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Women “becoming” men in Yoruba tradition

An interlude before the post on royal women in Dahomey in which I shed some light on the fascinating subject of women becoming men in Yoruba tradition. In the previous post, we learned that among the ladies of the palace in Oyo, two presented themselves as men and were addressed as “Baba”, meaning father. But they form just the tip of the iceberg. Semley mentions that in Ketu oral histories depict Oduduwa, the first Yoruba leader as a woman. Some of us are aware that a number of powerful Orisha are regarded to be androgynous. In aspects of Yoruba worship, women are said to be “mounted”, i.e. possessed by male spirits.

It can be said that Yoruba traditional belief views gender and sexual expression as fluid. Rather then being rigid, gender is influenced by factors such as age and wealth. These examples from the history and tradition show that not conforming to gender was not frowned upon. However gender non-conforming expressions in Yoruba culture did not necessarily mean that social constructions linked to biolgical sex was renounced. On the contrary, the person could assume gender roles depending on circumstances. In Oyo, the “male mothers” did not work with as many men as others like the the Oba-gunte who was part of the all-male Ogboni secret society but was still not addressed as Baba. Semley suggests that the two “men” among the “mothers” in the palace reinforce the understanding that femininity and masculinity were part of the religious and political power structure at all levels of the state.

In some traditions on Oyo’s earliest history, the king who is said to have introduced warfare on horses was a woman called Orompoto (according to other sources Orompoto was a man as opposed to a woman who became a man, her name denotes “something soft” apparently because a woman who becomes a man must be a softhearted man). The name Orompoto suggests something soft. Orompoto is said to have physically changed herself into a man, and appeared naked to prove it. Friend and fellow Yoruba history nerd, Michael Akanji, recently wrote a post on Omosun, which appears to be another name by which Orompoto is referred (I have also come across the name Ajuwon Olode). He writes that Omosun wanted to be accorded the same rights and privileges of the first born after her older brother, the king’s eldest son died, and that she also wanted to be regarded as a man.

Omosun is regarded as a “although a female, was of a masculine character and she considers the right and privileges of the Aremo (Crown Prince) her own”

The title of Aremo was usually given to the king’s eldest son who would succeed the throne after his father’s death. The Aremo had a good amount of power without the same ritual restrictions as his father, the king. For Omosun to become the Aremo, she had to become a man. Michael sheds more light on Omosun’s story, she wanted to become the next king and rebelled after her Osinyago, adopted Woruale (Irale) his cousin as the Aremo over Omosun. Eventually a dispute rose between Omosun and Woruale, she ended up killing him in a fit of anger.

Other accounts of Orompoto’s story say that she was a woman who “danced in and out on the day of her coronation and then the king-makers looked up and realised she had turned into a man.” Orompoto was the child of Egungunoju, the first king of Oyo at Igboho who had no sons. As she wanted to rule against Yoruba tradition, she chose to change her sex rather than shift the throne to another family. Orompoto was the monarch who introduced cavalary into the Oyo military and lead the Oyo army to conquer many lands. It has been suggested that she is the one behind Oyo bcoming the largest empire in Yoruba history. Interestingly, it is noted that Orompoto’s successor, her son Ajiboyede was the first Oyo king to impose castration for the ranking male official in the palace. Apparently no other woman assumed the Oyo throne before and after the reign of Orompoto, however this may be contended.

What fascinates me about people like Orompoto and the “male mothers” of Oyo is how much of a choice they had in becoming men. It’s quite clear from Orompoto’s case that to become the Alaafin, she had to become a man first but were the “male mothers” required to become men as part of the office? Or was the space left open for women who were inclined to become men in the first place? Nonetheless the existence of such histories just goes to show, further proof by the way, that the heteronormative lens through which scholars look at Yoruba history needs to be challenged.

What I read

J. Lorand Matory (2005), Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion

Jean Comaroff, John L. Comaroff (1993), Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa

Lorelle D. Semley (2010), Mother is Gold, Father is Glass: Gender and Colonialism in a Yoruba Town

4 Comments

  1. Interesting read. As expected, wikipedia lists ‘Orompoto’ as a man but further search led me to “The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses” by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, this lends much credence to this post.

    Thanks for this.

  2. I applaud your work, your research, and your writings. Have you ever considered penning a piece for bellanaija.com? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on youe discoveries of our ancient peoples.

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