Striking indigo veils wrap the faces of men, as women own their tents and cattle. Pre-marital sex is not a taboo, and divorce is a common occurrence.
Inhabiting the Saharan and Sahelian regions of north Africa, mainly Libya, Mali, Niger, Algeria and Burkina Faso, the semi-nomadic Tuareg tribe travels the desert on horseback, and their traditions and lifestyle challenge the patriarchal norms assumed to be enforced and re-enforced across Islamic Africa.
They’re known as semi-nomadic, since they travel with their herds seasonally, and return to a base ground where they grow crops. The name Tuareg, Arabic for abandoned by God, represents what their staunch Islamic neighbours think of their progressive and liberal ways of life, whereas they call themselves Imohag, meaning free men. Assumed to be descendants of North African Berbers, their Tamasheq language is inspired by the same, and their traditions are more liberal than some Western regions in the world.
While the Tuareg tribe adopts the religious belief of Islam, their practices are progressive, giving women an equal if not more important status in their community. Starting with sexual liberation, pre-marital sex is not considered a taboo, and women are permitted to have as many sexual partners as they’d like, as long as it’s done in accordance with the guidelines or the tribe’s traditions. Privacy is important. Under the cover of the dark night, men can climb into a young woman’s tent, which is often made of weaved matting and traditional fabrics mounted on a timber frame. As he sneaks into the side entrance and they spend the night together, his camel obediently stands guard outside, waiting, while the family--who shares the tent--politely ignore the happenings. “They turn a blind eye. The young girls have the same great freedoms as the boys,” explained photographer Henrietta Butler, who first followed the tribe through the desert in 2001. Keeping discretion in mind, the man must leave before the day breaks. And the next night, the woman is free to invite another gentleman suitor into her tent.
While women of the Tuareg community don’t wear veils, unlike women in other Islamic communities, quite uniquely the men are the ones who cover their faces with indigo-dyed veils, causing several travellers’ accounts of this tribe to refer to them as ‘Blue men of the Sahara desert’. The first veiling, performed in a special ritual known as Marabout, starts when Tuareg men hit puberty, symbolising that they are adults and ready to be married. It is a symbol of male identity, alternatively thought to protect them from evil spirits, and worn in front of elders and women of the community.
Beautiful verses of poetry are produced by men of the Tuareg community in efforts to woo the women, who ultimately choose whom they want to wed. “The women also make poetry eulogising the men. There is high romance and idolatry,” says Butler. And once they marry, women lose none of their power, and in fact continue to own their tent and the cattle. Divorce is not a shameful word to be whispered, and is quite common among the Tuaregs. Further, families even through ‘divorce parties’ for their daughters, subtly putting the word out their to eligible suitors that she’s available once again, proving that remarriage is accepted too. And after divorce, the man moves back to his mother’s home with nothing but his camel in tow. Women are entitled to inheritance, and while political discussions primarily include men, women have a say there as well. The society is matrilineal, meaning family trees are traced through the women, rather than the men as well.
The Tuareg tribe, who played a very significant role in camel caravan trans-Saharan trade until the 20th century when railways and roads were introduced by colonialism, are known by anthropologists across the world for their progressive women-centric practices. Today, however, this seems to be changing slowly. Facing the threat of ISIS in south-western Libya, and that of rising Boko Haram in Mali, Niger and Nigeria, several Tuaregs have aligned themselves to extremist Islamist groups. And in this, their liberal culture is shifting. For instance, women have started wearing the hijab, which they claim is a fashion statement, but Butler has her doubts. “It makes me very sad - you can see the regression,” she said.
With a population of an estimated one million people, scattered across different parts of northern Africa, the Tuareg tribe’s traditions represent a different kind of Islam, one with liberal ideologies and positive women’s rights in practice. And one which seems to be slowly seeing the negative effects of creeping ISIS and Boko Haram Islamic fundamentalism.