The fascinating history of Africa’s female husbands

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Many people believe that homosexuality and feminism are entirely foreign to Africa. Many, still, believe that the practice of homosexuality and the principles of feminism are native to the land. Female husbands?

Well, the little-known history about Africa’s female husbands adds an interesting element to discussions on African sexuality and power.

Although marriage in Africa is largely defined as the union of man and woman, and with all African countries with the exception of South Africa banning homosexual marriage, traditional African societies seem to have allowed the practice.

According to historian, Professor, Kenneth Chukwuemeka Nwoko, Ph.D., women marriage or female husbands was more pronounced than might be expected in Africa where it occurred in over 30 societies, including; the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, the Zulu of Southern Africa, the Nuer of East Africa etc. There is also strong evidence of its existence in the Nandi tribe of Kenya.

In these societies, women could be husbands without male wives. They were husbands to other women.

Nandi female husbands
Nandi female husbands

Reasons for Female Husbands

Status 

In many traditional African societies, only well to do women were allowed to become female husbands.

As Nwoko explains,

“In Igboland, women who were considered exceptional in the eyes of society due to their wealth and/or social standing, and those who were past menopause could marry wives for themselves, for their husbands, for their sons, and/or for their siblings.

In Igboland, such arrangements involved two women undergoing formal marriage rites; the requisite bride price was paid by one party as in a heterosexual marriage. The woman who paid the bride price of the other woman became the sociological ‘husband’.”

Moreover, women gained even more status and power once they became female husbands.

“These influential women were usually viewed as men, due to the fluidity of gender in the pre-colonial Igbo context, by marrying women their status was elevated mostly due to female husbands paying bride-price. Among her female mates, the Umuada, she was regarded as a man and first among equals, Okenwanyi. She was treated like a man and her opinion was first sought in the gathering of opinions. In any ceremony, she enjoyed equal privilege with her male counterparts and in some Igbo communities like Uguta, could break kola nut, but only among her female folks. She combined both secular and spiritual functions and obligations. She participated in secret rituals and sometimes associated with the male elders in communal rituals,” Nwoko revealed.

Sexual Freedom

Historians stress that female husbands unions were not sexual in nature. They were not contracted in response to the sexual emotions or attractions of the couples and were decidedly different from lesbianism as practised elsewhere. Still, the practice gave women more sexual freedom because it freed them to have multiple and anonymous male partners.

Nwoko explains:

“Woman-to-woman marriage allowed for greater freedom of sexuality for the wives, they could have boyfriends, anonymous men whose only duty was to supply sperm, henceforth “male sperm donors”, and this was socially accepted. Any child they had were taken care of by their female husband, and carried her name and this was legitimate in the eyes of society.

Juliana and Esther Soi, Kenya, married in the early 1990s
Juliana and Esther Soi, Kenya, married in the early 1990s

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To serve in a missing male role when no suitable men were available 

In some fascinating discoveries, it is purposed that among the Yorubas of Nigeria, a widow who wanted to remain with her in-laws could marry a female relative when there were no men in the family as considerable options.

In some societies, as with Juliana and Esther Soi in Kenya, women who could not have children, and widows took wives and claimed the children their wives had as their own.

In others, women who did not have sons could marry a woman who would act as a daughter-in-law, married to the female husband’s non-existent son.

Maintain patriarchal family ties

Nwoko explains astutely,

“To actualize the essence of the [Igbo female] marriage, the female husband remained the sociological father of any resulting offspring. The children belonged to the lineage of female husband’s father, not to their biological father. Consequently, she played the role of the father, provider, protector and indeed all the functions and responsibilities enshrined in the patriarchal concept which included physical protection of the family and its territory, the male economic sphere, the spiritual sphere, the social sphere, etc.

Maintain their own lineage

The Nandi people of Western Kenya, women who are older (beyond child-bearing age), never married and have no children were and continue to be prime candidates to become female husbands. These women want an heir to inherit their name, wealth and property.

A 2012 report by BBC on same-sex marriage in Kenya noted the following:

In a landmark ruling, the high court last year recognised that, in accordance with Nandi customary law on woman-to-woman marriages, Monica Jesang Katam could inherit her late wife’s property.This customary arrangement is practised among Kenya’s Kalenjin (encompassing the Nandi, Kipsigis, and Keiyo), Kuria and Akamba communities.

Historians say the existence of female husbands in traditional African societies proves that not only were gender roles fluid in precolonial Africa but that there is never any completely matriarchal or patriarchal society in the world, especially not in Africa.

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3 thoughts on “The fascinating history of Africa’s female husbands

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