The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of the Western Gender Discourses

The Invention of Women by Oyeronke Oyewumi is a comprehensive look into the theory that gender is not a social category in all societies. Oyewumi’s study is concentrated in the Yoruba in western Nigeria. According to Stony Brook University, where Oyewumi is a faculty member in the sociology department, Oyeronke Oyewumi makes the case that the narrative of gender corporeality that dominates the Western interpretation of the social world is a cultural discourse and cannot be assumed uncritically for other cultures. (Stony Brook University, retrieved Aug. 2006)

Western society is considered to have manufactured the gender role stereotype. It is Oyewumi’s task to convince readers that when studying the Yoruba one must not consider gender; for it is Oyewumi’s belief that the Yoruba’s organizing principle is not established by gender but rather seniority. This claim is supported by: a) there is no mark of in the Yoruba language (whereas seniority is linguistically marked and is therefore an essential component of Yoruba identity); and b) Yoruba social institutions and practices do make social distinctions in terms of anatomical difference.

Throughout The Invention of Women, Oyewumi informs the reader of Yoruba’s practices and traditions. She gives examples of the contradictions between the ideals of the west and that of the Yoruba. Contrary to western society, the Yoruba’s society is built on seniority. Yoruba establishes seniority from the beginning of any interaction amongst families. Even within one’s family, seniority is established early on, changing as the family grows or when members leave after marriage. Oyewumi explains this cultural view not as a “worldview” as seen in European societies but as “worldsense”. This sense is best described as the order of African culture by use of senses other than vision. Noted feminist Bibi Bakare-Yusuf states:
For Oyewumi, students of Africa must recognize that a greater degree of conceptual sensitivity is necessary in order to understand non-western social structures. More specifically, she claims that in the Yoruba context, a different structuring principle is in operation and needs to be theorized. (Bakare-Yusuf)

Interestingly, it is Bakare-Yusuf who has strong critical opinions of The Invention of Women.

Opinions vary for The Invention of Women; such as Bibi Bakare-Yusuf who felt that Oyewumi’s research was not thorough enough and not well supported. It was in Yusuf’s opinion that gender does play a significant role in Yoruba culture; however it is masked behind seniority. She is extremely critical of Oyewumi’s limited research and narrow outlook. One review by Greg Thomas stated: On the whole, The Invention of Women shows how masculist and feminist naturalizations of “sex” or “gender” bind Africa and Africans to the past and present West.”

In contrast, essays found via the internet supporting Oyewumi’s book, felt Yusuf had little right to criticize. Many documents supported the theory of gender having no significant value in the Yoruba. Regardless of reviews, The Invention of Women has well researched data combined with Oyewumi’s relevant background creating a convincing argument.

Opinions of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women vary. I found the book to be an interesting view of Yoruba culture. The author made a satisfactory argument as to the absence of gender roles in the Yoruba, contradictory to western ideals. However I feel that the author could have expanded on the links between seniority. As with many cultures, seniority can lead to an abuse of power. I believe had Oyewumi done this, readers may have seen a connection between western ideals and the Yoruba. I believe there may be more to the gender role than the author revealed. Oyewumi’s isolated research made it difficult to agree with her theory of gender not being a component in the order of Yoruba society.

Baker-Yusuf, Bibi. Yoruba’s Don’t Do Gender: A Critical Review of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses;
(Accessed August 28, 2006)
Thomas, Greg. Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies. Man and Woman, Slavery and Empire: “Reconstructing (Gender)” in “Plantation America.” Issue 7 (2005) (Accessed August 29, 2006)

Neop. The Invention of Women – Oyeronke Oyewumi (June 15, 2005)
(Accessed August 27, 2006)

Stony Brook University. Faculty page, Sociology Department.
(Accessed August 29, 2006)

University of Minnesota Press. Book review of The Invention of Woman�
(Accessed August 28, 2006)

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