SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
SALAH M. HASSAN: Let me welcome our colleague Judith Byfield. I know you hesitate, and you ask the question, why today? [LAUGH] I would say maybe it's a blessed day. Who knows? It may be a day-- [LAUGH] I'm not going to be prophetic, here, but it may be a day when a black president shall be crowned. Who knows? Tomorrow.
So Judith is a graduate of Columbia University, where she did her PhD in 1993 focusing on Africa and the Caribbean histories. Her first book, The Bluest Hand, a Social and Economic History of Women Indigo Dyers in Nigeria-- in Western Nigeria, 1890 and 1940, published by Heinemann, in its prestigious series Africa's Social History. It examined indigo dying industry in Abeokuta, a Yoruba town in Western Nigeria.
Professor Byfield also has received a number of grant and fellowship, including a Fulbright in 2002, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in 2003, and a National Humanities Center fellowship in 2007, 2008, for her current project, which is what she's working on this year, as part of also fellowship at the Society for the Humanities. It's entitled "The Great Upheaval-- The Egba Women's Tax Revolt-- Gender and Nationalist Politics in Nigeria, 1945, 1954.
She's a very leading figure in the field of African studies. She held many positions, among them at the editorial board of the Journal of African History [INAUDIBLE] series of blacks in the diaspora. And I'm sure-- she's also a member of, or headed, the member of-- the group, The consortium of African Studies programs in the United States.
Her work today, I don't know if it is directly related to the tax revolt, but I think it's one of her ventures into areas that I also like and share interest in, the visual studies part of it. So please join me in welcoming Professor Judith Byfield.
JUDITH BYFIELD: Well, thank you for being here today. I hope it's going to be a really auspicious day. If not, I'm going to be very upset. [LAUGH]
This paper is a part of a larger project that analyzes a women's tax revolt in the Yoruba town of Abeokuta. And, just to give you some bearing, here, you'll see on the map to your left Ogun state, and then where Abeokuta is, north of that. Abeokuta is a center of what is today Ogun state. Anyway, what I'm trying to do with this tax revolt is to use it as a starting point for a broader analysis of gender and nationalist politics in Nigeria. In the process, though, of conducting archival research and interviews, I was struck by the numerous ways in which issues around dress appeared.
And I was attentive to these references, because, as Salah mentioned, my first book was on women indigo dyers in Abeokuta. And in that study I had to pay attention to changes in dress and fashion, because the indigo cloths that these women produced were primarily for clothing. Now, even though dress is not at the center of my current study, making note of discussions about dress or the use of articles of clothing actually deepens the analysis.
This paper engages the insides of cultural historians Lubar and Kingery and Steve [INAUDIBLE] who argue that material culture-- in this instance, dress-- when used in conjunction with data gleaned from documentary sources, actually widens our view of history and increases the evidence for historical interpretation. So what do I mean by "dress"? And I'm actually using the definition by Barnes and Eicher who define it as a comprehensive term for direct body changes, such as tattoos and hair styles, and items added to the body, such as clothing and jewelry.
This paper focuses specifically on clothing and what was considered traditional women's clothing in Yoruba society. And what was considered traditional includes the iro, which is the piece of cloth wrapped around the body that went from the waist to the ankle, the buba-- and I should mention here that the buba is actually an invention that became increasingly popular around the turn of the 20th century. This woman in this photo, here-- which I got from the John Holt papers-- as you can see, this picture was taken in 1891. And here she's described really as sort of the quintessential, just typical Yoruba woman.
But what she's wearing on the top is another wrapper. It is not the tailored buba that is today considered part of traditional women's wear. This photo, I selected this--
It's a very old photo, as you can see. And it came from the Ransome-Kuti papers. And this is a picture of Mrs. Ransome-Kuti's mother. And here you see her in what, by the 20th century, is considered the traditional dress. So the wrapper at the bottom; the gele, the head tie; the tailored blouse on the top; and an additional cloth that is worn as a shawl.
Now, among the Yoruba, clothing and its accessories constitute the most important form of aesthetic expression. Dress did not merely cover the body. It indicated one's gender, character, wealth, and status, and it determined and negotiated social relations.
Given the importance of cloth as a medium for communication, cloth and clothing played significant roles in political debates and developments. Cultural nationalists, for example, of the late 19th century and early 20th century displayed their critique of colonialism by shedding Victorian dress and recommitting to traditional Yoruba dress. What I have mentioned was already a modified version of traditional that they adopted.
This specific paper deals with a later time period, though-- the post World War II era-- and looks at the use of dress in two different contexts-- anticolonial protests, and nationalist politics. And so I'm going to start first with the discussion of the anticolonial protests. At the center of this story is the Abeokuta Women's Union, led by Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a British-trained teacher and the wife of the headmaster of the Abeokuta grammar school, the Rev. Israel Ransome-Kuti. For those of you who are familiar with popular music in Nigeria, this is Fela's mother.
The formation of the Abeokuta Women's Union cemented a political and economic alliance between market women and elite women of the Abeokuta Ladies' Club, an organization that Mrs. Ransome-Kuti had founded in 1932. The alliance grew out of literacy classes that the ladies' club had organized beginning in 1944. Through these classes, market women gained important skills, literacy, and numeracy, and elite women became increasingly aware of the economic pressures market women faced. As a result also of this engagement, Mrs. Ransome-Kuti began to advocate for market women by presenting their issues to the alake-- who was the traditional king of the town and sole native authority-- the Egba council, and the British resident.
So the members of the Abeokuta Women's Union were poor and wealthy, market women, teachers, shop owners, literate and nonliterate. They also reflected the town's religious diversity-- Christian, Muslim, and orisha worshippers. Many came from Abeokuta town, but many also came from its outlying villages.
Now, the organization's constitution strongly reflected its socioeconomic diversity and its desire for unity. And what I've put on this slide for him is the main objectives of the organization. And, as you can see, here, where they're stressing unity among women, as well as economic and political rights.
Membership in the Abeokuta Women's Union, unlike the Abeokuta Ladies' Club, was open to all women in Egbaland. Regular meeting days follow the calendar of markets, thus making it easier for market women to attend. And, in fact, markets were closed on those regular meeting days.
The Constitution also enshrined an advocacy role for the Women's Union. It required the union to, quote, "always be ready to take up any financial member's complaints whenever such report was made known to the union," unquote. The union's political charge was also apparent in the organization's motto, which was "Unity, Cooperation, Selfless Service, and Democracy."
But the union also had several special rules that alluded to the multiclass nature of the organization. And these are the two in particular that I want to underscore. And I will develop these a little later. So, in contrast to the selective and elite Abeokuta Ladies' Club, the Abeokuta Women's Union positioned itself as the voice of all women and attempted to modulate their socioeconomic differences.
Now, these protests that really got launched in 1947, the core issue that galvanized them was an increase in taxes. In June 1945, the government announced that the tax rates would be increased 25%. The alake helped negotiate a postponement and also promised that the 25% increase could be attained without actually raising taxes. He proposed instead to increase income-tax assessments and to add new payers to the poll tax rolls. Now, these methods, unfortunately, did not increase revenue sufficiently. So, in November of '47, he finally had to raise the poll tax.
Now, it's important to understand a little bit of the history of taxation in Abeokuta. Women in Abeokuta had been independent taxpayers since taxes were first imposed by the colonial government in 1918. And this was actually an anomaly in Nigeria. There were only two provinces-- Abeokuta and Ijebu province-- where women were taxed separately. In the rest of the country, men paid taxes and the tax bill was actually pegged to the number of wives that they held. So men who only had one wife paid the lowest tax bill. And then it went up, with each additional wife.
In Abeokuta, however, men and women paid taxes separately. Those who earned more than 40 pounds annually paid an income tax, while those who earned less than 40 pounds-- that is, the vast majority of people-- paid a poll tax. And there was a differential, there, in the poll tax. Men paid five shillings, and women paid two shillings and sixpence.
The state relied heavily on tax revenues and did not take economic conditions into consideration as it fixed assessment figures. So, for example, during the Depression the state did not lower the tax rates. Instead, it expanded the bureaucracy for tax collection and imprisoned more people for failing to pay taxes. As a result, the amount of income taxes collected during the Depression actually increased slightly, even though incomes had declined.
So the pressure to collect taxes actually did not abate with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The war was an especially difficult period for market women, farmers, and workers, because the colonial government essentially took over the economy. The Nigerian colonial government established the Nigeria Supply Board to control the trade and to coordinate production. And the Nigerian Defense Regulation of 1939 conferred tremendous power to the supply board-- and officials, such as the food controller-- to regulate the distribution of imports and exports and to set prices.
They froze wages and set prices at which local foodstuffs should be purchased from farmers, as well as the prices at which foodstuffs could be purchased then or sold in the market. Both farmers and market women complained that prices were set below the cost of production and distribution, thus making it impossible for them to make any profits. Price controls also contributed to an underground market in foodstuffs and skyrocketing inflation.
Now, although the war ended in '45, the restrictions that were imposed on the Nigerian economy did not end immediately after the war and, in fact, continued up through 1947, '48, in some cases. So thus, in this era of continued economic distress, plans for an increase in the tax burden hit a very raw nerve. Added to that, tax collectors carried out their duties with increased zeal. They accosted people in the motor parks, on the streets, and in the markets, demanding to see their tax receipts. Young girls were sometimes stripped of their tops, since collectors believed that they could estimate from the size of their breasts if they were old enough to pay taxes. Those who failed to produce a tax receipt could be made to pay again or sent to jail.
Now, even though it was the tax increase that galvanized the majority of women who participated in the protest, the Women's Union did not restrict their grievances to just taxation. Taxation became the launch pad from which women called attention to the alake's authoritarian rule, allegations of corruptions against him and his agents, as well as their political marginalization. And in this photo, here, you see the alake on the left. And the gentleman on the right was the resident of Abeokuta at the time, Mr. Schofield.
Now, women's political marginalization was especially glaring, since Abeokuta was, in the 1940s, in the midst of expanding its local council. And I have to backtrack just a little bit. There was an intelligence report that was done in 1938. And the intelligence report actually noted that the alake was quite authoritarian, that the council that was supposed to rule with him essentially rubber-stamped all his rulings, and he completely dominated the political space in Abeokuta. And so this intelligence report called for the democratization of the sole native authority system.
In 1941, a new council was constituted, and it was expanded. However, the nature of the expansion was only conceived of in spatial terms-- that is, they brought in more representatives from different townships that composed or that were the sort of smaller units of Abeokuta. Neither gender nor social class were given any consideration. Local newspaper editorials attacked the composition of this council, because it did not include literate men, but they too were silent on women.
So it was left to the women in Abeokuta to call attention to this gap in the discussion on democracy. Now, the Women's Union utilized a variety of strategies to register the women's displeasure with the overall state of the town's political and economic affairs. They wrote petitions to the alake and the resident, they organized mass rallies where as many as 10,000 women attended, and then they also organized vigils where they effectively had the alake under siege in his palace. And during these vigils-- the first one on November 29 through the 30th, and then the second one December 8 through 10 of 1947-- the markets were closed, and the women organized food and water so that they could sleep outside the palace.
They also sang abusive songs to the alake during these vigils. Some songs questioned his virility, others accused him of theft, while others overturned Yoruba gender relations. And, as you can see from the songs here, and particularly the first one, that it really does express their anger. And very clear that it's women who are going to seek vengeance against the alake.
The second song I want to talk about a little bit more, because this really gets to at the heart of the ways in which they were challenging the gender order within Egba society specifically but Yoruba society more broadly. Oro is associated with the Ogboni society. In the precolonial period, Ogboni chiefs formed the civil arm of the Egba government. These chiefs-- mostly older, wealthy men and a few postmenopausal women-- wielded considerable power, including the power of life and death over the king and members of the community.
Oro effectively acted as the enforcer of the Ogboni. It communicated the group's decision and carried out death sentences. Regardless of rank or status, women could not see oro. Whenever it was announced that oro was going to be on the streets, women had to go indoors and stay away from windows and doorways, for any woman who saw oro would be killed. This cultural backdrop, then, makes this song especially potent, for with it women subverted this icon associated with male power and seniority. By performing their own oro, male power was being rendered silent and invisible.
The Women's Union's protest literally rocked colonial rule in Abeokuta. Violence broke out between supporters of the Women's Union and supporters of the alake. Alake supporters were also subjected to beatings, and, in several instances, their homes were vandalized.
The question of violence had actually been a concern of Mrs. Ransome-Kuti and the executive, for they had tried to lay out rules of conduct for the protests. Women were told not to bring along any weapons, such as guns, cutlasses, batons, gas, or anything that could wound. Participants were also instructed not to abuse anyone, children or adults, or sing abusive songs to each other. Clearly that did not count towards the alake.
As the town became increasingly tense, officials considered calling in the army. However, in the annual report in 1948 they acknowledge that, by April, any opportunity to suppress the movement by force had vanished. And it had vanished because, by that time, the Women's Union had the general support of the masses and the intelligentsia.
The report also aptly captured the dramatic outcome of the protest. Quote, "The year 1948 has been one of the most momentous in the history of Egbaland. The year has seen the departure from Abeokuta, on 29th July, after demonstrations by the women, of the alake Ademola II. He took up residence at Osogbo and presented the Egba native authority the instrument of abdication on 31st December, 1948," unquote.
So now I want to look specifically at the different ways in which dress cropped up in these debates-- I mean, these protests against the alake. As a member of the educated Christian elite and a founding member of the main nationalist organization during this period, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, Ransome-Kuti understood the power and politics of dress. Many argued that she used it quite effectively. Her biographer, Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Nina Mba, note that there are no photographs of her after 1940, even on those international trips, that show her in anything other than Yoruba dress.
She used Yoruba dress to express anticolonial sentiment and to declare her identification with the majority of women she represented. But she also extended this even to language use. When speaking to the colonial authorities on behalf of the Women's Union, she spoke in Yoruba, and her words were translated into English for the colonial representatives. Such actions clearly demonstrated her political loyalties to the majority of Egba women, who primarily spoke Yoruba in the course of their daily interactions and wore traditional dress.
Now, a second level of dress politics was at work. The AWU's special rule, as you saw earlier, said that there should be moderation in the way members dressed for public occasions. And this suggests, on one level, that the membership wanted to visually reflect the unity of the members of the organization. Moderation in dress would discourage women from wearing elaborate or expensive cloths or jewelry or shoes or other items that could identify those of means. In addition, this strategy did not require any additional expenditure for women whose means were much more limited.
Informants also mentioned that those who were in support of the Women's Union wore head ties, particularly when they were in public and having protest. And if they didn't wear head ties-- white head ties, I should specify-- then they carried white handkerchiefs. These items signified support for the Women's Union.
They also pointed out, too, that, when you had a group, a body of women walking down the streets, if you were supporters of the tax revolt then you walked on the right. You passed the woman on the right. If you didn't support the revolt, then you passed on the left. But if you passed on the left, you risked getting injured [LAUGH] as you tried to go about your business.
Moderation in dress and the use of white articles achieved a certain level of uniformity and rendered this diverse group of women into a group of visual equals. And that is really clear in looking at a picture like this. This desire to modulate differences in dress was not intended for outside observers exclusively, for it also helped to build and shore up unity within the organization.
The protesters also practiced what I call the "politics of undress." In Wole Soyinka's memoir Ake-- the Years of Childhood, he vividly describes one instance leading up to a moment of undress. According to Soyinka, one of the council members, the balogun of the Egbas-- and this was a very senior title within the council-- allegedly remarked, quote, "The world is spoiled. The world is coming to an end, when these women can lay siege to the palace and disturb the peace.
Go home and mind your kitchens and feed your children. What do you know of running state affairs? Not pay taxes, indeed! What you need is a good kick in your idle rumps"-- unquote.
Well, as a result of the balogun's insults, the women stripped his fellow council members of their clothing often stripping them down to their shorts, and used their chiefly regalia to beat them. Soyinka's mother did not agree with the use of violence. And, in the book, he tells how she hid one of these council members in her shop.
Stripping critics of their clothing, though, was not an isolated event. Egba council minutes revealed that this happened in several parts of the town, as supporters of the women assaulted people, quote, "in the public streets, by stripping them into nakedness and ridiculing them"-- unquote.
Interviews revealed that some women also exercised their own politics of undress, because they removed their clothing outside the palace. Participants spoke of older women stripping naked or down to a small underskirt as they called for the alake to leave office. Within Yaruba society, it was a taboo to view an elderly woman naked. Some suggested that it could even result in the death of the intended viewer.
This act of undressing in public expressed women's deep contempt for the alake. By removing their clothes, the women symbolically removed their respect for Ademola and ultimately stripped him of his authority they were adamant that Ademola had to go. And, in taking off their clothes, they not only revealed their bodies, they also revealed their resolve.
Now, the alake's departure opened the door for four women, including Mrs. Ransome-Kuti, to be on the newly constituted council. And this new council promptly abolished taxes on women. The Women's Union launched its own program for women's economic and political development. It established a small weaving center in Abeokuta in 1949, under the direction of the Federal Ministry of Commerce and Industries. And, in fact, they purchased, they ordered this loom from England and hired this gentleman to teach women how to leave on this sort of industrial-type loom, so they would be able to create much larger volumes of textiles, of cloth.
They also established a maternal and child welfare clinic which employed a doctor and a midwife. By far, though, the most significant outcome of the women's protest occurred on the national level. Before the women's union's success in Abeokuta, Ransome-Kuti was already a national figure. She was the only woman on a seven-member delegation of the NCNC that toured Nigeria and then visited London in 1947 to demand greater political participation for Nigerians. The NCNC specifically challenged the constitution that was implemented in 1945 and which was known locally as the Richards Constitution.
Nigerians had had very little input in the creation of this constitution, because it was essentially presented to the legislative council in Lagos and then accepted by the British Parliament in June 1945. As Coleman notes, quote, "the Constitution created regional houses of representatives, which would only discuss general legislation, though each would have its own regional budget. The members of the regional houses would be selected from existing native authorities and would, in turn, select five of their number as representatives to a broader, Nigeria-wide legislative council."
The long and short of this was that this Constitution maintained British control in a very blatant way, as well as the control of the traditional chiefs, while leaving little room for nationalists and no room for women to participate in governing. The NCNC delegation, as it toured the country, tied nationalist criticisms of the constitution to local issues and successfully galvanized a general repudiation of the constitution. As a part of this effort, Ransome-Kuti became known throughout Nigeria. But it really was the success of the tax revolt in Abeokuta that focused attention on her as a leader.
From across Nigeria, men and women wrote to Ransome-Kuti, seeking her help in creating similar women's unions. In response to this mobilization of women's organizations, Ransome-Kuti and the Abeokuta Women's Union executive created a new organization in 1949 that brought the Abeokuta Women's Union, the newly formed unions-- women's unions-- as well as other existence women's organizations, into one umbrella body, which they named the Nigerian Women's Union. And this is the executive of the Nigerian Women's Union.
Now, the NWU and its constituent organizations brought a gender critique to both local and national developments. For example, member organizations continued to challenge poll taxes and fight for a reduction in bride price in each region. And this issue-- the issue of bride price, that is-- was of particular concern to women, as well as to young men. High bride price made it difficult for young men to marry, but it also made it difficult for women to divorce. Because, in order to secure a divorce, women had to refund their bride price.
Ransome-Kuti took these issues, among others, to the newly formed regional assemblies. And her actions resulted in many letters of praise that actually, most of these or many of these, she kept over the years. So they are part of her papers, now, in the special collections library at University of Ibadan. At the national level, Ransome-Kuti was very much in the thick of discussions about the Richards Constitution. In a letter written in 1947, she reflected on how she joined forces with the men of the country to have the constitution revised and fought for women's right to vote, which was not a central issue for the male-dominated NCNC at that time.
A nationalist agitation did produce results. In 1948, the Labour government announced a series of changes that radically altered the terrain for all political organizations across Nigeria. According to Coleman, the four main changes were, first, the announcement that the Richards Constitution would be revised earlier than planned. Second was that an acceleration of the Africanization of senior service and advisory boards and committees would begin. Third, that there would be a rapid and substantial democratization of the native authority system. And, fourth, the extension of the facilities of higher education.
These announcements made clear that self-government would unfold much sooner than anyone had anticipated. By 1950, the structure of the new constitution was taking shape, and it was evident that the new constitution would preserve the old regions-- that is, the east, west, and the north-- and greatly increase their power. These developments combined to accelerate the emergence of regionally and ethnically based political parties.
The NCNC, as I said before, the organization of which Ransome-Kuti and Rev. Ransome-Kuti were among the founding members, reconstituted itself as a political party and became increasingly or most strongly identified with Ibo nationalists. In the west, you saw the emergence of the action group which was dominated by Yarubas. And then, in the north, there was the Northern People's Congress, which was largely dominated by Hausas.
Tremendous pressure was brought to bear on all civic organizations to align themselves with the emerging political parties. Since Ransome-Kuti maintained her membership in the NCNC, she was pressured to bring her women's organizations under the wing of the NCNC. In a very revealing letter from one of the male leaders of the NCNC, he encouraged Ransome-Kuti to, quote, "take a countrywide tour, whereby your mission is sure to be a source of inspiration to a host of our thirsty womenfolk who only need female leaders who would ignite them to action"-- unquote.
He also insisted that she bring her organizations into the NCNC. He went on to say, quote, "I have always maintained and would like to reemphasize that the success of any organization as important as yours depends upon how it is identified with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. Any organization that fails to realize the acceptability of Dr. Azikiwe's leadership, especially in the east, north, and the Cameroons, is destined to flop"-- unquote.
Well, despite his pressure, Ransome-Kuti did not follow his advice. During the 1950s, she tried to steer the women's organizations under her leadership away from aligning with any of the political parties. Instead, she tried to maintain these organizations as spaces where women from all political affiliations could gather to learn and strategize from each other.
The parties, however, did not care for this rationalization. And they sometimes forced prominent women to resign from these organizations. Such was the case of Margaret Ekpo, Ransome-Kuti's counterpart and contemporary in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria. In her letter of resignation from the Nigerian Women's Union and the Federation of All Nigerian Women's Organization-- which was a subsequent organization Ransome-Kuti had established-- Ekpo wrote, quote, "This decision arises from the fact that I have now found out that these two organizations stand independently from the NCNC of which I belong and devoted my life to work and die for." Very strong words.
Ransome-Kuti's resolve to maintain the independence of these organizations reflected her own critique of the way in which nationalist politics had evolved. She had envisioned the nationalist period as an era that would open a range of social and economic and political opportunities for women. Instead, the parties did not want women as equals. They would not support them as candidates, they primarily wanted them as voting fodder, and it was this issue that led to her own break, ultimately, from the NCNC in 1959.
When the party refused to support her as a candidate, she resigned and formed her own political party, the Common People's Party. So, in this political climate, the continued existence of the Abeokuta Women's Union and the Nigerian's Women's Union as independent pan-Nigerian spaces for women's political work must be appreciated as bold organizational challenges to male-dominated political leadership and ethnic nationalism.
Now, symbolism and cloth became integral parts of the Nigeria Women's Union's political challenge. In 1957, Ransome-Kuti commissioned this cloth from a German factory, on behalf of the Nigerian Women's Union. It would have formed the bottom wrapper of their outfits.
Now, there are several interesting things going on in the design of this fabric. First, the statements that are in the designs-- one that says "don't lie," and the other "don't take bribes." These can be read as very pointed jabs at the politicians, as well as an early indication of the way in which money was influence in political practice. Ransome-Kuti would argue later that corruption began to creep into politics as early as 1951, when the government announced that it would provide allowances for representatives of the new House of Assembly and House of Representatives. These commands can also be seen as ways to encourage the wearers of the cloth to practice a politics that was defined by principle and integrity.
A second noteworthy feature of this design was the image of the woman, as you can see here, kneeling, arms open to the rays of the sun, and next to a palm tree. This symbol was used on the front page of the Nigerian Women's Union newspaper, the Nigerian Sunshine, of which Ransome-Kuti was the proprietor. Reflected in this symbol is the Yoruba concept of [INAUDIBLE], which celebrates enlightenment and openness to new ideas and influences.
New ideas, however, do not come at the expense of old ideas or old forms and practices. Rather, there is an articulation of new and old, which together create something that is modern yet infused with tradition. There is additional currency in this symbol. Since it graced the cover of the NWU's newspaper, the Nigerian Sunshine, it suggests that women were also Nigeria's sunshine and potentially the agents of its enlightenment.
Equally important is the palm tree. Palm trees have historically been central to both family and regional economies of east and western Nigeria. Women were the main producers of the economic wealth from the palm tree. They processed the fiber from the palm fruit into palm oil. They owned the palm kernels, and they processed palm-kernel oil from those kernels.
The palm tree in this design therefore symbolized women's central role in the economy. A final noteworthy feature of the design is the image of Ransome-Kuti herself. She was often called Bere, which is an affectionate name given to a first-born girl. She was given this nickname because she was among the first class of girls to attend the Abeokuta grammar school in 1914, and her name appeared first on the list of girls. She was, in this sense, the first daughter of the Abeokuta grammar school.
The use of her nickname in this design speaks to her identification with the majority of women as well as her highly revered status among them. For many, she was the first and foremost Nigerian woman during the nationalist period. Now, I'm still on the lookout for pictures of women wearing this particular cloth, but you can imagine that a sea of women dressed in this cloth would speak volumes to their observers. The clothes communicated their engagement with and their criticisms of nationalist politics, as well as their resolve to be a part of the process on their terms.
So, from these examples, we can appreciate the multiple ways in which cloth and dress were integral to political action, debate, and commentary. As a historian trying to elicit people's memories of this period, it became clear that dress also helped to imprint these events on their memories. Participants in the antitax campaign animatedly recall the singing and the dancing and the waving of the white handkerchiefs. With equal animation, they recall those moments when clothing was removed and bodies exposed.
In the symbolically rich landscape of Yoruba culture, dress provided a vocabulary as well as a canvas for women to express their political opinions. This practice of using cloth to speak about politics has not abated. I will end with just a few samples from the work of a contemporary Nigerian artist, Wole Lagunju, which demonstrate that the relationship between cloth and political commentary is alive and well. So I'll just end with these.
This first, here, he has taken gourds and wrapped them with adire, which is the indigo-dyed cloth that was the subject of my first book. And here, this one, I think, is brilliant-- globalization of the African market. So I will end here and take any questions.
SALAH M. HASSAN: Thank you so much [INAUDIBLE]. Any questions? [INAUDIBLE]
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] I think, about three weeks ago, [INAUDIBLE] a public presentation. And [INAUDIBLE] woman. And I overheard what a professor said about her. She was [INAUDIBLE] African [INAUDIBLE]. And it struck me that [INAUDIBLE] because of this self-assurance and this way you carry yourself [INAUDIBLE]. So, as you were talking, I drew that connection between what you were trying to say and my recall of that professor's observation about this African woman.
Well, my question to you-- I have two. One, you identified the Ladies' Union and the [INAUDIBLE]--
JUDITH BYFIELD: The Ladies' Club, yeah.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, the Ladies' Club. Will you see-- first of all, will you see, will you read the activities of that Women's Union, as a critique, a feminist critique, of one, an alternative feminist consciousness [INAUDIBLE], and, second, a feminist critique of a consciousness that is external to the struggle of [INAUDIBLE] everyday women. That is, will you read the [INAUDIBLE] Women's Union as an indigenous feminist consciousness that opens itself to the enlightenment, as you try to articulate it? That's my first question.
And this is important for me because many debate of feminist literature, I think black feminists, African feminists, [INAUDIBLE] alternative feminist consciousness [INAUDIBLE], you know, what we call "mainstream" feminist consciousness. This is the relevance of my [INAUDIBLE].
Second question is, [INAUDIBLE] especially the whole thing about the Abeokuta women using their body as a weapon, to undercut basically the alake's dictatorship at that period. I knew also, empirically, that, in contemporary period, the body had been merchandized--
JUDITH BYFIELD: [LAUGH]
AUDIENCE: --basically. But what you see there is a different meaning of the body. Do you see this as a kind of-- either consciously or unconsciously-- a reading of the meaning of the body, in the activities of these women which basically respects the body but said, today we are going to use this body to undercut what we reject. Which, to me, would be a [INAUDIBLE] of the body [INAUDIBLE]. Thank you.
JUDITH BYFIELD: These are really good questions. Start with the first one, too, in that I do-- and I didn't develop it here, but in other chapters, other places in the book, I do develop this idea of their feminism growing out of their historical experience. And one of the ways in which I make that argument is that actually it has to do with this whole question of political marginalization. Where, in Abeokuta, particularly in the 19th century, you had many examples of very powerful women.
One of the most important women was a woman named Mme. Tinubu, who was a major merchant, initially based in Lagos and then thrown out of Lagos and moved to Abeokuta because of conflicts with the colonial government. Tinubu made her money from the slave trade, ammunition, as well as cotton trade. She was a major cotton producer. And, during that the Dahomey invasion, she supplied weapons, but also men. These were her slaves who also fought during this campaign.
And, as a result of that, she was co-opted into the 19th century state and given this title of Iyalode, which is essentially the women's representative to the alake. So, in the 19th century, women could exercise political power, certainly become very wealthy, and translate that into political power which made them kingmakers in Egba politics. And Tinubu, in fact, when she actively undermined certain alakes that she didn't like and then put forward her own candidates for the throne, this title--
After Tinubu died, another woman was named iyalode. And the second iyalode was actually an indigo dyer, Mme. Jojolola. And she had made her fortune from adire cloth. In the teens and the '20s, Jojolola is the major women's advocate. She shows up in the council records, going to the council to speak on behalf of women, particularly market women in the town.
After Jojolola died in '32, no iyalode was named. And, in fact, there was essentially a 40-year gap, because the next iyalode wasn't named until the 1970s. Well, part of the reason there is that long a gap is because the women wanted Ransome-Kuti to be named iyalode, and the alake essentially said, no.
However, one of the things that the women did very self-consciously, during the protest, was to use Tinubu as their icon. So, before protest, they would go to her grave to pray. After the alake left town, there was a big picnic and celebration on her grave.
And part of my argument is that Tinubu comes to play this role precisely because she is an example of women being strong economic actors and playing strong political roles. And there was a conversation going on, among women, during the whole colonial period, even at the time when the second iyalode was still alive. At one point, she approached the council and raised the issue about the state allowing women's titles to lapse and that this was causing a problem within the political structures and areas where women operated. And she was never able to get the state to, in fact, bring forward candidates for some of these titles. So, when a new iyalode wasn't named after Jojolola died, it actually was a continuation of a process of marginalization that really speeded up or accelerated during the colonial period.
So yes, these women were not looking to Europe. Granted, Ransome-Kuti was aware of events going on in Europe and certainly aware of suffrage movement in England. When she, as a part of this delegation, in '47 went to London, she made contact with the Women's International Democratic Federation, which was an international women's organization more aligned with the Eastern Bloc countries. And eventually, by '54, she became a vice president in that organization.
So, in terms of international feminism, she is operating on a very large scale. But her roots for this sort of connection to feminism comes out of this local history.
The second question, yes, I agree that this is a noncommercial use of the body. And it's very much, the women taking their clothes off is a part of that dialogue about seniority, about women's power, about respecting women and women's power, and the fact that they were taking off their clothes-- because women don't do this lightly. I mean, it had to be a really substantial event that warranted treatment like this. And to do it to the king. This, again--
Because one of the things that always struck me, in going through the minutes of the Ebga councils, is the performance of respect. I mean, he's-- you use those names of [INAUDIBLE]. You don't just say "Ademola." You know, you put the title in front. You prostrate before him-- or the women kneel, in this case. And, in fact, to not show respect to him was a political attack.
And so they don't take their clothes off and-- and to do this in front of the palace, this was not a thoughtless act on their part. So, no, it's very focused on the political statement and how you could use the body. And certain women doing this carried much greater currency. So a young woman taking off her clothes wouldn't carry the same weight as an old woman, someone old enough to be his mother, taking off her clothes.
SALAH M. HASSAN: If I may just say, something in relation to this point, is that actually [INAUDIBLE] total commercialization today [INAUDIBLE]. Because this kind of-- if you look at [INAUDIBLE] across Africa, you will find that their views of the body [INAUDIBLE]. In South Africa, women used it recently when [INAUDIBLE] called them [INAUDIBLE] even during this postapartheid government, evicting people from supposedly illegal settlement, women [INAUDIBLE]. In Nigeria, the green belt movement also--
JUDITH BYFIELD: Oh-- Kenya.
SALAH M. HASSAN: In Kenya, sorry. Kenya, the green belt movement also used [? it ?] [INAUDIBLE]. And in fact, what I find interesting in your presentation is that, when I look at the women movement in Sudan, you see a lot of parallel [INAUDIBLE] women union. [INAUDIBLE] institution [INAUDIBLE], in terms of--
JUDITH BYFIELD: Oh, [INAUDIBLE]!
SALAH M. HASSAN: --and modesty. But it also had to do not only with economic issues, that they all should wear white and not be extravagant and not too colorful. [INAUDIBLE] we've seen in Mauritania and other places, just [INAUDIBLE] as an example, is that it was also as a role model, but it also encourages recruitment, that if you're really recruiting the women-- because most of these women came out of tradition of urban, modern movement and very much related to the Communist Party, in terms of the trade unions and so forth.
But so they encouraged the idea that you play a role model to appeal to a population that is relatively conservative [? in recruitment. ?] And they were very successful [INAUDIBLE]. So these are just parallels.
But the question that I have is does this have to do with the-- I was struck by the drawings and the painting of the figure of, uh--
JUDITH BYFIELD: In the design?
SALAH M. HASSAN: In the design. And I'm wondering who did those design and where they are manufactured. Because that, of course, at the time, [INAUDIBLE] already had well-trained artists who [INAUDIBLE] commission.
But say this to you as a question because there is an artist whom I think we had a discussion about, [INAUDIBLE], I mean, the use of African clothes, again, is [? trademark ?] [INAUDIBLE]. But to use it in a way to challenge notions of authenticity, in terms of [? ideology, ?] especially in the context of the diaspora, also in terms of African nationalism. Because he sees clothes also as an embodiment [INAUDIBLE] you look at it in the context of colonial relation, as an embodiment of colonial relations, meaning raw material going to the manufacturers, but especially in the context of-- you know the whole history of manufacture in the Netherlands or in Indonesia, using so-called African design and selling them to [INAUDIBLE].
And they go to [INAUDIBLE] markets. They sell them. They go to New York [INAUDIBLE] and they enter into all kind of [INAUDIBLE]. But his work is about challenging the authenticity itself. But it was also a critique [? in a ?] [? subtle ?] way to show the colonial-- how these clothes actually embody colonialism.
JUDITH BYFIELD: Right.
SALAH M. HASSAN: So, the reason I'm asking is just to see where are they manufactured and who did them and--
JUDITH BYFIELD: Right. Oh, I mean, this whole thing about embodying colonialism is very much-- in fact, that was a big part of the discussion in my first book about the textile industry. Because, you know, adire cloth will become associated with traditions. And it will be the traditional cloth. And certainly the garment of-- or, one of the cloths-- that you use in creating your traditional women's clothing.
However, adire is a fairly recent invention. Indigo dying has a very old history in Yorubaland. Most of the dying, or the records, that we have that talk about dying talk about, in the 19th century, hand-woven cloth being dyed or thread being dyed and then woven into fabric. Dyers were really in a subsidiary role within the context of the textile industry, in relation to weavers. Weavers were really at the top of the structure of textile production.
Adire is made on the cheapest possible cloth come in from Europe. And it's the availability of this cloth that actually moves dyers out from behind the shadow of weavers. Because, with these Manchester [INAUDIBLE] that were coming in, they were cheap enough for women to be able to purchase them on their own, apply their skill, their knowledge of indigo dying, and then own that final product, which they then sold to consumers.
And so the heyday of the industry is actually the first two decades of the 20th century. And this industry was so big in Abeokuta that it was actually a regional industry. So you had Hausa traders coming down-- or, in fact, Hausa who came down with cattle, taking adire cloth back up to the north, people coming from Senegal, also from Ghana. And hear the migration of Yorubas to Ghana also facilitated the creation of a market for this cloth in Ghana.
So, adire cloth itself is very much reflective of that colonial relationship. And, as the colonial state is expanding, as infrastructure is expanding, and as commodity prices stayed high, then no one was really critiquing the nature of that relationship. It all crashes, though, during the Depression. And it crashes partly because-- a couple of different factors.
One, dyers by the 1920s were having trouble getting natural indigo. And it's because, increasingly, farmers were growing cash crops, particularly cocoa. And indigo used to be intercropped with yams, a food crop.
But farmers were taking the better land that you needed, if you were growing yams, and instead planting cocoa trees. Increasingly-- even though yam would still be important in Abeokuta, though, the main staple being produced would be cassava. And cassava can grow anywhere. It does not need nutritious soil.
But indigo didn't intercrop well with cassava. And so they start having difficulty in getting indigo. And one of the ways they deal with that is by starting to use synthetic indigo. And synthetic indigo and caustic soda come into the industry in the 1920s.
Also in the '20s, the cocoa price starts falling. And many of their main consumers were farmers or communities where people were engaged in cash crop production. So, peanuts in Senegal, cocoa in Nigeria itself as well as Ghana. And, with the collapse of commodity prices, they essentially start to lose their market.
And so the whole period of the '20s and '30s is a real crisis, in the industry, as they are feeling the consequences of the crisis in the international economy. The final major blow to the industry is actually World War II, after France falls and the Vichy takes over. Because then the British ban the Senegalese from coming into Nigeria. So, right away, their major market is cut away from them.
So, yeah, the cloth itself also embeds all of that. But part of the thing, where I think it's also important to think about these concepts within Yoruba culture that allow people to take in ideas and basically refashion them is because you see that with the way in which these cloths are used, so that they still allow people to, in creative ways, alter, play with, keep what they will consider traditional culture a very dynamic area, also.
So it's not tradition as static, but tradition as also being a very dynamic area for conversation and change.
SALAH M. HASSAN: And the artists who were doing it--
JUDITH BYFIELD: Oh, that, I don't know. And I haven't-- I'm planning a trip. In fact, I have some--
SALAH M. HASSAN: Because that is still being-- I mean, I you go to Zambia, you go to Zimbabwe, still it's used [INAUDIBLE].
JUDITH BYFIELD: Yeah, exactly.
JUDITH BYFIELD: And I have some friends who are sort of part of the textile society community that's trying to help me with the research, to get some more information about this particular cloth and how much came to Nigeria, if ever. All I have are the records saying that she ordered it. But I haven't found anything yet that indicates when it came, how much cloth had actually been ordered. So I still have some work to do, to unpack this. [INAUDIBLE], and then Mary.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. A few comments. One of them is the body, if you can look at it in a broader context, the use of the body. And it's not either-or. Because as recently as maybe five, six years ago, when the women in Cote d'Ivoire wanted to protest against French intervention, the then minister of foreign affairs, de Villepin, was welcomed by a group that decided [INAUDIBLE].
As recently as 1991, when the dictator in Mali, Moussa Traoré, ordered the military to shoot and kill students, women, in a country that is 90-some percent Muslim, women forgot about that Islamic tradition and went back to the cemeteries, took off their clothes, and it was a curse, from them Moussa Traoré ended up in prison. I can give you examples throughout [INAUDIBLE].
So [INAUDIBLE] what do you do with the body? What does it mean? And so, even in a contemporary context, where there is a woman's [INAUDIBLE] prostitution, whatever you want to [INAUDIBLE] it, still, [INAUDIBLE] is being kept. And, depending on the context [INAUDIBLE], is an affirmation [INAUDIBLE].
It's also located in [INAUDIBLE]. You know, the mask masquerade.
JUDITH BYFIELD: Right.
AUDIENCE: In some societies, is this a gender-based society [INAUDIBLE]. Gender-based societies [INAUDIBLE]. When the mask comes out, the other gender must hide. In some contexts, the men have the mask. And women protest, saying [INAUDIBLE] we don't even need a mask to take what was basically [INAUDIBLE] ours. It's our body. It has more power even than the mask.
So my other comment is a [INAUDIBLE] the use of feminism. Did you see, in your reading, they use a self definition of feminism? Or [INAUDIBLE] characterization of [INAUDIBLE]? Because this is a very problematic area, in terms of the use of feminism [INAUDIBLE]. I have a few other comments, but [INAUDIBLE].
JUDITH BYFIELD: Yes, I would say, particularly in Ransome-Kuti's writing you do see the use of the term. And part of that, again, I think, does have to do with her membership in these women's organizations outside of Nigeria, as well. The extent to which members of the organization themselves may have used the idea of feminism-- that, I don't have any evidence of.
However, I think the argument that I would make, even if Ransome-Kuti will define herself as a feminist-- and at some moments, too, she defines herself as a socialist-- that she comes to that, again, from this history in Abeokuta. She is not using any icons from the West, in order to state their position. All their reference points are Yoruba and specifically Tinubu. And, in fact, one of the chapters I'm working on, I've called Daughters of [? Tinubu ?] and really trying to explore how they use her as an icon.
Because Tinubu is also this interesting figure. She's just-- there are all these contradictions. I mean, she makes her money from the slave trade, [LAUGH] from ammunition. She's not a Christian.
But here it is. You have a Christian woman, heading this organization, who really makes the incredible use of this figure. And I think she uses her precisely because of her effectiveness within this community. If she had tried to relate what they were trying to do to European suffragists or to Americans suffragists, it wouldn't have gone anywhere.
And I think, also, what's important for Ransome-Kuti, too, is that she also is profoundly a nationalist. And, whereas she is open to the idea of making coalition with Europeans, with American-- and, in fact, in her letters she communicates with people across the US, she is communicating with women in South Africa, in the '50s, she's writing letters to the French government, protesting the Sahara-- I'm sorry, the-- um-- I want to say "practice," but it's not practice-- sort of practice runs of the atomic bomb. You know, they're setting them off in the Sahara. And she's protesting all that stuff.
So she is very much into the idea of coalition-building-- in order, though, to further Nigerian aspirations that are defined by Nigerians. And I would say it's even more specific than that, in that she, in one statement which I used but I think is just wonderful, she says, you can't judge the progress of this country by looking at women who are drinking tea with sugar. And anybody seeing that understands that. Because it's so much a part of the elite, to claim that, because they are doing these things, because of the way in which they have incorporated aspects of European culture, they then are the preordained next leaders.
And she said, if you want to measure progress in this country, you have to look at the women who are eating garri. So it's not only Nigerian-defined aspirations that she's championing, it's poor people's aspirations that she's championing. But, as you saw--
And, if you think about the fact that the union brings over this loom, she-- she's practical! The question is, how can we increase the revenue that women make from weaving? And the looms that they may have been using at home, you know, just realistically, given the labor that they had available to them, weren't allowing them to produce sufficient quantities to really compete both against men who were full-time weavers but also against industrially produced cloth that was coming in.
So her solution is, we buy a loom! And we produce this cloth! And, you know, I've got to get a man to train us to do it-- fine. [LAUGH] We do what we've got to do.
So, yeah, the question on feminism is-- I think you're only going to see that specific identification at the level of Ransome-Kuti. But she brings a much deeper meaning to it that an understanding to how she even gets there from her experience, not just as a Yoruba woman, but as a Yoruba woman from Abeokuta. I mean, there's a little bit of exceptionalism in how Egbas think about themselves. And this gets--
One of the interesting things, in one of the chapters I'm working on, I'm looking at the way in which, in the 1930s, you have men-- you have the creation of the Nigerian youth movement, which is one of the important nationalist organizations before the NCNC. And both Ransome-Kuti and the Rev. Ransome-Kuti are members of the youth movement.
At the same time, Abeokuta's celebrating its centenary, in 1930. And they build this grand hall, which they call Centenary Hall. And the alake makes these speeches about restoring their independence. [LAUGH] So he's not connected to the sort of new terrain in which political movements are being organized. So you have the Nigerian youth movement, thinking at the national level, and he's championing Egba independence.
SALAH M. HASSAN: Got one last question.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] how much of it has lasted to these days? How much of this past can we see in today's--
JUDITH BYFIELD: You can see it, actually-- and the base of the organization is really the market-women's associations. So she works, she brings in the heads of the market women's different commodity associations, into the organization itself. And so, when I did interviews-- and it was one of the things I asked-- you know, how people got word of when a protest was being planned or everything, they used the network of the market associations.
And that, in fact, too, was also one of the reasons why they closed the markets on the days that they did these protests. Because they couldn't be effective if they kept the markets open, because some women would decide, ah! I'd rather be in a market, rather than being on this protest. You know, I've got kids to feed. I've got money to make.
And so, they made it easy for everybody. They just closed the markets. So that, I think, the market women's association, the commodity associations, remain important building blocks for women's organizing in general.
It's certainly something that the politicians have also capitalized on, as well. And so they appeal to women in a variety of sources. So some women, you know, they will appeal to as mothers and mothers of the nation. You know, they are training the future of the nation.
But they also will go into the markets. In fact, one of the interesting things I saw-- in the compound where I did most of the interviews, when I was doing the Indigo book, was known as Jojolola's compound. And this was in the 1980s. And it was still considered the major dying compound in the town.
When I went back, in the '90s, it was now known as the Better Life Compound, because Babangida and his wife, they had started this thing called the Better Life program. It was supposed to be Better Life for Rural Women. And it was to help find outlets for the things produced by rural women. It was also supposed to be a way to really help generate more income for rural women. But the nickname, or the popular name, was Better Life for Royal Women, because it became an excuse for Miriam Babangida and the wives of the governors to get together at the big hotels [LAUGH] and do things.
But they still had to reach these women exactly where they were. And so they did funnel money to women, through their, in fact, commodity association. So they remain an important space for all sorts of mobilization.
SALAH M. HASSAN: OK, well, thank you so much. [INAUDIBLE]
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Dr. Judith Byfield, associate professor of African history at Cornell, discusses how cloth and clothing played significant roles in political debates and developments in the Yoruba town of Abeukuta. Byfield presented her research on Nov. 4, 2008 in the Africana Center.
Byfield received her PhD in 1993 from Columbia University where she focused on African and Caribbean histories and cultures. Her first book, "The Bluest Hands: A Social and Economic History of Women Indigo Dyers in Western Nigeria, 1890-1940," examined the indigo dyeing industry in Abeokuta, a Yoruba town in western Nigeria.