Feminism in “Family Bonds/Conceptual Binds” by Oyeronke Oyewumi
Nigerian sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi is specialized in the sociology of gender, culture, race, knowledge, sociology of inequalities, decolonial, and pan-African studies. In African studies, the production of knowledge has been a privilege of the West, that is, Western constructions are assumed universal too often. In Oyewunmi’s article, “Family Bonds/Conceptual Binds,” she argues that feminism is all about white people (white feminism), and how Euro-American women are seen as wife, but African women are seen a mother. (Oyewumi, 2000) For instance, women are seen as wife because of the concept of gender and how they are seen as a subordinate category. The society belief is that gender is represented by bodies, that is, male bodies, female bodies, black bodies, white bodies, and so on. The body is given an argumentation of its own because the society believes that just by looking at it, a person’s beliefs and social status can be seen. (Oyewumi 1997, pg. 1)
In my opinion, Oyewumi challenged some certain ideas that are common in Western feminist writings, such as, the existence of an essential, universal category “women”, gender as a fundamental organization principle in all societies, and the idea that the category “woman” is precultural, fixed in historical time and cultural space in antithesis to “man”, which resulted from the fact that in the Western societies gender and sex are the same, that is, social bodies are always physical bodies because the word gender has come to signal sexuality. The word “woman” is derived from Western experience and history from dissimilarity among the body, mind and soul from ideas about biological determinism and the link between the body and the social. She argues that dualism is variation on the theme of male and female bodies hierarchically ordered, differentially placed in relation to power, and spatially distanced from one another.
The body is in the construction of social categories persistency and centrally. In other words, the society is seen as an accurate reflection of genetic endowment, that is, those with a superior biology inevitably are those in superior social positions. She convincingly argues using pre-colonial Yoruba society as a case study, which is that gender as a categorization of analysis works only for the Western societies and cultures, the same analytical assumption cannot be applied to other areas of the world unless one wants to urge Western gender assumptions to interpret other cultures. Oyewumi quoted Miriam Johnson stating how marriage is a trend of adulthood which gave meaning to the word “wife” among the western middle-class white women because of the way they are socially constructed to appear within the institution. Although, the word “wife”, has its position and locations configured and understood because the woman in feminism is specifically a wife as if she was a generic woman. For example, in various studies that claim to be about gender relations, women are effectively a close term used with gender which should include both women and men. The word “woman” is used as a synonym for “wife” both ideally and expressively in the society, while the word “man” as a synonym for “husband.”
Oyewumi dismiss a comparably perceptible mechanism at work in African societies. Her main argument is that unlike the Euro-Americans, African cultures are not and have not historically been directed according to the logic of vision, but preferably through other senses. In other words, she proposed that the notion of a “worldview” is only suitable to the European context. She also proposes that “world sense” is a better match for the African way of knowing. (Oyewumi 1997, pg. 3) For instance, among the Yoruba, biology was not used to describe or establish social relations, subjectivity, positioning and hierarchy because there was no “woman” before colonization. However, among the Yoruba, “oko” which means husband in English is not gender specific because it incorporates both males and females. In other words, females too bear the role of husband. For example, in the Yoruba culture, an elderly person can call a child her husband, that does not mean there is anything going on between them because there is a little comprehension that African social arrangements, and familial derive from various conceptual base. In addition, the Yoruba women may oversee a good part of food supply, cash assembling, important markets, and trade in distant but must pretend and be obedient kneeling to serve their husband while addressing them.
Also, Oyewumi opposes the idea that a western categorical schema for understanding society and social dynamics can clearly be exported elsewhere. For instance, among the Europeans, wifehood tends to be a trend that function alternatively as a role than a deeply felt identity which is usually positioned strategically. For example, the word “Mrs.” which means the mistress of. Thus, “iyawo” in Yoruba which means wife in English, is not a gender specific role but instead it personifies relations of submission between any two people. For instance, in Africa, it is hard to combine woman and wife as one because wifehood in diverse African societies has been seen as a functional and a necessity at the same time because of the evolutionary period that leads to motherhood. For example, mother is a better and an appreciated self-identity of an African woman. The foremost principle of the organization of African families has been blood related and not marriage, that is, a woman does not own her family but the only family she owns is her blood family because blood relation forms a family. In many African societies, many brothers and sisters live together along with the wives of brothers and children because seniority orders and divides Yoruba society. Seniority refers predominantly to sequential age difference.
Yet, it also refers to a factor positioning within the kinship structure. For instance, an extended blood relation is always senior to an outsider who is marrying into the family, that is, seniority is based on birth order, in other words, the first born is senior to all the other children. For example, even if someone is the first born, that is, the senior in relation to the other members of the lineage, if the person marries out, then she automatically is junior with respect to her spouse’s lineage. I believe for Oyewumi, seniority cuts through the distinction of wealth, rank, and sex which has nothing to do with biology because the nonexistence of gender in the Yoruba culture has to with the fact that the social institutions and practices do not make social significance in terms of anatomical difference. Oyewumi gave an example about the Akan family system in Ghana and how they are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal. (Oyewumi, 2000) This complicates the matter more. Also, the most essential, ties within the family flows from the mother’s side in all African families.
These ties connect the mother to the child and binds all children of the same mother in bonds that are conceived as natural and unbreakable because that’s her own family. Furthermore, Oyewumi also gave a detailed argument that language is central to the evolution of social identity, that is, language represents significant sources of information in constituting world sense and interpreting the social structure in the Yoruba culture. For instance, the unavailability of a symbolic layer to the meaning of gender distinction in Yoruba culture signifies that there is no noun similar to woman or man, that is, the terms clearly cannot be translated unlike various European languages, where the classification of woman or female is usually marked as other to man or male, that functions as the norm. But the only distinction possible is between female and male. Ideally, social identity and positioning is obtained through a complex and active web of social relations. For example, names, occupation, status and so on are not marked linguistically in terms of gender.
So, categories that have the mark of gender in English have no equivalence in Yoruba, that is, there is no gender specific words that indicates son, daughter, brother, or sister. Yoruba names are not gender specific and neither are husband and wife because there is no privilege over one another on the account of social positioning and the identity obtained through a complex and active web of social relations. Finally, in expressions of the question of gender, the forcefulness and conviction at work in Oyewumi’s account is such that her account of seniority must be taken solemnly and be explored beyond Oyewumi’s own project. Notwithstanding her beliefs about the nature of language and its relation to power, she still succeeds in illustrating the need to be aware of the issue of automatically importing assumptions about the structure of society under study which may not apply on the ground. To devote oneself to the belief of gender is to remain unquestioningly embedded within a certain western intellectual tradition of critique, clearly this does not mean that this tradition is itself stable and permanent.
All future research into gender outside of the west should consequently be mindful that it runs the chances of projecting into the society that which is not there at a digressive level. With this constant attention about the warning of conceptual projections in mind, it is then viable to review the ways in which gender inequality may yet still exist by other means despite its absence within conversations or maybe gender distinction and discrimination on more exploration is somewhat absent. The existence of woman-woman marriage practice in Africa has been vigorously opposed for centuries, mainly due to the imported colonial values and obscurity as to what constitutes gender bending and homosexuality. Occurrence of woman-woman marriage in traditional African cultures are prominent in many historical, critical, and theoretical texts. In contemporary Africa, there are still cases where women use their reputation to attain wives, that is, challenging gender norms. For instance, in Kenya, women who are wealthy are permitted to attain wives in Gikuyu ethnic groups.
Woman-woman marriage is performed to follow the customary rites of at least five communities in Kenya, including the Nandi, Kisii, Kamba, Kuria and the Kikuyu, which has been recognized by the courts in Kenya. As I position to the powerful emotional commitment that are shown by these women to one another by shedding expository light on the gapping of exclusively functionalist recognition of woman-woman marriage relationships. In Njambi’s and O’Brien’s interviews, there is a challenge that generalized conceptualization of women which is initiated as “’female husbands”’ which is an idea of patriarchy. (Pg. 2) In other words, the word female husband, inflicts a male characterization into a position where it does not exist in. However, when highlighting the word also instigate a sex role belief or thoughts that do no suit the Gikuyu women, because they are angry at the suggested male identification concerning their roles due to the fact that the roles are being sexualized. The Gikuyu are the largest ethnic groups in Kenya, and they predominantly occupy the administrative unit of Central Province and it’s commonly called the Kikuyu land. (Njambi and O’Brien, pg. 2) A case study was carried out on the women which depends upon the situated words to illustrate the woman-woman marriage and give an explanation from their point of view.
During this study, majority of the woman-woman marriages are involved in peasant farming in order to make a living, splitting their agricultural production between cash crops and subsistence crops, which is a form of representation in the rural setting. Also, some women were active in other occupations, such as, market trading of small commodities, shop ownership, and in matatu, that is, mini bus driving. (Njambi and O’Brien, pg. 3) Among the Kikuyu, there is no formally acknowledged term for woman-woman marriage, and it is generally referred to as Uhiki. The use of these traditional terms is an explicit indication that woman -woman marriages in pre-colonial Kenya existed and were considered as a dominant institution in these communities. Moreover, the fact that in some communities, such as the Kikuyu, the traditional term directly translated to the word ‘marriage’ obviously clarifies that woman-woman marriages were not just formalized unions, but instead they were recognized as a form of African customary marriage. Socially significant traditions such as woman-woman marriage is forgotten, or it receives a little thought notwithstanding the advantages that the institution notices for the feminist movement.
In the traditional society, yet, the gravity of roles women play in the society was distinctly recognizable in such instances as matrilineal dominion and cycle. The case study plays a vital role in spotlighting the importance of tradition such as woman-woman marriage in the cycle of the autonomy of women in society and ease of succession and ownership of property in matrimonial and other causes as well as considerations of heredity. For example, in Njambi’s and O’Brien’s interviews with woman-woman couples among the Kikuyu in Kenya, all women shared the commonality of owning land, allowing them to use their economic privilege to acquire wives. More importantly, assumptions that status alone allows for woman-woman marriages practice delegitimizes the potential reality of relationships between women based on love and desire. For example, when they interviewed a Kikuyu woman husband couple and how she reveals a monogamous relationship based on an emotional bond. Woman-woman marriages varies with the diverse range of women who practice this marital structure. Practically, the entire Gikuyu women engaged in the woman-woman marriage have an education system, at least a primary school education. Although, the comprehensive diversity of age and education indicates that woman-woman marriages continue to be a relevant potential life option for the Gikuyu women.
To place in context, woman -woman marriage as a form of African customary marriage, it is significant to apprehend the context of the family and marriage as well as the role of the state in the regulation of the institution in the Western and in Africa. In the Western society, there are two main and competing perspective on marriage. Firstly, it considers the matrimonial view that defines the state of marriage as a union of a man and a woman who make a persistent and exclusive commitment to one another of the type that is naturally fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together. This union enjoys particular preference within the moralist, traditionalist and religious view. Social theories on the reasons for the existence of a state further support this view and provide that society exists for two fundamental reasons, which are, for the purpose of reproduction and self-preservation. While the other view is the revisionist view. The basis of marriage in the revisionist view does not definitely focus on any form of propagation or the benefit of the marriage to the society.
Preferably, its focus is the personal satisfaction of the couple who choose to come together in the marriage, which makes the traditionalist view focus more on the society. Woman-woman marriages are contemplated under feminist legal assumption that gives discussions to definite matters debated by the theorists above. I believe the reasoning of woman-woman marriage challenges the social construct of biological and gender roles for women presumed by the society. For instance, the traditional marriage in Africa was formed on the concept of patriarchy, the propagation of lineage and relegated women to the roles of reproduction and nurturing, and polygamy. Anyway, woman-woman marriages disputed the roles of women in these traditional marriages and permitted women to suit male gendered roles breaking away from the sociological construction of the Western and African societies.
It is essential in the conceptual arrangement on the justification of woman-woman marriages as a policy where women, who have been historically suppressed in African communities are able to rise above their permitted status in societies, and also engender change on the power dynamics in the contrast created by patriarchy. The establishment of woman-woman marriages allow women to participate better in many political, economic and social domain of the community. The establishment also provides a path where women are fit to take up political positions reserved for men, own their property and pass it on to their lineage, acquire social ranks based on their empowerment in the economy, and their capability to take on the gender status of men in some societies, that is, the ability to marry another woman. Kenyan women have risen above the hurdle of patriarchy and adopted an equal status to men in the society and woman-woman marriages triggers the means to do this. Woman-woman marriages confronts the establishment of the marriage and the justification of the woman in the society, setting the understanding of the earned status, that is, the female husband and empowering her to engage vigorously in new political roles in community.
For instance, it examines the variance of power and gender inequalities sustained through patriarchy and gender roles in the traditional establishment of marriage and pre-colonial cultural communities. Which led to the establishment of the institution of woman-woman marriage as a path where social inequality and gender biases can be evaluated, and women can notice equal characterization in the family. Yet, woman-woman marriages were between two women, generally for purposes other than sexual relations. Woman-woman marriage as an institution of African marriage, satisfies the need of societal compliance to the need for marriage to satisfy the society. For instance, it is a form of customary African marriage where a woman marries another woman and presumes control over her and her family. Although, in Africa, the origin of the family was kindred to that of the Western societies with regard to the early beliefs of the logic for marriage, for example, propagation of lineage and kinship, families were not formed on monogamous and nuclear relationships. I think they need to take away the idea of women can’t be women without the role of a gendered male characteristics in Africa and Western society because the society as a whole is being sexualized and being though that there has to be a male character in order to form a family. Still in Africa, marriages are set for the purpose of creating new lineages and forms of kinship.