Episode 5: The Invention of Women, by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí – with guest OluTimehin Kukoyi

The Invention of Women – with OluTimehin Kukoyi

Our Guest

OluTimehin Kukoyi

The Discussion

Amy McPhie Allebest: Throughout Season One of this podcast we studied essential texts in gender studies through Western civilization. We learned the historical roots of current struggles, such as prescribed roles that men assign to women. We learned that sex is biological, gender is cultural. We learned about hundreds of manifestations of the universal system of patriarchy. But what if many of these concepts are not universal after all? What if Beauvoir’s concept of sex and gender is predicated upon her being a twentieth-century, white, French woman? What if people in other parts of the world read our “essential texts” and the arguments not only don’t feel true, they don’t even make sense? Today’s episode is going to challenge some of our beliefs and assumptions and disagree with some of the authors we’ve studied that we hadn’t even thought to question. We will be centering the episode on the country of Nigeria, and I’m so excited for this chance to expand our understanding and complicate the narrative with our guest, OluTimehin Kukoyi. Welcome, Olu! And I hope I got your name okay!

OluTimehin Kukoyi: Thank you! You absolutely did. I think the rehearsing was worth it, very well done. 

AA: Thank you, I did rehearse! Well if it’s okay I’d like to start with a formal bio to introduce you and then I would love you to introduce yourself afterwards with maybe some more personal details. But to introduce you formally, OluTimehin Kukoyi is an award-winning writer, speaker, and public intellectual whose work focuses on love and freedom. She’s known for her insightful analysis of issues relating to feminism, gender, sexualities, and pro-poor urbanization. Her TED Talk on urban inclusion, which was called “Who belongs in a city?”, was delivered at TED Global in 2017, and it was acclaimed as one of the most notable talks of 2017. And I’ll add here, I just listened to it again on my way to do this episode. I am so moved by your TED Talk, Olu, I learned a lot about Lagos specifically, but then I was also struck by how relevant it felt to me. We lived near San Francisco for many years and our family would often really grapple with the unhoused poor in San Francisco, and I’ve been reading in The New York Times about the mayor of New York City, just this week, who’s deciding what to do about who belongs in a city, in Manhattan. So for listeners, the facilitator Chris Anderson at TED was absolutely floored by this talk, and brought Olu back on stage to talk more because she was just so powerful. So listeners, go watch that Ted Talk right now. Well, to continue with your formal bio, OluTimehin addressed audiences on four continents and has worked with a wide variety of corporate and civil society organizations in her home country of Nigeria and internationally. She was awarded the third Gerald Kraak Prize for her essay ‘Mothers and Men’, which is now available in print at the Jacana Media anthology, ‘The Heart of the Matter’. She has been published online by a range of platforms and, until its closure, was a staff writer at The Correspondent. Her work has been translated into 26 languages with selected publications incorporated into academic curricula in various countries. And she lives in Lagos with her family. So that’s your official bio from your website, Olu, but I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself a bit more personally as well.

OK: Introducing myself is always really interesting, especially if I’ve now sat through a reading of my official bio, because I’m just like, woah how do I follow that? [laughing] 

AA: It’s always uncomfortable right? 

OK: It really is! Well, to describe myself I’m currently a writer in transition. And what I mean by that is that I’ve spent a good part of the last decade being very vocal and producing knowledge, theorizing about my reality, shared realities that I would like to change, and just being putting out work and I’m in a place now where I think what I’m supposed to be doing is learning from others. So, OluTimehin Kukoyi is currently a writer in transition, exploring other formats of storytelling as well. So thinking about performance as a means of driving social change as opposed to just intellectual output– what does it mean to create narratives that can be embodied, that can invite audiences into the experience, that sort of thing. I am a wife, a mom, and I like the fact that I can say that and people imagine that I’m married to a man. I’m not. [Laughing] Which is very unheard of in this part of the world. Nigeria is, on paper, very hostile to queer people, and in practice as well. So we have a culture of sort of don’t ask, don’t tell and people don’t really make their relationships explicit. But for myself and my partner, not making our relationship explicit wasn’t an option. So we’re doing an unheard of thing. And it’s interesting, we’re also very loved by the people who love us, so we’re thriving in many ways despite the challenges that we experience. And I’m very committed to reckless dancing!

AA: Haha! What does that mean? 

OK: It means that I can’t hear music without moving my body, and sometimes I move my body even when there is no music. I’m the person in the aisle at the supermarket or the grocery store being like– [laughing]

AA: Oh, I love that so much, that’s so great!

OK: Yeah, and I’ve recently started a queer feminist collective called Those Girls, and our whole thing is about telling our stories to one another in ways that help us be more free. Because I think that the biggest thing that you can achieve in this world is to figure out how to belong to yourself, and how to do that in community. So, I suppose these are my preoccupations, my inclinations, my interests. And I guess this works as some sort of introduction to who I am!

AA: It does, indeed. If you could just maybe back up a tiny bit and tell us where you were born and where you grew up as well. 

OK: Oh, in Lagos. I was born in Lagos, I’ve always lived in Lagos. Well, my family is from different parts of Nigeria but my grandfather moved to Lagos in the ‘40s and got married here even though he met my grandmother elsewhere. They got married here and they’ve raised their children here. This is my maternal grandfather, and then my mother married my father in Lagos as well even though they met elsewhere in Nigeria. And all of us kids grew up here but we have ties to our hometowns in Sapele which is in Delta State to the south of Lagos, and in Ogun State which is to the southwest of Lagos. If I were American I would say that I’m from Lagos, but because in Nigeria we have a different concept of where you’re from, I say that I’m from Delta State or Ogun State. 

AA: Oh, that’s interesting because your grandfather is from there. 

OK: Yes, so you think of where you’re from as where your ancestral home is as opposed to where you’ve grown up. Although I think now it’s changing a bit because we’re so exposed to US American culture, people are like “yeah I’m from Lagos” because they were born here, but that’s not traditionally how the average Nigerian would describe where they’re from.

AA: Yeah, that’s really interesting, that is different. I suppose also we move so often and a lot of our ancestors are so new to the United States, so that would be hard to trace where we’re from. That’s very interesting. Okay, well I’d also love to give our listeners, before we dive into some of the content, I’d love to give listeners a sense of place. And so if you could just quickly orient us to basic facts about Nigeria that would be great to kind of set the lay of the land a bit.

OK: Oh, okay, this is fun. I should say thank you for providing the framework that allows me to do this in the first place. So, there are some details in here that I myself only just discovered. So picture how the continent is like a number 7, and Nigeria is the point on the west coast where the top line meets the vertical line. It’s directly south of Niger, and it’s the country with the largest population on the continent, it’s 206 million Black people. It’s a lot of us! And it also has the largest GDP on the continent even though the way this wealth is distributed is deeply inequitable. We have over 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages, the most popular of which is called Yoruba. And I think that’s because so many people who were enslaved were from Yoruba nation-states or tribes. But, you know, that’s just a theory. So the history of the region that is now known as Nigeria includes settlers trading along the Middle East and the African Sahel as early as 1100 BCE. Numerous indigenous civilizations settled in the region such as the Kingdom of Nri, the Benin Empire, which is one of my favorite empires to talk about and think about, and the Oyo Empire. Islam reached Nigeria around 1068 CE and Christianity arrived in the fifteenth century through Augustinian and Capetian monks from Portugal. From the fifteenth century onward, European slave traders arrived in the region to purchase enslaved Africans as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The capital city of Lagos– and caveat here, Lagos was originally the capital of Nigeria, it is now Abuja– so the former political, now economic capital was occupied by British forces in 1851 and formerly colonized by Britain in 1865. Nigeria was declared a British protectorate in 1901, but fun fact, the country and the entity known as Nigeria did not exist until 1914. So there was the southern protectorate and the northern protectorate, but the amalgamation of these two protectorates to become Nigeria happened in 1914. And then the period of British rule lasted until 1960, when our independence movement succeeded in regaining significant political control of our land. 

AA: That’s great, and as you read that, and I should have introduced this section this way, I did do a little bit of research on Nigeria and I provided an outline before, only because I didn’t want to ask you to spend your time doing research, and I just want this to be transparent for listeners to kind of this process…I’ve never been to Nigeria, this is completely new to me, this is your homeland, you were born and raised there. And so I felt a bit of discomfort to be honest, and as I was looking for good sources online I thought like “I don’t know who wrote this! This was written by a white colonizer that’s like in Encyclopedia Britannica that’s talking about Nigeria” and sure enough, I wrote what I thought was hopefully a factual and neutral overview of Nigeria, but you had some changes to make, Olu, right when you looked at it. Can you talk about that for just a sec?

OK: Yeah, I think it’s important to not– well to do what you did in the first instance, which is to interrogate what are the sources of this knowledge, but also to then not use passive or euphemistic language to describe what actually happened here, right? Because Nigeria as an entity is actually a colonial construct. There’s no such thing, in our indigenous conception, there’s no such thing as Nigeria. The nations that we belonged to, the ethno-states that we belonged to, were created and maintained along lines of kinship, along lines of trade, as opposed to borders that were defined by European powers for European interests, right? So Nigeria is a creation of the British. And that creation, Nigeria originally existed only as an economic enterprise to generate income for the British. Through our natural resources, through our labor, and it is only in the wake of our independence movement that we started to define a nationality for ourselves outside of being colonial subjects. It hasn’t always gone well, in fact arguably it’s gone terribly. And it’s difficult to separate the trajectory that the country is on from the trajectory that it was set on when these disparate nations were sort of lumped together by outside forces. So as a Nigerian living in Nigeria, and a person who thinks about my reality in the context of post-colonial Africa, postcolonial activity…My relationship to the country is complicated, it’s complex. And there’s no tidy way to describe the history, there’s no tidy way to describe the present. So all we can do is interrogate and illuminate the best of our ability.

AA: Thank you for that. I’d also love to ask you, because you mentioned that the Benin Empire is one of your favorites to think about and talk about, can you tell us why? Could we dive in there a little more deeply just for a couple minutes?

OK: Oh yes, absolutely. So, it’s a couple of things, right? The Benin Empire was a site of significant resistance to British and Portuguese, and to some degree French, colonial activity. So it shows up in European records quite a bit. As you may be aware, there aren’t many indigenous West African cultures that are literary. We had historically oral traditions rather than written traditions. So the records that we have are written records created by colonial forces because the mechanisms for transferring knowledge orally were interrupted by colonization. So that’s the first thing, that we have quite a bit of information about the Benin Kingdom or the Benin Empire in relation to other empires, such as the Nok Empire or Ife or even the Oyoyo, the empire that we’re going to be talking about in this conversation today. And because there’s written records, those of us today who are interested can see how rich that society was and what its priorities were in terms of protecting its people. So the Benin Empire, for instance, had the largest city wall on record in West Africa. And the city’s urban planning was beyond anything that colonial forces had ever encountered because it was designed based on this mathematical system known as fractals. So there was a center and then there was a formula that determined how the city expanded beyond the political center where the king’s palace and the wives– well, I don’t know, calling them wives is interesting, but there were ceremonial responsibilities that were held by the family that occupied the palace. And the queen mother and the wives of the king had their responsibility and the city was laid out in a way that showed not just the material priorities of the people, but also the spiritual and the social priorities of the people. And there was the use of brass and ivory and coral to create art. This was a society that was not just interested in the safety of its people, the spiritual well-being of its people, but also in cultural production, and the maintenance of historical records through song and through carvings and through ritual. So the Benin Empire is really– there’s so much history, so much legend, and it’s a great source of pride for Bini people specifically, but also for anyone who considers themself Nigerian because this is an empire whose greatness outlived even the worst kind of violence. Because this city was burned to the ground. It was looted and destroyed by the Portuguese. But despite the immense violence that was done to attempt to erase it from history, we still have all of these records of its greatness. So for me, there’s some power and pride there that I, that even though I’m not Bini myself, I still hold it very dear. 

AA: So what year would that have been roughly that the Portuguese came and burned the city? 

OK: So, the Portuguese arrived or started trading with Benin in the sixteenth century, around the 1500s that you mentioned in your piece, but the kingdom was destroyed in 1897.

AA: Wow, that is a lot more recent than I expected.

OK: Yeah, the king was deposed, a lot of the art was stolen. So if you go to the British museum, for instance, it’s still under contention to this day, you know the question of repatriation of the bronzes that were stolen.

AA: Ugh, I hate that! I have a daughter that studies history, well all of my children study history, and that’s a big thing that comes up a lot, is that we feel strongly that colonizing countries need to return art to the countries that they stole it from. And I think there’s a Netflix special on it right now, where there was this white British historian that was like “I’m so grateful for all of the African art that I grew up seeing,” completely oblivious to the fact that he was saying like, “how nice for you!” So that literally means that people for whom that is their cultural heritage didn’t get to grow up looking at their own art because you were looking at it! Oh, it’s infuriating.

OK: Absolutely. And also it really, this is a whole other conversation, but it reveals a very fundamental difference between the British/European approach to art and cultural production, and African perspectives on these things. Because the British are like “we’ll take this and then we’ll put this in a glass box to look at.” But these creations had purpose within the societies that they were taken from. They had ritual purpose, they had storytelling purpose, they had child-raising purpose. Like the veneration purposes to remember the ancestors, to honor royalty or valiant contributors to society, to represent gods, to represent spiritual forces who weren’t necessarily gods but perhaps divinities. And so they had function in everyday life. They were part of life, as opposed to something that you visited to look at. So it wasn’t just about preservation. It’s not just about preservation of relics. It’s about the fact that something that was a part of everyday life has been removed. And so there’s a spiritual loss there on top of everything else.

AA: Oh, I’m so sorry. Thank you for highlighting that. Alright, let’s move into a book that you recommended when we started planning this episode. I mean, it’s impossible: tell us about patriarchy in Nigeria. I mean it’s just too huge and too complex. And so I was grateful that you recommended this book that we could use at least as one lens to start approaching some of these topics. And so I read this book called The Invention of Women, and you’ll have to help me with the author’s name again, because I’m going to really try to get it as closely correct as I can. Can you say it and then I’ll try to say it after you correctly?

OK: Her name is Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí.

AA: Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí. Was that close-ish? 

OK: Yeah, it was close. It wasn’t as good as the first time but it was close. 

AA: [Laughing] We practiced before but I just– 

OK: The first time you did a really good job, I was so impressed. You did a really good job.

AA: Oh, gosh. I’ll practice again after, but I fear that if I try to do this I’m just going to get too nervous and that it’d get worse instead of better. 

OK: It was close!

AA: Well, thank you. So this book was so interesting to me and kind of provided the framework that I talked about in the intro of this episode, that she invited me to ask questions that I hadn’t known could even be asked. And so I’d love for you to just introduce listeners to this work. Tell us about this author’s thesis and what you think of it. 

OK: Yeah, The Invention of Women is a book that I consider a seminal work of African feminism. And I say this because Professor Oyěwùmí’s entire argument is that there is no such thing as a universal category or a universal experience of womanhood. And beyond that, even, that gender as a whole is not a fundamental social category in all cultures. And I know that this is not a thing that is foregrounded in most feminist discourse, right? In feminist discourse we generally assume that gender exists and then we problematize gender. Professor Oyěwùmí’s argument is that gender doesn’t exist everywhere, and here’s an example of a place where there’s evidence that gender doesn’t actually exist. So, her work is located in the context of Yoruba society and she uses the way that Yoruba language works, in that there is no gender in the language; pronouns are not gendered, physical objects are not gendered, gender doesn’t exist in the language. And then the fact that the society is organized around seniority, to argue that gender was an imposition that was placed upon this society, and then more broadly that gender is an imposition that has been placed on indigenous societies that were colonized outside of Africa… So her argument isn’t necessarily that every society relates to gender or relates to women in the same way, but more that there are many societies that just don’t have the conception of gender that we take for granted in the contemporary global order. The title of the book I think is a very good summation. The Invention of Women argues that for colonization to take place and to take root successfully, colonizing forces – through laws, through taxation, through strategic disempowerment in some directions and empowerments and other directions, through formal education – had to create a social context that then made the European conception of gender not just relevant but then inescapable. But this is not native to the Yoruba people, and you only have to look at the language and social order that is based on seniority to see that this is true.

AA: Yeah, so interesting. So that the concept of gender that we assume– we meaning me, you know, and as I did this education project and just took all of these feminists that I was reading at their word and just saying, oh yes of course, and assumed to be universal. She’s saying it’s actually not universal. And so it’s really mind-blowing and really useful. If I can share a couple of passages from her book that were really illuminating and showed me new ways of thinking, maybe I can share a passage and then you can comment on it, Olu, would that work? 

OK: Absolutely. 

AA: Okay, so one of the first and most fundamental things that I just had to kind of stop and think about is, she said that in the West we think of the body and biology and anatomy as destiny. And so people are primarily perceived as their bodies. And we reduce each other to our physical features and we assume we know things about each other just by seeing each other’s bodies, right? We look and we see gender as it’s expressed, we see race, we see skin and hair, and then we make a bunch of assumptions based on those visual cues. And so here’s a question that, again when I referred to questions that I didn’t even know could be asked, she says this is because white Westerners privilege sight over other senses. And I’m going to read a quote, she says:

“The reason that the body has so much presence in the West is that the world is primarily perceived by sight. The differentiation of human bodies in terms of sex, skin color, and cranium size is a testament to the powers attributed to seeing. The gaze is an invitation to differentiate. Different approaches to comprehending reality then suggest epistemological differences between societies.” 

And for listeners who don’t know, epistemology is the study of how we know things. So she’s saying that there are foundational differences between societies in how we know what we know, or we think we know what we know. So back to the quote, she says, 

“Relative to Yoruba society, which is the focus of this book, the body has an exaggerated presence in the Western conceptualization of society.” Okay, here’s what blew my mind. She says, “The term worldview, which is used in the West to sum up the cultural logic of a society, captures the West’s privileging of the visual. It is euro-centric to use it to describe cultures that may privilege other senses.” And so she doesn’t use the term worldview, she uses the term “world sense” because that is authentic to what the Yoruba experience would be. 

So for me, honestly I just had to sit there. I literally put the book down and thought, I don’t know how I would even perceive the world except through sight! That would be very difficult. And she said the term “world sense” is a more inclusive way of describing the conception of the world by different cultural groups. 

OK: Yeah, to add to what you said, Professor Oyěwùmí says that the Yoruba require more contextualizing because we are more auditory. “A world conceived of as a whole in which all things are linked together.” This is the Yoruba world, right. “Human beings inhabit many worlds. It does not privilege the physical world over the metaphysical. The concentration on vision as the primary mode of comprehending reality promotes what can be seen over that which is not apparent to the eye. It misses the other levels and nuances of existence.” So remember how we were talking about how to pronounce Professor Oyěwùmí’s name, for instance, and I explained to you that the Yoruba language is tonal? So this is one of the things, if you think about how European or eurocentric society privileges sight, I would say that Yoruba society, pre-colonial or un-colonial, decolonial, privileges story. And story is something that transcends the physical world like she said, it also has spiritual, mental, social implications. And it shows up in all of our practices. In our naming practices, in the praise songs that we sing, in the ways that we communicate through nonverbal communication, for instance, using drums or using fabric. There are so many ways that we tell stories about the world that we live in, the world that we occupy, which is shared with divinities, which is shared with forces beyond the physical. And so the idea that you could understand or fully grasp reality just by looking at something or looking at someone is actually extremely limiting, right? There’s more to life than what meets the eye, basically, and so I imagine that that’s why she de-prioritizes the idea of a worldview in favor of a world sense because then you’re sensing the world. There are so many things that I’ve heard about that were done in precolonial Yoruba societies. How messages could be sent in the way that food was prepared, how a dish was covered, the number of threads woven into a fabric could communicate someone’s willingness or preparedness to receive a lover, that sort of thing. The sort of overt, explicit, sight-based world that we live in now is not the world that pre-colonial Yoruba society occupied, from my understanding. I think I mentioned to you another book that I think could be interesting for your readers, called Sensuous Knowledge by Minna Salami. And in her book Salami talks about knowledge from two perspectives. Ogbon-inu is the inner knowing, so this is again similar to Oyěwùmí’s world sense. A knowing that comes not from what you have seen, not from what is explicit but rather from what is sensed, what is intuited as a result of being highly aware of or highly attuned to one’s social reality or the social milieu in which one is conducting one’s life. So there is a richer world that exists beyond what is immediately visible, immediately apparent. And that’s the world that Oyěwùmí invites her readers into as she begins to explain the process by which women or womanhood, and therefore patriarchy, was imposed on Yoruba society. 

AA: Yes, thank you for that foundational understanding of a different way of understanding the world and relating to other human beings within it. So one other part of the book that I thought was kind of foundational again, kind of questioned the assumptions that I had as a Westerner, was that she makes the comparison between the Western tradition, at least the Greeks and the legacy that we inherited in the West from the Greeks– And I was thinking this too as I was reading along, I thought, okay so for the Greeks the body was actually looked down on as base, and low, and it was associated with the feminine which the Greeks disdained. So [Salami] wrote:

“Until recently, if bodies appeared at all in the Western record they had articulated as the debased side of human nature. The preferred focus has been on the mind, lofty and high above the foibles of the flesh. Early in Western discourse a binary opposition between body and mind emerged. The body was seen as a trap from which any rational person had to escape. Many thinkers denied the body’s existence for certain categories of people, most notably themselves. Bodylessness has been a precondition of rational thought. Women, primitives, Jews, Africans, the poor, and all those who qualified for the label ‘different’ in varying historical epics, have been considered to be the embodied, dominated therefore by instinct. Reason being beyond them. They are the other. In European thought, despite the fact society seemed to be inhabited by bodies, only women were perceived to be embodied. Men had no bodies, they were walking minds.” 

I just thought that was such an interesting and succinct way of summing that up. And just that mind/body duality that we have in the West; mind, which is the masculine, rules the body, which is the feminine. And the point is, the way of experiencing the world, that way of knowing, is now universal. Right? That’s what she’s saying, is the Greeks thought of the mind being above the body and the masculine above the feminine. But among the Yoruba, that was not the case, right? Am I interpreting that correctly? 

OK: Well, I don’t know if I would say it wasn’t the case so much as it didn’t even exist so it’s not culturally relevant at all. That separation is not, I don’t think, culturally relevant. So in Minna Salami’s book, which I again would highly recommend to anybody who is interested in exploring African feminisms, she describes these two forms of knowledge: ogbon-inu and ogbon-ori. Ogbon-inu being intuitive knowledge, or embodied knowledge, and ogbon-ori being intellectual knowledge. And I think the way she presents it makes it very clear that there is no duality. These two forms of knowledge exist in all people, or rather, all people have the capacity for these two forms of knowledge. And in fact, to be fully actualized as a person, you need to develop both. So there is no duality in the sense of opposition. But there is duality if one thinks about integration. So embodiment is intrinsic to the ability to have a robust world sense. Even as intellectual pursuit is intrinsic, these two things must marry for a person to be actualized. There is no such thing as a rational human being who is not subjective. The idea that the height of reason is to be a floating head is fallacious. And I think when we observe the crises of loneliness, of disconnection, of increasing violence that we’re surrounded by, that are overtaking so many of our societies, I think these crises come from the idea that you can divorce yourself from embodiment. Or that you should, in fact, divorce yourself. That it is desirable or necessary, or a sign of evolution, of higher being, of superiority to divorce yourself from embodiment. So the duality I think is a misconception– I’m quite lucky, I think, to have come from a culture that wasn’t laboring under this misconception, and instead pursued integration. 

AA: Yeah, this is a new thought for me, and I think for a lot of people as we’re trying to move past that duality and the divorcing of the different parts of ourselves. And of course, embracing the rational, the unembodied head, was the masculine– and that whole thing has just messed everything up. But it’s a new thought, what you just described, to be integrated. It’s present in all human beings regardless of gender. We have the need and the capacity for rational thought and for intuition and to be embodied. I feel like the West just took this crazy, misguided path so long ago and now we’re trying to get back to it seems like what other cultures knew all along and never took that wrong path. 

OK: And I do wonder sometimes about the origins of that. I wonder how it came to be that European societies, not all of them, but southern European societies in particular, ended up on such a dehumanizing path. And I know we talk all the time about the oppression that has been visited upon the rest of the world by Europe and euro-centric ideas and structures, etc. But I think it’s important to understand that the original victim of this system is the Western person, the Western culture, and the Western society. The first set of people to be divorced from their own humanity by these patriarchal structures, these oppressive structures, these hierarchical structures that insist on interiorizing others were Europeans. And unless there is an internal reckoning with how a lust for power, for obscene wealth, and for control over others at the expense of everything, has really destroyed the fabric of white Western society in particular. Considering the rise of fascist ideology and the degree to which violence is being democratized in cases like the US, for example, I think that white Western Anglo-Saxon descendants really need to ask themselves some important questions about the direction that they’re headed in as a collective. I know we don’t talk about the white community much, but I think the white community really needs to slow down and interrogate the direction it’s going in because this myth of superiority, this myth of rationality, this myth of objectivity that has been said to all of us for centuries, is making it so difficult for white people in particular to fully actualize themselves. So I remember for instance the first time I visited England as a child being deeply heartbroken by the number of elderly people who I saw by themselves. You know, I would be at the bus station or the shops and there would be somebody clearly in their 70s or 80s having mobility issues and there was nobody there supporting them, looking out for them. And I just couldn’t understand it! I remember asking my mom, “Where’s their family? Why are they alone?” And I think that loneliness that has been produced as a result of prioritizing head knowledge, as a result of prioritizing what is framed as the masculine – control, money, power – over what is understood to be the feminine – community, nurturing, care – has really kneecapped the white community, white society, white cultures. And unfortunately if it doesn’t stop, it’s going to take the whole world down with it. Like the climate crisis is a patriarchal crisis because it’s a crisis that has been produced by overproduction, and overproduction is a colonial logic. This idea that there will always be more to be extracted comes from colonization. It comes from whiteness as not an identity, but as an ideology. So there is deep work that needs to be done to allow white communities, white societies to remember what indigenous societies who didn’t divorce themselves from the land, didn’t divorce themselves from their ancestry, didn’t divorce themselves from the metaphysical and the spiritual world… It’s important for white societies to begin to remember these types of knowledge, even if it means just accepting that there’s no such thing as inferior and superior, there is only what supports life and what produces death. 

AA: Wow, that’s quite an indictment and I couldn’t agree more with you. I mean it’s all around us, there’s no denying it. I guess it’s on us to decide what we’re going to do moving forward given the egregious sins of the past and of the group that I belong to, of my own ancestors. It’s heavy to bear that.

OK: And I think even beyond what is ancestral, what is at present. Because there’s only so much that can be done about the past, right? It’s important to learn about the past so as not to repeat those pitfalls, but what is possible in the present based on what is known of the past to interrupt this process that is producing more and more harm? Producing so much harm within the family; it’s not coincidental that so many people who are mass shooters, for instance, also have records of domestic violence, gender-based violence. It’s not coincidental that so many incels are being produced– it’s not coincidental. So beyond even ancestral, grappling with ancestral legacies, which truly is an immense task, there is the task of the present. How can the present be interrupted and redirected in a way that reduces the harm and the violence that so many of us have to contend with?

AA: I think that’s exactly right. And yes, I suppose that’s a great way of summing up why… to what end are we looking at history? And for me it’s personally exactly why you said. To look at history and understand why we are where we are so that we don’t continue mindlessly on this same trajectory that we’ve been on for centuries, for millennia in some cases. And like I said, to read The Invention of Women, for example, and see in the Yoruba another possibility for how to live a human life – It doesn’t have to be this way, it’s not universal, it’s not through all times and places. And it opens my mind at least to other possibilities, and we can use that to inform what we want to do next. 

OK: Absolutely. 

AA: So, I’m wondering if we can say a couple more things about the Yoruba before we move on to modern Nigeria, because I think it was so interesting to–  Just to wrap this up, this theme of a society that is less visual and less categorizing into “you are this kind of person, you are that kind of person.” And she talks about how, I mean obviously there are biological facts that there is a type of person who becomes pregnant and gives birth, I mean that’s observable in real life, but she says that the difference was that those biological facts did not determine who could become the monarch or who could trade in the market. It was much more communal in terms of raising that child. And what you just talked about even in your own life observing, downstream, still part of Nigerian culture is that communal sense of family which is really cool. But one more thing I wanted to say, and you mentioned this earlier, is that she talks about in the book how when Europeans arrived, of course they wanted to record everything in written language all of these things that had been oral tradition. And so when they were writing down what they were observing in these cultures, in these societies, I’m sure they were interviewing people but then just observing through their own experience, through their own lenses… And one mistake they made that she points out in the book is that when they were writing down the lineage of monarchs, they would filter what they heard through their own lenses. And so they’d hear “this person was the monarch and then that person before them was the monarch” and they would write them as kings because they would assume that they were masculine. Is that right?

OK: Yes. 

AA: And so they just assumed all these patriarchal norms and then incorrectly recorded them and then, in addition to that, imposed their own European patriarchal norms on the culture. And so I think one of the things that she’s saying in her book is that yes, there is patriarchy in Nigeria, but it doesn’t go back forever and it’s mostly the fault of Europeans. Am I understanding that correctly?

OK: Yes, yes. So this could be a good place to mention that Professor Oyěwùmí has another book called What Gender is Motherhood?, and in this book she explores this biological factor we’ve pointed out here which is just that only certain types of bodies can get pregnant. But what does that mean in the Yoruba world sense that certain types of bodies can get pregnant and how is society organized around motherhood as opposed to, you know, gender. And I think it’s a really interesting book so that’s another recommendation for listeners if they’re interested. So, it wasn’t just that patriarchy and gender interpretations were imposed on narratives around monarchy, for instance, it was also assumptions around the extent of control that these monarchs had over the societies that they were part of. So we must think about patriarchy not just as a system of gender organizing but more importantly as a system of power organizing. And it’s a system that organizes power according to gender, it’s not just a gendered system. So the assumptions were made 1) that the monarchs mentioned were men; 2) that these men had the divine right of kings similar to what exists or existed in Europe. And both of these assumptions were incorrect. And it took a lot of time and the unearthing of more accurate interpretations of oral traditions by indigenous scholars– so some of these rebuttals were written eighty, ninety years after the original mistranslation had been done. So when you think about almost a century passing where a society has been represented as having only male monarchs, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to undo that idea. So there are a lot of Yoruba people who don’t know that there were rulers in our society who were cisgender women. There were also ritual obligations around monarchy in relation to motherhood. So this is where it gets interesting in the sense that any body, any physical body could occupy the throne, could occupy the place of a monarch, but pregnancy was not traditionally allowed within monarchy. So, you see how biological facts are not actually irrelevant. Because this is an argument that people sometimes make that, “well, gender may be social but biology is biology and a woman being king doesn’t mean x,y,z.” Yeah, even if women didn’t exist in the contemporary sense, pregnancy has always existed. And there was a separation often, in many Yoruba societies, between the monarchy and motherhood. Because both a monarch and a mother have extremely significant spiritual responsibilities in their society. And those two responsibilities generally do not and cannot mix. So these are nuances that are just lost in translation when an ethnographer is like “just tell me the lineage and I’ll write it down.” These are things that the teller, for instance, can take for granted because that’s their world sense so there’s no need to make it explicit. But the hearer is hearing not just what is being said, but what they understand to be what is possible. So there’s so much nuance that is lost… I think I’ve forgotten the original question, I’ve gone off on a tangent now!

AA: No, not at all!

OK: Now we have a much more simplistic understanding of the role of the man or the role of the woman in society because our society has taken up, by way of formal education, by way of religious indoctrination, by way of social and economic rewards, we’ve taken up so many of these euro-centric ideas to the point now where there are people who believe that Yoruba society has always been identically patriarchal to European societies. And I’m like, “how can you possibly believe that? We don’t even have a way to distinguish between a man and a woman in our language!” All our pronouns are non-gendered. The only way that you can distinguish between people using pronouns is along the lines of seniority. And this is one of the central points of the book, right? Yoruba society is not organized according to gender, it’s actually organized according to seniority. And seniority is not just a function of birth order within a lineage, for instance. It’s a bit more complex in the sense that seniority is about how time intersects with social activity. So Oyěwùmí explains how within a particular lineage, if someone is my sibling or my uncle or my mother, they have seniority within the bloodline that seems to be just based on age. However, if someone were to marry into the family, an anatomical female, or as Oyěwùmí describes, an “anafemale”… If an anafemale were to marry into the family, regardless of her age, regardless of her chronological age in relation to me, she would actually be junior because the time at which she has entered the lineage is a time after which I entered the lineage. So there’s this question of senior and junior which is very different from the question of superior and inferior. Right?

AA: Yeah, for sure. 

OK: So there are assumptions of respect, assumptions of deference, assumptions of power even, as far as it comes to controlling resources, making decisions, that are organized according to these questions of seniority. And seniority doesn’t only exist in the context of bloodline, it also exists in the context of trade, or spiritual responsibility, apprenticeship in the Ifá system, for instance. There are many ways and many contexts in which seniority plays out. But we have a way in our language of noting the senior; if I were to refer to someone as my senior I would refer to them as “Ẹ”. And if I were to refer to someone who was my contemporary or my junior I would refer to them as “O.” And then if I wasn’t sure where they stood in the order of things I would just use the neutral “Mo,” which confers sufficient respect that if they’re a senior they would not be offended, but also doesn’t necessarily assert that I am a junior. 

AA: Oh, interesting. And then do they reply in a way that says “oh yeah, I’m your senior” and you kind of establish it in the conversation?

OK: Yeah, it usually tends to come out in conversation or in interaction. So that’s also another thing that comes out of communal interactions. You can get our cues for how to conduct yourself from others, it’s interpersonal interaction and it’s also communal interaction. And so things don’t necessarily have to be made explicit. Remember when I said that there are so many ways to communicate that exist, so in the fabric that a person is wearing, in where they’re seated in a gathering, in the way that they’re greeted… You see there are many ways that you can be cued into where somebody stands in relation to you. And there are also ways in which your relationship might shift. So there might be contexts– perhaps in the lineage I’m a junior whereas maybe as a tradesperson I’m a senior. With the same person. So we can occupy multiple identities and interact with each other along multiple positions because these things are dynamic and they’re fluid. And I think that’s also part of why power can be negotiated, or Oyěwùmí argues that power can be negotiated within Yoruba society in a way that isn’t necessarily possible in a postcolonial euro-centric society. Because these identities and these positions are not fixed. So that’s something that I really enjoy about Yoruba culture, which is that even though it’s organized along principles of seniority and therefore respect, there are many mechanisms for the junior to call out misbehavior, misconduct, abuses of power from the senior. So even though there is a differential in seniority or in rank, there isn’t necessarily a differential in power. And if you understand that it’s fixed differentials in power that produce abuse, then you can see how a flexible dynamic system makes it a bit harder to be oppressive. 

AA: Yes, yes! So what you’re saying is that you don’t continue for hundreds of years with oppression that nobody is allowed to talk about until it finally explodes in the #MeToo movement or something!

OK: Yeah exactly! [laughing] Because if for instance, a junior woman encountered a senior man who is abusive, she could use the power of women who are senior to that man, just as a theoretical example, to shame him, to curb him, to prevent him from continuing to be oppressive. So it’s not to say that Yoruba society is a utopia where harm isn’t done or abuse doesn’t take place, but that because power is flexible and dynamic within the society, and even the junior is empowered through mocking songs, for instance– there is a word in Yoruba that is “Agbaya” which is an elder who disgraces their elder position. So there are frameworks within society that allow you to assert that somebody has authority or seniority and is not wielding it well. 

AA: Wow, fascinating. I do want to ask, kind of at the end of our conversation, the question about modern Nigeria. And this will just sound like a rhetorical question but to say: does patriarchy exist in your experience in Nigeria, and if so how?

OK: Oh my god, absolutely! 

AA: It can sound like it’s completely free of these patriarchal constructs, I know that’s not quite the case, so how would you answer that question?

OK: Oh my goodness. If we’re to go back to some of the points that we discussed earlier in the conversation, Nigeria is a colonial construct. And it’s not possible for something that emerged from colonization to be devoid of colonial ideologies. For Nigeria to succeed, it had to perpetuate the structures, the systems that were put in place when it was created. So yes, Nigeria is absolutely a patriarchal society. The obvious examples being in interpersonal relationships within the family, within institutions, patriarchy is everywhere. So we have taken on, through our formal education systems, through religion, and through media conditioning, the idea that the man is the natural superior and the woman is the natural inferior. And because cisgender women, children, and queer people are made vulnerable within these systems, there are now social mechanisms that exist to maintain this patriarchy. So, domestic violence is frowned upon and condemned publicly but it’s extremely rampant. Violence against children, which is another form of domestic violence, so normalized people vehemently defend their right to beat children, to abuse children, by overworking them or using them as little adults within the home. Burdening them with responsibilities beyond their capacity to bear. This is very normal. And then there’s the violence that comes from class and poverty which is also very widespread. Nigeria is a very classist society, as you might imagine, if the British were the colonizers here then we would just take on classism very naturally. They do believe that wealth is a virtue and poverty is deserving of punishment and suffering, and it shows up in the way that we interact with poor people, the way that we impoverish people and then blame them for their poverty. There’s also state violence, which I think is one of the more under-discussed forms of patriarchal violence in this country. The violence that happens in the context of the home or the family is mirrored by the violence that happens in the context of the state; so police brutality is an issue here. Not in the same ways that it exists in the US– the odds that police officers would just randomly shoot large numbers of people over the course of time aren’t very high– but extrajudicial arrests, beatings, extortion, these things all happen. So patriarchy is very present, and there’s almost no way to escape it. Regardless of how you’re conducting your life, as long as you are seen to be a person who is inferior within patriarchy, you will have to experience or navigate or negotiate with these forces. And there’s no escaping it in these modern times. There just isn’t.

AA: Can you talk a little bit about initiatives or movements that do exist that are trying to deconstruct those systems?

OK: There are many formal and informal movements that exist. Being a young feminist myself, or young-ish at this point, I’ve been part of some of the more recent movements. But there have been organized movements around gender and around labor in Nigeria since the ‘70s and the ‘80s. Some of them led actually by women in very traditional but very powerful roles. So I’m thinking about, I believe it was called Women in Nigeria, that was led by the wife of the then-president– no actually he was a military general. So this was a person that had taken over the country via coup, but then his wife started a grassroots movement to organize market-women in physical labor, women who didn’t necessarily have tertiary formal education or even secondary formal education. And so Women in Nigeria was quite a strong movement I believe in the ‘80s in Nigeria, that organized around gender, around physical safety in the context of marriage and heterosexual relationships and around labor.

AA: Wow.

OK: And then subsequently there have been other movements that were offshoots of that. I know Nigeria had a very strong presence at the Beijing Conference in 1995, because I’ve been connected with some of the feminists who were working on issues – they’re now women’s rights activists because feminism is contested here. There are many women who are like “yeah, I believe in the rights of women but I’m not a feminist” because they think that feminism is too radical and it’s like man-hating. So besides the women’s rights movements or feminist movement, more recently there’s also the LGBTQ rights movements. Young queer people are not having it anymore. Long and short. They’re like “we don’t have to put up with this” and there’s a lot of energy and organizing going on around building capacity and strengthening people’s self-identity and their ability to heal from the traumas of growing up in a patriarchal, queerphobic, and transphobic society like Nigeria… Advocating for rights, I know that there have been efforts to overturn the laws that criminalize queer existence and expression in Nigeria. So even though patriarchy is very deeply embedded in our society, it’s not unchallenged. I know that some high profile pastors have been called out for their abuses of power, raping congregants, and– progress is slow but it’s happening. It’s there.

AA: That’s great to hear. I was actually gonna ask you earlier when you were introducing yourself and talking about your current family, is your marriage legal? Is same-sex marriage allowed?

OK: No. Same-sex marriage is explicitly outlawed. Same-sex relationships, same-sex affection, living together, all of these things are explicitly outlawed. 

AA: Affection? You can’t hold hands in public? 

OK: You can’t hold hands. But strangely enough, same-sex identity – I guess that’s not strange because how do you legislate against identity, although the US seems to be doing a really good job with that with transgender people–

AA: That’s true.

OK: But same-sex identity is not criminalized but same-sex affection, same-sex relationships, same-sex marriage absolutely… in fact the law, the most recent one that was passed in 2014 by one of our more progressive presidents, allegedly, is called the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act. Never mind that nobody in Nigeria has ever actually tried to organize for the right to marry, it’s very fascinating. It’s like we have more pressing problems. Because marriage is inviting the state into your relationship, right, but if you’re organizing within a state that’s actively hostile to your existence, you don’t want to invite the state into your relationship. Especially when you can have ceremonies around your commitment, around your love that don’t involve the state and are just as valid. 

AA: I see. But do you have things that, I just know that based on the movement here in the US, that a union that’s recognized by the state enables or unlocks a lot of civil rights that you don’t have otherwise. Like even visitation rights in a hospital, or property rights, inheritance rights, rights to children, if you have a legally recognized marriage by the state, it does make a difference. Is that not the case there?

OK: Well the thing is, even for heterosexual marriages here, the rights that a woman has within a marriage are so limited that they’re not really worth fighting for. For instance, a woman cannot confer citizenship to her children if she’s married to a foreign national. Feminists are still fighting for spousal protections in the event of the death of a spouse as it relates to inheritance. So even heterosexual marriage is not a very great experience here. Therefore fighting for same-sex marriage would not be a good use of anybody’s time. And my personal position really is that there shouldn’t be a system that privileges certain relationships over others, but that’s a whole other conversation. Let’s not even get into that! [laughing]

AA: Wow, that’s so interesting!

OK: Yeah, we have a long way to go. You must remember that our democracy is extremely young, and the laws that we’re fighting against are the most archaic, the most authoritarian, the most dehumanizing laws because the people who designed our original constitution did not see us as humans to begin with. So we’re coming from a very far country, metaphorically. The road that we have to travel is quite long, we haven’t had time to reach our 12th and 14th and 15th amendments. 

AA: Yeah, wow, what an interesting way of framing that. Well, Olu, this has just been so illuminating. I’m so grateful for this conversation. I expected to have a complicated conversation and have all kinds of new things introduced, and I’m so grateful for the books that you recommended, so grateful for you sharing all of your experience and wisdom. Are there any last thoughts that you’d like to share with listeners?

OK: I think… The world is big, but if you have a bigger heart you’ll be fine. If you have a bigger heart and you have a lot of curiosity, you’ll be fine. The problems are big, the world is bigger, the problems are big but curiosity and generosity of spirit will allow us to imagine new realities and then heed the courage that is necessary to make those realities possible. So just be more open, I’m saying to your listeners, be more open because there’s so much out there.

AA: Beautiful. Well thank you once again for being with us today, I’m so grateful for this conversation. 

OK: Thank you so much for having me, Amy, I really enjoyed talking with you. 

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