Cultural Construction of Gender

Tannese recognize two genders, male (erman) and female (pran), which they apply to humans, animals, and some plant species (Guiart, 1956, p. 65). Males and females are ontologically different but complement one another within hierarchical relationships of masculine authority and female deference. Gender opposition organizes people's understandings of a range of cultural domains. For example, the island's two major staple crops stand opposed as male to female: the long (up to 2 m), dryer, and phallic tropical yam (Diascorea spp.) is masculine in counterpoint to rounder and moister taro (Alocasia spp.) corms, which are feminine. Likewise, men are hard, dry, hot, and "closed," and women are wet, soft, cold, and—since they menstruate—"open" (Bonnemaison, 1994, p. 171).

The Tannese share three widespread Melanesian concepts about men and women. The first is that, although women bear children, men must work to transform boys into men through ritual procedures that drain away female essence to replace this with male. Circumcision is the key ritual practice that makes boys into men, wet into dry, cold into hot, and soft into hard. Fathers arrange their sons' circumcisions between the ages of 5 and 12. Second, Islanders believe that female fluids—notably menstrual blood—can endanger men's health. Once, women moved into secluded menstrual huts when having a period. As soon as a boy was circumcised he left his mother's house and moved into a men's house located on the kava-drinking ground. European missionary influence led to the abandonment of menstrual huts and most men's houses in the early 20th century, but a wife and her husband continue to sleep apart when she is menstruating and she will also not cook food that he will eat, nor visit their garden plots during her period. Third, people believe that men have a limited supply of semen. Those who enjoy too much sexual contact with women will age quickly, their recklessness marked by their body's low stamina, dry skin, and wrinkles.

Two male prerogatives sustain gender inequality on the island. First, only men have the right to speak in public at the regular dispute-settlement meetings (moots) and discussions that convene on local kava-drinking grounds. Women's place is on the periphery, sitting behind the circle of male participants. Men avow that women "should not speak in the faces of men." Women, however, do speak out or mutter loudly on the sidelines intending men to hear, if not appreciate, their often caustic commentary. Most, though, are too filled with "shame" to speak even if called upon to do so. Instead, a woman whispers to a husband or brother who then repeats publicly what she said.

Second, only men drink kava, and women may not be present on kava-drinking grounds when men prepare and drink infusions of the root (Brunton, 1989; Lebot, Merlin, & Lindstrom, 1992). If a woman passes by a kava-drinking ground when drinkers are present, she must cover her head and avert her eyes. Since kava intoxication remains an important avenue of spiritual inspiration, women are less able to claim ancestral authority for any ideas or opinions they might have.

Beyond public speaking and kava drinking, people mark gender difference in other ways. Men, traditionally, wore penis wrappers and belts, while women wore long bark skirts. Nowadays, men dress in imported, often second-hand, shirts and T-shirts and women dress in skirts, including the "big dress"—a Tannese version of the Mother Hubbards that many women wear to church. During ritual occasions, men wear lavalava, or waist-cloths, and women put on traditional bark skirts with a blouse. Both sexes paint their faces, although women's ceremonial face decoration is more colorful and elaborate than men's.

Apart from kava drinking, there are few gender-based food taboos, although most women do not smoke tobacco except for older women beyond menopause. Women are also less mobile than men, sticking closer to home villages, but increasing numbers nowadays migrate to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital town located on Efate Island, about 230 km to the north.

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