Bednarski, Eric & Barry Cowling
2006 The Al-Hadji and His Wives. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.
Notes: DVD color, 50 minutes
Reviewed 6 Dec 2009 by:
Jack David Eller <email@example.com>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Families - Cameroon - Bamunka
Patriarchy - Religious aspects
Bororo (African people) - Social life and customs
Women - Social conditions - Cameroon - Bamunka
Muslims - Cameroon - Biography
Bamunka (Cameroon) - Social life and customs
Bamunka (Cameroon) - Religious life and customs
ABSTRACT: This colorful and watchable film which claims to examine patriarchy and female resistance in a Fulani family in Nigeria conveys much more patriarchy than female resistance.
In their groundbreaking study of gender and culture Women of the Forest, Yolanda and Robert Murphy (2004) importantly and controversially argued that the apparent subjugation of women in Mundurucu society was not so much subjugation as separation: women were not so much inferior to men as independent of men. Within their own gender sphere, women were relatively free of men and male cultural domination. Whether such freedom is actually freedom (many segregated African-Americans in the U.S. would question whether racial segregation was racial freedom) is open to debate. Likewise, the assertion made on the jacket of “The Al-Hadji and His Wives” that the film depicts “women’s resistance and resilience under an oppressive patriarch” leaves open the issue of whether resistance is actually resistance or some other (less noble and less effective) accommodation.
“The Al-Hadji and His Wives” examines an Mbororo Fulani family under the leadership of al-Hadji Isa, a devout Nigerian Muslim currently living in northwest Cameroon. It focuses primarily on kinship and marriage, especially polygyny and arranged marriage. The al-Hadji himself has had six wives, although not all at the same time, as some have left over the years. Early in the proceedings, the movie illustrates the famous residential system in which a husband and each of his wives maintains a separate house and wives alternate cooking for the man; a brief scene shows the husband eating alone. It also introduces the notion of cousin marriage: his first wife (17 years his junior) was his mother’s brother’s daughter. Two points are raised, first that it is good to marry within the family, and second that marriage is superior to dating or having affairs: as he explains, “In Islam, they say that rather than having lovers, one should marry.” If a married man likes a woman, he can and should marry her too, creating an interesting contrast to the sexual morality of the West.
The video provides many authentic glimpses of domestic life. The women who are shown milking cows also own cows (unlike many societies, where animal-ownership is a male prerogative). Women are seen harvesting and doing other work. When asked, one woman avows that she would like her daughter to marry a married man, indeed a man with two previous wives; his other marriages prove his capability as a provider. Meanwhile, women want their daughters to get an education as well, and the viewer sees the local school where girls are able to study.
The film is not particularly linear in its story-telling, as should already be clear, so next it features a young woman stating that she wants her eventual husband to have a second wife someday because “it is our tradition.” Women are then shown washing and praying, followed by children reading the Quran after dark. Al-Hadji discusses his intentions to travel to Mecca, perhaps in six years when he has saved enough, and then, in my favorite and a fairly rare scene, a woman performs the medicinal act of writing Arabic words on a board in ink, washing off the ink, and drinking it (called dawa), a practice also documented in Ladislav Holy’s (1991) study of the Berti of Sudan.
Al-Hadji, a Muslim man as well as a politically-inclined fellow, praises Yasir Arafat and poses for a photo dressed like the Palestinian leader. In fact, an entire wall is covered with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, who are described as good men. American and other Western viewers will surely find this segment fascinating, as he explains his thinking on the U.S. and its global hegemony: America “tried to rule the whole world” like England did before it, “but the day will come. America will fall apart like Russia.” He even opines on the Bush administration which, he claims, stole the 2004 election from John Kerry, as the entire world believes.
Back to family matters, the son of al-Hadji affirms that he himself wants two wives and ten children. When asked why a woman cannot also have two husbands, his answer is “Because a man owns his wife, not the wife her husband,” and the ownership flows from the fact that everything she has comes from the man—just like a herd animal, to which he compares a wife. Which takes us, late in the film, to the main ‘plot’ element, the refusal of al-Hadji’s daughter Amina to go through with her arranged marriage. Al-Hadji is understandably upset, fulminating on the immaturity and willfulness of youth who just want to play and be free, but he also says that he would not force a daughter to marry against her will. One year later, the filmmaker returns to the community, since Amina has in fact married her fiancé, if not quite voluntarily. As the story is eventually retold, she has only been back in her marital household for a week, after her brother delivered her back to her husband. She still does not like him and chafes under the restrictions on her. Her husband had forbidden her to go to the market, which by Islamic law is a man’s domain, and beaten her when she disobeyed. That was why she fled, and her father and brother found her, “gave her a small beating,” and brought her home. The closing minutes of the movie show Amina in her married household (not looking especially happy). We see a gruesome scene of a sheep slaughter and many lingering glimpses of life in the homestead—herding and milking, rain leaking through the roof, women sitting and socializing indoors, braiding a child’s hair. The film then rather unceremoniously ends.
“Al-Hadji and His Wives” is an interesting if rather disjoint portrait of a family and a culture, and it is not as powerful as it could have been. There is relatively little narration, but conversations and comments are adequately translated (and many indigenous statements are in English or mixed English, which can be understood directly), and al-Hadji and his kin are sufficient colorful characters to merit close watching. The theme, however, of patriarchy and female rebellion is subtly illustrated at best. Or perhaps we should say, the patriarchy is clear, but the rebellion is a little less so. Unhappiness is not rebellion, nor is surrender—at least not successful rebellion or rebellion that leads to any kind of structural change. It is at most a Murphy-esque kind of resistance, the kind of resistance to, say, gangs achieved by staying indoors with your head down while they exchange gunfire outside. In the end, perhaps, rebellion starts small and slow, but the wives and daughters of al-Hadji have a long way to go before we can call them anything close to liberated.
Level/Use: Suitable for high school and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of sex and gender, anthropology of kinship, anthropology of Islam, and Fulani/Nigerian/African studies, as well as general audiences.
Holy, Ladislav. 1991. Religion and Custom in a Muslim Society: The Berti of Sudan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Murphy, Yolanda and Robert F. Murphy. 2004. Women of the Forest, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Columbia University Press.