Polygamous wives show fleeting liberation in Cameroon documentary

Jack David Eller – WNN Reviews

Scene from Cameroon documentary on marriage culture
A scene from the film documentary, “The Al Hadji and His Wives,” by East Asian filmmaker Jie Li.

In a groundbreaking 2004 study of gender and culture, “Women of the Forest,” book authors Yolanda and Robert Murphy importantly and controversially argue that the apparent subjugation of women in Mundurucu society is not so much subjugation as separation; Women were not so much inferior to men as independent of men.

The Documentary Educational Resources film production by East Asian woman filmmaker Jie Li, “The Al-Hadji and His Wives,” examines a Mbororo Fulani family under the leadership of Al-Hadji Isa, a devout Nigerian Muslim living in northwest Cameroon. It focuses primarily on kinship and marriage, especially polygyny (polygamy) and arranged marriage.

Within their own gender sphere women are shown 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. 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.

Al-Hadji himself has had six wives, although not all at the same time as some have left over the years. The movie illustrates the famous residential system in which a husband and each of his wives maintains a separate house as wives alternate cooking for the man. A brief scene shows the husband eating alone. It also introduces the notion of cousin marriage: Al-Hadji’s first wife (17 years his junior) is his mother’s brother’s daughter.

Two points are raised (by the family) in the story: first that it is good to marry within the family and second that marriage is superior to dating or having affairs.  As Al-Hadji 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. She explains that a man with two previous wives and other marriages can prove his capability as a provider. Meanwhile, women want their daughters to get an education. The viewer sees the local school where girls are able to study.

The documentary is not particularly linear in its story-telling though. A chronology that should already be clear features a young woman stating that she wants her eventual husband to have a second wife someday because “it is our tradition.”

Women are 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.

In my favorite 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 the segment fascinating as Al-Hadji 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 says. He even offers his opinion on the Bush administration, which he claims stole the 2004 election from John Kerry, a view (he says) the entire world believes.

The son of Al-Hadji affirms too 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.” He continues to explain that ownership flows from the fact that everything she has comes from the man just like a herd animal – to which he compares a wife.

Late in the film, the main plot element follows 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 wants 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. Amina has, in fact, married her fiance not quite voluntarily. As the story is retold, Amina has fled and her father and brother have found her. They then “gave her a small beating” and bring her home, but 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 placed on her. Her husband has forbidden her to go to the market, which by Islamic law is a man’s domain and has beaten her when she disobeys.

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 and the 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; although 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).

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 that can be said that gangs achieve by staying indoors with their heads 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.

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This video is a short glimpse at the documentary film, “The Al-Hadji and His Wives,” by East Asian woman filmmaker Jie Li. It provides a window into the everyday lives of a Mbororo Fulani patriarch, Al-Hadji Isa, along with his wives and their rebellious daughters. Covering religious and moral practices it chronicles Amina, a 16-year-old daughter of the family who is forced into an unwanted marriage. While her attempted escape has been in vain, Amina inscribes her silent protest on the walls of her mother’s hut as a testimony of her fervent, yet temporary, resistance. This video is a March 18, 2009 update on Youtube by DER – Documentary Educational Resources.

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Reviewer Jack David Eller is the author of the 2010 book, “Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History.” He is also author of six other books, including, “Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives” and “Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate.” Eller is assistant professor of anthropology at University of Colorado, Denver as well as a book reviewer for Anthropology Review Database.

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Filmmaker Jie Li grew up in Shanghai and New York City and is a B.A. and Ph.D. graduate in East Asian studies with a secondary field in film studies at Harvard University. Her research interests focus on cultural memories of the Maoist Era, East Asian cinema under Japanese colonization, contemporary Chinese films, and cinematic representations of modern East Asian history. Her documentary made in Cameroon, The Al-Hadji and His Wives, has been broadcast on television and screened in film festivals around the world. Apart from making films, she has published fiction in Chinese and essays in English.
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Eller, Jack David, Review of “The Al-Hadji and His Wives,” Anthropology Review Database. This review has been brought to you through an ongoing partnership with ARD.

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Re-issue of this material granted only by permissions of WNN, ARD or Jack David Eller.

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