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Women and Identity: Modernization and the changeover to market economies have mobilized some indigenous women and left others st

Women and Identity: Modernization and the changeover to market economies. have mobilized some indigenous women and left others stranded

Throughout the 1970s, and 1980s, issues relating to women and helping the poorest of the poor dominated development agencies, not to mention the lip service many agencies - large and small, public and private - gave to program priorities. Surely, indigenous women are the poorest of the poor, among the planet's least represented and the most exploited.

Women's position in indigenous societies has not always been ideal; there is no reason to attempt to paint is so. Contact by and integration into larger economic and political system, could actually improve some women's status, but this is not usually the case. When indigenous societies join larger systems, this leads to a further masculinizations of politics, and integrating these groups into other legal traditions often erodes women's traditional rights to land and resources. Furthermore, women in partially assimilated societies rarely control funds - even those generated by their own efforts.

Most seriously perhaps, women and the children they attempted to protect are most often the first victims of armed conflict between indigenous nations and political states - the majority of the 5 million people killed, the 15 million who flee their countries as refugees, and the 150 million nation peoples who have been displaced from their homelands. The burdens of survival - how to feed their families and reassemble their lives in new, unfamiliar settings - rest on them.

Indigenous women are the protectors of language. They teach their children their own language of the outsiders. Through language they keep alive world views as well as extensive knowledge of their peoples' resources. And women are the seed savers. Most often they are the ones who plant, their communities' food. In increasing numbers, too, indigenous women are organizing to fight the harmful effects that contact and integration with the outside world have on their families and their cultures.

Indigenous peoples were not poor prior to Western contact, only by being integrated into system that put them at the impoverished Likewise, indigenous women have not been marginalized in their traditional societies, this only happens Western-dominated societies, it is no accident that indigenous societies, it is no accident that indigenous women receive wages that are about 60 percent of those earned by their male counterparts. With contact comes the widespread replication of these Western values throughout the world.


The twentieth century has brought many challenges in indigenous group in the area of education. The example of the Hausa of Nigeria shows the conflict that Western education can pose for women.

Among the Hausa, the predominant linguistic, and ethnic group in northern Nigeria, the Islamic practice of purdah, or seclusion, is virtually universal. In most families married women do not go outside of their homes except to obtain medical care, attend specific ceremonies (with their husband's permission), or occasionally visit relatives. In general women stay at home and depend upon children for virtually all of their communication with the outside world. Children escort women when they do go out; they shop and deliver goods and messages for women.…

The enrollment of girls in school poses a severe, if indirect, threat to the institution of purdah. Since Hausa women are so dependent on children, physically removing them from the home threatens to leave women, except those wealthy enough to employ adult servants, without help.…

The traditional age of marriage for Hausa girls is around 11 or 12, although child betrothal at a younger age occurs. Most parents deem it imperative that their daughters marry by puberty; there is a great fear that delaying marriage will place the girl's chastity, and hence her marriage prospects, at risk. Since girls enter purdah upon marriage, "childhood" among Hausa girls ends by age 11 or 12, often earlier. The notion that girls might attend school until the age of 17 or 18 is obviously in conflict with the values of this social and cultural system.


Capitalism and planned development can sometimes lower women's status in indigenous communities, keeping women who previously contributed to the family income tied to the household. The Btsisi' of Selangor, Malaysia, have proven an exception to this rule.

Married couples are the basic units of Btsisi' society. The husband and wife form a cooperative, self-sufficient team. When a young couple marries, their elders instruct them in the cooperative nature of matrimony. Btsisi' notions of a nonhierarchical, cooperative marriage are best illustrated by the concept of odo.' Odo' is the name, different from either of their birth names, that a male elder bestows upon the couple. The couple address and refer to each other by their odo' name, and the community also addresses and refers to them individually and jointly by this name. Symbolically, the married couple changes from two separate individuals to a unit. When, for national security reasons, British colonials issued identification cards, they followed the Malay system of naming individuals were identified as daughters/sons of their fathers. Traditionally, however, Btsisi' are referred to as the children of their parents or the parents as the mothers/fathers of their children. Thus, when Btsis' are dealing with outsiders their Malay patronyms project male predominance.


The effects of "modernization" on the Shavante Indians of Brazil have tended to favor men while leaving women behind. In this article from Cultural Survival Quarterly's special issue on women, "Women in a Changing World" (vol. 8: no. 2:, 1984):, Cultural Survival's Pia Maybury Lewis describes her impressions of Shavante women's lot as she and her husband visit the community after a 23-year hiatus.

Men now wear black jeans or soccer shores and store-bought red sports shirts. But women still wear shapeless dresses even though they now have sewing machines. Clothes, like body painting - which is still done - appear to be ways for men, not women, to decorate their bodies.

While some Shavante villages do have water piped to communal faucets and a few even have electricity to light half a dozen lampposts in the village for a couple of house every evening, the changes over the past 20 years have not lightened the women's labor. The improved water supply has only slightly lessened the additional burden of washing and caring for clothes, which has fallen entirely on the women. The women still gather wood and cook the food over open fires as they have since time immemorial. They still tend the subsistence crops, once the men have done the heavy work of clearing the gardens. In addition they are now intensively engaged in animal husbandry. Every women is expected to raise chickens and "good managers" rear guinea fowl, pigs, and even ducks. Yet as the Shavante become increasingly involved in the cash economy, proceeds from women's labor are controlled by men.

Where there are schools for the Shavante, both sexes attend them, but neither the Shavante not the missionaries or government agencies that run the schools expect women to keep up with men. It is the men who will travel as soon as they are old enough. Some boys have even attended Brazilian schools in faraway towns and a few are at the universities in Sao Paulo, Rio, and Brasilia. It is the men who learn how to deal with Brazil and the Brazilians, and who increasingly are acquiring the skills that enable them to enter the Brazilian labor market. Women continue to perform their traditional tasks, but their work has become more onerous. They are now expected to do more with less help from men and little technological assistance.

The most dramatic effect of modernization has been the downgrading of women's roles in Shavante society, Traditionally, Shavante men and women lived largely separate lives and performed separate tasks, but the collaboration and interdependence between them was clearly understood and was at the heart of Shavante values and their daily lives. Today, Shavante men are sophisticated, and they tend to see the women less as the other pillar of Shavante life and more as a backward category of people relegated to do endless chores.


Economic changes among the Rashaayda pastoralists in northeastern Sudan have dramatically changed women's traditional roles as workers, wives, and heirs of Rashiidy culture, forcing the group to become sedentary rather than remain nomadic.

The close connection between adult work and married status is evidenced by the ways in which a Rashaayda was prepared for marriage. As soon as she was engaged, the girl would begin weaving her own tent. Constructing a separate shelter for herself and her husband was necessary for establishing an independent conjugal household. Her future husband would bring her camel and goat hair clipped from livestock. She would spin this into yarn and then weave the yarn into a heavy, water-tight loom. Once she had woven many sections of tent cloth, she would stitch them together and build her tent. The cloth would be hung from a framework of wooden poles, ropes, and stakes, all of which would be provided by her husband. The tent itself, with its "masculine" components (hair, poles, and ropes) and "feminine" materials (yarn and cloth), was an expression of complementary. Both husband and wife-depended on each other's labor.

This same interdependency was manifest in other types of women's work. Gathering firewood, for example, was usually a woman's job. But when a household was camped in the open desert far from the known sources of fuel, the husband would ride out to the nearest stand of trees to collect firewood.…

Economic changes and sedentarization have put an end to this division of labor by making most feminine tasks obsolete .... Sheltret, for example, is now a commodity. Settled Rashaayda do not live in tents but pay Sudanese construction workers to build adobe houses. Grain, too, is now purchased in town markets, where the buyer can also have it ground into flour by motorpowered mills. They fuel for cooking cannot be gathered by sedentary women; it is purchased from charcoal salesmen. Since these Rashaayda no longer keep large numbers of goats, leather for their traditional water containers is not available, and plastic or metal vessels must be bought from town merchants. Even the drinking water used by sedentary households must be purchased; village vendors bring it from the nearest well on donkey carts and sell it to the villagers. In short, many of the services and products that women used to provide are no longer in demand. Sedentary women have less work to do than they did previously.


Among the T'Boli of the Philippines, too, changing roles brought on by modernization have made life difficult for both sexes. The migration of mainstream Filipinos, or "lo-landers," over the past 30 years has compelled the T'Boli to change from their traditional bartering arrangements to a market economy. Here is a contrast in the ways two T'Boli women have been affected by these changes.

Aning, at 18 years of age, is equipped to cope with life using less defined to cope with life using less defined skills. The number of T'Boli high school students has increased slightly. Even so, Aning would have been one of the fortunate few if she had graduated and pursued her interest in teaching. Her tuition was provided for her by her brother, the datu, or tribal leader. However, plans for graduation were replaced by a forced marriage when it was learned that she was pregnant. This fact was bitterly revealed to me as I assisted at the birth of her child.

Aning lay in the corner of the room; the child lay on the floor between her legs. The elderly midwife was still in the process of trying to pull the placenta from Aning's unrelenting womb. Fans fluttered, carrying the prayers spoken by relatives lamenting the potential loss of the child. Necklaces, valued for their craftsmanship and age, hung on the walls and covered the belly on Aning as forms of retribution for past-grievances or differences unsettled. Whether male or female, a child is usually cherished. However, in Aning's case, life or death of the child meant life or death for a marriage about which she was ambivalent. "I have no choice," she explained. "I have to follow what they [the elders] say. I am dependent on them...."

Like most adolescents in Lemsnolon, Aning spent much of her life in the lowlands aspiring to the goals of mainstream Filipino culture. She has never acquired the traditional skills of the upland. T'Boli women who do not come into contract with the "lo-landers." Aning has been prevented from pursuing the further development of her interests and has been thrust into a role she was not prepared to accept. Custom dictates that Aning's husband must farm and that Anin assist on the farm and tend to the children. Without land or a degree, her husband hires himself out as a laborer while Aning remains at home tending her child. For her or her husband to resume school and the pursuit of school-related goals would require a balancing act between the rules of both cultures.

Silin is 23 years old and, like Aning, attended lowland school. She embraces a different perception of herself and her position in life. Having acquired a variety of skills when she lived and worked for several years with the Summer Institute of Linguistics [for more on the SIL see CSQ 7(3) or CS Special Report No. 4], she now serves as a teacher and liaison for the community at large. If a translator is needed, she is there to interpret, using one of the five languages she knows well. If a medical emergency arises, she is the one to be consulted. Yet, her eclectic, comparatively unusual, and rich background leaves her feeling estranged from the community and the people to whom she chose to return. After suggesting to the midwife attending to the birth of Aning's child that the umbilical cord be cut and the child nursed immediately, Silin explained, "I just wait for them [the elders] to die off so that we [the younger generation] can take over. They do not listen. They are stubborn about holding onto their traditional beliefs!"

Silin was the only T'Boil woman in Lemsnolon to refuse to include a dowry in her marriage contract. She is one of a few to let it be known publicly that she will not be a member of a polygamous marriage. And she is the only one in the village who encourages other women to follow her example. Silin recognizes the value of her cultural heritage, or she would not have returned, but she rejects many of its tenets, replacing them with alternatives derived from other influences in her life. Among those her age and younger she serves as a role model, but to the elders she is an anomaly, a woman with mayuk nawa, or different breath, with strange ideas. Silin feels keenly the conflicting perceptions of her role as a woman. She described her feelings the day Aning's child was born. "I feel like I am surrounded .... That I am alone, even though I chose to come back to my people to help in any way I can...."


Labor and birth are among the most important rituals for women in any culture. Regulating birthing practices by requiring women to have children in Western hospitals has had profound effects on indigenous women's experiences, as this excerpt on Aboriginal women in Cape York, Australia, illustrates.

The birth of a child has always been a spiritual event. During birth among many Cape York groups, the midwife would name an individual who would become the child's guardian and instructor later in life. Older children have always been shown birthing trees and have been taken to sacred sites and Storyplaces to meet the local spirits and learn about custodianship and resource use in their country.…

The hospital setting does not accommodate non-Western cultural practices. There is no one to help provide the name for a baby, no appropriate individual to cut the umbilical cord, and no spirits to represent the newborn's country. Although we in the West may not be pleased with our model of childbirth, we are generally familiar with having babies in hospitals - our households are but a few miles away, our family and friends visit us, and we rarely stay more than a few days. In remote areas of Queensland, however, pregnant women are evacuated at least four weeks prior to the birth (36 weeks gestation) - or earlier if medically indicated - to be close to the hospital while awaiting the onset of labor.

Cape york women are questioning the necessity of such long periods away from their families in unfamiliar towns and environments. For whose convenience, they wonder, are those evacuations taking place? Rarely do the infants' fathers, grandmothers, or aunts attend the birth. Prior to the delivery, the mother spends her days waiting in a hostel, often with no friends or relatives nearby. After delivery, the mother and baby are alone in strange surroundings, very often with no social support during this crucial stage in their lives. Not surprisingly, younger women approaching childbirth for the first time feel alone and alienated in addition to their natural fears of labor and delivery. Women who have been through pregnancies feel angry at the disruption to their family life and the spiritual estrangement of their newborn children from their country. More and more women are questioning the soundness of the existing policy and resisting it in greater numbers.


Women have been at the forefront of many grassroots movements, such as the Chipko movement in India and the peace movement in Ireland. This excerpt is from an interview with Darlene Keju, a Marshallese (Marshall Islands) activist involved in the Nuclear Free Pacific Movement. She talks about the protests against the test-firing of the MX missile to Kwajalein Island by the United States.

Marshallese women have tended to follow traditional roles. They don't fish. Many of them get married, look after the family, and work on the farm. Most never learn English .... Women now are advisors to the legislature but men still get elected because you have to speak English to negotiate with the US government. That's how the women of the Marshalls are vulnerable. But now more young women are in school and marrying late. Many are busy, like me, doing things in the community.…

It is important to remember that in our culture you own land through your mother. It's the matrilineal system. I can decide to give up my land rights to my brothers, but it can never go directly to them. It has to come to me first. Historically women chanted and gave the spirit to the men to win their was with other chiefs. This is still happening on a decision-making level. Even though the men in our legislature are intelligent and they've gone to school, when a matter comes up that the women are involved in, the decision is going to be made by the women. A few of us walk in on their meetings and you can feel the meetings and you can feel the vibration of who's boss. So seven though the colonizers have been there for many generations, the woman is still more powerful than the man in our society.

In the Pacific and everywhere I've been of this tour, I've found that women are informed and active and making strong decisions. Women are ahead of the men, asking the right questions, spreading information, calling meetings, organizing work groups ... Women did all the work on the referendum of separation from Micronesia as a whole. They even climbed up the coconut trees to run their banners. The men sat around like they didn't know what to do. The division of labor was among women. The people of Belau got their nuclear freeze constitution because of the women who marched to the legislature, chanting to remind the men, "Don't forget who got you up there. Your job is to make sure that our land remains Belau land."

The mothers, wives, and daughters of those "disappeared" or killed by the government of some Latin American countries have driven the human rights movements of that continent - the madres of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the Group of Mutual Support (GAM) in Guatemala, the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared and Detained (COMADRES) in El Salvador, and the Agrupacion of the Detained-disappeared in Chile.

Such national security states [in Latin America], however, have made some major miscalculations; (1) that terror is a sufficient form of long-term adequate control, (2) that parents who may not share their children's political opinions, or women who were never as politically active as their husbands or children, would not react strongly and publicly in the event that a family member is kidnapped because of having (or merely being suspected of having) "subversive" opinions, and (3) that relatives of victims from different classes and political or religious persuasions would not support one another in an active and political manner. Women's actions, however, reflect how wrong these states have been; previously apolitical madres de familia (mothers of families) have become a powerful class - an ethnically mixed form of opposition to repressive states. For example, 80 percent of the more than 1,000 members of GAM are indigenous people, reflecting both the magnitude of the violence in the highlands (with the massacre of between 45,000 and 72,000 Indian peasants between 1982 and 1984) and the nascent Indian-ladino alliances forged in the late 1970s. Many of the original middle-class, ladino members of GAM are relatives of the 19 students and professor kidnapped at the university in early 1984 over a four-month period. United by pain and grief, these two groups are now allies. Moreover, given that it is literally the first internal human rights organization to survive in Guatemala (with all other leaders assassinated or exiled), GM demonstrates that repression is no longer a sufficient form of control against social conflict in Guatemala.…

First defined by government officials as outcasts and "madwomen," these women were perceived by most of these regimes as harmless, apolitical mothers. But when their despair did not remain private and their actions went beyond the traditional, "natural" demands of mothers searching for their lost relatives (and they began to receive international attention), these women became subject to the National Security State's definition of "subversion," which made them as vulnerable to violence as their own disappeared relatives. Unaccustomed to any form of opposition and especially public denunciations of their authority, these regimes sought to terrorize these groups of women into submission. As one government spokesman in Guatemala claimed "GAM" will be put in its place" (La Rozon 15 March 1985). All these groups have suffered, more than 12 members of the Plaza de Mayo mothers have been tortured and disappeared (including Mrs. Azucena DiVucenti). Two of the GAM leaders were tortured and assassinated (together with one of the mothers' two-year-old sons). Many others were threatened and exiled (with leaders still having to be escorted everywhere with-in Guatemala), and several COMADRES leaders were repeatedly tortured and raped in El Salvador. It is clear that such defiance for women, even as mothers, has a high cost. As one exiled GAM leader told me: "The government doesn't distinguish among men, women, children, catechists, priests, professors, workers; in kills them all."


The Padaung custom of fitting young girls with neck spirals, which is now becoming antiquated among this indigenous group of Burma, has been commercialized and marketed as a tourist attraction by Karenni rebels at their base in Kayah State on the Pai River, just across the border from the Thai provincial capital of Mae Hong Son. Several boatloads of tourists visit the Karenni base each day, and the women, the main attraction, have become what author Edith Mirante calls "hostages to tourism."

The Padaung's own opinions of the [neck spiral] practice have been of little importance to the world outside their mountain home. The area around Loikaw was dubbed "the land of the giraffic women," and the women have aroused the curiosity of explorers and tourists since Burma's days as a British colony…

Mae Hong Son officials were not unaware of the Padaung women's worth as a tourist attraction. When the annual Mae Hong Son Winter Fair was to be held, they demanded that the Karennis bring the women to be exhibited. The fair featured booths showing the crafts and customs of various tribal groups in the province, as well as the "Miss Hill Tribe" beauty contest, notorious for the postcontest auction of teenaged contestants to provincial administrators and police. The Karennis protested that the Padaung women were not "animals in a zoo," but the Thais threatened to shut down the Karenni black market trade, and the women were brought to the fairgrounds. Both nervous - one ill with stomach cramps - they spent the next three days in a walled enclosure. They did needlework and studiously ignored the fairgoers who bought tickets to enter the enclosure and observe them…

The Padaung women remained in Thailand under the sponsorship of the Mae Hong Son Resort. Their increased accessibility led to tour bus visits and features such as a board painted with a picture of a Padaung woman that had the face cut out so tourists could have their picture taken in its place. When tourists complained about the Padaung women's aloof attitude, the women were made to sing and play the guitar for the visitors. Although there were accusations that the Padaung women were being used as a freak show or circus attractions, their celebrity increased and they were promoted as a tribe of Thailand. Most of Chiangmai's trekking tour agencies displayed the women's pictures in front of their offices to attract tourists. The Padaung women meant an increase in the price of any tour that visited them, and one budget traveler was heard to remark, "I'm not going to see them, I've heard it's a bit of a rip-off - their necks aren't really all that long."

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