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10 A Wife is Clothes Family Politics, Cultural Organization, and Social Structure
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Divorce, Death, and Gender Differences in the Significance of Marriage

Divorce itself can contribute to the prevalence of warm and supportive marital relationships among those that endure. Men are empowered to end


their marriages simply by saying, "You are not my wife" (Si mke wangu ) three times.[8] The most common reason for their doing so is the absence of love. Women have no formal right to end a marriage, but, in fact, they are usually able to do so by insisting that their husbands divorce them. A husband who refuses to listen to his wife's demand for a divorce finds himself living with a woman who will not speak to him, contribute to the functioning of the household, or participate in sex.

There are pressures other than personal satisfaction that affect marriages and their termination, of course, but one of the pieces of advice sometimes given the groom at the marriage ritual in the mosque is, "You have married peacefully; if it is necessary, then dirorce peacefully as well." Divorce terminates about one in three Swahili marriages,[9] with more than sixty percent occurring in the first five years. There is sometimes an active effort by kin to try to convince married couples, especially young ones, not to divorce, but when it becomes clear that either partner's dissatisfaction is not temporary or trivial, the effort usually stops.

The marital relationship is crucial to both partners but on different grounds. For the wife, it generally provides the sole means of material support and of assurance she will have her children with her. Without a husband, or such rarely present alternative source of funds as an outside job or an inheritance, a divorced woman is forced to appeal to her male consanguines. Grown sons or brothers willing to contribute to her support and having means beyond what is needed for their own wives and children can provide a reasonably comfortable life, but this is rare. If, as is most common for divorced women, she lacks these alternatives and is unable to remarry, she is destined to a life of poverty.

A divorced woman has the right to support from her ex-husband for four months and ten days (the period deemed necessary to establish whether or not she left the union pregnant), and support for the children is due her until they are seven years old. After that, she has no clear right to assistance from her divorced spouse. He has the right to take the children to raise, and if he does, he supports them. If he allows his ex-wife to keep the children, he may provide funds for their care, but he has no legal obligation either in civil or Koranic law to do so. His support for the children is a matter open to negotiation and depends, among other things, on whether the woman has remarried. Whatever is done about the children, a divorced woman often finds herself in difficult financial circumstances. If she does remarry, her situation is rather often as good or better than it was before divorce even if, as will be seen, she has children in need of support.

Women are less able to initiate a new marriage than man are, partly because women have less freedom to seek a new spouse, and older divorced women often do not find a new husband since many men prefer younger


women. It is very rare for a divorced person to marry someone who has never married before, but a few cases of men doing so were recorded.

Men encounter few if any material difficulties when they are divorced. In most cases, men remarry without delay and their lives go on as before with, perhaps, whatever caused the breakup of their marriage behind them. Even if they do not remarry, they can get servants or female kin to provide most domestic services. Materially, their condition is little changed since, almost always, they provided the income for the first marriage and, when they remarry, provide it in the second as well.

There can be little question that men are generally not adversely affected by divorce in any lasting way. It is important to remember, however, that they most often bring about the divorce themselves, or, less frequently, finally allow a wife who is making them miserable to leave them. For men, it is rarely rewarding marriages that end in divorce, and given their ability to find a new and perhaps more satisfactory wife, men generally benefit from divorce. Divorced women do not fare as well as men unless they remarry. When death rather than divorce is the cause of a marriage's end, however, women usually suffer decidedly less than men.

The traditional practice, aida, of women dressing in special mourning clothes and spending four months and ten days on their curtained beds is still followed. This long period of isolation is very hard on the women, their children, and any others who depend on their participation in household affairs. When women finally emerge from aida, they often suffer from the practical consequences of losing their husbands' income, but they do not usually show signs of serious and lasting emotional damage. Young widows often remarry, and older ones commonly find what some of them say is a reasonably satisfying life caring for their grandchildren in one of their children's houses.

Men are frequently more adversely affected by the death of a spouse than women are. A number of men seen shuffling feebly down the streets were pointed out to me by other men as widowers whose wives' deaths were said to have precipitated their current sorry state. At the baraza I usually attended, one of the regular attendee's wives died following a long illness. The man was in his middle fifties and had been married to the dead woman for decades, but almost a year after her death, this otherwise dignified and reserved man—or so he had been before his wife's death—would burst into tears without obvious reason.

Other men told me after we had witnessed an instance of the man's seemingly uncaused weeping that it is not uncommon for men to react that way on the loss of their wives. In the same discussion, I was told of several men who had been utterly ruined by the loss of their wives, and my informants said that mental breakdown or, even, drunkenness were familiar, if not common, reactions to this loss. Evidence is rather strong, in short, that despite


the fact that women have to endure a prolonged postmortem isolation, it is husbands who most frequently suffer a lastingly adverse reaction to the loss of their spouses. At least part of the reason for this is that the spouse relationship has a significance for men that it does not have for women.

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