by Bridget Boakye, April 05, 2018,
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.