Gender and Religion in Tanzania

Fridays in Mkululu are pretty magical. The students are itching to leave at 11:30, get out of their uniforms and into their clothes for mosque. When the bell rings on Fridays the kids dive out of school and run home. If the teachers at Mkululu Primary School, many of who are Christian from regions outside of Mtwara, hold these kids back even a few minutes you hear calls of ‘Masjid! Masjid!’ and they’re off running. It took me some time to realize that Fridays may not be the best time to teach or to schedule meetings.

It’s easy to make assumptions when we arrive to site and begin absorbing the culture of the village that surrounds us. Coming into a Muslim village I made assumptions about my work, my role as a female mgeni in Mtwara, and relationships in my community. It’s easy to project experiences of other volunteers, what I had read of Tanzania, or perhaps media perceptions of Muslim communities throughout the world, and to create opinions and expectations before I had a chance to understand my village. I came into Mkululu feeling the need to be conservative, nervous to be honest about behaviors and relationships, and with opinions formed on issues like male and female roles. Seeing women in niqabs, or separated from men at mosque, or seated at funerals while men go to bury the body gave me pause to think.

I now try to pull apart my assumptions and let Mkululu just wash over me. I ask questions and I get involved. I now know that for many women in Mkululu, it is their own choice as to whether they wear a niqab, a hijab or a headscarf. I go to mosque on Fridays now, and I now see that separating the men and women brings women together in prayer and makes them feel comfortable. At funerals, women stay back to cook, to sing and to mourn while men carry the body to be buried. These roles and traditions are held with pride and a sense of cultural belonging.

Some of these gender perceptions are real. I am taken much more seriously by men in my community as an equal. I see this when I approach groups of babus, or when my voice is heard in village meetings, or when male teachers at the secondary school ask for my advice in their approach to teaching. Sometimes this respect comes from my role as a health teacher in my community, but other times I know that it is because I am an American woman and that my Tanzanian female friends are not treated as I am.

And this is also not to say that religion is not without its gender complications. Young women in my community have children in their early teens, one of the mosques in my community is vocally against birth control or condom use, and some women struggle to make ends meet in polygamous relationships where husbands support one wife over another. Some of this is in the name of Islam, some in the name of custom and culture here in Tanzania. These complications can affect my work when I am asking to do condom demonstrations at the schools, or when young women often see their role in the future as only mothers and caretakers. The important consideration is not to jump to conclusions about religion’s role here in Tanzania, and to recognize how important and part of everyday life it is.

In many ways, Tanzania is an amazing place when it comes to religion. Muslims and Christians exist in almost complete peace, celebrating one another’s holidays and respecting one another’s cultural differences. And Tanzania prides itself on this respect. When it comes to religion’s interaction with gender, it can be tricky to navigate your work as a volunteer, or your role in your community as an outsider with different gender perspectives. Entering into situations without assumptions and asking questions has helped me to respect a huge part of my community’s life and to involve myself in it. Recognizing how some of my own gender perceptions are personal has helped me to challenge glaring gender inequalities that do exist.

– Emily Beggins

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