The Division of Activity by Gender in the Family and Generally
The supervision of girls has become less strict in the 1980s than it was even in the 1970s. Many now go to the same secular schools that their brothers do, and some young women now get jobs in offices and shops after finishing
school and before marriage. A few women continue working after marriage, but almost all stop paid employment when the first child is born. There is still, however, a good deal of concern about girls' activities on the part of their parents and grown siblings. The explicit reason for this is fear that the girl may indulge her sexual appetites before marriage. "Having a daughter," a middle-aged Swahili father told me, "is like having an egg in your hand. You cannot be careless for a minute without it being ruined forever."
Men and boys are free to roam the city as they wish but ideally should avoid bad company and late hours. men and boys attend the mosque, go to work, chat with friends, and some—now a minority but formerly a much larger percentage—regularly attend small-scale men's gatherings (baraza) that generally take place at the same time and in the same location. The Swahili men understand themselves to be very sociable, and whether in a baraza or not, they stop to chat with kin, neighbors, and acquaintances whenever they seen them. There was a very strong value on men "being known" among other men which still exists if, perhaps, somewhat less explicitly than I was told was the case some decades ago.
Men, like their wives, sisters, and daughters, however, are almost always at home at mealtimes. Houses are generally locked up at the completion of the evening prayer (isha, rarely later than 8:30), and the entire family retires early. It is quite rare to see middle-aged Swahili men on the streets after the last prayer, but small groups of Swahili young men can be seen on street corners chatting until 11:00 or, sometimes, a little later.
Other than chatting on the streets, the main activity outside the home is attending cinemas. There are two in Old Town which show mainly American and European films (preferred by many community members who attend films) and another showing exclusively Indian films which some Swahili attend. It is now fairly generally accepted for men and boys to go to cinemas, and some men even go with their wives. Conservatives view this attendance with something between caution and alarm, but that view seems less prevalent in the community at the end of the 1980s than it was at the beginning of the decade and earlier.
During the holy month of Ramadhan, the Old Town area is transformed. The streets, usually deserted in the early evening, teem with men and boys, and the usually darkened, quiet houses are full of music, talk, and life. Following the afternoon prayer (magharibi ) when the sun goes down, everyone eats the first food of the day (futari, traditionally a date) and goes home to prepare for the main meal (daku ), which is eaten sometime after the final prayer (isha) but generally at 10:30 or 11:00. Following the meal, people amuse themselves with games, music, or visiting with neighbors. The streets are full of men and boys chatting or playing checkers or cards (but not for money since gambling is forbidden in Islam), and women's voices ring from the houses. Some families spend this festive time together, but mainly the
men and women celebrate separately. After the brief sleep characteristic of Ramadhan, some families eat a heavy breakfast to sustain them through the day of fasting to come, but others sleep a bit longer and have only tea and whatever snacks are available just before dawn and the reinstitution of the fast.
It will be clear from this brief sketch of leisure activities that men and women, boys and girls have quite different activities: the women's center in the home and the men's outside. Nor is this only a matter of the separation of the sexes. Proper men should go around visiting and be known to the community. Women should stay near their houses and those of their close kin. Women do not veil their faces any longer, although it is only in the 1980s that they have ceased doing so, but they should not be seen in public.