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Tuareg: the Islamic Tribe Where Men Wear the Veil

Women own homes and have multiple sexual partners in this historic Saharan tribe.

As a new exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society puts the spotlight on the Tuareg culture, the world's eyes are on Mali and Niger, as the tribe struggles to preserve the ancient traditions of a nomadic culture who gives sexual freedom to women as much as men.

The exhibition is part of the launch of the book Tuareg or Kel Tamasheq and a history of the Sahara, published in May 2015 by Unicorn Press.  

With ethnografical elements collected by Edmond Bernus’ lifetime's work, photography by Jean-Marc Durou and Henrietta Butler, and paintings by Tuareg of Niger, the exhibit also features rarely seen historic documents, artefacts, and Tuareg musicians to shed a light on this unique Saharan tribe.

Butler, who has been fascinated by the Tuareg since she first followed them through the desert in 2001, found in the Tuareg a very distinctive culture with progressive values in terms of gender equality, where women are allowed the same liberties as men, such as having multiple sexual partners before marriage. “They turn a blind eye”, the photographer told the UK’s Daily Mail. “The young girls have the same great freedoms as the boys”.

Although the tribe adopted Islam as their religion, they have firmly held onto their own traditions, such as the custom for men, instead of women, covering their faces.

 Known as ‘the blue men of the Sahara’, the Tuareg men wear a blue Indigo veil to protect their faces from the dust whipped up by desert winds, which often leaves a blue mark on their skin.

Women own the tents, considered the heart of the family, and the animals, which are also theirs to keep in case of divorce. Often, a man is forced to return home to his mother, possibly with a sole camel as his possession.  

Pre-nuptial agreements are the norm, and there is no shame in divorce: Parents will often throw their daughters a divorce party, to let other men know they are available once more. 

A Tuareg woman's hands, ornamented with bracelets and rings. 

Dignity is a fundamental value for Tuaregs, who will not ask for water if not offered. This is perhaps the reason why their hospitality with travelers is legendary.  

In recent years, the Tuareg, a tribe that has travelled across the Sahara for over 1,000 years, have aligned themselves with extremist Islamist groups, as they try to further their cause for independence. But Butler considers the hope lies in the pride of the tribe, which has always held on to its unique traditions.


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