Deep within the heart of the Sahara live the Tuareg people. The tribe has a rich history, going back at least 1000 years. They played a big part in the region’s history and they have been – and still are – important stewards of the various trade routes that wind through the vast desert. So, clearly these unique people are true heavyweights in terms of Saharan history.
Culturally, the Tuareg tend to follow traditional Islamic customs, but with a surprising twist. In contrast with other conservative Islamic societies where it is the women that wear face or head coverings, in the Tuareg tradition, the men wear the face veil. The Tuareg seem to be the only people in the Muslim world that do it like this! So this is really a dazzling cultural gem.
Religion and Tradition, Boys and Girls
Every religion in the world has something to say about the cultural traditions of its members. For example, religions tend to prescribe protocols when it comes to the mechanics of marriage, partnership, notions of the afterlife, burial ceremonies, and clothing, to name just a few. Legendary monkey-man and researcher Robert Sapolsky provides a complete list of these cultural customs in his fascinating book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. (If you have time, give it a read, it’s downright amazing.)
The reasons why some religions in some cultures require women to cover their heads and faces are complex and are rooted in various cultural factors. As mentioned, however, the Tuareg flip some of Islam’s traditions on their heads. In addition to it being the men that cover their faces (and not the women), Tuareg society is largely matrilineal.
Ancestral lines, including names, are traced through the female lineage of the family tree. This isn’t the case with their Arab counterparts in other traditional Islamic societies, whose ancestral lines are drawn by paternal lineage. Boys and girls enjoy complete equality. Women can have multiple partners before marriage. Again, with the Tuareg, as you see, things are run a little bit differently than in traditional Islam, and in some ways, that’s kind of cool.
How, and Why?
Wondering how this came to be? Time for a quick history lesson; Islam emerged from the city of Mecca, and spread eastward and westward in a series of expansions spearheaded by the Prophet Muhammad in the 6th century CE. In some ways the expansions lasted well into the 20th century, ending with the Ottomans.
Curious people have wondered what the deal is for a while, and no one seems to know for sure. But experts believe it is because although the Tuareg adopted Islam as their religion following its westward expansion, they retained many of their own customs. This includes men wearing the face veil, which predates the advent of Islam.
As well as having a rich history and an interesting spin on traditional Islam, other aspects of life in Tuareg societies are super vibrant. Their culture has a burning passion for music and dancing, delicious-looking food, and camel-back sports. These tasty pieces of their culture are cornerstones of the many festivals celebrated year-round throughout their region. All in all, the Tuareg know how to enjoy life and have a good time. And undeniably, they have succeeded in carving out a truly unique cultural identity.