Ìwà l’ẹwà: Towards a Yorùbá Feminist Ethics

Olayinka Oyeleye
Department of Philosophy
University of Ibadan Nigeria


This paper explores a narrative path towards foregrounding what it calls a gender-relative morality as a core dimension of female subordination. It takes a feminist approach to ethics, which stresses specifically the political enterprise of eradicating systems and structures of male domination and female subordination in both the public and the private domains. The theoretical implications of Feminist narrative ethics is then applied to the philosophical imports of Yorùbá proverbs about women as a way to tease out how female subordination is grounded in Yorùbá ontology and ethics. Specifically, the essay interrogates the ethical and aesthetical trajectory that leads from ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty), a Yoruba moral dictum, to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin ([good moral] character is a woman’s beauty). Within this transition, there is the possibility that the woman is excluded from the category of those properly referred to as ọmọlúwàbí.
Keywords: Ìwà l’ẹwà, Feminist ethics, Yoruba proverbs, Ọmọlúwàbí, Gender-relative morality


Ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty), a Yoruba moral dictum, suggests an inconsistency in the division of Western value theory into “ethics” (as arising from morality) and “aesthetics” (as arising from art). In the Yorùbá worldview, as the adage goes, moral character and the aesthetic of a person are inextricably linked. Interestingly, observations about the female body, consciously or unconsciously, assume an association with bodily aesthetics, so much so that beauty is linked with the feminine. This association of beauty with the feminine has led to an extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà into ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin which translates as “[good moral] character is a woman’s beauty.” While the Yorùbá worldview places enormous emphasis on the moral character of a person, its emphases on the moral character of a woman however surpasses that of men. Could this imbalance be an indication of female subordination?

This paper takes a feminist approach to ethics, which stresses specifically the political enterprise of eradicating systems and structures of male domination and female subordination in both the public and the private domains. Feminist ethics has significantly benefitted from the influence of a narrative approach; specifically, “narrative ethicists take the practices of storytelling, listening, and bearing empathetic and careful witness to these stories, to be central to understanding and evaluating not just the unique circumstances of particular lives, but the wider moral contexts within which we all exist. In telling stories, narrative ethicists suggest, we both create and reveal who we think we are as moral agents and as persons” (Gotlib 2018, online). This paper utilizes the narrative approach to ethics in its attempt to describe the gender relativity of morality in Yorùbá ontology. The story it tells is woven around prominent proverbs and moral themes within the Yorùbá cultural context.


Egbinadé and Àkànní are secret lovers. Egbinadé, as her name suggests, is an epitome of beauty and elegance, a constant sight for Akanni’s sore eyes. It so happened that the entire village is let in on their secret when Egbinadé begins to metamorphose. Àkànní has put Egbinadé in the family way. Àkànní panics. He initially denies involvement with Egbinadé, but following threats from Ẹgbinadé’s father, an Ayélála Priest, and afraid of the consequences of his action, Àkànní admits he had truly been involved in a secret affair with Egbinadé and had kept it secret because he is betrothed to Àdùké, the daughter of Lánínwún, a wealthy village merchant who has already taken the matter to the elders council.
Àkànní’s decision to accept the pregnancy and take responsibility is applauded by the elders council and deemed honorable. It is said that he had “repaired his ọmọlúwàbí.” Egbinadé’s mother brings to the fore the question of her daughter’s fate should Àkànní be left to marry his betrothed rather than her daughter. She wonders why no one questioned his “out of character” act, and how it seems too easy for him to redeem his ọmọlúwàbí. An elder within the council responds that Àkànní confided in him that Egbinadé is not a virgin, hence she is not chaste and that her ìwà (character) was not in accordance with the culture.

The Ìyálóde who had been all the while silent interjects, and poignantly asks if it is in line with the culture for Àkànní, who is already betrothed, to engage another girl sexually. She also reminds the council that Egbinadé’s pregnancy is an act perpetrated by two consenting adults and with àse (a seal) from Elédùà. Furthermore, the Ìyálóde opines that, both parties ought to get married since the betrothed is not pregnant yet. Aṣípa, the secretary of the council, vehemently antagonizes Ìyálóde’s remarks. He asks if Ìyálóde would have raised these objections if the betrothed is her daughter. Ìyálóde retorts in similar fashion: would the Aṣípa have passed the same judgment if Egbinadé is his daughter? The Aṣípa replies in defense that his daughter is “well taught” and could not have found herself in such an ugly situation. He concludes that Egbinadé has brought ìtìjú (shame) to her family.
Ọt̀ únba, also an elder within the council, interjects with the argument that as a man, Àkànní’s sexual morality is not as questionable as Egbinadé’s. He concludes by suggesting that Àkànní should marry both Egbinadé and his betrothed. Àkànní’s mother blatantly refuses. She claims that her family has agreed to take the child and can do no more. Egbinadé’s father then reminds the council that Àkànní has perpetrated an immoral act tantamount to eèwọ̀ (a taboo) which requires propitiation. The Kábíyèsí then intervenes at this point to douse the rising tension.1


The attempt to give epistemic credibility to the stories women tell—as narratives, and narratives as a feminist method—found an initial grounding in the consciousness-raising discourses and discussions capitalized upon by second-wave feminists. Women were encouraged to exchange stories of their everyday lives, to make public, through these group discussions, what had been hitherto considered private. Thus, when stories, for example, of sexual relations and sexual orientations, which one would regard as belonging to the private sphere, were brought to the fore and made public at these discussions, they initiated series of events and incidences that precipitated the collapse of the walls between their private and public worlds so much that the personal became political and the political personal.

In the view of Catherine MacKinnon, “As Marxist method is dialectical materialism, feminist method is consciousness raising: the collective critical reconstruction of the meaning of women’s social experience, as women live through” (1989, 83). In the light of this view, comprehending women’s situation as it is lived through becomes the most visible quality of this method. MacKinnon further opines that “the analysis that the personal is the political came out of consciousness raising” (Ibid, 95), and is characterized by four interconnected facets. First, women as a group are dominated by men as a group and subsequently as individuals. Second, women’s subordination in the society is not as a result of biology or personal nature. Third, gender division and its inherent sex division of labour not only influence but determine how women feel in relationships. Fourth and perhaps most controversial, “since a woman’s problems are not hers individually but those of women as a whole, they cannot be addressed except as a whole” (Ibid).

Responding a few years earlier to some of the points raised by MacKinnon, bell hooks contends that “[o]utspoken socialist-feminists, most of whom are white women… [had] not worked to raise the consciousness of women collectively. Much of their energy has been spent… discussing the connections between Marxism and feminism, or explaining to other feminist activists that socialist-feminism is the best strategy for revolution” (1986, 136). Raising concerns about how much visibility black women feminist theorists got, hooks argues that

Although they make references to the work of a few privileged voices (that is to say voices they choose to listen to, for example Audre Lourde, Barbara Smith), for the most part theoretical writing by less known or unknown women of colour is ignored, particularly if it does not articulate the prevailing ideology (Ibid, 126).

Thus, while on the one hand, consciousness raising was deemed fit enough to become a method, it was on the other hand criticized for its exclusion and silencing of some voices to such an extent that womanhood becomes misconstrued and the needs of women misrepresented. Such contradictions and contentions as this, has been the tale feminist scholarship has had to tell. Feminist ethics as a broad field, and narrative ethics as one if its sub fields, has been no less contentious.

Feminist Ethics and Narrative

Feminist ethics, initially understood mainly as both a reaction to, and departure from, the dominant trends in moral philosophy, is now a fully developed and well-ingrained subfield within the broader field of ethics. Feminist philosophers have fared increasingly well in their mandated responsibility of contributing positively to issues of urgent moral concerns, especially such that can make sense of women’s experience as moral agents, as well as advancing alternative moral theories to utilitarianism, deontology, and in some aspects, contractarianism. Howbeit, the lines of demarcation between the broader field of ethics and the subfield of feminist ethics have greatly diminished.

Feminist ethics shares with feminism the common goal of understanding and eliminating the oppression of women. Samantha Brennan (1999) notes however that it is not just any theory, especially any which is able to reach the conclusion that women are the victims of wrongdoing, that will suffice as a moral theory from a feminist perspective. Brennan argues, for instance, that few feminists endorse utilitarianism as a moral theory because of its assumption that the equal treatment of women would bring about greater overall happiness. This, Brennan contends, appears too feeble a basis for such an important moral claim. As she sees it, since the utility principle underlying utilitarianism defends an action as right insofar as it produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number, then if the continued subordination of women yielded more happiness than the emancipation of women, such subordination of women was morally more preferable to the emancipation of women. Brennan further argues that for an ethical theory to count as feminist, it must not only get the answers right, it must also get the answers in the right way. And one good way to get the right answers, according to her, is by turning to women’s experience. We shall elaborate further on Brennan’s position.
Recall that feminist ethics began as a movement against mainstream ethics which was seen as predominantly the domain of upper-class white men who constructed ethical theories that reflected, naturally, the experiences of the group. These ethical theories, by implication, left out or at best made unintelligible the experiences of the “others”, especially women. It is from this perspective that this traditional moral philosophy was considered “mainstream.” Brennan argues that ethics in this form is done in at least two ways:

First, mainstream moral theory has focused on ethics for dealing with realms of human life in which men predominate. Thus, we have an ethics for the marketplace or public sphere and no ethics for the family. Second, in areas of human life in which both men and women participate, it is the experiences of men within these realms to which traditional moral theory has been held accountable (1999, 861).

Thus, in a bid to overcome the limitation posed by the dominant male-centered moral philosophy, feminist ethics initiated alternative moral theories that possess the capacity to accommodate and understand the experiences of women as moral agents. As a result of this, “feminist ethics has become associated with an ethics of lived, concrete experiences which takes most seriously women’s experiences of morality” (Ibid). To this end, Rosemarie Tong defines feminist ethics as “an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink those aspects of traditional Western ethics that depreciate or devalue women’s moral experience” (2001, 105). To further this point, Alison Jagger remarks that feminist ethics “begins from the convictions that the subordination of women is morally wrong and that the moral experience of women is as worthy of respect as that of men” (2001, 528).

From the foregoing, feminist ethical theories can be said to share two central aims, one grounded in theory, and the other in lived experience. The first aim can be deduced from Tong’s definition of feminist ethics which is geared towards not only achieving a theoretical understanding of the oppression of women, but also proposing frameworks for ending the oppression. The second aim, taken as a point of convergence between Tong’s and Jagger’s positions, seeks to advance an interpretation of morality which is based on women’s moral experience(s). The first aim, according to Brennan, is normative; she calls it the “feminist conclusion requirement.” The second is descriptive, and is for Brennan, the “women’s experience requirement.” Brennan favors the descriptive approach above the normative approach because she claims the normative approach by itself is insufficient to tell us what makes a moral theory feminist. She however does not seem to have any patience with the possibility of a convergence of both positions in a manner that enables the normative approach to create an encouraging platform for the use of narrative as a medium to give a voice to the experience of women across all cultures and creeds. I will next consider the concept of narrative and how it intersects feminist ethics, especially in relation to the women’s experience requirement.
Peter Brooks provides a succinct description of narrative:

Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semi-conscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed. The narrative impulse is as old as our oldest literature: myth and folktale appear to be stories we recount in order to explain and understand where no other form of explanation will work (1992, 3)

A narrative then, in its most simplistic form, is a story. It is the story of particular cases, and for Raanan Gillon, it is “highly specific and highly culture bound, for every culture also has its story (2001, 11). Kathryn Montgomery Hunter argues similarly that “[i]n using the word ‘narrative’ somewhat interchangeably with ‘story’ I mean to designate a more or less coherent written, spoken, or (by extension) enacted account of occurrences, whether historical or fictional” (cited in Gotlib, 2018). By introducing epistemically and morally rich stories of what it is like to be a non-ideal agent in a non-ideal world, Anna Gotlib concludes that feminist philosophers accomplish the broadening and deepening of what it means to be engaged in moral philosophy: “This turn toward including, confronting, and challenging the oppressions of women (and other oppressed and often silenced populations), serves as the beginning of the intersection between narrative and feminist ethics” (Gotlib, 2018).

Committed to a unified purpose of challenging oppressive structures and, essentially, the oppressions of women, feminist theorists have generally interpreted the lived experiences of women, their personal stories, as blooming and advantageous ways of theorizing morally problematic situations. This indeed is what this paper intends to do with the fictional but not-too-far-from-reality story we opened with. I will analyze the narrative by interrogating the works of some African philosophers, mainly works categorized under the rubric of African ethics. It is no coincidence, we should note, that the precedence in this field has been set by male theorists.

Back to the Prologue

A central assumption in ethical theorizing across all societies is that the concepts of good/bad, right/wrong are partly facilitated by that society’s awareness of what constitutes a good life for both the community and its members. In other words, a society’s ethical theories could be founded on that which a community or culture views as entailed in its conception of what is good or bad, right or wrong. Of course, this assumption solidly grounds moral relativism since what communities might regard as constituting “the good” might differ. As a matter of interest, how patriarchal communities, amongst others, arrive at its moral standard is worth exploring, largely because, to echo the voice of Susan Sherwin, “while there is not any one right way for a community to arrive at its standards, there are ways in which the process can clearly go wrong” (cited in Brennan, 1999: 804).
One of such ways is what this paper terms “gender-relative morality”. Gender-relative morality (GRM) can be described as differing standards of morality accorded to persons or groups on the basis of their biological sex, race, class, or otherwise and is inadvertently oppressive in nature. It is a morality that privileges a particular sex, group or class over another. Gender-relative morality differs from the popular assumptions of gendered morality (or of morality as gendered) in the sense that while theorists of morality as gendered argue that women and men have different moral capacities, or generate discourse about which sex or gender is more moral, GRM drives these arguments deeper into the fundamental dynamics of the inequalities in moral standards as it applies to persons or groups arbitrarily bifurcated into ethical categories. The fundamental argument of GRM is simply that gendered categories have somehow found a way into the structure of morality itself to the end that the same act results into different consequences for its actors. It bears slight resemblance to moral contextualism, which argues that moral judgments are context-dependent in the sense that what is morally acceptable in a particular context may have a different truth value in another context (Irele & Afolayan, 2016). The point of departure for GRM, however, is the claim that what is good and acceptable is not only context-dependent, but also gender-sensitive. We will return subsequently to this as we critically analyze our narrative on Egbinadé and Àkànní through the thoughts of some African philosophers on the nature of African ethics.

We begin our interrogation with the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. In the chapter on custom and morality in his book, Cultural Universals and Particulars, Wiredu interrogates the Christian understanding of sexual morality, and the Akan perception of it. While Christianity considers premarital sex as distinctly immoral, the Akan consider it a required form of relationship before marriage. According to him, “Considerable mutual knowledge between both principals, including carnal knowledge, is regarded as a commonsensical requirement. Indeed, prior intimacy is viewed not only as educative but also as pragmatic. Akan men and women usually seek visible signs of fertility before committing themselves to the union in question. Thus, far from something like pregnancy before marriage being looked upon as a scandal, it is welcomed as an auspicious omen” (Wiredu 1996, 73). Wiredu further states that “if a man,…should unceremoniously put a woman in the family way… he would be declared to have ‘stolen’ her, and would be liable to quite severe fines and concerted and equally severe reprimands from all concerned on both kinship sides” (Ibid). How the Akan deal with a randy man seems similar to how those in the Egbinadé’s narrative dealt with Àkànní’s “misdemeanor.” Recall that in the narrative, Egbinadé’s father had reminded the council that Àkànní had perpetrated an immoral act tantamount to èèwọ̀ which required propitiation. The pertinent question here becomes: Are there similar propitiations in any culture that could have alleviated, or even avert, Egbinadé’s predicament? Does èèwọ,̀ a significant species of Yorùbá moral language, possess the cultural strength to avert troubles?
Èèwọ,̀ according to Bewaji, is a subcategory of ẹṣ̀ ẹ̀ (translated literally as sin) in Yorùbá ethics. The concept of èèwọ̀ has two aspects, the religious and the secular. The first is translated as tabu (taboo) by theological writers on African religions. The second aspect relates to morality. For Bewaji,

Èèwọ,̀ conceived in this sense, means things that are wrong to do and for which sanctions will be incurred. When one says ‘‘sanctions,’’ this is not to be construed as meaning punishment formally enforced, as in legal punishment. It may be in the form of simply losing stature, status, or face in the community, whereas in the religious sense, some atonement or sacrifice has to be made to assuage the unseen forces that may have been offended (2004, 400).

Let us further complicate the moral implication of losing or regaining stature or status through Kwame Gyekye’s claim that African ethics is an ethic of duty and not of rights. For him, “In this morality duties trump rights, not the other way around, as it is in the moral systems of Western societies. The attitude to, or performance of, duties is induced by a consciousness of needs rather than of rights. In other words, people fulfill—and ought to fulfill—duties to others not because of the rights of these others, but because of their needs and welfare” (Gyekye, online). This duty ethics is usually contrasted to consequentialism.
Consequentialism takes the worth of any moral action as being dependent on the outcome of the action. So, going back to our narrative, Egbinadé and Àkànní probably had sexual gratification and pleasure from being with someone one is emotionally connected with as an initial outcome of their act, but an unplanned pregnancy became a subsequent outcome. For Àkànní then, what became the consequence of the subsequent action? A premature insertion into fatherhood maybe, but more importantly, it was a consequence which depended on some form of duty or responsibility as a determinant of the rightness or wrongness of his action and, as we saw in the narrative, his willingness to accept responsibility made the outcome of the act and considerably the act itself morally justifiable for him to such extent that he was seen to have “repaired” his ọmọlúwàbí—the Yorùbá ethical concept suggestive of a socially and morally refined person with a high sense of responsibility and social integrity.

While it was easy for Àkànní through an act of duty to make amends for his wrong and thus regain his social integrity as well as redeem his family’s reputation, Egbinadé was said to have brought ìtìjú and ẹg̀ bin to herself and her family. In Bewaji’s analysis, “[t]he word ẹ̀gbin, with but a variation in tonal marks, expresses two polar ideas. On the one hand, [it refers to] superlative beauty in a person or thing…. On the other hand, when an act is despicable and odious to the senses, capable, so to speak, of causing nausea, it is said to be ẹ̀gbin” (2004, 400). The Yorùbá moral universe, Bewaji contends, is calibrated around the degrees of moral decadence that members of the community are cautioned against, and so Egbinadé, so called for reason of her superlative beauty, has by her “despicable act” brought upon her family and self, ẹ̀gbin—a loss of respect, humiliation, dishonor; a striking contrast to not just her name but to the implication of the same moral act in the case of Àkànní. This paradoxically complements the Yorùbá proverb: “Ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu. Whoever gives birth to a beautiful girl gives birth to trouble. (A beautiful girl will eventually cause her parents a great deal of unease or disturbance)” (Owomoyela, 2005: 479).

The paradoxical idea that egbin and ẹg̀ bin seem to suggest (note the tonal marks), corresponds with the Yorùbá moral dictum that, ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty). In discussing the Yorùbá aesthetics of character, Afolayan notes that “ìwà.., at a purely etymological level, derives from wà (to be or to exist)… Thus, ìwà and ẹwà both reference a fundamental ontological category about essence and existence” (Afolayan 2017, 885). While this is inconsistent with the norm in Western value theory—in which “ethics” (as arising from moral character) and aesthetics (as arising from art) are two distinct fields, it draws a critical attention to the concepts of “beauty” and “character.” Reading these concepts as a feminist prompts the need to critically examine how both concepts can be said to be the essence of a woman’s existence.
Examining the relation between beauty and morality in the Igbo worldview, Nkiru Nzegwu (2004) describes the prenuptial rites of nkpu as a validation of the nubile pubescent development of girls. This entailed a period of seclusion which could range from one to six months. During this period, the girls being prepared for marriage were prohibited from working; rather, they were pampered, and sumptuously fed three times a day. “The enforced inactivity expedited weight gain as the girls only engaged in body grooming, beautification, and dancing” (2004, 418). Nzegwu notes likewise that

In the pre-1960 language of female beautification in rural areas, to assert that a maiden “na cho mma” (literally, “is seeking beauty”) is to proclaim that she is engaged in her toilette; indeed, that she is making-up, grooming her hair, or decorating her body with uli designs. These acts of beautification translate as “i cho mma,” explicitly naming a subset of acts whose goal is to create mma (beauty) (Ibid, 417).

This process of creating beauty and the prenuptial beautification described above seems to complement Susan Bordo’s thoughts about Western culture: “To preserve personal beauty, woman’s glory!” (1993, 18). Nzegwu further adds a thought which ties together the Igbo and Yorùbá idea about beauty: “the idea of beauty is intricately intertwined with morality, since societal well-being and progress set the standard for the good life” (Ibid, 419). Nzegwu’s feminist intervention draws our attention to a critical ambiguity about beauty and the Igbo ambivalence about it. Much like the Yorùbá proverb, ojú kì í rí arẹwà kó má kí I [The eyes never see a beautiful person without acknowledging him or her] (Owomoyela 2005, 447), the Igbo allude to the ideology of this proverb in the saying that enenebe eje olu which also, for Nzegwu, connotatively captures the idea of admiration triggered by a beautiful form. However, she notes that the clause “eje olu” (fails to go to work) emphasizes the latent social problem that could emanate that such a continuous admiration of “peerless beauty” might occasion. In the Vindication of Women’s Rights, Mary Wollstonecraft warns of enduring problems arising from this— objectification of women, unreasonable fixation with beauty, societal comparison of wits in men to beauty in women, and so on.
Much like the Yorùbá proverb earlier cited, “ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu (whoever gives birth to a beautiful girl gives birth to trouble), being beautiful by itself immediately becomes a source of problem not only for a society that has become irrationally fixated on beauty, but also for the parents of any beautiful girl. How difficult it must be then for the woman who embodies this peerless beauty, and who has to endure the leering gaze of the society. A beautiful lady must therefore mediate the difficult line between an aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and an arrogant flaunting of it. Within this context, therefore, it is not difficult to understand why the Igbo, like the Yorùbá, place greater social incentive on good character.

It is interesting that Nzegwu references fables and songs as instructional tools which insert a moral basis into the idea of beauty. She cites the example of a 1970 song by a popular female vocalist, Nellie Uchendu, about the physical beauty of a girl called Ude and of Ude’s beauty as free from moral defects because she is hardworking, strong, and immensely generous. Hence, Ude is considered “ezigbo nwa” (the good child). A similar occurrence is seen in

Yorùbá popular culture. The popular juju musician, King Sunny Ade, admonishes that “ìwà ni ẹ wò, ẹ má torí ẹwà f’àya sílé (character should be that one looks out for, do not for beauty’s sake marry a wife). Haruna Isola, the àpàlà musician, also proclaimed, “bí obìnrin bá dára tí ò ní ìwà, mi ò lè fi kọ́bọ̀ kan àbọ̀ fẹ́ ẹ (if a woman is good looking but lacks good character, I cannot marry her with a dime and half). The attention given to the moral character of a woman, as represented in these songs, enables us to arrive at the rhetorical extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin (“[good moral] character is a woman’s beauty.” Although the moral character and the beauty of a person in the Yorùbá worldview are inextricably linked, it does not seem far-fetched to argue that any and all talk about beauty is almost always, consciously and unconsciously, linked to talk about the feminine and about the female body. Thus, when we say, ìwà l’ẹwà, we are essentially saying ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin.
Much as the Yorùbá concept of ọmọlúwàbí demands that one pays attention to one’s appearance and dressing, the rhetorical extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà, to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin brings us to the realization that the emphasis on both beauty and character is placed more on the woman than the man. Recall that the proverb “ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu” suggests that managing both beauty and good character could be problematic. Yet again, “ojú kì í rí arẹwà kó má kí i (the eyes never see a beautiful person without acknowledging him or her)” is another proverb that emphasizes aesthetic pleasures in Yorùbá worldview, and particularly the beauty associated with the feminine. In spite of these complexities, emphasis is yet placed on the moral character, particularly the chastity of a woman, as opposed to that of a man, as has been made evident in the analysis of the narrative on Egbinadé and Àkànní. Let us buttress this argument further with some more Yorùbá proverbs.
1. Obìnrin sọ ìwà nù, ó ní òun ò lórí ọkọ. When a woman is deficient in character, she blames her marital woes on ill-luck” (Sotunde 2016, 384)
2. Gbogbo obìnrin ló ń gbéṣẹ̀, èyí tó bá ṣe ti ẹ̀ láṣejù laráyé ń pè láṣewó. All women are unfaithful; only those who know no moderation are put down as whores” (Owomoyela 2005, 170)
3. Obìnrin tí kò níwà, ìyá rẹ̀ ní ḿ bá ṣorogún. A woman without good character will have only her mother as co-wife. (A woman without good character is unlikely to find a husband)” (Ibid. 271)
Proverbs 1 and 3 are not too far apart in meaning as they both lay emphasis on a woman’s moral character as an essential prerequisite for marriage, while proverb 2 generalizes all women as adulterous, leaving out once again

Ìwà l’ẹwà: Towards a Yorùbá Feminist Ethics 289
the category of persons with whom they copulate. Being a patriarchal society, it becomes more or less an entitlement for men to have more than one conjugal partner, with the implication that the responsibility for chastity is left to the woman. This is clear in our narrative when Egbinadé was openly ridiculed as not being chaste since she was not a virgin. Àkànní’s chastity went unquestioned. This is a clear case of moral bias on the basis of gender difference. We will revisit to this proverb very soon.
We return again to the ethics of duty proposed by Gyekye, Wiredu, and Bewaji.2 We consider first Akanni’s situation in the light of what W. D. Ross calls prima facie duties. “Ross argues that there are seven prima facie duty types, and each is an obligatory actual duty unless there is a conflict with a greater prima facie duty” (Hallgarth 2001, 84). The prima facie duties include:
1. Fidelity: Duty to keep promises and commitments.
2. Reparation: Duty to correct past wrongs.
3. Non maleficence: Duty to prevent harm.
4. Beneficence: Duty to increase general pleasure.
5. Justice: Duty to prevent unfair distribution of benefits. 6. Gratitude: Duty to repay kindness, and
7. Self-improvement: Duty to better oneself.
Following from these seven duties, we can presume Àkànní’s dilemma of which duty to choose from or what order to follow: fidelity to his betrothed or to Egbinadé who is to become mother of his child, or reparation to his betrothed or to Egbinadé? A very important question surfaces here: does Àkànní truly possess the right to choice? Was it just pure randiness that led to his secret love affair with Egbinadé or was theirs another case of hopeful lovers? Considering also that marriage as a social custom amongst the Yorùbá is usually between families and not so much the individuals, the Àkànní’s family marriage agreement with Àdùké’s (the betrothed) family is sufficient for the family to insist on fidelity. Any other option might compromise the essence of their ọmọlúwàbí in the community. In other words, the family “lose face.” Could it have been a different tale if Àkànní had the right of choice regarding his life partner rather than his family’s choice? Could it have been different if individual aspirations were not so strongly entrenched in society’s established

institutions?3 Could it have been a different tale should rights trump duty? Let us consider Egbinadé’s circumstance in the light of duty and rights.
There are several social problems that emerge from Egbinadé’s existential predicament that affect not only her as an individual member of the community, but equally affect the society itself. Being a young expectant mother, her initial challenges might include having her formal education truncated. Only a strong financial support or welfare system could restore the possibility of formal education for her. It could also turn out that she finds herself picking up a trade or job so as to support her new status as an unmarried mother. She enters into reproduction and production all at once, attempting the arduous task of making two extreme ends meet. She could also possibly become confined to such reproductive duties like caring for her child at the expense of her productive duties of becoming a vital hand in the community’s workforce. In a sense, Egbinadé might have to give up on her duty to others (her baby and the community) if she ever hopes to regain her dynamics of self-realization. In addition, she finds herself bound to the moral duties of communal norms, a set of do’s and don’ts that gives right to the unborn fetus over her own choices. For example, her rights to choose — what to eat, where to go, what time of the day to go out— might have to be given up as duty towards her unborn baby.
In considering the relationship between the individual and the community, Bewaji points out that “one can boldly affirm that the wellspring of morality and ethics in African societies is the pursuit of a balance of individual, with communal, well-being…African cultures extol the virtues of community… communal factors often take precedence over individual rights or interests” (2004, 396). But, according to him, putting the mater this way does not in any way limit the responsibility that the community owes its members. Bewaji raises the question of what this responsibility is but never quite answers it explicitly. He however quotes Gbadegesin on the notion that “in giving up one’s interests thus, one is also sure that the community will not disown one and that one’s wellbeing will be its concern” (Bewaji 2004, 397). We ask here: what wellbeing does the community offer to the woman who has had to give up personal rights, duty to self, endured shame while she watches the one who has “stolen” her— to use Wiredu’s word—vindicated upon payment of some fine or by an act religious propitiation? Since the Yorùbá society is a patriarchal one, what might happen is that Egbinadé might be made to realize, in some sense, that “the child isn’t hers,” and thus be asked to “give up the child” into the custody of its paternal family.
It is difficult, if one reads as a woman, to see how an ethic of duty trumps the ethic of rights, and why communal factors should take precedence over

individual rights within a society where morality is gender relative. One might argue on the contrary that morality cannot but be duty based in a communal society where the individual is subordinate to the community. But then this is exactly the issue that forces a critical reflection on African feminist ethicists in terms of a woman’s relation to her community and to herself. While there is no doubt that community is significant in an individual’s sense of self-realization, there is also no doubt that it is an individual that is equally responsible for her moral development. The question would be in what sense a golden mean between duty and rights based ethics could be fashioned that will enable women’s voice and autonomy.

A Note on Adultery, Abortion Rights and the Ontological Status of the Fetus

The right of a woman to choose when, where, how, with whom, and even whether to give birth, has long enjoyed feminist support, particularly within the context of liberal political philosophy in the West. This right over one’s body was picked up consequently in campaigns for access to birth control as well as abortion. With its emphasis on women’s rights to control what happens to their bodies, where the body is seen somewhat as separate from the self but owned by the self, abortion was therefore viewed as a morally permissible act.
Interestingly, such arguments that feminists adduce in favour of abortion and abortion rights cover much of the necessary theoretical grounds for other moral dilemmas associated primarily with women, like prostitution and adultery. Laurie Shrage discusses the views of Margo St. James, founder of “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” (COYOTE), a civil rights organization for prostitutes. St. James’ claim was simply that the rights to privacy and control of one’s own body should ultimately defend legal access to prostitution. Shrage articulates this argument to imply that “criminalization of prostitution is responsible for most of the troubling consequences of prostitution, just as the criminalization of abortion was responsible for many injuries women risked to have illegal abortion” (1994, x). St James argues further that “just as laws restricting abortion are aimed at controlling women’s reproductive capacity, laws restricting prostitution ultimately aim to control women’s sexuality;” hence, “laws prohibiting prostitution are just as obstructive to women’s pursuit of sexual expression and economic opportunity as laws prohibiting abortion” (Ibid). For St. James therefore, women who choose to go into prostitution do not only have the volition to express their sexuality and rights over their own bodies, but also express their own choice of economic empowerment, one in which they derive obvious job satisfaction as well as a means of livelihood, and to think of this choice as degrading or condescending is to

“buy into sexist double standards of sexual morality that limit women to sexual abstinence or amorous sexual self-sacrifice” (Ibid). St. James brilliantly sums up a gender-relative morality seen here as the masculinization of certain viewpoints and the feminization of other viewpoints.
The implication of St. James’ arguments for Yorùbá feminist ethics can be drawn from the literal meaning of the second of the three proverbs earlier cited—Gbogbo obìnrin ló ń gbéṣẹ̀, èyí tó bá ṣe ti ẹ̀ láṣejù laráyé ń pè láṣẹ́wó (All women are unfaithful; only those who know no moderation are put down as whores). While this proverb suggests that women willfully engage in extra-marital affairs and some others prostitution, extra-marital affairs are however frowned upon for the woman and not the man. In his analysis of sexuality in Yorùbá culture, Olugboyega Alaba remarks that “[a] woman could have a secret concubine but she was not permitted by custom to be living with him” (Alaba 2004, 6). The community, in other words, frowns at such brazen demonstration of sexuality. We cannot therefore say that even the ascription of unfaithfulness to women translates into a cultural recognition of a right to their body as duty once again trumps bodily rights for the woman. But the man operates by a different moral law since he is not only free to marry other wives but is also at liberty to grow a concubinage. We see again the moral double standard indicative of a morality that is gender relative.
The major controversy in the abortion argument4 is not so much the woman’s right over her body as it is the ontological status of the fetus with regards to personhood. This construal of the controversy then raises a question like: Does personhood begin at conception, during pregnancy, at birth or after birth? To add a metaphysical complication: Can one ascribe personhood to a being whose existence has been foretold but who has not been conceived? While we may be tempted to answer in the negative, we should pay critical attention to the list of expectations and requirements—the baggage of duties— that a community demands from the woman expecting the foretold baby. The Immaculate Conception and the Oedipus myth are two good examples of such foretelling. Prior to conception, the “personality” of the child had been determined. This myth, when related to the ontological status of persons in Yorùbá metaphysics, corroborates the concepts of orí and àkúnlẹ̀yàn, the deterministic principles of personhood and destiny, and so for a thorough analysis on abortion from a Yorùbá feminist perspective questions around orí and àkúnlẹ̀yàn become quite pertinent. For example, at what point is orí chosen? Is it during conception or at the point when the revelation is given? Even if ascribing the category or attribute of personhood to such cases appears a bit far-fetched, what then do we call such metaphysical beings?


A very important point about the gendered nature of morality and perhaps why a concept such as gender-relative morality becomes a fundamental discourse on gendered morality, finds its grounding in our narrative from the altercation between Asípa and Ìyálóde, in which Asípa concludes that his daughter is “well taught,” indicating then that morality is something to be taught and in reciprocation, learnt.5 This act of moral instruction serves as the epistemological substructure upon which a gendered moral indoctrination is erected. Boys are taught to be men with all the virtues of courage, strength, and mental agility that come with what masculinity means; and, on the other hand, girls also had to go through a similar indoctrination on becoming women, with proper attention given to personal beauty which in turn produces them as feminine objects for men. Submission is taught to the woman as duty and as virtue but becomes a vice when she assumes a right over her body in considering when, where, how, with whom, and if, to submit her body. Thus constructed, gender come with its own moral assessment.

What is morally good is gendered male: Àkànní as male was able to regain his dignity, respect and could carry on living within his community as one acquitted and discharged from a crime. But that which is morally bad gendered female: Egbinadé brought shame, misery, misfortune upon herself and her family, and had to continue living within her community as one found guilty by the communal law and sentenced to a life of existential crisis. Àkànní’s regained dignity and respect as an ọmọlúwàbí renders that concept itself extremely suspicious. Could Egbinadé really have repaired her own ọmọlúwàbí the same way Àkànní did? Consider Alafe’s summation that “Among the Yorùbá people, the woman is expected to be a chaste virgin until after marriage. The rule is loose when it comes to men…a woman who has sex before marriage is a shame to her family” (2017, 781). This leaves us with the nagging worry: In the final analysis, are women really included in the category of people properly referred to as ọmọlúwàbí? If so, why couldn’t the same rule or propitiation enable Egbinadé repair her ọmọlúwàbí, say, by having her dignity restored through becoming Àkànní’s wife?


Egbinadé faces communal shame. She is encouraged to endure her shame and hope her baby would be a boy, at least that way her baby would be Àkànní’s heir. She embraces her shame, praying to birth her baby without much pain. The due date arrives, and after a long and harrowing labour, she hears the cry of her baby, finally. Her first concern is the baby’s sex. The midwife tells her that the baby is alive and that, that is more important. Egbinadé then hears her mother scream in horror. Her baby is a girl.
1 This narrative parallels the controversies around the Amina Lawal trial in a Sharia court in Katsina, Northern Nigeria between 2002 and 2003. After a lengthy trial that attracted international attention, Lawal was acquitted. She had been previously sentenced to death by stoning after she was found guilty of “zina,” having sex outside of marriage. The man whom she claimed fathered her child had denied her claim and was not prosecuted. See Sodiq (2017, 99), Tertsakian (2004), Rosenthal and Barry (2009, 205), and the article, “Amina Lawal’s Sentence Upheld”, South African History Online. www.sahistory. org.za. Another interesting angle is former South African president Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. While the woman, Khwezi, was dismissed and called a liar and labelled a ‘madwoman’ based on her sexual history, the sexual history of Zuma was not scrutinized. See Graham (2012).
2 See Wiredu, 1980 and Bewaji 2004.
3 See Godwin Sogolo’s (1993) analysis of moral autonomy.
4 For detailed analysis on issues regarding abortion, see amongst others Kebede (2010), Kaczor (2010), and Gordon, Abortion. www.iep.utm.edu/abortion/
5 In fact, this altercation provides a fertile theoretical commencement point for Yorùbá feminist ethics as a subset of African feminist philosophy. African feminist theorists have a ‘duty’ to either maintain the status quo or to unravel the ethical double standards (conceived here as gender-relative morality), which is an indication of female subordination. And there are several issues that make the field a robust one worth exploring: the nature of morality and its implication for the sexes; the critical difference between the nature of duty and that of rights; the idea of moral standards, especially in patriarchal communities; the ontological nature of the fetus in relations to abortion, the idea of a woman’s right over her body, etc.; ọmọlúwàbí as a gender moral category; and so on.

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