5 African traditions where gender roles are reversed

Updated: Jan 15

Hi all, hope you are doing well! So following on from the last blog post about the Bijagos of Guinea-Bissau and the matriarchal society that they live by, it was clear that many people were interested in that, as it was quite unusual. You might also be here from the thread on Twitter, this post will give you some more information on the tribes you saw. If you have not seen the thread, you can view it here.

At a time where gender roles are being questioned more than ever, in the western world, the hinges of patriarchy are being rattled by the emergence of the 'female boss' and several women in positions of dominance and power who give other women the freedom to express themselves more. But what is funny is that we might even be slightly behind. Matriarchal / Matrilineal societies, or just unique gender structured societies are more common than I ever thought in the motherland. This blog post is slightly broader, it is not so much about women ruling. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that women are "ruling", when faced with a society that actually recognises women as capable leaders. In these societies, this is not an isolated event, for a women to be in charge of things and whether we like it or not: patriarchy still exists, so it is normal to find some of these things as shocking perhaps.

So it's not about matriarchy, its more about exploring the fluidity of gender roles and how some of the men in Africa are (dare I say it) less uptight about deploring their masculinity at any given opportunity. The women are fearless, they are strong and in their respective communities they've been given that acknowledgement since the birth of their cultural beliefs - powerful women are a norm in their society. Is it a good thing? Comment on this blog post when you are done reading and let me know...

1] Tuaregs

and the "Tanglemust"

The Tuareg people are approximately 2 million in population. They are nomadic people, who live across the Sahara Desert, including in the North African countries of Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Chad. They are part of the Berber ethnic group and are largely Muslim. They are said to be one of the only communities where men wear veils, named the 'tanglemust' or the 'allichu' veil. Instead of women, men wear them due to practical reasons, such as protecting them from the sun and sand. The men begin wearing the veil at age 25, it covers their face excluding their eyes. These men are referred to as the blue men of the desert, not because of the headdress, but because the colour from the fabric dye gradually leeches out onto the skin as they wear it so often.

Some have argued that "in addition to giving protection from dust whipped up by desert winds, the veils are believed to prevent bad spirits from entering the body" (Macfarlane, 2015). Because the dye bleeds freely onto the skin, those that wear the veils often are left with a blue-grey complexion. Throughout a man's adult life, "a man would rarely be unveiled, either when travelling alone, when asleep, when eating or wit other people" (Keenan, 2003); they also cover their faces when in a woman's presence. Women are free to show their faces. However, they also do wear a head cloth that is taken at puberty, it is black and does not cover the face at all, it is more so placed on top of the head.

An interesting fact about the allichu cloth is that both the cloth and dye come from Nigeria. To retrieve it, merchants in camel caravans travel thousands of miles south to the Nigerian towns of Tano and Sokoto to trade for the materials needed. A return trip can take six months, this is something that stands as a rite of passage for many young boys who accompany the merchants on the trips, "some as young as ten ... In times of peak trade in the 1920s and 1930s, the caravans had up to 20,000 camels" (Macfarlane, 2015).

2] Bodi Tribe

Ka'el obesity pageant

Every June - July in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia the "Kael" which is the Bodi New Year, takes place. With it comes a fascinating show of pageantry that only men participate in. In the months before the event, the men live in isolation and excessively drink a mixture of cow milk and cow blood for months, with the aim of becoming severely bloated and overweight. Each clan in the region will then present an unmarried male to everyone, to compete for the title of 'the fattest man' - with the glory, comes fame, admiration and a greater chance of finding a wife.

Prior to the competition, each of the 14 clans of the Bodi tribe is expected to produce a male contestant who is unmarried. A photographer named Eric Lafforgue photographed a ceremony, which was described by Saro Suri (2019) as being made up extreme dedication and commitment: "for 6 months, they take very unusual steps to putting on excess weight. Feeding on blood and fresh milk for the entire period of 6 months, they must stay confined in their huts, they are not engaging in any physical activity including sexual intercourse". Already, Bodi men are naturally quite overweight because they consume a lot of honey, so the ritual increases the weight gain immensely.

On the day of the Ka’el ceremony, the fattened men leave their huts for the first time since their solitude. Their bodies are covered with clay and ashes, they display their physical abilities before the elders of the community who serve as the judges. Once the event is over, contestants return to their size in a matter of weeks.

3] Wodaabe Courtship

Male Beauty Standards

The Wodaabe of Niger are a tribe we have spoken about a lot here at ssozinha.com . Similar to the Bodi tribe previously, there is an annual competition for men to take part in. This one is called the Guérewol. It is an annual ritual, that sees young men dressing up in ornamentation and traditional face paint. One thing about the Wodaabe is that the patterns and colours of their traditional face and body art is truly a sight to behold. When the men "dress up" they really do look like something I have never seen before!

They gather in lines to dance and sing to none other than the spectating judges - a marriageable lady. In this particular tribe, the beauty standards are actually placed onto men. The male beauty ideal is all about having bright eyes and teeth. So, often during the ceremony the men will roll their eyes and bare their teeth to flaunt their sex appeal and appease the women. The Wodaabe "prize male beauty over female beauty... of course, the women also take a great deal of care in their appearance, but it pales in comparison with the amount of time their menfolk invest in their grooming routines" (Lister, 2019). When a man is attractive among the Wodaabe, they are called "kayeejo naawdo", meaning ‘hurting man’; they are so beautiful it hurts to look at them.

Now this is something that seems hard to believe, but there's an interesting reason why competition at the Guérewol pageant is really fierce. The judges are high-status women e.g. daughters of past champions. When a winner is chosen by a woman, they get more than a sash and a crown, it is said that they get to have sex with her – regardless if one of them is already married. In fact when it comes to sex, the women are so powerful that she can agree to being ‘stolen’ away from her husband and remarried to one of the winners. But, there is no pressure for a wife to leave her husband. Even the attitude towards gender roles in relationship is a bit skewed when you compare it to western society. Men are interested in marrying women "not because of desire for the women themselves, but to acquire status, to gain respect from other young men" (Loftsdottir, 2008).

The San

"Independent Women"

Also spelled as !Xun, the !Kung San is an ethnic group predominantly found in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, Botswana, and Angola. The clan are well-known for their extensive use of click consonants. Letter “!K” is a click sound similar, to how a cork sounds when pulled from a bottle. They are also animistic, which means they believe in personification and impersonal forces, and are mainly hunters and gatherers.

The women in San culture have a high status in their society, they hold great respect and are often leaders in their households, making important decisions for the group. They are also leaders in their communities, women can claim ownership of water holes and foraging areas. This is an extremely important responsibility and power to hold; the San people are one of the oldest people on the earth, "with a way of life that's changed very little over the last millennia" (Styles, 2012). They have been able to live a hunter gatherer lifestyle since the start of their existence, but this is heavily threatened by climate change. Their surroundings in the desert mean that climate change means there is little to no water available, it is very dry and tough conditions - yet the San still survive. So, owning a watering hole is a lot of power for a woman to hold.

Despite their high social status, San women still play a major role in taking care of the everyday responsibilities of gathering of fruit, tubers, berries, bush onions and any other plants that may be of use to the family. With the importance of water in San life, women also adopt the role of gathering the Ostrich eggs which can be used as water containers once they're empty. While San women may be the gatherers, they are also hunters, mothers, and negotiators when necessary.

Umoja Village

"No Mans Land"

The Umoja village is located in Samburu, Northern Kenya. Also known as "No Mans Land", because frankly, men are banned. The village is home to women who are originally from the Samburu tribe, who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence. "Umoja" meaning "unity" in Swahili, describes the village that was founded in 1990 by Rebecca Lolosoli- the village matriarch, and a group of 14 other women who were survivors of rape by local British soldiers. The idea of the village came to her when she was in hospital recovering from a beating by a group of men, who attacked her when she decided to speak to women in her village about their rights.

Therefore, as occupations, the women and children who live in the village, show tourists their around and educate others about their rights. Now, Umoja’s population has expanded to include any women escaping child marriage, FGM, domestic violence and rape – all of which are cultural norms among the Samburu.

"Their culture is deeply patriarchal. At village meetings men sit in an inner circle to discuss important village issues, while the women sit on the outside, only occasionally allowed to express an opinion" (Bindel, 2015).

Umoja’s first members all came from the isolated Samburu villages dotted across the Rift valley. Since then, women and girls who hear of the refuge come and learn how to trade, raise their children and live without fear of male violence and discrimination.

That is the end! I hope you enjoyed the read and the thread on twitter and of course learned something new. It is interesting to see how gender roles are so flexible in a place like Africa where many of us would assume that gender roles are extremely rigid and biased. There is so much diversity in African culture and this highlights that for me. Which culture could you fit into, if any? Do you see anything *wrong* with any of this? Let me know by leaving a comment on this post. Don't forget to drop a 'like' on this post if you enjoyed it.

Below are some sources used in this article.

(Bindel, 2015) online source view here

(Macfarlane, 2015) online source view here

(Keenan, J., 2003). Dressing for the Occasion: Changes in the Symbolic Meanings of the Tuareg Veil. , pp.97-120. view here

(Saro Suri, 2019) online source view here

(Lister, 2019) online source view here

(Loftsdóttir, K., 2008). The bush is sweet: Identity, power and development among WoDaaBe Fulani in Niger. download pdf here

(Styles, 2012) online source view here

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