Tag Archives: female husbands

Nzinga (1583-1663), Female King of the Mbundu.

Nzinga is renowned in Black history for her courageous part in resistance to the Portuguese colonial power in what is now Angola.
Her father had been the “ngola” or ruler (from which the Portuguese took the name for their colonial territory), and was followed in that position by Nzinga’s brother, Ngola Mbande. As a child, Nzinga had been greatly favoured by her father, who gave her the opportunity to watch him closely as he governed, and even went with him to war. Later, she was sent by her brother as envoy to the Poruguese governor at a peace conference,  in Luanda in 1622, aiming to have the Portuguese withdraw a fortress they had built on Mbundu land, return some of her brother’s subjects who had been captured, and to put an end to the marauding raids by bands of Portuguese.
She was able to secure a peace treaty – which the Portuguese failed to keep. Her brother then committed suicide, leaving his son Kaza as heir, with Nzinga acting as regent.Instead, she had him killed, and assumed the throne herself. As ruler, she continued to resist the Portuguese in numerous battles, personally leading her army in war, and forming alliances with both the neighbouring African peoples of Kongo in the African interior, and with the Dutch on the coast. She maintained this resistance for over thirty years, until well into her sixties, before finally signing a peace treaty in 1657.
The queer interest in Nzinga rests in her assuming the throne of her people, which traditionally could only be held by men. As she had occupied a position absolutely restricted to men, so she was necessarily regarded as male.  As a man, and as king, it then became important that s/he acquire a harem of wives. As Nzinga was biologically female, her wives then needed to be biologically male, who dressed as women and took female gender roles.
In the African context, her story is not as extraordinary as it may sound. Ethnographic reports from all regions of the continent have shown that gender roles were traditionally less closely identified with biological sex than in the West, so that wealthy women who could afford it, could and sometimes did acquire wives, and take on the roles of “husband” – while some wealthy men included the occasional male among their “wives”.

Natural Families: Africa's Female Kings and Husbands.

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Nzinga – misleadingly represented here as “queen”
The standard platitudes about two-called “traditional  families” are full of completely groundless assumptions.  One, that this idea is in any way “traditional”, I have previously shown to be false (“Traditional” Families, Traditional “Family Values”). Another is that love, marriage, sex and child-bearing  “naturally” all belong together.  As part of a more extended investigation into the enormous variety of “natural” families to be found across the world, I have been reading about some of the extraordinary ways in which in some societies, these can be entirely independent. Today, I look at some notable crossing of female gender stereotypes from Africa.
A fascinating story of a female king comes from the country of Angola, which takes its name from the hereditary king, “ngola”, of the Ndongo people.  During the colonial wars of conquest, the Portuguese met the fiercest resistance from a king called Nzinga – who turned out to be biologically female.  Although the monarchy was reserved for men, she had forced her way into office, and so was necessarily regarded as male.  As a man, and as king, it then became important that s/he acquire a harem of wives. As Nzinga was biologically female, her wives then needed to be biologically male, who dressed as women and took female gender roles.
Nzinga was one example from history, but her story is not in any way unique in Africa. In South Africa, one of those recurring stories that crop up from time to time on the inside pages of the newspapers, often on the travel & tourism sections, concerns the remote, near mythical person, the Rain Queen of the Lovedu people. (I have seen a website on African Mythology that describes her as an actual mythical deity. she is not – she is very real, just very reclusive, shunning all publicity).  The Rain Queen is the hereditary ruler of her people by matrilineal succession. From her title, it is clear that one of her duties is to apply her hereditary supernatural skills in rain making. But it is another feature of her tradition that catches the papers’ attention: by tradition, she always marries only women, whom she takes in polygamous marriages. While the Queen gets on with the domestic duties usually associated with a husband, these wives will take on typical female gender roles, including procreation and childrearing. Obviously the Queen cannot pysically father children, so the wives are sent outside of the family unit for sex, and conception. The children thus conceived are raised in the royal family, and have nothing whatsoever to do with their biological fathers.



Female Husbands

Ethnographic studies have documented similar practices in over thirty populations across the continent. I find these fascinating, for the clear way in which they highlight the difference between biological sex and gender, and for the distinctions between sex, marriage, procreation and child rearing.

The records show that in these societies, women who have sufficient wealth to come up with the required bride price may take wives. When they do, they form households in which they take on the traditional roles and duties of husbands, while the other women behave exactly as any other wives, taking on the domestic chores and the child-rearing.

Children? Clearly, all-female marriages are not able to conceive children. Instead, some or all of the wives will have sexual relationships with men outside the marriage, sometimes with men chosen for them by their husbands, specifically for the pusposes of procreation. The biological father’s role though, stops right there. The children are raised in the all female household, by their mothers – and their female stepfather. physical procreation is entirely distinct from the chikl-rearing that follows. Sexual relationships too, may be distinct from both the marriage, and from procreation. In some cases, the marriages will include lesbian sexual relationships, but in others some or all of the women have erotic relationships outside of the family which are not necessarily geared to procreation.

Africa is a large, diverse continent, so it should not be a surpsie that there are many other forms of same sex relationship observed as well. Here, I have only touched on one little-known aspect of some female relationships. Later, I will also look at other unusual forms of relationships that totally contradict the idea that homoerotic relationships are foreign to Africa and introduced by outsiders, either European colonials, or the Arabs.

See also:

Gay Ugandans, Ugandan Martyrs

African Myths about Homosexuality – Guardian

Books:

Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

Greenberg, David F:   The Construction of Homosexuality

Ifi Amadiume Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society

Murray, Donald O: Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities

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