Genitals vs Gender Identity: What truly defines womanhood?

The debate surrounding the inclusion of a trans woman in Zikoko’s Hertitude event on April 20, 2024, underscores a pivotal moment in the ongoing discourse on gender identity and women’s spaces in Nigeria—a country where the cultural context can significantly amplify such discussions. 

Hertitude, a women-only gathering hosted by Zikoko Magazine, has been a beacon of empowerment, providing a sanctuary where women can freely express themselves, unencumbered by the objectifying gaze often cast by men. This event, known for its progressive stance, faced a new kind of attention when a trans woman chose to participate in the “Hot Babe Awards,” sparking a spirited debate over the essence of womanhood.

In Nigeria, where traditional roles are often rigidly enforced, and LGBTQ+ rights are severely restricted, the question of what constitutes womanhood reaches beyond mere identity—it taps into deep-seated beliefs and societal norms. A user’s post initiated the discussion on Twitter, which opened a broader conversation about inclusivity and equality.

To fully grasp the dynamics at play, we must consider contemporary research and historical contexts. Studies, such as those from the Williams Institute, show that societal acceptance of transgender individuals enhances mental health outcomes and reduces discrimination. Discussions on platforms like The Gender Spectrum also stress the importance of acknowledging gender diversity for a more inclusive society. Historically, African perspectives on gender, as explored by scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí in “The Invention of Women,” reveal a pre-colonial fluidity in gender roles that was more about community roles than physical characteristics, challenging the rigid binary norms later imposed by colonial influences.

The conversation sparked by Hertitude goes beyond theory—it’s about real people, bringing communities together, and reshaping cultural norms. By exploring these deep questions, Hertitude isn’t just pushing the boundaries of what defines womanhood but is also leading the charge to make women’s spaces in Nigeria more inclusive. This vibrant discussion about gender identity mirrors global movements for human rights and celebrates the rich, diverse tapestry of Nigerian culture. To dive deeper into this topic, it’s essential to understand the terms at the heart of these discussions, specifically the differences between ‘gender’ and ‘sex’.

So, what’s the confusion about gender and sex?

Understanding the distinction between sex and gender is crucial, especially in contexts like the Hertitude event, where misconceptions can lead to significant social and personal conflicts. This differentiation is often misunderstood, leading to confusion and exclusion, particularly for transgender individuals in societies with rigid gender norms.


Sex refers to biological differences between females, males, and intersex persons. These include physical attributes such as chromosomes, hormones, and reproductive organs. The World Health Organization emphasises that these characteristics are not strictly binary—a spectrum exists, which includes intersex individuals who may exhibit both male and female biological traits.


Gender is about the societal roles, behaviours, and attributes a given culture considers appropriate for individuals. This social construct evolves and varies widely between cultures. Gender roles influence everything from career choices and behaviours to personal relationships and dress codes.

Gender Identity

Closely related to this is gender identity, which is a personal, deep-seated sense of one’s gender. It may or may not align with the sex assigned at birth. For example, someone assigned male at birth may identify as female and vice versa. This aspect of identity can significantly impact a person’s mental health and social integration.

A poignant example of how gender perceptions can influence life outcomes comes from a 2016 Canadian study. Researchers found that recovery from acute coronary syndrome was influenced not by patients’ biological sex but by their gender traits. Those embodying traits typically associated with femininity, such as caregiving responsibilities, had a higher recurrence of heart issues than those with traits seen as masculine, like being the primary earner. This study illustrates that gender roles can have significant, real-world health implications, transcending biological differences.

In Nigeria, discussions about gender are particularly charged. The Hertitude case highlighted the challenges faced by trans-women, who, despite identifying as female, often face rejection and discrimination. The prevailing societal norms in Nigeria and much of Africa typically recognise only the traditional binary gender roles aligned strictly with biological sex, which can lead to significant disparities in how individuals are treated. This resistance to accepting gender as a fluid spectrum rather than a fixed binary often denies trans-women opportunities and safety, reinforcing the need for broader education and understanding of gender complexities.

What then, defines a woman?

Opponents of transgender inclusion often claim that biology is the definitive marker of womanhood, dismissing the idea that gender identity and societal roles play a part. They label trans women as inauthentic, even fraudulent. However, such arguments ignore the rich complexities of what it means to be a woman, reducing it merely to biological markers.

Womanhood extends beyond biological traits; it is deeply entwined with social and ideological constructs. The reality is that not all women experience typically female biological phenomena such as menstruation or pregnancy. Consider the experiences of women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), as highlighted in a documentary by British-Nigerian producer Stephanie Coker. Many of these women face challenges like hirsutism, infertility, and the absence of menstruation. Despite these differences from traditional feminine experiences, their identity as women remains because they identify as such.

Trans women share many day-to-day experiences with cisgender women, contrary to what some may believe. They navigate a world that often still sees them through the lens of their sex assigned at birth. Yet, their internal identity aligns with womanhood in deeply personal and societal ways—from everyday activities like styling their hair and applying makeup to experiencing physical symptoms similar to those of menstrual cycles, albeit without bleeding. In some remarkable cases, such as that of the Indian transgender couple Ziya Paval and Zahad, trans women have even experienced pregnancy. In 2021, their pregnancy photoshoot went viral, challenging conventional narratives about gender and biological possibilities.

This exploration of gender identity and womanhood reveals the need for a broader understanding of these concepts, which respects and validates individual experiences rather than constraining them within narrow biological definitions. Such an approach aligns more closely with the realities of diverse human experiences and promotes a more inclusive and compassionate society.

The dangers of living in a gender-binary nation as a trans-woman

Living in a nation that rigidly adheres to a gender binary presents a myriad of challenges for transgender individuals, particularly trans women. Here’s an exploration of the impact of such a binary system across various aspects of life:

Legal Hurdles

In Nigeria, transgender individuals face a stark absence of legal recognition. This gap means that transgender women are unable to amend their names or gender markers on essential documents like birth certificates, passports, or national IDs, aligning them with their true identity. Additionally, restrictive laws like the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act further complicate their lives. For example, in northern Nigeria, the Penal Code sections 405 and 407 criminalise males dressing as females, branding them as vagabonds and subjecting them to potential imprisonment.

Societal Challenges

“In 2016, I was already on hormones for about a year. I worked in a hotel, and getting dressed in the men’s changing room with men around was daunting. My breasts were growing rapidly, and having to hide to take off my blouse was tiring. One time, one of the guys saw my breast and was shocked. He asked if I was a girl and why I had breasts like that. I felt so ashamed and did not know what to tell him.” 

The lack of anti-discrimination protections leaves transgender women vulnerable across various life spheres, including employment and housing. Social stigma is rampant, with prevalent misconceptions viewing transgender identities as unnatural or indicative of mental illness. This stigma often escalates to social exclusion and violence, impacting their daily lives significantly. For instance, Chizoba, a trans woman, recounted to Al-Jazeera her harrowing experiences in a male changing room, highlighting the everyday realities of social ostracism and confusion she faces.

Healthcare Barriers

“I would like to have access to an endocrinologist who would guide me on my gender affirmation path so I do not go amiss. But as a trans person, I cannot talk to doctors here honestly about the changes I want for my body without them asking strange questions about why I want these changes and judging me for it.”

The healthcare sector in Nigeria offers limited access to gender-affirming care, with a scarcity of knowledgeable healthcare professionals in transgender health. This deficiency hampers the ability of trans women to access vital treatments such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or surgeries, which are prohibitively expensive. Discrimination in healthcare settings is another significant obstacle, as shared by Alexandra Maduagwu to Al-Jazeera, describing the judgment faced when seeking medical advice about gender affirmation.

Educational Obstacles

Transgender students are often subjected to bullying and harassment, which can adversely affect their educational pursuits and lead to higher dropout rates. The lack of inclusive policies and supportive infrastructure in academic institutions further alienates transgender students, creating environments that are not conducive to learning.

Economic Exclusion

In the workplace, transgender women frequently encounter discrimination that can lead to job loss or prevent them from obtaining employment altogether. This discrimination often relegates them to lower-paying, informal sectors, restricting their economic potential and perpetuating a cycle of poverty and marginalisation.

Achieving true gender equality via diversity 

Achieving true gender equality involves embracing the full spectrum of diversity within the feminist movement. The inclusion of transgender women is not just a gesture of solidarity—it is a fundamental step towards dismantling the pervasive sexism and transphobia that exists in society today. Trans women, who navigate a complex intersection of gender-based discrimination and trans-specific biases, often find themselves ostracised from spaces that are traditionally designated for women. This exclusion not only perpetuates the gender stereotypes that feminism strives to overcome but also weakens the movement by fragmenting the unity needed to drive meaningful change.

Research underscores the value of inclusive feminism. Studies have highlighted how movements that embrace transgender individuals gain a deeper understanding of gender as a spectrum, which enriches the movement and broadens its appeal. Moreover, such inclusivity encourages a broader societal shift towards accepting and respecting each person’s identity and experiences.

Ultimately, redefining womanhood requires us to recognise and validate the myriad ways individuals experience and express their gender. Trans women are unequivocally women, as are cisgender women—both groups enrich the tapestry of womanhood with their distinct experiences. By challenging the outdated notion that biology exclusively defines gender, we foster a more inclusive and celebratory environment for all women. 

This expanded understanding of womanhood not only enriches feminist discourse but also paves the way for a more equitable world. Embracing this diversity within the feminist movement strengthens our collective voice, ensuring that all women have the respect, equality, and autonomy to define themselves on their own terms. Moving beyond a narrow biological perspective allows us to celebrate the richness, uniqueness, and complexity of every woman’s life, thereby propelling the global quest for gender equality forward.



  • ChiAmaka Dike

    Chiamaka is the Features Editor at Marie Claire Nigeria. She is a woman who is passionate about God, women, and top-notch storytelling in all formats. Send all feature pitches her way -

  • Coco Anetor-Sokei

    Meet Coco, the delightful and eccentric Content Editor at Marie Claire Nigeria. With a passion for mindful living and ample sleep, she's been weaving words since 2015. As a devoted mother, Coco cherishes moments with her inquisitive, spirited daughter, exploring the world to find deeper meaning in life.

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