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Gender as colonial object

Originally published: Public Seminar on July 26, 2018 by Lucas Ballestin (more by Public Seminar)  | (Posted Jul 30, 2018)

For the ethnographer, as well as the museum collector, the question of what properly constitutes a colonial object is both alive and crucial to the course of research, especially during times when repatriation debates have heightened. With a few exceptions, however, contemporary debates about colonial objects have tended to neglect considerations of gender.(1) There are at least two ways of correcting this relative neglect. One would be to pay closer attention to the way gender relations have punctuated the history of the production, possession, and display of colonial objects. Another way would be to consider how the category of gender itself might intersect with the history of colonialism. In other words, one might raise the question of how the category of gender itself might be understood, at least partially, as a colonial object.

To appreciate the extent to which gender can be construed as a colonial object, it’s necessary to first understand just what a colonial object is. I understand colonial objects neither as ‘artifacts produced by indigenous peoples,’ nor as ‘artifacts that get taken up as emblematic of a particular (foreign, fetishized) way of life.’ Rather, by colonial objects I understand objects that are imbedded, (re-) produced, and circulated within a concrete colonial practice . Such a practice envelops well enough the military, political, and socio-economic aspects of European power in Africa, Asia and the Americas, but it also involves the irreducible cultural and subjective elements involved in these European world empires.

I want to begin by focusing on what Argentine philosopher Lugones has called “the coloniality of gender,” which is the idea that the dominant gender system of today was in fact native mostly to Europe and was only imposed upon the rest of the world through the process of European colonization of the same.

Lugones’ most direct influence is the work of Anibal Quijano. Quijano invokes the idea of capitalism as a world-system to argue that it was the imperative of capitalist expansion that drove Europeans to settle the rich lands across the Atlantic. So far this sounds uncontroversial. What was crucial for Quijano, however, was the idea that the scientific concept of race arose precisely at the moment when Europeans came into contact with the originary peoples of the Americas. His argument, in short, is that the formalization of racial categories was a process parallel to the work of settling the Americas and extracting and exploiting its natural resources for the world market. It was the imperative of capitalizing on the conquest that led the Spanish empire to develop complex, hierarchical systems or racial categorization in order to facilitate the division of labor and rule in the new colonies.

Lugones endorses this idea, but she critiques Quijano’s failure to address gender within these hierarchical systems he identified. Her original contribution is, in essence, to deepen and correct for Quijano’s omission, by doing for gender what he had done for race. Namely, Lugones claims that “As Eurocentered, global capitalism was constituted through colonization, gender differentials were introduced where there were none.” Or, more generally, that “the imposition of this gender system was as constitutive of the coloniality of power as the coloniality of power was constitutive of it.” In other words, European colonization included the extension of the European gender system upon the cultures that were colonized. Lugones claims that there was a distinctive and radical qualitative transformation in how these nations related to notions of gender. Lugones’ argument is motivated by feminist critiques of the constraining binary, cis-heterosexist gender system dominant in most contemporary societies. What is distinctive about Lugones’ critique, however, is her attempt to provide a firmly rooted historical account of how our hegemonic gender norms became hegemonic in the first place.

Simultaneously, Lugones seeks to identify the rich variety of gender norms that came to be displaced by our current conceptions of gender. Moreover, she underscores a notable parallel between cutting edge emancipatory discourses and many pre-colonial gender systems. Moving backward to trace the history of the gender system and then forward to connect pre-colonial gender systems with contemporary notions of feminist, queer, and trans emancipation and resistance, Lugones emphasizes the historical specificity of the binary, cis-heterosexist gender system, thereby challenging its inevitability. Thus, to Quijano’s Coloniality of Power, Lugones adds “modern colonial gender system.”

In the coming section, I consider a few varieties of studies examining the specific ways which European gender norms differed from ‘indigenous’ gender norms in West Africa and Persia, and how it was that those older gender norms came to be displaced through the process of European colonization.

The first of these case studies is one on which Lugones’ conceptual account relies heavily: Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí’s account of the colonization of the land of the Yoruba, found between the Niger and the Volta, in what today has become Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Colonial exploitation was never a purely extractive business; it required the re-fashioning of important aspects of economic and political life in order to succeed. In Yorubaland, this was especially true of gender relations.

In fact, Oyěwùmí’s primary claim is that “gender was not an organizing principle in Yoruba society prior to colonization by the West,” but that the systematic institutionalization of gender was itself a colonial development. There are two aspects of Oyěwùmí’s approach that serve Lugones especially well, and which illustrate my own claim about considering gender itself as a colonial object. The first is the pre-colonial Yoruba gender system, and the second is the juridical and political changes introduced by the colonists during their ‘settlement’ of the region.

Oyěwùmí paints a picture of gender relations before colonization. Foremost among the differences were that gender categories were diverse, not necessarily tied to anatomy, and generally much more porous than the binary European system. And, importantly, the boundaries between these positions were porous, so that people could at times move beyond them or occupy intermediary spaces. It is in this context that categories such as “Women” were relatively meaningless for the Yoruba.

In other words, unlike in Europe, Yoruba society did not feature hierarchical orderings according to gender identity. From the gender of their pantheon to the laws concerning ownership of land and its inheritance, Yoruba society was distinguished from European society in its lack of exclusion of women from participation in the public, religious, and economic spheres.

All of this was dramatically altered only upon the arrival of British colonialism and, by extension, European conceptions of gender. Oyěwùmí explains how this process unfolded on several fronts simultaneously. The Yoruba pantheon, which was traditionally non-gendered, increasingly became so, with the most traditional Western associations about power and wickedness being dragged into the picture.

At the same time, even as the Yoruba as a whole were subordinated to the British, the British saw it fit to allow for a degree of participation in the affairs of public life (in the form of State minor posts or charges) for Yoruba men, but not for women. This was reflected also in juridical reforms concerning private property. Property that was typically held communally according to lineage was suddenly placed in the trust of men, effectively dispossessing those who had, up to that moment, held equal claim to the use of that land. Marriage law was modified to agree with the European Christian model, in effect annulling local traditions of polygamy and other arrangements. “In other words,” writes Oyěwùmí, “regardless of qualifications, merit, or seniority, women were to be subordinated to men in all situations.”

Oyěwùmí’s full account of these transformations is rich, beyond what I can convey here. There is, however, much more to any gender system than gender identity (i.e. more to it than who gets placed in which category); there are also norms governing the performance of gender, as there are also norms governing attraction between different kinds of subjects. One could analyze the development of gender practices along many vectors, including things like orientation (as in Butler’s heterosexual matrix), or cis-ness (as Oyěwùmí notes by the observation that the boundaries between genders were themselves porous prior to colonization). It would be especially interesting to pursue the kinds of questions posed by Oyěwùmí and Lugones in the context not just of gender identity, but also in terms of these varieties within the gender system, including categories governing things like beauty and sexual orientation.

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s work on the ‘modernization’ of gender and sexuality in 19th century Persia accomplishes this in a couple of ways.[2] Najmabadi aims to focus on much more subtle phenomena, such as changes in attitudes toward beauty–she calls it the ‘feminization’ of beauty–as well as changes in the acceptability of homoerotic love that was once prevalent and normalized. While Najmabadi makes it clear that these changes were brought about by what some like to call ‘soft power’, or dominating cultural influence rather than explicit military or economic power, she also chronicles the specific ways in which British cultural and commercial influence to a large degree produced crucial changes in Persian cultural attitudes towards sexuality (toward heteronormativity).

Yet another fruitful place to explore such intersections of gender and colonization are the Americas. Works by Paula Gunn Allen and Michael J. Horswell catalogue the variety of possibilities for gender identity and social gender roles throughout a large number of originary peoples both in North and South America. Perhaps most prominent among these variations is the recurrent ‘third gender’ space. The idea here was that, in addition to two binary gender/sex poles, many Native American cultures featured an intermediary gender that broke up the binary, not by presenting a gender/sex triad, but by having this third gender express the spectrum of mediate positions between the two ‘poles’. This is the sort of arrangement that Lugones calls “gynecratic egalitarianism.”

An approach that keeps firmly in mind the changes effected in gendered life through the process of colonization can thus come to a fuller understanding of what colonization was, and of how its effects continue to reverberate.

Even in places where we see this intersection explicitly treated, however, as is the case with Londa Schiebinger’s work, the notion that gender itself might be approached as a colonial object fails to arise. In other words, up to this point, scholars like Schiebinger have not sought to account for how the category of gender itself, and certainly its contents, is consistently susceptible to colonialist processes. In order to facilitate this kind of connection, it’s necessary to make a conceptual case for the place of gender as a plausible object of study for scholars of colonial objects.

Considering the evidence cited in the sections above, and brought to our attention by Oyěwùmí, Najmabadi, and others, it seems fair to conclude that gender itself might be understood as a colonial object inasmuch as colonial gender norms were often vastly different before and after the colonial encounter, and differed as a result of the ‘encounter’ between the colonizers’ gender system and whichever gender system existed in that culture previous to colonization.

There are two comments I’d like to make before concluding. The first aim in this paper is to open a space for connecting the colonial objects field to developments in kindred fields, hopefully to the benefit of both. My second aim is to point out some issues worth considering when approaching gender itself as a colonial object.

Firstly, deepening the connection made by Quijano, Lugones, and many others between colonialism and expansionist capitalism, it’s useful to connect the imposition of colonial gender systems to the need for reproductive labor under capitalist systems. In other words, the reification of two fixed gender categories, the framing of these categories along teleological reproductive timelines, the exclusion of women from public life, serve specific purposes within a capitalist system: the division of labor into productive and reproductive. If capitalism is a driver of colonization, and if colonization transforms gender systems, it’s worth investigating how capitalism and gender might relate. Oyěwùmí is keenly aware of this connection, exploring how the subordination of newly discovered women coincided with the expropriation of communal land and installation of slavery and wage labor in Yorubaland. This process not only recalls parallel developments in European history, but also appears to have wider purchase and strikes me as a necessary development, at least conceptually speaking.

Secondly, I express a misgiving. Lugones’ account of gender colonialism is motivated by a practical desire to find alternatives to the constricting gender norms currently hegemonic in the West. She follows a conventional method for critique: historicizing the system under scrutiny to limit it in time and locate possible historical alternatives. There is a risk when we read pre-colonial gender systems through a 21st century queer lens. Leaning on such an analogy would defeat the purpose of historicizing colonialist gender norms and could lead to altogether new sorts of erasures.

When we make the claim that gender is colonial, we don’t mean to say that gender was altogether absent prior colonization (although Oyěwùmí does want to make such a claim with regard to the Yoruba), but rather that the gender systems were also an object of colonization, and that colonization as a historical process also involved the modification of the specific indigenous gender arrangements of the regions it affected. Consequently, I suggest that a greater emphasis on the gendered implications of specific object transfers and non-transfers would be of benefit to the field. More radically, it might be said that our understanding of colonial history and the history of gender is not complete until the colonial histories of gender, and, on the other hand, the gendered history of colonialism are properly coupled.

Lucas Ballestin is a PhD Student, Philosophy and Historical Studies, at the New School for Social Research.


  1. The most prominent exception here being the work of Londa Schiebinger. Cf. Londa Schiebinger (2007). The Fate of the Peacock Flower in Europe. In: ibid (ed.), and Plants and Empire. Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press, 150–193.
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