January 24, 2011

ECAS keynote speaker Oyeronke Oyewumi – controversial feminist

Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi will be one of the keynote speakers at the 4th European Conference on African Studies in Uppsala, 15-18 June 2011. She is currently at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she has taught courses on gender and globalization and feminist theory.

In December last year the Nigerian-born scholar published her new book “Gender Epistemologies in Africa: Gendering Traditions, Spaces, Social Institutions, and Identities”. It brings together a variety of studies that are engaged with notions of gender in different African localities, institutions and historical time periods.

Oyeronke Oyewumi argues in her book that if gender emerges out of particular histories and social contexts, it is necessary to pay attention to the histories of ‘genderings’ as well as the continuous ways in which gender is made and remade in everyday interactions and by institutions. Gender is therefore about gendering (a process) rather than something inherent in social relations.

The book also deals with elite African women. According to Oyeronke Oyewumi, a focus on elite women sharpens our engagement with gender issues as it is possible to explore the intersection of class and ethnic privilege in relation to gender disadvantage.

Some of the questions in the collection are: What do histories, traditions, uses of space, cultural productions and institutions tell us about notions of gender in particular times and places? What meanings do men and women attach to their own everyday social practices, institutions, as well as cultural productions? What are the implications of these for our understanding of gender as a social category, as a facet of identity, and even the process of gendering itself? What do they tell us about the lived experiences of males and females in these societies?

In Oyeronke Oyewumi’s award-winning book “The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses” from 1997, she makes the case that the narrative of gender that dominates the Western interpretation of the social world is a cultural discourse and cannot be assumed uncritically for other cultures. She points out that the current deployment of gender as a universal and timeless social category cannot be divorced from either the dominance of Euro/American cultures in the global system or the ideology of biological determinism which underpins Western systems of knowledge. She criticizes the fundamental principles in Western feminist thought: woman and sex/gender. She argues that these basic concepts come from the idea of the nuclear family.

In similar vein she continued by editing an anthology in 2003 with critical feminist text: “African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood”. In 2005 she published “African Gender Studies: A Reader” in which she gives a broader overview of feminist thinking in Africa and by African feminists not living in Africa.