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Iyoba Idia: The Hidden Oba of Benin

Nkiru Nzegwu


The task of piecing together women's history has been difficult. So acute is the dearth of information, particularly documentary evidence, that some of the outstanding women in history have been mistaken for men and their achievements, attributed to male rulers! -- Bolanle Awe 1992, vi.

Present Benin history is the product of several reconstructions that commenced after the accession of Oba Eweka II in 1914. Two central problematics shaped these reconstructions, namely, the glorification drive of cultural nationalism, and the male privileging ethos of a patriarchal gender ideology. The cultural nationalist project of restoring Binis' pride after the humiliating dissolution of the kingdom in 1897 meant that the first phase of historical reconstruction was steeped in romantic mystification, resulting in a literal account of history (Egharevba 1968, 1961, 1953, 1934; Akpata 1938, 1937). The second phase occurred within a scholarly convention and a view of history that devalued women through assuming their irrelevance in political matters (Bradbury 1973) and through focusing exclusively on European archival materials, giving scant attention to Benin oral and performative traditions (Fagg 1963, 1953; Ryder 1969, Sargent 1986).1 Because the two types of project with the exception of Sargent's were undertaken during colonial times, they embody a gender ideology that affirmed men as the measure of all things.2 The scholarly paradigm of the second phase went much further in infusing Benin history with a strong masculine ethos that, in subsequent scholarship, shut down the possibility of claims that women had autonomy in old Benin (Okpewho 1998; Kaplan 1997, 1991; Curnow 1997; Mba 1982). Babacar M'bow's injunction in the introduction of the catalog, Benin: A Kindom in Bronze, is relevant in reminding us that African discourse on its art is a discourse of struggles that must be waged outside of the context of western epistemological hegemony. Mindful that not just foreigners are ensnared by this hegemonic framework, we heed the injunction to move the boundary of discourse outside of this epistemological framework in which male hegemony is uncontested and men are the only subjects of history.

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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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