Cultural Construction of Gender

Gender influences all aspects of Iatmul culture and social life. A major theme of the culture is the clarification of the relationship between male and female as they are defined in terms of a pervasive maternal schema.

Iatmul recognize two genders: male (ndu) and female (tagwa). From one angle, these genders are exclusive, distinct, and complementary (Weiss, 1994). Men fish with spears, women set traps; men stand in canoes, women sit; men carve, women weave; etc. This omnipresent dichotomy is also natural and biological: men have penises and testicles, women have vaginas and wombs. The traditional and modern person is unambiguously gendered through clothing, personal adornment, treatment of the body, and even gait and verbal intonation. Today, men wear pants and often go shirtless, while women don skirts and, unless elderly, mission-derived floral blouses. Little boys run naked; girls never do. Many men are scarified, as I discuss below, while women may tattoo themselves with soot. During rituals too, men and women are differentiated by ornamentation such as body paint. Even when men and women ritually switch their stereotypical garb, as in the famous naven rite that celebrates first-time cultural achievements for everybody (Bateson, 1936/1958), differentiation is preserved.

Yet the symbolism of Iatmul gender, especially in religious contexts (e.g., ritual, myth, art), expands beyond a dichotomy to a "common pool" of dispositions and values. From this angle, both men and women define themselves through competing claims to fecundity, reproductive primacy, and nurture—that is, to the cultural idea and ideal of motherhood (Silverman, 2001). Therefore Iatmul gender is dual and unitary, a matter of difference and emphasis. Men's ritual prerogatives signal their difference from, and superiority over, women. Yet the symbolism of ritual is thoroughly infused with uterine themes (see below). Women, by contrast, never aspire to the culturally perceived bodily capacities and qualities of fatherhood. True, women may desire male privileges. But the symbolism of womanhood does not disclose a wish to become fathers in the same way that the symbolism of manhood discloses the wish to become mothers.

For the Iatmul, dichotomous gender is pervasive and natural. At the same time, Iatmul culture often appears to be a grand irreducible dialogue of ambiguity and ambivalence, voiced in a maternal idiom, concerning the relationship between male and female. For men, maintaining a divided world by excluding women is vital. Women are far less compelled to maintain this gendered dichotomy and often, argues Hauser-Schaublin (1977, p. 260), strive for synthesis and unity.

Attractiveness for both men and women is largely visual: pronounced nose, clear and shiny skin, and bodily cleanliness. Men desire women with firm breasts, while women desire strong muscular men.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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