This is part one of a three part series, in which I will be deconstructing the idea that sexism has no place in the black community to counter the idea that “feminism is un-African”. The first of this series is focused around the cultures of the Fertile Crescent. The next will be pre-Roman Europe. The third will focus on north, central, south, and west Africa.
To that I respond- so is sexism.
Every day on social media, I encounter men who identify as “woke” or “conscious” or “intellectuals” whom want to “save the black community” by enforcing sexist gender roles on black women. As they figure- lack of gender roles in the black community are the cause of a lot of the “dysfunction” in black homes, the cause of absent black fathers, and that women whom are too strong, independent, and educated are a threat to the black man’s masculinity, heterosexuality, and the fabric of time and space as we know it. They claim that this will save the black community from the effects of white patriarchal domination and that it is the ONLY way to do so. And it is nonsense.
Your sexism is not revolutionary or pan-African; it is literally the oldest trick in the oppressor’s wheelhouse and has NO pre-colonial African roots.
You see- white domination began a long time before the homosapiens that evolved to be known as “white” people ever (re)discovered Africa. The regional/ sociological roots of white patriarchy make sense for the white man/ family. They make no sense for the African. You see- the first humans were culturally hunter-gatherers and nomads. They were gender neutral and they were African. Hunter-gather societies still exist in the world… and they are still gender neutral in terms of roles. The San people of the Kalahari desert in Africa are a collection of South African tribes whom are still hunter-gatherers and are STILL without gender roles in their society. Women have equal work and equal say in making decisions for the tribe (the women gather and the men hunt- it is different work but it is still EQUAL work).This is how most known hunter gather populations work. The San have some of the oldest known and documented mitochondrial DNA (going back 200,000 years). For reference- the first humans are theorized to have migrated out of Africa 100,000 years ago. The San people are at least 200,000 years old. Mitochondrial Eve is about 170,000 years old.
The earliest homosapiens (NOT Neatherthals, but homosapiens) migrated from what is now known as East Africa along the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea into Arabia due to what scientists theorize was a lowering in sea level revealing a land bridge between what is now Yemen and Djibouti that allowed early humans to cross without the help of advanced tools like boats and rafts. Early human migration brought prehistoric humans to routes established by earlier forms of pre-evolved humanoids like Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Neanderthrals along major bodies of water. Over time, the human’s features, like skin tone, facial proportions, and hair color/ textures evolved along with the weather/ clothing necessary for survival in these conditions. Tighter curls/ coils loosened and lightened as humans traveled into places that were colder and required more clothing. Skin lightened as there was less exposure to hotter suns and more clothing necessary. And thus- the “races” were formed as these human evolutions took place over time and space.
As humans moved away from being nomadic hunters/ gatherers, to create settlements- the advent of the invention of religion and gender roles came with it. Early Neanderthal paintings depict worship of animals, like bears and rituals that honored these bear “gods”. All of these early religions either worshipped animals, personifications of natural elements like water, and lightening (as a means for early peoples to theorize explanations for natural phenomenon). These gods were either genderless, multi gendered, or had individual gods of both binary genders present. They were also more shamanic than organized religions. Organized agricultural settling introduced the idea of land ownership, borders, social classes, and aided in the creation of gender roles as well.
The early gods of each culture are direct reflections of their cultures of origin. Pre-historic religious systems (before the advent of strict monotheism via Judaism) were all polytheistic, although early hints of quasi-monotheism was present in ancient China and Egypt starting about 3500 years ago.
Ancient Mesopotamia is known as the “birthplace” of religion as we know it, with records dating up to 5500 years ago. Ancient Mesopotamian religion believed that humans worked in consort with the gods, and that unity between humanity and the gods kept Chaos in check. They resurrected temples and ziggurats to house their gods, and priests and priestesses would clothe and bathe statues of these gods. There were both male and female gods and male gods. One of the most powerful gods of ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna- who was the god of love, sex, and war. As a result- ritual and religious prostitution was a tenet of ancient Mesopotamian faith and non-religious prostitutes were not considered “dirty”. While women were never “equal to men” in these cultures, women in ancient Sumer had more rights than it’s resulting cultures of Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria. Ancient Sumerian women could own property, run businesses, become priestesses, physicians, and scribes, and act as judges and witnesses in court proceedings. Most women were wives and mothers, and others participated in trade.
The Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian cultures were less kind to women. They were considered property of their husbands and fathers. As Akkadians moved away from worship of the goddess Inanna after their ruler Sargon, the rights and protections of women also diminish noticeably. The ancient laws of Assyria and Babylon do not protect women from domestic violence or physical assault. Assyrian women were the most regulated of all these cultures. Their culture is the origin of the idea of covering “respectable” women in veils. Prostitutes were to be uncovered and a woman who wasn’t considered respectable would be killed if found wearing a veil. As the ancient Mesopotamians moves away from goodess worship toward worship of male gods like Ashur around the third century- the culture became more patriarchal and the women become more regulated than the men. Poor women would work, at half the rate of men and for no pay while menstruating.
In ancient Mesopotamia, wealth and power being given to men via land ownership and commerce and being increasingly denied to women as goddess worship increased is directly related. As goddess worship and verneration decreased- so did systemic and societal violence towards women designed to control the female sex as subservient to males.
Ancient Egyptian religions have records as old as 5400 years old, however it is believed that their religion predates the records as far as 8000 years old. Similar to ancient Mesopotamia, gods and humans worked in concert with each other to maintain ma’at- harmony. Women in ancient history had many of the same basic rights as men. Women could- and did- rule, like Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. Egyptian women could own their own businesses and property, they could hang around men freely without restriction, they could initiate divorce, and they were entitled legally to 1/3 of properties owned by their husbands. They were the most politically liberated women of their time frame. And both god AND goddess worship and reverence is steady and constant throughout ancient Egypt with the exception of Nefertiti and Akhenton whom were quasi monotheists who created Aten. Egyptian religious beliefs included sexual rituals as well until they were conquered after the suicide of Cleopatra. Because the divinity of goddesses was preserved throughout the history of Egypt, the social equality of women in Egyptian society was maintained as well.
Ancient Chinese religion prior to organization was a collection of anthromorphic figures and animism, fusion of humanity with animals and nature. Evidence of these beliefs are as old as 6500 years. The first organized Chinese god that was worshipped was Shangdi- during the Xia dynasty, beginning about 3000 years ago in the bronze age. Shangdi was a chief male god over all of the other smaller, regional anthromorphic gods. From worship of Shangdi, came ancestor worship or ancestral veneration. Ancestors acted as an intermediary between Shangdi and the living. Shaming ones ancestors was also seen as offending and losing the favor of the gods. Over time Shangdi became tian… or heaven. Ancestral reverence became tenets of Taoism and Confucianism which also originated in China.
Ancient Chinese religions focus on the idea of there being a natural order. This order existed within the family structure in which the father was the leader. There were strong divisions of roles and rights. This was much more pronounced in the upper class. Lower and working classes had fewer pronouncements in gender roles due to women having to take on the work that was considered to be for “men”. Loyalty to the father figure was seen as loyalty to the state. As such, disobedience to one’s father or husband was disobedience to the state and punished as such. Men controlled the income, marriage of the children, and the property. Women’s primary roles were as homemakers and to have sons, whom were favored over daughters. With a singular head male deity- ancient Chinese culture had rigid and oppressive gender roles were the women were only there to be submissive breeders of sons. These ideas continued through Confucianism, Daoism, and culturally continued through the spread of Buddhism.
Ancient Indian religions were polytheistic. Hinduism is the most ancient religion that is still practiced in the world. Hinduism has no recorded origins and is believed to be a collection of thousands of years of prehistory religious traditions across India. The first recorded synthesis of Hinduism began about 2500 years ago, however its progenitor religion- the Vedic religion- has texts as old as 3900 years old. In Hinduism, there is one male god, who reflects himself in millions of lesser gods and goddesses, as he is too vast to be understood in a singular form. Hinduism encourages pursuit of knowledge, personal enlightenment, and worship of the more popular regional gods and goddesses like Krishna and Kali. There are principles or aims of life- Dharma (duty, ethics), Kama (desires, passions), Moksha (freedom/ liberation), karma (action, intent, and consequences), samsara (cycle of rebirth), and Yogas (paths to freedom/ liberation).
In India, the culture was kind to women and they enjoyed a high and free status in and opportunity to get their educations and pursue religious enlightenment. Indian women ruled kingdoms and enjoyed prominent roles in politics. As the religion of the region moved from the Vedic period to the writing of the Epics- the culture became more oppressive to women as well. During the Vedic period, a woman could have multiple husbands and they married at a mature age. Women played an important role to the recording of the texts of the religion. Sex also played an important role to the spirituality Hindu, as seen in the Kama Sutra. Devadasi women were servants of the gods and were free to have sexual relations with whom they pleased. They held high status in society. Women still ruled Indian kingdoms as soon as the ninth century. Post-Vedic Indian women were protected by law and had equal ownership of the lands and other assets of their husbands.
This changed over time. The caste system emerged during this period of time about 3500 years ago and it grouped Indians into a complex system of social classes based on gender, economic class, job/ skill, and religious affiliation. Muslim conquest of the region began around the 10th century and brought along cultural changes. Child marriages and sati (the act of ritual suicide by a widow) followed. Women were forced to wear burqa and niqab and were unable to go anyway without a guardian. Women were restricted to certain areas of the house. And they were prevented by sharia law from inheriting property. Devadasi were reduced to sexual labor and child prostitution. Muslim and British colonization of India are linked to the denigration of the role of women and the sexual oppression of Indian women. As Hinduism tenets merged with Islamic beliefs, the women of India had their rights and humanity stripped away from them.
In studying anthropology, there seems to be a clear, direct, and unambiguous link between sexism, denying the divinity of women (either through discarding goddess worship or through embracing monotheistic male gods), and denial of land ownership and rights (depending on whether a people were nomadic hunter-gatherers or agricultural). As once spoken by Marimba Ani “Your culture is your immune system”. As an atheist, I do not believe in any god or gods, but I do believe that gods are representative of the cultures that created them. Ancient African gods were not sexist because we were no sexist. It is time that we give the oppressor their sexism back and begin to work towards rebuilding our gender relations on terms that are truer to our pre colonial cultures.