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Sex and the Sahara: Striking photographs of the mysterious Islamic tribe where women embrace sexual freedoms, dictate who gets what in divorce and don't wear the veil because men 'want to see their beautiful faces

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For centuries the nomadic Tuareg tribe have crossed the Sahara desert, sometimes being led by the blind who used their heightened sense of smell and taste to pick a safe path across the ever-shifting sands.

Their men became known as the 'blue men of the Sahara' because the dye from their distinctive indigo scarves rub off onto their faces giving them a mysterious air. The Tuareg evoke images of a long forgotten and romantic age.

But behind the ancient way of life is a culture so progressive it would even make some people in liberal western cultures blush. Women are allowed to have multiple sexual partners outside of marriage, keep all their property on divorce and are so revered by their sons-in-law that the young men wouldn't dare eat in the same room.

Mothers: These two children were pictured in December 1967. Tuareg children traditionally stay with their mothers after a divorce

Mothers: These two children were pictured in December 1967. Tuareg children traditionally stay with their mothers after a divorce

Religion: Much of the tribe, said to descend from one queen called Tin Hinan who lived in the fourth century, has now converted to IslamReligion: Much of the tribe, said to descend from one queen called Tin Hinan who lived in the fourth century, has now converted to Islam

Religion: Much of the tribe, said to descend from one queen called Tin Hinan who lived in the fourth century, has now converted to Islam

History: The Tuareg have travelled across the Sahara for more than 1,000 years, the camels leading the way to fresh pastures

Owner: A nomadic Tuareg woman in front of her tent, with younger children sit inside. The mother's tent is the heart of the family

Owner: A nomadic Tuareg woman in front of her tent, with younger children sit inside. The mother's tent is the heart of the family

Freedoms: Before young Tuareg women marry, they are allowed to take as many different lovers as they want - as long as they abide by the strict rules of privacy which govern their society

Freedoms: Before young Tuareg women marry, they are allowed to take as many different lovers as they want - as long as they abide by the strict rules of privacy which govern their society

Lyrical: A Tuareg woman at a music festival in 2003. Young couples write beautiful poetry to each other

Lyrical: A Tuareg woman at a music festival in 2003. Young couples write beautiful poetry to each other

Lifeline: The camels are of vital importance in the Sahara, and are often the only thing a man is left with when he gets divorced

Ownership: Women keep the tent and all the possessions when they split, including the domestic animals which the tribe relies on to survive

Ownership: Women keep the tent and all the possessions when they split, including the domestic animals which the tribe relies on to survive

Any visitor who goes to a camp would be vastly underestimating the power of the women in the tent if they believe their sole duty is to make the food and look after children.

In fact, she owns the home and the animals. And the animals are an invaluable resource to the Tuareg in the middle of the Sahara.  

Journalist Peter Gwin recalled an elderly nomad once telling him: 'Animals are everything to a Tuareg. We drink their milk, we eat their meat, we use their skin, we trade them. When the animals die, the Tuareg dies.'

Many marriages end in divorce among the Tuareg. And when it happens, it is the wife who keeps both the animals and the tent. And it is she who normally decides that she’s had enough. 

It is unlikely there will be any quibbling over who gets what. Pre-nuptial agreements are the norm.

In practice, this often means a man is forced to return home to his mother, possibly with just his camel and nothing else. 

His wife, meanwhile, will keep possession of everything she brought to the marriage and that includes the children. 

The mother's camp, Butler explains, is the root of the community, the home everyone returns to - and this arrangement ensures it stays that way. 

And there is no shame in divorce. Families will often throw their daughters a divorce party, to let other men know they are available once more.

But this is not a matriarchal society, where the women are in charge. 

Butler explains it is still the men 'who sit and talk politics'. But even here, the women can be deferred to. They are often consulted for their views by their sons or husbands, and are quietly pulling the strings behind the scenes.  

However, Tuareg society is matri-lineal, which means the families trace their lines through the women, rather than the men, right the way back to their first queen.

So, Butler explained: 'Traditionally, the man would belong to the woman's group, rather than the other way around.'

The preference for the women's line goes as far as man leaving his possessions to his sister's son as it 'is considered a stronger link to your family than to your own son'.

In other words, it can be guaranteed that your sister's child belongs to your sister, rather than a man's son, who cannot be absolutely guaranteed to share his genes.

But there is one tradition which is certainly far more unusual: it is highly rude for a man to eat in front of a woman who he cannot have sexual relations with, or any of his elders. 

In front of his mother-in-law it is especially shameful.

'I didn't realise this until the I was having dinner with a Tuareg woman, who had brought her son-in-law as her travelling companion,' Butler recalled.

'We were all sitting down to dinner, and the man has his back turned. She said the poor man was completely horrified because he has to eat with his mother-in-law.' 

But it is unlikely he would have ever complained about it, or felt sorry from himself. The very idea is horrendous to the Tuareg.

'You would shame yourself. The Tuareg will go to great lengths to maintain personal dignity. They will suffer,' said Butler.

'If they are not offered water, they won't ask for it - even if they are thirsty.'

Perhaps for this reason, the Tuareg welcome is legendary. They never forget to offer water, and travellers who appear on the horizon will always be

Humiliation: For a Tuareg man, it is highly shameful to eat in front of his mother-in-law, who commands great respect

Humiliation: For a Tuareg man, it is highly shameful to eat in front of his mother-in-law, who commands great respect

Huge family: There are thought to be more than a million Tuareg people, separated into different family groups

Huge family: There are thought to be more than a million Tuareg people, separated into different family groups

Yet could all of this be under threat? In recent years, the Tuareg - who have been arguing, and fighting, for independence for decades - have aligned themselves with extremist Islamist groups, as they try to further their cause.

Those partnerships have since crumbled, but now the Tuareg living in south-western Libya face a new threat - that of ISIS - while those living in Mali, Niger and northern Nigeria now have to contend with the rise of Boko Haram.

And then there is the general, cultural shift: Butler has noticed more of the women taking up the hijab.

And while she has been assured the women are wearing it for a fashion statement, rather than for religious reasons, she cannot be sure.

'It makes me very sad - you can see the regression,' Butler said.

Her fears are not alone. Andy Morgan, who managed Tuareg rockers Tinariwen, noted in 2013 some Tuareg considered the 'culture to be backward and irrelevant in the modern world, a folksy throw-back kept alive by meddling Western anthropologists'.

He continued: 'They would prefer their people to adopt Arabic, the language of the Quran and of the wider Muslim community... They deem certain other aspects of Tuareg culture, especially music and dance, to be licentious and ungodly and they object to the relative freedom and social power that Tuareg women enjoy.'

But there is hope this proud tribe, which has survived for more than 1,000 years, will hold fast to the traditions which make them so very different from all others.

After all, they believe their culture is  preferable to anything they have yet to come across.

'They think they are superior to other races,' Butler said. 'They are very proud. They certainly consider themselves superior to us.

'Perhaps they consider other cultures a bit stupid and, dare I say it, primitive.' 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Amadi Slim 24/06/2015 14:34:00
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