Gender Related Social Groups

Numerous scholars have noted the sex-segregated nature of Igbo social organization (Green, 1947; Miller, 1982). Many social institutions are structured by gender, with men and women often participating in parallel but separate spheres. Because descent is generally reckoned patrilineally and postmarital residence is traditionally patrilocal, women's structural position vis-Ă -vis kinship groups changes more fundamentally than men's over the life cycle. While both men and women experience significant changes in status as they pass from son/daughter to husband/wife to father/mother to grandparent/elder, for women marriage marks a radical change that can be both empowering and problematic (Smith, 2001b). Because a woman typically moves at marriage from her own patri-lineal compound/village to her husband's, she becomes, in a sense, an outsider in her married home. This is particularly the case until she gives birth to a son, and the Igbo language is replete with proverbs about a woman's precarious status as wife and the importance of parenthood in securing her position. While the status of wife is, in part, one of "stranger," the status of mother is perhaps the most valued and emotionally exalted kin position.

In precolonial patrilineal Igbo communities, men of the same lineage group constituted one of the principal structures of local political organization. Other more horizontal forms of male social organization, such as secret societies, age grades, and title societies, cut across lineages, facilitating cooperation at village and village group levels (Ottenberg, 1971). Each of these institutions was characterized by exclusive male membership, and notions of secrecy were related to the perceived power of these groups in regulating community activities—and particularly in controlling women (Ottenberg, 1989). The importance of all-male societies has waned in the postcolonial period, as forms of state authority have usurped many of their original functions, but lineage groups and village development unions remain strong institutions in most Igbo communities, with one of their chief functions now being the management of relations between village residents and their many migrant relatives (Uchendu, 1965a).

For almost every male social group there is a parallel women's group. Though women move away from their lineages at marriage, they maintain lifelong ties to their patrilineages as daughters and this relationship is formalized through daughters' associations. Contrary to what seems to be implied in some of the literature, and in contrast to implicit ideas in some Igbo (mostly men's) rhetoric about women, as daughters, most Igbo women remain vital members of their patrilineages throughout their lives and their importance is ritually marked at marriage and burial ceremonies (Amadiume, 1987). Women also belong to associations of wives in the place they marry, to women's branches of the village development unions (often in both their natal community and their postmarital place of residence), to groups of women who have married in one community but originate from the same natal community, and to savings-loan unions that can be constituted along any number of lines. The sheer number of sex-segregated social groups and the fact that men and women maintain parallel associations at almost every level is one of the most striking features of gender-related social organization in Igbo society.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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