Gender and Religion

The Mardu cosmic order is markedly egalitarian in constitution. It contains both female and male creative beings, and they are unranked as to prominence, power, or social importance in the human realm. Collectively, through their endeavors they left behind the first humans and their rules for living, including inequalities that tend to favor men's interests over those of women.

The religious life taken as a whole requires considerable male-female coactivity and fosters harmony and interdependence, but, as Bern (1979) suggests, women are structurally located as a kind of antithesis because they are permanently excluded from the secret life of the initiated men, whereas for youths this is a temporary state. Barring women may be men's way of reinforcing male superiority, identity, and solidarity. Yet there is no evidence that Mardu men or women are anxious regarding their status vis-à-vis the other; for example, pollution beliefs are not culturally elaborated. Mature Mardu men claim that there are powerful and dangerous spiritual forces with which only they can cope. In joint religious activity, senior men revel in their "masters of ceremony" role, which includes controlling and directing women, and they allow them very little autonomy.

Nevertheless, women are vital to success of religious activities. They actively participate in many rituals as singers and dancers, provide major logistical support by gathering and preparing food, and maintain quotidian life while men are ritually preoccupied. They also contribute significantly to men's secret rituals through the preparation of "bread" for ritual feasts. The rank of "cook," which is usually attained by middle-aged and older women, is one of the several grades of a female ritual hierarchy paralleling that of the men. Mardu women possess religious knowledge of their own, and associated secret-sacred objects and rituals, some of which are considered by all Mardu as highly dangerous to men. In common with the men, an important part of women's lore consists of traveling rituals, shared and performed widely across the Western Desert and acquired most often in the normal course of intergroup exchange during "big meetings." Yet the total body of Mardu women's ritual does not approach in either size or scale that of the men, and exclusively female rituals occupy much less time and energy than do male rituals.

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