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GENDER IN YORUBA RELIGIOUS CHANGE

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This paper explores the relevance of gender to the reception of Christianity and to early church life in nineteenth-century Yorubaland. These were profoundly shaped by the gender conceptions prevalent in indigenous society and religion. Though the indigenous gods (orisa) lacked gender as a fixed or intrinsic attribute, gender conceptions were projected on to them. Witchcraft was mostly attributed to women both as its victims and as its perpetrators, and with men and ancestral cults chiefly responsible for its control. There was an overlap between the social placement of witches and Christian converts, both being relatively marginal. Religious practice was also strongly gendered, with women preponderant in the cult of most orisa, but men in the main oracular cult, Ifa. Women found something of an equivalent in the cult of Ori, or personal destiny. The missions initially met their readiest response among young men, who were less tied to the orisa cults than women were. By the second generation the balance shifted, as male prestige values were incompatible with full church membership and women came more to the fore in congregational life. As an aspect of this, the church took on many of the concerns that the orisa cults had offered women—a token of this being the honorific use of the term 'mother'. In the end it is less gender per se than the gender/age conjunction that is critical.

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