Horn of Africa

Links to legal datasheets for countries in this region.

Ethiopia I Somalia I Sudan I eastern Chad

Horn of Africa

The Region and its History†

Muslim Arab traders and settlers began pushing south from Egypt into northern Sudan in the seventh century.They settled into the area and began intermarrying with the local populationThe Muslim traders who came to the region were generally wealthy, and marrying into their families carried with it a great deal of prestige. Over time Islam and the Arabic language also became firmly established in the north.However, Islam spread quite slowly into the interior of the Sudan, only reaching the western and central regions around the fifteenth century. In the nineteenth century, Sudan fell under the colonial domination of Egypt and Britain.It gained independence in 1954.†† Today about two-thirds of Sudan's population of 29 million are Muslim.Another 30 percent, most of them southerners, practice indigenous religions or Christianity.

††† Islam reached the rest of the Horn of Africa from across the Red Sea.The Prophet Mohammed himself encouraged a band of persecuted Muslims to flee Arabia to Ethiopia and to seek protection from Ethiopia's Christian king.By the middle of the ninth century, Arab traders and artisans had settled in trading centers along the coast of what is now Eritrea, Dijbouti and Somalia.In the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, two Arabian sheiks speeded the conversion of Somalia when they married into local families, giving rise to two of the largest clan-families in Somali today, the Darood and the Isaaq.††††

†††† From the south of the Horn, Islam spread north and west from the Somalicoast, reaching what is now southern Ethiopia in the ninth century . Muslim holy men and the Sufi brotherhoods helped set the mystical tone of Islam in the region. Withina few centuries, there were numerous Islam-dominated states in the region,principally governed by Hadiya-Sidama-speaking ethnic groups .These states lost power in the sixteenth century with the rise to power of the Oromo, an ethnic group that practiced the indigenous religions of the area.Muslims were faced with the choice of leaving the region or submitting to the Oromo regimes, including their religious practices .For the next two centuries, the Muslim populations, unable to practice Islam openly, were cut off from each other.An eighteenth-century wave ofIslamicization from Somalia and Harar, a Muslim city in Ethiopia, reconnected these lowland communities. Muslims live throughout Ethiopia, but large concentrations can be found in Bale, Harerge and Welo. Meanwhile the highland Amhara and Tigrayan peoples have remained Christian (Lapidus 1991).

†††††† Ethiopia was the only African state not to be colonized in the nineteenth century, and until its monarchy was overthrown in 1974, very few non-Christians held high positions in government or the military.††† However, Italy ruled Eritrea from 1889 until it surrendered the province to Britain in1941. In 1952, an Eritrean government federated with Ethiopia replaced the British military administration. Eritrea rebelled against Ethiopia a few years later, finally gaining independence in 1993.

†† .†† Somalia's about 7 million people are almost entirely Muslim today. The overwhelming majority are ethnic Somalis who speak the Somali language and trace their ancestry to the same ancestor, Samaale.They are divided into six large clan-families, four of them pastoral and two agriculturalEach clan-family is divided into primary lineages, which are in turn divided into secondary and sometimes tertiary lineages. Related lineages within a clan form alliances to pay and receive blood compensation for each other in the case of homicide.

††† Somalia was divided between Britian and Italy during the colonial period.The two parts were reunited with independence in 1960, but in the early 1990s Somalia collapsed into civil war. The northern part of Somalia formerly controlled by the British has once again established itself as an autonomous territory, while the rest of Somalia remains without a formal government. With the disintegration of the central state, the lineage system has become the country's main form of social and economic organization.

††† Muslims make up an estimated 40 percent of Ethiopia's population of about 64 million (Ofcansky 1993)..Neighboring Eritrea, with a population of 4 million, is about evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. Tiny Djibouti, with only 638,000 people, is mostly Muslim.

†† Nearly all the Muslims in the Horn are Sunni, but they belong to hundreds of different ethnic groups and they speak many different languages. As they adopted Islam, they did not necessarily shed their attachment to the traditions and beliefs of their earlier religion.In much of the region, indigenous customs remain an important part of religious and cultural practice. Ethiopia, in particular, saw no Arab immigration. Its Muslim peoples do no speak Arabic and never adopted any Arab traditions related to marriage, inheritance and other customs (Abbink 1999).

Legal Practices and Institutions

†† The disconnected nature of the Muslim communities in the Horn is evident in their application of sharia.The practice of sharia varies throughout the region, with some groups applying classical Islamic law across the board while others use of blend of Islamic and customary codes.Some, like the Beja in Sudan and Djibouti, have abandoned many of their local customs, in order to adhere to Islamic family law.Othersaccept sharia in the abstract but continue to practice their own customs.This is particularly noticeable in decisions about marriage partners and inheritance.Finally, certain groups known to be very devout Muslims, such as the Harari , a group of about 30,000 who live in the Ethiopia city of Harar, continue to practice traditions which are contrary to Islamic law, not even claiming to accept sharia when it conflicts with their own customs.

†† Under Emperor Haille Selassie, Ethiopian Muslims could bring matters of personal and family law before Islamic courts.Many did and probably continue to do so. However, others deal with such matters in terms of customary law.Ethiopia's 1995 constitution allows for decisions regarding marital and family issues to be decided according to prevailing local religious or customary laws, so long as all parties involved consent.Additionally, Ethiopia's court system includes sharia courts operating at all levels of jurisprudence in cases that involve marriageswhich occurred under Islamic law or where all involved parties are Muslim. These courts also address concerns involving inheritance disputes (Ofcansky 1991: 123).

†† Sudan's imposition of sharia as state law in 1983 is a major factor in the current civil war between the north and south. sharia was always the basis for personal status law in the north;the post-1983 reforms extended its reach to civil courts. Since President Mar Haas Ahead al-Basher came to power in 1989, the Sudanese government has embarked on a wholesale project of Islamicizing the entire legal code (Fleuhr-Lobban 1993)..

At independence, Somalia had four distinct legal traditions:English common law, Italian law, share and Somali customary law. In 1973, President Said Bare introduced a unified civil code that sharply curtailed both sharia and Somali customary law. However, both legal codes have made a comeback since the central government disintegrated.Clan or lineage councils administer Somali customary law or here in the areas they control.The councils consist of all the adult males in the group. (Metz, Somalia: A Country Study 1992).Since 1997, religious leaders have also set up local courts in the capital and a few other cities that pass judgments according to sharia.Wealthy contributors from the Gulf fund the sharia courts.The militiamen who enforce their rulings are devout Muslims who do not smoke, drink or chew the local stimulant, a narcotic leaf called qat. (Murray 2000).

Seclusion of Women/Purdah

†† Women in the Islamic societies of the Horn abide by a strict code of modesty aimed a protecting the honor and dignity of their families.Although there is no formal purdah, there is a high level of de facto segregation by sex, as work and social roles of men and women keep them apart much of the time.With the exception of a small number of educated women from elite families, women remain in the household, eating after men and sitting separately at all festivities (Ofcansky 1992). Men and women have separate eating and sleepingquarters.For example, Somali women are not strictly secluded or covered, but men do not enter the womenís part of the home, except that of their wives or other female relatives (Hicks 1996).

†† Sudanese and Somali women do not attend mosques, where in addition to religious worship, most discussion of public matters takes place. Sudan's Islamic government has taken several measures to reduce the public employment of women in recent years.The governor of Sudan's capital, Khartoum, in 200 decreed that women should not work in the public service sector where they might come in contact with men (Dow Jones International News 2000).

†† Most of the Muslim peoples of the Horn practice infibulation, a severe form of female circumcision in which a young girl's labia majora, labia minora and often clitoris are removed. The remaining tissue is stitched back together, leaving only a small hole for the passage of urine. A midwife may enlarge the opening when a girl is married or when she gives birth to a child. Despite international conferences, legislation, and government efforts since the 1920s to eradicate infibulation, the practice seems to be spreading.Infibulation is believed to protect virginity and control women's sexuality.Islamic leaders of the Shafi'ite school of law predominant in Sudan and Egypt consider female circumcision a religious duty (Walther 1993).

††††† The question of dress depends on the community.Traditional dress for most northern Sudanese, Somali and Ethiopian women includes a single long piece of cloth that can be wrapped around the body and head.In recent years, some urban women in Sudan and Somalia have adopted the new forms of veiling promoted by Islamists in the Middle East and elsewhere (Murray 2000; Hicks 1996).Among the Bilin of Eritrea, non-Muslim and Muslim women seem to have about the same level of freedom to move about and speak in public .In Sudan's Nuba mountains, women are more free and independent than are most women in the Sudan, again with no great distinction made between Muslim and non-Muslim women.For the Taqali, a solidly Muslim group of about 180,000 in the Nuba mountains, there is a distinction between women who live in the mountains themselves and women who live on the lower plains; the latter enjoying less independence than their highland counterparts.

†† In general, a woman's worth is measured in terms of her role as a wife and mother.The only economic activities open to all but a few urban women are midwifery, the manufacture of small craft items and the care of small domestic animals (Hicks 1996).

Family in the Region

†† People in the Horn give primary allegiance to their extended families. Central governments tend to be weak or non-existent in the Horn. Instead families do the much of the work of protecting their members, educating the young, caring for the sick and elderly and settling disputes.

Most of the ethnic groups in the Horn are patrilineal, although many, such as the Nuba, appear to have been matrilineal before they converted to Islam (Hicks 1993 1949: 179).†††† One group, the Beg, 1.5 million camel and sheep herders living in eastern Sudan, southern Egypt and Eritrea, appear to have changed their way of tracing descent, perhaps as a result of converting to Islam .They are strongly patrilineal; however, written descriptions of them from the Middle Ages suggest that at that time there were matrilineal .Additionally, there are still significant traces of matrilineality, such as an important relationship between a man and his maternal uncles.

†† The Hararis in Ethiopia, trace their families bilaterally .The Sinyar, a group of approximately 26,000 people on the Chad/Sudan border almost all of whom are Muslim, have traditionally been matrilineal, though it appears that this tradition is fading .In the Nuba Mountains of the Sudan, people living in the southern part of the mountains tend to be matrilineal, in the north and east they are patrilineal, and in thesouth-east families are traced bilaterally .

†† Somalis trace their family relationships through the father.Menís place in their patrilineage greatly influences their standing, and to some degree dictates their association and relation with other clansWomen remain part of their patrilineal kinship group after marriage; the bloodwealth for a murdered married woman is shared between her own family and the family of her husband. If matrilineal relationships lack the intense obligation of patrilineal ones, Somalis nonetheless recognize maternal kin, who may also be important sources of support (Barnes and Boddy 1992)


There is little uniformity between the traditions of different ethnic groups in the Horn regarding choices of marriage partners.

††† In Sudan, a valid marriage is contracted by two agents representing the bride and the groom. Usually the fathers of the marriage partners, the agents agree on a dower and on a payment schedule.They also sign the marriage contract before a registrar of marriages and divorces.The legal rights and responsibilities of the husband and wife begin after the signing of the contract, even though actual cohabitation and the consummation of the marriage may not begin for months (Fluehr-Lobban 1993:111).

††† In Eritrea and Sudan, the Beja encourage marriage to a personís paternal parallel cousin (fatherís brotherís child) .It appears that, as with the Bejaís descent pattern, their marriage preferences are a result of their conversion to Islam.Before converting, the Beja only allowed marriage outside of their clans . The Berti also encourage close cousin marriage, again with the ideal being marriage to a manís fatherís brotherís daughter .Other first cousins, either on the fatherís or motherís side, are also good marriage partners, as are other members of the same patrilineage (Weekes 1984).

†† Often, even when a community accepts sharia precepts in determining marriage preferences, first cousin marriage is adopted in theory but not in practice.The Beri are slowly accepting first cousin marriage in principle, but rarely actually practice it .Among the Jabarti, too, first cousin marriage is acceptable but seldom practiced .

†† The Fur, a group of 720,000 Muslims in western Sudan, have are two very distinct preferred marriage patterns.The Fur, who live in the mountains view marriage to a personís maternal parallel cousin (motherís sisterís child) as the ideal marriage, though marriage to other cousins is desirable as well .The Fur of the lowland forbid marriage of maternal parallel cousins, as both spouses might have been nursed by both women, and a marriage between two people who were nursed by the same woman is viewed as potentially violating sharia.

†† Besides the question of who a person may marry within a community, there is also the issue of who, outside of the community, is an acceptable marriage partner.As a rule, northern Sudanese Muslims do not marry their daughters to non-Muslims. But Muslim men sometimes marry or cohabitate with Christian or pagan women. The children of unions are raised as Muslims and have the same rights as children born to Muslim mothers (Metz, Sudan: A Country Report 1992).

†† In Ethiopia and Eritrea, interreligious marriage is common, to the extent that Muslim women sometimes marry Christian men without being ostracized by their families. However, as the anthropologist Jan Abbink has noted, Islamic revivalist movements recently have targeted such practices as violations of sharia (Abbink 1999). Meanwhile some Ethiopian and Eritrean groups, such as Harari, do not even recognize the sharia law allowing Muslim men to marry Christian or Jewish women. The Harari seldom marry outside of their ethnic group. When they do, they marry Muslims from other groups .†† The Jabarti also never marry outside Islam. inter-religious marriage is common in Eritrea .

The Argobba, a very small and entirely Muslim group in Ethiopia (numbering only about 9,000 in 1984), has rules of exogamy which parallel Shariía prescriptions but are not necessarily about religion .Argobba men can marry Oromo women (about 60 percent of Oromo are Muslims), however Argobba women may not marry Oromo men.Descriptions of this rule do not mention whether Argobba men may marry non-Muslim Oromo women .As there are so few Argobba and they are patrilineal, this patter of bringing new women into the community through marriage is critical for the preservation of the group.While it is unclear at what age marriages take place among Ethiopian Muslim populations, the civil code establishes the legal ages as 15 for females and 18 for males.Additionally, the code also requires that all parties freely consent to the marriage for it to be legal.

†† Somali girls often marryfor the first time when they are between the ages of 15 and 20, while boysí first marriages often occur when they are between 18 and 25.Parents or other senior relations usually control the choice of the first marriage partner

††† The Beja and many other groups in the Horn practice the levirate, in which a man's brothers inherit his wives after his death (Hicks 1996: 231.) Among most of the peoples of the Horn, brideprice is given by the groomís family to the brideís family, rarely to the bride herself.The specifics ofthe gifts, what they are, and who exactly receives them vary from group to group.

†† Among the Berti in northern Darfur Province and the Bilin. a group of about 50,000, approximately two-thirds of whom are Muslim, the first time a man marries, his father is responsible for the brideprice, which is given to the brideís family .Among the Beja of eastern Sudan, the womanís father, mother and maternal uncle all receive gifts of livestock and other goods (Hicks 1996:231).

††† The Fur have a system of brideprice in which the groom gives a set number of cows and rolls of cotton cloth to his bride, her mother and her father, her maternal aunt and uncle, and her paternal aunt (In recent years, however, cash has often been substituted .)The groomís father usually helps raise the money for the brideprice for his sonís first marriage, though not for subsequent marriages .The groom do brideservice, which sometimes leads to permanent residence with the bride's family (Hicks 1996) .

†† The Masalit also have a system of giving cows, goats and money to the bride, her mother and other members of her family .Again, the groom must move onto the land of the brideís mother and work for her; in this case until the coupleís first baby is born .This is true as well for subsequent marriages, though the period of the husbandís labor for his new wifeís mother may be somewhat shorter (Weekes 1984: 501).Some Beja also practice brideservice, though their period of service is longer, three years, and it is for the benefit of the brideís father, rather than her mother (Hicks 1996:231).

†† Among Somalis, brideprice is given to the bride herself and, if the marriage ends, she is ordinarily entitled to keep it .The brideprice primarily consists of livestock provided by the husbandís father and relatives, unless he can provide it himself.After marriage, the wife is responsible for managing and controlling the flocks of goats and sheep that provide subsistence for her and her children (Lewis 196).


†† Divorce is common in the Horn of Africa.In Djibouti in the 1960s for example, there were nearly half as many divorces each year as weddings .In Djibouti and the Sudan, sharia as interpreted by the states, is the only law governing marriage and divorce.In other states, divorce is largely governed.

†† Sudanese courts traditionally have allowed granted divorces to women more readily than in some Islamic countries.Divorce on the grounds of harm to the wife is a widely accepted principle. Harm, as interpreted by Sudanese jurists, can include insulting behavior, attempting to marry a second wife, as well as physical abuse and desertion. Prior to every divorce, judges ask the couple to submit to arbitration, appointing neutral parties from both families to seek the cause of the discord and see if the problems can be resolved (Fluehr-Lobban 1993:113).

†† After a divorce, a Masalit woman generally keeps the house, the field she cultivates and her stock of grain, and she is entitled to support from her ex-husband for their children .Divorced women often do not remarry.

†† Among the groups where each spouse has their own estate, such as the Fur, each spouse keeps their own home .For the Sinyar, the wife owns the family compound and on divorce, it is the husband who leaves.

Somali men can divorce their wives very easily .Women on the other hand cannot initiate divorce.They can only, through a sharia court, have their marriages annulled in certain limited circumstancesWomen who have their marriages annulled against the wishes of their husbands are labelled nabuusha and shunned in their communities (Barnes and Boddy 1996)A woman can also try to persuade her husband to grant a divorce, but in doing so, she will forfeit her brideprice.Even women whose husbands divorce them often end up losing their brideprice as well as the huts they live in (Hicks 1993).

Among the Nuba of Sudan, while the gold jewelry given to a woman upon her engagement is usually hers to keep upon divorce, there are times when she may be required to return it.Specifically, if she divorces her husband and they have no children, the husband reclaims all the jewelry he bought for his wife, as well as any household goods or furniture.It is generally reasoned, that the woman will remarry (and therefore receive these items from her new husband), while the ex-husband is expected to need the items to provide to a new wife .However, if there are children, the wife will generally retain ownership of the furniture, household goods, and jewelry.


All the Muslim peoples of the Horn accept that a man may have more than one wife, but few men actually do, as taking an additional wife costs more than most men can afford .Nonetheless, there are differences between the ethnic groups. Among the Berti, only wealthy men take second wives.At any time, about one-fifth of Berti, a group of about 80,000 Muslims in western Sudan, men are in polygamous unions .Men with more than one wife do not have a single household.Rather, each wife has a compound and the husband moves from one compound to another (Weekes 1984).

†† Masalit men frequently have two wives .The man must live with his wife at her familyís home for at least one year and until a child is born.After the birth of the first child, the couple may live near either family .As a result of the possibility of choosing between the families, a polygamous man may have wives in different villages .

The Daju also commonly have two wives .Like some Masalit co-wives, Daju women on polygamous unions not only have separate compounds, they are usually in different villages.Beri men are also polygamists if they can afford it .While it appears that few men actually have multiple wives, men who enjoy a position of power in a community, particularly clan chiefs, sometimes exceed the Quríanically prescribed limit of four wives .

†† At the other extreme are the Harari of Ethiopia.There is almost no polygamy in this group.In the 1980s, a researcher found that Hararis knew of only two men in their city who had married more than one woman .


Somalis attach a great deal of importance to a girlís modesty from an early age . By about age seven, boys begin to tend the camels, away from the camps, thus creating a natural separation of boys and girls .†† Among the Nuba, male and female children also undergo a de facto separation at an early age, where by the age of two, male and female children may begin learning their respective roles by performing simple tasks for their male and female relatives (Lewis 1973).

Between the ages of eight and fourteen, northern Sudanese boys leave the women's quarters and begin to sleep and eat in the men's quarters.Girls of eight and over, meanwhile, must play in the women's quarters and help in the house when not at school. (Cloudsley 1984).

Custody of Children

Among the Somali, as the husband is considered to hold all rights over children born within the marriage, it is his decision as to with whom the children would reside.Usually, young children remain with the ex-wife until they are old enough to go to the fatherís household, while older children remain with the father immediately upon divorce .In Sudan, male children generally remain with their mother until the age of seven, while female children remain until approximately age nine (Fluehr-Lobban 1993).

A Masalit woman also keeps custody of her children until they reach the age of ten, and she is entitled to support from her ex-husband for their children.After the age of ten, it appears that children of divorced parents stay with their fathers (Weekes 1984).

Inheritance/Land Rights

There are two general patterns as far as inheritance in the Horn.Some groups follow the inheritance rules set out in the Quran, with women inheriting half the share of men of the same relation to the deceased.For example, the Argobba and Daju organize inheritance according to the Quríanic prescriptions .The Beri adopted this system of inheritance as they adopted Islam and acknowledge that it is not the way they distributed a deceased personís property in the past .Other groups, though Muslim, follow local customs rather than the sharia prescriptions for inheritance, often cutting women out of inheritance altogether.

†† Among the Jabarti, land goes from father to son, and the Taqali also transfer land according to paternal ties .The Berti seek out advice from local Muslim religious leaders, but, either because of or despite the advice, they do not pass property along to women .Among the Beja, women are allowed to won livestock (the principle from of property), but they cannot inherit it .Similarly, Somali women rarely inherit livestock (again, the primary capital good in the society), though they may be entitled to according to the Qurían .



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