Woman-woman marriage in pre-colonial Igboland revised

This an edited version of a blogpost I wrote in January 2013 after reading Nwando Achebe’s The Female Colonial King of Nigeria. I read this at the Queer Vibration panel at the Labs during Chale Wote 2015. The Female Colonial King of Nigeria provides a fascinating look into gender in South-Eastern Nigeria through the life of Ahebi Ugbabe, a woman who made herself a king in colonial Nigeria. In this book Achebe writes candidly about sex work, woman-to-woman marriage and gender relations in Igboland.

Reading Achebe’s book, one could be forgiven in believing that woman-to-woman marriage was unique to the Igbo people. It wasn’t. This institution can be found across the African continent among various ethnic groups, with slight differences in norms and practices. I was surprised to discover (because I am Yoruba myself), among the Yoruba a widow who wanted to remain with her in-laws could marry a female relative when there were no men in the family she thought of as considerable options. For the Nandi of Kenya, an older woman beyond child-bearing age might marry a younger woman to take care of her and to bear her children who will inherit her name and wealth. Then there’s the Lovedu of South Africa where female monarchs, Rain Queens, received gifts including the daughters of their subjects as wives while remaining unmarried. Aside from the monarchs, a woman could marry another woman while remaining married to a man simultaneously becoming a wife and a husband. I have heard of woman-to-woman marriages among the Fon, the Kikuyu, and the Nuer to name a few.

In these various societies, the wives other women married were ladies-in-waiting, surrogate mothers, and daughters-in-law while 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, as well as for their husbands, sons, and/or siblings. These influential women were regarded as men, by paying the bride price for other women their statuses were elevated. The female husband enjoyed equal privilege with her male counterparts, she sometimes even associated with the male elders, however with some restrictions. 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, Achebe calls them “male sperm donors”, and this was socially accepted. Any child the wives had was taken care of by their female husband and carried her name, and this was legitimate in the eyes of society.

Achebe writes that “woman-to-woman marriage in Africa has absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality”, with an emphasis on absolutely nothing, and I agree with her, kind of. I have read about pre-colonial secret societies littered across the African continent where women had sex with other women and found the evidence convincing. However at the risk of falling into the trap of Eurocentric and Western misunderstanding 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 what we now consider to be gay marriage. In fact, another researcher Kenneth Chukwuemeka labels woman-to-woman marriage “an improvisation to sustain patriarchy” and “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 that would continue the lineage that woman-to-woman marriage came about.

Children were very important in Igbo 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 remain in her father’s home (as opposed to leaving for marriage) and receive his inheritance. A daughter became a son after secret rituals were carried out to aid this transformation. The female husband did not have to go through this, she simply had to get rich first then go out and marry whoever she pleased.

Chukwuemeka suggests that while the wife married to the female husband had her own companions, the female husband too always had a male companion. This male companion “satisfied her erotic desires and supported her when the biological realities became inevitable” which is Chukwuemeka’s way of saying female husbands had sex with men when they got horny. This suggests that all women have an emotional and biological need to be with a man, which I find laughable. Even though apparently all female husbands had male lovers, they could not be seen openly with them, and if a female husband had a child with it was considered illegitimate and treated as an outcast.

Every single African researcher I’ve come across who has looked into it states with the utmost conviction that the practice of woman-to-woman marriage did not involve any sexual relationship between the female husband and her wife. It was not “lesbianism” because none of the women who married other women were romantically or sexually attracted to other women. They were only interested in children, every woman who became a female husband just wanted a child that was considered legitimate in society’s eyes.

But I wonder…if woman-to-woman marriage was an ingenious way through which women manipulated the existing system to achieve higher economic status, 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 have similarly manipulated the society sanctioned woman-to-woman marriage to achieve personal goals? Could the one woman in the village who was attracted to other women have employed woman-to-woman marriage to be with a woman she loved?

I think of the institute of ancestral marriage among the South African sangoma. A sangoma may marry an ancestral wife that aids their work and plays an important role in relation to the ancestors. This ancestral wife is often a younger person chosen by the ancestors, a female sangoma may marry a wife by paying the bride price. Like woman-to-woman marriage this institution has nothing to do with gay marriage as we know it today. The ancestral marriage is not to be a sexual relationship, same-sex relationship between a female sangoma and her wife is also traditionally taboo. Yet some female sangoma have revealed that they engage in sexual relations with their ancestral wives in secret. Here the work of Nkunzi Nkabinde is prominent. Does this heighten the possibility of secret same-sex relations in woman-to-woman marriages?

I also consider Gloria Wekker’s research on mati work in Suriname. Mati work refers to where women have sexual relations with both men and women, Wekker argues that this is part of the West African heritage in the Black Diaspora. I find Wekker’s research fascinating and doubt I can go into it in detail now but she points out the age difference common in mati relationships noting a pattern of younger women having their first sexual encounter with much older women. There is that aspect of respect where the younger woman could not refuse the elder woman’s proposition. I wonder where this fits into my theory of “queer” women using the institution of woman-to-woman marriage in a personally beneficial way, if it does at all.

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 of 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, I doubt we’ll ever really find out what kinds of same-sex sexual practices took place among female husbands and their wives if at all.

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