Yoruba: Gender in their Culture (2023) (2023)

Yoruba: Gender in their Culture

In Nigeria, there are three major ethnic groups, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo. I will be talking about the Yoruba people and their culture which make up twenty-one percent of the population in Nigeria (Ember 1624). Some quick facts about this ethnic group include that their spoken language is Yoruban, they live in the southeast region of Nigeria called Yorubaland, and they are also located in Togo and Benin (Ember 1624). While all those facts are interesting and good to know, I will be focusing on gender in Yoruba culture. I believe that contact with the Western world influenced the gender roles in Yoruba culture. I will cover Yoruba gender roles compared to other countries, gender roles in marriage, religion’s effect on the construction of gender roles, gender in the government, and the view of children based on sex.

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(Video) Yoruba is a gender neutral language.

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí argues that gender is a Western idea that was introduced into the Yoruba people and the Yoruba people had no notion of gender previous to that. One of her reasonings is that there are no specific words in regard to gender. Other scholars such as Olajubu disagree with her statement saying that the Yoruba people have allowed gender to play a massive role in religion and traditions. She says that sex is a natural thing and gender is a constructed concept of classification. I think this goes along with the Nature vs. Nurture argument that one thing may be natural and we are born with it, while human nature is learned through teachings and observations. One argument that throws a new outlook into this two sided debate states that gender does play a role, but not in the way that our society views it, as either male or female. So what is the truth, have the Yoruba people always allowed gender to play a role in their culture or was it taught to them by Westerners?

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To get these answer, I began to read about the differences in gender normality’s across different countries. I found that in over sixteen countries people believe that men have the first right to jobs, that they believe males are more fit for political positions, and that women should have children to be fulfilled (Weziak-Bialowolska). In Yoruba I found that as time has changed and more outside influences were in contact with the Yoruba, the more the gender roles in Yoruba shifted. I don’t think that they shifted negatively for women, I believe it gave women more opportunity to have careers that they wished. According to McIntosh in her book Yoruba Women, Work, and Social Change, she summarizes that independent roles were played by women on agriculture and trade until colonial ideas about “female professions” changed the career paths of women (McIntosh). In a review of McIntosh’s book, another scholar Insa Nolte, concluded that, “Yoruba women adapted their skills to support more widespread cultural notions as well as continuing their domestic roles” (Nolte).

Speaking of domestic roles, one interesting place to study is the Yoruba culture’s marriages and traditions in regards to gender roles. In Yoruba, marriage is expected of each sex at the socially deemed appropriate age, women in their twenties and men in their thirties. A woman’s place in society was once based on her being a daughter of her father and one of the

wives in her husbands lineage (Denzer). A woman was considered to be a possession of the family that she marries into, being passed to a brother if her husband died or the family having rights to the children she bore (Johnson). One thing that does seem to have changed is that divorce was not a common occurrence in precolonial times and now a days a man has the free privilege to divorce a wife (Johnson). Also according to Johnson, the Yoruba people were traditionally monogamous and polygamy was reserved for the wealthy. That is not the case today, one prime example of expressing polygamy is the Ooni of Ife. The leader of the Yoruba people, King Ojaja, has three wives and a recent divorce to his would have been fourth wife (Oonirisa.org). There has been an obvious increase in polygamous marriages and I think that this stems from the encounter of new religions brought during colonialism.

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Let’s explore what the effects of religion has been in regards to gender roles. Fifty percent of Nigeria are Muslims, forty percent are Christian, and ten percent practice ingenious religions (Ember). The largest findings of Muslim and Christians followers are in the Yoruba ethnic group. What it interesting is that in Yoruban religion, women are typically the most respected of traditional priests (Ember). In Africa, more specifically, Yoruba, we have to understand that the Yoruba people worship many gods who did not have genders placed upon them (Peel).The influence of other religions started to help differentiate and define gender. Christian pastors and Muslim Babalawo were predominately men. One consequence of this primary gender being the heads of religion is that the Yoruba people began to establish a hierarchy in religion based on gender (Peel). At one point in history, a woman must pray to her husband’s Ifa and find her spiritual fate through her husbands (Peel). Based on this, I would say that religion effected gender roles in Yoruba culture by simply making the people aware of gender and it’s hierarchy in certain religions.


Finally, how does the role of gender play into their societies government? To first answer this we need to know what type of government they conduct. “Yoruba history and politics in Nigeria are dynamic rather than static.” Is how author Falola who studies African Affairs described the Yoruba government (Yoruba Identity). How is that possible you might ask? There are three types of courts for legal matters disputes in Yoruba. The first of the court systems were the customary courts at the local level, men were expected to sit on one side and women on the other, everyone voting on public matters (Yoruba Legal Systems). This court handles family and land matters primarily. The second and next level, is the District Court that is based on the British System, where more high level legal matters were handled and connected to the state system of government and hierarchy (Mary M. Johnson). The final and third level of their government system is based on the Islamic law system and not an active office since there is not a predominate Muslim community (Yoruba Legal Systems). So we can see that at least in their government and courts, women are equal in their attendance and vote and the influence of British and Islam legal systems do not change this fact.

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Do their views or lack of views on gender have an effect on the way that their children are raised or treated? Men show superiority over their women counterparts, who are usually relegated to the background. Therefore, socially, politically, economically and religiously women are to a very large extent, disadvantaged since decision were taken mostly by women the males. (Ubrurhe). Scholar and Author Olabode, who wrote about birth rights of female children in Africa is quoted saying,

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Immediately a child is born, the question that will be posed will centre on sex, not minding of health of the mother. If the baby is a female, the mother will be scolded and treated as a lazy, good for nothing woman. On the other hand if the child is a male, praise will be showered on the mother, not considering the fact that Biology has shown that it is the father who determines the sex of an offspring (Olabode).

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I think this is a great example of how women are disadvantaged from birth and considered “less than” male children who are celebrated and praised. One mythology story from their culture demonstrates the Yoruba belief that women are inferior to the cunning and overpowering man. “He held a whip. He changed his voice to that of an eegun to disguise himself . When Odu saw the eegun in the new guise she was afraid. This was how men cunningly overpowered women.” (Olajubu). I also, take this to mean that men might have feared the power of women and felt threatened enough to try and control them. I think the balance of power between the sexes is a worldwide issue and this is an example of it in the Yoruba culture.

To conclude, I would like to restate that I believe Western influence changed the gender roles in the Yoruba culture. I cannot determine if there were or were not slight gender constrictions before Western influence and I cannot say if the influence was for worse or for better. However, I do believe that most certainly “gender” has become a concept in Yoruba and roles have shifted based on the research and data I have collected. If anything can be said for certain, it is that gender concept in Yoruba is anything except a singularly defined idea. Gender roles change and have a fluidity to them with each different aspect of their culture from marriage to religion to government.


  • Denzer, Laray. “Yoruba Women: A Historiographical Study.”The International Journal of African Historical Studies27.1 (1994): 1-39. Web.
  • Ember, Melvin., and Ember, Carol R.Countries and Their Cultures / Melvin Ember and Carol R. Ember, Editors.New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.
  • Falola, Toyin., Genova, Ann, and Perspectives on Yoruba History Culture.The Yoruba in Transition : History, Values, and Modernity / Edited by Toyin Falola and Ann Genova.Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic, 2006. Print.
  • Falola, Toyin., and Genova, Ann.Yorubá Identity and Power Politics / Edited by Toyin Falola and Ann Genova.Rochester, NY: U of Rochester, 2006. Print. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora, [v. 22].
  • Familusi, O.O. “African Culture and the Status of Women: The Yoruba Example.”Journal of Pan African Studies5.1 (2012): 299. Web.
  • Johnson, Samuel, and Johnson, O.The History of the Yorubas from the Earliest times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. G. Routledge & Sons, 1921. Web.
  • Mary M. Johnson. “Yoruba Legal Systems” Journal of Law and Judicial System, 1(3), pp.1-2
  • McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston.Yoruba Women, Work, and Social Change / Marjorie Keniston McIntosh.Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2009. Print.
  • Mercader, Julio, Raquel Marti, Jayne Wilkins, and Kentd. Fowler. “The Eastern Periphery of the Yoruba Cultural Sphere. Ceramics from the Lowland Rain Forests of Southwestern Cameroon.”Current Anthropology47.1 (2006): 173-84. Web.
  • Nolte, Insa. “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.”Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 73, no. 3, 2010, pp. 568–570.JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40963348.
  • Olabode B.O. “African Gender Myth in Proverbs and Verbal Discourses; A Case Study of the Yoruba of South-Western Nigeria” in Kehinde, A.(ed) Gender and Development: Essential Readings, Ibadan: Hope Publications (2009).
  • Olajubu, Oyeronke. “Seeing through a Woman’s Eye: Yoruba Religious Tradition and Gender Relations.”Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion20.1 (2004): 41-60. Web.
  • Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónkẹ́.The Invention of Women : Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses / Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí.Minneapolis, Minn.: U of Minnesota, 1997. Print.
  • Peel, J. D. Y. “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change.”Journal of Religion in Africa32.2 (2002): 136-66. Web.
  • Ubrurhe, J.O “Culture Religion and Feminism: Hermeneutic Problem” in Ifie, E. (Ed) Coping With Culture, Ibadan: Oputuru Books (1999)
  • Weziak-Bialowolska, Dorota. “Differences in Gender Norms Between Countries: Are They Valid? The Issue of Measurement Invariance”European journal of population = Revue europeenne de demographievol. 31 (2014): 51-76.


Is there gender in Yoruba culture? ›

In the case of the Yoruba society, the post colonization gave birth to the concept that gender is timeless and universal; it also catalyzed the implementation of this idea. This implies that the gender divider is an essential part of the society, which contradicts with the author's primary argument.

What is the culture of Yoruba people? ›

Yoruba culture consists of cultural philosophy, religion and folktales. They are embodied in Ifa divination, and are known as the tripartite Book of Enlightenment in Yorubaland and in its diaspora. Yoruba cultural thought is a witness of two epochs. The first epoch is a history of cosmogony and cosmology.

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What is important to the Yoruba culture? ›

In Yorubaland, one of the most important traditions observed is 'orúko àmútọ̀runwá' – thenaming of a newly born child. Names are given to children by their parents, grandparents (paternal and maternal) and some other close relatives. A typical Yoruba child can bear as many as 16 different names.

How do we show respect in Yoruba culture? ›

Respect is an important aspect of Yoruba tradition and a symbol of both peace and order. The manner of greeting is one of the first things a stranger notices about the Yoruba system of respect. A male is expected to greet an older person with a bow or prostration and a female with a kneel.

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What is the meaning of AJE? ›

Ajé The orisha of wealth, economic enterprise, business, economic success in the Yoruba religion, believed to be a daughter of Olókun.

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(Video) A History Of The Yoruba People
Where is Yoruba language originated from? ›

The Yoruba group is assumed to have developed out of undifferentiated Volta–Niger populations by the 1st millennium BC. Settlements of early Yoruba speakers are assumed to correspond to those found in the wider Niger area from about the 4th century BC, especially at Ife.

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What are Yoruba men known for? ›

Yoruba men say are one of the most sought after men by women of various ethnic groups in Nigeria; when it comes to dating and marriage. This is probably because the men are trained to be respectful and helpful just like other tribes.

What are Yoruba people called? ›

Even in many parts of Ondo State today, people still refer to themselves as Ondo, Idanre, Ilaje or Ikale but refer to their brethren from Oyo, Osun and Kwara as Yoruba while Lagos and the riverine Yoruba refer to other Yoruba people as Ara-Oke, that is, people of the upland.

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What is marriage in Yoruba culture? ›

In the Yoruba traditional setting, the major or official marriage process is the traditional marriage, a covenant stage where the two families come together in the open to seal the love relationship of their children in the presence of friends, families and well-wishers.

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What are Yoruba values? ›

The Yoruba culture also has a well-defined value system that is very important to them. Some of the values include wisdom, integrity, valour, hard work, honour, and wealth.

How old is Yoruba culture? ›

The historical Yoruba develop in situ, out of earlier (Mesolithic) Volta-Niger populations, by the 1st millennium BC. Archaeologically, the settlement at Ile-Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 8th-10th Centuries.

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How old is Yoruba? ›

The Yoruba-speaking peoples share a rich and complex heritage that is at least one thousand years old. Today 18 million Yoruba live primarily in the modern nations of southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.

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What is the history of Yoruba culture? ›

The Yoruba region was invaded in the 19th century by another ethnic group, the Fulani, who pushed them south into the regions they occupy today. In the early 20th century, most Yoruba people fell under control of the British Empire, where they remained for about 60 years before Nigeria gained independence.

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What are Yoruba values? ›

The Yoruba culture also has a well-defined value system that is very important to them. Some of the values include wisdom, integrity, valour, hard work, honour, and wealth.

What food do Yoruba people eat? ›

Hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, and the gathering of wild foods are practised, but the basis of the Yoruba diet consists of starchy tubers, grains, and fruits grown on their farms, supplemented by vegetable oils, wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables, and meat and fish.

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What is the gender of the Yoruba culture? ›

Yorùbá culture is gender-neutral and gender-silent; women are seen as complementary and not subordinate to men. Hence, (Oyěwùmí 1997), caution must be raised on the continual adoption of mainstream Western feminist philosophy in Yorùbá culture.

What is the most unique thing about Yoruba culture? ›

The Yoruba are a very sociable and expressive people who commemorate major events with colorful festivals and celebrations. Weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals and even housewarming parties are celebrated in a lavish and ceremonial nature.

What is Yoruba culture known for? ›

The Yoruba have traditionally been among the most skilled and productive craftsmen of Africa. They worked at such trades as blacksmithing, weaving, leatherworking, glassmaking, and ivory and wood carving.

What is the importance of virginity in Yoruba culture? ›

It is believed that virgins have self-discipline and are well-trained by their parents. This custom and virginity has many advantages as it prevent the rate of fornication and helps the married women to be faithful with their husbands. Also, many lives have been lost to the act.


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