‘Any man’s woman’ and the problem of female respectability
For a woman to live on her own without male protection and control is not only an alien idea to most people in the study area, but it even rebels against prime gen-
‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania
der notions. Since she lacks male protection, the cultural logic goes, she becomes easy prey of men, who notoriously see an unmarried woman and single mother to be, as they say, ‘any man’s woman’ and thus sexually available. As noted by Hakansson, the situation of single Gusii women tallies with that of my findings, “Behind their backs, single women are called harlots (omotayayi) or women who move from place to place (omotangatangi), epithets which are not removed until such women are either properly married or permanently cohabiting with a man” (1988:185). Like the single Gusii women, Meru women also seek more stable relationships with men as a means to protect their respectability.
The most favourable relationship for a single mother is a ‘small house’ arrangement (nyumba ndogo) with a visiting ‘husband’, in which the woman, usually referred to as ‘small wife (mke mdogo) can maintain some degree of social independence and avoid the severe control often exercised by a true husband. A ‘small wife’ usually receives a flat, a plot of land to build on or even a house, sometimes furnished, depending on the wealth of her partner. Such an arrangement also seems, at least to a certain degree, to cater for a woman’s respectability. Based on a historical study from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, discussing informal conjugal unions (mapoto marriage), Diana Jeater also argues that such alliances allow a woman “to retain her independence, while gaining male protection” (1993:179). It seems that female respectability can only be fully obtained through male protection.
Men, for their part, notoriously argue that a single woman has a particular tabia or ‘nature’/‘behaviour’ which is beyond male control and therefore she is neither capable nor willing to stay with a husband (Haram 1995,1999). Most women reject the authoritarian role adopted by most men, but at the same time, they commonly act in accordance with such accepted gender roles and frequently use them as a means to get access to strategic resources held by men. Such female compliance is, for instance, illustrated in the case of Anna, who often feels humiliated by Babu, when he expects that she will be willing to satisfy him sexually, even when he is drunk. Still, she does not speak up, but takes on the roles of female submission and virtue whenever he wants her sexually. Women are fully aware of the importance of taking on such a docile role or as Anna puts it herself, “Otherwise I will not get his money!” Women also camouflage their intelligence and ambition by playing along with expected female behaviour—being extremely docile or taking on a ‘soft tongue’ (sauti laini) when beguiling men. To have a ‘soft tongue’ or to act out such feminine qualities as shyness expresses humbleness and confirms the male-constructed gender notions that females should be inferior to men.
Arnfred Page 224 Wednesday, March 3, 2004 2:38 PM