Yoruba Women: Empowered Matriarchs and Spiritual Guides

by Sylvia Eze
Photo of a Yoruba woman

Contrary to common perceptions of patriarchal societies in Africa, the Yoruba actually had a long history of giving significant power and influence to women. In many ways, the Yoruba social order was founded on a delicate balance between male and female authority, with women often occupying positions of considerable clout and decision-making capabilities.

At the centre of this gender ‘dynamism’ was the institution of the Iya Oba, or Queen Mother. As the mother of the reigning Oba (king), the Iya Oba held immense sway over the royal court and the broader Yoruba society. She was not merely a ceremonial figurehead but rather a key political advisor and power broker, wielding significant influence over the Oba’s decisions and the overall governance of the kingdom. The Iya Oba’s influence extended far beyond the palace walls. She presided over her own court and administrative staff, managing the affairs of the royal household and serving as a liaison between the Oba and his subjects.

In many instances, the Iya Oba was seen as the embodiment of the kingdom’s female power and spiritual essence, acting as a conduit between the divine and the earthly realms. However, the Iya Oba was not the only Yoruba woman who held important leadership roles. The Iyalode, for example, was a high-ranking female official who represented the interests of Yoruba women in the kingdom’s political deliberations.

These influential women served as advisors, mediators, and community organizers, ensuring that the voices and concerns of their gender were heard and addressed at the highest levels of Yoruba society. Even in the religious and spiritual spheres, Yoruba women held significant sway as well. The Iyamode, who is one of the most senior priestesses inside the Aláàfin’s royal court, is the only person in the entire world the Aláàfin is permitted to kneel down before.

Iyamode occupies a role that is deeply respected, and the king even calls her ‘Baba’ (father). However, you should know that the Yoruba’s gender relations were not without their complexities and nuances.

While women enjoyed a remarkable degree of autonomy and authority, they were still bound by certain societal norms and expectations. The Iya Oba, for instance, was expected to remain unmarried and childless, sacrificing her personal life for the sake of her royal duties.

Moreover, the balance of power between men and women could sometimes be fragile, with tensions and power struggles erupting within the royal court and the broader community. Yet, despite these challenges, the Yoruba model of gender relations depicts some of the central roles that women have played in shaping the cultural, political, and spiritual fabric of their communities.

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