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The dictionary defines gender roles as the pattern of masculine or feminine behavior of an individual that is defined by a particular culture and that is largely determined by a child's upbringing(Dictionary.com). Who we are, how we behave, and and the way we respond to every day life is determined by how we were raised and the belief systems instilled in us by our parents and society as a whole. I have always been interested in gender roles and how men and women function together to perform the tasks necessary to sustain life. I have chosen to explore the similarities and differences of gender between the Tiwi and Trobriand Islanders. Though there are many similarities, there are also several differences.
The Tiwi occupy the Melville and Bathurst islands off the Northern coast of Australia. They live in two to four bedroom houses that have plumbing and electricity. They eat a well rounded diet of fish, game, vegetables, and fruit. Men hunt turtles, geese, lizards and wallabies, while the women are responsible for gathering fruits and vegetables. Women also hunt for small game.
The Tiwi are a matrilineal culture, and their descent group is referred to as their éƒ½kin. Regarding land inheritance, they are patrilineally based. çš„n this way, there is a relatively close balance of power between the genders. A female has the support of her husband and her son-in-law and lives in her home village. A male, through his male kin controls ownership of the land
and arranges the marriage of his granddaughters to his advantage by often linking them to his nephews(Reiss).
The Tiwi culture believes in a perpetual state of marriage for all women. Even before
birth, there is no concept of an unmarried female. The men recognize no physical contribution to a child. Rather, the mother's husband dreams of an unborn spirit child and the mother becomes pregnant when the spirit enters her body. Because this could happen at any time, if every female was married, every child could be assured a father. When choosing a husband for his infant daughter, it is done so with political, economic, and social gain. Daughters are an asset to the father. For the mother, the birth of a child also raises her standing in the community. She no longer has to do menial tasks, is able to make more of her own decisions, and have her opinions heard.
Since infants are betrothed to their husbands at infancy, a list of a man's wives is much larger than what's actually in his residence. A man can have between 20 and 30 wives. It's typically at the age of 14 that the girl will move in with her husband and take on the role of a wife. He is usually much older, around 40 years of age. In the past, younger men generally married widows. Now, widows are encouraged to return to their father's home and help care for him.
As women advance through these stages of marriage, her social status and influence increases. She is now æ®¿t the center of a powerful, cohesive, social unit that includes her daughters and co-wives. In addition, she has retained great influence over her sons(Peters-Golden, p. 235). Women play a key role in the status and wealth of the men. For it is the labor of his wives' which helps the men amass a surplus of food, which equates to wealth.
Last year, Lynette De Santis, became the first elected mayor of the Tiwi Islands Shrine Council. çš„t is now evident that people's way of thinking is changing and it has made me very proud to be a Tiwi woman. Including myself, there are four women on our 12-member council. My male colleagues are supportive, respectful, and easy to work with(Bhandari).
The Trobrianders live in Eastern New Guinea where it is hot and humid year around. Made up of approximately 1200 individuals, they live in Kiriwina which is made up of 60 islands. They live in thatched huts which have a metal roof. Around their houses are yam houses which stand taller than their huts.
Yams are an integral part of their lives. They are a symbol of wealth, power, and status. Growing yams is primarily the responsibility of the men. Consumed raw and cooked, yams are used for nutrition and status, with their being a separate garden for each use. While yams and pork are their most important foods, they also have a ready supply of beans, corn, breadfruit, taro, squash, cassava, and fish to round out their diet.
Trobrianders believe that when a person dies, their spirit goes to the Island of Tuma. It is there that a new spirit child is created. This spirit seeks out a female who belonged to the same matrilineal line as the previous person who died. Once found, the spirit moves into a female where mixed with her blood a baby is formed. Once the baby is born, the mother will give him or her the name of a deceased family member. The child's ancestral name is given by the mother, however, the father will ask his sister for a name of someone from their own matriline. That is the name the child will go by.
Though the mother gives birth to the baby, it is the responsibility of the father to care for it once born. They ensure that the child is clothed, fed, and that all basic needs are met. Men are
also responsible for their child's beauty. They take great pride and decorate their child in shells, which are a symbol of their status, wealth, and political connections.
At the age of seven or eight, children begin playing erotic games and imitate the sexual attitudes of their parents. Approximately five years later they begin seeking out sexual partners. Females are just as aggressive as males in finding or rejecting their conquests. They will have many partners to which parents not only allow but encourage this behavior.
Yams and marriage are intricately connected. Once a couple decides they want to get married, they will spend many nights together. When a man and woman eat yams together, they are married. Once a year has passed, the woman's father will begin growing a yam garden for her. This will fall to her brothers once her father dies. Men work very hard on the yam gardens because they will be displayed for all to see. Once the yams are harvested, he takes them to the woman for which he has grown them. There they are placed yam houses, which is a great accomplishment. It proclaims, éhis is a man who's power has been recognized by my his wife's brother. No man-not even a chief-can build a yam house for himself(Peters-Golden, p. 251).
Men and women are considered equals in their society. It is only through the female lineage that men can garner wealth, status, and political strength. çš„n all the public entertainments and festivals, whether women take an active part or not, they are never excluded from looking on, or freely mixing with the men; and they do this on terms of perfect equality, exchanging banter and jokes with them and engaging in easy conversation(Resture).
The Tiwi and the Trobrianders are both matrilineal cultures, however, in regards to land inheritance the Tiwi are also patrilineal. Upon conducting research, I learned that this acted as a balance of power between the two genders. While wealth would not be possible without the roles
that women play, the men control ownership of the land. Also, in both cultures women gathered and planted food with the Tiwi hunting for small game. They contributed on an equal level for food, however it was Trobriand men who were primarily responsible for growing yams. Both cultures view pregnancy similarly. A spirit, seeking the same matrilineal descent, enters the body of the mother. It is here that the similarities end. The Tiwi culture believes in a perpetual state of marriage for all women. Although they may be betrothed at birth, they are not sent to live with their husbands until they reach the approximate age of 14. In this society women are an asset to their fathers, as they choose their daughters future spouse with political, economic, and social gain in mind. A woman's social standing in this culture increases as she advances through these stages of marriage. Since her first husband is significantly older, they practice levirate, with her marrying his brothers at her spouse's death.
For the Trobriand, it is the yams that are a symbol of wealth, power, and status, which is primarily the responsibility of the men. They grow the yams, and put them on display for their married daughters. This is viewed as an accomplishment that signifies that he is worthy to his wife's brother. The most interesting aspect was that after the mother gave birth, it was the father who cared for the child, providing for it's needs, and assuring that the child was fed and clothed, with it's basic needs being met. The father decorates the child and is concerned with it's beauty, adorning him or her with shells. This is also a symbol of their status and wealth. Unlike the Tiwi, who betroth their daughters at birth, the Trobriand are not married until they eat yams together. Children become sexually promiscuous at a very young age, which is encouraged by their parents.
The common tie between these cultures is that men and women are considered equals in
their respective societies. Dependent on the other for food and wealth, they compliment each other and work towards a common goal although their motivations may run parallel. While the Tiwi men see their daughters as assets and can utilize them to gain entrance and favor with other clans, the women gain status and social respect as they advance through their marriages. They retain great influence over their sons, daughters and co-wives. The Trobriand men value wealth by their yam houses. However, without the women for which they grow these gardens, they would not have this measure in which to value their wealth and status. Women are treated as equals, conversing freely with the men, and helping to provide the food for which sustains life. Women manufacture skirts and æ¾±undles' which are made from banana leaves. å…¸hese are crucial to the Trobriand economy and are intricately tied to other forces-chief among them yams and the matrilineages-in Trobriand culture(Peters-Golden, p. 255).
I found researching these cultures very interesting and thought provoking, with my western view of gender equality being tested and ultimately expanded. The roles that each gender assumed was not diminished nor devalued, instead, they helped contribute to the common goal which was wealth and higher social standing. I believe that many in the western would could glean new insight if made aware of how these cultures function. In our society, many hold women at a lower or decreased standard. Women have come a long way from the time when we were not allowed to vote, however, we still have a long road to travel.