To claim space unapologetically in all the spaces that we occupy; from social settings to work spaces is an inspiring thing to witness and serves as an important lesson in knowing and honouring our worth. There are countless examples of this highlighted in in pre-colonial African history, and it is important that we remind ourselves of the various instances that space was claimed unapologetically. An example of this can be seen in the context of Yoruba history, where women claimed space in various aspects of society, in a political, social and spiritual sense.
The Yoruba people mainly inhabit the southwest of modern day Nigeria as well as some parts of modern day Togo and Benin, they have done so for over a thousand years. Proverbs play a central role in showcasing Yoruba culture, this also extends to the drawing attention the important role that women occupy in this rich culture; Iya ni wura, Baba ni dingi (Mother is gold, father is a glass) Gb’aye se’un obinrin nse (It is the woman that continues life). As noted by Professor Bolanle Awe, “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”. Here are examples of some of these important positions occupied by women in various aspects of Yoruba society:
Iyalode (mother of the town)– A political branch that was exclusively for women which formed part of the system of governance for Yoruba society , it enabled women to be represented in the decision making process in Yoruba political affairs.
Traders: The importance of trade for a society cannot go overlooked and in Yoruba society, it was women that were at the heart of this process. The market is a space that was and continues to be predominantly dominated by women hence the term “Iyaloja” (Mother of the market) which was coined. Trade included various vegetables as well as kola nut, cotton and palm wine. Madam Tinubu and Madam Efunsetan Aniwura were two prominent traders whose success were unmatched in Yoruba society at the time. Indeed, Madam Tinubu, the first Iyalode of Egba, was regarded as the wealthiest person in Yorubaland at the time of the arrival of the British due to her wide-scale trade in cotton, palm oil, tobacco and arms.
Spirituality: As noted by Professor Oyeronke Olajubu in her book Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere, “religion, at least in Yoruba tradition, could not be studied without giving women a prime position, for they are the sustainers and transmitters of religious traditions.” The female presence in Yoruba spirituality is linked to connotations of patience and calm as is noted in the Yoruba proverb K’odun yi y’abo fun wa o (May this year bring us all that the female principle stands for). In addition, the female presence is also depicted in a number of Yoruba deities such as, Oya (Goddess of wind and storms) representing ‘free spiritedness ’, and most notably, Oshun (Goddess of water) representing fertility.
The examples indicated above point to the various ways that the female essence and womanhood were celebrated in Yoruba society. During moments where we feel overwhelmed in the spaces that we occupy and feel that we must shield our being, it is important that we take a moment to remember the phenomenal presence of women from our past that have led the way in showing the value of embracing and taking up space unapologetically.
Sophie Oluwole interview in Punch magazine
Aisiri Magzine article on Madam Efunroye Tinubu
Pulse Magazine article on Madan Efunsetan Aniwura
Oyeronke Olajubu – Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere (2003)
Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Emma Mba – For women and the nation: Funmilayo Ransome Kuti (1997)