Gender and the Debates on Ethnicity in Africanist  Anthropology: Inclusion in The Third Millennium 

Jose C. M. van Santen  
University of Leiden

Maama Laila, an Islamised Mafa woman explains: 
I had several husbands. 
The first one had been chosen for me by my father [in the mountains]. It was the father of Daada Laila (her daughter). I got two children with him, one of them died, and then I left(1). I remarried with somebody else. We stayed together for twelve years without having children. Then I left him. People told me that it was my first husband who caused this [her sterility during this period]. 
My first husband had said: "She will only get more children if she returns to me. If not she will never have children any more". So I wanted to return to my first husband but my father said, "As he lied and raised the bridewealth, I do not want you to return to him".  
So after I left my second husband, I Islamised. They brought me to the Marabout; I left the house, with the clothes I was wearing at that time. I would not return again in those clothes. I knew that when the marabout would wash me, he would take those old clothes and that he would give me other new clothes. He showed me how I should wash my hands, my feet, how I should pray and how I should wash my face, how I should put water into my mouth twice (!) and then start praying...that's all. I Islamised. 
I decided to Islamise because I was angry. My second husband had told me, "As you cannot get any children, it is better that you return to your first husband who has said that your sterility is caused by him, otherwise when you get old, you will blame me for the fact that you do not have any children and that I did not let you go. "But when I left to return to my first husband, my brother too stopped me. He said: "You cannot go back to him, because he lied and raised the bridewealth". Then I said: "All right, if it is like that, I will become Muslim and in that way none of you will have any say over me any more". If we [women] Islamise men do not have any influence any more. 

The woman in the example that I gave above is one among many Mafa women in North Cameroon, who exchanged her own religion for Islam.(2) The process of Islamisation in the mountainous area where the Mafa live, started in the nineteenth century. The initial nomadic Fulbe have played a dominant role in this process. Uthman dan Fodio, founder of the large Sokoto Empire came from this dispersed ethnic group, which can be found throughout West Africa. He inspired his people to undertake the jihad. From that time onwards the Fulbe have claimed Islam as their ethnic marker and engendered many learned Islamic scholars. Islamised groups adopt their interpretation of Islam, without realizing that some of their new customs were not Islamic but remnants from pre-Islamic Fulbe culture. Consequently the process of Islamisation means a radical change of lifestyle. Recently, a process of purification of Islam has been taking place, whereby Islam gets more detached from Fulbe values. I call this process ‘Islamism’ (van Santen l999). In this paper I will first concentrate on the construction of Mafa ethnic identity in the particular cultural and political context of North Cameroon. It is a context in which Islamic characteristics were dominant for nearly two centuries, but in which local ethnic groups now assert their own identity. 
The Twentieth Century saw the ascendancy of European definitions of ethnic groups, ideas derived from biological notions and ideas about consanguinity. A mixture of nationalism and ethnic politics gave rise to (violent) claims that national culture, ethnic groups and territorial boundaries ought to coincide. The prevailing thought was that the nation-state has the legitimate right to deny access to all persons who are considered to be "strangers". Ethnic groups in North Cameroon do not apply this Western notion of consanguinity to define their own ethnic group (Schilder l994; van Santen and Schilder l994). Until recently, the Mafa felt that the introduction of alien cultural practices and/or genetic mixing did not necessarily affect their ethnic identity. The same applies to the Fulbe. One may wonder what then did define the boundaries of Mafa identity and how the notion about their ethnic identity has been changed by the penetration of Islam and the process of Islamisation that thereafter followed. I will deal with these topics with a focus on their relation with gender. 
Recent literature devotes much attention to changes in identity (Appadurai 1990; l996; van Binsbergen 1994; Hannersz 1996; Featherstone l990; Eade l997). The relation of gender and Islam is a topic of continual debate within feminist circles (see e.g: L. Ahmed l991; 1992; Al Hibri 1982; Kandiyoti l991; Mernissi l991; Sanders 1991), and the position of Muslim women in the global process does get some attention (Weiss l994; Watson l994). In general, however the genderedness of ethnicity or the process of changing identity has been much less discussed. This is rather surprising since gender identities and relations always infiltrate cultural differences and social inequalities, as well as the ethnic manifestations of the latter. Elsewhere (van Santen en Schilder l994: 131), we have acknowledged the interweaving of gender and ethnicity in connection with different levels of reproduction. In a patrilinear system, boundaries of social group cohesion and social differences between the group and 'other ' groups are often constructed through the women. On the other hand, in a matrilinear system, these boundaries will hardly ever be established through the men. Religion, identity, ethnicity and gender are undeniably related, as I will try to show in this paper. If the reality of (constructed) gender differences would be taken more seriously in different societies, so I plead, the study on ethnic identity or/and ethnic clashes in Africa, would enormously gain insights. Though I take the case of the Mafa as an example to show how studies on ethnicity in Africa should consider the genderedness of ethnic constructions, it can generally be applied to other areas as Schilder has shown for the Mundang (van Santen and Schilder l994(3)). 
Before discussing the mentioned themes and relating them to the North Cameroonian context, I will define gender as I think it should be used in the context of the discussion of ethnicity. 

Gender has become, so it seems, a common concept, accepted and recognised by many scientists and all too easily applied. A simple definition tells us that gender is about the cultural consequences of physical, anatomical and biological differences between female and male human species. Or, as Scott puts it, feminists have in a more literal and serious vein began to use gender as a way of referring to the social organisation of the relationship between the sexes (Scott l991: 13). The flight the concept has taken in recent years has not always been in the interest of the female perspective in science. Gender too easily stands for the relation between women and men, without any analytical implications for reflection upon the precise content of these relations and its consequences for the identity of women and men in specific cultural and/or ethnic contexts (see also van Santen & Willemse l999). 
To understand gender relations in the North Cameroonian context, I try to use the concept in a more analytical sense. I have divided the concept of gender using Moore (1994), Braidotti (1993), Scott (1991) and Willemse (forthcoming) as well as Willemse's analytical insights (oral communication) into three levels (van Santen l997). 
Gender symbolism (Scott l991: 18) or the difference between women and men (Braidotti l993: 20), and female and male identities are constituted in the process of cultural reproduction (I will come back to this point later on). Every local environment has a dominant gender ideology. This consists of ideas about how women and men ought to behave, how they differ, but also about how female and male are defined as categories. In most studies, the two poles of the female/male opposition are analysed in an asymmetrical relationship (van Santen l983; l984; 1991). Accordingly 'woman' (or the female category) is too easily regarded as the 'other than' category and not as a self-regulating rational agent, who shapes and constructs that same society (Braidotti l993: 20). In our context, it means that we readily assume that women of different ethnic groups adjust to the patriarchal institutions and representations of their local neighbourhoods or societies. 
If we translate this analytical level for Mafa society, we ascertain that the most central ritual is performed for twins, male as well as female. The father needs to continue this ritual during his entire life and his first daughter needs to be present, even when she is married. I considered the associated symbols within this ritual to be the pillar of Mafa symbolic order; twins are thought to be the ultimate manifestation of the 'double person' (divine principle) that every human being is oneself and one's tutelary spirit (Van Santen l993 a). Not only twins but also women as a category, are associated with the number 'two', with evenness and as the twins with the primordial past. When the symbols that became evident from the twin rituals are brought into connection with the bull ritual – a ritual in the interest of the patriarchal structure the outcome is striking; it is interspersed with the structuring principle of two. In other words, a balance between unevenness (masculinity) and evenness (femininity), a balance between the here-and-now-society and the primordial past, or male and female categorization, is pursued. Gender structure (Scott l991: 18) or the differences among women and among men (Braidotti l993:23): This level is concerned with the way rights and duties within a society are divided between women and men and among women. Further it is concerned with particular social and economic positions of women and men, the sexual division of labour, how local communities perceive the differences between female and male members and the effects of these views in daily life. At this level, we can situate and try to understand the differences between women of various ethnic groups and how they identify and shape their female identity(4). 
For example, the Mafa marriage system is strictly clan exogamous and ethnically endogamous. In their religious life, libations of millet beer in honour of the local God, Jigilé play an important role. Another eminent feature of Mafa religion is the personal jar individual children, women as well as men, possess. It represents the tutelary spirit of every human being. Men make sacrifices to Jigilé and other minor gods in the interest and welfare of the community, women only sacrifice to their personal tutelary spirit. From the analysis of the Mafa religious system, it became clear that married men perform sacrifices, but the female presence – that is of his wives; in religious activities is indispensable (van Santen l993 a: 118 a.f.). Women are, literally, muted attendants. A second (even, so female numbering) son plays a special role in a father's life, as he should attend offerings and ceremonial gatherings. The status of an adult man is derived from having a compound of his own. An adult woman's status is derived from her children and her ability to work hard. Division of labour is not very rigid. Men and women work the fields of millet and peanuts together, though women do cultivate specific crops (beans, melons) as well as the men (tobacco). 
Individual gender (Scott l991: 18) or the difference within each woman or within each man (Braidotti l993:28): In feminist scientific literature there has been much debate about difference and equality between women and between women and men (see also Moore l988; l994). In every cultural or local context, specific women and men have a certain idea about the gender roles they are supposed to play. Every individual has her or his own way of acting out and identifying with these roles. Thus, women and men are 'actors' with multiple identities, roles and levels of experience, using different aspects of the gender ideology of the cultural surroundings they live in. A woman can act out a role as director, as mistress, as mother or/and as daughter, and according to her individual character. In each of these roles, she acts out part of a gender role related to a clear or specific gender ideology. 
For example, in Mafa society a basic gender relation is that between father and daughter. This becomes evident during the bull ritual when the eldest girl has a special role in the celebration: She dances with a stone in her hand, symbolizing the particular part of the meat she is entitled to as her share of her father's bull. Harvest rituals and other festivities that take place in Mafa society underscore the importance of the patri-lineage for sons as well as for daughters. The father goes over to his son-in-law to drink the beer his daughter has prepared. It is a symbolic repetition of an earlier event: people drank beer when they agreed upon the bridewealth. It is the daughter's importance that leads to a special relation with the in-laws in this virilocal society. The husband's clan, gwali, who is bridetaker, owes respect to the wife's patriclan, called kuyuk, the bridegivers and needs to be present for all sorts of occasions. For example during a man's funeral in-laws need to attend as well (van Santen l995 b). Nevertheless, there is a deep distrust towards the members of wives' clans, and also for the kuyuk in general, which accentuates the fact that relation between spouses is a far less prominent gender relation. Another important gender relation (related to the land tenure system), exists between a mother and a son. 
All this made me (1993 a) conclude that in Mafa society relations between the genders on a symbolic level are fundamentally symmetrical and interdependent. On a social level, relations between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons are more important than relations between spouses. On an individual level a Mafa woman’s identity is composed of her role as a daughter, as a first or second wife and/or as a mother, and as a sister. 
In all societies gender entails more than the relations between adult women and men as spouses. Gender also includes the relations between brothers and sisters, between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and the relation between male and female as a category. All these levels determine consciously and unconsciously the boundaries of what is considered to be female and male behaviour in ethnic contexts (van Santen 1998 b; van Santen & Willemse l999; van Santen en Schaafsma forthcoming). According to Scott, the referents for all three meanings (levels) of masculinity and femininity differ from culture to culture, though within any culture the three forms of gender are related to each other (Scott l991: 18). In the North Cameroonian context, it became evident that these meanings (levels) are also related within different cultural settings. Mafa women exchange the level of gender symbolism and gender structure after Islamisation as part of an individual strategy to improve their life, though their individual level partly remains the same. Hence, these meanings (levels) can be exchanged among cultures and should never be analysed too rigidly. Inititally in Mafa society a religious alternative appeared which made it possible for women to identify themselves with another community hence another gender identity. In a globalising world, women as acting subjects can (and do) identify with an increasing range of female identities. 

Mafa ethnic identity – the cultural explanation 
There has been quite some discussions, as has been the case for many other 'ethnic' groups in Africa, on how exactly ethnic boundaries of the Mafa ought to be defined. (5) 
The Mafa could only with difficultly be distinguished on the basis of criteria like language, religion, production process or an ascribed criteria like a ‘shared’ culture. These criteria were often used to distinguish ethnic groups in the colonial context and is briefly referred to as the ‘cultural explanation’ of ethnicity (Geertz l963). In this approach, ethnicity is directly related to a culture, that is ‘God-given’, meaning ascriptive and irreversible. For individual members of a particular group it concerns a tie of primordial attachments (Geertz l963; Horowitz l985). 
Neighbouring groups of the Mafa (Mofu, Kapsiki, Daba etc.) have more or less the same features (Martin l970: 15), but are from this ‘cultural explanation’ point of view, culturally divided. Podlewski pointed out a socio-demographic criterion that in our discussion may prove significant. He mentioned the endogamous marriage system, though within their group, the Mafa are clan exogamous. He remarked that 95% of the "matrimonial exchanges" (6) of a group qualified by the same name take place within the group (Poslewski l966). In spite of this qualification in the distant and recent past for the Mafa only clan cohesion was essential; clans regularly fought each other and ethnic Mafa identity only existed outside the area. However, in the course of the past centuries different clans and groups did mix on the basis of resettlement, migration and/or immigration; (7) features that cannot be explained by a ‘cultural explanation’. 

Mafa ethnic identity, the 'political explanation' 
Nowadays people north of the town of Mokolo and around the town of Koza, claim to be Mafa, and south of Mokolo, they will call themselves Mofuélé (and not Matakam). They underline and express this identity in song, dance and other cultural performances within state-organised cultural events (see also: van Binsbergen l992). 
Until the beginning of this century, the different Mafa clans had resisted Fulbe domination. Their success was due to the inaccessibility of their mountainous habitat. The initial adjustment to Fulbe cultural elements came through Mafa people who had been taken into slavery, were Islamised and returned to their birth place when they were freed after the First World War (van Santen l993a: 69101; 1995a; 1996a). 
After this period, the imbalance of political and cultural power between Fulbe and an 'autochthonous' group such as the Mafa led to the development of boundaries. Until recently, the 'cultural order' of the Mafa clans could only be 'lived' in their own local environment. It had to be produced and maintained by specific religious practices and a great number of rituals (van Santen l993a; 1995b). Mafa rituals and religion are unknown outside their own 'neighbourhood' (Appadurai l996: 184). For example, the Kapsiki, ethnic group living adjacent to the Mafa, joke about the many jars the Mafa possess. To the Mafa each one is necessary in order to perform sacrifices in honour of their ancestors and on behalf of the continuity of the clan. The Mafa in turn, consider the Kapsiki to be 'bad' husbands, who make 'their' women do all the work on the field, treat them badly and do not even fetch water. 
Due to the political situation, Mafa cultural features came to be regarded by the Mafa as being unique. This fact is in line with more ‘politically-minded explanations’ of ethnicity, like those of the so-called ‘Manchester School’(8). According to these theories, social interactions of ethnic groups cannot be understood by simply looking at norms and values of societies. Micropolitical processes should be taken into consideration. Ethnicity is what people make of it in specific political circumstances and ethnic groups are not static or ‘God-given’, but situational. They are latent in some situations and manifest in others(9). 
Since the imposition of Fulbe hegemony in North Cameroon, the members of the diverse non-Islamic communities were not free to choose to either accept or reject the dominant Fulbe culture. In their societies, relations with the outside world could only be successful if the members adjusted to the norms of decency derived from the Fulbe Islamic groups. If they refused to do so, they were excluded from access to any position of power. The uninterrupted political pressure forced the Mafa and other groups to continuously make new strategic choices. They had to keep assessing to what extent they wanted to identify with the cultural practices and identities of their 'rulers' or with those of their own local surroundings (see also Schilder l995). Thus, they always gave much attention to cherishing and refining what they considered to be their own cultural features. 
For the Mafa, Fulbe political domination and the ensuing process of Islamisation have changed the boundaries of their identity and their definition of their own ethnic group. When, to use Horton's terminology (1971; 1975) the boundaries of Mafa microcosm were opened up by the macrocosm of Islamic ideology, Mafa ethnic identity started to become as important as clan identity. The various migration movements during this century (van Santen 1995a; 1996a; 1998a; Schaafsma l998; van Santen en Schaafsma forthcoming) and recent political developments (van Santen l996a) also play a part in these changing notions. Expanding horizons are increasing their ethnic consciousness (van Santen l997). 
Stories about the first Islamic chief (lamido) of the town of Mokolo and his gruesome deeds towards the Mafa people are kept alive in the local community. At the same time, tales of how he and other Fulbe chiefs repressed the non-Fulbe population are manipulated by national political parties in order to win votes from the non-Islamic population and to oppose the UNDP (Union Nationale Pour le Développement et le Progrès). (10) 
However, why the Mafa cherished some cultural features and disregarded others, cannot, on its own, be explained by an instrumental political model of explanation. As is generally the case, ethnicity in Mafa society has nothing to do with ‘objective’ cultural differences compared to other ethnic groups, but with ideas about cultural differences. Eminently present in these ideas – that are only partly related to a socio-cultural reality –are notions about gender differences and the roles the genders are supposed to play. In the paragraphs hereafter, I will mention some anthropological themes that are supposed to play a role in the construction of ethnicity and I will relate them to gender differences. I will again use the context of Mafa society to illustrate the different themes. 

Ethnicity, kinship and gender 
In a patrilinear system, boundaries of social group cohesion and social differences between the group and 'other' groups are often constructed through the women. 
I mentioned that the Mafa consider their neighbours, the Kapsiki, to be "women-abusers". Consequently a father is unlikely to accept a Kapsiki as a son-in-law. However, he will act the same if his daughter wants to marry someone from a clan he has a disagreement with. Though young people choose their partners themselves, in dominant Mafa gender ideology fathers need to agree with their daughter's choice considering her 'first' husband. In reality, the mother will always support the daughter if the latter prefers to marry against her father's wish. I found out that below the surface, the mother has the most important role in the marriage negotiations (see van Santen l993: 259). 
In a matrilinear system, these boundaries will hardly ever be established through the men though in those systems descent through the female part of the group is used to make a distinction vis-à-vis other groups. 
Islamised Mafa women still claim to be ethnically Mafa, but religiously, they identify with the Muslim community. They have a ‘multiple identity’ and have individually changed the content of ‘gender relations’. However, this individual choice has consequences for gender relations on a structural level, as the clan they belong to (that has such an important role in Mafa society) looses its importance. As my research showed, the children of Islamised Mafa will have forgotten the clan's name. I could give many more details to prove the importance of women for Mafa (clan) group cohesion. 
For Mafa men, there are many reasons to object to a daughter's or grand-daughter's change of religion: A grandfather gets the bridewealth of a man's first daughter. If she prefers to change husband after a while, this bridewealth need not to be returned by the father. After Islamisation the bridewealth system changes. In the Islamic community that a large part of the bridewealth is for the girl herself (sadaki), conform Islamic ideology. This implies that after Islamisation a grand-father never knows what to expect from his future Islamic grand-son-in-law. They may decide to give him a symbolic gift to keep him quiet. But he may also end up with empty hands. 
Part of Mafa bridewealth is the labour of a son-in-law a father is entitled too. An Islamic man will never work with his own hands on the field of an "infidel heathen", even if the latter is his father-in-law. As one man expressed: 
"If we have a daughter who marries a Fulbe (he means: so who Islamises), we just do not mention it. We pretend she is not getting married, we pretend as if she does not exist anymore. We can curse them and say they will never set foot in the house anymore. But then perhaps she may come secretly and curse her father, and then we (he means fathers) might die. So finally I will come to visit, but only after I have calmed down my anger. But will an Islamic son-in-law come to help me on my fields, or with other things?...He is a good-for-nothing..." 

As I mentioned before, fathers also need their daughters for their ritual functions on several occasions. During the bullfeast, celebrated in the interest of the continuity of the clan, a daughter's presence is essential. The same goes for the funeral rites of men. 
In patriarchal and patrilinear Mafa society, women often Islamised independently of their men as the example of Maama Laila in our introductory story showed us abandoning Mafa religious belief and cultural elements. This reality of the sudden abundance of elements that are part of an ethnic inheritance, can only be understood if we consider the gender differences in this society. Mafa women could leave their ethnic group because  as I have argued elsewhere the sexual division of labour (what we called gender structure) in religion gave them no responsibilities for the production of 'neighbourhoods' (Appadurai 1996: 180), or the continuity of the clan. The main responsibilities in Mafa religion had to be performed by Mafa men. Mafa women were supposed to be literally mutely present on these occasions. Their role facilitates an easy departure from local surroundings. 

Ethnicity, historical identity and gender 
Another criterion to explain ethnic construction in the African context as well as elsewhere in the world, is historical identity. Most ethnic groups refer to the past to fulfil a need for continuity. A common ancestor may be projected upon the backdrop of a mythical past to symbolise and justify the idea of unity. In the founding histories of different Mafa groups, the Gudur massif, the source of the river Tsanaga, is the epicentre that is considered sacred. This may create a perspective of an unchangeable and timeless culture among the members of a specific ethnic group. The idea that ethnicity is not shaped by 'objective' cultural elements but by ‘ideas about cultural elements (see Eriksen l993), implies that ethnic identity can be maintained in times of drastic cultural change. It may also mean that members of a group can identify with existing traditions without having to live accordingly. 
In Fulbe and Mafa communal history, as in the case of many other groups in North Cameroon, the past has been defined in terms of descent and origin. By ascription to patrilinear descent groups, members are inducted into the collective history of patrilinear descent with clearly defined rules. It should be kept in mind that people's conception of the past is based not only on historical facts. The past includes history as perceived by the members of the group. But there are limits to the manipulation of the past; otherwise, the past would lose its effectiveness (Peel: 1989: p. 200). 
When the past is reviewed, there is a strong accent on patriarchal relations. Women are depicted as passive subjects on men's stage, on which the actors make political alliances with other groups by marrying out 'their' women. 
Within most ethnic groups in North Cameroon, women's position does not benefit from reference to that common history. Therefore, they will probably choose another version. It should also be kept in mind that this vision of group history is an idealised view. In no way does it agree with reality as the example of Mafa society shows us. Mafa women readily leave their husband's clan to marry into another clan or to Islamise. In the event of Islamisation, the breach is thorough. Not only does she leave the area as the process of Islamisation is concomitant with that of urbanisation, but she also abandons the rituals, the religious duties and the marriage system and prestations (11). 
In a world that offers alternative life styles, there are many ways for women to escape a patriarchal construction of ethnic identity, as the case of the Mafa demonstrates (van Santen l993 a & b; l996 b; 1998 a, b; forthcoming). 

Security that local communities or neighbourhoods offer and gender 
In the region under consideration, kinship relations form the basis of many ethnic groups. Ethnicity has become significant in a complex kinship network. The common idea, as still expressed by Horowitz (1985) was that individuals may find security in that network, and that it structures daily activities. This implies that ethnic groups, localities or neighbourhoods are often perceived as large harmonious families. If so, we are ignoring the mutual contradictions which may exist between women and men on the level of ‘gender symbolism’ and ‘gender structure’, between women on the level of ‘gender structure’, and on the level of the ‘individual gender’, that is the differences within each woman. 
In Mafa society, a newly wedded wife has a different status from that of her mother-in-law, even though this society is unknown within extended family structure. A woman without children has a different status from that of the woman with children. A woman without sons will end up at old age with no position at all, if she is lucky. If she is unlucky, the surrounding community may accuse her of being a mide, that is a soul-eater, a potential threat for every member of society. This proves that feelings of security in Mafa society will be different for all these women. In the case of accusation of witchcraft security is totally absent. 
The male perspective that is, a perspective that takes the interests of the male population as a point of departure – in Africanist ethnicity studies, makes an appeal to 'natural' arguments concerning descent to legitimise the differences within one's own group and between one's own group and 'other' groups. 
As stated above, social cohesion in Mafa and Fulbe society is mostly structured by patrilinear descent. Children belong to the clan (Mafa: gwali; Fulfulde: asngol) of the father. Marriages between members of different ethnic groups are rare in non-Islamic Mafa environments. As the following example shows, men may forbid women to leave the ethnic group, while the woman in this case had nothing to gain by a feeling of ethnic affiliation. 
Mary was 15 years old and got pregnant. Though the Mafa have no preoccupation with virginity before marriage, a daughter should not be pregnant while still living under the roof of her father or the man who brought her up. Thereupon, Mary was sent away from the house of her paternal uncle, with whom she had lived since her father had died. She came to live with an old lady who lived on her own (her only son had migrated). The two of them sort of managed, though they lived in very poor conditions. One day a boy, attending the 'Lycée' in Mokolo but originally from the South of Cameroon (a total "stranger") came and claimed he was the father of the child. I was rather glad and exclaimed that all would be settled, as they could marry and get over and done with her difficult situation now. Then the whole circle of Mafa people around me started to utter in disgust that such was impossible, could never be the case, because, as they said "who is going to give away his daughter to a total stranger?" I spoke to her uncle later on and he said the same, so she and the child remained with the old lady, and two years later gave birth to another child, from another 'stranger'. At the time the girl was too young to decide to go her own way against an eventual wish of her surroundings. 
Contrary to Mafa society, in Fulbe and Islamic environments, mixed marriages are very common. In non-Fulbe islamic society, being a Muslim becomes the most important identity. In both societies children belong to the father's patrilinear descent group. 
The saddest aspect of Mary's case was, in the eyes of Mafa community, not the poor condition in which she had to bring up her children, but the fact that her children had no patrilinear clan, which made them sort of non-existent. 
In a similar example of an islamised Mafa woman who got a child from a total "stranger", the child was part of the Muslim community, which is a meaningful identity. 
In the course of my research, I found out that Mafa women without sons often Islamised at a later age, as did Maama Laila. They deliberately never indicated this fact. Maama Laila said that she decided to Islamise due to the different appeals the men, namely, first husband, second husband, father, brother around her made. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the Muslim community offers her and women in similar situations some security, based on Islamic ideology, that "traditional" Mafa society could not offer to them. 
In general, the security a group may offer, will be totally different for women and men. Conditions that provide a man's security may imply terror and violence for a woman. This divergence of interests may be even wider in the event of migration to distant areas (see van Santen: 1998a; forthcoming). As Appadurai stated: 
Women in particular bear the brunt of this sort of friction, for they become pawns in the heritage politics of the household and are often subject to the abuse and violence of men who are themselves torn about the relation between heritage and opportunity in shifting spatial and political formations (Appadurai l996: 45). 

It may also be the other way around. In a strong patriarchal society as that of the Mafa, the male spouse continuously fears he might be bewitched by his wife or one of his in-laws, an act that will lead to his death. As an old lady puts it: 
"The kuyuk of one's father (so the paternal clan of the mother of a father) and one's own kuyuk (the clan of one's mother)...well you always need to be aware of them and fear them. If you do not fear them enough, they are going to curse you, or they curse the whole gwali (father's clan), because of your disrespect. It may be just a small thing. For example if you do not understand a thing, they only say 'hai...' and you are already cursed. Very simple 'hai'...and you may lose your senses for the rest of your life. And if they have already cursed you, the only thing they can do is go to the diviner and ask him what to do. He will mostly tell you to go and make an offering at the place of the kuyuk under concern." 

The strong position of the clan of one's mother is due to the importance of the female category on a symbolic level – what we called before ‘gender symbolism’. On the other hand, Mafa society is patrilocal. This implies that the wife comes to live with a hostile clan and will be considered as a potential enemy. Thus, wives will probably develop different feelings about group cohesion than Mafa husbands, who always remain part of the descent group they were born to. The Fulbe marriage system favours cross-cousin marriages, which means that women ideally come to live in groups they are related to. However, Fulbe society has incorporated many female members of other ethnic groups, who need to find their way in a totally ‘alien’ society. My research indicated that women who want to islamise in most cases come to live with Islamised relatives in town, to thereafter find their own way in the Islamic community. When an islamised Mafa woman marries an Islamic Fulbe man her children will be ‘ethnic’ Fulbe and her ‘biological reproductive forces’ are lost for the Mafa community. 

Reproduction of ethnic identity and Gender  
Reproduction is a central theme when gender is studied in relation to ethnicity. Different types of reproduction may be distinguished (Edholm et al. l977): Biological reproduction (biological procreation of group members); reproduction of the labour force; and social reproduction (reproduction of social and cultural relations). 
Concerning social reproduction, it is important to take into account the fact that women and men may take a different perspective on the ethnic identity of their particular group. The images men and women have of biological and social reproduction need to be taken into account, when studying changing worldviews and their consequences on ethnic boundaries and group cohesion. 
A conscious and outspoken reason for Maama Laila in our introductory story to leave her group was the different appeals the men around her made. However, she was one among many women without sons who Islamised at an elderly age. The relation between mothers and sons is just as important as the relation between fathers and daughters. In Mafa society elderly women come to live with their youngest sons. Women without sons end up living alone. So we may say that the continued absence of biological offspring made Maama Laila, as many other childless women or women without sons, leave her ethnic group and change identity. 
In patrilinear groups, the boundaries of social cohesion within the groups and social differences between the group and the 'other' are often constructed via women. How women as acting subjects respond to male-constructed boundaries and whether they identify themselves with the same forms of social cohesion or have created their own boundaries, are topics that in general still need much investigation. Maama Laila's decision to leave the group, is a good example of a woman who in her specific ethnic context acts as a self-regulating agent whose own interests prevail above group interests. 
Because of the group cohesion in patrilinear systems, direct biological reproduction is very important. From a male point of view, the crucial issues are with whom may women marry? whose children do they bear? whose offspring may they give birth to? As a consequence of biological reproductive capacities and their role in social reproduction, women are quite often ambivalent creatures in the perspective of men. On the one hand, they are physically and symbolically appreciated as procreators. An example of ‘symbolic gender’ in Mafa society: 
On a symbolic level, Mafa women are responsible for the harvest, the time, the seasonal change, etc. As we mentioned before, the female category is associated with right, with evenness, with life and with the primordial past. ‘the number two’, ‘even’, ‘doubleness’ lies at the source of 'being' and are key symbols in Mafa society. ‘Uneven’ is associated with male and the (patriarchal) organisation of ‘here and now’ society. Even and uneven need to be in balance. The female category always needs to be taken into account. 
On the other hand women are often distrusted and therefore excluded from certain male activities, as shown in this example in which Mafa society solves the contradiction between the ‘symbolic gender’ and the ‘structural gender’: 
Women are excluded from the sacrifice on the mountain on behalf of the clan in Mafa society. If women would enter this exclusively male environment, she would loose her reproductive capacities and become sterile. However, because there needs to be a balance between male and female principles, she is symbolically represented by a male person. For this sacrifice, three male persons are present and one male person representing the female person, which makes four (that is: three, male principle and one (male principle) makes four, (female principle). 
Women may also be controlled because men fear their non-conformism towards patriarchal institutions of marriage, parenthood and inheritance and the values and norms that go with these institutions. The fact that women are absolutely necessary for reproduction and thus for the continuity of the group adds to the tension between the genders. Biological reproduction is also related to the reproduction of labour. 
For the Mafa, this is visible in the pattern of marriage exchange. By marriage, the patri clan of the girl is connected with the patri clan of her (future) husband, though a married woman herself will always remain part of the clan of her own father. Every household individually produces food crops, but during the harvest rituals, men of different households gather in the household of the daughter of one of them to drink the beer she has prepared. With this ritual drinking, the relation between the clan of the father and his daughter is emphasised. Through this custom, economic production, biological reproduction and the reproduction of labour are interconnected, because the father of the bride can always count on the labour input of his daughter's husband. By means of the brideprice, a son-in-law gives part of his labour and his property to the father of his bride. In return, he obtains rights to the children she hopefully will give birth to in the future. When daughters decide to Islamise and thereafter marry men of other ethnic groups, this connection between the different types of reproduction and production is broken. So it is in the interest of the fathers that daughters to marry within their own ethnic group. 

Endogamy, ethnic identity and gender in North Cameroon 
The Mafa have a caste society, are ethnically endogamous, caste endogamous and clan exogamous. People from clans of a blacksmith caste and people from clans of the non-blacksmith caste do not marry each other. People are not allowed to marry within the clan of the father, or the clan of the mother up till three generations. Non-Islamic people do not often marry people from other ethnic groups as the case of Mary has shown us. 
This has obvious consequences for the various levels of reproduction I distinguished. Founded on unilinearity exogamic clan groups come into being, that need clear marriage rules, in order to keep reproductive capacities of their own women, again looked at from a male point of view as much as possible within the group. In a patriarchal society, these rules are most probably in the interest of maintaining this patriarchy. But as we know from the case of the Mafa women, women in general never completely submit themselves. After Islamisation, Mafa women become ethnically exogamous and ensuingly marry Islamic men of 
other ethnic groups. 
An important part of ideology concerning ethnic endogamy are the stereotypes that are used to distinguish the 'own' women and men compared to women and men of other groups. We already mentioned the view Mafa people have and maintain vis-à-vis Kapsiki men. Ethnic differences are marked by referring to the way in which men of other groups treat their women or the women their men, or the relations between the genders in general. So gender is not only used as a symbol of 'objective' cultural differences between ethnic groups, but it also ventilates biases and mythical views that strengthen these differences. 
With the Mafa, ethnic endogamy does apply to women as well as men, but in Fulbe society endogamy only holds for men. The Fulbe in North Cameroon still consider other ethnic groups to be inferior (infidels haabe), as expounded by Islamic ideology. Furthermore, the Fulbe feel that to 'civilise' is synonymous with to 'Islamise'. Notwithstanding these attitudes adoption of non-Fulbe children was never a problem nor was concubinage or marriage between Fulbe men and women of other groups. In former days, they also married their female slaves, whose children thereafter had the same rights as other children from the patrilineage. Social reproduction among the Fulbe took place by incorporation of nonmale members of other ethnic groups. With reference to Islam, the group considered marriage between Fulbe women and non-Fulbe men to be out of the question. This 'openness' to non-Fulbe women and children can be understood as a collective strategy. It has allowed the politically dominant Fulbe to overcome the obstacle of being a numerical minority in the North Cameroonian context. Women are not just passive objects in such a 'strategy'. They use it to strengthen or improve their own position (see also v.d. Berg l996). 

Language, socialisation and gender 
In North Cameroon, the borders of ethnic regions are also marked by the different languages spoken by members of the various groups. Depending on the ethnic group under consideration, differences may emerge between women and men. In Fulbe society, women use a different language than men. In fact the genders are not even supposed to openly communicate with each other in public. This implies that two women of different ethnic groups sometimes communicate more easily with each other than a woman and a man from the same ethnic group. Non-Islamic autochthonous men are not even considered a threat to the sexual integrity of Fulbe women. Whereas women cannot speak in public with their own men, they can laugh and joke with men from 'inferior' ethnic groups, as the latter are not considered to be 'sexually' plausible marriage partners. Due to the recent waves of Islamism, this may change. In the cases given, inter-ethnic contact is based on unilateral ethnic endogamy. 
Appadurai emphasised that the trans-generational stability of knowledge was presupposed in most theories of enculturation (or of socialisation). He assumes that marriages become the meeting points of historical patterns of socialisation and new ideas of proper behaviour. However, before even considering changes in 'habitus' we need to be aware that many traditions are gender-bound. Customs that are part of the process of socialisation, and which contribute to the development of ethnic consciousness from early childhood onwards, are quite different for women and men in most societies. Various institutions on which group cohesion is predicated may have different meanings for women and men. Patrilinear and matrilinear kinship systems are not the only institutions to be considered. Patterns of settlement or inheritance may also put a slant on the way ethnic consciousness is constructed. Maama Laila considered the Fulbe inheritance system, which entitles women to inherit property, one of the advantages of Islamisation. She formulated it as follows: 
"Me, Daada Reinout (mother of Reinout, my son), I like to trade to find some money. I will buy my own piece of land [Mafa women traditionally do not own land] and I will build my own house there. And then I also like to have a person beside me with whom I can talk [So to have a husband is always nice, she means]. And if one day I will no longer be alive, my daugher, the mother of Laila, can take it together with my trade, and then if one day she no longer gets along with her husband, she can live in that house..." 

Crumbling Fulbe hegemony and new ethnic consciousness 
In Mafa society, a transnational change took place as Islamisation coincided with colonisation, urbanisation and 'civilisation'. Due to the fact that Islam in these areas is very much a town religion, until recently many local rural surroundings in the mountainous area remained relatively unaffected by Islamic values. However, due to overpopulation, many inhabitants needed to make a living elsewhere. These migrants were mainly male (women tend to stay behind). Not only were they confronted with a rapidly changing world, but they also brought elements of this world back home (van Santen: 1998a; Schaafsma and Zuiderwijk: 1997; Schaafsma: 1998; van Santen and Schaafsma: forthcoming). Thus the outside world, and all the influences that pervade it, not only find their ways to the once inaccessible rocky slopes that characterise the Mafa habitat, but also strengthen their feelings of ethnic identity. 
So, nowadays, two streams of non-local influences more or less compete with each other: One is the transnational influence of Islam, which predominated until recently. The other is the more Western-oriented flow of ideas that non-Islamic migrants bring when they come back from the cities. 
Since my initial fieldwork in the area (1986-1988), the political context has altered; the dominant position of the Fulbe is crumbling. Mokolo, the town once founded by the Fulbe people, until recently had a mainly Islamic character though non-Muslim quarters existed. Now Mokolo has become an urban centre for Mafa people(12). The migrants in particular have developed an ethnic consciousness. During my stay in Mokolo town in 1992, 1995 and 1998, I found to my great surprise that Mafa had replaced Fulfulde as the lingua franca, even in the market place. This new ethnic consciousness is also evident in other areas in North Cameroon (see Schilder 1994 and v.d.Berg 1996). It may reflect differences in formal education. The South still considers the North ‘backwarded’ compared to the rest of Cameroon in the area of education, as strangely enough Islamic education never counted in the statistics – and for a long time the Fulbe were mainly interested in religious education. Non-Islamic groups started to attend secular schools much sooner than the Islamic population. For example, the percentage of Mafa who finished secondary school seems to be higher than the percentage for the Fulbe. The new self-awareness of non-Islamic ethnic groups also comes up in political events(13) (van Santen and Schilder l994; van Santen l996a; van Santen 1998: a,b van Santen: forthcoming). However, new developments change the scene. The process of Islamism may lead to a situation whereby ethnic boundaries count less (which may be an advantage in a world where ethnic clashes become ever more violent), but Islamic ideology becomes more prominent. Not surprisingly in this ideology rules concerning proper behaviour and conduct of women and men are prominent. If we continue to exclude gender relations from our analyses, we will loose track of society’s reality. 

I have argued that in Africa, contrary to the European situation, ethnic groups do not apply to a notion of consanguinity to define their own ethnic group. The case of the Mafa, an ethnic group in North Cameroon, shows that neither ‘cultural explanations’ nor ‘political explanations’ as used in the ethnicity debate, could elucidate what exactly defines the boundaries of ethnic identity. For the Mafa, ethnic ‘Mafa’ identity is only a phenomenon of importance since Islamisation and migration on a large scale started to occur. Until recently clan-descendancy was more important. 
Studies on ethnicity have hardly included gender relations within different ethnic groups. If in the future they will finally regard gender relations, these should not just be taken for granted as meaning the relations between women and men without any analytical implications, but for the sake of analyses, should be divided. I acknowledged a symbolic structure, by which I meant the difference between female and male identities which are constituted in the process of cultural reproduction and ‘ideas’ about how women and men ought to behave. Further, a structural gender level, that is the way rights and duties within a society are divided between women and men. Finally, an individual gender level that is concerned with the ideas women and men in specific cultural or local (ethnic) contexts have about the gender roles they ought to fulfil and the way they should actually fulfil them. In addition, gender does not just stand for the relation between women and men as spouses, but relations between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces etc. ought to be included also. 
In this paper, I looked at the way ethnic identity is constructed in patrilinear and virilocal societies like those of the Mafa and Fulbe, and I showed that in an ethnic endogamic and clan exogamic society like that of the Mafa, differences between one ethnic group and the ‘other’ are constructed through the women. In Fulbe society, ethnic endogamy only holds for men, and marriage with women from other ethnic groups was in the past a collective strategy that allowed the Fulbe who were politically but not numerically dominant, to overcome the obstacle of being a numerical minority in the North Cameroonian context. 
Ethnic differences are also marked by referring to the way in which men of other groups treat their women or the women their men, or the relations between the genders in general. So gender ventilates biases and mythical views that strengthen ethnic differences. 
Gender relations are often essential to understand how ‘ethnicity’ is constructed and maintained. Though in Mafa society relations between father-daughter, mother – son, brothers and sisters are more important, men – like elsewhere  need to have a sexual relation with women in order to physically reproduce their society, their ethnic group. They not only need ‘their’ women for biological reproduction, but also for the social reproduction and the reproduction of labour force. However, women are no passive agents in these ‘needs of men’. The examples of Mafa society have shown that women have all sort of strategies to play their role in the construction of ethnic groups and boundaries. In Mafa society a common strategy was to Islamise and marry Islamic men from other ethnic groups. Taking into consideration the ‘structural’ gender relations in Mafa society, it is easy to see that Mafa women do not have an active role within religious activities and this facilitates an easy departure and change of religious identity. 
Another criterion that shapes ethnic identity is historical identity. In the case of the Mafa and the Fulbe, the past is defined in terms of patrilinear descent and origin. However, the past also includes history as perceived by the members of the group. When the past is reviewed with a strong accent on patriarchal relations, this mostly does not benefit women’s position, so they will probably choose another version. I argued that in a world that offers alternative lifestyles – in the case of the Mafa, changing religious identity means a change of identity altogether – there are many ways for women to escape a patriarchal construction of ethnic identity. 
It is also argued that membership of an ethnic community offers its members security. This may differ for women and men. Mafa men do not like to see ‘their’ women marry men from other groups, and this attitude may have serious repercussions (sometimes violent) on women. An important gender relation within their society is those between mothers and especially her youngest son, with whom she will live at old age. If she does not have sons, Mafa society offers little security at old age. Many elderly Mafa women who Islamised did so, because in those cases the Islamic community offers them a security, based on Islamic ideology. Also the virilocal settlement pattern and clan exogamic marriage pattern means that a Mafa woman may marry into a rather hostile clan and for her security, she depends on her own clan via her father and or brothers. This lack of security in daily life may be at the base of a woman’s decision to leave the group, so to have her own interest prevail above group interests. With my contribution I wanted to indicate the necessity to include gender as an analytical concept in the study of ethnicity. Gender is not just about ‘adding women’. Gender relations are not just ‘men’s’ private affairs. Gender as an analytical scientific concept is essential to understand ethnic processes of inclusion and exclusion all over the world, also in Africa. Hopefully it will be included in the new millennium. 


(1) Thereupon the former husband, the new husband and the father of the woman needed to negotiate which part of the bridewealth ought to be returned to the former husband.  
(2) Elsewhere, I extensively described the process of Islamisation in the once inaccessible area of the Mandara mountains (Van Santen l993; l994; l995; l996). That is, the historical context and the cultural features that produced - what Appadurai refers to as -  the actors,  
...who properly belong to the situated community of kin, neighbors, friends and enemies...(Appadurai l996: 179), who in the course of this century came to be known as the Mafa. I analysed the changes that conversion to Islam brought about in the relations between the genders. I depicted how Mafa women integrated the cultural features of the Fulbe people in their new lifestyle - and especially what this meant for women's position, and drew some conclusions concerning  Mafa women's strategies in general (van Santen l993 a & b; l995a; l996 a & b; 1998b; van Santen en Schilder l994).  
(3) Many ideas used in this paper were worked out in cooperation with Kees Schilder, and  some of them were used in an article written  by us in Dutch (1994). 
(4). Besides, as Braidotti stated,  the notion of Woman refers to a female sexed subject that is constituted through a process of identification with culturally available positions organised in the dichotomy of gender (Braidotti l993:24). 
(5) It is not clear when people invaded the mountains. The area has probably been inhabited since neolithic times, as tools from this period have been found. Despite this evidence we cannot speculate on the autochtonous character of the inhabitants (Martin l970: 25). Many migration movements took place before Fulbe hegemony. Martin considers that in the seventeenth century, the different ethnic groups [the French distinguished: like the Tschede, Fali, Daba, Guidar, Guisiga, Kapsiki, Mofu and Matakam] probably lived in juxtaposition without hegemony of one specific group. In the founding history of various groups within Mafa society as well as within other ethnic groups, the Gudur massif, lying south-east of Mokolo (in present day, what is called, Mofu-territory) at the limits of the Diamaré plains, is the epicentre and is considered sacred. It is the source of the river Tsanaga (Boisseau and Soula l974). 
In the literature the Mafa were referred to as Matakam (Lavergne l949; Martin l970; Podlewski l966; Name used in Colonial archives and censuses). Lavergne mentioned (1949; 1990) that the term Matakam came from the Fulbe, who les ait traitées de Mettayamen, pluriel de Mettayamjo, terme méprisant réservé aux êtres que la nature n'a pas favorisés, l'absence de vêtements étant pour les Peulhs un signe évident de pauvreté, de manque de dignité et d'inferiorité. Cela se passe vers 1850. (Lavergne l949; l990; also Martin l970: 16). 
Mettayam became Mettakam or  Matakam and with that name one first indicated the mountains and afterwards also the 'tribes' that inhabited those mountains. The Mafa themselves loathe the term and consider it more and more as an insult. 
(6) In the light of our discussion, I use inverted commas for this term. The underlying idea is that women are"exchanged" as passive subjects.  During my research, it became clear that they never have been (van Santen l993: 257 ff.: Mafa marriage negotiations: the mother's voice and the girl's desire). Also in the course of this paper, it will become evident that women have their own  strategies to escape patriarchal constructions. Of course, patriarchally raised anthropologists did not realise this and often are still unaware of their male bias. 
(7) Lavergne (and Martin) distinguish within, what they call the Matakam, the group called Boulahay ( a regrouping Mafa and Mofu people after the latter had been chased from the massif named Gudur),  in the South and around Mokolo; the Mabass around the village with the same name; the Mafa clans like Hide, Ndare and Gélébda, intermarried with Marghi immigrants who came from around Madagali (nowadays Nigeria) and settled near Tourou; the Mineo who intermarried with the  Mafa around Roua in the West; and the Mafa, as the most important group in the centre around Roua and Soulédé (regrouped between the compromised massifs of the valleys of Tsanaga, Kerawa and the Madagali plateau after a triple pression from the south, west and east in the former century) (Lavergne l949; 1990: 8 ff.). 
(8) For example J.C.Mitchell (1956) or Epstein 1958. 
(9) Theorists denying the essentialist character of ethnicity are f.ex. Uchendu (1965), Kasfir (1976) 
(10) The UNDP is considered to be the political party of the Islamic population (van Santen l996). 
(11) In the Muslim community women's attitude is not very much different. Islamised women leave just as easily and few Fulbe women in North Cameroon remain with one husband for a lifetime. 
(12) The Mafa clans never lived in centralised villages, but in settlements scattered throughout the mountains. 
(13) Whereas the local Mafa lamido (chief) in town used to be a Muslim, in the l991 elections also non-Muslim Mafa men were candidates for this position (van Santen l996a). 


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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cette article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.