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the trobriand islands - the status of women

the trobriand islands - the status of women



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Published by Sándor Tóth

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Published by: Sándor Tóth on Apr 23, 2008
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THE STATUS OF WOMENThe myths, magic and mysteries that determine the status of women in the Trobriand Islands, based on the findings of a 1918 ethnological study. The ideas of the native concerning kinshipand descent, with their assertion of the mother's exclusive part of propagation; the position of woman within the household, and her considerable share in economic life: these imply thatwoman plays an influential role in the community, and that her status cannot be low or unimportant. In this section it will be necessary to consider her legal status and her position inthe tribe; that is, her rank, her power, and her social independence of man.The kinship ideas of the natives are founded on the matrilineal principle that everythingdescends through the mother. She is entrusted with the real guardianship of her family whichremains not with herself, but with her brother. This can be generalized into the formula that,in each generation, woman continues the line and man represents it; or, in other words, thatthe power and functions which belong to a family are vested in the men of each generation,though they have to be transmitted by the women.
Let us examine some of the consequences of this principle. For the continuation and veryexistence of the family, woman, as well as man, are indispensable; therefore both sexes areregarded by the natives as being of equal value and importance. When you discussgenealogies with a native, the question of continuity of line is constantly considered inrelation to the number of women alive. This was noticeable whenever a man of a sub-clan of high rank, such as the Tabalu of Omarakana, discussed the ethnographic census of itsmembers: the fact that there were a great number of women would be emphasized with pleasure, and said to be good and important. That there were only two women of that sub-clanof high rank in Omarakana, while there were several male members, was obviously a sore point, and every Tabalu informant volunteered the statement that there were, however, morewomen in the younger line of Olivilevi, a village in the south of the island also ruled by theTabalu. A man of any clan would often, in speaking of his family relations, expatiate on thenumber of his sisters and of their female lineage. Thus girls are quite as welcome at birth as boys, and no difference is made between them by the parents in interest, enthusiasm, or affection. It is needless to add that the idea of female infanticide would be as absurd asabhorrent to the natives.The general rule that women hand on the privileges of the family and men exercise them,must be examined as it works. When we do so we shall be able to understand the principle better and even to qualify it somewhat. The idea of rank--that is, of an intrinsic, socialsuperiority of certain people as their birthright--is very highly developed among the TrobriandIslanders; and a consideration of the way in which rank affects the individual will best explainthe working of the general principle.
Drying skirt fibre. The bunches of frayed banana leavesare hung in the sun after having been stained with crimson and purple dye.In the inner circle of this lagoon village (Teyava) only yam houses can be seen.Rank is associated with definite hereditary groups of a totemic nature, which have already been designated here as
. Each sub-clan has a definite rank; it claims to be higher than some, and admits its inferiority to others. Five or six main categories of rank can, broadlyspeaking, be distinguished, and within these the minor grades are of but small importance. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we will chiefly concern ourselves with a comparison of thesub-clan of Tabalu, the highest of all in rank, with its inferiors.Every village community "belongs to" or is "owned by" one such sub-clan, and the eldestmale is the headman of the village. When the sub-clan is of highest rank, its oldest male is notonly headman of his own village, but exercises over-rule in a whole district, and is what wehave called a chief. Chieftainship and rank are, therefore, closely associated, and rank carrieswith it, not only social distinction, but also the right to rule. Now, one of these two attributes, but one only, social distinction, is shared by men and women alike. Every woman of thehighest rank, that of Tabalu, enjoys all the personal privileges of nobility. The male membersof the clan will perhaps say that man is more aristocratic, more
than woman, but probably this merely expresses the general assumption of male superiority. In all concretemanifestations of rank, whether traditional or social, the two sexes are equal. In the extensivemythology referring to the origin of the various sub-clans, a woman ancestress always figures beside the man (her brother), and there are even myths in which a woman alone inaugurates aline.Another important manifestation of rank is the complex system of taboos, and this is equally binding on man and woman. The taboos of rank include numerous prohibitions in the matter of food, certain animals especially being forbidden, and there are some other notablerestrictions, such as that prohibiting the use of any water except from water-holes in the coralridge. These taboos are enforced by supernatural sanction, and illness follows their breach,even if it be accidental. But the real force by which they are maintained is a strong convictionon the part of the taboo keeper that the forbidden food is intrinsically inferior, that it isdisgusting and defiling in itself. When it is suggested to a Tabalu that he should eat of stingaree or bush pig he shows unmistakable signs of repulsion; and cases are quoted in which
a man of rank has vomited, with every sign of nausea, some forbidden substance which hehad taken unwittingly. A citizen of Omarakana will speak of the stingaree eaters of the lagoonvillages with the same disgusted contempt as the right-minded Briton uses towards the frog-and snail-eaters of France, or the European towards the puppy - and rotten-egg-eaters of China. Now a woman of rank fully shares in this disgust, and in the danger from breaking a taboo. If,as does occasionally happen, she marries a man of lower rank, she must have all food, allcooking utensils, dishes, and drinking vessels separate from her husband, or else he mustforego all such diet as is taboo to her; the latter is the course more usually adopted.Rank entitles its possessions to certain ornaments, which serve both as its insignia and asfestive decorations. For instance, a certain kind of shell ornament, the red spondylus shell-discs, may only be worn on the forehead and on the occiput by people of the highest rank. As belts and armlets they are also permitted to those next in rank. Again, an armlet on theforearm is a mark of the first aristocracy. Varieties and distinctions in personal adornment arevery numerous, but it will enough to say here that they are observed in exactly the samemanner by male and female, though the ornaments are more frequently made use by the latter.Certain house decorations, on the other hand, such as carved boards and ornaments of shellwhich are in pattern and material exclusive to the several higher ranks, are primarily made useof by the male representatives. But a woman of rank who marries a commoner would be fullyentitled to have them on her house.Trobriand Island house lintel.The very important and elaborate ceremonial of respect observed towards people of rank is based on the idea that a man of noble lineage must always remain on a physically higher levelthan his inferiors. In the presence of a noble, all people of lower rank have to bow the head or  bend the body or squat on the ground, according to the degree of their inferiority. On noaccount must any head reach higher than that of the chief. Tall platforms are always built onto the chief's house, and on one of these he will sit so that the people may freely move belowhim during tribal gatherings. When a commoner passes a group of nobles seated on theground, even at a distance, he has to call out
("arise"), and the chiefs immediatelyscramble to their feet and remain standing while he crouches past them. One would think thatso uncomfortable a ceremonial of homage would have been circumvented in some way; butthis is not the case. Many times when a commoner would pass by the village grove when achief was in conversation, he would call out
, and though this would happen everyquarter of an hour or so, the chief had to rise while the other, bending low, walked slowly by.Women of rank enjoy exactly the same privilege in this matter. When a noble woman ismarried to a commoner, her husband has to bend before her in public, and others have to bestill more careful to do so. A high platform is erected for her and she sits upon it alone attribal assemblies, while her husband moves or squats below with the rest of the crowd.The sanctity of the chief's person is particularly localized in his head, which is surrounded bya halo of strict taboos. More especially sacred are the forehead and the occiput with the neck.Only equals in rank, the wives and a few particularly privileged persons, are allowed to touchthese parts, for purposes of cleaning, shaving, ornamentation, and delousing. This sanctity of the head extends to the female members of the noble sub-clans, and if a noble woman marriesa commoner, her brow, her occiput, her neck and shoulder, should not--in theory at least--betouched by the husband even during the most intimate phases of conjugal life.

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