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The Epistemological Challenge of Motherhood to Patriliny

Nkiru Nzegwu


In this essay, I examine some Igbo communities that anthropologists have long described as patrilineal. The objective is, first, to determine the accuracy of the description and to ascertain if there is a correlation between patriliny and patriarchy; and second, to determine in what ways the notion and ideology of motherhood in Igbo society challenges the prevailing characterization of the society as patrilineal. Early anthropological studies of Igbo culture by G. T. Basden, Northcote E. Thomas, Sylvia Leith-Ross, Margaret M. Green and C. K. Meek hardly focused on the epistemological significance of motherhood and the social importance of being a mother.[1] While Basden, Thomas and Meek paid attention to husbands as fathers and to mens activities because they viewed the society as largely based on patriarchal lines,[2] motherhood, for them, was something that happened to women after they were married. Since, in their mind, wives were structurally subordinate to husbands, they concluded in their descriptions of family relations that motherhood lacked social and epistemic significance.[3] By contrast, Leith-Ross and Green identified the importance of motherhood in the culture but failed to pursue its significance and of what it portends for the conventional understanding of so-called patrilineal families. Against the background of the 1929 womens war, they were more interested in understanding the subjectivities of the Igbo woman, and in presenting her as an individual. Until Ifi Amadiume directly engaged the topic of motherhood in Igbo society in 1987, few anthropologists before her had done so in a comprehensive manner.[4] Prior to that most of the stimulating discussions had taken place in literature, notably in the novels of Onuora Nzekwu (Highlife for Lizards) and Flora Nwapa (Efuru).

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JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies. ISSN: 1530-5686 (online).
Editors: Nkiru Nzegwu; Book Editor: Mary Dillard.

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