Close this search box.

Coloniality of Gender

Publication date:

The concept of the “coloniality of gender” has its roots in the work of the late scholar María Lugones, who argued that rather than being natural, gender identities and roles have been shaped, constructed, and enforced through colonial processes of domination and control.

The theory itself builds on Aníbal Quijano concept of the ‘coloniality of power’. Coloniality of power refers to the enduring influence of colonialism on social, economic, political, and cultural systems worldwide which continue to shape society well after countries achieve their independence. Quijano argued that European colonialism dominated colonised societies by taking over four areas of human existence: sex, labour, collective authority, and intersubjectivity (which means shared understandings of existence). Maria Lugones sought to improve on this theory by challenging Quijano to recognise that his concept of “sex” fell into the same trap that he was warning against. There was nothing “natural” about it, she argued. Just as ‘race’ was fiction, so too was the idea of ‘sex’ that Quijano seemed to support. In her own reading of Quijano “the disputes over control of sex is a dispute among men, about men’s control of resources who are thought to be female.” But this she argued was incorrect.

Just as coloniality ‘racialises’ people by introducing new concepts of domination that are rooted in a fiction of biological difference, so too does it also ‘sex’ bodies too. What this argument means is that while anatomical differences between people exist (and individuals have different private parts), those differences don’t necessarily have to take any social significance in all societies, at all times. The sexual differences between people, based on their anatomy, only take on significance through social processes under specific circumstances. As Simone de Beauvoir put it, “one isn’t born, but becomes a woman.”

Under colonialism, Lugones argued, this process was often done ( in those societies where no gender binaries exist) by force and through the collaboration of indigenous men who sought to gain from the patriarchy of the European coloniser.  In this particular regard, there is overlap with the theory of “communitarian feminism”.

 As examples, Lugones drew from the work of Oyeronke Oyewumi, who argued that “Gender was not an organizing principle in Yourba Society prior to colonization by the west.” For example, the Yoruba categories of obinrin and okunrin did not mean either “female/woman” and “male/man” in a way which opposed these to one another, or put them in a hierarchy. These differences weren’t even significant in assigning roles in society. But with colonial rule, “racial inferiorisation and gender subordination” became defining characteristics of Yoruba society. From beinr relatively “unsexed”, Yoruban society became patriarchal under colonial rule in Africa. This could only happen with the introduction of state power in the hands of males to the exclusion of females from state structures who traditionally had rights of governance.

Lugones drew on other critical gender and/or feminist scholars to make her case. She argued that in the Americas, for example, the primacy of female as creators was displaced and replaced by male-gendered creators, and that the clan structure was often replaced by the nuclear family. In all cases, Indigenous men were important collaborators in the transition to colonial patriarchy. Overall, her theory of “the modern colonial gender system” has become extremely influential, especially among decolonial feminist scholars.

Share this post

decolonial centre | Pluto Educational Trust | 2024