summing it up in this way: “Luckily, owing to the modesty of Sosan
(the man), who was chairman, a split was averted and she was given
a charismatic position over him as lya Alakoso (Mother Superintendent).”71 From this passage, we do not get a clear picture that the
woman had become the effective head of this church; it is only much
later in the study that we see a statement that Mr. Sosan succeeded
Olatunrie many years later,72 which would suggest that he indeed had
wanted to be the leader and had lost the power struggle years earlier.
The men in these churches may well have been sexist, but what is interesting is that some of the female leaders presented did not seem to
have internalized the notion that they should have lesser places in the
church than men. Madame Olatunrie and Abiodiin Akinsowon attest to
this fact. When the latter declared herself the sole leader of the church
she cofounded, she was challenged by two men in the organization and
was urged to accept the position of “leader of women.” She rejected
it, and her response is instructive: “Were there not prophetesses in the
Bible,… and had not Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire?”73 The
truth of Abiodun’s statement notwithstanding, both the Bible and Victorian England promoted patriarchy, and Yoruba society had been drawn
into their orbits. Christianity had become another vehicle for promoting
male dominance, and its impact was deeply felt beyond the boundaries
of the church.
It is impossible to minimize the impact of Christian missions in
Yorubaland. We can pursue different angles on the role of these missions: their role in the “making of a new elite”74 or their role in
facilitating colonization or even their role in the awakening of cultural
nationalism. Of particular interest here is the way in which Christianity
Colonizing Bodies and Minds: Gender and Colonialism
led to the reinterpretation of Yoruba religious system in a male-biased
fashion by theologians and churchmen.
An upshot of the Christianization of Yoruba society was the introduction of notions of gender into the religious sphere, including into
the indigenous religious system. In traditional Yoruba religion, anasexdistinctions did not play any part, whether in the world of humans or
in that of the gods. Like other African religions, Yoruba religion had
three pillars. First, there was Olodumare (God — the Supreme Being).
Olodumare did not have a gender identity, and it is doubtful that s/he
was perceived as a human being before the advent of Christianity and
Islam in Yorubaland. Second, the orisa (gods) were the manifestations of
the attributes of the supreme being and were regarded as his/her messengers to humans. They were the most obvious focus of Yoruba worship.
Though there were anamale and anafemale orisa, as in other institutions this distinction was inconsequential; therefore, it is best described
as a distinction without difference. For example, both …
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