Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

Zanzibar under Colonial Rule: Schoolgirls a Metaphor for State Independence

April 23, 2009

Professor Corrie Decker examines how child marriage and colonial rule in Zanzibar during the early twentieth century changed the national discourse about the government's role in shaping the sexuality of schoolgirls through public education.

6 Minutes 47 Seconds

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This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College.

African and African American Studies Professor Corrie Decker opened the Women's Studies Spring Lecture Series with a reading of her recent paper, "Maturation of the Modern Schoolgirl in Colonial Zanzibar, 1900-1970."

Professor Decker examines how child marriage and colonial rule in Zanzibar during the early twentieth century changed the national discourse about the government's role in shaping the sexuality of schoolgirls through public education. This discourse reflected the racial and political tension that arose in Zanzibar in the early 1900's.

Professor Decker is currently researching the history of female adolescent culture in East African communities for her upcoming book "We Were the Pioneers: Girls' Education on the Swahili Coast, 1927-1963."



On May 30th, 1956, a girl about ten years of age walked into a colonial police station in Zanzibar and reported that her husband beat and sexually assaulted her. She said, "Whenever I slept with him, I felt pain inside my private parts. And if I refused or resisted, he used to slap me."

The case of Amina, as we will call her, sparked extensive debate among colonial officials and Islamic judges about consummation of child marriages. The penal decree of the Zanzibar protectorate's British administration declared that sexual intercourse with a wife who has not yet reached both puberty and the age of 13 was against the law.

Amina, whose age was reported in the file as anything from nine to 12, was taken to a medical doctor who concluded that she had not yet reached puberty but did have a ruptured hymen. Although the Islamic advisers to the case attempted to discount Amina's evidence as unreliable, the British judge presiding over the case disagreed, writing, "Amina, a simple, young village girl, took the extreme step of leaving her husband and putting herself under the protection of the police. She would not have taken such a step unless something very serious had happened."


The judge, however, did agree that this was not a serious case, because "the girl has suffered no harm," and that she was on the verge of puberty. The husband was sentenced to serve only one day in detention and pay a small fine as a statement of his intent to, quote, "be of good behavior for the period of one year."

The judge in the case against Amina-- Amina's husband was certainly aware of such prevailing concerns about child marriage. Yet, he was clearly appeasing the respectable older gentlemen in the villages who, quote, "advocated these marriages as being the only way to prevent the girls from going astray."

At the heart of the tactic was the need to carefully control the movements of adolescent girls until such time as they can take full responsibility for their actions as adult women. Historically, in Swahili society, protecting pubescent girls from the public gaze and thus protecting their heshima, or respectability, is the job of the initiation instructor.


At the onset of puberty, a girl is taken by her initiation instructor for seven days, during which time she learns menstruation personal hygiene, sex, motherhood, and other lessons to prepare her for marriage. Each year, all of the initiates who have completed this one-on-one instruction come together for a communal dance process known as unyago.

The entire initiation process, which is called ukungwi and the girl's wedding, to be followed soon after, forms the basis of her initiation into womanhood. A girl's compliance with the wishes of her parents and elders and adherence to the codes of purdah, or seclusion, leading up to her first wedding, reflect most intensely on her family. But once she was married, her actions, although still read through the lens of respectability, reflected more on her adult self than on her family or initiation instructor.

Discourses on the marriage and sexuality of girls became a site at which colonial officials, Arab elites, and African elders argued over initiation traditions, the protection of adolescent girls from the public gaze, the hygienic standards of schoolgirls, and the emergence of a female adolescent culture beyond the control of state and community leaders.


As these debates heightened in the late 1950s, attempts to control and direct the maturation of schoolgirls symbolized attempts among urban elites and British officials to manage the gradual maturation of the Zanzibari state as it too became ripe for independence.

When the first government girls' school opened in Zanzibar, in 1927, parents and elders worried about how the school would maintain the respectability of their daughters. Zanzibaris were not opposed to the idea of educating girls, but in building the first government girls' school, officials had to ensure parents that the girls would be protected from the public gaze.

Colonial instruction in hygiene was designed not only to control young women's sexual behavior but also to promote healthy families. Zanzibar's domestic science syllabus, for example, included sections on food, nutrition, and health lessons to help girls raise the standard of family living.


Like their American counterparts, schoolgirls in Zanzibar learned the basics of puberty as part of this effort to replace the, quote, "dying tribal custom." And like American schoolgirls, they were taught about everything but sexual intercourse.

Instruction in maturation, marriage, and mother craft, then, were modern lessons intended to replace the tribal explicit sex education girls previously acquired by performing the initiation dances.

The relationship between the initiate and her instructor, usually an older sister, aunt, or close family friend, was very intimate and could last a lifetime. At the government school, however, information about puberty and sex was hidden behind the scientific language of biology books and hygiene manuals.


The relationship between the adolescent and her body thus became a more privatized one mediated by hygienic and cosmetic products rather than by a female elder. Furthermore, during the "time of politics," in the 1950s and 1960s, girls' bodies became the texts themselves, the topic about which officials obsessed.

Attempts to manage the tensions around the female adolescent body through various methods of sex education until the time of a girl's first marriage, at which point she became an adult woman responsible for her own actions, paralleled colonial attempts to manage Zanzibar's racial tensions until the state became independent in 1963 and responsible for its own actions.



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