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How Gender-Sexuality Domination Underdevelops Africa

“The Clash of Cultures: How Gender-Sexuality Domination Underdevelops Africa”


Chukwuma Charles Soludo

 Let me thank the organizers for the invitation to chair the first session of this conference on “Sexuality and Culture in Postcolonial Africa”. It is advised that when you are ignorant about the subject matter of discussion, it is better to remain silent than to open your mouth and confirm your ignorance. Let me confess that I know very little about the subject of this conference. In fairness to myself therefore, I should just declare the conference open and sit down to be educated by the learned paper presenters.

However, as I reflected a bit on the theme, I thought I should just make a few uncoordinated remarks (perhaps a digression that may sound as a rather narrow, economistic interpretation). This is not only to add comedy to my show of ignorance but perchance provoke you to also seriously extend the discourse to other aspects that go beyond academic scrutiny to even more urgent existential matters that call for immediate actions. Walter Rodney (1972) wrote a book on “How Europe underdeveloped Africa”.  But as Caesar reminded his friend Brutus in ‘Julius Caesar’, the problem may not be in our stars but in ourselves. Africa may be suffering a different kind of underdevelopment due to the persistence of a subtle but destructive war of the sexes which continue to constrain productivity and development of the continent. Issues about sexuality take on forms beyond expression of individual feelings to group consciousness and control. Stripped of all pretenses, struggles and tension over sexuality largely boil down to power relations over a woman’s body and domination of the male sex. Our thesis is that such domination has kept Africa’s development on a low speed lane. Consequently, my opening remarks will focus briefly on provoking a wider debate on “The Clash of Cultures: How Gender-Sexuality domination underdevelops Africa”.

Sexuality no doubt is a wide concept encapsulating forms, subcultures and expressions of sexual feelings, including the way religion, morals, culture, economic power, body concepts, beliefs, and laws shape one’s sexual self. Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, how and in what context we analyze sexuality might depend on which aspect we focus upon. What is constant is that sexuality and desire for sex are part of the biological person. However, because it pervades all aspects of who we are, it has been a complex subject of intense scrutiny and control by literally every human society in every historical epoch including supposedly definitive instructions from God on sexuality.

Most religions (especially Christianity, Islam and Judaism) seem to have explicit moral codes around sexuality while gender inequality and inherent bias against women are engrained in their respective stories of God’s creation. There are copious references in the Christian Bible about human body as “temple of God” or ‘your body as part of Christ’ hence ‘sexual sin’--- broadly in terms of homosexuality, adultery, fornication, lust, etc--- excludes the sinner from the Kingdom of God. Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible have become metaphors for all kinds of vice, especially homosexuality or ‘crimes against nature’. This in turn has informed several sodomy laws. The Islamic Sharia also has explicit prohibitions against such ‘sins against the body’ or ‘unnatural acts’--- which in effect seek to control human sexuality. Coincidentally, most cultures and even legal systems of the world, perhaps under the influence of the religions or independent of them, largely reflect the moral codes of the religions on sexuality.

Perhaps deriving from the inherent bias implicit in the stories of creation, a woman’s body is seen in several religions and cultures as a sex object or ‘property’ to be preserved and controlled for the enjoyment of the man. In some cultures, men are seen as aggressive and vulnerable beasts that cannot control their sex urge. Consequently, women must help to control male sexuality by covering their full body with unattractive clothes, and as much as possible be separated from men for fear of being devoured. Being just an object of male enjoyment, a woman is not expected to have independent sexual feelings and desires and hence the practice of mutilation of her sex organ. But inherent in this attempt to “preserve” the women, is also a practice that largely excludes them from the political and economic governance of the society. The “ideal woman” in this context is not expected to be in intense contact with men in the seemingly combustible boardrooms and politics.

In this circumstance, gender domination and sexuality are inextricably linked. Hegemonic notions of masculinity and feminity assume heterosexuality, with the implied gender bias in favour of men. Such a social arrangement or is it ideology with guaranteed power to men depends on the complicity of both men and women. Women, especially under the controlling influence of religion and culture, acquiesce to such arrangement as the natural order of things. Such passive acquiesance by both men and women lead to pervasive and persisting biases against women ranging from girl-child education, occupational choices, child marriages, domestic violence, burdens of widowhood, female circumcision, discriminations and harassment in the work place and governance, etc. Knowingly or unknowingly, men are presumed to benefit from such “patriarchal dividend”, but the society on the aggregate pays for it.

 Sexuality and the associated gender bias have however, greatly evolved over time—from prehistoric times through the Reformation theology and social thought, and unto modern times. The trend is clearly from pervasively intrusive, judgmental, and controlled sexuality with structured gender inequality to increasingly permissive sexuality and greater gender equality. We suggest that this trend is driven by three interrelated social forces.

The first is the economic transformation of society and the consequent breakdown of the social relations and power around the means of production. As economic organizations change from peasant agriculture to industrialization and services, urbanization and specialization emerge. Unlike in rural village settings with notions of collective morality and culture, the urban centre is a ‘no man’s land’, with impersonal and individualistic relationships. Neigbours don’t know neighbours and don’t care. Individual’s personal life becomes nobody’s business. Entirely different expressions of sexuality flourish. In this context, societies seem to disintegrate in some form from group-think and group control into individual morality and choice.  People seek to infuse logic and science into questions of individual preferences, and reject rules or morals that seemingly lack objective or materialistic interpretation. As women are empowered materially, the culture of domination including religion begins to wane as instrument of control. Expressions of sexuality and preferences acquire voice and take bold, new forms.

The second factor is democracy and the organizational power of social groups to agitate for inclusiveness and equality. Democracy, with universal suffrage is a powerful social force that can give voice to the disadvantaged. With liberties and freedoms, social forces organize, and depending on their organizational capacity, can force fundamental changes in society. Recall the power of the feminist movement, and more recently the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the Western world. These have forced much of the world to re-think the prevailing religious and cultural values as well as the legal systems surrounding sexuality.

The third force is that of education and globalization. It is said that education breaks all barriers. Once a mind has been liberated through education to start asking the question “Why?”, it is difficult to hold it back by dogma. Globalization through information, communication technology (especially the internet and global cable televisions) ensures a globalized knowledge pool. It is now increasingly difficult to subjugate and control when everyone has information about increasing liberties and freedoms elsewhere. Among the educated youth around the world, the internet is probably a more important source of information and education on sexuality than religious or cultural codes. The Beijing Conference for women was a global milestone, and Hilary Clinton’s famous statement that “women’s rights are human rights, and that human rights are women’s rights, once and for all” summed it all. It is fair to say that since the Beijing conference, there has been increasing convergence in global notions of individual’s rights to sexuality and gender equity.

To be clear, tensions remain. The progress towards more permissive sexuality is not a linear movement. Tensions exist between the conservatives who insist on the immutable interpretations of the ‘culture/traditions of our forefathers’ and the ‘word of God’ on the one hand, versus the liberal-progressives who are more responsive to the socio-political- and economic change around them and therefore seek contextual interpretation and adaptation. Around the world, this tension between the cultural-moral/religious purity (orthodox conservatives) and the liberals can sometimes boil over. In the US for example, the tension is pronounced in the fight between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ groups in relation to abortion matters. Also the fight over LGBT rights is far from over.  Elsewhere, the struggles by some groups to return the society to their interpretations of ‘what ought to be’ according to the holy scriptures or the ‘good old days of good culture’, have led to some of the most fratricidal wars going on, especially in the Middle East. One can surmise that much of the tensions around the world between ultra conservatives and progressives centre essentially around matters of sexuality and money.

Where is Africa in all of this? For sure, all the culture wars relating to sexuality are present in Africa. Much of Africa is struggling to ward off the insurgent LGBT culture. The African wing of the Anglican Communion cannot countenance women priests, and all the discriminations against women operate with even greater force in Africa.

What is perhaps more telling in the African context is the intra-society clash of cultures, especially the chasm between the urban (city) and rural (village) life. The culture of the urban Africa is rapidly converging to norms in the western countries in terms of sexuality and gender equality. On the other hand, the rural Africa is struggling to preserve the traditional African culture with conservative notions of sexuality and gender relations. The liberal-progressive urban culture almost violently conflicts with the sometimes ultra conservative rural culture, and the woman’s body and personality provide the theatre and object of the warfare. While the permissive urban culture liberates women to be more expressive in terms of their sexuality, occupational choice and productivity, the rural culture seeks to “put women in their place”, including exacting controls over their sexuality and participation in governance and production. With a vast majority of Africans still in the rural areas, it is easy to estimate how this inhibitive rural culture can constitute a serious drag on the overall development of the society.

 Numerous case studies or examples abound around Africa. Some practices in a representative rural community (village) in Igboland of Nigeria will suffice to illustrate this blatant exclusion or suppression of women’s contribution to development on account of their sexuality or gender. Under the cover of ‘culture’, one still hears such derogatory statements like: “a woman who spreads her legs and squats to urinate cannot sit with men especially titled men to discuss serious matters of the society”; or “how can a woman I paid bride price on her head sit to argue or debate with me at meetings?”, etc. In some places, women in their menstrual cycle are considered ‘unworthy’ to fetch water from the community stream or serve food to titled men. Only menopausal women are allowed into certain meetings because at that stage, they are considered to have “transformed or matured into manhood”. All institutions for governance and decision-making in the village are ‘male-only’, such as the ‘Nze na Ozo’ title society, Umunna or kindred meetings, and the village/town unions and their meetings. It is at these meetings that the rules and regulations governing the community are made and adjudications over disputes are concluded including matters bordering on property rights, land rights, inheritance, customs pertaining to marriage and funerals, and cover all issues of development such as community security, roads and infrastructure, schools and hospitals, etc. The levies for community development are also imposed only on men. The women are ‘allowed’ to have their own associations (Umuada—association of daughters of the kindred, village/town; or meeting of married women) where they discuss ‘women’s issues’ but under the rules approved by the village/town union (effectively by the men).

This male dominant culture also implies intrusive judgments on female sexuality, and therefore fosters expectations of certain standards of acceptable conduct. Some women have to distinguish between clothes to be worn in the village and in the city. In the city, women can wear skimpy skirts exposing much of their sexual endowments but expected to tie wrappers and head-ties in the village (especially the married women). In the city, a woman could be the leader of society and a bread winner for her family but in the village, the man must be seen to be in charge and the women only seen but not heard. Especially for women whose life crisscross both cultures, the city life is reality, while the village show is pretense.

With the increasing high education and participation of women in the global economy, the dominant rural economy ironically misses out on the expertise and financial resources of its female members. A woman could be president of Nigeria, governor of her state, chairperson of the local government, or minister, etc but cannot sit in the meeting of her kindred or village/town to discuss its development. The village chairman or town union president as they are often called are all guaranteed to be men. A woman could be the chairperson of the local government in charge of the villages/towns. She can summon the male-only chairmen and presidents of villages and towns to discuss the development of the local government but once she gets to her own village, she is excluded from the meeting because of her sex. Furthermore, since there cannot be taxation without representation/participation, even the multi-millionaire female CEOs of corporations as well as other highly paid women professionals are excused from levies and donations to develop the community(village) since much of these happen in the male-only meetings.  These rich women pay millions of Naira in taxes to government but are excluded from their village levies, while some very poor men from the village who line up for her charity groan under the weight of these levies. Who is losing in this instance? Consider also the case of a female professor of development economics whose driver and cook are males from the same village. When it is time to discuss the development of the village, she sits at home because of her sex while her driver and cook go to decide on her life and future in the village.  The institution of the traditional ruler especially in Igboland is also complicit in this male domination but inconsistent with the tenets of its origins. Kingship is alien to the predominantly republican Igbo society. The British introduced the concept of the warrant chief system in Igboland to facilitate its governance. However, unlike the British system of monarchy that allows for queens and kings to rule, the traditional rulership system in Igboland is again an exclusive preserve of men. In some troubling sense therefore, women are suppressed as mere spectators on matters of rural development because of their sex.

In conclusion, let me return to the theme of the conference—sexuality and culture in Africa. Currently, much of the gender-sexuality discourse in Africa takes heterosexuality as the norm with inherent bias for male domination. But over time and as Africa’s democracy and economy advance, evidence from the western world demonstrates that it is inescapable that the dominance of heterosexuality will wane, and other preferences will also be mainstreamed. Issues of exclusion or participation based on sex will become more complicated. How will the society categorize bi-sexuals and transgender in this context? How can we tightly compartmentalize the population in the context where people increasingly choose their sex through a form of genetic modification (hormones that alter sexuality)? Recently the supreme court of Nigeria delivered a landmark judgment insisting that a woman cannot be discriminated against on matters of inheritance (especially landed assets) simply because of her sex. That is great progress towards removing the remaining vestiges of exclusion. There is still a long way to go.  More fundamentally the question is the extent to which activist, deliberate actions are needed to fast-track the elimination of the clash of cultures on gender-sexuality domination thereby unleashing the fullest potentials of women’s contribution to development or whether to leave the society to evolve organically in the natural order of things? This could be a question for further research and even for the policymakers.

African Heritage Institution

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