Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

Chapter Seven: Conclusions

In our discussion of a definition of religion in the first chapter, we stressed the aspects of religion concerned with making sense out of the human situation, defining moral problems and imposing moral obligations on worshippers.   We are now in a position to see how Onitsha funeral ceremonies restate the major values of the society and how these values relate to the role of women.  We will consider how some major social structural variabilities in Onitsha lay a basis for the active role of women in Onitsha society.

In the next chapter, as epilogue, we shall briefly examine some of the major religious themes of the Ibo area, using the Central and Afikpo Ibo as major comparative cases, in order to see how the roles of women in religion vary within the Ibo area, and to what degree this variance may relate to differing social structures.  Finally, a few comparative remarks will be made about the role of women in the social structure and religion of the Yoruba.

7.1.  Major Religious Values Expressed in Funerals

7.1.1.    The Personal God (chi)

An appropriate afterlife is available to all persons who have died a proper death, regardless of sex.  The status that one held in life should be retained in the next world, and thus it is important to glorify prominent people at their funerals.       Whether one’s life has been a success in terms of the desired goals of Onitsha, in the sense that one has produced living sons and (in the case of a man) taken an ozo title, or whether it has been a failure, can be explained in terms of the “destiny-defining pact”.  Adult women, more than adult men, are regarded as having willed themselves to failure, that is, to be barren or have children who die young.  This may be related to the greater degree of ascription involved in their life roles in comparison with men.  The concept of predestination can be used to absolve a person of feelings of guilt regarding ascriptive inadequacy (Horton 1961:115-116).

During a person’s life, the chi is prayed to directly by men as well as women to affect one’s personal destiny.  At the funeral ceremonies, a man or woman is not considered to be fully dead until the blood has been spilled on the chi, signifying that the spirit that reincarnated in the individual prior to birth must arrange for a new destiny.      Associated with chi is the concept of ikenga, which is concerned with the qualities of self-assertion and aggression that are seen to contribute to personal good fortune.  It is most significant that women possess this ritual object as well as men.  However, while a man’s ikenga may be retained by his son, a woman’s is not.

7.1.2.    Ghosts of the Dead

As noted in Chapter Two, the second major complex of religious beliefs revolves around the ghosts of the dead.  There are three major purposes of the Burial and Lamentation ceremonies:  1) to define the meaning of the death, 2) to break off the ties of the ghost to the various groups to which he was affiliated i.e. the immediate family, the patrilineage segment, the age set, the masquerade, the title society;  and 3) to incorporate him as an ancestor to whom prayers can be formally directed.  As stated earlier, “ancestral” refers to a situation where relations between worshipers and worshiped are genealogically determined, not necessarily limited to the major descent line.  Persons who have led successful lives are encouraged to reincarnate, and a woman’s ghost may be reborn in the patrilineage of her husband if that is where she is buried.

After the Burial and Lamentation, both deceased fathers and mothers may be incorporated in the form of shrines in the homes of their sons or daughters.  Direct access to their worship is open to any married person, even to a junior son or a woman.  While a man must have ofo to sacrifice to shrines representing the deceased males of the lineage, and to administer any titled ritual objects inherited from his father, even a senior daughter does not use ofo for this purpose.  In the case of men, the ofo enables them to administer the patrilineage estates associated with the rituals objects. Women’s prayers to maternal and paternal shrines are personal and not binding on others.  While women do not, in general, inherit ritual objects or the properties associated with them, a senior daughter may re-establish maternal shrines that her mother has kept, such as those to the mother’s mother, the father’s mother, and the mother’s sisters.     Men must bring in the ghost of the mother either to avoid her anger or to clear away all religious “debts” prior to title taking.  They should also incorporate into shrines the ghosts of the lineage Daughters.  Social implications of this will be discussed later.

The fact that ghosts of women may trouble a person, even though he has inherited nothing significant from these women or from maternal relatives,  contradicts Goody’s hypothesis discussed in Chapter One.  Maternally-related shrines are believed to be able to kill just as can paternally-related ones, although they do so less frequently.  That spirits and ghosts from maternally-related villages can have an influence over an individual is related to the fact that these ghosts can choose to reincarnate in their Daughters’ children.

At the funeral rites, women must be present who specifically represent those villages to which the deceased was maternally-related:  the mother’s village, the mother’s mother’s village, and the father’s mother’s village, and from [any of] which the deceased could have received supernatural attack.  These Daughters of maternally-related patrilineages do not swear their innocence of the death of their Daughter’s child, however, as do the Daughters of the deceased’s own patrilineage.  Maternally-related patrlineages, especially that of the deceased’s mother, have other duties at the funeral of a Daughter’s  child, in that they are supposed to show their rage at the death and also to ensure that the deceased is given a proper Burial.

7.1.3.  Alusi (spirits)

The third category of religious concepts mentioned in Chapter Two, spirits of natural objects, the guardians of community morality, are not propitiated at Burial or Lamentation rites.  If, however, the body at death shows signs of certain “abominable” diseases, those concerned with the funeral may decide that one of these spirits has taken the life of the deceased due to his breaking of native law and custom.  In such a case, the usual Burial will not be performed, the corpse may be placed in the sacred grove, and the deceased’s ghost is thought to be drawn to the particular spirit shrine that caused his death, rather than to go to the afterworld.

There are two categories of offense to the spirits in Onitsha, one that can be rectified by the culprit and one which cannot, although it may be “covered over” by a man from Nri, a town to the northeast of Onitsha.  As has been seen, the Daughters of the patrilineage can cleanse both lineage wives and lineage members from pollution due to adultery, angry disputes, and sexual misdemeanors (Basden 1966:62).  However, in matters concerning abominations against the earth, such as suicide or murder of a lineage member, an Nri priest would make the necessary sacrifices to drive out the abomination.

7.1.4.    Medicines

Medicines are not regarded as holy in the sense that are the nature spirits.  Examples of the use of medicines during funerals are the various protective emblems worn by the major participants, for example the leaves placed by the Daughters in their mouths when washing the corpse, the broom held by the widow to repel her husband’s ghost, and the necklaces of hair and nails of the deceased worn by his children to ward off his ghost.

7.2.  Other Indicators of the Spiritual Status of Women as Expressed in Ritual 

Women are accorded an equality with untitled men at funeral ceremonies, and titled women approach equality with titled men, thus indicating the strong positive value placed on Onitsha women, a value which is similarly stated in the autonomy accorded them in regard to certain ritual objects.  Although women cannot pray to patrilineage ancestors without the intercession of male priests, some of the major spirits of the town, such as those associated with the main market, are accessible to women’s prayers without men interceding.  Indeed, the only parallel among men to the performance by the Town Women of important community-wide functions through their sacrifices to these major shrines, is the King.  The King represents all of Onitsha as do the Town Women on the occasions of these sacrifices, and he is responsible for propitiation of the earth, clearing away the sins of the town, in a manner analogous to that of the women.

What is significant here is that aside from the all-important activities of the Onitsha King in maintaining the good health of the town, no other man or group of men sacrifices on a regular basis to shrines for the good of the community as a whole.  Rather, men are more involved on a village level.   This is remarkable because it is generally the women who are more involved in domestic affairs, men in political ones which cross-cut the town’s internal divisions.

Women also tend to be responsible for the establishment of shrines, such as ogwugwu which, in time, will be worshiped by succeeding generations in her marital patrilineage (see below).  In addition, the graves of famous patrilineage Daughters may become powerful village shrines, regarded with awe and ambivalence, much as were the women themselves during their lifetimes.

The ceremonial activities of the Head Daughter of the patrilineage segment are thought to be as essential for the maintenance of proper religious relationships in the village as are those of the lineage priest.  Neither the annual ceremonial cycle nor the proper Burial and Lamentation rites could be undertaken without her offices.

It cannot be said, however, that the roles played by the majority of women during the ceremonial cycle are on a level equivalent to that of men.  Although they do perform their own rituals at these times, they are required to pay homage to the priests of their own lineage and their husbands’, under whose ofo they are bound, and to receive in return prayers from the priest for their well-being and fecundity.  A man, however, may take a similar action as a Daughter’s child by sacrificing to the shrine representing his mother and receiving blessings from her lineage priest in return.

The Roles of Mother and Daughter as Expressed in Ritual   Aside from reflecting the areas in which women and men relate to the supernatural, funerals also open discussion of the contrast between the roles of wife and mother and that of Daughter.  It is clear that a woman who is survived by sons is to some extent incorporated in her marital lineage.  This is evidenced by the rituals concerning the mother described above.  Much of the responsibility for her Burial and Lamentation is taken by her son, rather than her brother.  However, her own patrilineage does not relinquish the part of its ceremonial duties that are traditionally performed by its patrilineage Daughters, thus indicating that it never gives up its women for total incorporation by their lineage of marriage.

Daughters of the patrilineage of a deceased man perform indispensable duties in regard to the widow.  They supervise her constantly to see that she obeys the mourning restrictions, and they even have the power to lengthen her period of mourning if they suspect that she has been unfaithful to her husband.  If she has been quarreling with them, they may demand more goods from the Chief Mourner to perform their services.

The Daughters also conduct the rites that terminate the seclusion of the widow and mark her separation from the deceased and her re-emergence into the world. The Head Daughter is authorized to conduct these ceremonies because she holds ofo, the staff of righteous power.

Throughout the Burial and Lamentation period, it is the Head Daughter and her aides who represent the deceased husband’s lineage to his widow. Because they are quasi-sexless mediators, it is more appropriate for them to perform these duties than it would be for the men of the patrilineage, who stand as potential husbands to the widow. The Daughters may be seen as sparing the men of the lineage any wrath from the husband’s ghost which might result from such male-female contact during the mourning period. As has been pointed out, the widow is closely identified with her late husband, and she is both punished for perhaps causing his death and yet is also protected from his ghost by her concealment. She is viewed as a contaminating influence, as is the corpse. The Daughter of the husband’s patrilineage is in a controlling position of legitimate authority over the wife, who is in a dependent and highly jeopardized state. In their dealings with the widow, as in their dealings with the corpse, there is both privilege and risk involved for the patrilineage Daughters.

At the Burial, the activities of the Daughters correspond to their activities in other areas of Onitsha ritual behavior, that is, they cool that which is hot-with-anger, and they purify. They share food with the corpse and symbolically swear their innocence of the death. Only those elderly women who have ben “cooked” and “hardened” by protective medicines dare to take part in the funeral rites. These women are, of course, the same ones who are feared as witches. The analysis of funeral ritual and the beliefs associated with it leads us to conclude that religion is more than merely the propitiation of non-human agencies on a human model (Goody 1961:159).

The funeral ritual, which has been taken here as representative of much of Onitsha ritual, illuminates and provides answers to certain universal problems of man. It defines what is the good life and orients the participants in the funeral to strive toward it. It justifies and reinforces major values of the society, especially those concerning the proper treatment of relatives, both on the father’s and the mother’s side, and those having to do with achievement orientation. No analysis of this funeral pattern would have been adequate if had emphasized only the material relations of the deceased to his survivors, and ignored the importance of kinship commitments that do not carry with them immediate material rewards.

7.3.   The Position of Women in Onitsha Social Structure

Having examine the way women are conceptualized in Onitsha religion and how these concepts are restated in ritual, we must pose the question:  to what social structural factors may these beliefs be related?  What conditions in the social structure make these religious beliefs concerning women seem both acceptable and appropriate to the individuals concerned?  Given that there is a ritual elaboration of women’s roles in Onitsha society, with what other variables does this elaboration correlate?

7.3.1.    Ecological and Historical Factors
In Chapter III it [was] pointed out that various ecological and historical factors point toward a favorable position in the society:   1) The main farming is done by men, but women’s crops are indispensable to ward off famine.

2)  The community is a nucleated one with limited opportunities for expansion, hence women who marry within Onitsha retain close contact with their natal patrilineages.

3)    The women are primary traders, as they are in most other Ibo areas.  However, unlike the other Ibo areas where significant, large-scale trade involves travel over long distances and dangerous terrain, Onitsha’s position on the Niger ideally suits it to be an “international” market, in which Onitsha women can amass wealth and widen their trade contacts with riverain Ibo. Early travelers commented on the high status of Onitsha women and the evident wealth of some of the female traders.  Onitsha men foreswore trade as demeaning, leaving direct exploitation of the market to their female relatives and to riverain men.

4)    The Onitsha people, who regard themselves as having immigrated from across the Niger, think of themselves as culturally distinct from their neighbors, and do in fact possess a higher standard of living.  They regard it as demeaning to give any of their women to men from the interior Ibo-speaking area.  This situation is conducive to tight integration of a patrilineage’s men and women.

5)    Men did, however, take wives from the neighboring areas, thus introducing “foreign” cultural elements into their families.  Considerable cultural leveling has occurred between Onitsha and her neighbors, partly as a result of this one-way marriage pattern.  Further, the women often brought their own medicines and shrines.  When these women who had born children died, they were buried in their husbands’ compounds, and their ghosts became incorporated in[to] their husbands’ lineages.  Often, the ritual objects which they had brought with them from their own towns were retained by the deceased woman’s children, who attributed special magical powers to them.  Thus have medicines become “incorporated” also, and in time may become regarded as major shrines of the village.

It may be conjectured that some of the most powerful Onitsha women, such as Ojedi or Atagbusi, had non-Onitsha mothers.  The only clear case for this, however, is that of the first Queen, whose Igala mother may have arranged for her daughter to receive the new title [of Omu] or at least invested her with powerful, foreign emblems.

Onitsha people frequently state that their own medicines, their own shrines for oath-taking, and their own native doctors, are not as powerful as those of the Ibo people of the interior.  It is quite likely that many of the women famous in Onitsha oral tradition possessed medicines that were given to them by their mothers, or by maternally-related interior Ibo relatives.

A parallel belief to that concerning the powers of the interior, lower-prestige Ibo, is the one  held by Onitsha people that the smallest, weakest, and lowest-prestige Onitsha villages produce the best diviners and possess strong magical powers such as rain-making.  In both cases, the lower-status person or group is regarded as having magical advantages over the superior-status one.  This is intelligible in terms of a hypothesis that persons in socially weak positions, such as wives in a patrilineage, who lack legitimate authority, tend to be believed to use mystical weapons to secure their ends.

7.3.2.  Rights and Duties of Women in their Own Patrilineages

The descent system in Onitsha articulates well with its ecological setting and reinforces factors favorable to the position of women.  Even the type of Omaha kinship terminology in Onitsha indicates a certain equality of status between men and women, not only in the treatement of the “child of the father” (nwanna) category, which does not separate individuals by sex, but also in the placing of both male and female agnates linked to ego through a mother [of]  the grandparental generation.  Both the senior daughter and the senior son are given specialized terms distinct from their junior siblings.

Daughters have many important duties in their natal patrilineages, many of which are of a ceremonial nature.  However, they are also active in settling disputes between wives of the village, between husbands and wives, and, most significantly, between lineage members themselves.  The Daughters of the patrilineage, who frequently have to work together in these matters, are a close knit group.

A woman has a right to a house and land in her village if she separates from her husband.  Her political and jural status is ultimately the responsibility of her own lineage, although it is somewhat inferior to that of the male members of the lineage.  A woman is first and foremost identified as a member of her natal patrilineage, and on the community level the members of the Queen’s council represent their own patrilineages and villages first, and only secondarily those of their husbands. The extreme case of a woman acting as a full lineage member occurs when she remains in her father’s house, bearing heirs for him, if he has no sons.

Just as a woman always has residual rights in her own patrilineage, so do her children have rights there.  They may even “naturalize” in their mother’s village if they take ozo title there.  The Onitsha descent system is clearly a less exclusive one than those where affiliation with the mother’s patrilineage is not possible or is very difficult (Lewis 1965:89).  It has been suggested that where children of a woman have strong ties to her patrilineage, she, herself, will have correspondingly greater rights and obligations in that patrilineage, and the sibling bond may conflict with the marriage tie (Lewis 1965:104).

As was shown in Chapter Three, the Onitsha material partially supports this hypothesis, but with the proviso that the structuring of the role of mother may serve to stabilize the marital relationship.

The relatively high status of a Daughter is also shown by the fact that a bride and her mother receive a considerable share of the wealth transferred at marriage, and that the girl is given a period of license prior to final commitment to her husband.  Even though a woman’s children always are affiliated with the lineage of the pater, a woman herself is never permanently handed over to her husband’s patrilineage, that is, she always retains some of her filial rights.  For example, a woman can leave her husband, and if she or her lover can repay the bridewealth, her husband must accept it.  Also, upon remarriage, either after divorce or widowhood, a woman’s patrilineage must receive some wine from the new husband as an indication that she is still one of its members.

It has been suggested in this thesis that the extent of a woman’s legal freedom indicated in these facts may be a result of her ability to activate rights in two lineages, her own and her husband’s.  She may, for example, be valued by both of these lineages as a productive member because of her important role as a trader.  The wealthier, more successful a woman is as a trader, however, the less likely she is to reside with her husband.  Although she has no obligation to support her brother or his family, her own lineage members will partake to some extent of her success, and will certainly profit from her trade contacts if she lives in her own village.  Also, a woman need not lose contact with her children when she moves to her own village, even though they may remain affiliated with their pater’s lineage.  Because of the great value of the mother’s kin to her children, they will be inclined to maintain strong contact’s with her and her lineage.

7.3.3.    The Status of a Woman as Wife

Women as wives are under the jurisdiction of both their husbands and their fathers.  Even though the role of Daughter is much more influential and ritually powerful than that of wife, the latter is part of the most important role set for a woman in Onitsha society.  On the domestic level, both marriage partners contribute to the family economy, and the wife has certain rights in the economic relationship.  Men regard their wives’ trader roles ambivalently, because they associate these with female infidelity and excessive independence.  The co-wife situation is characterized by a great deal of autonomy in personal activities, but nonetheless, due to the housing pattern, there is enforced contact resulting in jealousies and tension between wives.  Sororal polygyny is rare, and it has been here hypothesized that this is a function of the fact that co-wifeship would interfere with the necessary cooperation of Daughters of a lineage.

A crucial fact of the situation of the Onitsha Wife is that once she has born a son, she becomes incorporated into her husband’s lineage, in a status which in some ways formally approximates that of an equal with lineage members.  Indications of the tendency to regard a woman as a member of her husband’s lineage are her entry into the masquerade society of that village, her affiliation with her husband during his ozo title taking, and her burial in her husband’s or son’s compound.  Even though the levirate is not mandatory, a widow’s son may object to her remarrying into another village.  Such partial incorporation is also reflected in the kinship terminology, in which paternal grandmothers are separated terminologically from their siblings and classified in the same manner as their husbands.

Marital stability tends to be undermined, however, by the availability of alternate routes to success, one of which, the role of trader, enables a woman to amass enough wealth to pay back the bridewealth herself.  Nonetheless, once children are born, marriage is relatively stable.

7.3.4.  Women as Community Representatives

In the political sphere, it is obviously clear that women are subordinate to men, a subordination predicated on their ineligibility for important titles because of their sexual contamination. The most powerful men in the town, the King and his high chiefs, are quite restricted in their association with women. In the case of the King, these restrictions extend even to Daughters of his lineage. Women are also excluded from the age sets that govern the town. Generally speaking, associated with these restrictions is Onitsha men’s fear of encroachment by women into their affairs.  Evidence of such encroachment may be seen in a number of fields. Elderly women learn the secrets of the masquerade, even though its goals are, in part, anti-feminine. Although women are not permitted to reincarnate as a Tall Ghost, there is no evidence that they believe they are denied entry to the afterlife because of this. Masquerades play a prominent part in the funeral of a Mother of the Masquerade.

Women attempt to emulate the ozo title-taking of the men by purchasing honors, and their success can be measured by the fact that such women are given elaborate Burial rites which include the killing of a cow, a sacrifice otherwise limited to titled men. Within the past century, there existed an organization of a Queen and councillors who copied the regalia of the men. This parallel organization, which was based on the ancient association of the Town Women, was supposed to concern itself with women’s community-oriented affairs, especially those related to the main market and the propitiation of the major town shrines near the market. It is alleged, however, that they also began to make rulings that affected the men of the town and otherwise infringed on male prerogatives.

It can be argued that the kind of ecological and social conditions just described make it feasible for women to have ceremonial roles, not only in the patrilineage but also in town-wide affairs. Since women are residing close to their own patrilineages, and are considered in part as equals with their lineage mates “as against the world”, their relative ritual equivalence is expressed by giving them ceremonial roles to play which require a person who has the interests of the lineage at heart, but is also somehow removed from it. Their own patrilineage base may also be used by women to further themselves in the roles of trader, woman with ivories, member of the Queen’s council, and even Queen, all of these being achieved roles independent of a woman’s marital status. Marital roles can give one membership in the masquerade societies and other honors associated with the husband.

7.3.5. The Problem of Witchcraft

Although women have many important functions in Onitsha, they are also feared as potential witches. The problem of the Daughter as witch, discussed in Chapter Five, may be reconsidered briefly. The fact that women as Daughters are believed to be witches stands athwart much anthropological theorizing concerning witchcraft. Leach has hypothesized that members of the “we-group” (involved in relationships of incorporation) engage in “controlled supernatural attack”, as, for example, the sister in Ashanti who is “fully conscious of her misdeeds, who receives special training and initiation into her nefarious acts” (Leach 1961:22). “Controlled supernatural attack” is seen as similar to a curse in denoting a relation of potential authority of attacker over attacked or vice versa. Those who wield it command respect.

Leach opposes this category of “controlled supernatural attack” with that of “uncontrolled mystical influence” which relates to a concept of fate and views the witch as unconsciously performing her evil acts. Contrary to the relationships of incorporation, uncontrolled mystical influence represents “other relations which link ‘our group’ to other groups of like kind (relations of alliance)” (1961:21). Uncontrolled mystical influence is not hereditary, but contagious; hence the wife in a patrilineal system transmits it to her children. However, while individuals in Onitsha may well fear offending the ghosts of the dead Daughters of the lineage, and they may also fear the curse of the Head Daughter who holds ofo, they also fear that elderly daughters will employ on lineage males, and on their wives and children, the same kind of evil mystical attack that is also believed to emanate from wives. Because brother and sister are related, is is even easier for such attacks to occur. The reasons why a brother might suspect his sister of witchcraft relate both to her ascriptive base in the lineage, and to the ambiguous manner in which she is viewed, due to her ceremonial contacts with the impure.

In Chapter Five, on the hand, we presented evidence to show that the Onitsha wife, who has both ascribed and achieved aspects to her role, uses both inherent mystical power and deliberately employed medicines. Thus Leach’s argument falls short.  It does so because it is conceived in the simplistic terms of a grand opposition between incorporation and alliance. As the Onitsha data shows, when one uses role theory, one may distinguish more varying modes of articulation of persons to organizations, and [hence expect that] more complex forms of attack may occur. It might be hypothesized that a woman uses uncontrolled mystical influence against her children in her role as mother and controlled mystical attack in her role as wife, but it is not clear from our data that Onitsha people make this kind of distinction.

In a society which is not expanding, where ties with maternal lineages are important for farming and other forms of advancement, where one’s major protection comes from one’s relatives, it makes sense that one’s maternal ancestors will be remembered by both men and women, and be thought to have power over an individual. Patrilineage shrines to Daughters represent the value placed by the mother’s people on the continuing relationship with Daughter’s children. In a community where women may become prominent in trade and have some autonomy in carrying out their own successes in life, it is likely that there will be legends of powerful women with magical powers, and that shrines will be established to these women. That they are also associated with witchcraft indicates the ambivalence with which people regard wealthy old women, those who have outlived their juniors and aroused jealousy, especially by trade activities. If they are barren, there is even more reason to dread them since their condition may be seen as a punishment by god. Barren women are also thought to be envious of other wives who have children, and are suspected of trying to lower the other’s prestige by killing their children. The conditions of polygyny generate hostility between women, while the independent trading activities of women and their ability to utilize ties in two lineages, which gives them a degree of freedom, may also arouse the animosities of men.


We shall now briefly examine some of the major religious themes of the wider Ibo area, using the Central and Afikpo Ibo as a major comparative cases, in order to see how the roles of women in religion vary within the Ibo area, and to what degree this variance may relate to differing social structures. Finally, a few remarks will be made about the role of women in the social structure and religion of the Yoruba.

8.1. Comparison Within the Ibo Area

8.1.1.  Asaba District Ibo

Before considering the Central and Afikpo Ibo material, it should be noted that the roles of women in Onitsha religion and social structure are very closely paralleled among the Asaba District Ibo to the West Across the Niger. The communities to the west are more centralized and stratified than are those of the Central Ibo and also more nucleated in  their settlement patterns. The rituals of the women tend to parallel those of the men, and to be correspondingly more complex than in most of the Ibo area.

Frequently these communities have a King, chiefs, and a female leader called Omu. Women frequently possess not only personal destiny shrines (chi) but also ikenga (Thomas 1914:64). Both women and men keep shrines representing their mothers and lineage Daughters (Thomas 1914:53). Women are known to bring earth from spirit shrines of their mothers’ villages to establish shrines in their marital home. As in Onitsha, the Head Daughter performs purificatory rites for her own lineage in adultery confession, cleansing prior to ceremonies and Burial rites (Thomas 1914:51). She also has a role in dispute settlement.

In general, throughout this area, a wife can leave her husband at will, and may be asked  [by her patrikin] to leave her husband’s home if he consistently mistreats her. Any money she makes in trade belongs to her. Burial of a married woman may be either at her husband’s or her own village. These patterns presumably apply to Asaba.

Women may marry women in some parts of the Asaba district in order to get children in their name, and, as cited earlier, they may also bear children for a father who has no sons (Thomas 1914:78-79).

I believe that much of what was said about the roles of women in religion and their relation to women’s overall position in the social structure would also be applicable to the Asaba area. The material for extensive comparison, however, is inadequate [as of 1969].

8.1.2.  Central Ibo 

The material on the Central Ibo is critical in illuminating some of the variables discussed in regard to the role of women in Ibo religion and social structure. Although there are a number of parallels between Central Ibo and Onitsha, there are sufficient differences to afford an opportunity to analyze concomitant variations within a rather limited area. The term “central” is here used to include the Owerri area and the Agbaja village group, which have been classed by Forde and Jones as Southern Ibo, and Okigwi, Nneato and Awgu, classed as Northern Ibo and sub-cateforized as Eastern or Elugu.

Although Northern Ibo, in general, have more social stratification than do the Southern Ibo, the Eastern or Elugu section of the Northern group is a an economically poor area, composed of may village groups where titles have little importance. The material on the Central Ibo, in general, is very sketchy. We hope, however, that the hypotheses generated by comparing these groups with Onitsha will stimulate further research.

Among the Central Ibo, villages consist of localized patrilineages, which in turn are associated together in a wider community known as the “village group”, a term also applicable to Onitsha town. Like Onitsha, the village group has a central market place and a communal shrine, both of which are found on smaller scales in each village. Villages are exogamous, women marrying either into other villages in the village group or into other village groups.

In contrast to Onitsha, the population density is greater and settlement is more dispersed, villages being scattered diffusely over areas like three square miles (Green 1964:9). Each spouse in a compound has a separate hut, unlike Onitsha. The fact that settlements are more dispersed than in Onitsha does not, however, prevent Daughters of a lineage from frequently traveling to their natal homes as occasion demands, because the distances are not prohibitively greater, and the localization patterns in the two areas are formally alike, even though concrete distributions differ.

There are no centralized, stratified political organizations among the Central Ibo groups we are discussing, and society is, on the whole, considerably less role-differentiated for both men and women than in Onitsha. The Agbaja Southern Ibo village group even lacks that characteristic typical of most Ibo societies, the masquerade organization. Title societies are not important in some areas, and there are few formal distictions of rank (Green 1964:58). In areas where men do take titles, however, there are usually also separate titles available for women (Meek 1937:169).

Leadership functions are carried out largely by patrilineage elders, who may belong to the oldest age grade, or be senior lineage priests holding ofo, the symbol of ancestral authority similar to that in Onitsha.  Ritual Objects of Women

Women in this Central Ibo area are, as in Onitsha, believed to be injurious by their very natures to their husbands’ medicines and shrines. Even medicines themselves are dichotomized into those having male or female properties: male medicines may be neutralized by cooler female ones.

Women are believed to be closer to the earth fertility goddess than are men. When they make a sacrifice to her, they strike the sides of their hands on the earth, instead of using ofo as men do. Although ofo is not held by women, and there is no evidence that a special ofo is delegated to the Head Daughter of a patrilineage, women are greatly respected for their power to curse by using their household pestle as a symbolic device comparable to ofo. The pestle is especially dreaded, since it is believed that anyone who eats food prepared with that pestle, when an oath is made on it, will fall ill if they swear falsely (Green 1964:175).

Women do not appear to keep many personal shrines in the Central Ibo area. However, certain ones which are common throughout most of the Ibo-speaking are have been reported. Women have Chi,  similar in meaning if not in form to the Onitsha chi.  This is established when a diviner advises a woman to do so to bring her good fortune. Apparently such Chi shrines may be retained in the woman’s marital village after her death, since women have been observed sacrificing to a tree representing the Chi of a deceased wife of the founder of the lineage segment (Green 1964:180-181). Although men have ikenga, women do not, unlike Onitsha (Talbot 1926:143).

Meek reports that the children of one mother keep symbols representing “the ancestors” of her family (1937:63). In some Southern Ibo areas, Qzuitem for example, although there are no permanent shrines to female ancestors, female ghosts are nonetheless believed to be able to cause death (Harris 1940:143). Such ghosts are also believed to cause rain, and are invoked into “fern-covered sticks” when the occasion demands. During the Aba “women’s riot” in 1929, women sacrificed to these sticks to bring death to their enemies (Harris 1940: 147-148).

In the Okigwi area, women can have shrines to agwu and become diviners (Leith-Ross 1939:118). Leith-Ross reports that a diviner who had no son might be called by agwu to instruct his daughter in the profession so that the shrine might have a home.

There are numerous medicines to ward off sorcery, but the recognition or fear of any form of “witchcraft” similar to that in Onitsha in generally lacking.

As in Onitsha, women do not kill sacrificial animals on their own behalf except under exceptional circumstances, and then, not by shedding their blood.  Daughters of the Patrilineage

In Onitsha, a woman is under the control of two ofo, that of her father and that of her husband or his lineage priest. This is also true among the Central Ibo. However, in the latter case, in contrast to Onitsha, the ofo of her father always supersedes that of her husband, since the father can bring his daughter’s body home for burial even though as a wife and mother she has living sons. A woman is considered a permanent member of her own patrilineage, without, however, also establishing the firm base in her husband’s patrilineage that she gains as a mother in Onitsha.

In both Onitsha and Central Ibo, Daughters have roles as purifiers, though this role may be less well-developed among the latter. Although Daughters return home at annual ceremonies or when instructed by a diviner to sacrifice to a village shrine, there is no evidence that they are called upon to purify their lineage mate’s houses prior to important rituals. Nor is it reported that they hold ofo.

Daughters do have purificatory functions at funerals. When a man dies, his sisters return to the village to deal with offences committed against him by his wives during his lifetime, perhaps offences concerning adultery (Green 1947:165). Daughters also conduct rites at the Burial of lineage members, which include cooking food and then throwing it away in a manner reminiscent of Onitsha (Leith-Ross: 211-213). Rituals involving widows during the mourning period are also conducted by Daughters (Meek 1937: 310)
The Daughters of the Village in Onitsha, as contrasted to those in Central Ibo, are a well-organized unit, whose religious activities include worship at shrines of famous Daughters. Sometimes wives join in these rites (Chapter V: 19-20). The organization of village Daughters has been known to boycott a lineage member and thus invalidate any rituals he might want to conduct.
Moreover, in Onitsha, the Daughter has stronger rites of control over Village Wives than she does in Central Ibo, where the problems of co-wife disorder and fears of adultery are less [intense], these problems being handled by the wives themselves (as will be shown below). In Onitsha, a wife must defer to Daughters of her husband’s patrilineage or they may take away her cooking pots. If a Daughter can convince other lineage Daughters that her brother’s wife is misbehaving, they can drive her out of the house.   Also, in Ontisha, men’s sisters are constantly on the watch for infidelity among their brothers’ wives.

The Daughters of the patrilineage in Central Ibo, however, are expected to serve as settler of some disputes. When two brothers fight, the Daughter, married elsewhere, my be summoned to try the case and make peace.  Wives of the Patrilineage

It is clear that the wife is a vital part of the household economy in the Central Ibo area, both through her agriculture and through trade. As compared to Onitsha women, those in Central Ibo do a much larger share of the farming. Yam production is poor in much of the area, and heavy reliance has to be placed on women’s crops such as cocoyam, cassava and vegetables. As an informant told Green, “It is the women who own us”, meaning that women both provide men with food and then cook it for them (1964:174). However, although women’s crops are more valuable  [economically] to the community as a whole, they lack the prestige of the male yam crop.

Women’s trade is on a smaller scale in Central Ibo and is not interlocal.  Important women traders who have been able to acquire wealth are rare. What interlocal trade is done is carried out by men who trade in different kinds of goods than women, i.e. stockfish or palm oil, and who travel greater distances (Green 1964:39). The absence of any significant international market near to the village group severely limits women’s opportunities to amass wealth. This situation contrasts sharply than that of Onitsha.

However, it cannot be said that the status of wife in Central Ibo is lower than that in Onitsha. The lack of social differentiation observed in men’s political structures is also apparent in women’s. Since the people cannot amass wealth, it is not surprising that titled systems are not present. One of the major differences from Onitsha, aside from the poverty of the area, is the fact that women as wives and mothers are not incorporated in the patrilineages of their husbands to the degree that they are in Onitsha. This is indicated by the fact that a woman must always be buried in her natal village, unless her children pay the deceased woman’s lineage for the privilege of burying her in her husband’s compound (Leith-Ross 1939:210-212). In Awgu division, even if a woman “expresses the desire to be buried in her husband’s home”, her wishes may be disregarded by her lineage mates after her death (Meek 1937:310).

The highly structured devices present in Onitsha for bringing individual wives of a village into sharing its males’ activities, such as “wife of titled man” or Mother of Masquerade, are absent in Central Ibo. In Onitsha, the entrance of an elderly mother into the masquerade removes her from any status as a legal minor as she becomes free from harassment by masked figures, and also learns many of the secrets of their association. Such sharing is [apparently not] available in Central Ibo.  There are further indications that the tendency of lineages to incorporate their wives or mothers is much less in Central Ibo than in Onitsha:  Men are not prohibited to the same degree as in Onitsha from having sexual intercourse with other wives of their village, and there is no strong emphasis on the confession of adultery by wives (Green 1964:156; Meek 1937:211).  The Role of Mother

This role cannot be separated in any systematic way from the role of wife on the basis of available data from Central Ibo. However, as shown above, the status of mother does not give a woman the degree of strength in her husband’s lineage that it does in Onitsha. Men are closely bound to their mothers, as shown by the fact that they may keep shrines to them (Meek 1937:63) and by the closeness that they feel to the mother’s lineage, but this does not seem to generate any structural effect on her role in his village.

In Onitsha, a woman as mother sees herself as part of her husband’s lineage, even to the extent of siding with her husband’s village in a political dispute with her own. The kinship terminology also reflects the identification of a woman as mother with her husband’s patrilineage. Data is insufficient for comparison with Central Ibo on this point, though it may be hypothesized that it would not show paternal grandmothers to be classified in the same manner as their husbands. In Central Ibo, due to the lack of incorporation, women and men of a village stand in opposition as somewhat hostile adversaries (Green 1964:176). Strong sexual antagonism is evident in the organized activities of women (see below) and in women’s songs.  Organization of Village Wives

Throughout the Central Ibo area, wives of the village and village groups are organized into councils, the leader being chosen either for “her wisdom” (Leith-Ross 1939:108) or because she is the wife of the holder of the most powerful ofo in the lineage. Activities of the women are economic, judicial, and religious. They make laws concerning protection of women’s crops and the settling of disputes between women and between women and men. In quarrels involving both men and women, these councils are sometimes assisted by male members of the families concerned (Leith-Ross 1939:108). The decisions of the Village Wives’ councils are enforced by the women’s right to seize property of any defiant woman and to ridicule any defiant man, and also by the fear of the earth goddess with whom these women are thought to have a special relationship (ibid:108).   The Village Wives form a united front to the outside world and their solidarity is strong. Although disputes between wives occur, it is believed that the wives should handle them themselves, and the Daughters rarely intervene.

Women not only ostracize a member of their council who disobeys a ruling, the same punishment as is applied in Onitsha, but they may also boycott the men, refusing to cook for them and ridiculing them in song (Harris 1940:146-7). In one case where livestock, owned by men, were foraging among the women’s crops, the women of the village killed the animals, and the owners of the animals did not wish to make an issue of the matter, partly fearing disagreeable behavior by the women, and partly fearing the female aspect of the town deity, who is believed to support the wives in such disputes (Green 1964:173-174).

The antagonism between husbands and wives in a village also expresses itself in [women’s fear that] men are using medicines against them to bring about painful or fatal childbirth. The organization of Village Wives has been known to order women to abandon their husbands as a group for a month until the husbands agreed to swear that they were not causing excessive deaths in childbirth (Green 1964:211).

As we discussed earlier, men in Onitsha fear the ridicule of Village Wives, but these women have much less power in dispute handling, especially between husbands and wives, than in Central Ibo. They do, however, try to settle disputes between the wives themselves. Their primary activities on the village level are dance practices. One case is cited for Onitsha, however, of women behaving in a manner similar to that of Central Ibo: the Queen urged women to refuse to cook for their husbands until certain demands were met (see Chapter 3). In general, the power of the Village Wives in Onitsha is considerably less than among the Central Ibo.

In the Central Ibo area, wives live in huts dispersed from one another, and hence are not brought into the kinds of intense conflict that occur in Onitsha within the compact household. LeVine’s hypothesis about the strong correlation between co-wife proximity and presence of witchcraft beliefs is relevant here (1962:43). In Central Ibo there is not much to inherit, and not so much rivalry and jealousy among co-wives concerning their children. Since women are not incorporated into their husband’s lineages, they can unite with one another more easily against men of the village. Lines of antagonism form more sharply along gender lines than in Onitsha.

In Onitsha, it is as individuals in the roles of mother or trader that women become strong in their rights. By contrast, the Central Ibo women are strong collectively, and less so as individuals.

It is significant, however, that although the belief in witchcraft is rare among Central Ibo, women as wives are believed to be able to curse using their cooking pestles as men do using ofo. Such action indicates a form of “controlled supernatural attack” which according to Leach would not be expected in a relationship of “alliance” (1961:25). Leach’s hypothesis requires serious modification, which should be directed at the inadequacy of his major dichotomy — incorporation versus alliance.  Religious Activities of Village Wives

In the Central Ibo area, religious duties of Village Wives include deciding on sacrifices to offer to the earth goddess, consulting diviners as to where to plant women’s crops, and practicing ritual songs and dances (Leith-Ross 1939:108). In Okigwi women have been reported to conduct a ritual similar to that of osekwulu in Onitsha (see Chapter Five) to drive out the misfortunes of the old year by carrying lighted sticks to the bad bush behind the market place and calling on the new year to bring peace and prosperity (Leith-Ross 1939:217-218).

Furthermore, when there is a great deal of illness in the village, elderly women, in Agbaja, will go to a diviner to discern the cause, and may be told to sacrifice to the earth. Green points out that here women serve to “restore equilibrium when anti-social behavior is on the increase” (1964:101).

Among the Agbaja village-group, women conduct religious ceremonies for the female aspect of the village deity. During the rites and their preparation, women sing songs of a highly feminist nature (189). Loyalty of wives to the deity of their husband’s village is emphasized, but [at the same time], the ceremonies involved help to keep women united with results that are, as described above, at times unsettling to the men.

Although the Town Women in Onitsha have important religious functions on the village-group or town-wide level, the wives of a localized patrilineage or village have few such activities. Daughters of the patrilineage, however, do have them. The degree of sex antagonism even in the rites involving the Town Women appears to be much less than in Central Ibo.

Let us briefly summarize the differences between Onitsha and Central Ibo which emerge from this discussion. Wives in the Central Ibo area organize themselves in strong collectively units, primarily in opposition to the men. This gives them power as a group within the marital village. The dispersal of co-wives’ huts, the lessening of competition between co-wives (partly due to this dispersal and to the lessened wealth competition), and the relative lack of incorporation of individual women as wife/mother into their husband’s patrilineage, fosters such strongly solidary organizations. Since wives are such a strong unit, Daughters are in a [weaker] position to interfere in the wives’ affairs, as compared to [Daughters in] Onitsha.

Since there are more forces bringing division and conflict among wives in Onitsha, they lack strength as collective Village Wives, though this organization does exist and does have some importance. They do, however, find a different kind of collective strength as Daughters of their patrilineages, where they have critical duties in lineage rituals and in overseeing lineage wives, especially in cases of adultery.

Women in Onitsha have more opportunity to amass wealth and to use their ties to both their own and their husbands’ lineages to their advantage. Women may become prominent as individuals in Onitsha and even feared. While they share with Central Ibo women such personal religious objects as chi and agwu, both of which are related to one’s destiny and thus largely based on ascriptive criteria, they also possess ikenga shrines, reflecting the aggressive achievement aspect of the female role in Onitsha, which appear[s] to be absent or very rare among women in Central Ibo. Where women have moved partly out of the primary domestic scene and entered the wider competitive one of trade, they have also acquired ikenga.

The high status of the Onitsha woman as an autonomous individual is due, in large part, to the degree of role differentiation within the society, and the ability of women to manipulate their several roles – wife, mother, Daughter, trader – to their advantage. Their strength is both in the collectivity of Daughters and as individuals. The high status of the Central Ibo women is due to their collective strength as wives.

8.1.3.  Afikpo Ibo  Overview

The Afikpo Ibo, classed among the Eastern Ibo by Forde and Jones (1962:52), share many features of social organization, e.g. double descent, with non-Ibo groups on the Cross river. They are clearly an atypical Ibo group, and are discussed here for the purpose of highlighting factors tending to lower the status of women in the Ibo-speaking area.

The village-group collectively named Afikpo consists of a series of large, compact villages, in which are grouped compounds of localized patrilineages. The population density is moderate for the Ibo area, approximately 500 per square mile (Ottenberg 1968:15), slightly higher than in Onitsha.

The Afikpo localized patrilineages are non-exogamous units which own household land, some farmland and groves of palm trees. Associated with their lack of exogamy, the nature of the organization of the patrilineage is quite different from Onitsha and Central Ibo. Non-localized matriclans and matrilineages are exogamic groups which hold the major areas of farmland and through which pass inheritance of money and trade goods.

Afikpo is a non-stratified society, though certain founding patrilineages have special privileges. There is no King or chiefs. The titles which exist confer personal prestige rather than legitimacy to rule.

Penetrating and binding together the various patrilineages in a society are two very important structures: the men’s “society”, which has mainly ritual and prestige function, and the age sets and age grades, which exist for both men and women. Those of men provide the basis of traditional government in the village group.  Ritual Objects of Women

The striking fact about the ritual objects in Afikpo is that men and women rarely use the same kind of shrine. Even when the function and meaning of men’s and women’s shrines is similar, the name is usually different. We will discuss here only those individual shrines relating to women. (For a full treatment of both men’s and women’s shrines in Afikpo, see Ottenberg 1969.)

Every man has a shrine dedicated to his person spirit or soul (owa) which will reincarnate at his death. Although it is believed that women also reincarnate, they do not possess this shrine or any direct equivalent to it.  Later in life men obtain, upon the adivice of a diviner, another shrine dedicated to their personal health and well-being, called nkamalo. It represents two ancestral spirits (owa), one from the father’s side and one from the mother’s, who have reincarnated in the individual.

A girl who is ill may have a shrine called egero established by her mother. Ottenberg states that the closest male equivalent to egero is nkamalo, but does not state that the former represents ancestral spirits in any way .
Once married, a woman takes egero to her new home, and also establishes another shrine (ci) with the help of her mother or an old woman of her compound. Ottenberg says that this shrine does not represent a soul, nor is it the same as the ci found elsewhere among the Ibo, which has been referred to repeatedly in the present study. A pot, representing the woman’s ci shrine, is deposited alongside a pot representing her husband, in the yam shrine of the localized patrilineage. Women do not have yam shrines, however, and may not sacrifice to those of their husbands. If a woman separates from her husband, she removes her egero and ci shrines, but leaves the pot which represents her ci at the yam shrine.

It thus appears that in Afikpo there is a much weaker objectification of a woman’s personal destiny than in Onitsha. The egero and ci shrines do not seem to represent the individual’s unique soul as theowa and nkamalo do for the men.
Another female shrine, adud), is established by a woman’s eldest daughter for her deceased mother, and resembles the oma shrine of Onitsha. The shrine must be established in order for the deceased to reincarnate. The equivalent of this ceremony for men occurs when a son places his father’s spirit in the ancestral house (ibid).
A sister can erect the adud shrine if there are no living daughters. Junior daughters of the woman will go to the senior daughter and offer sacrifices to the shrine if they feel the spirit is troubling them, or if they wish to pray for special success or protection from thei mother. If any female is told that the spirit of this woman has reincarnated in her, even though she is not matrilineally related to her, she will also sacrifice to the shrine (ibid). The senior living daughter takes the shrine with her wherever she lives, and it may be handed down for three or four generations. The ancestral spirit of the shrine is thought to be concerned with the welfare of her female descendants. Men are not affected by it, nor are patrilineal relatives of the deceased woman. In contrast, women may be troubled by ancestral shrines representing men of their own patrilineage.

The fact that men in Afikpo do not have shrines representing ancestral mothers, even though there is matrilineal descent and inheritance, presents a marked and interesting contrast to Onitsha where, although no property is inherited through women, men do make sacrifices to shrines representing their ancestral mothers.

Certain other shrines, though primarily made for men, may occasionally be acquired by a woman. These include one to encourage the obtaining of wealth, and another to prevent foolish behavior. The latter is also the special shrine of diviners and resembles awgu in Onitsha and Central Ibo, which is worshipped by women who are called to do so by the spirits. Afikpo women also have various protective charms.

Women may sacrifice, on occasion, to nkamalo and to a shrine which mediates with the Aro chukwuoracle, but only through the offices of their husbands. On the other hand, men never feel impelled to sacrifice to shrines owned by women, thus indicating the greater control men have, not only in political affairs, but also in ritual (Ottenberg). Women’s shrines are simply not relevant to men.

As in Onitsha and in Central Ibo, women are considered dangerous to shrines, and are also believed to be able to cool or neutralize them. Although women have little to do with men’s religious activities, elderly post-menopause women make the pots used as shrines. Once established, however, they dare not touch the shrine. There is also the belief that sexual activity weakens a person’s ritual powers, and that women, as sexual objects, are dangerous in religious matters (ibid).
The Afikpo Patrilineage
The type of double descent system that exists in Afikpo greatly weakens the position of a Daughter in her patrilineage. The leaders of the patrilineage are its “elders”, i.e. all adult males above the age of fifty-five, as determined by membership in age sets and grades formed on the village and village-group level. Leadership qualities for the elders of the patrilineage are the same as for those of the village, and include an ability to speak well and knowledge of history. Within the major patrilineage, elders are not ranked as to their minor patrilineage affiliations. Within the minor patrilineage, the nominal man is the eldest man.

Unlike in Onitsha and in many other Ibo areas, the authority of the patrilineage priest’s role, carrying with it ancestral force of the shrines in his possession, is not inherited. Instead, the priest of the patrilineage shrine is chosen by a diviner. Just as there are no set authority positions within the patrilineage for males, there are none for females equivalent to that of the Head Daughter in Onitsha.

Unlike Onitsha, brothers and sons of a deceased man do not succeed to any of his roles, including that of father. The wives of the deceased must marry outside their husband’s patrilineage and compound. While the senior son inherits more of his father’s personal property than other sons, he does not acquire authority over the children of other wives of his father, nor is he trustee of the group property (Ottenberg 1968:182). [If he is head of the extended family, however, he does] assume some responsibility for the well-being of its members (Ottenberg 1968:190-192; 1965:68).

Patrilineages support their members in disputes with other patrilineages, and are responsible for the burial of male members. They try to handle their own affairs, though quarrels that cannot be settled within the patrilineage may be heard by elders of the village age grade, or by men selected for their wisdom. The patrilineage elders rely on the section of the young men’s age set located in the compound to enforce their decisions.

The major patrilineage shrine contains pots representing deceased males of the patrilineage; no pots are placed in it to represent patrilineage females. There is no equivalent of the shrines in Onitsha kept to the Daughters of the patrilineage. Both the major lineage shrine and the shrine of the men’s society (see below), located in the compound, are concerned with controlling women’s behavior. In each compound there is also a shrine, similar to omumu in Onitsha (see Chapter Five), controlled by the minor patrilineage, which is given sacrifice to bring fertility.  Women as Members of the Patrilineage

A female member of the patrilineage has little need to offer sacrifices to shrines in the village where she was born, since her affiliations with spirit shrines of her compound are regarded for the most part as severed when she comes under control of similar ones in her husband’s patrilineage (Ottenberg P. 1958:93-94). Although a woman may return occasionally to these shrines for certain ceremonies and sacrifices, this does not take on the importance that it does in Onitsha.

While a married woman is viewed as bearing children both for her husband’s patrilineage and for her matrilineage, she makes no contribution to her own patrilineage. This is especially so since matrilateral ties to the mother’s patrilineage, so important in both Onitsha and Central Ibo, are relatively unimportant in Afikpo. Neither Daughters, nor their children, play important roles as peacemakers between lineages.

A woman’s parents should be prepared to provide her with housing and farm land if she separates from her husband, and she may be assisted by her brother in building a house on land belonging to the patrilinegae. It is not precisely clear form the data, but it appears that even if a woman has no brother of the same mother, other sons of the father should assist her.

If a woman is industrious, her patrilineage may wish to retain her by marrying her to one of its minor lineages. However, the primary responsibility for a woman appears to lie ultimately with her matrilineage members, especially her immediate brothers and sisters. If a woman has no sons, her daughters or other women of her matrilinegae may perform the burial, which takes place in the hut where she has been living. Burial of a male patirlineage member is always undertaken by either his son or other patrilineage men.

Daughters of the patrilineage do not meet as a group on any occasion, nor do they have any well-organized patterns of leadership (Ottenberg 1957:134). Ottenberg has suggested that this lack of continued organization is due to the fact that women marry out (ibid). We have seen from the Onitsha data, however, that this is not a sufficient explanation. Since Daughters sometimes marry into their own patrilineage, it is also not a necessary one.  Women as Members of the Afikpo Matrilineage

Afikpo matriclans are exogamic and widely dispersed throughout the village-group. Their leadership consists of the elderly males and the priest (also chosen by divination) of the matriclan shrine. Leadership of the clan and lineage is in the hands of men. Women do not exercise much authority, nor can they control matrilineage land themselves (Ottenberg 1968:105, 115).1

Matrilineages control eighty-five percent of farm land in Afikpo (Ottenberg 1968:103). Leadership is provided by the oldest man of the matrilineage, who may exercise considerable authority over allocation of matrilineage land. Such land is available to all lineage members, but is given primarily to male members and to widowed, divorced and separated women (1968:113).

Matrilineages are important in regard to inheritance rights, and participate in funerals, some title ceremonies, and the marriage of female members. They also support their members in personal disputes (Ottenberg. P. 1965:14). Ottenberg argues that the matrilineage in the past was more localized than today, since women feared to travel far from home to marry (Ottenberg 1968:115). Even today, somewhat less than half of the women sampled [were] married within the village of birth or a only a few miles from it, thus localizing matrilineage dispersal to some extent (ibid).

The major matriclan shrine is non-ancestral. While there are shrines to female ancestresses, kept by women (see adud) above), there is no general matrilineage shrine for the group as a whole. Sacrifices may be performed, for example, to matriclan land, and even to the “patrilineagl ancestral shrine of the uterine relative who originally obtained the land” (Ottenberg 1968:124), but female ancestral spirits are not worshipped by men. Women may sacrifice to the matriclan shrine without employing men as intermediaries.

A woman’s most important and most enduring kinship tie is to her matrilineage, and the relationship of a woman to her mother is especially close. The mother will sacrifice to her shrines on behalf of a daughter who is barren.   An adult woman has a closer relationship with her mother’s uterine brother or her own uterine brother than she does with her father; her brother is her advisor, supporter, and protector (1968:234). For men, the closest relationship is with the father, due to the nature of the localized patrilineage; the relationship to the mother’s brother is one of joint property interest.

The senior Daughter of a woman often has influence over her brothers in matrilineage matters, and often is present at the important transition ceremonies of their lives. She frequently returns to her mother’s household for visits, but it does not appear that she has any purificatory role analogous to that of the Daughter in the patrlineage in Onitsha, nor are female members of the matrilineage regarded as peacemakers, as Daughters of the patrilineage are in much of the Ibo area.

Female members of the matrilineage, unlike those of the patrilieage, are organized under the oldest female. Her duty is to advise adult female members and to aid them in sacrificing to their individual shrines. She is especially concerned about the fertility of females of the lineage. When there are disputes between lineage members and their husbands or co-wives, she comes to their property and tries to ensure that matilineage women are treated properly by their husbands (Ottenberg 1958:162). Altough she has no power over a matrilineage woman’s husband, she can encourage the wife to leave him. The woman’s leader represents all the matrilineage females to the male head of the lineage. As mentioned earlier, the matrilineage females do not exercise much influence over lineage affairs, but rather concentrate on furthering the interests of immediate matrilineage relatives. For example, they help female members or their husbands to take titles, and even organize funerals for women (Ottenberg 1968:125).

It is interesting to note that in the mid-1950s, the matriclan women formed meetings similar to those of the young men, to collect money for consulting diviners and for rituals to ensure clan prosperity. Depsite the women’s protests, these meetings were banned by the village age grades, who claimed that they were giving women opportunities for adultery. Although it is extremely rare for village elders to interfere with clan affairs, they did so in order to restrain women’s activities (Ottenberg 1968:106).

The bonds between matrilineage women are strong and not characterized by struggles for power, as are relations of male marilineage members, or the relationships of women as wives.  Wives of the Patrilineage

Residence after marriage is virolocal. Within a compound, husband and wife each have a separate hut, as in Central Ibo, co-wives often living some distance from one another. A man and his wives each own their crops separately, the husband growing the most important crop, yams, while the women grow cocoyam, cassava and other crops. There is an explicit sexual division of labor in all tasks (Ottenberg, P. 1965:9). Though a husband has a right to take any of [his] wife’s earnings in trade, he does not avail himself of this, and the idea of separation of crops and earnings is a long-established one.

In the past, women were dependent on men not only for yams, but also for protection from raiding bands when they farmed. Long distance trade, the most lucrative, was regarded as too dangerous for women to undertake. Palm products, an important source of wealth to women in much of the Ibo area, are scarce in Afikpo. The crops that Afikpo women did specialize in were not considered valuable enough for the use of brass rod currency. Hence barter was the means of trade among women. Such barter did not lead to the amassing of considerable surplus, as did the type of trade men engaged in. Husbands do not, as sometimes happens in Onitsha, help to set their wives up in trade.

Afikpo women share with those in Central Ibo an inability to amass money through trade. In this, of course, they both differ from Onitsha women. However, it appear that men in Afikpo are able to obtain more wealth than men in Central Ibo, thus contributing to the status differences between men and women. Women’s autonomy in trade is also severely limited by restrictions placed by the men’s society and the male age grades, restrictions which are [ostensibly] to prevent infidelity (Ottenberg, P. 1958:216).

In marriage, the bridewealth is low and given to the bride’s father and mother, who distribute some of it to their kin. A few days after the bride has gone to live in her husband’s home, a ceremony is conducted by the elderly women of the compound to bring the woman under the control of her husband’s ancestors. These women give her a cooking stand, after which she cooks and feeds yams to them, promising not to commit adultery (Ottenberg 1958:84). Such a ceremony blends properties of both the roles of wives and daughters of the patrilineage in Onitsha. In the latter society, it has been reported that elderly wives interpreted village rules to newly married women (Basden 1966:225), but as we have seen in Chapter Three, it is the Daughters of the husband’s patrilineage who make a bride confess any acts of adultery and swear she will not commit them again.

There is a great deal of hostility between co-wives. Ottenberg has related this hostility to wives’ division from each other by divisive matrilineal lines] (1968:188). Hostilities are also exacerbated, he states, by the fact that husbands are supposed to treat their wives equally. In many patrilineal Ibo societies, where there is a greater status differential between wives and less individual treatement, more cooperation occurs (1968:181-182). In Onitsha, husbands also try to treat their wives with apparent equality, and there is, nevertheless, a good deal of hostility between them. The degree of ranking of wives in Central Ibo appears also appear to be slight, but cooperation among women there is much more common. We shall return to this problem below.

One of the major causes of hostility among co-wives appears to be Afikpo’s characteristic domestic arrangement pattern, which resembles the “house-property” complex, but which lacks the firm ordering of wives from senior to junior, and also lacks the high level of incorporation found in societies such as the Zulu. A woman and her children are viewed as “houses” in Afikpo, often living somewhat separate from one another. The “houses” of the senior son receive the largest share of the inheritance, with the rest being divided in terms of seniority among the other houses containing sons (Ottenberg 1968:198-199). Such a situation is certainly likely to lead to intense rivalry between women, and there is also the fear that the elder son will be poisoned. Such rivalries are also present in Onitsha, with women attempting to gain special favors and positions while the husband tries to treat all wives equally. However, in Onitsha the senior son is viewed as the trustee of the father’s estate, and as the guardian of all the father’s children regardless of their separate uterine affiliations. As we have seen, this is much less true for Afikpo.

Wives in Afikpo engage in little cooperative activity; they do not go marketing as a group, help each other in shopping, converse a lot in their leisure time. A woman depends more on her friends in the compound, rather than on co-wives, for assistance.

The belief in witchcraft, so prominent in Onitsha, is lacking in Afikpo, although it is thought that co-wives frequently attempt to poison one another. A woman’s magic may be brought in by her mother or other matrilineal kin, who are often seen as being in alliance with her against her husband and co-wives. The fact that women are accused of practicing sorcery instead of witchcraft is relevant to Middleton and Tait’s view of the unincorporated wife as a practitioner of sorcery. Degree of Incorporation of Wives in the Patrilineage

The wife in Afikpo is not incorporated into her husband’s patrilineage to the degree that she is in Onitsha; the senior wife has no special ritual duties regarding her husband that would tend to bind her to him and his patrilineage.   Her primary ties and loyalties are to her own matrilineal kin. The tendency for interference from an outside group, in this case the matrilineage, appears to be much stronger than in either Onitsha or Central Ibo. Both her uterine brother and her husband have authority over her, the brother wishing his sister to produce heirs for the matrilineage, the husband looking to her for perpetuation of his patrilineal line. While the brother tends to suspect that his sister is not getting equal treatment with her co-wives from her husband, the husband is likely to fear that his wife’s brother is encouraging her to leave him.
Indications of lack of incorporation are the following:
1) There are low bridewealth payments which are not refunded upon separation, unless the woman remarries. The parties that receive the bridewealth are neither responsible for maintaining the marriage nor for repaying the bridewealth.
2) There is no levirate. Women are in fact prohibited from remarrying any man of the husband’s patrilineage and compound. Although children technically belong to the patrilineage of the father, they may be adopted, if they wish, by the patrilineage of the mother’s new husband. In Onitsha, such adoption would lead to feuding between the patrilineages concerned.
3) The husband’s lineage does not attempt to attach a woman who has borne children by bestowing various honors on her. It may be hypothesized, as for Central Ibo, that the kinship terminology would reflect this lack of incorporation.
In spite of the fact that there is a rather high separation and divorce rate, adultery is regarded as brining supernatural punishment upon herself and her husband, due to the oath of fidelity she has taken. While living with her husband, a woman’s sexuality is under his control, but at his death, this control is not transferred to his lineage (Ottenberg 1968:54).
Although uterine ties are of critical importance to any individual, the role of mother is not clearly distinguished from that of wife in regard to the husband’s patrilineage, since it does not lead to full or partial incorporation. Women however are less likely to leave a husband to whom they have borne children.  Divorce and Widowhood

Even though women are dependent upon men for protection, they are economically self-sufficient and able to support themselves in case of divorce or widowhood. In former times, a woman who separated from her husband usually remarried. It is only recently, due to modern improvements in women’s social and economic position, that they have remained unmarried living in their natal patrilineage compounds to any extent. A widow who has adult sons may choose to remain in her husband’s compound, or she may go to live with her married daughter and receive support from her matrilineal kin (Ottenberg 1958:193). If she returns to her father’s compound, she will be provided with land to farm and build on. Organization of Compound Wives

There is little formal organization of wives in Afikpo, and they do not form a united front toward the men of the compound, as is true in Owerri. They are usually led by a senior woman, who has likely married into her own localized patrilineage and thus, as a Daughter, has special familiarity with it (Ottenberg 1968:74). Such a woman combines roles which in Onitsha are totally separate, that of Daughter and that of wife. The elderly women try to settle disputes between co-wives before they become serious enough to come to the attention of the men’s age grade. Women of the compound may also conduct rituals to improve the quality of the pots they make. They may also consult diviners to ascertain the cause of sickness in the compound, collecting money among themselves for the necessary services. Both husbands and wives conduct annual ceremonies to compound fertility shrines, but do so on separate occasions (1968:68).

In general, women of the compound are not well organized, and are separated as individuals under the supervision of the residential unit. Unlike women in Central Ibo, they “have great difficulty in reaching even minor decisions” (Ottenberg 1968:74). Ottenberg attributes this to the fact that they come from different patrilineages, are engaged in hostilities with their co-wives, and realize that their stay in any given compound, due to the relative frequency of separation, may be brief. Our comparative data suggests that the last two factors are most important. Furthermore, the activities of Village Wives are constantly interfered with by the male age grade, unlike in Onitsha and in Central Ibo where women had a good bit of leeway in handling their own affairs.  Non-Kin- Recruited Associations in the Village  Age Sets 

Male Age Set
Age sets and grades exist for both men and women, and those of the men form the basis of traditional government of the village group (Ottenberg, P. 1965:15). An age set for men is composed of persons born within three years of each other, sets being grouped together to form grades. On the village group level, age grades are the major governing bodies in Afikpo, the junior grades enforcing the rulings of the elders. Within the village, the executive age grade, appointed by the elders, directs communal work, collects village funds, acts as a village police force, and assists the elders in carrying out rituals.

In each compound, the young men of the patrilineage are formed into an age grade which is a section of the larger village unit. Its duties include supplying materials for sacrifice in the patrilineage, bringing in a diviner in times of illness, fining persons who do not participate in festivities, maintaining order in the compound, fining sex offenders and watching for cases of adultery. They also control intra-compound disputes between men, between husbands and wives, and between wives. Disputants are fined and brought before the compound elders. One of their age grade’s major duties is controlling women in the compound, including fining women who argue with men.

In Onitsha, younger age sets within the village are responsible for communal labor while older ones are important in molding public opinion. Neither of these, however, interfere in disputes between husband and wife, or co-wives.   Nor have they anything to do with discovering and punishing adulterers, a matter which is handled by the lineage priest and Head Daughter. Its duties in regard to ritual activities in the patrilineage are extremely limited and are much less [extensive] than in Afikpo. On a community-wide basis, in Onitsha, the Ruling Age Set was consulted by the King and chiefs in important decisions. It assisted the women in sacrificing to certain major shrines, but did not, itself, serve as a focus of ritual activities.

Among the Central Ibo group discussed by Green, age grades were largely social and convivial in their nature (1964:25), not playing an important part either in communal work or in village government. The important elders were the holders of ofo for patrilineage segments, not merely members of a certain age grade who were good speakers, as in Afikpo. In some of the Central Ibo groups, it will be remembered, women’s councils, not male age sets, settled disputes husbands and wives and co-wives. In contrast to both Onitsha and Owerri, then, in Afikpo age-sets and grades penetrate the patrlineage organization to a much higher degree than in Onitsha or Central Ibo.  The Women’s Age Grade

The women’s age grade operates on the village and village-group level and thus brings together the wives of men from several major patrilineages (Ottenberg, P. 1965:17), just as the male age grade, the primary governing body, brings together the men of several localized patrilineages. While age-sets for men are composed of those men born within three years of each other, those for women are made up of wives married into the village during a three-year period. They are not limited to wives, however, and any married or once-married female resident in a village may join. The female age sets are paired with those of the men and cooperate in certain ceremonial activities.

Leaders of these female age sets are often women who have married within their villages of birth. If a woman is divorced or widowed, she joins where she resides. Age sets are important to women because they give a basis for cooperation within the compound and village, they support a woman in ceremonies, and they provide an opportunity for her to have a voice in the affairs of women in the village group when she is an elder (Ottenberg 1958:240). Initiation into a set consists in feasting older sets, but it cannot occur without the permission of male elders.

The elderly females of each village come together to form the elder grade of the village group. On the village level, they make rulings concerning women’s planting, tending and harvesting of crops, and their tribute to the Afikpo rain maker (Ottenberg, P. 1965:27). They also handle disputes between women and occasionally between husband and wife, if reported by the husband.

The leader of the elderly women, who may be chosen by divination, obtains a charm which is kept in her house and which she uses in sacrifice for the general welfare of the members of the grade. Before women plant their crops, the younger members give materials for female elders to use at sacrifice at the village shrine; they also provide such materials for the male elders. Although rituals of the men are supposed to guarantee the welfare of the women, they like to have their own rituals as well.

The female elders meet around a shrine at the market which is supposed to bring success in trade, keep peace in the market, and prevent strangers from causing harm — all qualities which are reminiscent of waterside shrines in Onitsha. Elderly women sacrifice to this shrine during the new yam festival. Female elders of the village group regulate prices in the village markets and determine how many pots one woman is permitted to sell on one market day (Ottenberg, P. 1965:17). However, the powers of the female elders are weak compared to those of men. Judicial matters in which female elders are involved are tried by men, and the men’s age grade makes rulings that affect women as well as men.
The female age sets have numerous functions similar to those of the Town Women in Onitsha and to those of the woman’s councils in Central Ibo, regulating farming and market activities, providing materials for sacrifice on their behalf, and settling some female disputes. The differences in Afikpo are that the male age sets readily interfere with women’s activities, that men frequently judge women’s affairs rather than leaving the matter for women to handle themselves, and that, apparently, women are more limited in the type of community sacrifice they engage in. Their ritual activities appear to be primarily in regard to feminine matters, rather than concerning the community as a whole.  The Men’s Secret Society
Another Afikpo association that frequently interferes with the affairs of women is the men’s secret “society”, to which all men belong, and which has as its primary goal the guarding of the welfare of the town and the punishing of women who imitate men’s activities. Like the age grades, this society unites members of various patrilineages in a village. If a woman touches the shrine of the secret society, she may be given a form of compulsory initiation into the society, but unlike the case with the female members of the Onitsha masquerade association, its secrets are never revealed to her (Ottenberg 1957:219). Men do not sponsor the honoring of their aged mothers by initiation into the secret society here, as is done in Onitsha. It will be remembered that among the Central Ibo previously discussed, there are no secret societies (Forde and Jones:38).

Within the secret society, titles purchased in the patrilineage context are important, and even serve to reinforce the authority structure of the village. Although title-taking is mostly a male activity, there are a few titles open to women. It is not clear from the data available in what context these titles were taken, but women who possessed them were often prominent members of their respective age sets (Ottenberg 1958:239).

In some patrilineal Ibo groups, where the ozo title is important, wives may “take title” for their husands, providing money for the ceremony, and thereby being accorded certain rghts and privileges, including the weraring of ozo membership insignia (Ottenberg 1958:141). This was true in Onitsha (see Chapter III), although the exact honors accorded such women have not been detailed. Such a situation demonstrates the close ties of a woman to her husband and his lineage.

By contrast, in Afikpo, although a wife is expected to contribute towards her husband’s title-taking, titles are not taken on behalf of a spouse (Ottenberg 1958:141).  Summary

.The overall social position of women in Afikpo is certainly less autonomous than in either Onitsha or Central Ibo (Ottenberg 1957:27). The women’s world is regarded as strictly separate from and inferior to the men’s (Ottenberg 1968:xi), a condition present but less clearly articulated in the other two areas.

In Afikpo, women spend a great deal of time farming, and their trade activities are less lucrative than in many other Ibo areas. There appears to be a greater wealth differential between men and women than in the other Ibo areas discussed. The polarity of sex roles is seen in the rigidly dichotomized economic pursuits, in the minimal role of women in the governing of the compounds and village-groups where they live, and in the strong reliance by men on the secret society, the male age grades and various patrilineage shrines for controlling women and preventing them from asserting any independence.
The relation of men and women to ritual objects reflects and restates this sex polarity. Rarely to they worship the same shrines. Although women are troubled by patrilineage ancestral shrines of their village of birth, men are not similarly troubled by shrines representing their ancestral mothers. It is interesting that both in Afikpo and in the double descent group studied by Goody, when men sacrifice to matrilineally-realted persons, it is usually to shrines of men of the matrilineage rahter than to shrines to women, e.g. in Afikpo, to patrilineage shrines of matrilineally-related males (Ottenberg 1968:123-124), in LoDagaa, shrines to the brother of a woman whose spirit is troubling an individual (Goody 1962:405).
The fact that women do not control individual destiny shrines gives support to the hypothesis of the first chapter: where such control is lacking, the relative autonomy accorded women in a society will be low. Women may have shrines to increase their wealth, the function of which may be similar to the Onitsha ikenga, but these are not common. The possession of awgu, in all three Ibo areas discussed, represents a form of personal destiny shrine that disturbed and deviant men and women may possess.

Several factors other than economic ones appear to contribute to the low status of women in Afikpo as compared to much of the Ibo area.   Given the double descent system, a woman has no permanent base in any compound. Her strongest ties are to her non-localized matrilineage. Matrilineage ties for a woman serve as functional substitutes for strong patrilineage ties, or for incorporation of the wife into her husband’s patrilineage: they provide her with a dispersed group of people to support her, but they cannot activate an entire localized group on her behalf. Although matrilineage women are organized and have critically important roles in their own lives, they do not appear to be structurally important to the matrilineage males, except as breeders. They do not conduct rites concerning the matrilineage as a whole (except for fertility rites), nor for its male members analagous to those performed by the Daughters of the Onitsha patrilineage.

The woman’s role in her own patrilineage is even less structured than in her matrilineage. In Afikpo, while patrilineages are localized and important units in village affairs, they are underdeveloped structurally. This is evidenced by the fact that the oldest man or the elders, rather than persons in fixed geneological positions, are the leaders of the group, and by the fact that no one replaces a deceased father, structurally. This looseness of organization is due in large part to the fact that patrilineages are not exogamous. The multiple kin types present in such a situaion are inconsistent with strong patrilineage organization. Being loosely structured, the patrilineage organization does not provide the strong ascriptive base which institutionalizes a certain parity between male and female members, as occurs in Onitsha society where the lineage priest and Head Daughter hold analogous positions, and both possess ofo. In Central Ibo, the Daughter’s role in her patrilineage appears to be less developed than in Onitsha, but it is certainly much stronger than in Afikpo.
Female members of the patrilineage are regarded as expendable to it, unlike in Onitsha where they may be valued
1) for trading abilities,
2) for valuable lineage roles,
3) for the fact that they bear children who are closely tied to their patrilineage.

In Afikpo, complementary filiation is replaced by complementary descent. That is, a woman’s children have few ties to her patrilineage, but are members of her matrilineage. Children of divorced parents may choose to affiliate with the patrilineage of their mother’s new husband, but rarely with her own patrilineage (Ottenberg 1968:33). A woman’s ties to her own patrilineage are so weak that she must depend on her matrilineage for burial if her husband’s village refuses to perform it. For a man, burial is primarily the responsibility of his sons and fellow patrilineage members.

There is considerable role differentiation in Afikpo due to the presence of a double descent system, age sets, secret societies, and title societies. With the exception of the latter, which is not a political unit and has no formal role in lineage administration (Ottenberg 1968:72), the important roles are basically ascribed, rather than achieved. The ascriptive combination is both loosely structured and strongly unfavorable to women: their roles in both patrilineage and matrilineage are structurally weak; the secret society is avowedly anti-feminine; and the age sets not only rigidly separate men from women, but interfere in women’s activities in a wide variety of context. They penetrate into many loosely-stuctured situations.

In Onitsha, the ascriptive pattern for roles within the patrilineage is uniform, with women having partial parity in the form of role-imiattion. Although age sets and the masquerade society are anti-feminine, they are not in a position to downgrade women in a diffuse variety of contexts, because they do not dominate the patrilineage, as they do in Afikpo. Furthermore, the strong structural emphasis on achievement in Onitsha, e.g. the importance of titled men and chiefs in governing the society, enables women with a good trade base to emulate the men by having their own chiefs and Queen. The emulation possible within the Onitsha patrilineage appears to set a precedent for emulation both in the title system and masquerade society.

Wives in Afikpo

The question must be posed as to why wives of a village in Afikpo do not form a strong collective organization in opposition to the men, as happens in Central Ibo. As in Central Ibo, they are not incorporated into their husband’s patrilineage, and each wife’s living quarters are physically dispersed from the others. It may be hypothesized that the differences are due to three important factors:
1) Women and their children are treated as “houses”, the house containing the senior son inheriting the most. No son becomes the trustee of the father’s estate on behalf of all his siblings. This tends to cause intense rivalry and hostility between women.
[The comment in brackets is almost an exact replica of an earlier one — should we omit it? -MKH]
2) Since there is no levirate and women are not permitted to marry within the compound of their former husbands, there is a more transient aspect to the role of wife than there is in Central Ibo or Onitsha.
3) While village women do act as a collectivity in certain matters, they do not present as strong a front as in Central Ibo, not only because they are divided by interpersonal hostilities, but their activities are [also] constantly subject to interference by the male age sets and secret society, both of which view their most important functions to be the limiting of women’s powers.

8.2.  Comparison With the Yoruba

It is possible to view the Ibo societies discussed above as representing various points on a continuum in regard to women’s autonomy in society.  Afikpo represents a low point here, for though there is a considerable degree of role differentiation for men, it is not relevant to women, and women are relatively unimportant in community-wide rituals. In Central Ibo, where there is no extensive differentiation of roles for either men or women, women have strong collective power. In Onitsha and Asaba Ibo, women as individuals manipulate the several well-structured roles available to them as wife, mother, daughter and trader, and thus possess a relatively higher degree of individual autonomy than in the other groups discussed here.

A few remarks may be made concerning the Yoruba, a society, in which there is a high degree of role differentiation, much of it open to women, and in which women concomitantly have a great deal of autonomy in religion and in other matters. As in Onitsha, the autonomy of women is strongly correlated with their prominence in trade. In order to remain within the framework of a controlled comparison, only the patrilineal Yoruba groups are discussed below.
Yoruba women generally support themselves and their children through crafts and trade. They do little farming. It has been said that the status of a woman derives from her rank within the trading and craft associations and from her personal wealth, rahter than from the status of her husband (Lloyd 1963:39). Levine (1966:91) has called Yoruba women “perhaps the most independent in Africa”, since their traditional sex role arrangements allowed women [more autonomy] and greater mobility than in many other societies.

Women are admitted to the highest offices of various priesthoods, such as the Shango. Although there are two male societies, egungun and oro, the society which controls both, ogboni, admits elderly women (Beir 1955:40). Women are especially prominent in the worship of orisa oku, the god of agriculture (Lucas 1948:109). In Oyo, women are important at the King’s palace as priestesses, and even participate in the ceremonies of Ifa priests (Johnson 1921:256). Women achieve high state office in Oyo only through leadership in religious cults, which often have separate hierarchies of offices for men and women (Morton-Williams 1964:256).

As mentioned in Chapter Two, Yoruba women possess a shrine to the head, as do men, which they set up in their houses after marriage. Research needs to be done into what other ritual objects are worshipped by women, and to what degree these are similar to those worshipped by men. At present (1970), data on this subject is incomplete.

8.2.1.  Women as Members of the Patrilineage

A woman retains strong membership in her own patrilineage even after marriage. Not only does she have a right to use land belonging to her own kin group, but, in certain areas, she may receive profits from family farms (Lloyd 1959:24). She is free to resume residence with her kin at any time, and she returns there regularly for group meetings. She may even build a house there (Lloyd 1966:488). Her debts are the legal liability of her own descent group. In Onitsha, such a liability rests with the husband. A child has strong ties to his mother’s patrilineage and a son may receive land from it, and even be adpoted into it, e.g. in Ekiti and Oyo (Lloyd 1959:24). It would be expected that men would have shrines representing their deceased mothers, but there is no information on this matter.

Women remain members of the cults of their parents’ compounds though they join in those of their husbands (Fadipe 1940:135, 506). They return to their own compounds frequently for festivals and funerals (Bascom 1944:10). Although women attend patrilineage ceremonies, it is not clear what, if any, special roles they may play. They do not, for example, appear to be prominent in funerals: the priest of Ifa performs the purificatory ceremonies over the corpse, instead of the Daughters, as done in Onitsha (Lucas 1948:225). It may be hypothesized that some of the specialized ritual roles performed by Daughters in Onitsha have been assumed by members of specialized cults among the Yoruba.
8.2.2.  Marriage

Yoruba compounds are similar to those in Onitsha; thus there is enforced close contact between co-wives. The senior wife keeps order between the women and assigns tasks to the junior wives (Fadipe 1940:229). Neither husband nor wife can inherit from one another. This is a much stronger separation of marital roles than in Onitsha, where a husband may inherit from his wife under certain circumstances (Chapter Three). A non-mandatory levirate is present, but elderly widows generally prefer to reside with their sons.

Since a woman is regarded as more or less equal to a man within her own descent group, age being the primary ranking criteria, this contrasts sharply with women’s roles in the husband’s compound (Lloyd 1968:80), sometimes making them prefer life in the former, if they have no sons, to life in the latter.

The close ties of a woman to her own descent group and her economic independence from her husband contribute to the high divorce rate (Lloyd 1968:79-80). Bride price need not be refunded except in cases of adultery. Wives often leave their husbands and repay the bride price themselves through money earned by trade. Because of the localized nature of the communities, women do not marry far from their own patrilineages, and it is not difficult for children to keep in touch with their mothers, even if they are no longer residing with their husbands (Lloyd 1968:70).

8.2.3. Women in the Community

Women are not eligible for political titles in traditional government (Lloyd 1963:39), except through membership in religious cults. However in most Yoruba towns, the head of the women traders (iyalode) who represents the women’s interests to the King and chiefs, is heeded whether she is speaking of the women’s trade interests or broader political issues (Fadipe 1940:776). There is also an association of “rich women” (ibid) about which, unfortunately, little has been recorded.

8.2.4.  Witchcraft

Yoruba witchcraft resembles that in Onitsha, with the organization of witches paralleling the organization of women traders (Verger 1965). The community may appeal to the elderly women of the town to prevent misfortune or cause harm to befall an evil king (Robert Thompson: personal communication). Witches are usually referred to as “our mother”, but it is not clear whether Daughters of a patrilineage are believed to use witchcraft against the children of their brothers. This may be anticipated wherever elderly women are living in their brothers’ compounds.

The Yoruba material thus shows many striking parallels with that of Onitsha. The women are even more successful traders than in Onitsha, and this is related to the fact that they have even more freedom of movement than the Onitsha wife, and concomitantly weaker ties to the husband and a higher divorce rate. They have, however, a very firm base in their own descent group, where they are regarded more as equals than are Onitsha women in their own descent groups. The organization of women in Yorubaland is indicative of their power, and has considerable influence on governmental affairs. Women are admitted to the worship of most of the orisa, being barred from very few cults. It is not clear what specific functions Daughters have in religious activities in their own patrilineage, or to what extent these functions may have been co-opted by the specialized cults. In a major aspect of Yoruba religious life, however, cult worship, women have an approximation to equality with men which even exceeds that of Onitsha.

8.3.  Conclusions From the Comparisons

What additional light has been thrown on the roles of women in religion by the comparative data considered here? All of the societies discussed possess localized patrilineages. The societies can be roghly ranked in terms of productivity from the Yoruba, to the Onitsha, Afikpo and Central Ibo. In Chapter One we considered the argument that, in patrilineally-organized societies, the higher the productivity from subsistence cultivation, the tighter the control of a descent group and the stronger its authority (Schneider and Gough 1961:596-597). Hence, in patrilineal societies of highest productivity there should be weak matrilateral and affinal ties, women having been absorbed into their husbands’ descent groups (ibid). This argument is not supported by the Onitsha and Yoruba data. In Onitsha and in Yoruba societies, one finds the highest degree of productivity among the groups compared, and yet the strongest matrilateral ties, women being closely identified with their own descent groups.

The Yoruba and the Onitsha Ibo are not only the most productive agricultural groups mentioned, but they also place an emphasis on the role of women in trade. Our data strongly supports the hypothesis that where women have important economic functions of an autonomous nature such as trade, as contrasted to farming, they will form associations which will have important political and religious functions. Where women are independent economically, there will be an elaboration of their personal cults and an imitation of those of men.

Also related to arguments of productivity is the hypothesis by Gough (see Chapter One) that the presence of a state organization may affect the roles of women in religion. She argues that in some matrilineal societies of low productivity, old women of the descent group share the male head’s authority, especially in matters involving women. With increase in productivity and the emergence of a centralized state, women become increasingly subject to men and are regarded as legal minors. This hypothesis does not apply to the patrilineal systems we have discussed. In the groups compared, women had the most prominent roles in religion in the states that were most centralized: The Yoruba and the Onitsha Ibo. Centralized states limit women’s roles when their structures prohibit women from controlling wealth, but this is by no means a necessary outcome of increasing centralization.

Several aspects of the roles of women in patrilineally-descent-based societies have been clarified. It appears that women must either have a firm base in their own descent groups, as in Onitsha or among the Yoruba, or they must be in the position to form strong collective organizations as Wives in order to have autonomous religious activities.

Exogamous patrilineages with highly structured role systems are most likely to provide institutionalized, ascribed positions for women. Such positions may provide role models for women in a variety of non-descent contexts.
Where patrilineages are loosely structured, however, other institutions tend to handle the functions that are elsewhere alloted to the patrilineage.   Such institutions may adversely affect women’s roles by depriving them of an ascribed base in ritual roles within their own patrilineages, and by interferring with and inhibiting the development of female organizations such as the Village Wives.

The comparative data also sheds some light on the problem of divorce in descent-based societies. As mentioned in Chapter One, high divorce rates may be a reflection of the strength of women’s ties to their own descent groups; such strong ties may indicate that women have important functions in these descent groups. Of themselves, divorce statistics indicate little about the roles of women in religion or in other spheres of social life. In Afikpo, the divorce rate is probably higher than in Central Ibo or Onitsha, but women there have fewer ritual roles than in the latter two groups. Not enough data has been available to determine from this study whether there is less ritual elaboration of the role of wife in societies with a high divorce rate as compared to those with a low one.

A correlation has been tentatively established between relatively high social position for women and their control of personal destiny shrines. The greater control over religious objects they possess, the greater their degree of autonomy of action in general in the society. This suggests that ritual activities do indicate something about a general position of women in a society.

The greater the role complexity assigned to women in a society (e.g. Onitsha and Yoruba), the greater will be the participation of women in significant ritual activities, and the more parity in these activities they will have with men. A high degree of role differentiation is not necessary, however, for women to be allocated important religious roles in a society. But, where men have a markedly higher degree of role differentiation in various social spheres than do women, women’s religious functions appear also to be limited.

The contrast relevant here is between the roles of women in religion among the relatively undifferentiated Central Ibo, and among the Afikpo where men have more differentiated roles than do women. This is related to the fact that where distribution of wealth between men and women is roughly comparable, women may have significant religious functions.   However, where men do have significantly greater control of wealth than do women (as in Afikpo), women’s roles in community-wide religious activities tend to be limited.

The worship by men of shrines representing women is strongly indicative of the value placed on matrilateral ties in a society. Both the religious practices of men worshipping shrines to their mothers, and lineage members worshipping shrines to the Daughters of the lineage, reflect the position of women in the descent group, and the relation [these women’s children] have to that descent group in regard to inheritance or possible residence there. Where women are not so memorialized by their children and by their descent group, the status of women may be devalued.

Throughout this dissertation, we have stressed the importance of separating for analytical purposes the various roles of women: wife, mother, daughter, trader. Confusion has resulted from the failure of many ethnographers to specify which religious activities of women are related to which of their roles.

  1. For some exceptions to this proscription see Ottenberg 1969:116, 212. []
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