Sex, Women and (Hu)Woman Rights:
Igbo women have a special place in our culture


Special to
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
The Black Business Journal


The debate on the cultural values of any society which is not rooted on some rational aetiology is sometimes problematic. I think that we could anchor some of the views that we so strongly express on the understanding that there, really, are no absolutes.

In regard to, say, poly/monogamy in Igbo land, and the quest for the male child etc., one clear thing is that a lot of what we think and say right now have been conditioned by our contact and our education within a contrarian value system. But most importantly is that we probably have not investigated the Igbo social system deeply enough, and so either misrepresent or over represent it. A lot has been lost to us.

Let's capture the key argument being made by contributing editor Chika Unigwe as published on the newspaper's web site: "It seems that no matter how much females achieve, the quest is still on for the son/sons. Only recently, a good friend of mine who has been married for five years was sent out of her marital home. Reason? Take a wild guess. You hit it right on the head. She failed in that all too important task of producing a heir. She has two beautiful, intelligent girls. Apparently, beauty and intelligence count for nothing when a family's name is at stake. Afamefuna/Ahamefuna, a name which approximates to "may my lineage not die" is still a popular Igbo name."

Almost everybody in our generation was subjected to a school system that gave us the the ideas that:
(a) the Igbo (and most african societies) were savage and primitive, and had inferior cultures.

(b) That our religion was pagan and satanic and backward.

(c) That our social system and its institutions were non productive, non sustainable and basic. Among these institutions, the marriage institution is contaminated in the discourse determined by the western value system, long used to an atomistic model, as "oppressive" to women.

Now, these are not true. I will not really elaborate too deeply on these questions, because they are vaster than this space. But I wish to suggest, Chika, that if you study the Igbo marriage system three fundamental truths exist: one, no one can force a woman into marriage. The tradition is, when any interest is shown, the maiden in question is first asked to accept or decline, and where she is uncertain, she is given the choice to go and "whisper with her mother."

Two the Igbo (this is from Basden) did emphasize the primacy of the woman, whether in a polygamous or in a monogamous relationship. If you look at the traditional architechture of the Igbo, and its spatial imperative, it gave large latitude to both the man and the woman. It is not like "the master bedroom" of western architecture.

In the western model the woman, actually has no place - the place notionally constituited for her is the "ladies room" which is a euphemism for the tiolet. So, the question of oppression among the Igbo is in fact notional. Three, studies have shown that women in polygamous relationships were less likely to die in childbirth, because they were not given to rabid procreation. You had women who had the highest of two children in traditional igbo polygamous families.

The advent of widespread monogamy actually gave rise to the pressure on women to give birth to the male child or risk "expulsion". In the past this was not neccessary. An important observation is that not too long ago, and I mean just less than fifty years ago, women in Igbo land still prefered to be married into a great Obu/Obi/Ovu. Which meant that it was an added form of empowerment, because indeed, it enhanced the woaman's fortune. Note this: the igbo system understood that women owned their own property/wealth. In actual fact, women ran what you might call the traditional economy and its vast systems of exchange. It was at the onset of the colonial process that women began to suffer oppression.

The factors are simple: the new hegemonic economy was seized by men, who were also the first inheritors of western education. The colonial policy on women education was late in Igbo land. By the time it came on, men had at least a head start of about 70 years. And women became also circumscribed under the Christian "virtue" of silence. In some qualified sense, the good Christian women never spoke when men spoke. Not so in traditional igbo land.

It was the government of the men on one side, and the government of the women on the other side, constantly mediated by various guilds of the youth. The powers were equi-final. Everybody met at the communal congress, each person with the same right to "speak your mouth" whether you were a woman or a man. The Igbo rights system was so sophisticated that, even those certifiably insane - like Jadum in Ekwulobia - had the same rights in the congress of the people.

I have merely skirted this. My point is that the problem is not within the Igbo system. It is in the system that has replaced it, and the fact that very people know the true values of the Igbo, since we have all become totally expatriated - both physically and psychically - from it. We must study it and begin to renovate it.
Nwakanma, currently writing a 'A Stifled Sneeze', biography of late poet and writer Christopher Okigbo, is a contributing editor of and a graduate student at the Washington University in St. Louis. (December 11, 2001)