Straight women in Tanzania are marrying each other — and it's happening a lot

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"We divide everything equally," Tanzanian Mugosi Maningo told Marie Claire, speaking of her relationship with her wife, whom she married in June 2015. "We both have peaceful natures, and so far we haven't had any arguments."

Forty-nine-year-old Maningo is childless and was a widow before marrying her much younger wife, Anastasia Juma, aged 27, in Nyamongo, northern Tanzania.

It's an increasingly common practice known as "nyumba ntobhu" — translated as "woman marrying woman" — though it doesn't conform to the Western conception of same-sex matrimony: These women identify as straight.

There is uncertainty as to when exactly this practice began, "but its main purpose is to enable widows to keep their property," Dinna Maningo, a local reporter, explained to Marie Claire.

Straight Women in Tanzania Are Marrying Each Other — and It's Happening a lot
Source: Google Maps

The cattle-herding Kurya tribe, with members spread across Tanzania, instituted this tribal law hundreds of years ago in order to protect women from losing property if their husbands died or abandoned them; another tribal law stipulates only males can be inheritors. Women, therefore, can take a younger wife who already has sons, or who can have sex with a male partner to produce a male heir for both wives.

In Juma's case, she was raising three young boys on her own before marrying Maningo. She ran away from her abusive husband with her firstborn and had two other children with two different men — both of whom abandoned her.

Now, both live on land Maningo inherited from her deceased husband, who abandoned her while he was still alive, after discovering she could not get pregnant.

"Nobody can touch us. If any men tried to take our property or hurt us, they would be punished by tribal elders because they have no rights over our household. All the power belongs to us."

"They realize the arrangement gives them more power and freedom," Dinna Maningo told Marie Claire. "It combines all the benefits of a stable home with the ability to choose their own male sexual partners."

While it is understood these married women do everything together, including sleeping in the same bed, Tanzanians insist the relationship stops short of lesbianism and there is nothing homoerotic or homosexual about it. Incidentally, the rise in same-sex marriage between women coincides with a domestic rise in homophobia.

"Indeed, 'nyumba ntobhu' doesn't appear to be a sexual relationship (though I wouldn't rule it out — there's little incentive for women in small, traditional communities to be completely frank with outsiders and journalists)," LGBT and culture writer June Thomas wrote for Slate in 2013.

It would seem this arrangement is popular as it reduces misogynistic practices, such as female genital mutilation, abuse or child marriage, Marie Claire's Abigail Howarth argues.

Straight Women in Tanzania Are Marrying Each Other — and It's Happening a lot
Two women — a married couple — sit in their compound with their children in Tarime, Tanzania.
Source: Tony Karumba /Getty Images

"'Nyumba ntobhu' system will lose its stronghold if men turn away from violence and start treating their wives well," Tanzanian publication the Citizen reported. Some Tanzanian men are also concerned the custom prevents them from marrying, allowing women "to be loose" without the concern of having to find a husband, the Citizen added.

"Nobody can touch us," said Mugosi Isombe, a 50-year-old woman who, over her lifetime, was both the younger wife to an older woman and subsequently the older wife to a younger women. "If any men tried to take our property or hurt us, they would be punished by tribal elders because they have no rights over our household. All the power belongs to us."

Isombe's wife, Paulina Mukosa, refused every suitor presented to her, only agreeing to marry after Isombe's proposal.

"I liked that marrying a woman would give me more control over my own body and affairs," Mukosa said.

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