How to Be a Good Muslim Wife: Women’s Performance of Islamic Authority during Swahili Weddings

in Journal of Religion in Africa
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?



The existing literature on women of the Swahili Coast has focused largely on their involvement in activities labeled as non-Islamic by both male peers and scholars. However, Islam plays an important role in these women’s lives and they often bring Islamic knowledge to bear on their participation in seemingly secular activities. In this study I address women’s role as sex instructors with a specific focus on instructing a bride in contemporary Swahili weddings. Contextualizing participant observation within the existing literature on Swahili puberty rituals, sex instruction, weddings, and language ideologies, I find that the ritual involves a discursive performance of Islamic knowledge and thereby offers women who act as instructors a form of religious authority. This provides an important counterpoint to decontextualized representations of Swahili Islam as excluding women from positions of authority.

How to Be a Good Muslim Wife: Women’s Performance of Islamic Authority during Swahili Weddings

in Journal of Religion in Africa



Abu-DawudSunan n.d. Marriage (Kitab Al-Nikah) Retrieved November 4 2010 (

AlidouOusseina ‘A “Cinderella” Tale in the Hausa Muslim Women’s Imagination’ Comparative Literature 2002 54 3 242 255

AlpersE.A. ‘Ordinary Household Chores: Ritual and Power in a 19th-Century Swahili Women’s Spirit Possession Cult’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies 1984 17 4 677 702

AskewKelly M. ‘Female Circles and Male Lines: Gender Dynamics along the Swahili Coast’ Africa Today 1999 46 3/4 67

BakariMtoro bin Mwinyi VeltenC. Desturi za Wasuaheli na khabari za desturi za sheriʿa za Wasuaheli 1903 Göttingen Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht

BlaydesLisaLinzerDrew A. ‘The Political Economy of Women’s Support for Fundamentalist Islam’ World Politics 2008 60 4 576 609

BoshaIbrahim Taathira Za Kiarabu Katika Kiswahili Pamoja Na Kamusi Thulathiya (Kiswahili - Kiarabu - Kiingereza) [The Influence of Arabic Language on Kiswahili with a Trilingual Dictionary] 1993 Dar es Salaam Dar es Salaam University Press

BriggsC.L. ‘Linguistic Ideologies and the Naturalization of Power in Warao Discourse’ Pragmatics 1992 2 3 387 404

BruckGabriele vom SalibaThereseAllenCarolynHowardJudith A ‘Elusive Bodies: The Politics of Aesthetics among Yemeni Elite Women’ Gender Politics and Islam 2002 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press 161 200

BujraJanet M. ‘Production, Property, Prostitution: “Sexual politics” in Atu’ Cahiers d’Études africaines 1977 17 65 13 39

BukariSahih n.d. Wedlock Marriage (Nikaah) Retrieved November 10 2010 (

CameronDeborah Feminism and Linguistic Theory 1992 2nd ed New York St. Martin’s Press

CaplanPatricia ‘Boys’ Circumcision and Girls’ Puberty Rites among the Swahili of Mafia Island, Tanzania’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 1976 46 1 21 33

CaplanPatricia ‘Perceptions of Gender Stratification’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 1989 59 2 196 208

CurtinPatricia Romero ‘Weddings in Lamu, Kenya: An Example of Social and Economic Change (Mariages à Lamu (Kenya): un cas de changement économique et social)’ Cahiers d’études africaines 1984 94 24 131 155

EastmanCarol M. 1984 ‘An Ethnography of Swahili Expressive Culture’ Research in African Literatures 15 3 313 340

FairLaura ‘Identity, Difference, and Dance: Female Initiation in Zanzibar, 1890 to 1930’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 1996 17 3 146 172

FarsyAbdallah Salih Qurani Takatifu 1997 8th ed. Nairobi, Kenya Islamic Foundation

FuglesangM. ‘Lessons for Life—Past and Present Modes of Sexuality Education in Tanzanian Society’ Social Science & Medicine 1997 44 8 1245 1254

FuglesangM. Veils and Videos: Female Youth Culture on the Kenyan Coast 1994 Stockholm Almqvist and Wiksell International

GaudioRudolf Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City 2009 Chichester U.K. & Malden, MA Wiley-Blackwell

HanakIrmi ‘Language, Gender and the Law: Divorce in the Context of Muslim Family Law in Zanzibar’ African Languages and Cultures 1996 9 1 27 42

HaniffaFarzana ‘Piety as Politics Amongst Muslim Women in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ Modern Asian Studies 2008 42 2/3 347 375

HirschSusan F. Pronouncing and Persevering: Gender and the Discourses of Disputing in an African Islamic Court 1998 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press

HuqMaimuna ‘Reading the Qur’an in Bangladesh: The Politics of “Belief” among Islamist Women’ Modern Asian Studies 2008 42 2/3 457 488

Kaleema ‘Shame: Menstruating Woman’ So Brother A. ran off with a stripper and . . . 2010 Retrieved October 12 2010 (

LambekM. ‘Certain Knowledge, Contestable Authority: Power and Practice on the Islamic Periphery’ American Ethnologist 1990 17 1 23 40

LandbergPamela PotashBetty ‘Widows and Divorced Women in Swahili Society’ Widows in African Societies: Choices and Constraints 1986 Stanford, CA Stanford University Press 107 131

LarsenKjersti Where Humans and Spirits Meet: The Politics of Rituals and Identified Spirits in Zanzibar 2008 New York & Oxford Berghahn Books

Le Guennec-CoppensF. Wedding Customs in Lamu 1980 Lamu Lamu Society

LienhardtPeterIsmailHasani Bin LienhardtPeter ‘Introduction’ The Medicine Man: Swifa ya Nguvumali 1968 London Oxford University Press 1 80

MahmoodSaba ‘Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival’ Cultural Anthropology 2001 16 2 202 236

MazruiAlamin M.ShariffIbrahim Noor The Swahili: Idiom and Identity of an African People 1994 Trenton, NJ Africa World Press

McCurdySheryl ‘Fashioning Sexuality: Desire, Manyema Ethnicity, and the Creation of the “Kanga”, ca. 1880-1900’ The International Journal of African Historical Studies 2006 39 3 441 469

MiddletonJohn The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization 1992 New Haven, CT Yale University Press

MirzaSarahStrobelMargaret Three Swahili Women: Life Histories from Mombasa Kenya 1989 Bloomington Indiana University Press

OchsElinor GoodwinCharlesDurantiAlessandro ‘Indexing Gender’ Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon Studies in the Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 1992 Cambridge and New York Cambridge University Press 1 42

ParkinDavid ParkinDavidHeadleyStephen C. ‘Inside and Outside the Mosque: A Master Trope’ Islamic Prayer Across the Indian Ocean: Inside and Outside the Mosque 2000 London and New York Routledge 1 22

PurpuraAllyson ‘Knowledge and Agency: The Social Relations of Islamic Expertise in Zanzibar Town’ 1997 Ph.D. dissertation City University of New York

ReadJen’Nan GhazalBartkowskiJohn P. ‘To Veil or Not to Veil? A Case Study of Identity Negotiation among Muslim Women in Austin, Texas’ Gender and Society 2000 14 3 395 417 Retrieved September 30 2010

RussellJoan Communicative Competence in a Minority Group: A Sociolinguistic Study of the Swahili-speaking Community in the Old Town Mombasa 1981 Leiden Brill

RussellJoan MawJoanParkinDavid ‘Women’s Narration: Performance and the Marking of Verbal Aspect’ Swahili Language and Society: Papers from the Workshop held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in April 1982 1984 Wien Afro-Pub 89 106

SalibaThereseAllenCarolynHowardJudith A ‘Introduction: Gender, Politics, and Islam’ Gender Politics and Islam 2002 Chicago, IL University of Chicago Press 1 13

SnajdrEdward ‘Gender, Power, and the Performance of Justice: Muslim Women’s Responses to Domestic Violence in Kazakhstan’ American Ethnologist 2005 32 2 294 311

StilesErin ‘ “There Is No Stranger to Marriage Here!”: Muslim Women and Divorce in Rural Zanzibar’ Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 2005 75 4 582 598

StrobelMargaret Muslim Women in Mombasa Kenya 1890-1975 1979 New York and London Yale University Press

StrobelMargaret ‘Women’s Wedding Celebrations in Mombasa, Kenya’ African Studies Review 1975 18 3 35 45

SwartzMarc J. ‘The Isolation of Men and the Happiness of Women: Sources and Use of Power in Swahili Marital Relationships’ Journal of Anthropological Research 1982 38 1 26 44 Retrieved January 7 2010

ThompsonKatrina Daly ‘Zanzibari Women’s Discursive and Sexual Agency: Violating Gendered Speech Prohibitions through Talk about Supernatural Sex’ Discourse & Society 2011 22 1 3 20

TorabAzam ‘Piety as Gendered Agency: A Study of Jalaseh Ritual Discourse in an Urban Neighbourhood in Iran’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1996 2 2 235 252

Yahya-OthmanSaida ‘If the Cap Fits: Kanga Names and Women’s Voice in Swahili Society’ Swahili Forum 1997 4 135 149

ZacheHans BartelsM.VirchowR.VossA. ‘Sitten und Gebräuche der Suaheli: Ausgewählte Capitel aus einer späteren umfanreichen Darstellung’ Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 1899 Berlin Verlag von A. Asher & Co. 61 86


According to Sheryl McCurdy (2006) elite Manyema women from Central Africa brought the unyago ceremony to Zanzibar and the Swahili coast in the late nineteenth century. However this claim contradicts Laura Fair’s evidence (1996) that the ceremony already existed in Zanzibar in the 1850s.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 30 30 13
Full Text Views 28 28 15
PDF Downloads 7 7 3
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0