Who Says It’s A Man’s World In Africa: The Tuareg Islamic Tribe Begs To Differ


In the world of Islam, women and men are expected to behave in line with with certain gender roles. The Quran views men and women to be equal in human dignity which is spiritual or ethical equality. Gender roles are learned within a particular social and cultural context and are affected by education and economics. In practice, gender roles often affects women adversely impeding their self-determination in areas like their socio-economic status, status within the family, health, life expectation, independence, freedom and rights (gender bias).

But this has not been reflected in most Muslim laws. For example, women do not have equal rights to make independent decisions about choice of (marriage) partner, getting a divorce and custody of their children. This has been empowered over the years by the interpretation of verses of the Quran which seemingly privilege men over women and reinforced gender roles. Quran verse 4.34, which refers to men as ‘guardians’ over women, has been used to justify gender roles and male privilege over women. 

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But an Islamic tribe in Africa has been discovered that found a way to turn the tide, making women equal, if not more superior to their male counterparts in areas where the muslims from other parts of the world will find difficult to agree to. For example, local tradition does not require female chastity before marriage. Young Tuareg women are allowed to take as many different male lovers as they want before marriage – as long as they abide by the strict rules of privacy which govern their society. This means the man must only arrive at her tent after dark, and leave before sunrise. Should the woman choose to welcome a different man into her tent the next day, so be it. Women are also allowed to keep all their property and children on divorce and are so revered by their sons-in-law that the young men wouldn’t dare eat in the same room with them.


Introducing the Mysterious Islamic Tribe in Africa: The Tuareg People

The Tuareg (pronounced “Twa-reg”) are an Islamic African people. They are not totally nomadic people even though they travel with their herds on a seasonal basis because they also have a home area where they return to and grow some food crops – as such, they could be classified as semi-nomadic. Their nomadic tendencies have kept them from being staunch practitioners of Islam. Because of this, their muslim neighbors named them “Tuareg,” literally “abandoned by God.”

The Tuareg people live majorly in the Saharan and Sahelian regions (southern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, northern Niger, and northeastern Burkina Faso). They later expanded into regions bordering the Sahara, bringing local farming people into their own society. They constitute about 8 percent of the population of Niger and are believed to have descended from the North African Berbers, with their origin traced to the Fezzan region of Libya.

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Before the 20th century when the French brought the Tuareg under their colonial control and ended Tuareg trade activities crossing the Sahara, they were trade routes across Tuareg territory to the ivory, salt, gold and slave markets in North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. This had made the Tuareg tribe so rich as livestock breeders and traders in the Saharan and Sahelian regions.


Many of the Tuareg people speak Hausa and French, and also read Arabic, but their major language is Tamacheq, which is in the Berber language group. The total population of the Tuareg tribe is estimated to be about 1 million people, separated into different family groups, which are predominantly muslims (about 0.1 Christians). But their traditional belief system and rituals interlock with Islam. For example, there is a widespread belief in spirits. There are stories about Jinn, a spirit who is believed to play tricks on humans beings who are traveling alone in the desert. Most spirits are considered evil and are believed to cause illnesses. Some Tuareg people perform fortune-telling with cowrie shells, lizards, mirrors, and the Quran.

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The Tuareg people largely believe that their female ancestors are the founders of their traditions. A popular folklore is that of Tagurmat, a Tuareg heroine, who fought a battle on Mount Bagzan in the Air region. Her twin daughters are said to have founded the herbal healing profession. Another popular figure in myth and folk tales is Aligouran, a character in a series of adventures involving an uncle and his nephew.


The Marabouts, considered to be “people of God,” have obligations of generosity and hospitality. Marabouts are believed to possess special powers of benediction, Al barka. They educate children in verses from the Quran and they officiate at ceremonies marking rites of passage and Muslim holidays which include the Tabaski (commemorates the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son), the Ganni or Mouloud (commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). The end of the month-long Ramadan fast is celebrated by animal sacrifice, feasting, prayer, and evening dancing festivals while secular holidays celebrated by the Tuareg include Niger Independence Day (on August 3) and Niger Republic Day (on December 18).

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The Tuareg are best known for the men’s practice of veiling their faces with a blue cloth dyed with indigo. Early travelers’ accounts often referred to them as the “Blue Men of the Sahara Desert.” The veil that Tuareg men wear on their faces has several meanings. It is, first of all, a symbol of male identity. It is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits. In addition, it is considered an attractive adornment and can be worn in various styles. The face veil is worn differently in different social situations. It is worn highest (covering the nose and mouth) to express respect in the presence of chiefs, older persons, and in-laws.


The Tuareg men begin to wear a veil over the face at puberty and will keep them covered in front of their elders and most women. This signifies that they are adults and are ready to marry. The first veiling is performed in a special ritual by a Marabout. He recites verses from the Quran as he wraps the veil around the young man’s head. A Tuareg man will not also eat before a woman he cannot have sexual relations with. If it becomes compulsory that he must be there, he will turn his back while eating.

But unlike women in many other Islamic societies, most Tuareg women do not wear veils, normally referred top as ‘hijab’ in public. They may also independently inherit property and begin the process leading to a divorce. Once they marry, Tuareg women wear a head scarf that covers their hair. In rural areas, Tuareg men wear long Islamic robes. Women wear wraparound skirts and embroidered blouses. In the towns, clothing is more varied. It includes West African tie-dyed cottons, and also fashionable European styles for some wealthier people.

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In rural communities, a nuclear family (parents and their children) live in each tent or compound (living area). Each compound is named for the married woman who owns the tent. She may make her husband leave the tent if she divorces him.

The mother’s tent, is the root of the community, the home everyone returns to – and this arrangement ensures it stays that way. When a man is divorced by this wife, he is forced to return home to his mother, possibly with just his camel and nothing else. And there is no shame in divorce, as it is a common norm among the people. Families will often throw their daughters a “divorce party.” This a subtle way of tell eligible young men that their daughters have become once again, available. This does not mean that the ladies are in charge, it only means there is equality, unlike most muslim communities have. It is still the men who sit and discuss political issues while also bringing the women in on what the decision to be made is.

Two-thirds of a family’s property goes to the sons as an inheritance; one-third, to the daughters. A political office usually passes from father to son. However, Tuareg society is matrilineal, which means the families trace their lines through the women, rather than the men, all the way back to their first queen.

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Islamic education are important and respected among the Tuareg. Until recently, many Tuareg resisted sending their children to secular (non-religious) schools because they did not like or trust the government. Nowadays, however, more Tuareg recognize the importance of formal education. Most rural residents finish at least primary school. Some continue on to junior and senior high schools in the towns. Very few Tuareg attend universities.

In terms of employment, a few Tuareg have become businessmen, teachers or work as security guards in the town while others in the rural areas have learnt to farm since been forced from the desert by drought. All caravan trade and camel herding are done by men. Men plant and irrigate gardens, and women harvest the crops. The Tuareg people are also gifted and skillful in crafts and handiwork. They show their craftsmanship with wood, metal and even leather. With these they develop beautiful hand-made accessories such as saddles for camels, boxes, delicately decorated spoons, ladles and even silver jewelries.

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Entertainment for the Tuareg people in the towns can be derived through, television, movies (movies from Asian countries like Korea, Philippines, India, etc, are most popular), culture exhibition in cultural centers, parades, newspapers and magazines whereas in the rural areas, there is singing and dancing to the beautiful rhythm of musical instruments at festivals. In addition, people of all ages play board games with stones and date pits.

Their sporting activities include athletics (organized in schools), traditional wrestling, soccer and racing.