Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
T. Ajéwọlé Duckett - Review of Oyèrónkè Oládémọ, Women in Yoruba Religions

T. Ajéwọlé Duckett - Review of Oyèrónkè Oládémọ, Women in Yoruba Religions

gold paintings of African symbols on a blue background

Women in Yoruba Religions by Oyèrónkè Oládémọ provides readers with a foundational understanding of the roles that women have played within Yoruba religions. The religions discussed within this text include African Traditional Religions (ATRs): Ifa, Santería/Lucumí, Candomblé, and Vodún, as well as the Western religions Christianity and Islam. Christianity and Islam are presented as having been brought to Yorubaland during enslavement and colonization. However, they are included within this text as Yoruba religions due to the large number of adherents to these traditions, as well as the ways in which Christianity and Islam have shaped society and the understanding of gender roles.

The introduction presents the Yoruba alphabet so that readers may gain familiarity and comfort with the different vowels and tone marks that are used within the Yoruba language. To help readers acclimate to the use of Yoruba within the text, Oládémọ uses italics to denote Yoruba words at their first use. They are then formatted in the same manner as the rest of the text. This system of introducing language is important to the work because it ensures that the Yoruba language is not treated as “other” in a predominantely English text. Furthermore, in the introduction, Oládémọ provides readers with a positionality statement. She tells us that she writes as an “insider in two of the religious traditions discussed in this book and as an outsider to the Islamic tradition, although I have spent the past twenty-five years living in Ilorin, a renowned predominantly Islamic community in Kwara State in Nigeria” (11). The thesis of this text is that Yoruba women wield societal agency through religious practice and economic ventures that have an influence on gender dynamics within Yoruba society. The methods utilized include historical and phenomenological methods.

Women in Yoruba Religions is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 locates the Yoruba geographically and culturally. Yorubaland consists of present-day Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Oládémọ begins the chapter with the statement that women generally do not experience discrimination in the economic sector because they are often the ones who are keepers of the marketplace. Furthermore, this chapter sets the stage for the reader to contemplate the Yoruba understanding of gender. Oládémọ makes the case that gender has always been a cultural feature for the Yoruba, and has been central to their understanding of who they are. She holds this in contrast with the scholar Oyěwùmí, who states that gender is a colonial import that has been imposed on the Yoruba.

Chapter 2 focuses on the priesthood in Yoruba religions, and the spaces that women have negotiated for themselves within ATRs. This chapter provides examples of women leading worship groups, divining, and helping those who seek them for guidance. Within the Yoruba culture, motherhood is an expectation for women, and through the priesthood, many women fulfill the role of a mother through social mothering networks. There is also a secret society of women known as the Iya Mi which translates to “Our Mothers.” The Iya Mi are worshiped and revered through practices such as the Gelede masquerade. Though men are the masqueraders, it is the female form they are patterning the masquerades after. Furthermore, changes have occurred with the initiation of younger women into the priesthood who are not post-menopausal. There are certain taboos against menstruating women entering sacred spaces, but it is not due to thoughts of uncleanliness. Instead, women are considered to hold “the mystery of menstruation,” and the asè (life force) the blood carries is thought to render certain sacrifices ineffectual.

Chapters 3 and 4 highlight how Christianity and Islam have influenced and been influenced by Yoruba culture and religion. Both Christianity and Islam have tenets that are patriarchal and exclude women from ordination or spiritual leadership. When each of these religions was brought to the Yoruba, women were expected to take a subservient role to their husband. To circumnavigate this, women emerged as leaders in less restrictive traditions and have also taken the role as mother of the church in Christianity, or leaders of women’s groups.

Chapters 5 and 6 look at the impact of globalization on Yoruba women and their religious practices. Oládémọ in chapter 5 discusses Iya Dr. Funlayo E. Wood, the founder of Ase Ire which is an orisa temple where those in the diaspora can grow and learn more about Ifa, and themselves. Ase Ire is but one example of the ways in which women have created structures and systems of learning to continue the practice of ATRs throughout the diaspora. Furthermore, a brief overview of Santería/Lucumí, Candomblé, and Vodún are provided so that readers can become familiar with how Ifa and Yoruba culture currently exist in the diaspora. The main takeaway of these chapters is that none of the religions mentioned within this text has been immune from the impacts of globalization. However, through ingenuity and adaptability, Yoruba women have been able to maintain their roles as religious leaders.

One strength of the text is that it includes a study guide at the end of the book that provides helpful chapter discussion questions. This is a valuable resource for self-reflection or classroom lecturing. Furthermore, the book is written in a way that provides a historiography of the Yoruba and their religious practices without becoming too lengthy. Additionally, fair treatment is given to all of the religious traditions discussed in this text, and no one tradition is prioritized at the expense of marginalizing another. Women in Yoruba Religions is a great resource for those in the disciplines of African American and African diaspora studies, religious studies, and folklore.


[Review length: 926 words • Review posted on January 20, 2024]