Women have always held a significant place in the Yoruba society. They are highly referred and mothers are always said to be ‘first among the gods’ (orisha bi iya ko si). However, the image of a helpless, oppressed, and marginalized group has undermined their true strength and impact in the society, and little recognition has been granted to the various integral functions that Nigerian women have performed throughout history. Women have been involved not only in nation building but as custodians of great legacy in a country with rich cultures and potential.
Precolonial period, women played a major role in social and economic activities. Division of labour was often shared along gender lines, and women controlled such occupations as food processing, mat weaving, pottery making, and cooking. Land was communally owned, and women could access it through their husbands or parents.
Among the Yoruba, they were the major figures in long-distance trade, with enormous opportunities for accumulating wealth and acquiring titles. The most successful among them rose to the prestigious chieftaincy title of iyalode, a position of great privilege and power. The queen mother, a powerful title among the Yoruba, could be bestowed upon the king’s mother or a free woman of considerable stature. In her own palace, the queen mother presided over meetings, with subordinate titleholders in her support. Yoruba legends describe periods when women were either the actual kings or heroines. Such women as Moremi of Ile-Ife and Efunsetan Aniwura are notable legendary figures, as powerful women who commanded authority in the society.
In politics, women were not as docile or powerless as contemporary literature tends to portray them. They were a powerful voice in the society and championed a lot of protests and revolutions which led to social reforms. Through a united front, they unseat despotic rulers and abolish arbitrary policies.
Post-colonial period, the most powerful agency of change has been Access to formal education, from which a large number of powerful women have emerged. Intelligent, educated, and confident, they can be found in all leading occupations; displacing those places wherein it was considered reserved for the male folks and are gradually pushing the borders for female inclusion in the area of politics. We will now discuss some of these women.
Moremi was a Yoruba heroine who saved her people during the time of unrest. She is reputed for her bravery, love for her people and doggedness and her statues in Ile-ife are a memorial of her votive sacrifice to her people.
Moremi made herself a votive sacrifice to preserve the lives of her people from the hands of Ugbo people who made incessant rampaging invasions on Ile-Ife. According to History, Ugbo people of Ilaje are the aboriginal settlers in Ile-Ife while Ife people were later immigrants. There was a rift between Ugbo and the people of Ife over kingship which led to Ugbo people been driven out of Ile-Ife to a new settlement now known as Okeigbo, in Ondo State, a distance not too far from Ile-Ife. As a result of this subsisting rift, Ugbo people made several counter attacks on the people of Ile-Ife. Market days were dreadful for the people of Ife, Ugbo people usually came and ransacked them, looted their goods and carried some of them as slaves. It was one of such occasion that Moremi purposed to deliver her people from these wicked men and devised a plan. She then allowed herself to be captured by the Ugbo people in order to discover the secret behind their strength and the successes of their operations. As fate would have it, Orunmakin, the reputed warlord and leader of the Ugbo people was enthralled by Moremi’s beauty and decided to marry her. As a result of this, she moved from a slave into the palace. Moremi through the Yoruba attributes of ifarabale, (calmness), iluti (teachability), imoju-mora (sensibility), tito (steadfastness), suuru (patience) and iwa pele (gentleness which she possesed), got the secrets of Ugbo people. She discovered that the Ugbo people disguised themselves in twigs and grasses to look like spirit beings whenever they were going to Ile-Ife, these coverings were highly inflammable and the tyranny of the Ugbo people could be ended by this secret. She stealthily escaped from the palace and ran back to Ile-Ife. The people of Ile-Ife later conquered Ugbo, using fire balls as instructed by Moremi. Moremi later sacrificed her only son, Oluorogbo as ebo eje, (votive sacrifice) for the support of the gods over her success in discovering the secret behind the rampaging Ugbo people. Moremi and her son Oluorogbo are regarded as heroine and hero respectively in Ile-Ife till today (Awolalu, 1981: 151).
Through the singular act of bravery by this woman, a whole tribe was saved. She is celebrated among the Yoruba especially in Ile-Ife where her statutes decorate Ooni’s palace and Obafemi Awolowo University.
FUNMILAYO RANSOME-KUTI (1900-1978)
A leading activist during Nigerian women’s anti-colonial struggles. Founder of Abeokuta Women’s Union, described as one of the most impressive women’s organizations of the 20th century with an estimated membership of 20,000 women working to protect and advance the rights of women.
Born in the year 1900, October 25 precisely in Abeokuta, capital of Ogun State, Nigeria. She was one of the first female student at the Abeokuta Grammar School which she attended from 1914-1917, where she would go on to teach. She proceeded to Wincham Hall School for Girls, Cheshire, England, to pursue her studies in the year 1919 and returned in the year 1922 to resume teaching in Abeokuta. She got married to Israel Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, an Anglican clergyman and teacher in 1925.
In 1932, her husband became principal of the Abeokuta school and she helped set-up the Abeokuta Ladies Club (ALC). It was initially set up as a civic and charitable group of mostly Western-educated Christian women but it gradually became more political and feminist in orientation. In 1944, it started admitting market women (women traders and vendors in Abeokuta’s open-air markets), who were largely illiterate, impoverished and exploited by colonial authorities. Invariably, in the year 1946, the association changed its name to the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) with membership opened to all women in Abeokuta from various works of life. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti became the first president of AWU in 1946 and headed its successor organizations until her death. The broader goals of the AWU was advocacy for greater educational opportunities for women and girls, enforcement of sanitary regulations and the provisions of health care and other social services for women. In 1949, under her leadership, AWU became a national organization and was renamed the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU) and subsequently, the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies (FNWS) in 1953.
Notable among the Union’s campaigns are; AWU’s campaign against price controls which had drastically limited the incomes of market women and advocacy for fair treatment of market women by the Government. Women-led protest against special tax on women imposed by the then ruler, Sir Ladapo Ademola 11 in 1947. They staged large demonstrations against Ademola’s government and this led to his temporary abdication in 1949. Such was the boldness and strength of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She was unrelenting in pursuing better living standards for women and eliminating poverty.
She served several terms on the council of AWU between 1949 and 1960. In 1951, she contested for a seat in the regional assembly as the candidate of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC), which she assisted in founding the Council in 1944, but she did not emerge victorious. Under her leadership, in 1953, FNWS became affiliated with the Women’s International Democractic Federation (WIDF) and she was elected as vice president of the organization. She delivered several lectures in different countries of the world on the conditions of Nigerian women.
In the early 1970s, she changed her surname to Anikulapo-Kuti in a collaborative stance with her son, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, to further identify with Yoruba culture and expunge the colonialist cultures. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a popular musician and fierce critic of the Nigeria’s military governments from the 1960s had no doubt been influenced by his mother’s revolutionary way. In 1977, some 1,000 soldiers stomped the family property in Lagos, which Fela had transformed into a commune called the Kalakuta Republic to destroy lives and properties. It was during this assault and struggles that soldiers dragged Funmilayo by the hair and threw her down from a second -story window. She later died the following year as a result of complications from the injuries she suffered from the fall.