Becoming an Adult Initiation Ceremonies for Girls

Becoming an adult provides one of many examples of biological life-course transitions which are virtually ignored in some societies but culturally elaborated in others. Some initiation rituals must be celebrated before the first menstruation. Others coincide with the actual event, and the timing of others has to do with the availability of food for feasting. Some ceremonies are for groups of girls; others are individual. Some are large public celebrations and others are performed in virtual secrecy. Men are banned from some rites but are active participants in others. In some societies the rites continue for months. In other societies, the observances are brief. Some rituals include challenging tests of competence. And some initiations conclude with immediate marriage. Only a few involve painful procedures such as a genital operation (clitorodectomy or subincision) or extensive scarification. Many ceremonies are clearly joyous and involve feasting, music, and dance, as the initiate parades publicly in new finery and receives gifts. On the other hand, many societies do not celebrate initiation ceremonies for girls at all. What accounts for their presence in some societies and their absence in others?

One basic fact concerning all girls' initiation rites is that they require a society's commitment of considerable time, effort, and resources, warranted because the role of adult women is of such crucial importance. Thus when the economic contribution of women provides the basic sustenance of a society, as among the Maroni River Caribs, the rite (described above) is needed to assure the competence of the initiate. According to Kloos (1969, 1971), she has already mastered the actual skills she will need, but it is her attitude toward work (an aspect of education largely neglected in postindustrial society) on which the ritual is focused. Similarly, Richards (1956) reports this focus for the initiation ceremony of the Bemba, a rite which also includes tests of competence (perhaps somewhat analogous to American SATs). On the other hand, in the many societies where the economic role of women is minor or negligible, initiation rituals of this type are not celebrated.

The expenditures of an initiation ritual for girls are also warranted in societies where women have an important role in the social structure. Such is the case in that minority of societies, in which the groom joins the household of his wife's mother at marriage, and where women remain in the household of their mothers for life (however, the residence of men is discontinuous, as they move in and out at marriage), and where this type of household is basic to the society's structure. The initiation ritual provides public recognition (as well as recognition by the girl's mother) of the changed status of the young woman, despite the unchanged locus of her activities. Such initiation rituals for girls are not needed in the far more numerous societies in which women join the household of their husband's father at marriage (see below) and where the household of related males is basic to the social structure. (For further analyses of female initiation rites, see, Brown [1963], Schlegel & Barry [1979, 1980], Fried & Fried [1980], Lincoln [1981], and La Fontaine [1986], among others. An excellent succinct summary of this research is provided by Burbank [1997].)

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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