Marriage and Family Among the Tigre Ethnic Group

About Eritrea - History & Culture

The Tigre marriage institution is fitted with a mechanism, which protects the final union from possible breakdown. The two families strengthen their ties, starting from the betrothal period, by exchanging gifts and helping each other. These family ties go a long way to include many of the next kin. This is one of the reasons why the marriage bond is far stronger than any other sort of relationship.

Among the Tigre, marriage can be contracted for the following reasons:
-   If two families are well off and want to keep the wealth where it belongs, they make pledge of a marriage alliance referring to the two unborn children still lying in their respective wombs.
-   If two families have blood feud between them, one way to settle the quarrel is through a marriage alliance.
-    In the event that the father of the girl is in financial straits and that the only way he can solve his problem is by marrying his daughter off to a rich man, he takes the face saving move.

In this ethnic group, the marriage ceremony and betrothal in particular were in the past practiced in a strictly traditional manner. However, some changes have been taking place since the emergence of Islam. Generally speaking, due to the fairly wide geographical extension and various other cultural factors, one can see a lot of differences in the way marriage ceremonies are being held among various Tigre clans.

Furthermore, the influence exerted by the catholic and protestant churches has not been without effect.  Ethnic border influence should also be considered as a catalyst in this respect.

Marriage and Betrothal

In the Tigre ethnic group, many parental and family consultations and deliberations are made before the actual union takes place. In almost all Tigre communities the parents have the last word in betrothal arrangements. Thus, the boy and the girl who are to be married know nothing about what is going on, and even if they do, nothing can be done to effect any change of mind.

Nevertheless, this state of affairs is losing ground in towns due to education and gender freedom, youngsters of both sexes are free to choose their partners without interference from parents. Such “modern” practices are also to be seen in some Tigre villages where there is a significant Protestant influence. In the betrothal arrangements conducted by families, the requirements to be met by the future husband or wife are formal: an acceptable moral standard, love for work, thriftiness, responsibility as a parent, sound health, wealth and last but not least purity of genealogy. Firmness in ones religious conviction is also an asset. 

The person who fulfills all these requirements should, however, also be a relative as much as possible. In addition, among the Tigre communities residing in towns, beauty and the level of education too are becoming important criteria in the search for partner to marriage. In most Tigre communities, however, virginity does not come into the bargain, a factor that is taken seriously among the Tigrigna ethnic group.

According to the Sharia law, the blood relation between married couples is expected to be closer than in other marriage tradition. Hence, a man can marry any relative except his sister, daughter, cousin, aunt, niece, granddaughter, or the sister of his wife (however he can marry the sister of his wife if his wife dies or if the girl is an adopted sister). The same also applies to a girl. But in some Tigre communities, matrimonial union is only permitted between two persons who do not have any blood relation up to the seventh generation but with the spread of Islam the generation has come down to four.

The reason for the preference of close blood relationship in matrimonial union is to be found in the desire of both families to keep their wealth within the clan circle and to ensure the continuity of unity and cooperation. Nevertheless, union between unrelated persons is also commonly practiced.

Although wealth is given great consideration in matrimonial affairs, it is more so only in situation in which the families are not very much related. The more the families are related the less the consideration given to wealth, and the less the blood relationship between the families the more the interest in given to wealth.

In betrothal arrangements, as far as the male is concerned, age equality is not very important with the result that a very old man can marry a girl young enough to be his daughter. However, this practice is in the wane as a result of urbanization and other influences (especially among Tigre Protestants).

The final analysis, in any case, it is always the father of the boy who is expected to present the proposal for marriage; but in the event that the father is deceased, the uncle does the proposal. However, this is not the case in all Tigre communities. Most of the time, a delegate or a mediator is sent on a mission to settle the matter.  The fact is that the father of the girl has been approached does not mean the father will end the agreement with the mediator at the first “session”. He is bound by tradition and prudery to utter these words: “My daughter is already betrothed; otherwise I would be willing…”
The mediator on his part says: “We remain neither hopeful nor hopeless….” and departs.

When the mediator comes for the second time to visit the father of the girl, (and if the father is willing to go ahead with the betrothal,) he tells the mediator to obtain further permission from his (the father of the girl’s) family as well as the family of his wife. And in the event that all goes smoothly, the marriage contract is concluded.

Among the Beni Amir and Maria Tselam clans, however, the custom is different. In the case of Beni Amr, when a boys’ father asks the girl’s father for the hand of his daughter, there is no beating around the bush in the handling of the case. If the answer is yes, it is yes; if not, the negative answer is given in such a way that it wouldn’t hurt the feelings of the family. But the father of the boy doesn’t lose hope, and sends over some elders to follow the matter, who finally arrives at a happy conclusion.

Among the Beni Amr clans, the father of the boy entreats the father of the girl for his daughter’s hand and in the event that the answer is positive, he hands over to the girl’s father a certain sum of money as a deposit and divulges the news among the villagers.

The feast of betrothal is held on a “good-starred” (or fugur) day, in the house of the bride-to-be. Here, the main agenda of the day is the “price of the bride”, which by tradition is settled by the boy’s family. Among the Tigre ethnic group, both families pay the dowry where in the contrary the father of the future husband in the highland tradition almost always pays the dowry.

Since in the Tigre ethnic group it is the father of the boy who pays the dowry, he chooses a “well-starred” day for the occasion, prepares a feast and sends for the father of the girl to come and take the dowry, which consists of 3-15 heads of cattle. After the ceremony, the father of the girl returns home with those who had accompanied him to the feast. However, the father of the girl is also expected by tradition to return in his own good time some of the cattle, as part of the dowry that is expected from him.

But this is not the only “bride price” that the family of the boy is expected to pay. The boy’s father is also “ordered” to provide jewels and various dresses for the bride. When all is over, however, it seems that the two fathers are almost quits with each other. Most of the time, it is the father of the boy who asks the father of the girl if the latter is ready to give his daughter’s hand for marriage on a fixed day, which generally is arrived at by consulting the priests and divines of the area. The wedding day can however be held in any month except June (because this month is remembered as a time when the Prophet Mohammed was persecuted from Mecca).

The only time that the father of the girl swallows his pride and decides to visit the father of his future son-in-law is when the interval between betrothal and the wedding day gets so much extended that waiting longer could compromise the dignity of the girl in the eyes of the community.  On such an occasion, he would be obliged enquire about the delay, since a girl who stays with her family until her menstrual cycle begins is considered ‘long overdue’ for marriage.

As for the romantic acquaintances normally made between two lovers before the wedding day, the Tigres are bound by tradition to completely ignore such ‘modern’ customs. So much so that it is even common practice among some Tigre communities to conduct marriage by proxy, whereby a boy can have a girl whom he had barely seen all his life and to whom he had not been married in person for wife.

As the day fixed for the wedding feast arrives, much preparation is made to ensure that everything is ready and pleasing to the eyes of the invited guests, who arrive from all parts of the area.

Fortunately, all the villagers together in an act of selfless cooperation and generosity make most of the preparations. Such altruistic actions relieve the two hosting families of their burdens, but at the same time it also puts them in a situation of indebtedness towards the rest of the villagers to whom they would be expected to render commensurate services on similar occasions.

When the wedding feast is one week away, people start celebrating by singing and dancing and in their singing they always praise and eulogize the two families along with the two fiancés. The few days before the wedding day are however very disturbing to the bride-to-be. She has to eat less, go down to the stream with her friends to bath and sing and get physically and psychologically ready for the nuptial night at which she is expected by tradition to present herself with all female prudery and in state of mind worthy of a person on his way to the battlefield.

Wedding feast and aftermath

Tigre wedding feast begins at the house of the bride. The bridegroom arrives from his village at the bride’s village. He is however ‘welcomed’ in the village amid light-hearted insults put to song by the village girls, to the effect that they wish him to become the servant of the bride. 

The Tigre wedding ‘ritual’ is too long and involved to relate it in detail here. Suffice is to mention the most interesting elements which distinguish the Tigre traditional marriage ceremony from those other Eritrean ethnic groups.  In brief, after the business of dealing with “bride-price” and dowry is concluded and total agreement is reached, the bridegroom is free to take his bride to his village.

The moment the bride gets ready to leave, she is met with shouts of joy, ululation, dances and songs including a pouring forth of blessings from the elderly, which is mixed with all sorts of pseudo-religious rituals that augurs well the spouses.  The bride is then mounted on a mule’s back besides the best man or on a camel (inside a small tent) and starts her journey to the village of her husband.

On here arrival at the village, she is, in her turn, met by signing and dancing girls who pour their light-hearted insults on her (in the same manner that the bridegroom had been insulted in the village of the bride).  They too sing insulting songs, which depict that the bridge had worn a quilt in her village and that she is now luckily wearing ‘chiffon’ (quality textile) in her husband’s village.

Among the Ben-Amr clan, the wedding feast continues for a whole week, and during all this time the bridegroom is surrounded by his friends and is not allowed to approach his bride let alone lie with her. He is however permitted to get near her once, and that is in the middle of the night, when, together with his best man, he sneaks into the bride’s room and touches her face and her neck. He makes such a move because according to a belief current among this ethnic group, the Jinns (fairies) may whisk the bride away to another land or even transform her into another creature unless the bridegroom takes this superstitious step first.

On the seventh night, all the friends of the groom except the best man leave the house.  The bridegroom enters the bride’s room in a manner, which all the women in the house take to mean that they should leave the room too. However, tradition prescribes that two women remain in the room as ‘witnesses’.

As the groom approaches the bride, she tries to make her escape by joining the departing women. But, according to tradition, the groom is supposed to stop her even if he has to use a lot of force.

The bride too knows the game well and she would have already let her fingernails grow to a dangerous size solely for the occasion. As the groom lunges wildly at her, she starts defending herself, clawing at him desperately, and leaves him with a bleeding arm (which is later used by the groom as proof that he had had a real fight with the bride before he could seduce her).

However, in the event that the bride manages to escape, the bridegroom is liable to become the laughing-stock of the whole village.  But, if he manages to stop her by force, he flings her to the ground and then puts his feet on her neck as a sign of victory as well as a message to one and all that he is henceforth the lord and master of the bride.

Nevertheless, such a victorious act does not in any way end in the consummation of the marriage through sexual intercourse (such customs are however on the wane at present).  In fact the two spouses are expected by tradition to remain chaste for as long as one year. This is based on the tradition observed for the commemoration of the murder of Ali Nabit ( Ali Nabit is a traditional figure who is believed to have in the past married the grand daughter of a king and one year after the wedding was murdered by the same king).

Although there are some variations in the wedding feasts and ceremonies as practiced among the various Tigre clans of Herghigo (south west of Massawa) are more cosmopolitan and less ‘indigenous’ than the marriage traditions commonly observed by the rest of the Tigre clans.