Deeper Insight into Both CulturesThis is a featured page

As Shostak contended, “All in all, !Kung women maintain a status that is higher than that of women in many agricultural and industrial societies around the world. They exercise a striking degree of autonomy and of influence over their own and their children’s lives. Brought up to respect their own importance in community life, !Kung women become multifaceted adults, and are likely to be competent and assertive as well as nurturant and cooperative.”

As what Marjorie Shostak noted, Ju/’hoansi maintain a status higher than of women in many agricultural and industrial societies. Many cultures are androcentric but the females of the !Kung people are not overshadowed by their male counterparts. On the other hand, the Mosuo women generally have a higher status than men in the society, given that the Mosuo are matrilineal. Many Mosuo women play critical roles in their families, and are the crux of family operations. Below, we will compare the gender roles and the implications between the egalitarian Ju/’Hoansi and the gynocentric Mosuo.

Gender roles in the Family & Marriage domain

In terms of the differences in the roles of fathers, Ju/’hoansi fathers are rather involved in child rearing. In fact, Ju/’Hoansi parents are rather equal in their roles in the child upbringing. Children take both their parents’ opinions in a similar manner and rarely favour any one parent. On the other hand, Mosuo fathers do not play a role in a child’s upbringing, as the nature of their walking marriage means that men are constantly not around physically. Also, even in the case of official marriage, it does not confer the father responsibility over the child. Hence in comparison, fathers of the Ju/’Hoansi play a much more important role in child rearing as compared to the Mosuo. Both Ju/’Hoansi and Mosuo mothers are important in the child rearing process. Even though Ju/’Hoansi fathers play an active role in child rearing, they are nevertheless usually discouraged to be present at the birth of their child. Also, mothers tend to be the main decision maker in the family, even if it is for serious issues like infanticide. Also, as the men need to be actively hunting, 90% of the childcare is hence handled by mothers. As for the Mosuo mothers, the children born of the union belong to the mother, live with her and looked after by her maternal kin. As such, children also take the surnames of their mothers. Both Ju/’Hoansi and Mosuo mothers play an important role in child rearing, but Mosuo mothers would be relatively more important given the absence of fathers in child rearing.

For the Ju/’Hoansi, marriages are usually arranged by the parents of the bride (mainly the mother) and the future husband. However, women of the tribe can make their opinions known by violently objecting and even go as far as to threaten suicide. These threats are viewed seriously and the marriage can hence be cancelled. This shows that the females have more say in their marriages, and freedom of rights. On the other hand, due to the unusual nature of the Mosuo’s walking marriages, couples can have a relationship that is widely known by people of the tribe, but little is said in the open. Hence, parents do not have much say regarding their childrens’ walking marriage partners. However, for an official marriage to take place, approval must be gained from the two respective matriarchs. Hence, the Ju/’Hoansi and Mosuo are quite similar in that couples have some say in their marriage partners, and the relatively more prevalent role of mothers over fathers in marriages.

Polygamy is allowed amongst the Ju/’Hoansi people, but women usually disapprove of it, and hence polygamy is rarely practised in actuality. However, highly respected healers may have more than 2 wives and their wives are interestingly, also one of the strongest singers. Neither gender has the upper hand in marriage as both are prone to sexual jealousy and will express it actively. Divorce is more commonly initiated by women. Anthropologist Richard Lee noted that for the Ju/’hoansi people, the have a picture of relative equality between the two genders. Oppression of women or abuse are very rare. On the other hand, polygamy is not accepted in the Mosuo society. For the Ju/’Hoansi, all women would get married at least once in the course of their lifetime, as marriages are an important part of how the Ju/’Hoansi form social networks. Hence, even if the children do not actively seek marriage, their parents would arrange for marriages on their behalf. However, Mosuo people can grow old without having at least one marriage partner in their lives. Thus, marriage is comparatively more important for the Ju/’Hoansi than the Mosuo.

In terms of sexuality, the Ju/’hoansi often use sexual jokes to ease tension. However this joking is limited to those with a joking relationship, with no difference between genders. One reason behind the Ju/’Hoansi’ openness to sexuality could be their early exposure to sexuality. Children’s’ source of sexual education include watching their parents (as they usually sleep in the same beds as their parents), and playing with other children of the same age. Although parents do chide their children if they witness them engaging in such play with other children, nothing is done to prevent such playing among the children as this is how they learn. On the other hand, matters of sexuality are not as open in the Mosuo society. Even though one night-stands are not considered abnormal or taboo, there are still strong taboos against talking about sex or sexual partners in front of family members of the opposite sex. Joking about sexual matters is also only acceptable among same-sex groups meeting privately or semi-privately. Hence, the Mosuo are more adverse to openness about sexuality in the public sphere as compared to the Ju/’Hoansi.

Gender roles in Subsistence

Women do have a fair part of roles to play in subsistence as they are not excluded from any social, political or economic life nor are they seen as a threat to the male identity. Women also have hunting knowledge and hence, can assist the men. The only difference would be that while men make the hunting tools, women do their part by maintaining the tools. However, it is considered a taboo for menstruating women to hunt or even touch the hunting tools. Also, female hunters do not garner as much respect as male hunters, and they might even be deemed as crazy by some. However, aside from hunting, gathering of food such as berries and nuts forms the majority of the Ju/’Hoansi’s daily diet, and this is carried out mostly by the women. In fact, a day’s work on berry and nuts gathering can be enough to last for a couple of days. The females also have the sole power to decide and ratio of food that they keep to the amount of food shared with others in the tribe. Hence, we can see that both females and males contribute actively to the subsistence of the Ju/’Hoansi community. As opposed to the relatively equal split of gender roles in subsistence, subsistence in the Mosuo society is generally handled by the women. Mosuo women are in charge of farming.
In terms of politics, the Ju/’Hoansi are generally more egalitarian, and there is an absence of a structured institution of governance. However, there are still !Kung leaders, and the leaders are mostly male with the occasional females. Gender difference is especially obvious when it comes to interaction with outsiders, as men are usually the one to step forward instead of the women. On the other hand, despite the Mosuo being matrilineal and gynocentric, positions of leadership and ruling are actually held by the men. This is because the women generally function within and are in full control of the private sphere (including the control of household, work in the field, and caring of children), but men are the ones holding leadership positions in the public sphere (such as major administrative positions, chiefs or governors). This might seem to contradict the Mosuo’s gynocentric identity, but this is because Mosuo women are socialized to believe that politics is the prerogative of men. Furthermore, with women being actively involved in looking after the household, the fields, and the family, they are already burdened with multiple household responsibilites, and hence have little time and resources to compete with men for such leadership positions.

In terms of economics and exchange, the Ju/’Hoansi practice the !Hxaro, which is an important gift exchange system used to strengthen relationships and form social networks. Any 2 people can do !Hxaro together regardless of gender, and hence there is no gender difference in terms of the number of exchange partners, quality and quantity of exchang items. For the Mosuo, economics and exchange are generally left to the women, as finances are handled by the women.

Conclusion

Gender roles are socially constructed, not inherent as proposed by Darwin’s Theory of Sexual Selection. This can be seen by how different societies have differing structures that dictate gender roles. For example, the Mosuo are a matriarchal society, resulting in the highly independent nature of the women and the dominance of women in the area of finance. In contrast, the Ju’hoansi are egalitarian with almost equal gender roles as the interdependence of the society prevents the formation of social hierarchy. The differences in the structures of the two cultures are strongly influenced by the needs for survival or circumstances in that community. This would mean that the environment played a more important role in shaping roles than previously believed by Darwin.


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