Female Husbands without Male Wives: Women, culture and marriage in Africa


January 10th, 2014


Marriage is a key institution in many, if not all, societies. In some societies marriage is seen as a defining marker in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Marriage is also how relationships and kin networks are formed. If you have doubts about how central this institution is to society, consider how the issue of marriage rights has been played out at different points in the history of any society. People were discouraged, and in some cases outlawed, from marrying outside of their class, caste, race, religion or ethnic group. Families would disown daughters and sons who married the ‘wrong’ person.

Whatever your views on marriage may be, it is undeniably a key social institution with major implications for the accordance of rights and privileges in a particular society. So, what does culture have to do with marriage? Cultural norms, beliefs and values set the rules for all aspects of marriage, which include who we marry, when we marry, how we marry and what is expected of us in a marriage. It would not be an exaggeration to say that culture has everything to do with marriage.

Marriage is, after all, a cultural and social construct. As such, cultural beliefs inform the framework of what marriage customs and practices are considered acceptable in a society. Both culture and marriage are important constructs to the struggle for gender equality in society. The purpose of this paper is to critically examine the implications for women’s lives in specific traditional African marriage customs practiced across the continent. The paper looks at the various ways in which these marriage customs support and/or challenge systems of patriarchy.

Female husbands without male wives

When we think of marriage, the image that often comes into our minds is of a union between one man and one or more women. However, the current focus of the marriage debate is same-sex marriages. We are seeing some countries in the world passing laws that make it legal for people of the same sex to marry each other. South Africa is presently the only country in Africa where same-sex marriage is legal. There is a prevailing perception that the concept of same-sex marriage is foreign to Africa.

However, there is a specific form of same sex marriage, commonly known as woman marriage that has been practiced in Africa since before the advent of colonialism. Woman marriage is where a woman marries another woman. It is important to note that woman marriage in this context is not the same as lesbian marriage. The nature of the relationship between the women married to each other in these traditional woman marriage arrangements is legal and social but not sexual. Thus, while woman marriage is same sex marriage, it is not lesbian marriage because there is typically no sexual attraction and/or involvement between female husbands and their wives. A female husband is a woman who is legally and socially married to another woman. Kevane (2004) estimates that approximately 5–10 percent of the women in Africa are involved in woman-to-woman marriages. Traditionally, woman marriage has served as an avenue through which women exercise social influence and patronage in societies where inheritance and succession pass through the male line. In such societies, woman marriage makes it possible for women to gain social status as the head of the household.

In some societies, such as the Nandi people of Western Kenya, women who are older (beyond child-bearing age), never married and have no children are prime candidates to become female husbands. This is because they will want an heir to inherit their name, wealth and property. A woman in this situation will find a younger woman to marry and bear her children. She will become a female husband by giving bride-wealth and observing all the other the rituals asked of a suitor by the bride’s family. The wife may have children with any man she wishes, or a man chosen by the female husband, but the legal and social ‘father’ of the children will be the female husband. The giving and receiving of bride-wealth accords the female husband the same rights over the children as any other husband (Sacks, 1982). As the social and legal father of the children, the female husband will support the children as would any other father, regardless of who the biological father may be.

An anthropological study conducted by Oboler (1980) found that the Nandi female husband is considered culturally male and thus allowed to take on male roles. For instance, a female husband may be allowed to take on political roles that women are typically not allowed adopt. A female husband is also unlikely to carry things on her head and so forth. Oboler interviewed a female husband who described the typical male role she plays when entertaining visitors: “When a visitor comes, I sit with him outside and converse with him. My wife brings out maize-porridge, vegetables and milk. When we have finished eating I say, ‘wife, come and take the dishes’. Then I go for a walk with the visitor.” (1980, p. 77)

The Abagusii people of Western Kenya have a slightly different form of women marriage. An example of woman marriage among the Abagusii would be where a mother with only female children marries a woman for a fictitious son (Oboler, 1980). In patriarchal societies, daughters or their offspring cannot carry on the family line – that is the preserve of sons. In such a situation, a woman who only has daughters fears risking everything due to the absence of male heirs to perpetuate the family name and inherit the family wealth. To resolve this dilemma, a woman without sons may marry a young woman with the expectation that she will bear a son for the family. The purpose of the union is therefore to provide a male heir for the family. The woman that gives bride-wealth takes responsibility for, and has rights over, any children born by the bride. The biological father will have no rights over the children. This kind of marriage is classified as woman marriage although it is done on behalf of a non-existent son. Single mothers in Western Kenya are said to view this as a good alternative way of obtaining economic security and social acceptance when they have children out of wedlock.

Another variation of woman marriage is where a woman is simultaneously wife and female husband (Sacks, 1982). A married woman, who is independently wealthy, can choose to set up a compound of her own that is separate from her husband’s compound. She would do so by marrying one or more women to be her wives and bear her children, which would make her a female-husband in her own compound and a wife in her husband’s compound. This form of woman marriage is known to be practiced among the Lovedu of South Africa (Sacks, 1982) and the Igbo of Benin and Nigeria (Eskeridge, 1993). The Lovedu are known to be the only African society that still have a female monarch often referred to as the Rain Queen. The queen herself has been known to be a female husband to many wives. Ifeyenwa Olinke, an Igbo woman who lived in the 19th Century, was a famously enterprising woman, who socially overshadowed her less prosperous male husband. As a symbol of her prosperity and social standing, she married nine wives (Eskeridge, 1993). Her husband did not have as many wives.

The three variations discussed above certainly do not represent all the variations of woman marriage practised across the continent. The benefit to the female husband is obvious in all the variations – namely material and social security. What, if any, are the benefits to the wives in woman marriage? Why would a woman consider marrying a female husband? Oboler (1980)suggests that there are several reasons that make this arrangement appealing to women. It is a viable option for young women who have children out of wedlock in societies that shun single mothers. This is an avenue through which they can attain social acceptance and economic stability. Wives of female husbands cite greater sexual and social freedom as compared to those with male husbands since they are not limited to one sexual partner as is often the case in male-female marriages. There is also less possibility of abuse in woman marriage models. Finally, female husbands are often likely to give bride wealth of higher value than men because they are more anxious to marry.

Culturally old enough, legally too young

Another marriage practice not often talked about is child marriage. In many societies in Africa, child marriage is an accepted marriage custom. Studies conducted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Plan UK reveal that the custom of child marriage is alive and well with estimates that more than 14 million girls (approximately 42 percent of girls under the age of 18) in sub-Saharan Africa alone will be married before they reach the age of 18.

Undoubtedly, child marriage is a marriage custom that is detrimental to the lives of women in Africa (and all other places where it is practiced). Young girls are robbed of their power to decide for themselves if, when, and who they will marry. They become wives before they can legally find employment. They also become wives before they are citizens who can vote, and more often than not, they become mothers while they are children themselves. A key reason that child marriage happens is that it is an accepted cultural custom in the particular societies in which it is practiced.

To get a sense of what child marriage means to the lives of women, consider the story of Mereso Kisulu, a young woman from Tanzania who became a bride at the age of 13. She had probably started menstruating not long before she was forced to become the wife of a man in his 70s, who already had several other wives. As she explains, “My family received a bride price from my husband and then he took me away to become one of his wives. He beat me regularly so I fled back to my village. But my father and brother told me the price had been paid, this was no longer my home; I had to return” (Kisulu, 2013).  Mereso gave birth to her first child at the age of 14 and was the mother of five children by the age of 19.

In Malawi, 11-year-old Mwaka Sembeya faced a similar fate (LaFraniere, 2005). Poor crop harvests brought starvation to the Sembeya family and so Mwaka’s father borrowed money (US$16) from Mr Kalabo to feed his family. When Mwaka’s father could not repay the debt, he agreed that Mwaka would become Mr Kalabo’s wife to settle his debt, even though her new husband was at least 30 years older than her. In another case, 14-year-old Beatrice Kitamula, also of Malawi, became the wife of a 63 year old widower to whom her father owed a cow. The debt between the two men was settled through her marriage (LaFraniere, 2005). It is hard to imagine two men negotiating a deal where one says to another: “Since I am unable to give you back your cow, you can take my daughter to be your wife,” but poverty is a powerful motivating factor for child marriage, especially where culture makes it acceptable.

In my own country of Zimbabwe, I have heard of situations where a girl-child is raped and her family chooses not to pursue formal criminal rape charges on condition that the rapist agrees to marry the girl. The girl becomes wife to the man who raped her. Rarely do these stories make it into our newspapers and when they do, they are not the main headlines. They are not considered newsworthy since it is felt that they are not major violations, as cultural traditions are being followed. Like elsewhere, our cultural traditions make the custom of child marriage acceptable.

The cultural backdrop makes it acceptable for these young girls to become wives before they are ready, and often against their own wishes. Mesero Kisulu, the Tanzanian woman who was a child-bride at 13 explains: “Our traditional values dictate that girls are meant for marriage, and when the men decide we are biologically ready, we are married.” (Kisulu, 2013) Child marriage continues to happen even in countries where laws prohibit it because the prevailing cultural norms and values legitimise the marriages. There are few – if any – social and legal penalties for marrying underage girls because it is accepted as a cultural practice. Child marriage reveals perceptions of women as property to be exchanged in return for goods and as beings with a limited say in determining what happens in their lives. Embedded within such values, child marriage is a marriage custom that supports and perpetuates systems of patriarchy privileging men over women.

Bride-wealth and bride’s wealth

Whatever the type of marital union, entering into a marriage in most African societies is a lengthy process, which typically involves phases that include family introductions, negotiations, exchange of gifts and wealth. A key feature in many traditional African marriage processes is the exchange of bride-wealth. Bride-wealth generally consists of a combination of material and monetary items that the family of the groom gives to the family of the bride. It is commonly believed that these items are given by the groom and his family as an expression of gratitude to the family of the bride.

In addition to gratitude, bride wealth is also tied to rights over children and exclusive sexual rights over the woman. In many African societies, a man only has legitimate rights over children when he has given bride-wealth for the woman with whom he bears the children (Kevane, 2004). There are societies where if a married woman chooses to leave the marriage for another man then her new husband will be expected to reimburse the former husband for the bride-wealth that he gave. The nature and quantity of the gifts vary considerably across cultures. What and how much is to be exchanged is usually determined by the family of the bride, and often in negotiation within and among the families involved. The Tswana culture would be one exception in this regard. According to Van Allen (2003), it is the family of the groom that sets the amount for the bride-wealth (or bogadi as it is known in the local language) among the Tswana. This is in contrast to what happens in other societies where it is the receivers of the bride-wealth (the bride’s family) who dictate the desired gifts and the givers (the groom’s family) are expected to comply. However, as in many other African cultures, bride-wealth in Botswana transfers the affiliation of children from their mother’s lineage to the father’s lineage.

As noted above, bride-wealth goes to the family of the bride. In fact, some anthropologists postulate that bride-wealth is a mechanism for resource circulation in traditional societies. Wealth comes to the family when daughters are married. This wealth is then used by the sons of that family to marry daughters from other families (Anderson, 2007). However, it is the family of the bride that benefits from bride-wealth exchange, not the bride herself. If any portion of it goes to the bride, it is usually a minimal amount. The wealth is in exchange for the bride – she is the object of exchange, not the recipient of the wealth.

The Somali culture presents a variation that challenges the arrangement where the bride is the object of exchange. Bride-wealth (mehr) is given to the bride herself, and not to her family. Even when the marriage ends, the bride is entitled to keep this wealth, which is primarily in the form of livestock, money or gold. Newly married women generally use their bride-wealth to start a business or enterprise for themselves (Affi, 2003).

Without the exchange of bride-wealth, the children are affiliated with their mother’s lineage. The Uduk people of eastern Sudan are a good example of this custom. Their traditional marriage custom is characterised as a ‘free system of marriage’ (Kevane, 2004). It is ‘free’ in the sense that there is no material or legal pledges made between families in connection with the marriage. Marriage happens when individuals decide they want to marry, and it ends when they decide to terminate their union. There are no elaborate or formal ceremonies and rituals when entering or terminating a marriage. Among the Uduk, children belong to their mother’s lineage and not their father’s as is the case in most patriarchal societies.

Reflections: cultural loopholes

The various marriage customs described above highlight that there are traditional marriage customs that affirm and support women’s status as citizens – and producers (and not merely re-producers) – of society. The Somali marriage custom, where the bride-wealth is given to the bride suggests that women in this society are not seen as mere dependents of their husbands but are also encouraged to be enterprising in their own right. This suggests that the culture of this particular society supports women’s economic independence in the context of a marriage. In contrast, child marriages do the exact opposite by reducing the girl-child to an object of exchange.

While I find the notion of female husbands quite empowering for some women, I also note a contradiction in that the patriarchal arrangement is maintained. The female husband gets to enjoy legal and social privileges over her wife, the same privileges enjoyed by any male husband over his wife. For example, the rights over children are not shared between the female husband and her wife. The system of patriarchy is further maintained to the extent that female husbands only marry female wives, and not male wives. I see it as akin to the black slave owners during the times of slavery. The status of slave owner may have put some black people on a par with white slave owners, but the status of the slaves remained the same no matter the race of the slave owner. I am not suggesting that the institution of marriage is like slavery for women. I am, however, suggesting that there are unequal power dynamics between husbands and wives in marriage arrangements in strict patriarchal societies and these dynamics are mirrored in woman-to-woman marriages. The son-less mother who marries a wife in the hope that she will provide a male heir is creatively protecting and securing her family’s interests. However, she is still affirming the cultural preference for male heirs over female heirs. Many African countries have made notable inroads into making it possible for daughters to inherit property. However, the cultural battle has yet to catch up to the legal battle in many contexts.

My aim in this paper was to describe some lesser known traditional African marriage customs. I am certain that there are many other marriage customs that challenge or perpetuate patriarchy, which could have been included in this discussion. My challenge to the reader is to research what some of these practices might be in her/his particular cultural context. I contend that when we know more about all the African traditions that oppose and maintain patriarchy, we will be in a stronger position to challenge and critique the arguments that use African cultural customs and traditions to validate oppressive practices. Therefore, we need to highlight and celebrate traditional African marriage customs (and other cultural practices) that support women’s equality in our different cultural contexts.


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