Anth 100.How to Be a Good Muslim Wife.Women's Performance of Islamic Authority During Swahili Weddin

Anth 100.How to Be a Good Muslim Wife.Women's Performance of Islamic Authority During Swahili Weddin

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© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011 DOI: 10.1163/157006611X599172 Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 427-448 brill.nl/jra How to Be a Good Muslim Wife: Women’s Performance of Islamic Authority during Swahili Weddings Katrina Daly Thompson UCLA Department of Applied Linguistics, 3320 Rolfe Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095 [email protected] Abstract 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 instruc- tors with a specific focus on instructing a bride in contemporary Swahili weddings. Contextual- izing participant observation within the existing literature on Swahili puberty rituals, sex instruction, weddings, and language ideologies, I find that the ritual involves a discursive per- formance of Islamic knowledge and thereby offers women who act as instructors a form of reli- gious authority. This provides an important counterpoint to decontextualized representations of Swahili Islam as excluding women from positions of authority. Keywords Islam, Swahili, women, sex instruction, weddings, authority In her study of how Swahili gendered language ideologies constrain speech about conflict in Islamic marriages, Susan Hirsch opens with a recollection of her experience as an ethnographer trying to participate in women’s talk in Mombasa: More often than not, I was encouraged to spend time in the sitting room, where men discussed poetry and Islam, rather than in the bedroom, where, as I learned later, the women of the family and their female guests discussed less lofty or idealized topics. . . . How could I spend time in the bedroom to hear more than just snatches of conversa- tion about runaway wives, disobedient daughters, alcoholic uncles, and abusive husbands? (1998:38)
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428 K. D. Thompson / Journal of Religion in Africa 41 (2011) 427-448 Hirsch’s description of Swahili gendered spaces inadvertently reproduces the ideologies she describes, both reflecting and promoting coastal Muslim ideol- ogies of gendered discourse in which women are confined to the bedroom, women’s discourse is gossip based, and women have nothing to say about Islam. My own experience as a Muslim woman studying, researching, getting married, and living in Stone Town, Unguja (the largest island in the Zanzibar archipelago) has led me to question the accuracy of this representation of women’s discourse. I have observed and participated in women’s conversations about Islam, both in the sitting room and in the bedroom—not to mention in the kitchen, the dining room, the bathroom, while driving around town, in shops, and in many other spaces that most non-Muslim observers would con- sider secular.
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