Conclusion: Modern women
As pointed out in the introduction, often research on single women, and particularly studies of single townswomen, has focused on how they utilise their sexuality for material gain and, more or less unproblematically, they have been labelled ‘prostitutes’.
In this paper, I have tried to draw a more composite picture of single mothers, showing that these women are trying to survive socially and emotionally as well as to develop strategies to support themselves and their children. I have explored why some women, more or less consciously, choose more short-term unions with men and, adding to this, why they frequently are reluctant to convert such relationships with men into a formalised marital union. Although both women and men may attach themselves to each other temporarily for sexual pleasure, the pro-
‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania
duction of children in such unions is crucial. Men and women alike value children, but frequently men value children for other reasons than women. Often it is the men who desire children and the women usually comply. Men’s desire for children does not, however, necessarily mean that they will meet the responsibility to raise a child born in such unions. Rather, men consider a woman’s willingness to have their child to be proof of her love and commitment, as well as of her subordination to male control and authority. In line with Guyer’s thesis on polyandrous motherhood, I have shown that such modes of ‘serial monogamy’ or multiple and concurrent partnership, combined with childbearing, are also commonly practised among single Meru mothers. I have, however, argued that a ‘polyandrous mother’ has to be careful when she draws upon support from her previous lovers and fathers of her children. For a woman to remain with her children, she must restrict such economic, social and emotional support lest she be deprived of motherhood and, ultimately, of respectability.
Thus women must portion out their fertility and attach themselves to other men in a repertoire of new sexual and reproductive unions. They employ their sexuality and childbearing capacity to develop new forms of kinship and marriage systems. The notion that female sexuality can be bartered for economic gain, gives women the right to negotiate with men to secure their own economic and social security. Female sexuality and reproductive power is not free of charge; men have to earn it.
These forms of ‘conjugal’ union, are, however, transient and short-term and do not involve authorised ties. In sharp contrast to the formalised conjugal union, which involves negotiation between the couple’s parents and is in keeping with their interests, the informal and temporary sexual relationship is negotiated, entered into, maintained and terminated by the two partners and is in accordance with their personal interests. The duration of such unions is therefore mainly based on the commitment of the partners. Yet, trust offers no permanent support; it must be developed on the basis of intimacy between the two. And trust between partners is a scarce commodity. Thus such male-female transient unions, including polyandrous motherhood, have no ‘bill of rights’, but rather a ‘rolling contract’ (Giddens 1992). They are not only open to negotiation, but actually require negotiation to be ongoing. A modern Meru woman who pursues her individual wants—sexually, emotionally and economically—has a high consumption of men.
An unmarried woman is faced with a dilemma: she has to balance between, on the one hand, submitting to a ‘husband’ to gain a certain amount of respectability; and, on the other, retaining her autonomy in order to fulfil her obligations to her children. Men as friends and lovers are ‘patrons’, assisting them economically and linking them to resource networks. At the same time, however, men also restrict their female partners’ independence since increasing economic support entails more exclusive rights to a woman’s sexuality. In the life of most Meru single mothers, the only means to get a certain share of both is simply to go in and out of temporary unions with men.
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The fact that these women go to town in search of a better life and thus become exposed to different ways of life, not only indicates that they have ‘broken out’ of the customary pattern but also that they are future oriented. These women are commonly said to have ‘intelligence’ and ‘consciousness’ (akili). An experienced woman knows how to ‘get around’—including how to manoeuvre male control. They acquire new strategies; they learn how to do things in the modern world and, albeit by taking a great risk, how to fend for themselves. This is the knowledge they bring back home with them, thus challenging the customary ways of life. According to most men and (married) women, however, women who have ‘acquired experience’ have become ‘too clever’. Such ‘wicked’ women are commonly referred to as ‘wajanjd (mjanja, singular) a term which can be translated as ‘a sly, smart and deceitful person’. They are seen as a threat, if not an outright danger, to male control and authority. They cannot be trusted and are apt to play tricks on men.
Moving on the margins of the socially and culturally acceptable, they are frequently stigmatised as sexually loose malaya and are commonly seen as ‘wicked’ women by others in society. First, they choose sexual partners and build serial and even concurrent sexual relationships with men. Secondly, they have children by men of their own preference. Thirdly, and more exceptional, once the partnership ceases, contrary to ‘proper wives’, they take their children with them.
Unmarried women and single mothers are becoming more numerous and even though they are frequently hampered in pursuing their ambitions, they are ploughing new paths to more or less successful alternative ways of female living. By transcending the roles and ways of life of their mothers, they are prime agents in negotiating and reworking gender roles and thereby they become role models for their younger sisters.