Cultural Construction of Gender

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The Maasai recognize two gender categories: male (ole) and female (ene). Humans are born male or female, but gendering as a social and cultural process begins as soon as a child is born. For instance, the freshly drawn blood given to a woman to regain strength after birth is taken from a male or a female calf according to the sex of the child. The gender terms also apply to livestock and other animals. The terms are used in naming practices as "son of' and "daughter of," respectively, and furthermore as suffixes of nouns to indicate the noun's gender. The female form may sometimes be used as a diminutive of regular male nouns (e.g., olaiyoni, boy; enkayoni, little boy).

Maasai sometimes come across indeterminate sex condition in livestock; the word entopis (f.) indicates neither female nor male sexual organs or both in one. They acknowledge that such a condition may even occur in humans. The gendering of the androgyne human or animal will be done according to the comparative "strength" of the two elements. Gendering must be done so that social and moral order can be restored. Male and female are complementary entities in Maasai cosmological and cultural thought; the male is stronger than the female, but both are equally important to make a complete and "beautiful" world. Maasai men and women mark gender identity by dress, ornaments, and hairstyle. However, gender differences in personal style are not conspicuous as colors and materials overlap cross-sexually. While the Maasai mark gender differences, they also recognize similarities in the two genders.

The gendering among the pastoral Maasai is most noticeable in terms of formal decision-making power. The age-set system is a crucial principle for the construction of gender relations in the Maasai society: it regulates power relations between women and men as well as relations between elder and younger generations (Hodgson, 2001; Llewelyn-Davies, 1981; Spencer, 1988; Talle, 1998). This system is based upon a division of the male population into corporate age-groups which are arranged hierarchically within a framework of authoritative positions and rules of appropriate behavior, and through which men advance linearly in a highly ritualistic atmosphere. The strikingly colorful Maasai "warriors" (pl. ilmurran, olmurrani, anglicized form "moran") and their spectacular ceremonies have been amply described in the literature (e.g., Saitoti & Beckwith, 1980; Spencer, 1988). In fact, the image of the Maasai morans is legendary; from their earliest contact with Europeans up to the present day they have never ceased to be a source of wonder and attraction to outsiders.

The rules emanating from the age-set organization pertain mainly to property rights, division of labor, eating habits, code of dress and conduct, and sexual relations. Women are not structurally integrated into the age-set system since they are not divided into formal corporate age-groups. By definition, then, women are excluded from the control of productive and reproductive recourses; they never reach the "age" (i.e., the social age) whereby they might possess livestock or have full control over their own bodies and procreative capacities.

Gender over the Life Cycle Socialization of Boys and Girls

There are many similarities, as well as substantial differences, in how Maasai bring up boys and girls. In the early years of their lives, youngsters, residing with their mothers in their houses, are shown considerable love and care by both women and men. They are slowly and patiently taught how to behave respectfully towards each other, how to greet elders, how to eat properly, and how to tend to the animal wealth of the family. Children of both sexes, and as young as 18 months to 2 years old, may be given a tiny stick and eagerly encouraged to gather kids or lambs straying from the flock.

At about the age of 4-6 socialization practices more clearly differentiate children into two genders: boys are expected to tend to the livestock, bring them to distant pastures, and endure long hours without food and drink when out herding, while girls are attuned toward domestic work and the care of younger siblings. Also, girls are encouraged to care for animals and they often herd together with the boys. Boys, on the other hand, are seldom expected to do domestic work.

In general, Maasai show indulgence toward toddlers and young children, and they are rarely physically abused. However, as children grow up and gradually become responsible for important tasks in the household, physical punishment becomes a disciplinary device. In particular boys may be severely beaten if an animal is missing from the herd of which they are in charge.

Both boys and girls are taught to bear considerable physical pain in order to become "proper" Maasai. Young boys and girls intentionally inflict pain on themselves by decorative scarification patterns on arms, legs, and torso. They employ thorns for lifting up the skin and sharp grass blades for cutting it. There are no specific gender differences in how they decorate themselves, except that boys may be more lavishly decorated. Children of both sexes have their lower incisors removed twice in their lifetime (milk teeth as well as permanent teeth). Boys and girls alike also have their ears pierced around the age of 10. However, the practice of ear piercing has become unpopular among schoolchildren.

Puberty and Adolescence

Circumcision at early puberty for girls and late puberty for boys is considered an ultimate test of pain endurance. Beyond its physical ordeal, the circumcision rite has great social and cultural significance for both genders. At this stage in life boys enter the age-set system and girls enter marriage and their reproductive career.

After circumcision (emurata) at about 16 or 17 years of age, the young men become members of the age-grade system as "warriors" (pl. ilmurran, olmurrani, "the circumcized one," anglicized form "moran"). During this period, which may last 7-8 years, they live together in separate settlements (pl. imanyat, emanyata), secluded from the family homesteads, until they become "elders" and are permitted to marry. The state of moranhood is a transitional phase in the life of Maasai men, separating the young unmarried men from married elders not only spatially, but also by dress, diet, and way of life. During this period of seclusion, age-mate solidarity and equality are expressed and communicated particularly through rituals of slaughter, commensality, and togetherness. The intimate relationships evolving between Maasai men while they are morans continue after they have terminated moranhood and become married elders (pl. ilpayiak, olpiayi). Until their circumcision, the boys are merely "boys" (pl. ilayiok, olayoni) toiling with herding and homestead work with very limited rights of personal independence.

Like boys, girls are also initiated into the adult community by a circumcision rite (emurata). At about the age of 13-14, or when their breasts are sufficiently developed, girls' genitals (clitoris and labia minora) are excised. It is usually an elderly woman of the community who performs the surgery. The operation signals a new social role for the girl; she is becoming an esiankiki ("young married woman") now ready to be married and give birth to children. For the 2 or 3 years preceding puberty and their circumcision rites (i.e., from 10 years onwards) Maasai girls spend time with the morans in their settlements. The prepubescent girls and the young morans entertain each other socially as well as sexually (Talle, 1988, 1994).

The Maasai believe that a girl cannot conceive, or will give birth to deformed children, if her clitoris is not removed. Clitoridectomy transfers the sexually "free" girl of the "sweetheart" category (pl. isanjan, esanja) into a potential child-bearer who is subject to restrictions in her sexual behavior. From then on, she may only associate with her husband and members of his age group, that is, men at least l0-l5 years her senior. Her sexual play with the morans terminates at this stage, much to her regret; thereafter, sexual relationships with them are defined as illegitimate.

Attainment of Adulthood

The life cycles of men and women are more or less parallel until circumcision, but after circumcision male and female life career diverges. Girls attain adulthood earlier than boys. The latter are not considered adult until they have finished their moranhood and passed the important age-grade ceremony eunoto into elderhood (pl. ilpayiani, olpayian). Then they are permitted to marry and to establish themselves as independent household heads. At this stage in life they may have reached 25-30 years of age. Their former sweethearts have already married men of elder age grades.

Middle Age and Old Age

As men and women grow older and begin to circumcize their own children, they pass through new life stages. Men are promoted into senior elders in the age-grade system, and women become entasat ("elder women"),

ÙIRL ScKiifJs caiigptQ W&SiA ispew M IrtÀôtreutionaJ/ uvhtgarits Figure 1. Schematic overview of Maasai life cycle phases.

approaching or beyond menopause. Women of entasat category enjoy more autonomy and decision-making power than younger women (see Figure 1 for a schematic overview of life cycle phases).

As Maasai people come of age they become less active sexually. At menopause, women practically terminate their sexual career, while men continue to marry younger women and have sex up to old age. The sexuality of elderly men is primarily oriented toward marital sex and hence toward procreation.

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