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Reposted 23rd, May, 2013

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

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

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 (
(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.