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 commonplace that basically a young virgin, not of age, can be kidnapped and raped and made pregnant, then have to marry the rapist / kidnapper, Americans live reasonably normal lives. This again is the value of a book like this, giving worldly cultural perspective and knowledge to the student who lives in America.
NUMBER THREE: Articles dealing with male gender roles.
The essay by Gilbert H. Herdt discusses the role of males in the fascinating Third World culture of the Sambia mountain people in Papua New Guinea (“Rituals of Manhood: Male Initiation in Paupa New Guinea). Boys are removed from the nuclear family in the Sambia culture at seven to ten years of age, and kept in a “men’s clubhouse” until marriage – because, as Herdt writes, “strict taboos based on beliefs about menstrual pollution” still keep boys and girls separate.
The uninitiated Westerner might, upon reading about “menstrual pollution,” say well, don’t these primitive people at least realize that menstruation is part of the fact that women are fertile and give birth to keep the culture alive? But that is a naive, and it is an example of the fallacy of a “modern” view of sexuality being imposed on ancient cultural values; which is why reading about other cultures and their gender relations is important.
Meanwhile, Herdt points out that within the context of the male emerging from boy to man, “warfare, marriage, and initiation” are interlocking institutions. “Strength has come to be virtually synonymous with idealized conformity to male ritual routine,” Herdt explains. Strength in Sambia’s culture is synonymous with “maleness” and ‘manliness.”
Incidentally, this “strength” and “maleness” concept is not that far away from some of the values seen today in American society. If an American kid is a strong and athletic physical specimen, he can often get a full scholarship to a great college, while the bright kid who is not physically gifted may find he is up against a huge wall of competition for scholarships based on academics alone.)
As for the male view of women in the Sambia culture, “It needs stating only once that men’s secular rhetoric and ritual practices depict women as dangerous and polluting inferiors whom men are to distrust throughout their lives.”
How bizarre, in conclusion, is Herdt’s description of how boys in Sambia culture rid themselves of the pollution of their mothers – by having the father inject sperm into them – “injected time and again for years” – to purportedly help them obtain puberty. A homosexual relationship, father to son, doesn’t really pass the test in the Western world when it comes to masculinity; but then, there is no “test” – this is a culture far away from the U.S. both in distance and values.
NUMBER FOUR: theoretically and ethnographically based articles.
In David D. Gilmore’s essay (“The Manhood Puzzle”), he begins by saying that “all societies…provide institutionalized sex-appropriate roles for adult men and women.” That said, he mentions that there are a few societies do recognize “androgynous genders” (such as the Cheyenne berdache, the Omani xanith, and the Tahitian mahu), but even in these cultures, the person who is androgynous “must make a life choice of identity and abide by prescribed rules of sexual comportment.”
Meanwhile, Gilmore offers a striking concept by saying that notwithstanding glaring “surface differences” between cultures, “…a number of observers have recently argued that cultures are more alike than different…” As regards their gender ideals, or “guiding images.”
Gilmore’s research has led him to discover two studies of great interest to his work; one study shows that the sex ideals of a “primitive Amazonian tribe” had “subsurface similarities in the qualities expected of men and women” in contemporary American society. This work concluded that “only a symbolic veneer” existed between the two patterns of sexual behavior, and that veneer masks “a bedrock of sexual thinking.”
Another study quoted by Gilmore – involving a survey of sex images in 30 totally different cultures – concluded that there is “substantial similarity” to be discovered “panculturally in the traits ascribed to men and women” in myriad cultures.
Still another piece of research into sexual similarities throughout diverse cultures concluded that “culture is ‘only a thin veneer covering an essential universality’ of gender dimorphism.”
Gilmore dips into the subject of “manhood” by first relating the cultural traits of the people of Truk Island in the South Pacific. These people live off the sea, and the Trukese men “are obsessed with their masculinity” to the point of challenging fate by going out into deep-water fishing trips in “tiny dugout” canoes. And they go out there to fish with spears, even in shark-infested waters.
Should any man amongst the Trukese men fail to take these risks, their fellow men and the women in the community will laugh at them, call them effeminate and “childlike.” And the Trukese male youth “drink to excess,” fight on weekends, “seek sexual conquests to maintain a manly image.”
Gilmore then takes the reader to the Greek Aegean island of Kalymnos, where the men take great personal bodily risks by diving down into very deep water without any diving equipment. “Many men are crippled by the bends for life,” Gilmore explains, but that doesn’t matter: “they have proven their precious manhood by showing their contempt for death.” Indeed, young divers who take too many safety precautions are considered “effeminate,” and are “scorned and ridiculed by their fellows.”
And a third example is given by Gilmore, to show parallels between cultures in which boys and men must prove their masculinity: he speaks of the Amhara, a Semitic-speaking tribe in Ethiopia, where masculinity is called wandnat. “It means never backing down when threatened,” Gilmore explains, pointing out that boys are required to go through a whipping contest, in which “Faces are lacerated, ears torn open, and red and bleeding welts appear.” If a boy shows weakness, he is taunted and mocked.
All these examples remind a reader that in America, there are still rites of passage for entrance into fraternities and other male organizations. Crazy stunts are conducted that sometimes kill young men, such as chugging a bottle of liquor, or being tied up and horse-whipped.
And very much like the Trukese male youth (who, as was pointed out earlier in this section, “drink to excess,” fight on weekends, “seek sexual conquests to maintain a manly image”), American youth also drink way too much on occasion, and certainly seek sexual conquests to build or sustain their manly images. That is another reason this book is valuable, is that as far away in culture and values as some peoples are from Western society, similarities do exist in the manner in which lives are led.
Just recently, a very embarrassing scandal was revealed at the University of Colorado at Boulder; it was learned that when football players arrived on campus for their recruiting ritual (we’re alluding to great athletes who are high school seniors about to graduate and pick a university to play their game), hookers were lined up so the high schoolers could see there was a lot of sex available on the Boulder campus. They were also taken to bars and given alcohol to excess, and there were even reports of rapes by recruits and university football players.
NUMBER FIVE: Introductions to each section of reading.
The assignment for this paper states that the paper should have five sections, with each section approximately 1,000 words; “however,” the instructions continue, “there will be areas that you would like to delve into deeper [and] I encourage that.” With that in mind, this paper has used well more than 1,000 words to present the introductions, because the introductions to each section of this book are extraordinarily rich in nuggets of information that go well beyond mere “summary” and “overview” and “paraphrase.” The authors have done a momentous job in their introductions, not only giving highlights of what is ahead in the book, but also in synthesizing and explaining key portions. Hence, a great deal of emphasis is placed upon the introductions.)
The “Biology, Gender, and Human Evolution” introduction (I) section is a very good beginning for a student just dipping a toe into the waters of the history of human beings and their gender development. Though the book was written a few years ago, the book’s many questions – not merely posed specifically but implied – in this first section are (and no doubt will be for many years) compelling, cogent and thought-provoking. Two examples: “… [Are] women…universally subordinated to men?” “… [Are] women equipped for war and combat?”
It’s important in scholarship that all good questions should stimulate thoughtful consideration of contemporary events in our world, and the second of the two questions in the paragraph above is no exception. A very hot topic on the current news scene is that of the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. In fact, Army Reserve Pfc. Lynndie England is the first U.S. soldier charged with “abusing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison,” according to an Associated Press story on Tuesday, July 13, 2004.
She was read her legal rights as a soldier on Monday and a military judge set a hearing for Aug. 3 to determine if she should face trial on 13 counts of abusing prisoners. Are women capable of fighting a war, engaging in combat operations, and even torturing prisoners? The question of Ms. England’s guilt or innocence will be determined through the legal process, but there is no question that she appears to be made a scapegoat in this tangled web of cruelty, a web that was exposed through photographs of torture.
On page 3 of the text, the authors state that “Many studies of aggression contend that men are more aggressive than women, and often link this difference to levels of male hormones (testosterone).” But the photo of Ms. England smiling near a tortured prisoner, a photo that was made public and probably ruined the remainder of Ms. England’s life, challenges that “aggression” theory.
Meanwhile, while the photos caused “widespread outrage, particularly in the Arab world,” according to the AP story, Ms. England’s attorneys have indicated that she was just “following orders from higher-ups.” Her lawyers have stated that their potential witnesses may include Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, along with some top generals. This is a key point in relating this story to the text. Also on page 3, another theory suggests that women are absent from “cooperative and political activity in the non-domestic sphere.” And in this torture case, women were apparently not involved in the political decision-making process when Messer’s Cheney, Rumsfeld, and even President George Bush made decisions that in effect gave U.S. troops in Iraq cart blanche to torture prisoners.
It is a documented fact that Bush “signed off” on a memo that apparently gave the U.S. military the authorization to ignore international laws relating to the treatment of wartime prisoners. In other words, because of the powerful patriotic fever in the aftermath of 9/11, and Bush’s well-established hatred for Saddam, it was now okay for Americans to torture Iraqis. But sadly, Ms. England is apparently paying a price for what the top men in the U.S. government decided to do. This all ties in well with the text’s various messages about gender and power. In truth, maybe Bush should be subjected to cross-examination by Ms. England’s attorneys, as to the tone he set vis-a-vis torture.
In the second section’s introduction (II), “Archaeology and Gender,” readers learn that there is an ongoing re-evaluation of the role women played in “man’s past” – and that recent studies show that the creation of societies was more of a cooperative, collaborative effort between men and women, than an entirely male-dominated history. But more than just a gender issue relating to the study of archaeology, the authors preview the essay by Margaret W. Conkey as to “the importance of confronting presuppositions and values that guide our work,” no matter how “scientific” the methods of inquiry are presumed to be.
In alluding to “biases not only in analysis” but biases which are also in the “very practice” of the discipline of archaeology, Conkey flatly states that “disentangling our culture-bound assumptions from the actual archaeological record will be a long and wrenching procedure.” But if it is successful, it will be a worthwhile procedure; not just in the sense of fairness to women, but for also for the fact that the fully revealed truth of history will be shared by future generations.
In the introduction to section III (“Domestic Worlds and Public Worlds”), there are challenges to the long-standing assumption that male domination is universal, whether or not “male domination is explained by the domestic-public dichotomy,” and whether or not the domestic-public concept “has relevance in all cultures.” This, like other sections of the book, shows that old values as to how to view women’s roles in various gender issues are now being confronted. And beyond the gender issues, the confronting of time-worn answers to historic questions is exactly what true scholarship is supposed to be about.
This book is rich with challenges to old ideas; but more than that, the challenges are written by scholars and thinkers who have access to good information, and these scholars write very interestingly, which makes reading and comprehending smoother for the student.
The introduction to the section called “The Cultural Construction of Gender and Personhood” (IV), as with each preceding introduction, alerts the reader to that fact that there will be challenges to old assumptions. In IV, for example, the “nature-culture” dichotomy is taken under the microscope. The “nature-culture” issue is simply that women as child-bearers are closer to “nature” then men, and because men are more closely linked to the world of work, they are more intricately a part of the culture. And hence, men have “worn the pants” and been the dominant gender in many cultures.
As to gender identity and the roles of the genders, and the widespread belief that women are universally subordinated while men are dominant, the authors say this concept “appears questionable through the lens of recent ethnographic reanalyses.”
Also in IV some very intriguing and remote cultures are presented, in particular the Hausa society where “a good daughter-in-law gives her first born child to her husband’s mother, an act that strengthens family ties.” This system would never work in the United States, albeit some new cultural solutions certainly could, and probably should, be introduced to America to strengthen the ever-loosening bonds of the family.
Culture and Sexuality” is the title of section V, and it is very informative to the point that it makes a person want to immediately begin reading the essays in the section. Of course, when you put “sexuality” in the title of any manuscript or book or document, it ads some luster and intrigue for the reader. But meantime, this section offers not just “sexuality” per se but some horrifying realities of sexual / cultural rituals conducted by some societies.
For example, in Sudan, women are subjected to the horror of “infibulation,” which is a kind of female circumcision, which “causes serious pain and health risks to young women.” Why do the Sundanese perform such seeming inhumane procedures, using crude tools that may subject the young women to infection and disease? These procedures are “indicators of status,” the authors explain in the introduction. And meanwhile, some cultures, such as Hinduism, tolerate a kind of “gender ambiguity,” which holds that “all people contain both male and female principles…”
In section VI (“Equality and Inequality: The Sexual Division of Labor and Gender Stratification”), the authors note that the division of labor has traditionally assumed that men are placed in positions of power in the home because they earn the money, and women (and the family’s children) depend upon that income for their survival. But as women continue to make up a bigger and more potent portion of the workforce, these old assumptions are becoming relics of the past.
The highly pertinent questions that emerge from the fact that women are in the workforce in a major way are posed on page 201: “Has this significantly altered the status of women within their families and in the wider society? Or has it simply meant that women are now working a double day,” working out of the house on a job of some kind, and then coming home to cook, clean, and care for the children, a full-time job in itself? And the most germane question of all is, “If employment enhances the social position of women, why is it that women still earn only 65% of what men do for the same work?” And lastly, “Why is there still a high degree of occupational segregation by gender?”
The introduction to section VII (“Gender, Property, and the State”) informs the reader that the “subordination of women appears to emerge as an aspect of state formation,” and so, don’t blame it all on power-hungry men, blame it on institutions and political systems. Rather than women having more power through the division of labor in societies since the advent of the “class society,” the role of women “relative to men” has deteriorated. Anyone truly interested in how society arrived at this juncture in history will certainly want to read this section.
And anyone who tends to stereotype gender issues should read the essay in this section by Rayna Rapp, who, authors point out in the introduction, “warns against overgeneralizing when trying to understand the origins of the state and ignoring the history and context in which political formations change.” Reading deeper into issues is the pathway to a more thorough grasp of worthwhile knowledge, and that is one of the strengths of this text.
Gender, Household, and Kinship” is the title of section VIII. Once again, old values and assumptions come under fire through the excellence of academic research and analysis. “Recent critiques of the tradition study of kinship,” the authors assert, “have pointed out that it is ‘no longer adequate to view women as bringing to kinship primarily a capacity for bearing children while men bring primarily a capacity for participation in public life.”
In section IX, “Gender, Ritual, and Religion,” Brettell and Sargent offer a very refreshing learning experience for readers, and the information shared will likely open up the doors of the mind for many students. For example, on page 334, it is pointed out that women in some cultures “use spirit possession and trance as an outlet for the stress that derives from their social and material deprivation and subordination.” In northern Greece, where women walk through fire, they are apparently addressing the “discrepancies that characterize the relationship between an official ideology of male dominance and a social reality in which women actually exercise a significant degree of power.” And in Korea, spirit possession “is a vehicle where by a…practitioner ministers to the needs of other women who are in turn the ritual representatives of their families.”
Section X – “Gender, Politics, and Reproduction” – makes the point that pressure to reproduce is “especially intense in agrarian societies,” where labor is key to agricultural output. The section also provides some provocative food for thought, surrounding the issue of abortion: the controversy of abortion rights in the U.S. is in part fueled by the fact that “American culture regards women and women’s bodies as ‘property to be bartered, bestowed, and used by men’.”
In “Colonialism and Development” (section XI), the authors point towards the fact that even though most of the world’s nations have achieved economic and political independence, there remains “…an imbalanced relationship between the countries of the industrial…world and the developing, or Third World” nations. And as regards those Third World nations, the key first question posed in XI is: “How have the men and women of the developing world experienced the continuing impact of the penetration of capitalism and the integration of their societies into the global economy?”
This section is easily the most valuable set of introductions in any book I have read. So many good questions were asked, so many fascinating essays on a myriad of cultural and gender subjects were highlighted, it made it easy to read the book, digest the most salient and interesting facts, and begin talking about it with my friends and family.
Brettell, Caroline B.; & Sargent, Carolyn F. (1993). Gender in Cross-Cultural
Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
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The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
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