Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Femininity, feminism and cultural baggage - I

Last Friday,  I came across this on Yahoo titled - Is Alaska the Worst State in the Nation for Women?

The article deals with issues faced by women in Alaska - comparatively lower pay that women get as compared to men, the domestic violence and alcoholism that have taken a toll on society and the rising rate of incarceration for women.

A glance through the comments will reveal that many people think that one of the reasons women get lesser pay is because men take up the more difficult jobs in Alaska - mining, logging, oil rigging being some of these. It is commonly accepted that women are physically weaker than men, hence are not suitable for certain kinds of jobs. The statement does have truth in it but social attitudes sometimes don't just stop at that.

There are some people who claim that women should ideally be running the household, raising children, cooking and cleaning because that's what nature intended.

Imagine my surprise when I read some of the comments on this article which was of all the pieces, a brief interview with Salma Hayek (I know...what??!!). The comments are not misogynistic but do reference feminism.

Feminism, anti-feminism seemed to be the rant of the day. And it was Good Friday, the day when everyone should be more compassionate and forgiving. Oh, okay...

To all those guys who think that women are best suited to feminine jobs (read - caring for them and their babies) and men are best suited to masculine jobs (all the hard work outside that civilization owes its existence to) and that men are the reason that we have everything from roads to farms to washing machines -

The Hunter Gatherers -
     Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist but have read at least one book related to the hunter-gatherer way of life. Besides, I am gonna use reliable sources and then my imagination.

Firstly, if you accept evolution and that we are all basically animals, then pray, look around at the animal kingdom. Look at birds such as crows and pigeons, penguins and storks, wild animals such as tigers, lions, snakes and mammals such as horses, cattle and sheep and then at our immediate ancestors in the animal world - regular monkeys, chimpanzees, bonobos and apes.
Okay, when I say "look", I don't mean that you have to hurry to the nearest zoo or book that safari in Kenya.
For now, the Internet, National Geographic and Animal Planet should suffice:).

Even if the alpha male in the group has a harem, the females are just not sitting around doing nothing. Almost every animal that I can think of (with some possible exceptions like the female queen honeybee, even then worker female bees in the hive have a lot to do), whether male or female, hunts or forages for its own food. True, the females predominantly care for the young but that's not the only thing they do nor are they wusses.

In the case of the King of the jungle, the Lion, in open areas, the females do the bulk of the hunting but in certain wooded areas, the males and females hunt separately. There is an excellent source here on the African Lion Working Group site.
Wikipedia has an article on lions, do refer to the Hunting and diet section.

It is the mother bear/tiger that also teaches the cubs to hunt. Here is a very informative section  on Wikipedia, describing how the tigress coaches her cubsdocumented by none other than the famous conservationist and hunter, Jim Corbett.
And this is another great site on polar bears and the role the mother bear plays in passing on hunting skills to the next generation - Polar Bears International.

It is not for nothing that Rudyard Kipling said,  "For the female of the species is more deadly than the male." [Reference:]

In the case of penguins, the male and the female penguin both care for their little ones, see this touching section on Emperor Penguins, on Wikipedia.

Let's now transition to humans who were not merely satisfied with hunting.

Say, the men go out to hunt for their daily meal. Even if we assume that women never contributed to the hunt, what do you think they were doing in their caves all day?
They were certainly not watching "Cavewoman Bachelorette" and "The Real Housewives of the Paleolithic Era", were they?

There was plenty of work to do even otherwise, for example the "gathering" part of hunter-gatherer. Heck, even wiping a baby's bottom would have been a lot of work in those days, getting twigs and (shudder) what else to do the job. Fruit and berries would have to be picked, probably even a few medicinal plants, water had to be fetched from the nearby stream, the firewood had to be collected to light the fire, one of the most essential things for survival.
Our ancestral grandmothers also did the hunting of small game [see quoted sources below].

I am also thinking women would have been the ones guarding their precious little ones from scorpions, bugs and predators out in the wild so they would not be dolls sitting there all day and combing their hair and wondering if they needed to lose that extra fat in their thighs so that the dudes in their group would want to father their future children.
However, prehistoric women, just like us, also had a thing for fashion and looking good. They had jewelry and wore primitive short outfits.
Yes, cloth needed to be woven, baskets for carrying the young ones, etc. In fact, hunting for smaller animals with woven nets was a communal activity. Women may have played a very important role "from plant collectors and weavers to hunters and spiritual leaders" as posited in this must-read comprehensive article in Discover Magazine - New Women of the Ice Age.

So, they may very well have contributed to designing and making at least some of those primitive instruments that archeologists stumble on every now and then. Here's an interesting find on this site - World Archaeology.

They may also have very well been involved in fashioning pots and pans because if they were doing most of the cooking and fetching water, they would have to have had a hang of what they needed, no?

Here is an interesting article on National Geographic about the division of labor in the Neanderthal and Paleolithic periods and the possible reasons and benefits.

One particular scientific opinion in the article is quite striking:

'"That women sometimes become successful hunters and men become gatherers means that the universal tendency to divide subsistence labor be gender is not solely the result of innate physical or psychological differences between the sexes; much of it has to be learned," the authors write.'

Here is an enlightening post on Wikipedia about hunter-gatherer societies.

Do read the 'Social and Economic Structure' portion of the article.

'Although most of the gathering is usually done by women, a society in which men completely abstained from gathering easily available plants has yet to be found. Generally women hunt the majority of the small game while men hunt the majority of the large and dangerous game, but there are quite a few documented exceptions to this general pattern.
A study done on the Aeta people of the Philippines states: "About 85% of Philippine Aeta women hunt, and they hunt the same quarry as men. Aeta women hunt in groups and with dogs, and have a 31% success rate as opposed to 17% for men. Their rates are even better when they combine forces with men: mixed hunting groups have a full 41% success rate among the Aeta."[18]'

If one has the patience, one can go through this thorough academic article about different types of hunter-gatherer societies and the possible reason for different gender roles.

Okay, let's move on from the caveman era in the next post...