Pre-colonial Igboland: On Woman-to-Woman Marriage

Nwando Achebe writes that “woman-to-woman marriage in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality” (emphasis hers)…and I actually agree with this…kind of. While I strongly believe in pre-colonial lesbian secret societies littered across the African continent, at the risk of falling into the trap of Eurocentric and Western (mis)understanding of African social institutions, it should be made clear that the institution in which women were allowed to marry women was not created to facilitate gay marriage. In fact, another researcher, Kenneth Chukwuemeka labels woman-to-woman marriage “an improvisation to sustain patriarchy” and “simply an instrument for the preservation and extension of patriarchy and its traditions”, the basic argument being that in Igbo society the male child was of utmost importance and it was in this obsession to have a male child to continue the lineage that woman-to-woman marriage came about* (and also apparently because when a female husband wants to marry a wife, a male relative is required to do the talking for her).

Reading Achebe’s The Female King of Colonial Nigeria, one could be forgiven in believing that woman-to-woman marriage was unique among the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. It wasn’t. This institution can be found across the African continent among various ethnic groups, with slight differences in norms and practices. Even I was surprised to discover, among the Yoruba where 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 other societies, 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, in fact married to the female husband’s non-existent son. In all societies where this was practised, female husbands occupied high statuses in the community.

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. 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. 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.

Children were very important to this society, apparently women who had given birth to ten or more children were honoured by receiving the title, Lolo. It was also common for a man who had no sons to appoint a daughter who would become a female son. This female son would be required to remain in her father’s home (as opposed to leaving for marriage) and would receive his inheritance. A daughter could become a son after secret rituals were carried out to aid this transformation. The female husband did not have to go through this, they simply had to go out and marry whoever they wanted and by doing so became men and husbands. The female husband was treated like a man and enjoyed equal privilege with her male counterparts, she sometimes even associated with the male elders, however there were some restrictions.

Kenneth Chukwuemeka suggests that while the wife married to the female husband had her own companions, the female husband too always had a male companion (emphasis mine). This male companion, “satisfied her erotic desires and supported her when the biological realities became inevitable”. Which suggests that all women have an emotional and biological need to be with a man. Which I find laughable, as well as problematic. Even though apparently all female husbands had male lovers, they could not be seen openly with them, and if she had a child with it was considered illegitimate and treated as an outcast.

Every single African researcher I’ve read says with the utmost conviction that the practice of woman-to-woman marriage did not involve sexual relationship between the couple, it was not lesbianism because none of the women who married other women was romantically or sexually attracted to other women. They were only interested in children, every single woman who became a female husband just wanted a child that was considered legitimate in society’s eyes.

If woman-to-woman marriage was an ingenious way through which women manipulated the existing system to achiever higher and economic status, as this page suggests, what is to say that only heterosexual women took advantage of this? Is it impossible that lesbian-like women in the pre-colonial past could not have similarly manipulated the society sanctioned woman-to-woman marriage to achieve personal goals? Could the one lesbian in the village employed woman-to-woman marriage to be with a woman she loved? Then again I am still unsure of what pre-colonial Igbo reactions were to homosexuality, whether it was a taboo that lead to exile or something that was accepted, or something in between. Practices such as woman-to-woman marriage suggest fluidity between gender roles in pre-colonial Igbo culture yet they don’t really say much else. As sexual practices in Africa past remain under-researched, largely because most if not all of our scholars and researchers today are heterosexist and believe that everyone was heterosexual because children are everything, I doubt we’ll ever really find out what other kinds of sexual practices took place among female husbands and their wives. Especially those female husbands who were apparently single and wealthy women.

Woman-to-woman marriage is still practised in Nigeria today. Since writing this post, two of my friends have revealed that they have relatives who are female husbands and have wives.

*I personally question this obsession, really, all African societies apparently had for children from the dawn of time. On one hand it does make sense for people in any part of the world to want to continue their lineage and pass on their heritage, but I wonder why Africans seem to solely occupy this domain of fascinating over children. Some say it is due to high mortality rates, but was this really unique to Africa past, or present even. It is almost as if wanting the preservation of a culture is unique to us?

What I Read

Achebe, Nwando (2011), The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Indiana University Press
Chukwuemeka, Kenneth (2012), “Female Husbands in Igbo Land: Southeast Nigeria”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 5, No.1 (link goes to pdf files)
Cadigan, R. Jean (1998), “Woman-to-Woman Marriage: Practices and Benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1

5 thoughts on “Pre-colonial Igboland: On Woman-to-Woman Marriage

  1. Children remain an important part of every Africans retirement plan. We don’t have a welfare system, no medicare, no old folks homes, no social security. Children are one’s best security for old age.

    As for whether the woman marrying woman was used to disguise lesbian relationships, the silence about it says more than any study could. If it was it wasn’t spoken about and that sums up our attitudes to homosexuality even today. So long as we don’t hear about it its okay.

    1. Are you talking about today or in the precolonial past? I focus particularly on the past here, and that’s what I take into consideration. It’d make more sense if more people focused on children as “one’s best security for old age” but instead the focus is on male children and continuing the lineage/passing on inheritance.

      So long as we don’t hear about it its okay.

      I am not sure I understand what you mean here.

  2. Thank you so much for updating and writing. I do find it fascinating, the women marriages and I do think it’s not too far out to speculate that lesbian women could have taken advantage of that—if anything, it makes sense. The heterosexist mindset doesn’t help as many Nigerians (and dare I say Africans) think that homosexuality is foreign (ha!)

    But the children bit…I’m fairly certain that in the past people had kids for welfare and for old age. And that cuts across all cultures. But that argument only seeks to support the heterosexist view that these women were together only to produce children.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      With regards to children, I get where you’re coming from. But I have to question because I’ve been reading (ha, as always) and it seems that in several West African societies, children did not even stay with their parents but with other extended family (makes sense because it still happens today). Which means that old people did not necessarily have children to take care of them but may have been supported in other ways (domestic servants existed back then too, oh and slaves as well). There would always be people that married and had kids, but those that chose not to, or were required not to due to holding certain public offices, had other means through which to take care of themselves in old age. I have an idea how people who never married and never had children managed in the old days, because they existed, and I will definitely put up what I’ve read soon.

  3. I find much of the writing about woman-to-woman marriage to have (often explicit) heteronormative angles, or, to prove how homophobia is traditionally “unAfrican” (which I’m not disputing) but while it can still make for a good read, the agenda of the author means more work for me as a reader in trying to break through to the insights. Therefore, I appreciate that you write with curiosity and commitment to objectivity, helps me expand my own thoughts and readings around these topics.

    Another interesting lens to view what having children meant through, could be spiritual belief systems, as the spiritual roles of the elderly and of children often don’t always necessarily match the notion that having kids was protection for old age. Protection for old age I would imagine is also linked to increasingly capitalist systems, where children provide financial support.

    Your friends’ relatives stories sound intriguing, hope they will be able to share more with you.

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