Monday, June 11, 2007

The Power of Female Solidarity: the Tchambuli

Margaret Mead wrote about her anthropological studies of several tribes in New Guinea in “Sex & Temperament” in 1935. One of these tribes was the Tchambuli, whose gender roles were found to have evolved into something much different than those in western culture.

In Tchambuli culture, the women are the managers of money and business in the home, are emotionally independent from men, and are sexually dominant. Tchambuli men are the ones who are wholly dependant on women and women’s choices, both financially and emotionally.

The dynamics between the genders seem to evolve from a few cultural customs, and some environmental circumstances. Women’s skills create the products that are in demand and that dominate the economy of the tribe. Also, their social life is one of solidarity with each other, because of work relationships and marital arrangements, keeping women who are already lifetime friends together by having them marry into the same family. It is this pair of environmental and cultural circumstances that seem to make female relationships the center of tribal interest, altering every other aspect of their society from male-female relationships to men’s relationships with each other.

The tribe relies on the fishing done by women for its food, rather than agricultural production, and fish are also traded at the market with other tribes for goods that are considered to be currency in the area. In addition, Tchambuli women weave mosquito-bags, which are always in high demand by other tribes because of the environment and bring in a lot of their form of currency. The women, who are the only ones who know how to weave these bags, send their husbands to trade these mosquito-bags and get the best price for them at the market, and the women keep and manage the ‘money’. Husbands rely on the women to receive money to spend for shopping, and spend a day at it, dressing up for the occasion and lingering over purchases.

The women work together in groups of 12 or so all day, cooking together in the same house, weaving together, laughing and socializing, and their infants and small children accompany them. The women have a strong sense of solidarity among each other because of their economic independence and their constant company through work, and as a result they almost never quarrel and are preoccupied with work and with each other, rather than men.

What further bonds the women to each other is that young men are only allowed to marry women related to their mother, usually cousins, which means that as each boy of a household gets married, the women coming into the household to work with the boys' mother are usually from the same family- that of the boys' uncle or aunt – and so are either sisters or cousins to each other. Also, the boys’ mother is an aunt to the new wives. So, the women already know and care for each other and do their work in the same household.

It is the woman who selects the man for marriage, among the men who show interest in her. Even though polygyny is allowed, and some men marry two wives, sometimes three, women who are second wives are sisters, half-sisters, or cousins with the other wife, and so already have a lifetime friendship between them. If a wife is unsatisfied sexually, she has affairs and can leave her original husband to marry someone else who pleases her. The women rush to find a husband for single women past puberty, or widowed women, because they expect her sex drive to compel her to start having affairs and creating havoc among the men. Their saying is ‘Has she not a vulva?’, and ‘Are women passive sexless creatures who can be expected to wait upon the dilly-dallying of formal considerations of bride-price?’.

The women have shaved heads and are unadorned. The men, on the other hand, live to impress the women and win their favor through appearances and entertainment. Tchambuli men adorn themselves with curls in their hair, a highly ornamented fox-skin covering for their pubic area, shell-adorned belts, and/or feather head-dresses. They strive to get attention and affection from women with their looks and their ability to entertain, putting on theatrical performances to charm the women, playing the flute skillfully, and mastering arts like dancing, carving, painting, plaiting, and drumming.

Once they reach puberty, men are expected to spend most of their time at the ‘men’s houses’ where they cook for themselves and socialize with other men. But the men treat each other with competition, jealousy, and constant quarreling and bickering among each other. The men are jealous of each other, afraid that younger or better-looking men will steal the attention or love of their wives from them, and so older and younger men bicker and compete for women’s attention, often trying to sabotage each other to make themselves look more appealing to the women. The environment among the men is without solidarity, lonely, and altogether emotionally insecure. Loyalties between the men are always changing over trumped up offenses, and the men are all critical of each other.

So they sit on the periphery of the women’s houses as often as possible, seeking inclusion from the women who are preoccupied with their work and each other, because the women’s relationships are solid and reliable and they exude emotional confidence. The men get approval and affection only from them, and they strive to charm the women to win their affections.

Even in their theatrical ceremonies, women dominate. The men wear decorated masks. Older men wear large male masks, and younger men wear large female masks, but the masks cover the men so the women don’t know who they are. The women start to dance with each other and mimic sexual activity with each other then they incorporate the men in female masks in their sexual play. They grind up against the female-masked men and each other in different positions, but leave the male-masked men out. They show the male-masked men respect, so as not to hurt their feelings. This festival is meant to be repeated for days, but usually is disrupted by men’s jealousies of the younger men and suspicions of affairs developing between their wives and the younger men.

Ironically, this is a patrilineal society, where names and land are inherited from the men of the family, and technically men own the land. Also, the men are the ‘warriors’ and the ‘hunters’ of the tribe, in theory. However, because the tribe does not live off the produce of the land, but off of the fishing business of the women, it is the women who everyone relies on for food. Because all the products of daily life are purchased from the proceeds of the women’s industry and skill and the currency from it is distributed only by them, men rely on having wives, and the approval of the wives, to keep any property they have and to own anything else they have. And because the men do not seem interested in war, and hunting doesn’t provide food regularly enough for the tribe, the men’s ‘ceremonies’ of leadership in war and hunting are transformed into preoccupation with mastering the visual and performing arts.

The titles of leadership in tribal ceremony is given to the men, and yet the men pine away after the affections of the women who usually kindly tolerate the presence of the men and barely acknowledge them, the women preferring each other’s company and showing interest in men mainly for sex and entertainment.

Among the Tchambuli, the women are the center of female and male attention. Men are emotionally dependant on women because of the women’s emotional independence from them, due to their solidarity with each other. Men are financially dependant on them because of the women’s domination of the marketplace. And men strive to please and charm the women while women feel entitled to be pleased, staying within their own comfort zone and pleasing themselves and each other first.

Mead, 1935. Sex & Temperament


Richard said...

Hi Ms. Christina,

The Tchambuli remind me of a book your readers may be interested in: Genia Pauli Haddon's book Body Metaphors: Releasing God-feminine in us all. According to the Library Journal's description: "By a Jungian analyst/U.C.C. minister, this metaphorically links behavior and anatomy to transcend stereotypes of men as primarily phallic/aggressive and women
as nurturing (womb-like) and passive. Women, Haddon suggests, also have their own active/transforming mode, seen biologically in giving birth,
while the male has a quieter way of being, resembling the testicles,
which just "hang in there."

Haddon argues persuasively, drawing
implications for theology as she offers sample liturgies that encourage a more androgynous style of faith."

Actually, Haddon argues that men can be passive, receptive and women aggressive and dominant based on which part of their reproductive organs and accompanying energies they identify with. I do believe that a world with assertive, caring women leaders paired with receptive male followers is what we need in the world. The two types go together naturally. It balances out the unbalanced world in
which we live.



calamity said...

hi, tnx for posting this article, it helped me a lot in my exam :)