‘Prostitutes’ or Modern Women? Negotiating Respectability in Northern Tanzania
The migration of women into East African towns has always generated particular moral discourses on women’s life and particularly, their sexual behaviour. Even during colonial times, urbanisation was considered to affect Africans badly by separating them from rural life, family, clan or tribal authority. It also was thought to severely disrupt their social codes of behaviour, discipline, custom and maybe religion, which originally guided their thought and behaviour. Such stereotypical views of the good ‘rural ways’ and the bad ‘urban ways’ of life were also strongly reflected in the scholarly debates and theories of urbanisation during colonial times (cf. Ferguson 1999 for an in-depth critique). This was, and still is, particularly the case with ‘single’ women—also referred to as ‘free’, ‘unattached’ or ‘husbandless’—who move to town. Studies of town women often focused on their sex role, and their more or less short-terms and transient relationship with men and they were often labelled ‘prostitute’. The focus on townswomen as ‘prostitutes’—an essentialisation of their sex role—is, of course, a crude generalisation of the female body and a neglect of these women’s own life projects as well as of their economic role.
This chapter is based on long-term fieldwork among the ethnic Meru in Arusha town and the surrounding rural hinterland in northern Tanzania. Drawing on the life histories of 50 women, this paper aims to describe some common traits in their life projects. Although their life-situations, such as their family background, educational level, access to scarce resources as well as their individual personalities, vary, their ways of life still share many common traits. The paper focuses on their relationship with their male partners and how they negotiate, albeit under considerable constraints, new identities as ‘modern’ women (-ya kisasa, literally meaning ‘of now’ in Swahili) and how they forge new futures for themselves. My particular concern is to discuss how they challenge normative expec-
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tations of ‘respectability’ (heshima), transgressing the norms of ‘proper’ daughters, and wives.
First, however, I shall give some ethnography with a focus on how the gendering of space, in this particular local area, affects women’s movement and their respectability.