I recently read a review of Marjorie McIntosh’s book - Yoruba Women, Work and Social Change, which got me excited because the subject matter is near and dear to me. After some internet sleuthing, I decided to add the book to my reading list. According to Amazon’s summary of the book
The Yoruba, one of the largest and most historically important ethnic groups in Nigeria, are noted for the economic activity, confidence, and authority of their women.
Taking a quick glance at the women in my family tree (Yoruba and proud!), the writer of those words seems to have captured the essence of what I know of what it means, traditionally, to be a Yoruba woman. Women several layers deep into my family tree were landowners, industrious traders, fearless risk takers and powerful decision makers, sometimes wielding power and wealth as significant, if not moreso, than some of the men. I am sure this is not unique to my family, even though this defies the common portrayal of African women as being subservient and docile. But, of course, where there is smoke, there is fire. So the question is, what were the triggers causing society to evolve away from this historic archetype of strength and independence to the present circumstances?
Although I am extrapolating the historic culture of Yoruba women to cover women of various ethnic backgrounds across the continent, I believe there is a strong thread of truth to this sentiment. This is why I am quite excited to read Ms. McIntosh’s book, which provides a historical survey of Yoruba women from 1820 to 1960, the year of Nigeria’s emancipation from colonial rule. From my understanding, the book dispels myths of the subjugation of Yoruba women to patriarchy through various historical accounts of women and their accomplishments in and outside the home.
Incidentally, my Ma and I were recently discussing the evolving role of women in Nigerian society and the part colonialism and modern religion (specifically Christianity/Pentecostalism) have played in shifting power away from women towards a subservience favouring male dominance. These themes are apparently fleshed out with more academic rigour in Ms. McIntosh’s book than in our Nokia-to-Nokia conversations. According to another review of the book, this by Cyrelene Amoah,
[Ms. McIntosh] explores the indigenous perceptions of women and men and the impact British patriarchal ideology had on the conception of gender. In the Yoruba context, the concept of gender differed from the Victorian notion of separate spheres for women and men. Men were viewed as strong, rational, economic providers; and women were the weaker, emotive group with their primary responsibilities as wives and homemakers. Yorubaland lacked such gender distinctions with both sexes sharing labor roles outside the domestic setting in commerce, production, and the service industry. For example, the Victorian gender expectation that Christian women would not have income-generating activities was simply ignored by the wife of Samuel Crowther, Yoruba missionary and future bishop, as she persisted in her trade, despite complaints to the Church Missionary Society (an arm of the Anglican Protestant Church of England) by European missionaries around 1860.
Africa, and certainly Nigeria, is a place of contradictions. On one hand, Nigeria has nurtured women like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Dora Akunyili, who for better or worse, represent the sort of female strength and accomplishment Western feminists champion. At the same time, Nigerian women have responded in a recent Pew Research poll of their disinterest in gender parity; perhaps they were actually registering their disbelief in the matter. An any rate, the mind boggles at these contradictions. It would seem that women’s rights in Nigeria are retrogressing?! And doing so as a result of historic Western influence?! Very confusing…I’m hoping Ms. McIntosh’s book will help sort this out!