Series in which Kate Humble explores three diverse communities in Kenya, Israel and India. In Kenya, Kate looks at the extraordinary custom of woman-to-woman marriage.
Browse content similar to Episode 1. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
This programme contains some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting
'I've spent time in many different countries....'
What a place to be!
'..getting to know people from vastly different cultures.'
So do the men sew as well? Will your husband sew?
'And one thing that's often struck me...
'..is that the roles men and women play in society
'give great insight into their way of life..
'And how the everyday roles of women in particular
'reveal a society's values,
'whether they be determined by religion, status...
As a white, middle-class girl growing up in Britain,
I know that I was enormously privileged.
I was free to make choices, to be independent, to state opinions.
But for many of the world's women, perhaps the majority,
circumstances are very different.
'So in this series I've travelled to three very different places
'where the roles of women are exceptional, complex
'and even extreme.
'The matrilineal Khasi people in northern India,
'where it's the women who take on positions of power.'
You're like a very strict headmistress.
'The intensely private ultra-orthodox Haredim in Israel,
'where women's lives are governed by strict religious laws.
'But first, I'm in Kenya in East Africa,
'where women are caught right on the fault line
'between age-old tradition and the modern world.'
How do you go and find a man?
Is this dangerous for you, Susan?
We're driving south-west across the country,
right up to the Tanzanian border,
and that area is the heartland
of a people known as the Kuria.
They're quite a small number of people.
About half a million altogether.
'Traditionally, the Kuria were cattle-herding warriors.
'Today, they are generally agricultural crop farmers,
'but cattle remain important as currency, especially in marriage.'
They're polygamous, so the men will marry a number of wives.
But the thing that's really fascinating
is that they practise woman to woman marriage.
So, why do they do it?
Is it a sexual thing?
What advantages are there to a community for women to marry women?
'After an eight-hour drive from Kenya's capital Nairobi,
'we're finally in Kuria district.
'Home for the next three weeks.
'In its fertile hills nestle small farming communities.
'And it's on one of these farms that I've been invited to stay
'with a large extended family that practises woman to woman marriage.'
This is where Lillian lives.
-That's the house over there.
-And, actually, this is the family farm.
-This one here?
-So this must be family members.
'Peter Murimi is helping us access this community.
'He's a journalist in Nairobi but is Kuria and grew up here.'
As you'll find out, it's really a big family.
When you say a big family, how many people?
I think 20, easily.
Everyone looking shy.
'The family is headed by husband Mosenda.'
Good to meet you.
'And wife Paulina.'
'While Mosenda has taken extra wives,
'what's extraordinary here is that so has his wife Paulina.'
'The tradition where women marry women is called nyumba mboke.
'Paulina is married to two women.'
-Are you Lillian?
-I've heard much about you.
'Her first wife is Lillian, who's now 30 and half Paulina's age.
'And her second wife is 21-year-old Faith.'
You can teach me everything about how this family works.
'Woman to woman marriages exist across Africa.
'In this village, at least ten of the 100 families are nyumba mboke.'
A-ha. So this is the kitchen here.
So what is cooking?
'This farm is made up of eight separate households.'
So this is your son's house?
Big. The boys get the big houses.
'But all of them connect back to Mosenda.
'It's an incredibly complicated web of relationships
'that's going to take some working out.'
So, if I get this right...
Paulina is your wife.
She's the first wife.
You took a second wife, is that right?
Now, you see,
my husband would say that one wife is quite enough trouble.
Did you, then stop at two, or did you have any more wives?
How many more? Two more? So you have four altogether?
Mosenda, how do you have time?
So after you married, when did you have your first child?
And is it very important
for you to have a son?
OK. So I'm beginning to understand now.
So because your son had died,
he wouldn't bring a daughter-in-law here
and so that's when you decided...
you needed a nyumba mboke.
Have I understood that right?
'In the polygamist system here each wife looks after her own household.
'Mosenda has sons and daughters-in-law
'through his other wives, but because Paulina's only son died,
'she's been left alone without any support as she gets older.'
When you decided you wanted, or you needed a nyumba mboke,
how did you meet Lillian?
you decided to get a second nyumba mboke...
..who is Faith.
'So it sounds like Lillian and Faith are essentially replacement
'daughters-in-law, brought into the household to provide physical help
'and especially to bear sons - male heirs for Paulina.
'I can understand what Paulina gets out of this,
'but it's less clear what's in it for the younger women.'
-Oh, Faith, is this your room?
Hello. Hello, little person.
So this is where you stay?
And who is this?
And, Faith, who is Robi's father?
No father? OK.
'Like so many young nyumba mboke brides,
'Faith was made to marry Paulina
'because she got pregnant out of wedlock.
'But I know this wasn't the case for Lillian,
'who's lived here as Paulina's wife for 11 years.
When you became Paulina's nyumba mboke...
..what is the arrangement?
And how old were you...
when your parents
arranged this marriage with Paulina?
So, Lillian, are you telling me that you didn't want to be
a nyumba mboke?
Because if I understand it right, if you had married a man,
your parents would still have had a dowry for you.
So why did they choose for you to marry a woman
and not a man?
You have to continue the family line,
so do you have children with Mosenda?
If, like, if you meet a nice lover,
someone who looks after you,
who doesn't just get you pregnant all the time,
can you leave this family
and start a proper relationship with him?
'It's pretty shocking when you hear
'from a girl's mouth that she was,'
to all intents and purposes, sold.
That a daughter here is a commodity.
'And in Lillian's case,
'she was worth more as a wife, if that's the right word,'
to another woman than she was as a wife to a husband,
and that she had no choice in that matter.
'These nyumba mboke relationships aren't sexual.
'Lillian is heterosexual,
'but if she were to ever fall in love with a man,
'she'd never be able to leave Paulina for a relationship with him.
'To me that seems very sad.
'But perhaps that's just my Western romanticism.'
So this? This one?
Do you take the whole thing? No.
You have all this?
OK. So.. And then beans?
'Within this community, there are rigid roles for boys and girls.'
There we are.
We're doing a good job.
'Sons never leave the family home.
'They provide daughters-in-law to help ageing parents.'
That's for you. Who are we missing now?
'And inherit their father's land.'
So this boy? Yeah?
There we go. That's for you.
'Kuria girls, on the other hand, must leave home when they marry
'to bear children for the husband's family.'
Here you are, little one. That's for you.
'At the end of my first day on Mosenda's farm,
'I'm left wondering whether there are any positives
'for the young nyumba mboke brides.'
'The nyumba mboke system seems to be firmly rooted in this community.
'But there's another tradition here which is even more entrenched.
'Since the time of their ancient ancestors,
'Kuria people have circumcised both boys and girls
'as an important rite of passage into adulthood.'
'In this predominantly Christian area,
'the Church is at the heart of current debate
'around female circumcision,
'also known as female genital mutilation.
'Since 2011, FGM has been illegal in Kenya.'
'Lillian, like many women from her generation, has been circumcised.'
The pastor talked about FGM today.
What do you think the congregation,
the men and the women that were there, thought of that message?
So do you think that attitudes are starting to change?
'I'm here in Kuria at the start of the boys' circumcision season,
'which usually lasts for two weeks and happens every other year.'
Just to get this straight,
the circumcision of boys is completely legal in Kenya, isn't it?
Erm, and the circumcision of girls...
is now against the law?
It is illegal to circumcise a girl.
'Although illegal, it's been reported that FGM
'still takes place in this community.
'Pete has been campaigning against female circumcision since 2001
'and he's keen to show me just how deep-rooted it is in Kuria culture.'
From the outside, it seems, you know, so simple.
FGM's a brutal practice.
..and effectively abuse of a minor.
It shouldn't happen.
But it gets more complicated
when you begin to understand the custom,
-the significance of that custom.
Oh, poor little things.
Out the right,
you've got boys wearing, kind of, capes and bleeding.
'We've come across a male circumcision procession
'and, as it's legal, it's being celebrated
'in a very public and noisy ceremony.'
CHILDREN SCREAM AND CHANT
Can you tell me what has happened? Oh, these poor little boys!
Oh, my goodness.
-They have been circumcised.
-Did you do the circumcising?
-Can you tell me the importance of this ceremony?
Now they've become men? OK, OK.
Oh, my goodness, they do look like they're very much in pain.
THEY ALL SCREAM AND CHANT
So, did you go through this ceremony?
You look like the memories are coming flooding back.
When it happened to you,
is there a real pressure on you to be, kind of, as brave as possible?
-Did you cry?
From what you were telling me about the huge importance
and significance of circumcision for men...
..does that go some way into explaining why there...
..are still girls being circumcised,
despite the fact that it's against the law?
The issue with FGM is about identity and for very many Kuria people,
it could be men and women alike,
they feel if there is no circumcision for men
and FGM for girls, like, they lose a bit of their identity.
-So that's creating some resistance.
'Because boys are seen as more important in Kuria culture,
'they're always circumcised a few days before the girls.
'So with the male circumcision season already under way...
'..there's a very real possibility that Kuria's girls will be next.
'The region's anti-FGM movement is out in force.
'The organiser of the rally is a Kuria woman - Susan Matinde Thomas.'
Was there a reason that you particularly wanted to do this
very loud demonstration now?
'We've heard that more efforts are being made
'by the authorities this year to clamp down on FGM.'
'And police patrol vehicles are flanking Susan's campaign bus.'
Can you tell me what you think about this procession?
Were you cut?
Is there anybody here who wants to be cut?
And is that because of school? Yeah. Yeah.
'From what I'm hearing, it seems that the law is working here,
'and this community really is buying into the change.'
And so no girls in this village will be cut this season?
How will you feel if you have a wife who is very strong,
-has had a good education?
-I will be happy.
You will be happy? Remember he said this. You were witnesses.
'But Pete's been speaking to some young men who have a different
'take on things, and he's asked us to keep our camera at a distance
'so we don't draw attention to them.'
The ladies who were telling me that the girls will not be cut
in this village, is that true or not true?
And do you know anyone in this village who maybe, you think,
might be circumcised?
OK. Thank you.
Wow. OK. That was unexpected.
It felt like everyone was very on message in this village.
Everybody was really against it.
'So now I'm left wondering whether this community
'will act in accordance with the law,
'or revert back to the tradition
'that has defined Kuria for centuries.'
'It's 6:00am and I'm back with Lillian.
'And some of her nyumba mboke friends.
'They are a close-knit group.
'We're heading to work on a farm an hour and a half's walk away.
'A journey they make almost every day.'
They're too scary.
Too much trouble.
'I want to understand how nyumba mboke women survive financially...
'..without a husband to help support their families.
So, Dorica, this one is bad?
-This one is bad.
-That one's bad. I'm taking that one out.
-But this one is good, yes?
-And this one is good?
How many people are you supporting on the money you earn?
So that's you, your four children...
-And my five kids.
-Your five kids.
Is there anyone else in the family that is also working
to help you... to help you bring in money?
-So it's only you?
So, as a nyumba mboke,
I think one of your main duties is to have children.
Talk me through this.
How do you go and find a man?
Would you want your daughters to be nyumba mboke?
If any of you could change the law,
would you make the nyumba mboke system illegal?
You would? Would you? Really?
Do you think it will change?
'While cultural traditions are being challenged in Kuria
'and there is a growing movement against nyumba mboke,
'the current focus is on FGM.
'While the Kenyan government supports the circumcision of boys,
'even claiming it's helping in the fight against HIV...
'..the illegal circumcision of girls has no medical benefit whatsoever.
'The opposite, in fact.
'It can be life-threatening.
'The practice of FGM can range from the removal of the clitoris...
'..to the most extreme procedure,
'which reduces the entrance to the vagina.
'It creates all kinds of horrific medical problems,
'sometimes resulting in death.'
'I'm meeting up with Susan, who led the anti-FGM rally,
'to find out why she's prepared to put herself at risk
'in her fight to stop FGM.'
Can you remember what...
that circumcision was like?
'Like so many women, Susan's FGM has resulted in lifelong problems.
'After nearly dying from extreme blood loss,
'she was so mutilated that she had to have surgery.'
'At least 200 million women and girls alive today
'across 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation.
'Here in Kenya, numbers are slowly going down.
'But those most at risk are girls in poor rural areas like Kuria.
'We've been travelling along this road almost every day
'but this morning there seems to be a lot more activity than usual.
'Samson Morua is in charge of our security.'
Did you see that group of people up above the road?
And do you think that was a circumcision party?
And do you think it was for a girl?
What made you think it was for girls?
So, Peter, do you think this is now, basically,
of the female...
'It really is shocking, despite it being against the law,
'it looks like FGM is still here.
'As we reach the outskirts of a small town,
'we notice lots of young girls being rushed around on motorbikes.
'The atmosphere feels very tense.'
So, I am trying to understand
why circumcision for girls
is so important.
'Samson's warned us to be careful and to keep our camera discreet.'
I don't know whether there is someone, whether I can talk to you,
as young men, or...
erm, if there are any women that I can talk to.
Can you explain to me why you will even break the law to do this
because it's so important for your custom?
Let's go. Let's go.
Let's go. Let's go.
Let's go. Let's go, let's go, let's go.
Let's go, let's go, let's go.
'From what those young men told me,
'FGM's much more than a rite of passage.
'It sounds like it's about men controlling women's sexuality.
'And it looks like the change in the law
'has simply driven FGM underground.'
They're willing to go to war...
-To let FGM continue.
-To let FGM continue.
'We've driven to the local Kuria East police station.'
-Should I come with you or...?
'But they've asked us not to film inside the building.'
'Tensions are running so high,
'the local police chief has said we should leave the area.'
Why is he asking us to be escorted out of town by a police car?
Clearly, attitudes to FGM are changing.
..it is going to take time.
Oh, God, it's really complicated.
TEARFULLY: I'm sorry, Pete.
Can you stop?
Walk with me just for two minutes.
'Pete's been campaigning against FGM for years.
'So what we've witnessed today is particularly hard on him.
THEY BOTH CRY
I can completely understand why, for you, it's so frustrating
'I'm meeting the Deputy County Commissioner for Kuria West,
'to find out what his department is doing to tackle FGM.'
As a security team in Kuria West, what did we do?
We made arrangements to remove the circumcisers...
-..from the society.
-But not all of them.
Of course, we cannot remove all of them.
So we have made an attempt to remove the circumcisers.
We have made an attempt to arrest the elders who propagate FGM.
These things persist for commercial reasons.
-Why do you say that?
I say that because the elders are very keen on this rite of passage
-because they make money out of it.
For every girl circumcised,
they charge 1,000 Kenyan shillings.
The elders charge... So if you have 3,000 girls,
that is a whopping 3 million shillings within one month.
The elders make the poor families believe
that if they circumcise their girl at age 12 to 14,
they are able to marry her off and get ten herds of cattle.
The existence of the council of elders makes this thing persist.
'It's the clan elders who protect Kuria culture and traditions.
'And it seems that it's also the elders who are perpetuating FGM.
'Pete's persuaded a local council of elders to meet us.'
Oh, my goodness, look at this!
This is a welcoming party.
Oh, my word!
'This welcoming ceremony is part of Kuria's ancient religion,
'which is ruled over by their God, Eresa.'
It's a marriage proposal. It's enough to turn a girl's head.
'And, according to his believers,
'Eresa has the power to curse those who are not circumcised
'or stand in his way.'
I wanted to ask you about the role of women in Kuria society.
For example, we have the council of elders here, and they are all men.
Do you think women are wise enough
to be consulted on everyday life,
to ask their advice, in the way that people ask you?
Who? The women.
So who protects the women?
From what I believe, you agreed with the district officer
that you would ask your gods
whether to do female circumcision this year,
this season, or not.
Are you able to tell me what your God told you?
'The elders hold enormous sway over their community and how it works
'and are still clearly supporting FGM.
'Since the police are conflicted about how to deal with it,
'it seems to me that one of the few people actually taking a stand
'is anti-FGM campaigner Susan Thomas.
'Since the season began, she's been rescuing girls
'at risk of circumcision and taking them to a safe house.
'Tonight we're meeting her as she responds to another call for help.
'What Susan's about to do is very dangerous
'so she's paid for an armed police guard to be with her tonight.
So we need to go? OK.
Do we know how old she is?
13 or 14? Oh, my goodness.
Is the problem that her parents want her to be circumcised?
The mother doesn't want her to be cut.
Right. But other members of the family do?
-The father does.
-The father does.
..this must be a huge risk for the mother as well,
when her husband finds out what she's done.
Have you ever done this before, Peter?
No, no, this is the first time.
There's a lot of anxiety because so many things could go wrong,
-but here they come. Here they come.
-They're coming? OK.
Now, for obvious reasons,
we will not be identifying the girl.
'We're returning to the village we visited early on
'for Susan's anti-FGM rally...
'..where everyone told us they were against female circumcision.
'Michael Mhoji is on the council of elders
'and he's got something to tell us.
And have the police tried to stop you?
So how many girls were circumcised at your place last night?
-In one night?
Do you do the circumcising of the girls
or is it somebody else who comes in to do them?
And because they are being...
because the circumcisions are happening right by your house,
and because you're on the council of elders,
does that mean that you get paid for these circumcisions?
500 per girl?
For one girl?
500 for one girl. OK.
Are they just from this village
or do they come in from other villages as well?
'I can't quite find the words to describe how I feel
'after that conversation with Mhoji, who was so matter of fact,
'and, worse, unashamed.
'It probably shouldn't surprise and shock me, but it does.
'The realisation that the village where so many people told me
'early on during my time here that they wouldn't cut their girls,
'has just circumcised 350 in one night.
'It's incredibly difficult to come to terms with.
'The only positive in all this
'is that the circumcision season is nearly over.
'Those girls that escaped being cut
'are free of the risk of FGM for another two years.
'Before I leave Kuria, I want to say goodbye to wonderful Lillian.
'I've been invited to join her and some of her nyumba mboke friends...'
'..at a baby naming ceremony.
'A way of welcoming a new child to the community.
'Lillian and many women like her may have had to endure FGM
'and may be the unwilling victims of woman to woman marriage...'
She looks beautiful!
'..but they also seem determined to strive for a better future.'
Would you like your daughters, Christine and Alice,
to have a different sort of life from yours?
What is your ambition for them?
This is clearly such a complex time in Kuria society.
It really does feel like it is at a time of change.
When there are people like the fabulously brave Susan,
going out on the streets and talking to people.
Women like Lillian, who will talk about their experiences
and absolutely categorically say
my girls are not going to be circumcised.
There is definitely a movement.
And I really get the feeling it's gathering momentum.
What is holding it back, without question,
are the old men - is the patriarchy.
But, anyone who can laugh
when life is as tough as theirs,
deserves absolute, ultimate respect.
MUSIC AND SINGING
These aren't women standing with their hands out, asking for help.
These are women who are standing upright and saying,
we are trying to change things.
If you can help us, join us.
But we're going to do this.
We're going to do it on our own.
'Next time, I'm in Israel...'
"Please do not pass through our neighbourhood in immodest clothes."
'..where I struggle to access the ultra-orthodox Haredim.'
-I don't know whether...
'An intensely private people...
'..who must adhere to strict religious laws.
Kate Humble travels to three countries - Kenya, Israel and India - where the roles of women are exceptional, complex and sometimes extreme.
In the first episode, Kate is in southwest Kenya in the district of Kuria. The Kuria people are polygamous, but what makes this community so fascinating is that they also practise woman-to-woman marriage known as nyumba mboke. Kate is invited to stay with a family headed by a man called Mosenda, who has four wives. She meets his first wife Paulina, and is then introduced to Paulina's own wives, Lillian and Faith.
Kate also meets a local anti-FGM campaigner, Susan, and hears about her distressing personal experience. She nearly died after being circumcised and had to undergo operations afterwards in order to be able to have children. At least 200 million women and girls alive today, across 30 countries, have undergone FGM. In Kenya the numbers are slowly going down, but those most at risk are young girls in rural areas like Kuria.
Susan invites Kate to accompany her on a risky rescue of a young girl whose father wants her to be circumcised. Under the cover of darkness and with an armed policewoman as back-up, Susan picks up the girl and takes her to a safe house.
The district commissioner of Kuria West tells Kate and Susan that it is the community's tribal elders who are perpetuating FGM because they benefit financially from the ceremonies. The elders themselves tell Kate that they cannot support the immediate end of female circumcision because it would anger their god Eresa. Then, days later, Kate is horrified to learn that because the police arrested some of the elders, they believed that Eresa told them to continue with FGM, and that over the previous night more than 300 girls from the community were circumcised.