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10 A Wife is Clothes Family Politics, Cultural Organization, and Social Structure
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Women's Social Relations and Prestige

The Koran requires every man to provide his wife with adequate clothing as well as food and shelter, but save for the small group of very poor families among the Mombasa Swahili, "adequacy" is not what women seek.[2] Western dresses or traditional women's garments, leso , are worn under the all-encompassing traditional veils, so that they are seen only by other women and by men of the wearer's immediate family. Nevertheless, this clothing plays a crucial part in the women's lives. "Allahu akbar!" (God is great!) women sometimes exclaim when they see a particularly desirable new fashion in a shop window. For many women, the intensity of their joy when they get such a garment is matched only by the intensity of their despondency should they fail to get it.

Women say that normally they buy one new dress or leso a month and that they try to get particularly fine ones for major social events such as weddings. When a woman arrives at the area set aside for females at a wedding celebration, she is closely examined by the others there after she removes her veil. What she wears under the veil will be fully discussed by her fellows over the next few days or weeks. Everyday clothing is important to the standing a person occupies in the sense that it provides a basis for demonstrating good taste and, especially, the ability to pay for attractive clothing. It is the special dresses and leso worn at festive events, however, that lend real distinction in relations with other women. Similarly, women who have an armful of the 22-carat gold bracelets (bangili, pl. mabangili ) Swahili women often wear are the object of favorable comment, while those who have few or none of the expensive bangles are dismissed as paupers or as women who have failed to win and keep their husbands' love.

Having many bangles to wear at the weddings and parties when "best clothes" are called for will not by itself make a woman prestigious, nor will the absence of a respectable number of them totally destroy a woman's standing among other women. Character, piety, skill as a mother and household manager, reputation, and similar considerations are also sources of prestige. As with desirable clothing, however, the wearing of a substantial amount of gold jewelry is important, and failure to do so is a serious detriment to getting or keeping prestige.

Prestige is also connected to staging the rituals at which the elegant clothing and jewelry are worn. The marriage of a child, either a son or a daughter, can be the occasion for a celebration on a genuinely large scale. If a woman


decides to hold such an event, and it is extremely rare for a man to make this decision, she will be occupied cooking great quantities of the most elaborate foods for many days and all night the final night before the ceremony. She will be aided in her efforts by most of the Swahili women in her neighborhood who will dance and sing as they work. The celebration traditionally lasts for a full week, and even now it sometimes continues for two or three days. The food, clothing, decorations, and orchestra involved can cost so much that few families giving them fail to exhaust their surplus funds. Sometimes debts are incurred to the extent that homes have to be mortgaged and, occasionally, ultimately lost. Funerals are not, of course, occasions for festivities, but women do stage very expensive ones providing the best sorts of food for virtually the whole community for an entire week.

Both men and women come to the weddings and funerals, but women phrase their interest in staging them with respect to other women. Women say, "I have gone to their weddings (funerals) for many years and now I must pay them back." A woman who gives an outstanding ritual will be remembered as someone with a real accomplishment to her credit, and a woman who fails to give any is likely to be consigned to the category of the impoverished or incompetent.

Both finery and rituals depend on money, which women do not normally control. Occasionally, an heiress will have sufficient funds of her own to outfit herself as she wishes and to stage rituals as she sees fit, but the vast majority of women get the funds they need for these things from their husbands. The crucial fact for present purposes is that although men do not share women's enthusiasm for spending money on clothing and rituals, it is only through them that most women can get the money necessary for the things that will protect or enhance their prestige among other women.

Men do not usually talk together about women, but when they do so, a good part of the time is spent railing against their extravagances, especially as concerns the women's interest in finery and rituals. No one who has heard Swahili men discussing expenditures for their wives' clothing and ceremonies can doubt that men are, at best, unenthusiastic about using money for those purposes, at least in the quantities the wives seek. The wives themselves are perfectly well aware that their husbands are not at all inclined to spend money on clothing, marriages, and funerals and that they must be brought to do so. This in the face of the fact that the women agree with the men that husbands are ideally and actually quite powerful and have every right to do just as they wish in their households without regard to what their wives may want.

The importance of admirable clothing and expensive jewelry rests in other women's response to it, but at least part of this response derives from what women understand about men's expressions of love. When women are very angry at one another and want to hurl the most telling insult, they say, "No man could love you." A woman who is unloved by her husband is taken to


be a pitiful creature without the physical or character traits that are most prized by both sexes. Men's love for their wives, several different informants report, is shown in a number of ways, of which the most publicly visible is giving expensive jewelry and clothing.

It is perfectly well understood that men of modest means cannot give as much as wealthier men can, but, as other women understand it, women who are loved will manage to get at least an acceptable minimum of visible signs of their husbands' love. Thus, at least part of the reason that a woman's standing among other women is influenced by the clothing and jewelry she wears is that they are taken to indicate her standing with her own husband. The fact that the women themselves view the men as well within their rights in refusing the needed money is part of the reason women seek the money, since its availability to them shows they are loved, with all that entails.

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