Gender-Sensitivity In Igbo Culture: A Philosophical Re-appraisal


Our concern here is on gender sensitivity in the Igbo culture. We tried to examine the levels of gender sensitivity in the traditional Igbo society and in the contemporary Igbo society. Our startling discovery is that we had a higher level of sensitivity in the traditional setting than we now have in this contemporary period. The reason is that the irrational approach to the gender question is fast obliterating the differentiation that should exist between the male and the female.

By gender sensitivity, we mean the level of awareness, appreciation of the need to maintain at reasonable levels the gender differentiation between the male and female. It is true to some extent that what a man can do, the woman can equally do, but it is not expedient that women should insist on doing everything the man does even at the expense of nature’s assigned honorific roles of wifehood and motherhood. At the same time we stress that all the rustic are atavistic male chauvinistic character of domination, oppression and marginalization must be done away with. Other wise, when gender differentiations are completely obliterated, gender sensitivity will also disappear with it. This will lead to some un-naturalness. To remain gender sensitive, we have to keep the gender peculiarities in focus to a reasonable limit.


Okonkwo was inwardly pleased at his

 son’s development, and he knew it was

 due to Ikemefuna. He wanted Nwoye to

grow into a tough young man capable of

 ruling his father’s household…and so he

 (Okonkwo) was happy when he heard him

grumbling about women. That showed that

in time he would be able to control his women

 folk. No matter how prosperous a man was,

if he was unable to rule his women and his

children, he was not really a man. (Achebe 37).

The above provides us a glimpse of the Igbo traditional gender stereotype. The boy is brought up to see himself as superior to the girls. A boy’s father did everything from scolding to severe beating to ensure that he removes any trace of womanish trait from his son. The above captures Okonkwo’s joy at seeing that his first son Nwoye has begun to shed his childhood feminine tendencies. Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart paints a vivid picture of the Igbo traditional gender stereotypes and how through informal education fathers groom their boys to grow up as men, bold, courageous, audacious and fearless. The women on the other hand groom the girls to become soft, subservient, weak and gentle. This was why Okonkwo declared “I will not have a son who cannot hold up his head in the gathering of the clan” (24).

The silent but rigorous schooling into the patriarchal and matriarchal stereotypes was ingrained in the traditional institution of the Igbo. The men knew what was expected of them, and so did the women.

The men and the women seemed to have accepted their gender roles as a fait accompli. Men and women were sensitized and indoctrinated in such a way that there were no conflicts or bad blood. Gender sensitivity was very high in Igbo land. In virtually all spheres of life, boys and girls, men and women knew what was expected of them. In the family, women swept the house, washed the plates, cooked the food, etc., while the boys or the men split the firewood, pounded the yam foofoo and climbed the palm trees. In farming, the women planted maize, melons and beans between the yam mounds while the men made the yam mounds and planted yams. As Achebe portrayed it “yam stood for manliness” and yam was regarded as the king of crops.

Another image carved out for the women folk in Igbo traditional society is that of the enjoyer of the wealth of the men. Women are called “Oriaku”, that is, those who enjoy the wealth of their husbands. We have therefore two pictures that look seemingly opposed to each other – namely that of servitude and merriment. This picture though appears paradoxical is more real than fake. It is in these ironies that one appreciates the woof, waft and texture of the Igbo traditional culture with the attendant pains and glories.

In this paper we wish to examine the extent of gender sensitivity in traditional Igbo culture with the view of trying to underscore their acceptability or otherwise in the present contemporary setting.


We shall briefly consider the following terms, “Gender”, “Gender sensitivity” and “Igbo culture”. According to Chambers Encyclopedic English Dictionary, gender is seen as the condition of being male or female. According to Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and phrase, gender goes with classification and categorization into ranks, classes, castes, statues, social class, sex, species, quality, genre, type, etc. (43). This means the condition of maintaining divisions or discrimination among things that are not exactly the same. In the context of this paper, we are using gender as it appertains to the male and the female sex. We are acknowledging the fact of differentiation between the male and the female.

What then do we mean by gender sensitivity? We are referring to the quality or inclination to recognize or appreciate or respond appropriately to issues on gender lines. It would mean where one has the ability to discriminate and act in ways that show sensibility (knowledge) of the fact of differences between male and female and to defer to the proper attitudes while dealing with the male and the female. It means being a stickler for the maintenance of gender differences in all matters. This will include insisting in all matters that the male and the female have different traditional or conventional stereotypes which must be adhered to.

What then do we mean by Igbo culture? Here we refer to the totality of Igbo’s way of life seen in their work and recreation as in their way of investigating nature, utilizing its possibilities and in their ways of viewing themselves and interpreting their place in nature. This will include, the way the Igbo organize their homes, their economic activity, social values, clothing, music, language and religion.  (Ozumba qtd in Uduigwomen Footmarks 19).

Igbo culture can be characterized by its emphasis on individual achievement and initiative, alternative prestige goals and paths of action, a tendency toward egalitarian leadership, lineage and family groups, extended family system, age grades, secret societies, etc. (Ndiokwere 13). According to Uwalaka, the Igbo are those persons who have been grouped into the Kwa linguistic stock but with variations of dialect. Their territorial divisions cover the whole area stretching from the coastlines of the Bight of Benin and continue to the outskirts of Ibibio and Efik territories in the east with its eastern boundary being formed by the cross river. Today, the Igbo are found in the seven states of Nigeria, namely Anambra, Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, Delta and Rivers States excluding those in diaspora (2).

Our attempt is a philosophical reappraisal of gender-sensitivity in Igbo culture. Philosophy, according to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy is concerned with doing extra ordinary things with ordinary terms and concepts (xxiii). Philosophy is concerned with examining issues in a critical and systematic manner so that the hidden implications of ideas are laid bare. Philosophy, therefore, illuminates the dark corners of discourse in order to shore them up for better analysis and understanding. Our task therefore is to examine the level of gender-sensitivity in traditional Igbo culture, examine what gender-sensitivity is like now and finally attempt a reevaluation and repositioning of gender roles in the light of present day exigencies.


A reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart provides us with the portraiture of the traditional Igbo family with its genderized roles and functions.

In the family, if a child is born, the sex is determined and if the baby was a male, that meant greater joy for the parents. For the man, joy, because he has a man who will take his place after his death and continue with his family line. Joy for the mother because that will properly entrench her in her husband’s heart. Having a son means for her that nothing can uproot her from the family. A son further means having a voice to defend you in the family. But if the child is a girl, the husband and wife receive it with mixed feelings. And if female child is coming as the third, fourth, fifth or sixth female in the family without a male child that is enough reason for sorrow. For the man, it brings sorrow because his hope of having a male child to continue his lineage is becoming slimmer, the females will soon be married off to other men. Having female children is like “tending other people’s vineyards while your own is unkempt”.

As the children begin to grow, the males and the females are socialized differently. The boys are made to see themselves as superior, stronger, more important and indispensable. The females are trained to see themselves as appendages of the men. In Things Fall Apart, we see Okonkwo telling Nwoye and Ikemefuna masculine stories of violence and bloodshed. These stories are told so as to toughen them and prepare them for their future roles as the protector, guardian and head of their families. On the other hand, the mothers told their daughters feminine stories about how to behave themselves so as to attract worthy husbands and how to serve their husbands in order to win their hearts. Achebe goes on;

                        Nwoye somehow still preferred the stories that

                        his mother used to tell… stories of tortoise and

                        his wily ways… But he knew that they were for

                        foolish women and children, and he knew that

                        his father wanted him to be a man. And so he

                        feigned that he no longer cared for women’s

stories. And when he did this he saw that his

father was pleased and no longer rebuked him

or beat him (38).

The gender roles were in some cases so cut out that the males getting into the areas meant for the females and vice versa was regarded as abomination (nso ani). For example, it is abomination for a girl to go and handle her father’s dane gun. The boy can do that. Again, it is unacceptable for the boy to hang around the kitchen when the women are cooking and cracking jokes that touched on female genitals, puberty rites and the like.

The boy’s duty ranges from washing his fathers clothing, taking care of the flock (of sheep, goat, etc), getting the yam seedlings ready, getting the knives sharpened, the hoes and other farming implements ready for farm work. He leads in the way to the farm lands, he protects the girls, he ensures that the difficult tasks are done by him and so on. He gets involved in age grade, secret societies, masquerades, wrestling matches, meetings, accompanies his father to ceremonies (funeral, title taking, marriages, etc.) as the father will demand. He continues and begins to learn how to establish himself as a farmer, a shepherd or take after some other trade. But in the traditional Igbo society farming was the mainstay of the economy. It is one’s ability to have his barns filled with yams that marked him out as a prosperous man. The man could do a range of things, his movements were not restricted, he could try his hands in different occupations at any time. But the story of the women or the females is some what restricted. She is from the word go made to know that her world begins and ends with getting married, getting children and serving the meal-needs of her husband with the kitchen as the headquarters of her functions.

As Achufusi has portrayed it, females are specifically engaged in sex-oriented functions as marriage, child bearing and rearing. They accept the societal prescriptions for and conceptions that wife-hood and then motherhood constitute the only avenues open to them of deserving respect or of earning prestige in the society (159). He further avers that the above portraiture is the order because of the patriarchal orientation of Igbo society within which the woman operates, and which limits and confines her right to alternate choices. This makes the image of the woman in the Igbo traditional society to appear to lack lustre, excitement and impressiveness. The narrowness of her operational sphere is said to be responsible for this lack lustre image of the women (159).

Chinweizu thinks otherwise. In his Anatomy of Female Power, he mentions five pillars of female power which women have always manipulated to lord it over men. These five pillars are namely, women’s control of the womb, women’s control of the kitchen, women’s control of the cradle, the psychological immaturity of man relative to woman and man’s tendency to be deranged by his own excited penis (14-15). He claims that these five pillars of female power are decisive. For him, male dominance over the female is more apparent than real, more cosmetic and superficial. Women from the traditional societies have always exploited these weapons for their overall advantages. This appears to be a male riposte targeted to nullify the women’s cry of marginalization and dominance.

Be that as it may be, we must mention that in the traditional society, human activities were limited and as such the division of functions on gender basis did not attract any disillusionment or dissatisfaction. The men and the women accepted the traditional stereotypes without question. And one could say that the traditional Igbo society over protected the women, one could not divorce at will or beat his wife any how nor shoot at women. The umu-ada (women’s) age grade were very powerful in protecting the women from the excesses of their husbands.

However, the above notwithstanding, there were some anachronisms and rustic prescriptions which went contrary to the fundamental human rights of women in traditional society. For instance, the woman was seen as incapable of reasoning for herself. Achufusi; captures this problem in the following words.

                        The most pathetic thing about these women is

                        their ineffectiveness as human beings, incapa-

                        bility to correct or admonish their husbands

                        despite their knowledge of the inadequacies

                        in the men’s lives they are all aware of the super-

                        ficiality, vanity, avarice, emptiness and extreme

                        flamboyance of the kind of life their husbands lead

                        and into which they (the wives) have been pulled.

                        They all appear helpless, unable to break away and

                        start a more purposeful life for themselves or make

                        effort to bring sanity and reality into the lives of their

                        husbands (162).

The wives of Okonkwo, for instance, knew after he killed Ikemefuna that the man had gone off the moral and spiritual tangent but there was nothing the wives could do to call him to order because of the “untouchable image portraiture” of the husband in the traditional Igbo society. Today, things have changed. The Igbo have become one of the most sophisticated tribes in the present Nigerian nation. They are profoundly educated widely traveled economically advanced socially advanced and psychologically active. Ndiokwere avers that the Igbo traditional identity is fast being eroded as many Igbo leave their country for other places in search of Greener pastures.

He says;

The primary aim of search for Greener

Pastures has been to alert Nigerians,

Africans, Ndi Igbo, and black people in

Diaspora about the devastating conse-

quences of the mass exodus of Africans

from mother Africa to other parts of the

world particularly Europe and America (9).

The point I want to make is that the world has become a global village and the Igbo cannot remain aloof from these contemporary developments and their impact on our traditional systems. In the traditional Igbo system, the Igbo were sensitive to the female gender much more than today, this leads us to consider;


Gone were the days when women were regarded only as “Oriaku” or a consumer of husbands’ wealth, today, she is seen as “Oriaku”, “Odozi aku” and “Okpata aku”, that is, consumer of wealth, keeper and moderator of wealth and a maker of wealth respectively. Times have changed, values have changed and expectations have changed in the face of economic hardship, breakdown of traditional moral norms, infiltration of norms of other cultures and the general enlargement of scope of roles and functions for men and women.

The reasons why people married many wives in traditional Igbo society no longer obtain. We hardly have Igbo farmers who depend on large family to execute their farm work. We have formal education which has opened the eyes of the women to fight for their freedom. For example, Gerda Lerner records about Christine de Pizan whom she said pioneered female education in Europe. She was bitter that her parents denied her good education. She makes her point thus if it were customary to send daughters to school like sons, and “if they were taught the natural sciences, they would learn as thoroughly and understand the subtleties of all the arts and science as well as men” (193) she advocated equality of education for boys and girls (men and women). Other women like Schurman, Marie le Jars de Gournay distinguished themselves in scholarly achievements (Gerda Lerner 196). This fire for women education soon spread every where including Nigeria and the Igbo women were not left. There is virtually no academic profession where we do not have Igbo women excelling.

The Igbo women are competing with their male counterparts in searching for Greener Pastures in Europe and America. They are graduating as Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers, Nurses, Pharmacists, Lecturers, Economists and many are in the business professions.

It is therefore difficult if not impossible to tie any Igbo woman down against her will to serve as a full time house wife. The hurricane of women liberation is sweeping through the Igbo populace and the slogan seem to be that what a male Igbo can do a female Igbo can do better.

The sad part of it is that Igbo men come back home, marry an Igbo lady, take her to Europe or America and as soon as her eyes opens, she begins to seek independence through divorce on very flimsy grounds. This is leading to a warped up and bizarre situation.

When women were under the men, we had fewer problems but today the excessive quest for liberty is turning every thing upside down. It is therefore important to mention that there is need for a philosophical reappraisal of gender sensitivity in Igbo culture. The general attitude today is for people to run to the Pentecostal churches to look for wives who will still maintain the institutional worth of womanhood, that will not desecrate womanhood on the alter of women liberation.


If by gender-sensitivity we mean being particular about the peculiar roles and functions of male and female we may say that such sensitivity is on the decline. Nobody seems to care. Any person can do anything he or she likes. This appears to conform to the social climate of our age. However, we must state without fear of equivocation that there is need to revisit our gender posturing in order to effect some reevaluations and modifications.

In the traditional Igbo society, women were subservient, subjected to some very dehumanizing treatment. We no what widows passed through; barren women were seen as scums and offscourings of the earth. Women were beaten, harassed and deprived of their rights. In all good sense, all these aspects of the traditional era were condemnable and must be jettisoned completely. Man and woman are created in the image of God and they stand equal before God as human beings. But, then, equality does not mean abdicating God’s assigned roles. Today, we hear of surrogate motherhood, we hear of single female parents, lesbianism, etc. These are negative ways of responding to gender inequality.

As Maduabuchi Dukor has noted, the question of gender equality has two facets, one is moral and the other is ontological. The moral consideration should be that every injustice, disability, arising from oppression; marginalization, or outright subjugation of women must be seen as immoral. Ontologically, women must see themselves as beings of some sort, though capable of doing virtually all things that men can do but will willingly impose natural limitations on her liberties in order to still continue to fulfill her God given roles and functions which the man cannot perform. The woman alone can give birth to children, give suck to her children and provide motherly care to her children. If she abandons this function, what will become of our children? Already, children of this present time are fast becoming uncontrollable because of the lapses the present day confused values is engendering.

As Duckor further avers; what the African (Igbo) woman needs is education and enlightenment, it is fundamentally education that will raise the African woman to the level where a retrogressive culture has placed the African man. The African woman would not be liberated by destroying the culture, by making the woman richer or urbanized and deruralized or by breaking homes. (190).

Education will raise the consciousness of the women and equip them with the tools for wisely repudiating the negative overbearing tendencies of the men. To do this successfully, women must bear in mind the biblical counsel that “Every wise woman buildeth her house but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands” (Proverbs 14:1). God has made the man as the head for administrative purposes and not to lord it over her and use her as a mere object of pleasure or menial service. This the men must know as well.

The enabling environment should be created to enable the women to aspire to any height without reneging on the sacred duties of wifehood and motherhood. All atavistic and anachronistic limitations of the past must be bade farewell to and so must we do to the cantankerous, disorderly assertiveness of women as seen in the pervasion of all things in our time. Sanity most rule the hearts of men and women as we continue to meaningful dialogue to affect a just social order.


In conclusion, we have noted that gender-sensitivity was high in the traditional Igbo society. However, this sensitivity favoured the men and left the women in disadvantage. Today, the picture has changed with less sensitivity but greater liberty for the women but with an image that is presently being battered by women themselves.

We have analyzed the situation and uphold that, there is need for a sane revaluation of our present day norms. Women should enjoy equality of opportunity in education, career and politics only to the extent that they will not jeopardize there roles as wives and mothers. A lot of thoughtfulness is required for women to carve out the right place for themselves in the socio-political and economic scheme of things. The men must know that men and women are equal before God and should play complementary roles in order to achieve God’s best for them. Genderization should not lead to rivalry, unhealthy competition or savage deviation from rational norms guided by equity and good conscience.     


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Chinweizu  Anatomy of female power. Lagos, Pero Press, 1990.

Dukor, Maduabuchi “How Not to Empower Women” in Philosophy and Politics ed, Madubuchi Dukor Lagos, OOP, 1998.

Ndiokwere Nathaniel Search for Greener Pastures: Igbo and African Experience, Nebraska, Morris Publishing, 1998.

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