Feminist Anthropology

The first article in my two-part series on feminist anthropology featured by Lady Science.

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Anthropology & Literature

The Geek Anthropologist

By Emma Louise Backe

When I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I double majored in Anthropology and English. Even though I saw myself following in the tradition of fellow Vassar alum Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), my major advisors were frankly baffled by the combination. It seems apt, therefore, that my first panel at the AAA 2014 Meeting this past year was on “Anthropology and Storytelling”.

Convened by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado), Coralynn V. Davis (Bucknell) and Gina Athena Ulyssse (Wesleyan) each presented papers on the importance of narrative in fieldwork and ethnographic writing. Indeed, part of what initially spoke to me about anthropology was its emphasis on studying the storied aspects of human lives. As a fledgling anthropologist, I necessarily studied Clifford Geertz’s theories about culture as a series of texts that anthropologists read and interpret over the shoulders of their informants (Geertz 1973)…

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Notes From the Field: Gender in Fiji

(The name of the woman I interviewed has been changed to ensure her anonymity. The pseudonym was chosen both for the mythological role the character Salome has played in understandings of gender and because the name is very common around Fiji.) 

“Men are up here,” Salome begins, gesturing above her head, as if at the top rung of a ladder, “and women are always down here,” she finishes, bending forward from her sitting position so that her hand barely brushes the soles of her shoes. “We are always treated like we are under men,” she explains, elaborating that in traditional Fijian culture, “men are always the heads of the families,” even though, “women have to be at home all the time. Some women have to do all the work.” This work, however, is gendered and often separated into the public and private spheres. “Women’s work” includes housework, like cooking and cleaning, as well as tending to the children, while “men’s work” typically means physical or manual labor, such as working in the fields or the plantations, although men also dominate the public sphere of civil servant jobs as well, such as shop owners, police officers, government officials and teachers. The gendered dimensions of work, however, have begun to change and bleed over into one another. Salome notes how more women are now doing “man’s job” and “man’s work,” including both acquiring gainful employment, like becoming a nurse, and doing more physical labor in addition to their expected domestic chores. “We are the helper,” she elaborates. “Everything is for men. Everything has to be the last for women.” These gendered dimensions of work are often expressed as “inside” vs. “outside” work, and although women have started to adopt more stereotypically masculine roles, men have not become more flexible and learned to cook for themselves or assume more responsibility in the domestic sphere.

Salome, a woman in her fifties who runs the Maternal and Child Health Clinic at a local hospital, expresses the internal contradictions and inherent misogyny of Christianity endemic of the way gender is generally understood in traditional Fijian society. She references a doctor she heard speak, who apparently claimed that men have a “hormone by God which directs them that they are the head of the family.” She notes that the different positions men and women hold in Fijian society are due to the fact that men and women were “created differently” in the Bible—Eve was made from the rib of Adam. When I asked her what part of the Bible stipulates that women should be treated as lesser than men, though, she faltered, uncertain. “Maybe Genesis?” she hazarded. According to her reading of the Bible, Adam was bored and couldn’t take care of himself. That’s why God created Eve—to ease his boredom and help to take care of him. Already there seems to be a complicated internal logic—men are considered superior to women, and yet they couldn’t have survived without the presence of women, and women were created (so to speak) due to the ineptitude of men. The irony of this logic, however, doesn’t seem to register for Salome, though she articulates these internal contradictions. She states that women are “not strong like men,” and yet “we [women] can handle the consequences,” as in the pain and struggle, of being a woman, including pregnancy, delivery and child rearing. Men and women, therefore, have different kinds of strength. There are moments when she elevates the strength of women over men. Laughing, she says to me, “I don’t think any men can handle [the pain of] childbirth. If they could, they would only have one child.”

Salome delves into the family dynamics of a typical Fijian home. Women are not allowed to speak up or voice their opinions when men are around, and they usually have to get permission from their partners or spouses if they want to leave the house. And yet men “can’t be alone without women. Women can stay longer alone, men can’t stay longer alone without women.” Apparently, if the husband were to pass away, it is acceptable for the woman to continue to manage the household as a single widow and often succeeds as the new head of the household. If the wife passes away, however, men immediately go looking for another woman or wife to clean the house, cook the food and take care of the children.

When asked about the health issues that plague women in Fiji, Salome turns to a discussion of violence in the household, or “commotion in the family” as she calls it. As an MCH nurse, her work also falls under the category of family planning, so she gets insight into the daily lives of Fijian families. Divorce, extramarital affairs and domestic violence, as well as rape, are the problems she gravitates toward throughout our discussion. While women are expected to stay home, “men always go clubbing,” and “husbands are always drunk and disorderly.” She says that violence in the family is not necessarily new—husbands and wives often fight over money, food or other social problems, such as conflicts over religion or maintenance of the monogamous relationship. Rape, she explains, happens because “we [women] are showing our body to people,” referencing the changes in modesty and dress in Fiji. Fijians increasingly have access to Western television, movies and magazines, which has also triggered a shift in the younger generation away from the traditionally modest and conservative sulu jaba, which includes a long skirt down to the feet, and a blouse that covers the shoulders. Younger women and girls are starting to experiment with Western clothing, wearing tank tops and shorts, fashion decisions that Salome believes are to blame for rape. Gender-based violence in Fiji, I recently learned from a report released by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, has reached epidemic proportions, especially considering the culture of silence that socially sanctions the “discipline” of women who speak or act out of turn. Yet Salome exclaims that women were created “to be loved, not to be kicked or punched—that’s why the rib is so close to the heart,” returning again to the Genesis of Eve.

When I asked whether men and women are created equally, she nodded in affirmation, saying, “We are all human beings.” But when I asked how Fijian women could be treated more equally to men, she reverted to the entrenched hierarchies, stating, “Women can’t go up.” She suggested that education might help to bring equality to female Fijians, but didn’t seem to think it was culturally appropriate for women to have the same rights as men. Men could only go “down” to the woman’s level, but the women can’t ascend the stratified social system. “Fijians, we still look at it differently,” she justifies. Men may be “weak,” and women may be “strong,” but even this empowered woman is hesitant to level the playing field, or predict that equality will come any time soon.