Marriage and Family Among the Tigre
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.