Why you should read The Invention of Women

The Invention of Women

Sociologist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí’s The Invention of Women (1997) discusses the Western notion of gender onto the Yorùbá culture, that presupposes the histories of bodies through the catalog of Other, through body-reasoning (5). The body, a person’s body, is already interpreted by people by our given notions, such as passing. Passing, like passing as cisgender and white, is our collective notion that we accept as natural or universal by suppressing ideas that contradict the hegemonic concept and the concept’s origins. Sex and gender, biology and culture, are one subject rather than opposing forces, as they depend on each other as a comparison, what makes them different from one another. Terms like light and dark, good and evil, men and women are examples of binary hierarchal roles through a Eurocentric perspective. It is what we sense, which differs significantly by methods and knowledge, ranging from biological determinism to postmodernism. Whether they are anti-nativist or nativists, African scholars subconsciously presuppose Western notions onto their African studies (17-27). Their colonized world-sense displays in language, values, identity, and practices.

Oyèwùmí discusses aspects of Yorùbá that are colonized compared to what is not colonized, particularly language since language is a social construction by its functionality, such as reinforcing cultural beliefs. The Yorùbá put strong emphasis on age through their language and kinship, as seniority, is a social ranking, granting the person more authority by their experiences, knowledge, and leadership (40-43). The cognatic marriage in the Yorùbá culture did not affect anyone’s social ranking nor property, as the bride’s partner did not have to be biologically related to their children. Children’s survival was the most important aspect in marriage, as procreation was a crucial part of marriage. Polyamory was accepted for procreation, and postpartum abstinence was encouraged (50-55). The terms obínrin and okùnrin, women and men, do not have the same meaning as the English translation, as there is no social status nor similar cultural components (32-34). Scholars created terms like obínrin and okùnrin to fit the Western notion onto people by assigning gender, a social institution, onto them. A person, a woman of color, becomes colonized twice as the Other by their race and gender. An example is a study on the Yorùbá religion, conducted by researcher Ayodele Ogundipe. Despite being a woman of color, Ogundipe uses inappropriate language, such as portraying the religious followers who are what she describes as females less respectfully than followers who are what she describes as males (168-174). Scholars inventing words that refer to Western terms, like king or daughters, to describe Yorùbá, a genderless culture, for Western translation, creates misinterpretation for the Yorùbá’s culture, along with conscious or subconscious bias. For instance, the gender for Èṣù, a deity, portrays as dualistic and switchable through emotions and personality (173). Worse, the masculine pronouns are ungendered, as default in language, while feminine pronouns are gendered, as part of being the Other (172). The distortion of language recreates the history through collective false memory of the past, enabling colonization by erasing Yorùbá history.

Thus, a marginalized group are more marginalized, subalterns, if they cannot speak, as they are written out in history by those in power, even by intellectuals with good intentions, as they objectify the subalterns through mythicization (de Kock, 1992; 29-47). 


  1. How does societal acknowledgment and acceptance for non-binary relate to The Invention of Women? Does non-binary decolonize gender in Western countries?
  2. Oyèwùmí discusses how African societies are often subject to generalization and Western interpretation; in what other ways has this affected other studies or even policies, such as an imperialistic or Eurocentric analysis and strategy on immigration or beauty?


Leon de Kock. “Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in

South Africa.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 23:3 (July 1992): 29-47

Oyèwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender

Discourses. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

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