Welcome to the third installment of Wild Thoughts, your sporadic round-up of whatever I haven’t found time to flesh out into a full post. I haven’t been as active as I’d like the last month or so, not least because I’ve been preparing a new class (at a new school) in Women’s Studies. Entitled “Gender, Race, and Class”, the course meets two separate general ed. requirements, so it is quite popular across the spectrum of students. In preparing for the class, I’ve been collecting quite a few stories that deal with gender (as well as race and class, of course, but those will have to wait — or you can just follow Karen Brodkin’s assertion that race, class, and gender are always imbrecated and consider that these links necessarily deal with race and class because they deal with gender). In the interest of clearing my Firefox tabs, and as a follow-up of sorts to Kerim’s recent post, I present the Gender Edition:
- The Deputy Prime Minister of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has proposed legalizing polygamy (he means polygyny), a suggestion that has been endorsed by the Deputy Speaker of the Russian Duma, who plans to introduce legislation to legalize multiple marriages across Russia. The reasoning behind these suggestions should be familiar to anthropologists: the ongoing conflict in Chechnya has decimated the male population and left millions of women widowed or unmarried, with no available, unmarried men to take on the job of supporting these “surplus” women — a textbook case, really. Left unquestioned, of course, are the various factors that leave unmarried women without adequate resources to survive — for example, the dismantling of the Soviet-era system that, whatever its faults, integrated men and women somewhat equally into the labor force, affording unmarried women some degree of autonomy. At work, too, may be a kind of population panic, as increasing numbers of women flee Russia for work — often sex work — in Western Europe or North America.
- In related news, a study commissioned by the Canadian justice department recommends lifting the legal ban on polygamy and providing resources for women in polygamous marriages to deal with the problems specific to their situations. Since I know she won’t toot her own horn, let me note that our own Nancy Leclerc advocated the recognition of not just polygamous but polyamourous relationships in her testimony before the Canadian Parliament in April 2003, arguing that:
…there have been different arrangements in human history, including polygamy. This leads me also to recommend that eventually group marriages in fact should be recognized. As I said before, this has been present in many cultures up until recently. In some places it still exists, although people are trying to change it now because of imperialism. But the way I’m defining group marriages here is group marriage based on polyamory–being the capacity to love more than one person.
I’d like to point out that the common vision of polygamy is that when people hear this word, they think of, for example, the Mormons, where one man has a bunch of wives and has complete domination over them. We hear stories–I don’t know if they’re true or not–of child abuse. So people panic when they hear this.
I’d like to point out that polyamory is based on the same values as monogamy: respect, cooperation, sharing, and love, and by no means would children raised in this environment be any worse off than in any other situation.
- A recent Inside Higher Ed piece argues against such “womanly” greetings as hugs and kisses in favor of the ostensibly neutral handshake. The argument is reasonable enough — if women are to be treated as equals in academia, they should discourage the overly emotional expression of affection that hugging embodies and demand, instead, the formal recognition that is the handshake. Fair enough, although I think the author, Coral Hughes, misses how equally loaded with gender symbolism the handshake is — the hyper-masculine competitiveness and even aggression that inflects the simple act of clasping hands. Handshakes establish hierarchy among men just as surely as hugs betwixt men and women do — and the fact that Hughes, along with most women, hasn’t been on the receiving end of an intimidating handshake is as much a sign of her exclusion from the club she thinks the handshake symbolizes as the patronizing hugs she rejects.
- Construction workers in Indiana have uncovered a 4,000-year old food preparation site, apparently used to carry out the preservation and stockpiling of foods in anticipation of winter scarcity. Although I don’t know enough about the local paleoindian cultures to say whether such work was performed by women or not, such finds often go unremarked outside of specialists due to our own perceptions of food preparation as “women’s work” and therefore not nearly as exciting as “manly” kill sites and toolmaking sites. The Indiana site is, in fact, a tool-making site, but the tools would have been scrapers, metates, and other “household” tools rather than the more exciting spear points and ax heads that seem to get all the attention.
- As long as we’re on the topic of food preparation, it seems the Donner family, exemplars of modern cannibalism, weren’t cannibals after all. That “honor” lies with another party some 6 miles ahead of the Donners. Archaeological excavation of the Donner campsite shows a diet of small game maximally exploited to fend of starvation, with no evidence of human butchery in sight.
What’s interesting to me is how relieved the descendents of the Donners are. Lochie Paige, great-granddaughter of Eliza Donner, told reporters, “We are thrilled and relieved…. Their findings, in my mind, completely exonerate her from having any part in cannibalism.” What makes the thought that an ancestor may have tasted human flesh over 150 years ago so terrifying?
- The Donners faced starvation because of poor planning and hard luck; an increasing number of women are starving themselves out of poor body image. In her revised Introduction to a new edition of Fat is a Feminist Issue (extracted in the Guardian), Susie Orbach takes on the increasingly negative relationship women, especially young women, have with their bodies:
From as early as five years old, when little girls copy their favourite pop heroines, preoccupation with how the body appears has became a crucial aspect of female experience. Increasingly, women are not realising how quickly their lives have become dominated by these concerns. But while we are aware of the many efforts we make to look good, exercise and eat well, the underlying questions about why and how we have come to be so concerned about our bodies is taken as a given we all accede to.
We don’t, however, just become passive victims; we actively make it our own cause. We embrace the challenge and in doing so, we often make decisions that are not only damaging to our wellbeing but inadvertently create and then reinforce an anguished relationship between food and the body.
- While we export such increasingly troubled and troubling female body images, a parallel effort goes on to protect female bodies in cultures where public virginity examinations, genital cutting, and other ostensible offenses against women’s bodies are common. Despite international pressure and national legal codes, however, these practices continue and even flourish. Sharon LaFraniere, writing in the New York Times, takes on the gap between law and practice in Africa, writing that “In a region where nearly half of women are illiterate and courts and legal aid are often remote, it is often tribal leaders, not members of Parliament, who decide what is law. Almost invariably men, tribal leaders are rural Africa’s cultural arbiters.” The response of Stephen Lewis, UN special envoy to Africa on AIDS, is typical, I think, of Western reaction to women’s issues in Africa and welsewhere: what is needed, he says, is “a powerful women’s international agency that emerges and just takes the world on”. In other words, break the control of local men over local women’s sexualities and turn that control over not to the women themselves but to a powerful international agency — preferably one shaped in and by Western sexual mores. Laura Bush’s recent trip to Africa carried much the same message, embedded in the language of empowerment: “In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice.” But empowerment to say “no” doesn’t seem to extend to empowerment to say “yes, but use a condom”: “But when girls are not empowered, when girls are vulnerable, their chances of being able to negotiate their sexual life with their partners and to encourage or make their partners use a condom are very low” (from another article). I don’t want to minimize what are often difficult and complex human rights issues; articles like this, however, tell us more about our own notions of what sexuality is and should be than about the real-life problems faced by women around the world.
- And finally, while the empowerment of African women remains an ongoing issue, American women are clearly gaining power in their own society. A study by the marketing firm JWT Worldwide categorizes male reactions to the changing status of women in America. More interesting than the categories themselves, however, is the now almost standard “marketing as anthropology” schtick:
“At JWT, we’ve always considered ourselves anthropologists first, marketers second,” explains Bob Jeffrey, Chairman & CEO, JWT Worldwide. “Only by understanding people and what motivates them can we begin to devise ways to communicate with them productively. And productive communication is what every brand relationship is built on.”
That concludes this edition of Wild ThoughtsTM. Be sure to tune in next time for more… whatever it is we do here.