Yoruba Women – Our Past, Our Future by Prof. Bolanle Awe

THE YORUBA HISTORICAL CONVERSATIONS (Yoruba Women In History – Prof. Bolanle Awe

On Friday, June 24, 2016, DAWN Commission commenced her monthly Yoruba Historical Conversations (YHC), with Professor Bolanle Awe as the Guest Historian. The Conversation held at the Cocoa House office of the Commission, Ibadan.

As a development agency, with the mission for creating a fresh template of organisation for the sustained progress of Western Nigeria and its people, we take our mission very seriously. Therefore, our mandate involves creating conversations and building the necessary coalition that would ensure that we do not lose our arts, culture, history and civilisation as a people.

We are concerned about the loss of our social orientation and heritage, especially the preservation of our history, which is responsible, in the main, to the abridgement of self that is now clearly manifesting in almost all that we do. The neglect of the teaching of History, and the lack of a sense of history has combined to create a generation with very scant regard for our values. We recognise that only a social revolution can assist in the much-needed recovery, and we are prepared to champion the process.

The Yoruba Historical Conversations, with the broad theme: Our History, Our Future, is therefore part of a new initiative designed to assist the present generation of Nigerians, especially of Yoruba origin, to have a clear understanding of their history, and what it means to develop and sustain a high sense of the correct values and ideals, within the global space.

The Conversations will, on a regular basis bring together people from diverse backgrounds, spread over generations, who would listen and relate with a Guest Historian. It shall be a veritable platform for highlighting diverse aspects of Yoruba history and culture. We believe that through this sort of effort, we can stave off the impending civilizational collapse that is staring us in the face. Below are the four-part video series of the Commission’s maiden edition of the Yoruba Historical Conversation by Professor Bolanle Awe and if you prefer reading the transcript version, scroll down to read.





A few months ago some girls from a school not too far from my house around Mokola, Fajuyi Road, came just to chat with me at home and when they mentioned the name of their school, I said: oh, your school must be near Fajuyi Road, do you know who Fajuyi is? Those girls didn’t know who Fajuyi was. I then asked them if they knew Awolowo and so many other Yoruba leaders, men and women, but they did not, and I got really exasperated at how these girls emerging from a school in a Yoruba environment are unconscious of the history of their people.

That is the predicament in which we find ourselves today.
In some other countries, if you are studying and you haven’t studied the history of that country, you haven’t really gone far. In America, you must have had a course in History before you can get your degree and it’s not only that, people are learning about the history of other people. I was in Oxford sometime ago, on some sabbatical, and I was staying in Queen Elizabeth House when they put up a series of lectures on Chinese history and you wouldn’t believe how the room was always jam-packed. Everybody wanted to know about Chinese history, not only about their own history but they also want to know about other people’s history. And you would be surprised that people know, probably even more about our history than our young people here. They come here to know the context within which the Yoruba people operate and the context is not just this immediate context; it includes the context of the past. If you do not know the past, you cannot really understand the present as well as you should. And as it has been said, you have to start from the past before you can find what you are going to do in the future. It looks as if we are gradually becoming conscious of the past, particularly the Yoruba.

From 20th June 2016, the Punch started a series on Yoruba professionals. It claimed that the Yoruba nation is the “most educated, sophisticated and civilized among all nations in Nigeria”. It set out thereafter the profiles of some distinguished Yoruba professionals to celebrate them and their exploits. Unfortunately, those being celebrated are all men, not a single woman. But as we would see, we do have women of professionals of distinction as well. This kind of attitude is symptomatic of the plight of our women today.
Our women, to a large extent, are sidetracked and neglected even when they achieve. Our historical experiences over the years have given us a setback. We must together look at it and see how we can put the situation right. Incidentally, the topic of my paper is Yoruba Women: Our Past, Our Future. At a time it looked as if we were able to hold up our heads in a well planned society which had responsibilities for each member of the society. We should ask ourselves, what the situation was traditionally, what it is now in the present.

I think we should do this in three phases:
1. The traditional situation (what was our situation traditionally),
2. The colonial experience,
3. What is our situation at the present?

Pre-Colonial/ Traditional Era

I’m glad that DAWN is starting with women because ile la ti n k’eso r’ode. In spite of the fact that the husband is the boss, it is the woman who presides over the home and is in charge; it is the woman who makes sure that you eat because without food you cannot do much.

Within the Yoruba traditional society, the woman had well defined roles in the home, for the bearing and rearing/training of children and providing the needs of the home in all respects.

You might have heard of the saying iya ni wura, baba ni jigi. Wura is gold; Baba (husband, father) is a reflection of that substance. You can see the reflection of gold in the mirror (father) but the substance that you can hold is the woman. She sees to the upkeep of the home and is also expected to make contributions in practical terms particularly in working to supplement the resources of the home.

Right from her birth a Yoruba woman was encouraged to be self-supportive. She must learn a trade to generate an income for her immediate needs. According to Prof. Mabogunje, the Yoruba woman is a market woman – she trades all the time. She wasn’t expected to be dependent on her husband for her immediate needs. Indeed, upon marriage, she is already well equipped to cater for herself. She might even bring some resources for her home, but in addition to that, her husband might give her additional capital to supplement what she has brought from her home.

The Yoruba woman traditionally has two loyalties: loyalty to her marital home and loyalty to her ancestral home. In Ibadan for instance, in the ancestral home, women are called omo osu. These are women that are married but they still belong to their ancestral homes and have obligations and rights. For instance, when it comes to choosing to the Mogaji, as you would probably know about Ibadan history, she (the woman) even though married to another family, has right to participate in the choice of the Mogaji and is also expected to participate in other responsibilities of her ancestral home, in cash and kind during marriages, funerals, and other their festivals. She has responsibilities to them which she has to cater for and she doesn’t have to go to her husband for this provision. It’s her own resources that she would use to meet that responsibility. She is always proud to belong to her ancestral family just as she is proud to belong to her new home. She has the same rights and obligations in her ancestral family as a man.

Her economic contribution is in two phases as I have seen; her contribution to the domestic economy (whether in her ancestral or new home) and her contribution to the general economy of the country, of the Yoruba country. Viara Suderpasa, a social economist wrote a book on Awe (near Oyo) and she titled that book: Where women work, because, though a Black American, she noticed that in that town women do really well.

This sums it up that our women are industrious and they work. Indeed, the Yoruba woman is important in making the wheels of the economy go round. Unlike in some parts of Nigeria, she has not been known to do the back breaking jobs: among the people in the East for instance, the women there are farmers, but our women do not till the ground to any great extent.

However, the harvesting and the processing of the food crops are the responsibility of the women. She also coordinates the market. We had good administrative structures within the market to ensure that there is law and order in the market. I love going to the market, perhaps because I am a woman, you find that majority of the people there are women. Every morning as I pass through Bodija market, I always tell the driver: our women work, because you see those women rushing up and down being so busy.

The market was headed by the Iyaloja who was often supported by assistants who oversee various crops and food items brought to the market. Indeed that system of market and sale of goods still persist till today. If you go to any market and if you ask that you want to know about the organization of the market, you go to the Iyaloja and she would tell you about it and would introduce her assistants to you. It’s a very well organized system and it’s a learning experience.

I used to go to Mokola market and I have a friend I invite over, Professor Nuru, an ophthalmologist, whose clinic is not too far from Mokola market. Both of us would go to the market just to sit and talk with the women and it’s amazing how much they know about market prizes and production of food and about the way of life. It was always a learning experience just to sit with them. We sit with them and spend about an hour with them. We used to go and talk to them about politics and ask what they are doing and they would give their own view. This shows that our women are as hardy; they are as tough as our men and very hardworking.


They don’t all just trade within town, they even trade outside town. In the past, during the period of wars, they would go in caravans to trade outside their hometowns in neighboring towns. We do know that women like Madam Tinubu (of the Tinubu square fame) and Madam Efunsetan Aniwura (a book/play has been written about her by Prof. Akinwunmi Isola) would go to buy guns and ammunitions, which they sold to the warrior chiefs during the war. They didn’t fight and were not carrying guns, but they knew that the men needed the guns and ammunitions so they would go and buy them and they had a system whereby they would sell the guns on credit and expect that the men would pay back when they come back from the war.

Apart from that form of investment, the wealthy women had other ways of generating income. They had their own farms, though they didn’t till, they engaged men and women to work for them on their farms. So popular were some of them that you would find some… In Ibadan here, there’s still a village called Aba Iyalode. It was a place where one of the Iyalodes, I think it was Efunsetan, actually acquired a lot of land, engaged people to farm for her and brought the produce for sale.

The role of women in our traditional society was not limited to the economy alone. They were also involved in the administration and decision making of their society. It is true that the men held leadership positions as heads of their societies, as traditional rulers – Obas and Chiefs but women were included in the scheme of things. Indeed, tradition has it that there were female rulers at a point, but it didn’t last. In Ife, we had the Ooni Oluwo. She was tough and very conscious.

We also have it that Ondo town was founded by a woman who was expelled from Oyo because she had twins, and she lived there for some time. In Oyo, which was the capital of the Yoruba at some point, one of the wives of the Alaafin took over power. Her husband died just before her son was born so she decided to take over power and for many years she was in charge in Oyo. But those were exceptions. In addition to those exceptions, there were many women in the palace of the traditional rulers who acted as advisers to the traditional rulers.

If you go to the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo right now, there are so many women called Iya Kaa. They have specific responsibilities, which they have to perform for the Alaafin to make things work for him. They were the advisers. Some of them were also involved in the religious aspect of life. They were diviners, mothers of Ogboni cult, the Sango cult and others.

It may be interesting also to know that among the Egbas, there was a woman who was in charge of the crown. She had the responsibility of putting the crown on the Alake. If she refused to put the crown on the Alake’s head, he could not go out – it means that he was not in full control, he was not fully dressed, fully prepared for his role. And that was a way of really keeping a check on him. If he oversteps his bounds, then the woman might just decide not to give him the crown.

Much more privileged were the women who were representatives and spokespersons of women. They were usually called the Iyalode and given specific names in some places – like the Arises in Ijeshas, the Loobun in Ondo. These were women who were in charge of the affairs of women, who made sure that women didn’t get a wrong deal, that their views were also recognized, and they were not sidetracked.

In 1893, when Ibadan signed an agreement with the British government to come under the British, one of the signatories to the agreement was the Iyalode. If you look at Samuel Johnson’s History of the Yoruba, you would probably find a record signature there or a thumbprint to show that at that time, even the chiefs and rulers of Ibadan realized that this woman must be brought into the picture and they must have her consent. We also heard of the exploits of Iyalode Tinubu and Iyalode Efunsetan and the way they challenged the authority of male rulers.

Tinubu played her part in Lagos. She was expelled from Lagos, but long after Tinubu Square was named after her. Then she went to Abeokuta and she was supporting the Abeokuta rulers. There’s also a place named after her in Abeokuta. She was very active in their wars with the Dahomey people.

As for Efunsetan, Professor Isola has published her story. I think Professor Isola has not been fair to her but then he is a writer who wants to put forward a good story. Efunsetan was an Egba woman who came to Ibadan and was very successful. She eventually rose to become the Iyalode of the town. At one point, she felt that Ibadan was going to too many wars and were losing too many people that enough was enough but the rulers of Ibadan then, led by Aare Latoosa, wouldn’t hear of it, so she decided to act. When they came back from one of the wars, the tradition is that when they come back from wars, the Iyalode would go to the entrance of the town to welcome them with all the women to greet them.

This time, Efunsetan mobilized the women to boycott them. They didn’t go to welcome them and the men didn’t like it so they had to find some way of getting rid of Efunsetan. They cooked up the story of the death of one of her slaves who was expecting a child, and they claimed that because Efunsetan herself didn’t have a child so she got this woman killed and that was an abomination. So they went to her house, mobbed and killed her and destroyed her house.

Up till today, opposite Oja Oba near Mapo, you would find the compound of the Oluwo (the Oluwo is the one who puts the leaves on the chiefs during coronations) and next to that compound is Iyalode Efunsetan’s Compound. It’s still there up till now. I think some of you should go round and see Ibadan. Not this modern Ibadan, the old Ibadan with the brown roofs which JP Clark talked about. It’s a very interesting place to go to. There were many ulterior ways which the women could be coercive and enforce their demands. They could close the markets; they could go on demonstrations to make their grievances known. It is quite clear that Yoruba women had a way of holding their homes in their traditional society, economically they had a way of doing it, politically and administratively, they were not left behind. We recognized that they were an entity and we respected them within the society.


Changes came in the status of women with colonialism. The initial problem was that the British came from a society in the 1900s, which still regarded women as inferior – second-class citizens. As far as they were concerned, the duty of the woman is just to sit at home, look after her husband, look after her children, and make the home comfortable. She wasn’t expected to go out to work. All she had to do was to make the home comfortable for the man. The man was the worker, he was the one who earned and brought home money.

This new concept was brought with dire consequences for our women and that situation still has not been completely eroded. We know that women didn’t leave the market, but they played virtually no role in the affairs that affected them. The administrative structure that the British brought was one where it was only the men that ruled; it excluded the women. It was the system of indirect rule whereby the local traditional rulers were the ones ruling but under the jurisdiction of the colonial officers.

These local rulers had their own councils but the members of the council were not chosen by them but by the British administrators. They just picked the men and left the women out. Even the Iyalode was not considered as fit for that council. The colonial officers were in charge, and the traditional chiefs and rulers couldn’t really protest and say that the Iyalode should be there or that women should be there. Since then, the women lost a voice in discussing affairs that concern them. This brought a great deal of tension into the body politics within the Yoruba country.

It came to a head with the situation in Abeokuta when Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti led an opposition to the traditional government led by the Alake because they were insisting that women should pay taxes, but you are not giving them a voice and so the women refused. The Alake of course was in a difficult position because he was under the authority of the British colonial officers and couldn’t really go along with the women.

In the end, the women succeeded in removing the Alake. They sent him on exile because the women said they didn’t want him, that he was not speaking for them and whoever was not speaking for them was not acceptable to them. The tension developed because of the way the British administrators came in. There were protests in other parts of the Yoruba country as well which had to do with the type of administration.

On education, there was another problem. In the new colonial administration, one must be educated to be able to perform and be involved, but the women were only given the type of education as good wives, good hostesses and as home ornaments. In fact, in the prospectus of my own school the aim was to make good wives, good hostesses and good ornaments of society.

They were not expected to participate in the development of their society in other respects. The women of course didn’t accept this. They formed associations under leaders like Mrs. Kuti, Mrs. Adekogbe here in Ibadan, Mrs. Esan and others. They made demands for the improvement of their schools; they asked for better schools, rejected unwarranted lapses, they demanded medical welfare for women, in Lagos; they led delegations to the colonial masters saying that they wanted schools.
At one point the British administration established Kings College for boys. The women felt that what was good enough for the boys was also good enough for the girls. So they led a delegation, under lady Oyinkan Abayomi to the colonial office demanding that they also wanted a school as good as Kings College for girls. The first reply was that what they had was good enough (like my school the Saviors’ Girls School that made them good wives, etc) then they replied that if they wanted a school as good as Kings’ College, they had to pay for it and so, some of these women contributed to pay for the founding of the Queens College.

In other ways, the women tried to voice their displeasures. They joined political parties that were emerging, they formed their own women’s party, they asked for co-participation of women in politics. All this is to say that during the colonial period, there was a loss in status of the women. They were no longer at par with the men.


The independence period came, by this time, there had been changes, particularly amongst the Yoruba. Under Awolowo’s administration, in the 50s, the issue of education became an important factor and it was not just education for boys, it was for everybody. It looked as if he tried to compensate for the fact that girls had been neglected and didn’t have education.

There were schools for girls, which were free and then there were mixed schools for boys and girls as opposed to the only boys’ schools that existed before. A lot of women were given scholarships for further training. I’m one of the beneficiaries of that. So many of us were given scholarships to go abroad to study further.

Despite the interventions, the handicaps which women had suffered was still there and because they didn’t have education in the past, there was a limit to how far they could go even when they started giving them education in the civil service. They were kept at the lowest ranks of the civil service. They felt that that was all that they needed to have. By the time Nigeria became independent in 1960, women were becoming quite conscious but they were handicapped and the Yoruba women were lagging behind in the development of the country. Because of what Awolowo did for education, at independence, women gradually began to emerge in the commanding heights of the economy and professions.

One could cite so many examples of women in the commanding heights of the economy. I have a list of women who have really emerged. I’m sure you must have heard of Brigadier General Ronke Kale, she was the first female highest ranking officer in the country. Then there was another lady, who is in the Navy, Itunu, I know that her father worked in UI. She was also the most senior ranking officer in the Navy. Then of course, we had in the administration itself, people like Mrs. Ighodalo who was the first Permanent secretary in this country.

I’m citing these examples because they were all Yoruba women and its not as if I’m citing them and excluding other groups. The Yoruba women were in the forefront. Then we have Professor Ogunseye, who is the first female Professor in University of Ibadan. She was the Secretary of the National Council of Women societies, one of the first organizations set up by women. Then, we had Professor Jadesola Akande, the first Professor of Law and then the Vice Chancellor, Lagos State University. She was a great activist, went on demonstrations and protest. We also had Turi Akerele, the first female Solicitor General in this country, and Mrs. Kuforiji Olubi, the first woman to be the Chairman of the Association of Accountants. Along with her is Chief Toyin Olakunri, the very first female Accountant in this country. We have Mrs. Adekoya, who was the Surveyor General of the Federation. Also, Dr. Abiola Oshodi who was President of the Nigerian Medical Association.
One can go on and on and I’m excited by them, very and truly, but those are just some of the professionals we have in the country. There are some more. In fact, when I was coming just now, my colleagues gave me some names: Mrs. Osibogun (she just stopped being the Chairman of the Institute of Bankers), and of course Chief Mrs. Nike Akande, etc.

The lesson is that when the women had a chance, they proved themselves not only within the context of the Yoruba society but also within the context of Nigeria as a whole. The list is long and impressive.
What about decision-making, government and administration? Even though they have distinguished themselves in the occupational field, their performance in the political field is poor. It is still imperative to have a critical enquiry about the forces behind Yoruba women’s poor performance in this area. It still stares us in the face. Even now when I watch television and I see the women who are in control politically or administratively you find that the Yoruba women are not there. In fact, when you look at the collection of female Ministers, there is only one Yoruba woman. And I keep on asking myself what exactly really happened? Is it that we are not competent anymore, or are those other women better than Yoruba women, better educated, more experienced? We need to ask ourselves what the problem is, because in looking at the plight of Yoruba women yesterday, today and the future, it is important to know the assets our women possess as well as their abilities to make contributions of note to the development of any society, to the development of their homes and to be able to make the Yoruba people as a whole hold their heads up in pride.
It looks to me that the women have not evolved a political environment, which can be called theirs, in which they can be fully involved as was the case of the Egba women under the leadership of Mrs. Kuti. It is important that they need to constructively negotiate their entry into politics; how to seek power and how to form a formidable pressure. There is the need to have our own political agenda which would attract the women folk.

When Babangida was trying to re-introduce democracy at one point, I was asked to write a paper, so I went to Mokola market to talk to the women that this is a chance for them to participate, they listened to me and after some time they replied that though they listened they were not interested because this is only for you ‘book people’ and it is only the book people who would know how to do ‘mago mago’ with the educated men, what we are interested in is the market, how we are going to sell our product so that our children can have education and have food. Even now, when we see women in large numbers in some political gatherings, their roles have been reduced to just wearing aso-ebi, singing, dancing and eating.

A colleague of mine who wanted to be Governor invited me to a launching and I saw so many women there, not as many as the men though, so I asked to talk to them and I said: it is not enough for you to wear aso-ebi and be cheerleaders all the time, you must make your presence felt, you have the vote and you must use that vote to determine what you want but at the moment, it does not look as if our women in the rank and file understand that.
I think part of the problem is that the educated elite women are not working with the grassroots.

We are not negotiating with them; we are not telling them that the power is in their hands. After all, we are at least or even more than 50% of the population. If we insist that this is the agenda that we want, and if the leaders do not follow the agenda, we would not vote for them, then they will sit up.
I do not blame these cheerleader women because as far as they are concerned, all they want and all that matters is their bread and butter but the educated elite has to work with them to make them understand the need to work together and tell them what their objectives are.

Rather than the emphasis on money politics, which seems to be the order of the day, we have to develop another strategy because the female politicians seem frustrated – they say they don’t have money, that the politics of today is about money, but we would continue to be irrelevant as a people within the country even as the Yoruba group if we do not find a way out. It looks as if other groups, like the women in the East are not doing badly. I have the number of our women in parliament, there are very few of them. Even in the Houses of Assembly, there are very few of them. And as I have said, even when it comes to the very top, there are very few of our women there. I think that something has to be done;, we cannot go on like this.

The man, who wrote in the Punch and wrote only about the men, must be made to realize that he is making a mistake, that our women are strong but at the moment we are not directing our efforts to the right direction. It has to start by going back to history again and recall what the women have been able to achieve greatly both in administration and in the economy. Nobody in the past could have just pushed women aside, taking decisions without consulting them, but now, it doesn’t really matter.

It is true that we are within bigger environment, and that it’s not just the Yoruba by itself, that there are other people, but even within our own environment, we should be in a position to articulate what the Yoruba people want, and because we are women; the backbone, they must listen to us.

And we have to let the men realize that it is not enough just to have money (this money very often ill-gotten), we have to insist that women must participate and without the participation of women we are not going to get very far as a Yoruba group within this country, because anytime I watch the television and I see that the Yoruba women are not there in the commanding heights of government, I get disturbed and I feel that the Yoruba women are losing out and we must not lose out because we have a history that we can be very proud of.

Thank you for the opportunity.


Written by PH

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