Not all news coverage of Africa leans sensational, but it’s hardly unheard of. One recurring trope in international coverage of Africa is stories about unusual marriages. A “112-year-old” Somali man marries a seventeen-year-old girl. A Sudanese man is “forced to ‘marry’ a goat.” A Nigerian man has eighty-six wives. I am not challenging the factual accuracy of these stories. But I am bothered by the limited ways in which these stories grapple with the sociology of marriage in Africa. The tone in the stories often seems to be either one of amusement (“A goat! How silly!”) or disgust (“Look at that old pervert with that young girl!”). Surely there are other kinds of stories to tell about how and why people marry on the continent.
Attempts to apply shari’a, or Islamic law, in Africa also often generate sensationalized news coverage. Accused adulterers/adulteresses are stoned. Music is banned. Shrines are destroyed. The news stories also have a limited intellectual and emotional range: they seem to aim at generating reactions of horror, or to make audiences shake their heads at “those backward Muslims.”
I am not, with regard to either unusual marriages or the application of shari’a, advocating total cultural relativism. I am not suggesting that international media should ignore such stories, or that audiences should react to them dispassionately. But I do think that choices about what stories get reported—and how—can reinforce stereotypes and distort understanding of complex social phenomena.
A recent story from Nigeria, one that touches on both marriage and shari’a, offers the possibility of a more sophisticated analysis of these subjects. Last month, officials from the Kano State Hisba Board organized a mass wedding for one hundred couples. The brides were all widows or divorcees. The Hisba Board is a Muslim civic body that has partial responsibility for administering shari’a law in Kano, which implemented a shari’a code in 2000. (Kano State, like other Northern Nigerian states, claims authority to impose shari’a under principles of Nigerian federalism). The Hisba Board plans to marry up to a thousand couples in this fashion. The ceremony took place at the palace of the Emir of Kano, the city’s most important hereditary ruler and an influential religious and political figure. The event, in other words, had the sanction of some of the most prominent authorities in the city.
It was also carefully organized, as reported by the BBC:
After a radio campaign since mid-February calling for prospective suitors, the Hisba and a local women’s organization screened the applicants, including testing for HIV, and then helped with the matchmaking.
Bride prices normally given to the wife’s family by the husband have been paid for by a local entrepreneur – and Kano state government paid for the bride’s “kayan daki”, a collection of brass and enamel bowls and decorative cups and saucers, which are a symbol of her married status.
Arranged marriage is common in northern parts of Nigeria, but correspondents say it was the women who had the final say in choosing their husbands.
Dealing with marital issues – conflict, reconciliation, divorce, and post-divorce disputes – constitutes the largest share of the Hisba Board’s work, one former Board official told me in 2011, to my surprise. So-called “criminal shari’a” often dominates international reporting on the subject of shari’a, but shari’a covers “personal status” issues as well, including marriage, inheritance, divorce, etc. Many people in Kano, from commentators on the radio to master’s students at Bayero University to people I spoke with in everyday conversation, stated that they believed the city was suffering from a crisis in divorce. People attributed this crisis to different factors, including materialism, changes in values, religious laxity, women’s expectations, etc. The Hisba Board’s plan to marry off divorcees represents one response to this perceived crisis. I would not be surprised if it drew some popular support, in addition to the elite backing it already enjoys. At the very least, the Board does not seem to have had trouble locating brides or suitors.
This story’s relevance, I would argue, lies in the fact that it is not about outliers – unusually old men, bigamy, bestiality – but about ordinary people. Agree or disagree with the Hisba Board’s approach or the legal framework it occupies, the story offers a perspective on African marriages and on shari’a that is not usually heard in the international media.
Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. For 2011-2012, he is conducting dissertation fieldwork in Northern Nigeria. Alex has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, and The Guardian. He blogs at http://sahelblog.wordpress.com. Read Alex’s previous posts on religion in Nigeria and the Sahel region here.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.