This paper highlights analytical and historical commonalities between Belgian African anti-polygamy measures and the unusual practice of taxing urban un-married women. Secondly, it interprets the 1950s rebellion against this tax in Bujumbura in light of how the colonial category of femme libre and a 1950 antipolygamy law converged in the Muslim African community of Buyenzi. Colonial categories and camouflage, name-giving and name-calling, noise and silence are central to the interpretation.
Belgian African anti-polygamy attitudes and measures are first reviewed, including polygamous wife liberations in the Leopoldian period; the introduction of supplementary wife taxation in 1910; demographic anxieties from the 1920s; and post-World War II worries about ‘camouflaged polygamy’, leading to the passage of the anti-polygamy law in 1950. The published evidence of ‘camouflaged polygamy's’ noisiest critics, élite African ‘new men’ or évolués, suggests that polygamy was increasing in rural areas due to forced labour obligations, and becoming camouflaged in response to pro-natalist rewards for monogamy. A second section analyses the urban single women's tax in terms of the embarrassed silence surrounding this new form of moral taxation, which was introduced following legislation in the 1930s designed to better differentiate ‘customary’ space from urban sites of ‘evolution’. A third section draws on Buyenzi women's oral memories to reconstruct their noisy rebellion against the tax. The conclusion analyses these Muslim women's outrage in light of the contradictions of gaining municipal revenue through moral taxation, an urban surveillance process which necessitated naming the category of persons taxed. The etymology of the term femme libre demonstrates that polygamous wife and prostitute were associated categories in colonial thought from the Leopoldian period. Colonial authorities lost control over these categories in this atypical ‘extra-customary’ township super-imposed on a pre-colonial ‘customary’ community. The new African need for camouflaging plural wives, created by the strong urban expulsion powers of the 1950 anti-polygamy law, converged with the name-calling of the single women's tax, resulting in a local struggle to control the naming process. The category of women created by the tax coalesced around the sexual insult embedded in the tax's name, embarrassing colonial authorities into exemptions and inciting the men of their community into a tax rebellion.