Women, Affect, and Power in Colonial Zanzibar

Elisabeth McMahon. Africa Today. Volume 61, Issue 4. Summer 2015.

In 1912, Hamed took his sister Sadha to court to object that her fifth husband was unsuitable for her (Greene and Rahim 1951). Hamed explained to the judge that his sister was an Arab woman and because of the Islamic principle of kufu (Arabic: kafa’a ‘equality of partners’), her Comorian husband was unacceptable because he was African. Sadha responded that her new husband was sharifu (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) and therefore kufu for her, even though he was not Arab. A similar case came before the courts in 1949, again a brother objecting to his sister’s fourth husband as not kufu (Greene and Rahim 1951). These cases have been considered as a means to demonstrate the weak economic position of aging elite women without property in Zanzibari society because the women had sought husbands among the nonelite population (Glassman 1995:120-33; Strobel 1979:56). However, the focus on the economic aspects of these marriages elides why elite men needed to control their older female kin and the intertwined dynamics of affect and economics. These cases are instead markers of moments of stress among male elites in Zanzibar as colonial officials usurped their power. Male elites expressed their concern about their declining power by trying to rein in their female relatives who had married beneath their social status.1 Furthermore, examining the hidden transcripts of these cases in Zanzibar reveals that another form of affect-love-underlies the apparent economics of marriage.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the woman-in-love trope is documented in Swahili poetry and the case of Princess Salme. This trope created a range of fears and resentments among parents and young men about young women having romantic liaisons that would disturb familial marriage plans for daughters (see Decker in this issue for similar concerns). Princess Salme was a favorite daughter of Sultan Said, the first Sultan of Zanzibar. In the 1860s, she eloped with a German man, shocking Zanzibari society. She ruined her reputation, tarnished her family’s reputation, and made public her sexual liaison through her premarital pregnancy (Gray 1954). She became a cautionary tale of the woman in love, who foolishly marries for romance, rather than what her brothers think best for her. Her story further demonstrated the stupidity of this choice because she was widowed in the fourth year of her marriage and leftpenniless, with three children to care for. She was a woman between worlds because she had married outside of her race and religion and could no longer return to her family. Likewise, Swahili poetry, while often written by pining young men who hoped to persuade a girl to throw over the barriers of class and race for love, demonstrates that most young women did not, in fact, marry for love. Instead, it indicates that while young women might lead on young men romantically, they did not marry against their families’ wishes. Thus, the woman-in-love trope was mostly just that: a trope, a fear much like those of “black perils,” with little basis in fact-an indicator of stress among those most concerned about the peril.

The reality on the ground for most young women is that they followed their parents’ wishes in regard to marriage. According to John Middleton, along the Swahili coast, second and later marriages among Arab families were not controlled for the principle of kufu in the same way as first marriages (Caplan 1975:28-29; Middleton 1992:112-22), which were contracted to demonstrate the power and prestige of families and to maintain an untainted lineage. However, the marriage and divorce records of Zanzibar suggest that all elite Arab women’s marriages were negotiated with kufu in mind (Stockreiter 2007:132). Being elite could have a range of meanings, but in general in the precolonial era, elite Zanzibari men controlled local religious, economic, and political life. These groups, mostly found among the Arab and Indian communities, tended to enforce endogamous marriage among their female kin, though men could marry exogamously. British colonialism, imposed on the islands in 1890, set in motion a series of legal restrictions that increasingly affected the power of the Zanzibari elite. The final abolition of slavery, in 1909, created new pressure among elite men to control the marriage partners of their female kin to protect their families’ reputation-a process with which most female relatives happily cooperated.

Swahili society had dichotomous discourses about love and marriage. Zanzibaris understood that marriage could lead to love, but rarely did love lead to marriage (Cole and Thomas 2009:10-13). In Swahili poetry, love was passionate, romantic, and secretive; love was fun. The love letters I discuss below emphasize the pleasure gained from furtive love. In contrast, the other discourse focused on marriage as a transaction, arranged for the benefit of the family and couple. Arranging a marriage was a laborious process, which could lead to short-term excitement around the wedding preparations, but the pleasure of passion was not always found or expected in these relationships. Zanzibaris would say that this was proper, that marriage was not about love but family, yet they still had an extremely high rate of divorce-which suggests that they had unmet expectations in their marriages. Both men and women instigated divorce, so both genders clearly had unmet expectations. Love may not have been explicitly expected in marriage, but a desire for romance and love apparently remained as a hidden transcript in Zanzibari marriages (Scott 1990).2 When scholars use the reasons given in present-day courts for divorce (Hirsch 1998; Stiles 2009), it appears that issues of maintenance were central to divorce, yet this issue was the main reason women could legitimately claim a divorce in a Muslim court. Thus the silence in the court records about affect continues the illusion that Zanzibaris did not correlate love and marriage to one another. Love and romance are hidden transcripts to Swahili divorce proceedings, demonstrating the uneven power in Zanzibari marriages.

Ann Laura Stoler devised a framework for seeing how intimacy and sexual relationships delineated the boundaries of colonialism and how affect structured relationships between Europeans and their colonial subjects; in it, “gender-specific sexual sanctions and prohibitions not only demarcated positions of power[,] but also prescribed the personal and public boundaries of race” (Stoler 2002:42). In Indonesia, sexual fears or panics were indicative of racial concerns-which rings true for other parts of Africa (Graham 2012; McCulloch 2000), and even the United States (Takaki 1977). My focus here is not on the relationships between Europeans and their subjects, but between women in the cosmopolitan community of elites living on Zanzibar and their nonelite male lovers. Most Zanzibaris had specific religious and ethnic identities, which determined with whom they could or could not have intimate relationships. Zanzibari identity during the twentieth century was based on a variety of factors but became increasingly fragmented and racialized after World War II (Glassman 2011). Using Stoler’s framework, I demonstrate that as tensions over “race” expanded in Zanzibar, elite men extended their control over the sexuality of their female relatives to define and mark racial borders and their waning political power. They used the 1912 and 1949 court cases of affective relationships between elite women and nonelite men to resist the Western imperialist concept of modern marriage for love. Especially in the post-World War II moment, Arab nationalists used their reinforcement of marital norms and male family members’ right to control female relatives as an act of anticolonial resistance and nationalism (Vaughan 2010). The ability of “women in love” to marry across racial boundaries came to represent loss of male elite power.

Omani Arabs began a concerted effort to colonize the East African coast in the late eighteenth century. By the 1840s, the Omani sultan had moved his capital to Zanzibar Town on Unguja Island, the largest of the Zanzibari isles. In 1890, ostensibly to end slavery, the British declared a protectorate over the Omani domains in Africa. The British government instituted a gradual abolition of slavery that lasted from 1897 to 1909, after which no one was legally recognized as being enslaved. Elsewhere I have argued that for the elite of Zanzibar, the emancipation of slaves created a crisis of status (McMahon 2013). As elites sought to shore up their position in the community without the power of force over ex-slaves, they emphasized the value of wealth, lineage, and piety. These elements came to dominate the expressions of heshima (respectability) by both the elite and lower classes. Critically, these values were more malleable than older markers of heshima. Maintaining purity of lineage for female members of the family became central to protecting heshima, and male elites worked hard to secure their female relatives’ acquiescence.

Elites went from having honor through their power to control other people, such as their slaves, to having respectability (McMahon 2013). Respectability was predicated on understanding that reputations were no longer under the control of individuals but now of the community. A person without a positive reputation could find it difficult to get business partners, credit at the markets for daily food, or even a good marital match. Being respectable and maintaining a good reputation made individuals vulnerable to how other people perceived them, their families, and their reputations. For elite families, contracting the best marriages became an increasingly significant element in creating respectability. Therefore, at the moment of emancipation, as elites were negotiating the challenge to their power and rights to control the labor and bodies of their slaves, elite men used the bodies of their female kin to demonstrate their honor; however, the ability to achieve honor was lost with the advent of British colonization. The legal case of 1912 gives insight into elite men’s fears and how examining elite women’s intimate relationships opens a new venue for understanding political power in twentieth-century Zanzibar.

Few sources in Zanzibari history address affect frontally, making writing about affect difficult. Court records, love poetry, and memoirs might offer excellent avenues for writing about affect, but court cases rarely raised the issue of affect, romance, or even sex, because these were not justifiable reasons for getting married or divorced. Love poetry, a prolific source along the Swahili coast, proves the existence of discourses on romantic love, and yet it is silent on how romance, love, and marriage were supposed to tie together (Abdulaziz 1979; Knappert 1972). Even the memoir of Princess Salme (Ruete 2009) gives little information about affect and her courtship and relationship with her husband, for whom she gave up her citizenship and her inheritance as a daughter of the first Sultan of Zanzibar. Given the extremity of her case, the lack of discussion of affect leaves the reader to fill in the blanks with guesses and suppositions. Fortunately, Sir John Gray, a colonial official in Zanzibar, wrote about the case, filling in many details from German, British, and Zanzibari sources (Gray 1954).

On occasion, historians find moments of naked affect, exposed from the past. One such example comes from the case of Ibuni bin Saleh, who was dismissed in the 1920s from his colonial government job for kidnapping a teenage girl (Colonial Office 1930). The evidence of his case was brought forward when he requested that his conviction be expunged from his record because it had affected his reputation and his ability to apply for government positions. His case tells of a cross racial and cross religious love affair. Pertinent documents included testimony from a variety of people at the time of the incident, as well as his love letters to the teenage girl he had kidnapped. In this singular case, the competing discourses of love and marriage play out and make visual how affect impacted the decision making of the couple, their friends who attempted to help them, and the girl’s father, who instigated a suit against Ibuni. The documentation of this case brings alive the stories found in Swahili poetry of love driven apart by the wishes of parental control over marriage choices (Abdulaziz 1979; Knappert 1972). It is through the details of this case that I infer some of the concerns suggested in the court cases from 1912 and 1949 that I discuss in detail below.

“Women in Love”: Princess Salme and Bai Nanbai

Marriage along the Swahili coast in the nineteenth century was about building economic and social alliances between families. Across eastern and central Africa,

many “traditional” African societies had a vocabulary of passionate love[,] which was at least to some extent distinct from that for sexual desire and sometimes included a degree of idealisation, [sic] most utilized these feelings by setting them up in opposition to the centrally important institution of social reproduction-marriage. Marriage … involved others (alive, dead[,] and yet to be born) and was too important to be leftto individual passion. (Vaughan 2010:12)

Passion and love were the follies of youth, but accepting family members’ decisions concerning marriage partners, rather than advocating for a love match, proved an individual’s maturity and adulthood. Implicit in this view was that perhaps young women could have crushes, but when it came time to marry, they should follow their elders’ or male relatives’ decisions. Mwana Kupona, a nineteenth-century elite Swahili woman, lefta poem instructing her daughter on how to be obedient to her husband to find happiness in life and paradise in death (Werner and Hichens 1934). Implicit in these instructions is the understanding that the daughter must first be obedient to her parents and marry the husband of their choosing. At the end of the poem, in stanza 92, Mwana Kupona notes that she is giving these instructions because her daughter is silly, suggesting her daughter was not taking marriage seriously. Perhaps her daughter was hoping to marry for love, rather than according to a parental choice, and this was part of why her mother gave such detailed instructions on how to be a good wife, knowing that her daughter would be initially dissatisfied by marrying for family, rather than for passion.

In the 1860s, Zanzibari society was scandalized by the princess who rejected all for love. Princess Salme, the youngest daughter of Sultan Said, fell in love with her German neighbor and took him as a lover (Gray 1954; Ruete 2009). 3 When she discovered she was pregnant, she fled to Aden, where she and her lover were married. She was cut off by her male family members for “marrying beneath herself” and converting to Christianity for her husband (Gray 1954:54). She was not allowed to return to Zanzibar for nineteen years, and even then it was for only a brief visit, and she was accompanied by several German gunboats. She became the example par excellence of the fate of a woman who foolishly marries for love against her family’s wishes. Her story vindicated family members who could point to her position as a widow within four years of marriage. Her husband was killed in a streetcar accident in Hamburg, leaving her with three children, no income, and no family support. If she had married for respect-instead of love-within Zanzibari society, she and her children would have been supported by her family.

Salme, though held up as a lesson to women, was a representative of male anxieties about what could happen with their female relatives. Affect had the power to create a perilous situation and the loss of respectability for family members. Salme claimed that her brother Barghash continued to reject her because he felt she had betrayed him in the succession dispute between himself and his older brother, Majid, the sultan when she had fled Zanzibar; however, both Majid and Barghash were shamed by her conversion to Christianity. Barghash was devout, and this point concerned him deeply. Her actions were a problem, and she was an example of what not to do, but there is little suggestion that families felt a need to persecute their female family members until the advent of British colonialism and the ending of slavery reshaped notions of honor and respectability in Zanzibari society.

The case of Bai Nanbai demonstrated the shiftover time in how elite families dealt with wayward female relatives (Zanzibar Gazette 1907). Bai, a Khoja4 woman, initially married a Khoja man chosen by her family, but she was soon widowed without children. Her family had property and wealth, and given the low number of Khoja women available as marriage partners in Zanzibar, she should easily have been able to marry a Khoja man; however, in the early 1890s, she decided to marry outside of her community, to a Comorian man. Comorians held a liminal place in the racial hierarchy of Zanzibar. They came from the Comoros islands, located offthe southeastern coast of Africa. As with Zanzibar, these islands were Islamized in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Some Comorians claim to be Sharifu, descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, and thus elites among Muslim communities broadly. Many Zanzibari elites, however, viewed Comorians as Africans, unacceptable as marriage partners for Indian or Arab women. The record of Bai’s case says she married the Comorian man “privately,” suggesting her family was not present at her wedding and her marriage was not publicly acknowledged by her family.

Bai’s family was upset with her choice in marriage partner, and her father was scandalized and disgraced by her behavior and choice to “live as a native.” He put a condition in his will that she could inherit from him only if she

behaved like other Khoja women[,] i.e. dressed like one, went to the places of worship Khoja women frequent, attended their weddings, funerals[,] and religious ceremonies[,] and generally kept their customs. On her death[,] the income was to go to her children if she had had any of a Khoja husband.

However, nine years after her father died, she still was married to the Comorian man, had taken to dressing as “a native,” and did not attend Khoja ceremonies. Technically, she had given up her inheritance from her father and the connections within her religious and ethnic community to stay with her husband. One cannot presume that their marriage was one of love or even companionship; however, it likely was a relationship that offered her support and perhaps passion. Whereas the record does not state whether Bai Nanbai’s husband was economically successful, she had apparently been able to occupy the house and land her father had left (and she won her court case in 1907 to receive full legal title to the land and house), so she did not need a wealthy husband. Bai Nanbai had married her husband in the 1890s, before the crisis brought on by emancipation, but the court case between her and her family occurred in 1907, at the height of the changes brought by the abolition of slavery. Her family’s public effort to disinherit her and force her out of the house she had occupied for a decade and a half, to little avail, reiterates the ways in which elite men tried to control their female relatives’ sexuality. Her story is of an elite, Muslim woman who was married originally under the practice of kufu, but chose to ignore kufu and her father’s wishes in her second marriage.

The stories of Princess Salme and Bai Nanbai offer historians glimpses at the trope of “women in love” in Zanzibar. These women’s cases, discussed and dissected in public, allowed elite families to use them as cautionary tales, yet neither woman demonstrated regret for her decision to cross racial lines and marry against her male guardians’ wishes. Even though the women did not express regret, elite Zanzibari society set them up as shamed women for their actions, and they lived as exiles from their natal communities- for Princess Salme, in Europe, and for Bai Nanbai, by being removed from participating in Khoja society.


Marriage in the Zanzibar Islands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries generally followed Islamic practices. To get married in a Muslim ceremony, two people had to come before the kadhi (Islamic judge), imam (religious leader), or liwali (government official) and declare their intentions to marry. They had to state whether a dower was being paid, how much was being paid, and how much was being deferred. They needed to bring witnesses who could declare that the woman was not currently married to any other man. Polygamy was allowed for men, though no more than four wives were allowed at any given time. Marriage required a ceremony involving an official, but divorce required simply that a husband declare three times in front of witnesses that he divorced his wife. Wives could not similarly divorce their husbands, but they could request a divorce from a kadhi or liwali as long as they could prove one of several complaints against their husbands, including desertion, lack of maintenance, and inability to consummate the marriage. While kadhi and other officials tried to keep marriages together, it was not difficult, and was in fact quite common, for marriages to end in divorce (Ingrams 1931:237; Mirza and Strobel 1989:10-11; O’Malley 2000:62; Stockreiter 2007: chap. 4). However, even the reasons for divorce imply a hidden transcript, as women protested that the romance had fizzled (lack of maintenance), intimacy had been unattainable (issues of consummation), or love had gone completely (desertion). By framing divorce as an economic issue alone, scholars elide the important affective binding aspects and power in relationships.

Living outside a familial arrangement was rare. Most women and men practiced serial marriage; if a divorce occurred, women usually remarried at the end of their three-month waiting period (iddat). In 1948, only 6 percent of African women and 2 percent of Arab women in rural areas were living in female-headed households, indicating the prevalence of remarriage or return to living with other family members (Zanzibar Protectorate 1948). Because it was so difficult for elite women in particular to earn a living, given the stringency of living in purdah, if they did not own property or wealth in their own name, these women had to remarry to gain daily sustenance. Moreover, they were likelier to be swindled by other people, especially family members- which leftthem at the mercy of finding a husband who would support them (Glassman 1995:123-26; Strobel 1979:60-61). Adding the issue of kufu to the equation for finding a husband could leave elite women in a much more vulnerable position than their lower-status peers.

In sharia, kufu means ‘suitability’ or ‘compatibility’ in marriage. Generally, the argument is that a male guardian must find a marriage partner who is in the same (or better) socioeconomic class as the female to be married and the “personality and attitudes [of the husband] should in no way cause her any harm” (Hallaq 2009:274-75). The practical implication is that women had a right to maintenance from their husbands equal to that which they had received growing up from their fathers; therefore, a husband of lower status would be at the mercy of his wife, who could potentially sue him-rightfully-for divorce because he could not maintain her properly (Strobel 1979:57-58). Among Ibadi Muslims (the sect of Islam followed by elite Omani Arabs in Zanzibar), this meant that “no non-Arab is the equal of an Arab woman” (Anderson 1970:72).5 Consequently, elite Arab men in Zanzibar believed that their daughters and sisters should marry men only of equal or higher rank, even if their mothers were themselves African. They were not claiming socioeconomic rank, but basing their ideas on racial or ethnic designation.6 This interpretation of kufu differs from that found in other forms of sharia. This qualification made it difficult for elite women to find marital partners after their first marriages. In general, they had a small pool of available men, who often preferred to marry poorer women, who in turn would have less claim to social status and power within the relationship. It was an obvious enough problem that the British Chief Justice of the Zanzibar courts, in his comments on the 1949 legal case, quoted a legal text to the effect that “if the old and strict views of ‘equality’ [are] insisted on, it would cause much inconvenience and harm to the women” (Anderson 1970: 72; Greene and Rahim 1951). Kufu was a guiding principle in Zanzibari elite society, but elite women were sometimes forced by circumstance to ignore the principle to find a husband.

Marriage between Muslims had clearly gendered expectations. Men were supposed to support their wives, and wives were supposed to maintain the home and have children. Husbands were the guardians of their wives- which could affect court cases, business dealings, and even permission for a woman to go to school (Decker 2014; McMahon and Decker 2009). Arab men historically had taken African women as wives and viewed this as acceptable because the women were likewise in a subordinate position to themselves. When Arab and Indian men married enslaved or free African women, the women were subordinate; thus, it fit with the principles of Islamic marriage that men controlled the women in their household. This long history of male dominance through marriage, especially Arab male dominance over African women, became a familiar trope in the nationalist politics of the 1950s and 1960s (Glassman 2011:137-44). It then explains why Arab families were so concerned when their daughters sought to marry African men: first, because the power dynamics of the household would be thrown off, but also because of the power dynamics of society. Much as European women came to represent the colonial state in Africa and Asia (Chaudhuri and Strobel 1992; Cooper and Stoler 1997; McCulloch 2000), Arab women came to represent Arab hegemony in Zanzibar (Decker 2014; Glassman 2011:141-43; Maoulidi 2011), and if they intermarried with African men in visible, accepted ways, then the power of the elite would be lost.

“Marrying beneath Herself”: Women in Need, or Women in Love?

Africanist scholarship has presented the court cases of Sadha (1912) and Asha (1949) as cases of “women in need.” The court officers focused on economic issues in both cases, leading John Gray to imply that Asha would have been forced to prostitute herself if she were not allowed to marry (Stockreiter 2007). The issue of an Arab woman “marrying beneath herself” shamed the family, but colonial officials saw this as an economic necessity. Africanist scholarship has worked hard to legitimate the need of African families to construct marriage as an economic entity, yet this leaves a lingering racism, supposing that African women were interested in marriage simply for remuneration, as opposed to Western women, who “married for love” and thus were “modern” (Cole and Thomas 2009:9). The context of love in marriage never enters the scholarship on pre-1950s Zanzibar, ostensibly because marriage was focused on linking families, rather than creating a love match. Yet the trope of women in love who disobey their families, the long history of ardent love poetry, and the high divorce rate offer another lens through which to examine Swahili marital practices, especially after the crucial first marriage, which clearly follows the notion that marriage ideally links families. Rather than seeing women who marry beneath themselves as an economic issue, I suggest it represents women challenging patriarchal power by seeking to consider affect in their marital choices.

The details of Sadha’s case are sketchy. The records tell readers that her brother objected to her marriage with a Comorian man in 1911, and that the kadhi who heard the case agreed with him. Before the declaration of the British protectorate, the kadhi’s decision would have ended the matter; however, with a reorganization of the court system in 1910, after the final abolition of slavery, the British government extended its power into the kadhi courts (McMahon 2013). Sadha’s appeal went before a British judge who was sympathetic to her cause. Colonial officials wanted to marry offdestitute women to keep a lid on prostitution, but they had a deep concern for protecting elite families from losing honor. The judge therefore had to decide what was more important: keeping an elite woman offthe streets, or allowing a “shameful” marriage for an elite family. As far as officials were concerned, marrying offa woman, regardless of the husband’s status, was preferable to any form of prostitution, but British officials, in deciding against the kadhi and Sadha’s brother, further eroded elite men’s power.

The court record gives no detail that implies Sadha had a deep affection for her spouse, so why do I suggest a hidden transcript exists to this court case? Because she appealed the case. Sadha, a woman on her fifth marriage, had not consulted her brother when she had married her Comorian husband. The case became an issue when Hamed, the brother, went to the kadhi and asked that the marriage be set aside. If Sadha had been her brother’s obedient ward, she would have accepted his request and the kadhi’s decision. Instead, she appealed the case, publicly challenging the male Islamic authority of her brother and the kadhi. This case suggests a hidden transcript, as Sadha insisted on her right to marry a Comorian man. Her defiance of male authority was not hidden, and frankly would likely be unappealing to a man hoping to exert his dominant role as her husband. Her husband’s continuing support demonstrates his affection for her. Moreover, in her case, economic arguments were never invoked as a reason for her marriage. Her multiple marriages could indicate a number of issues: that she was unlucky, that she could be domineering, or perhaps that she sought emotional connections with her husbands. It is impossible to know, but when her brother insisted on protesting her marriage, he demonstrated his concern about her contesting his authority, just as found in the trope of the “woman in love.” Her challenge to her brother over her marriage mimicked the family dynamics of other cases involving a “woman in love.”

Sadha defied her brother at the moment when the British were consolidating their power in Zanzibar, but Asha confronted her brother’s authority as nationalists were beginning to agitate for Zanzibar’s independence. These key moments-when elite men refused their sisters’ marital choices-illustrate the concerns that elite males were having about their social power. Asha’s intended spouse was Abdalla bin Mfaume, an African (Mgunya) tailor. He was respectable but most definitely not the equal of an elite-born Arab woman. He owned a small piece of land on the mainland and had no children. His lack of children tells historians something about the relationship with Asha. For Swahili coast residents, having children was crucial. Asha had a daughter and grandchildren, and it is likely that Abdalla, too, wished for children. As a man, he could keep trying to have children by marrying a younger wife. Instead, he chose to marry a woman past her childbearing years (as the judge described her). His affection for Asha had been so strong that he had given up the opportunity to marry a younger woman to be with her. This aspect of their relationship does not tell us that Asha loved him, but her willingness to fight for their marriage indicates her appreciation of his affection for her. Both Asha and Sadha challenged their brothers’ authority to decide their marriage partners, just as Zanzibar’s other “women in love” had done.


Most of the court cases from Zanzibar do not offer notes on the litigants’ affective state, but actions in and elements of the cases offer insights into the hidden transcripts of emotion. Zanzibari society framed marriage as a discussion of familial alliances, but the stories of Sadha and Asha suggest that as some women moved out of their childbearing years, they sought affective partnerships, rather than the kind of alliances that might satisfy their male relatives’ need for power and respect. The ability of Sadha and Asha to win their cases offers insight into the changing power dynamics of elite society under the British protectorate. By Asha’s time, it was less a case about concerns of her brother for his sister and more about the family’s reputation. By 1949, reputation was a central part of an ever-escalating “war of words” over race in Zanzibar politics (Glassman 2011). The relationship of this Arab woman with an African man brought to the fore Arab fears about losing power over women’s bodies. Once the loss of slaves had occurred, women’s bodies were the last avenue for Arab and elite men to express their power (McMahon 2013). Arab men did not fear miscegenation, since they had no problems “marrying down” themselves: instead, it was the loss of control over Arab women’s sexuality and symbolic representation of the Arab race that was devastating and had to be prevented.

This article focuses on the cases of elite women who challenged their brothers and other male relatives to marry the men of their choice. In most of these cases, the women had dutifully married their family’s choice for their first husband; however, in a later marriage, they questioned their male relatives’ right to choose their marital partner. The cases came into public view through the courts and appeared at critical moments for elite men as they were losing power to colonial officials and eventually sought to regain lost power through nationalist efforts. Examining the public representation of male elites over their right to protect their families’ reputations through the control of their sisters’ marriages confirms that race played a significant role in Zanzibari society. These cases shed light on the role that affect played in Zanzibari relationships: while the public transcript suggests that marriage was about building family alliances, a hidden private transcript suggests that Zanzibaris sought affect in their marital relationships.