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Home Discussion Papers Counter Proliferation Beyond binary definitions of gender: Acknowledging the third gender in Africa
Beyond binary definitions of gender: Acknowledging the third gender in Africa
Written by Manase Chiweshe Thursday, 16 September 2010 07:46

Persistent and unmistakable ‘third’ or alternative gender subcultures have always existed in one form or another.(2) There are examples from across the world, such as the ‘mahu’ and ‘aikane’ of Polynesia, the ‘berdache’ of Native American tribes, the ‘sekhet’ of prehistoric Egypt, the ‘eunouchos’ of ancient Greece and Rome, the ‘saris’ of the Israelites and the ‘mu’omin’ or ‘trusted men’ of the Syrians. There were traditional third-gender roles in African aboriginal tribes such as the Mbo people of Zaire and amongst the palace and harem guards of the Arabs and Chinese. Don’t forget the cross-dressing entertainers of Manila and Bangkok and the ‘hijra’ and ‘jogappa’ dancers and temple priests of North and South India.

In our own modern times we have gay and transgendered communities across the world, but debates about gender in Africa are couched in the Western gender binary which separates the two sexes as two genders and excludes the possibility of other genders. In traditional African societies, biology was not the ultimate determining factor gender norms. This CAI brief assesses how African societies historically created gender norms beyond the binary limitations of Western conceptualisations. Through acknowledgement of the existence of third genders throughout history, we can begin to understand how the Western construction of two genders ostracises and bestialises individuals who do not fit into its binary classification, and how it can be reconstituted to create a society free of such discrimination.

A third gender?

Medical and biological understandings of sexual development see each child born as either male or female. Some people are born with a Disorder of Sex Development (DSD), however, such as a gonadal dysgenesis, or ‘ambiguous genitalia’ (in the past referred to hermaphrodites) or chromosome disorders (such as Klinefelters Syndrome) and may physically represent both ‘normal’ sexes.(3) Notwithstanding these biological facts, gender remains a social construct built on cultural, religious, political and economic beliefs regarding sexually acceptable identities and behaviour. In many African societies, the binary perception of gender has become a solidified norm which leaves very little room for interrogation of the concept’s relevance and applicability to Africans.(4)  Western binary dichotomies of gender are not adequate to understand the everyday lived realities on the continent.

Biology is not the only determinant of gender across African societies, yet the tendency to biologise the sex differences based on vision (from European intellectual history) has been acceptable for a long time. This emphasis on appearance and visible markers of difference reflects the entire Western episteme’s foundation of categories and hierarchies, based on visual modes and binary distinctions such as male and female; white and black; homosexual and heterosexual.(5) Much Western thinking from the Enlightenment onwards has been constructed in terms of dichotomies and hierarchised binaries, where one is not only separate/different but also above/better than the other.(6)  In Africa we find various forms of a third gender which is neither male nor female, though their existence is often denied in the present context. They fall somewhere in between the two, could be referred to as the third gender (or ‘intermediate gender’) and (arguably) own distinctive gender identities.

The third gender in Africa

Most traditional African societies had distinct gender roles which were socially defined. In these societies, the third gender occupied a culturally well defined social space. For example, historically inscribed pottery shards discovered in Egypt, dating from the Middle Kingdom (2000-1800 BCE), contained a listing of three genders of humanity: males, eunuchs, and females. The Egyptian story of creation’s archetypal beings (gods) were both male and female. The original god’s name is Atum. Through asexual reproduction, Atum divided itself and created two other beings, Shu and Tefnut. These two in turn produced another pair, Geb and Nut. Finally, Geb and Nut, representing the earth and the sky, combined and produced the two pairs respectively called Isis and Osiris, and Seth and Nephthys. Isis represents the reproductive female, Osiris the reproductive male, Seth represents the non-reproductive eunuch, and Nephthys the unmarried virgin.(7) There is great diversity in the social roles that non-masculine males and non-feminine females play, including different homosexualities and mixed-gender shaman roles. Historically, the eunuch males in the Dahomey court (lagredis) and Mossi court (sorones) belonged to one category of alternative gender identity.(8)

Documented cases of third gender identities in African history abound. In Swahili culture, for example, there are male transvestites known as mashoga. These males act as drummers and musicians at women's festivals.(9) The mashoga were often associated with homosexuality. They were viewed as neither men nor women, but occupy their own defined social space which is accepted by their society. Among the Ovimbunde and the Tswana, woman-woman sexual behaviour was prevalent. Some women took on male roles and became ‘social men’ who had women under them. Robert Brain (10) provides a similar example from Cameroon where a woman befriended the sister of a Bangwa chief, a princess. Through this arrangement they became husband and wife, but the woman procreated with men. The "androgynous princess" lived with her wife and the wife's daughter, who addressed the princess as 'father.’(11) 

Among the Azande people, adult males paid the families of boy ‘wives,’ just as they paid for female brides.(12) The two slept together at night, "the husband satisfying his desires between the boy's thighs and when the boy grew up he joined the army and took a boy-wife in his turn. It was the duty of the husband to give his boy-wife a spear and a shield when he became a warrior and then took a new boy-wife.”(13) Some men also had women as wives, but they took their boy-wives to war. If another man had relations with one’s boy-wife, one could sue the interloper in court for adultery.(14) Amongst the Maale of southern Ethiopia, men could choose to ‘cross over’ to feminine roles. These biological males then dressed as women, performed female tasks, cared for their own houses and had sexual relations with men. Among the Maale they were called the ashtime. These men would explain this as: "The Divinity created me wobo, crooked, if I had been a man, I could have taken a wife and begotten children. If I had been a woman, I could have married and borne children. But I am wobo; I can do neither."(15) This culture provided space for a clearly distinct third gender.

‘Silence’ on the third gender in Africa

There is a distinct silence in Africa about the existence and rights of the third gender. The African Union (AU) ratification on Gender Equality describes and therefore recognises only two genders in Africa.(16) These are male and female. This problem is apparent across the African continent where the ‘cutting and pasting’ of Western views of fixed gender categories re-occurs. Gender on the African continent should, however, be a much more fluid concept than simple dichotomies. The Western male/female dichotomy pathologises people who do no fit into its limited categories. The idea of rights for a third gender are viewed as strange and rejected. Today, most societies in Africa are organised according to this seemingly fixed binary of the two accepted genders without recognition or acceptance of the different categories of gender that really existent on the continent.

People are forced to choose between the two poles of the gender binary. The shameful manner in which Caster Semenya was treated by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and South African athletic authorities was outrageous and scarred Semenya for life. The debate about which sex she belonged to raged on while her life was unfairly scrutinised in public and various forms of violence were performed on her body to examine her gender ‘problem.’ She was pathologised for not fitting into the ‘normalised’ binary of female/male. There are many examples of discrimination against and ‘silencing’ of third gender identities across Africa, as is evident from the extreme legislation against homosexuals in various countries, including Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Constitutions, laws, institutions and policies are all based on the belief in two sexes and two corresponding genders. Those who do not fit into these categories are not recognised as lawful citizens, which leaves them vulnerable to a variety of discriminative acts. On personal documents such as passports and identity cards, people are forced identify as one of the two sexes. In school science curriculums only two genders are taught. All sporting activities are organised along the two gender binary poles and the socialisation of children follows this distinction without question.

People who are viewed as queer or different are stigmatised and ostracised. Christian denominations in Zimbabwe demonise people who seem to be of a third gender (or, in their view, of no gender at all). These ‘strange’ people are often said to be possessed by the devil. Numerous news reports and studies document vicious attacks on black lesbians. In South Africa, many lesbians have been raped (and gang-raped), stabbed and even killed by heterosexual men who went out to ‘teach the lesbian a lesson’ and to ‘cure’ her from lesbianism.(17) In Uganda there are anecdotal reports of violent beatings of people who occupy the third gender.(18)

Concluding remarks

Debates for the recognition of a third gender’s rights are based on the fact of their existence since pre-colonial times. The tendency to universalise and essentialise Western conceptions has caused millions of African people pain. ‘Copying and pasting’ Western concepts to explain African realities have led to labelling and violence. Africans need to define this social phenomenon on their own terms. Gender identities in many parts of Africa were once fluid and inclusive societies valued. Legal recognition and protection of the rights of people of all and any gender is a necessary first step in fighting discrimination. Gender equality campaigns have for a long time concentrated on women’s rights, but we need to ensure that the voices of other genders are also heard, namely those of the lesbian, gay, bi- and transsexual (LGBT) community.


(1) Contact Manase Chiweshe through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Gender Issues Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Excluding Gays and Lesbians from Vedic Culture, www.chakra.org.
(3) 'Fact Sheet: What is Intersex?' CBC Documentaries, www.cbc.ca
(4) Bakare Yussuf, B.2002. “’Yoruba’s don’t do gender:’ A critical review of  Oyeronke Oyewumi’s ‘The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses.’” Paper presented at CODESRIA conference, April.
(5)Oyewumi, O.1997. The invention of women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
(6) Arnfred, S. 2006: “Re-thinking sexualities in Africa: Introduction.” in Rethinking Sexualities in Africa. S. Amfred. (ed.) Stockholm: Alpha Print.
(7) ‘Egyptian Third Gender’, http://www.gendertree.com.
(8) ‘Gender identity development’, http://family.jrank.org.
(9) ‘Third gender in Africa’, http://www.glbtq.com.
(10) ‘Sexual and gender minorities in a non-European world’, http://www.colorq.org.
(11) Ibid.
(12) Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1970. "Sexual inversion among the Azande." in American Anthropologist 72: 1428-34.
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘Third gender in Africa’, http://www.glbtq.com.
(15) Donham, D.L. 1990. History, power, ideology: Central issues in Marxism and anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
(16) Gender Equality in Africa, www.arcuk.org.
(17) See http://www.telegraph.co.uk.
(18) See http://www.nytimes.com.


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