Funmilayo Ransome Kuti
Funmilayo Ransome Kuti was a 20th century Nigerian activist. She dedicated her life to fighting for greater economic and political rights for women and campaigning against British rule in her country. She led such a fierce campaign of opposition against these forms of inequality that she earned the name of the ‘Lisabi Lioness’ – a traditional heroic figure.
Kuti was born in the south-western city of Abeokuta. She was the first girl to attend the local grammar school (a type of secondary school which requires pupils to sit an exam to be given a place). From here, she was sent to be educated in England and it was hoped that she would return to Nigeria with the values and traditions of upper class English society. However, it was her experiences of racism in England that caused her to stop using her Christian name of Frances and take pride in adopting her Yoruba (one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria) name of Funmilayo.
Upon her return to Nigeria, she joined the Abeokuta Women’s Union. She changed its focus from a charity organisation to a vehicle for political change. Funmilayo helped to educate and empower local women. Those who worked in the local open-air markets and had previously not had access to education. This was especially important to Funmilayo as she believed that “the true position of Nigerian women had to be judged from the women who carried babies on their backs and farmed from sunrise to sunset. Not women who used tea, sugar, and flour for breakfast”. By this, she meant that the Nigerian feminist struggle must include the everyday woman and not just be a movement led by the educated elite. In fact, she was so determined to unite all the women in the union. She wore traditional clothing to the meetings and spoke in Yoruba instead of English.
The group’s first campaign revolved around the economic exploitation of these women. Those who were forced to pay a tax that went directly to the market owners. The group’s petitions against this injustice eventually turned into demonstrations and sit-ins. These involved hundreds of women protesting outside the local ruler’s palace for hours on end. These protests were banned by police but Funmilayo continued to organise them by calling them ‘picnics’. The next so-called ‘picnic’ was attended by over 10,000 women. This put the government under such pressure that they ended the tax.
Funmilayo also helped the Nigerian feminist movement through her opposition to British rule in Nigeria. She published a very famous and controversial article in a British newspaper. Explaining her view that there was gender equality in Nigeria until the British came. Before the British arrived in the country and imposed their economic and administrative practices which were led by men. Nigerian women had more freedom and equality as they owned property, land and businesses. As a result, Funmilayo was the only woman to go on a national mission to London to demand freedom for Nigeria. This was a very symbolic moment as it showed the value of female voices in such an important time in history.
For these reasons, Funmilayo can be remembered as a trailblazer. One who was unafraid of going against what was expected and accepted in society. She used her voice and influence to speak against economic and political establishments that had a great amount of power. Perhaps the greatest legacy of her activism is the fact that she enabled women from all walks of life. Those who had different struggles than her own, to be empowered through education and economic freedom.