Anthropology Review and Critique: Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspectives
The textbook by Brettell and Sargent on the myriad and diverse studies of gender is not only written with excellent scholarship and with a style that is engaging, but the subject selections - and their order of placement - contribute to a wholly informative presentation. Even the introductions to each section are interesting and informative; indeed, a bright, alert reader could digest just the introductions to each section and be enriched far beyond what he or she knew prior to reading those openings.
But that same reader would be missing an enormous and valuable volume of information on the history of the human race and the human condition were he or she to only read the introductions.
NUMBER ONE: Studies of the anthropological perspective.
One very interesting angle on the study of man and woman in prehistory is provided by Lila Leibowitz ("Perspectives on the Evolution of Sex Differences"), who provided a detailed account of primates' male-female roles. In the end, after writing an intriguing article, Leibowitz concludes that there is currently a "distorted" collection of evidence as to the gender roles in primates.
Her hypothesis is very compelling, and she does not seem to be elitist in the least (which sometimes happens with scholars whose knowledge far surpasses the lay person). She explains that her hypothesis is presented in response "to a spate of evolutionary theories which stress that our sex-role destiny along with our sexual anatomy was settled a long time ago." Clearly she does not espouse a rigid view of the evolution of physical differences between men and women, and how sex roles came about. She calls for more study of the existing data.
She writes that "...in ecological settings which encourage [primate] males to forage more widely than females," the reproductive advantages have come into the hands of the males "who are active enough to move around, large enough to do so safely, and versatile enough to exploit alternative food resources and social situations." As for the female, they inherit reproductive advantage when they cease growing "at pubescence and are efficient in using their limited food intakes for reproduction and nursing."
Margaret Ehrenberg's article ("The Role of Women in Human Evolution") is in effect a rebuttal to all the research that pictures "the male as protector and hunter, bringing food back to a pair-bonded female." Ehrenberg asserts that the "crucial" steps taken in the development of humans "were predominately inspired by females," not males.
Reading this article by Ehrenberg is enlightening, and it is just another example of the success these two authors from Southern Methodist University have achieved in going the extra mile to first present, then challenge, old beliefs and theories. Indeed, in the book's Preface the authors state that beyond including "classic contributions of the 1970s" they also tried to incorporate the "more recent and diverse literature on gender roles and ideology around the world." They seem to have succeeded marvelously in their goal, and still the material does not come off as feminist anger in the least.
For their section, "The Cultural Construction of Gender and Personhood," the authors chose a piece by Barbara J. Callaway ("Hausa Socialization") to show the brutal and extreme of a culture where women receive little or no recognition or rights. A girl growing up knows she is "second class" and is constantly reminded of that fact. The girls are confined to the house (except for errands they run for mother), and is told to "sit quietly, talk softly, cover her head, and never disagree with a male." By the time they reach puberty, girls are usually married, and "are virtually confined to the female quarters of their compounds all their lives."
This sounds like living in a prison, and a place of horror for women, because even though in the Islamic faith all Muslims are purportedly "equal" under Allah, a woman who is menstruating or expecting a child is "religiously impure." Any girl or woman in the United States who feels that the society is so chauvinistic and male-dominated that she can't live in peace, should read this article by Callaway. It is an eye-opener.
In conclusion, Callaway writes that "life behind the mud wall" of a Hausa home is a frightening existence: "Women complain of heavy labor, of marriages of young daughters against their wills...of forced sexual cohabitation at puberty regardless of mental or emotional development, of early motherhood and infant death."
More than that, "there is no sewage system, running water is unreliable, and animals roam freely." Female and infant mortality are "commonplace," and Callaway ends this sad story with a quote from a mother of a 12-year-old girl at her wedding: "may the day be cursed when she was born a woman."
NUMBER TWO: cross-culturally comparing gender issues.
While in most Western countries property is equated with jewelry, homes, material goods, and land, in Turkey rights to property is quite different, according to writer June Starr ("The Legal and Social Transformation of Rural Women in Aegean Turkey"). In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures, a different kind of resource has a high value - and that is "honor," Starr writes. Indeed, honor is a "valued possession, that is worth protecting and that is as valuable to women as it is to men."
Males have control over social moments in this Turkish culture Starr writes about, and when a woman behaves with honor, she affects the honor of her husband in a positive way, continuing his source of power and control. "Honor and shame play a significant part in daily affairs," Starr continues. In a way, honor (also alluded to as "reputation") is like property - it can be "accumulated" and can also be "lost" because as a resource it is scarce.
As to definitive answers about gender relationships in Turkey, Starr explains that one needs to understand that it is not fair nor is it correct to generalize about gender issues. That is because the entire Turkish Turkey is partitioned up into 77 wholly different administrative provinces. And in these 77 unique provinces, there are "strong class divisions, sharp cleavages between urban and rural dwellers...and at least seven historic, cultural and geographic areas with rich distinctiveness." Meantime, Starr studied cultural conditions in two towns (Mandalinci and Bodrum), and she reports that in those areas, long-held Islamic (religious) traditions of male dominance are confronted with secular laws in the Turkish state which grant "equal rights" for women.
That fact is somewhat similar to the conflict in the United States between the rules and laws of government and the tenets of some faiths. The Supreme Court of the U.S. has generally ruled that the "Ten Commandments" cannot be displayed in schools or in government facilities, and prayer cannot be allowed in schools, because in both cases, that is a conflict between church and state.
Another very interesting thing about this article is that in America now there is no standard marriage ceremony through which all couples are wedded. Indeed, here in 2004, the U.S. has several cities and states which either have already sanctioned gay marriages or are in the process of doing that. Meantime, in the regions of Turkey Starr has studied, there are three kinds of marriages, one of which may be a shock to westerners, albeit, it is always good to be informed of what is happening in other cultures, no matter how shocking.
The first is marriage by engagement negotiation: this is where parents and family members discuss what kind of land or house each spouse is in line to inherit, and generally pre-arrange the nuptials, based on money and property and gifts. The second is "marriage by connivance" (also known as elopement): in this kind of marriage, the groom is not obliged to give any property or money to the bride or the bride's family. It also allows the man and woman to chose whom they want to marry, without interference from the parents or family. The third type of marriage in these Turkish regions is by "abduction."
Basically, we are hearing about how an adult male can kidnap a young girl, force her to have sex with him, and eventually she will likely agree to marry him "as the only solution to her future." How can that be tolerated in a society of laws? Starr reports that between 1965 and 1967, The Bodrum Middle Criminal Court "processed 29 cases ranging from voluntary elopement to forcible abduction and rape. In 17 of these cases, the couple married, so charged were dropped." All in all, 15% of the cases "were clear instances of violence against women."
Violence against women is an ongoing and highly charged emotional topic in America, and this essay goes a long way towards putting American crimes involving violence against women into perspective. The Scott Peterson trial (for allegedly murdering his pregnant wife Laci) receives incredibly over-blown national news coverage every night. But compared with the culture in Turkey, it is…