Cultural Construction of Gender

The principal gender categories in the Yanomami culture, "male" and "female," are divided into subclasses according to age (see below). The concept of gender is strongly determined by the idea of the couple, an idea that is enhanced in daily life and reflected in abstract conceptions of reality. Neither maleness nor femaleness dominates the concept of gender; rather, the concept entails the presence of both genders. Hence the moon or the sun are neither male nor female, but exist in both forms. All tutelary spirits, through whom the shamans perform their power, exist in a male and a female form, although sometimes one gender is more prominent in songs or tales. A man and a woman need to cooperate to produce tobacco. The man sows the seeds after having prepared the garden site. Then the woman will care for the crop and eventually harvest it, dry it, and store it. It is then her possession and she will prepare the daily wad of tobacco from these leaves for her husband and herself. The tobacco can only be given away as a gift or an object of exchange with the consent of both the man and his wife. Tobacco is a very important offering to enhance alliances, and it is worth noting that a couple, ideally a married couple, is necessary to produce such goods for gift exchange and thus for the formation of social or political affiliation. The fact that neither a man nor a woman alone can traditionally produce tobacco can be taken as a metaphor for political influence—a single person has no power. This suggests that the Yanomami do not exhibit strong gender antagonism. But how does this fit with the well-known image of Yanomami women as being subjected to severe physical and social repression? Yanomami women have many times been depicted as abused and brutalized, and the Yanomami have been described as a radically gender antagonistic society (Chagnon, 1983; Harris, 1977, 1987). The reason for this assessment is that a relatively high level of violence in Yanomami life seems to lead to the impression of specific brutality against women. Actually, the display of brave and violent behavior is indeed a cultural ideal, but the conception of fierceness is shared by both genders. Further explanation for these controversial representations will be given under "Gender-Related Social Groups" below.

The genders are not spatially separated, nor are there places that men or women are forbidden to enter. There are no secret cults that are open to only one gender, nor are women or men punished if they see a special act or sacred objects. (For more information see the explanation of the yipimou puberty ritual for girls below.) In their daily lives, Yanomami males and females have slightly different costumes. Girls and young women use polished sticks for adornment which they insert in the facial perforation—the ear lobe, the septum, under the lower lip, and next to the corners of the lips. Men's facial perforation is restricted to the ear lobes, and sometimes a small hole pierced under the lower lip to insert a little feather. Adult men traditionally used to wear a belt around their waist and tied their penis up on their prepuce. Women use more cotton decoration—apron, belt, and strings—than men. There is no substantial difference in hairstyle or in the way that their bodies are painted with vegetable dye. Among the Yanomami of the Orinoco area, females may adorn themselves with flowers, palm fronds, and other plants or leaves, while males prefer feathers and skins or pelts of animals. Women blacken their cheeks when mourning a close relative. Men do not adopt these emblems of sorrow. However, men paint themselves totally black when leaving to raid another village.

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