Monday, March 7, 2011

African proverbs and gender construction - Perspectives on women

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

I wrote and published this article elsewhere about four years ago. As the International Women's Day is celebrated March 8, 2011, I have decided to share it with cherished readers here, hoping that it would generate some discussions.


The African continent is known for its rich oral traditions. Proverbs are the most widely and commonly used in this tradition of oral arts. The use of proverbs permeates the entire African society - it is the foundation of social and cultural wisdom.

The influence of proverbs on African thought is so strong to the point that even the concept of gender is so persistently carved from it.

According to Ssetuba (2002:1) in Africa, “the proverb is regarded as a noble genre of African oral tradition that enjoys the prestige of a custodian of a people’s wisdom and philosophy of life.”

Finnegan (1970:390) also posits that “in many African cultures a feeling for language, for imagery, and for the expression of abstract ideas through compressed and allusive phraseology comes out particularly clearly in proverbs.”

Finnegan’s idea is reflected in this Igbo proverb which says, “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (Oha, 1998:87). If proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten, it is logical then for words that portray gender to be embraced in proverbs.

Proverbs, therefore, to a large extent form the basis of African thought, including gender construction.

There is however, a disturbing trend in the interpretation of proverbs. In African societies, proverbs are considered to be absolute truths. Major decisions in life are often taken based on truths that are inherent in proverbs.

Ssetuba (2002) reports, “definitions of the term ‘proverb’ have centred on its economy of words, origins in human experience and observation of social phenomenon, folkloric and communal belonging as well as the claim of being general or absolute truth. Of all the definitional ingredients, the claim over truthfulness is rather disturbing. It actually reflects the user’s or society’s aspiration for control and desire to impose a given view of life as unshakeable and accepted. This is where the proverb helps patriarchy to live on from generation to generation by presenting it as a stable immutable part of social order.”

African proverbs as source of wisdom

According to Gyekye (1996), wisdom, like knowledge, is conceived in traditional African societies as having a practical as well as a theoretical dimension, but theoretical wisdom must have direct rele­vance to practical problems of life, to dealing with concrete human problems. The intellectual activities of the tradi­tional African sages, or thinkers, are of course theoretical, even though the basis of their wisdom is in human experi­ence. African maxims, which are generally the creations of the sages, are intended to convey truths that are profound and abstract.

He argues further that, wisdom - both practical and theoretical-is, in the Akan culture, contrasted with foolishness or stupidity. The fool is a person who not only cannot comprehend or disen­tangle theoretical matters but also cannot apply his mind to dealing with practical issues, even issues concerning his own life.

Regarding the theoretical ineptitude of the fool, there is an Akan maxim that contrasts foolishness with theoretical wisdom:

“It is only the fool to whom a proverb is explained.”

Another Akan maxim says that the wise person, however, has the intellectual ability to grasp the profound meaning of a maxim, to comprehend the implications of such pithy sayings:

“The wise person is spoken to in proverbs, not in words [or, speeches].

The fool is constantly confused, unable to sort out the practical issues that affect his own well-being. He is careless with his life, not giving the required attention or concentration to what he wants to do. Thus the following maxims:

“When the fool is squandering his gold, he says his scales are out of order.”

“It is the fool whose own tomatoes are sold to him”.

From Gyekye’s view, it is evident to draw the inference that, in African societies, the influence of proverbs is pervasive. Wisdom is expressed in proverbs. A wise person must understand proverbs and be able to use these wise sayings to solve some of the daunting issues of life. Invariably, one of the daunting tasks confronting humans is how to perceive him or her self and how to conduct life as either male or female.

Difference between gender and sex

All societies across the world are generally male dominated. Patriarchy is viewed as legitimate by men, because it keeps women in subordinate positions to the advantage of men who do not want to lose the privileged roles, and therefore, the power their gender as men gives them, including access to power and the scarce resources available to all.

Sex refers to the biological difference of male or female. Our sexual organs are different, our hormones and chemical functions are different. Our biological and physiological conditions as male or female are obviously different. Women get pregnant and give birth, and men don’t. These fixed biological and physiological differences are what define sex.

Gender, on the other hand, is the result of cultural, social and psychological factors. These are differences acquired not through birth, but through socialization. People are brought up to act and think as male or female. Every society establishes a set of accepted behaviours to which males and females are expected to conform.

According to Hussein, “gender ideology is a systematic set of cultural beliefs through which society constructs and wields its gender relations and practices.” He argues further that, “gender ideology contains legends, narratives and myths about what it means to be a man or a woman and suggests how each should behave in the society.”

According to Hussein a society’s gender ideology is grounded largely in religious and social principles, which are then used as grounds to justify different rights, responsibilities and rewards to each gender.

Indeed, every society has a set of systems to censure and control the normative concepts of masculine and feminine behaviours. For example, “some occasions are organized to routinely display and celebrate behaviours that are conventionally linked to one or the other sex category.” (West and Zimmerman, 1987:139).

The African gender ideology is a system of shaping different lives for men and women by placing them in different social positions and patterns of expectations. In Africa, rituals, legends, name-giving ceremonies, oral narratives, proverbs, aphorisms and usages have been in the vanquard of mobilizing gender ideology. (CGSPS, 2001; Oha, 1998; Oluwole, 1997).

According to Hussein, (2004), and Oha (1998), the African oral traditions portray women in general as foolish, weak, jealous, evil, unfaithful, dependent, frivolous and seductive. However, there is the other image of women in African oral traditions, which reflects women a symbol of warmth and all nourishing goodness.

The oral traditions cultivate also, men’s prerogatives to the allegiance and subservience of women, and legitimize men to exercise their power over women to sustain the latter’s subordination and marginalization.

FGM as a means of control

This notion of control is reflected in the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). The idea is to deny women the ability to have sexual pleasure, because the woman is thoroughly, an object of a man’s pleasure. This notion of a woman’s sexuality belonging to a man is vividly illustrated in this Igbo proverb: “A woman carrying a vagina would ask to be sexed, that the vagina is her own, but when it causes trouble, the (real owner of the vagina) would be looked for.” (Oha, 1998).

So from this proverb, a woman does not even have the right to her own sexuality. The idea in the proverb explicitly denies the woman her right to sexual pleasure.

Just being curious. Let me ask. Does that explain why Ghanaian men are not romantic?

Gender and intelligence

According to Oboler, men are believed to be more intelligent than women. Women are thought particularly to be incapable of foresight and lack the ability to make and carry through sensible and realistic plans.

For this reason, it is generally agreed that husbands should administer the family estate and wives for the most part concur with husbands’ plans. It is commonly claimed that if a woman tried to manage property, she would very likely make a mess of it. (Oboler, 1985; 60, cited in Bulow, 1993;539).

An Akan proverb entrenches this idea when it says, “when a woman buys a gun, it is kept in a man’s room.” This proverb shows that women do not have the capacity and ability to manage valuable property¸ an indication that they must play insignificant and subordinate roles to men with regards to property ownership.

As a result, it is common to find in most African societies, where a wife owns a house or a car, but it is held in trust by the husband and or a son, and she would not openly claim ownership of the property. A woman, who does so, would be seen as disgracing her husband. And the only time the truth comes out, is when the marriage runs into difficulties and the issue of divorce comes up.

Women own property but the documents on those property are in the men’s names. Women therefore, are unable to access credit with these documents, further worsening their chances of economic freedom.

Another Akan proverb says, “the man is the woman’s honour”. Therefore, if a woman marries a man who is poor and owns no property and she on the other hand, is materially endowed, she would have to pretend that all the wealth belongs to her husband. Because it is the only way, the man could become her symbol of honour.

As a result of these strongly held beliefs, some men are known to have forcefully claimed property belonging to their wives in the event of a misunderstanding in the marriage or divorce.

This situation of property ownership according to gender, which is perpetrated through proverbs, has become the basis for gender roles in society.

The roles and responsibilities, constraints, opportunities and the needs of men and women in African societies have largely been defined and established through the oral traditions.

Proverbs as a tool for objectifying women

The use of proverbs in some African societies become the tool through which men control positions of social and economic influence by objectifying women and limiting their participations to domestic spheres. (Collins, 1996).

The ways women are objectified differ from one culture to the other, but there is one type which is widespread in Africa. In Africa, women have for a long time been used as a conduit through which men formed and solidified their relations with other men. Families enhance their wealth and alliance by giving away their female children in marriage, often against the wish of the daughters. For instance among the Somali, women served as a commodity to seal peace between feuding groups in inter-tribal warfare (Lewis, 1985).

The following proverbs portray women implicitly or explicitly as objects:

An Igbo proverb says “When a woman is getting old, it would seem as if money (bride price) was not paid to marry her.” (Oha, 1998)

This Tsonga-Shangana proverb says, “to beget a woman is to beget a man.” (Mbiti, 1988). A woman just can’t be a woman, she must be a man, in a sense if you have a daughter you can use her as an object to acquire a friend or build alliance with a prominent man.

Unfortunately, this idea of women as objects that male members of the society can use to acquire status and wealth has been largely used in advertising.

Indeed, female sexuality is used to sell almost everything including body sprays for men.

For instance, there is an advertisement for a male body spray called ‘Men Only’ running in the Ghanaian media. The billboard for this product for men has a five foot image of a woman sitting in a suggestive position.

And the TV advert for this same product depicts women as weak, unintelligent and objects of men’s ridicule and mirth.

In this advert, three women traveling in a car had one of their tyres punctured by an object. These women got down from the car, took out wheel spanners, but were confused and did not have a clue as to what to do about the problem. And across the street stood a muscular man who was laughing loudly over the women’s stupidity, and then a voice over booms, “for men only.”

The concept of women as marketing objects is so pervasive that, it has become near to impossible to market a product successfully without using the image of women.

Ironically, though, a woman, in spite of her perceived ‘weakness’, is supposed to be very hardworking. Her role as a farm-hand is crucial in the sustenance of the husband and the family. A woman is somewhat an economic asset and farm manual chores are part of her existence.

As a result, there are proverbs that shower praises on the hardworking woman and emits fiery scorn against the lazy one:
“A woman stands by the hoe”.
“The hardworking woman brings forth food; the lazy one, weed”.
“A lazy woman resents the falling rain”.
And “A hardworking woman allows you to keep a shield nearby at mealtime”.

Our own interpretation points to the well-fed man who, as a result, is always ready to go to war but generally, the ‘shield at mealtime’ is taken to be the man’s hand gesture to indicate to his wife that he is satisfied and should not be served more food. (See Walser-1984).

It should, however, be understood that the images of the woman in the above proverbs do not necessarily relate to what she is but rather what ought to be. It is basically a matter of the way she is ‘seen’ and ‘wanted’ and not the way she is. This is an illustration of culturally imposed and enhanced stereotypes that, ultimately, aim at conditioning the woman’s perception both by her self and others. (Ssetuba, 2002).

The timeliness of proverbs

Some African proverbs have become outmoded and of no use, except for their literary and historical significance, while others are for all times.

Indeed, in the face of social change, and the economic empowerment of women which to some extent have been influenced by western thought, education and democracy, proverbs laden with allusions of female subordination to males have been challenged and in most cases discarded.

There are proverbs according to Ssetuba, that articulate women’s unfitness to assume important places in society, and by implication, emphasize the necessity of their social and emotional dependence on men.

An Oromo proverb says, “women are bulky, but not great.” This proverb is an express depiction of women as inferior and therefore unable to exercise authority or occupy public office.

An Acholi proverb that “women have no chief,” is the patriarchal view that women by nature are a weak group and no woman is thus better than the other.

However, events in our world today, even in Africa shows that, this notion is changing. We currently have a female elected as president in Liberia.

Ghana's Chief Justice is a woman, the first in the history of the country. The country has created a Ministry for Women and Children.

There are women in parliament, and other women are occupying cabinet positions in government in Africa. And in most societies of the continent, the role of women have been appreciated and accepted in leadership.

There are numerous examples of successful female CEOs in industry and commerce. Women have been elected as presidents, chancellors and pro-vice chancellors of universities and colleges all over the world. Women have therefore, been accepted as employers of men and men take instructions from women in the performance of their official functions without friction.


The regard of proverbs as an important aspect of the literary genre of the African society is significant. It is to the extent that, proverbs permeate every aspect of the African society. While some of these proverbs have been documented by scholars, others, though, widely in use in the oral traditions of Africans are yet to be documented.

Proverbs are the foundation of social and cultural wisdom and therefore, serve as the basis for formulating concepts that govern social relations. These social relations include gender relations. But largely due to the patriarchal nature of the African society, just like most societies of the world, the subordination of women has been prominently expressed in proverbs, which has further exacerbated the disadvantaged conditions of women.

The changes in our society have affected the meanings of some proverbs with regard to the role of women in some African societies. These days, women in some African societies, who hitherto, have no right to own property, and assume leadership roles, have now taken up to such roles with ease and immense success.

The traditional stranglehold on African societies notwithstanding, the challenges confronting African thought and concepts of gender in recent times will gradually portend a shift in the ideology and give women their rightful place in the society.

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