Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Power of Female Autonomy: The !Kung

The !Kung people are a tribal society in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and are another example of a society where women are so self-sufficient in wilderness survival that their decisions carry the same weight as the men in tribal government. They do not rely on the men for assistance in their food production and so there is no hierarchy setting men above women, no need for men’s permission for their use of the land or their activities.

The tribe lives off of vegetation which is gathered from the bush by women and meat from hunting expeditions by men. However, the vegetation provided by women makes up between 60-80% of the tribe’s food and is their staple food since it is the most reliable. It is the nature of the work that gives the women their social prestige, because the women are expert collectors and gatherers of wild edible plants, which is a highly difficult skill requiring years of knowledge, whereas the men do not have this training. Gathering requires knowledge of hundreds of plants at all stages of growth and the ability to discern the difference between poisonous ones that look similar to the edible ones, as well as the knowledge of which parts of the plants are edible in certain seasons and how to prepare and use these plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. (See Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival). So the women of the !Kung are self-sufficient in their ability to provide food and medicine for themselves, and they are relied upon by the men and the rest of the tribe for their only regular and reliable food supply.

The !Kung consider meat highly desirable for their diet and a real luxury, but the men cannot provide it regularly, and they can’t provide it without the help of the women. Patricia Draper, a researcher who accompanied the
!Kung men on hunting expeditions, noted in her book the dependence of the men on the women to track the animals while out foraging, because of the women’s expert tracking skills, and to inform the men about how and where to hunt. (Draper 1975:82-83).

In similarity to the Tchambuli, the !Kung have ceremonial positions of symbolic authority that are set aside for men, but these positions function as performance and have no functional role in tribal decisions and governing, which is seemingly democratic.

So economic or survival self-sufficiency of the women in a social group creates a situation in the community where men hold no material threat to women, and the women have leverage over the men to insure they don’t threaten or provoke women physically because the men rely on the women for their own survival. This is a pattern that can be seen in many examples of Matriarchal societies, or societies where women hold the power of the men’s survival in their hands but then disseminate some of that power to the men of the tribe, in the form of ceremonial roles, in order to include them in the group for their own convenience or pleasure.

Peggy Sanday, 1981. Female Power and Male Dominance: on the origins of sexual inequality.
Draper, 1975
Tom Brown, 1986. Field Guide to Wilderness Survival

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