Heterosexual Tribal Women In Tanzania Are Marrying Each Other For Very Unique Reasons

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In Tanzania, as in almost all African countries, same sex marriage is illegal, and sadly there are little to no LGBT rights and protection under the law. But in certain tribal areas of Tanzania, there are many women who marry each other but not for the reasons you may think.

Women of the cattle-herding Kurya tribe, spread across the country, are partaking in an old custom known as “nyumba ntobhu” which is translated as “woman marrying woman” according to Tanzanian publication The Citizen, or “house of women” according to Marie Claire, but it has a vastly different connotation to the Western notion of what same-sex marriage is. These women are heterosexual, and their reasons for engaging in this practice is for very specific and cultural reasons.

Marie Claire reporter Abigail Haworth and photographer Charlie Shoemaker interviewed a number of female couples for the magazine, and shared some of the background as to why they are marrying each other.

“The practice allows women to marry each other to preserve their livelihoods in the absence of husbands. Among the tribe—one of more than 120 in the country of 55 million people—female couples make up 10 to 15 percent of households, according to Kurya elders. The unions involve women living, cooking, working, and raising children together, even sharing a bed, but they don’t have sex,” writes Abigail.

women-of-tanzania

Among Tanzanian people, there is know knowledge of exactly when the tradition started, but it is very common knowledge, and not considered homosexuality. Under Kurya tribal law, women cannot inherit property, however under the “nyumba ntobhu” laws, a woman who becomes widowed and who has no sons, or whose husband leaves her, is allowed to marry a younger woman who in turn can find a male lover who she can have children with.

According to the Marie Claire report, this practice has undergone a recent “revival” or sorts as an antidote to the normally patriarchal, polygamous culture of the Kurya tribe. They use cows to buy multiple wives, so now the women are taking back their own power and recreating a family structure which empowers them.

One couple, Anastasia Juma and Mugosi Maningo, show why the nyumba ntobhu practice can elevate a woman’s life. When Anastasia was 13, she was married off to a man by her father for 8 cows, with whom she had a son. After being treated like a slave, she ran away with her child. She had two more children from two different relationships, both of which ended up with her alone as the men did not stick around, so Anastasia decided she was done with male relationships.

She married Mugosi in 2015, a woman whose husband left her because she could not bear any children. Mugosi never formally divorced her husband, so when he died 18 months ago, the property she owned was in danger of being handed back to his family under the current laws. Instead, Mugosi paid a “bride price” of 8 cows to the family of Juma’s first husband which formally released her from the past marriage, and allowed her to keep the property within her new family.

“Almost all Kurya marriages, whether to a man or a woman, involve the payment of bride price, or dowry, to the younger woman’s family. Dowries average between 10 and 20 cows (one cow is worth around 500,000 Tanzanian shillings, or about $230), and teen girls are typically married off to the highest male bidder,” writes Abigail.

A report in the Independent about this practice states some of the other benefits of women marrying women. They are less likely to be forced into marriage, young girls in these families are less likely to become victims of female genital mutilation, and the women are less likely to become victims of domestic abuse as in heterosexual marriages.

Domestic violence is the most common form of violence in Tanzania. In 2013, a survey by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare found that 45% of women aged 15 to 49 had experienced sexual or other physical violence in the home,” writes Abigail.

women-of-tanzania

The men who do bear children with the women involved in a “nyumba ntobhu” relationship are not obliged to have a relationship with the children, which might make some uneasy reading that, but there are a number of cultural factors for this status of the father, including the issues listed above. Instead it is the women who made the powerful decisions of the family, and also retain autonomy over their own bodies, something that is not present in patriarchal cultures where women are forced into marriage and motherhood and traded as currency.

“I liked that marrying a woman would give me more control over my own body and affairs…There is no choice if you marry a man—as well as giving him children, you must also have sex with him whenever he wants, or he will beat you for being a bad wife,” said Paulina Mukosa, a 21 year old woman who entered into a marriage with Mugosi Isombe three years ago.

“In 2013, a survey by the country’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare found that 45 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 had experienced sexual or physical violence in the home,” writes Gabriel Samuels.

There are few disputes between the fathers of the children and mothers who are part of a female marriage, but it can get tricky at times as the “nyumba ntobhu” relationships are not defined by law, and in situations where a case has gone to court, the ruling isn’t necessarily in favor of one particular party.

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And not all tribal members are agreeable to the female marriage practice. The Kurya tribe is made up of 12 main clans, and the 200-member tribal council is all male, reinforcing the gender inequality that is consistent elsewhere in Tanzania. Less than 20% of women in the country own land in their names.

Access to education is also problem in Tanzania which leaves young women in a vulnerable position when they do not have the ability to make decisions for themselves. By marrying other women, they are, in a way, changing the status quo.

“Nobody can touch us. If any men tried to take our property or hurt us, they would be punished by tribal elders because they have no rights over our household. All the power belongs to us,” said Mugosi Isombe.

If you are interested in learning more about the women marrying other women in Tanzania, we highly encourage you to read Abigail Haworth’s full feature in Marie Claire, which was completed with the help of local Kurya journalist Dinna Maningo who works for the Tanzanian newspaper Mwananchi.

You can also watch the documentary below, made in 2004, about the women in Tanzania and why they are choosing to marry other women, instead of men:


 

 

 

 

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