Gender Roles and Sexuality

Gender roles are the activities, responsibilities, and rights that a society considers normal and appropriate for men and women. There is no single model of gender roles in Africa. The continent’s diverse cultures have many different ideas about male and female roles, although in general women have been subordinate to men in both public and family life. Like gender roles, notions about sex and standards of sexual behavior differ widely across Africa. For several generations, however, African attitudes toward both gender roles and sexuality have been changing, especially in the cities and in areas where Western influence has been strongest.

Africa: Gender Roles and Sexuality

Gender Roles

Learning how people of each gender are expected to behave is a key part of growing up in any society. In Africa, as elsewhere, men and women have traditionally had different roles in the family and community and in the work they do.

The earliest economies in Africa were based on HUNTING AND GATHERING wild foods. A few societies, such as the !Kung in the KALAHARI DESERT and the Mbuti in the rain forest of CONGO (KINSHASA), survived almost completely unchanged into modern times. Through them, scientists have been able to study the ancient hunting-and-gathering way of life. Early theories about biological and social development in humans stressed the importance of meat eating and of men’s roles as hunters. Today, however, researchers know that women were the primary economic producers in many early societies. Between 60 and 80 percent of the calories consumed by people in the existing hunting-and-gathering societies come from the fruits, roots, grains, nuts, honey, and other foods gathered by women.

This pattern did not change after agriculture took hold across most of Africa. Women today perform between 60 and 80 percent of the continent’s agricultural labor. Throughout most of rural Africa, their roles in farming differ from men’s, a fact that is illustrated by the way particular tools are associated with gender. The ax is considered a man’s tool because men clear and prepare the land. They also plow the fields. The hoe is reserved for women, who plant, harvest, process, and store the crops. Women are also responsible for most tasks involved in producing food for families, including obtaining water and firewood, often across long distances.

Although work patterns have changed since around 1900, the division of labor is still based on gender in many cases. In some cultures, such as the Nandi people of KENYA, men and women cultivate the same crops, but for different purposes. The men raise cash crops; the women focus on subsistence crops, grown for family use. Among other peoples, men and women cultivate different crops. In NIGERIA, IGBO men raise yams, while the women grow cassava.

The shift to an economy based on cash during the colonial period generally benefited African men more than women. In most cases colonial officials recognized male rather than female authority, and they conducted their business with men. Women continued to be important producers, but often the goods they produced were sold by their fathers, husbands, or brothers. The belief that men are entitled to the income from women’s work has not entirely died out in modern Africa.

Social and economic policies of the colonial powers generally favored men. Since independence, the differences between men’s and women’s roles have become even greater as a result of various laws. Consequently, women have lagged behind men in education, literacy, and access to good jobs.

In African cities women generally make a living as traders or domestic servants rather than as salaried employees. Some work as prostitutes. In western Africa women dominate trading in local markets. Among the HAUSA of northern Nigeria, married women are required by religious law to stay inside their homes. Some manage to run trading businesses, though, by using their children to carry messages and goods. In eastern Africa women often divide their time between trading and farming. Many women in eastern African cities produce and sell beer.

Gender Roles and Islam

In the largely Muslim countries of Africa, attitudes toward gender roles and sexuality have been shaped by Islam and Arab cultural traditions. In traditional Arab societies, men and women have different privileges and women are subordinate to men. Many Muslim nations still allow men to take multiple wives, though the practice is becoming less common. In religious life women may be barred from entering the mosque or restricted to a special section. In rural areas chores are divided by gender, with men taking care of large livestock such as camels and women tending small animals.

In recent years urbanization, education, and contact with other cultures have brought new freedom and opportunity for Muslim women in Africa. At the same time, the subordination of women to men in families remains because the home is one of the few areas where a man can still exert his authority. Nevertheless, the roles of Muslim men and women are constantly changing. During the second half of the 1900s, in nations such as EGYPT, MOROCCO, ALGERIA, and SUDAN, women became more active in politics, even fighting in revolutions and forming political parties.

Sexuality and Sexual Behavior

Like gender roles, sexual behavior and attitudes about sex are shaped by a society’s culture and are learned by each new generation. In African societies sexual norms can vary according to class, age, religion, or ethnic background. Researchers have uncovered two very different attitudes in Africa toward sexuality in general. In many African societies, people enter casually into sexual relationships and view sex mainly in terms of reproduction.

Many non-Muslim groups traditionally expressed little concern about casual sex, and some cultures have regarded prostitution as a business transaction. For example, in NAIROBI, Kenya, during the colonial period, women who became prostitutes could often acquire greater economic security than they might have gained through marriage.

Other African societies, however, regard sex as something powerful and dangerous that can destroy the social order if certain taboos are broken. Rules regarding sex might require that a particular ritual be followed or might forbid relations between certain partners. Many eastern African societies consider it taboo to discuss sex publicly, and forbid even married partners to refer directly to the sex act. The Ganda people of UGANDA have sex only in the dark, because seeing one’s partner naked is taboo.

Views of the sexual role of women vary widely in Africa. In some cultures, such as the Kgatla of BOTSWANA and the !Kung, both men and women enjoy sex and speak openly about it. But in many societies, women are not expected to enjoy sex. In Sudan a woman who shows direct interest in sex faces severe penalties. Some researchers believe that one of the main reasons for the custom of female circumcision, surgery on the sexual organs of girls and young women, is to control women’s sexuality by making intercourse painful and difficult. The practice occurs in varying degrees of severity in more than 20 African nations.

Homosexuality can be found in Africa today, and there is evidence that it existed before the arrival of Europeans. In places where boys and young men lived apart from the rest of the community, it was common for them to engage in homosexual relationships before reaching the age of marriage and fatherhood. During the colonial era, men migrated in large numbers to all-male mining towns. Older men entered into “mine marriages” with younger men, who played both domestic and sexual roles for which they were paid. The younger men used the money to marry women and establish themselves in adult life. In some African cultures, the bonds of affection and friendship between girls or women have included sexual relations. For many individuals, same-sex relationships were a phase in the life cycle, although some cultures have included permanently homosexual members. In the SWAHILI Muslim society of Mombasa, Kenya, for example, male and female homosexuals are open about their behavior.

One institution found in Africa—but nowhere else in the world—is the female marriage, a socially recognized union between two women who do not have sexual relations with one another. The “wife” may engage in sex with men, while the “husband,” who is the senior woman of the pair, is regarded by her society as a male. A woman may take this role to gain political status, accumulate wealth, or obtain heirs. (See also AIDS, Family, Islam in Africa, Marriage Systems, Women in Africa.)