Cultural Construction of Gender

Gender differentiation is a strong characteristic of Abaluyia culture and society. Females and males are differentiated physically by attire, body ornament and posture, in work roles, in family and marital relationships—in almost every aspect of life.

Early European accounts described Abaluyia as "naked" because their clothing left large areas of skin exposed. To Abaluyia, clothing and ornaments signified sexual modesty and also social and ritual status. Babies and small children went naked. Older children wore genital coverings, men added a leather cloak, and older girls and women added a fringed "tail" of plant fibers that indicated their status as unmarried, married without children, with children, or postmenopausal, or widowed. From infancy, jewelry made of various materials was worn by both genders, mostly by females. Jewelry was a woman's personal possession and indicated her social status and her husband's wealth. Scarification of face and body, especially of females, was done for beauty, ritual protection, and men's sexual pleasure. Bodies were painted and hair was removed for esthetic and ritual purposes. For war and ceremonies, men wore elaborate headdresses. Male elders and political leaders wore clothing and ornaments indicating their high status.

Christian missionaries brought Victorian attitudes toward the body and clothes to cover it. Pressured by fines, taxes, and the requirements of missionaries and employers, Abaluyia abandoned most of their body arts and adopted European clothing by the 1930s. Now small children usually go naked, older boys wear T-shirts and shorts, and older girls and women wear dresses and sometimes earrings. School children wear uniforms: dresses for girls, shirt and shorts for boys. Footwear (if any) tends to be sandals. Men wear trousers, shirts, sometimes jackets and hats, and often a watch. Women often wrap a kanga (a cloth rectangle that originated on the Swahili coast in the 19th century) around their dresses; kangas are also used as baby slings, headwraps, and to sit on. In the 1980s girls and women sometimes wore trousers in Nairobi, but were subject to negative comments ("Does she think she's a man?") in rural Luyialand. By the mid-1990s wearing trousers in Buluyia had become more acceptable. Most people have short hair but since the 1970s some women plait their hair in elaborate patterns, an ancient African custom. For both genders, looking "smart" (well dressed and up to date) is considered attractive, and also being "fat," for fatness (especially of female breasts and buttocks) is associated with health, fertility, and prosperity. Physical strength is admired in men.

Posture is another marker of gender. Girls are expected to show deference (bowed head, lowered gaze, soft voice) to almost everyone, but postures of deference are also expected of women when in the presence of men. Conversely, men exhibit postures of domination. Domination and subordination are enacted in seating arrangements: men sit on chairs, and women (unless of high status) on the ground, legs straight out in front of them and crossed at the ankles—though in her own home a woman may sit on a chair in the presence of the men of her family.

Pregnancy And Childbirth

Pregnancy And Childbirth

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