Cultural Construction of Gender

There are two recognized genders: female and male. The ideal structure of Mehinako gender-relations can be described using the dictum "separate but equal" (Etienne & Leacock, 1980). The ideal balance of gender spheres is also expressed in the representation of the spirits as male-female pairs. Both ritual performance and the everyday behavior of men and women is based on the dual vision of gender that is played out in rites of gender-role reversal. Mehinako men and women state their equality and feel the need for cooperation. Women actively participate in ritual life and perform their own music and dances, although the role of official representation mainly belongs to responsibilities of men. For example, political decision-taking, representational and sponsor duties for the household, and leadership functions for the village undoubtedly belong to men. Female influence is often described as informal, for example, in "trash-yard" gossip which indeed may become a dangerous tool of female influence and control. If the husband-wife relationship is good, men often consult their spouses. In addition to "gossip," Franchetto (1999, p. 218) identifies "market" and "lovers" as further areas of (Kuikuru) women's power. Women are particularly influential in marriage politics, and in the symbolic importance of situations of birth and death. In everyday relations, the balance of power varies according to the characters and situations and can be subjected to negotiations between the individual men and women.

Mehinako "villagers use the unconcealed anatomical differences between men and women to define 'masculinity' and 'femininity' and justify the differences between the sexes" (Gregor, 1985, p. 40) However, Mehinako do not look upon gender and the process of growing up as a "natural development" but "regard them like other institutions as man-made and on occasion subject to change" (Gregor, 1977, p. 254). Mehinako refer to the growing up of their sons and daughters as an active social and corporal process, which calls for the control of bodily fluids (like semen, blood), and the use of emetics, tobacco, oil and natural pigments (Viveiros de Castro, 1987, p. 32). The "fabrication" of a person in the Upper Xingu region is more than a symbolic "rite de passage;" it has to be acknowledged at the same time as a process of "physical-spiritual" transformation in which the whole village participates. In this context, the categories of age and gender are closely linked together.

Gender differentiation becomes visible at a young age in the different ornaments and hairstyles of boys and girls. Girls grow their hair at least to the shoulders, while boys wear a shorter cut in form of a pot or bowl. At the end of puberty rites, the young women receive the uluri belt, made of buriti fiber, described as follows:

It consists of a single band of twine worn around the waist. To this band is attached a pocket watch sized piece of bark in the rough shape of a quadrilateral that sits on the pubis just above the genitals. A long thin cord leads from this bark through the buttocks, to reappear as a kind of protruding tail in the rear. (Gregor, 1977, p. 164)

Also it may be appreciated by men, women today rarely wear the uluri belt, because they find it uncomfortable. They prefer simple belts of buriti fiber, that just go round their waist.

Valuable shell necklaces demonstrate the status of a young girl; they generally wear glass bead chains, which also serve as a kind of currency at the women's trading sessions (uluki). For ritual occasions women paint a small black sign (genipapo) on their cheeks and they may use pequi oil to cover their face and body. Women also draw special designs on their legs, using their own black dye made from the juice of a special bark. They mostly apply their own red and black dyes and their own designs. On special ritual occasions they can use male designs or colors; in this case however they rigidly observe the difference in the body parts where these signs are allowed to apply. For example, the use of red urucum paint (Bixa orellana)—the main male color—is restricted to a line on the upper forehead and on the feet up to the ankle in ritual occasions.

Body decoration and dress is exclusively male or female, but at the same time they are symbolically related and equated to another. For example, the symbolism of the special markers of puberty rites, the uluri belt for the young women and the earrings for the young men (see below), are equally valued and have the same meaning for both gender groups.

Men's decoration is richer in the use of different designs, which refer to world of the spirits. Mehinako have a high regard for well-executed designs and attractive ornaments (Gregor, 1977, p. 155ff.). When dressing for ritual occasion, the young men put on arm and leg bands, belts of shell, and belts of cotton as well as of glass beads. There is a special hair design for men (teiyu) which, as well as body paint, has a specific representational and interactional significance. Dress and decorative ornaments indicate the status of the person within the group.

The knee bands mark his age and whether he is a father. The color of his belt declares how old he is, his earrings identify him as having passed through the ear-piercing ritual, his shell belt, collar, and jaguar claw necklace reveal him as a man of some wealth, and his hair and body designs show him to be a shaman or a participant in a ritual. (Gregor, 1977, p. 162)

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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