Gender Roles in Economics

Division of labor is an organizing principle of Abelam society, and men's and women's roles are clearly defined. Women collect firewood and water and do the everyday cooking. Occasionally they may be assisted by males (especially by boys) in food preparation, such as in scraping coconuts, but the major responsibility belongs to the women. Women are also responsible for taking care of the children, although they may be assisted by men. Women sew and weave string bags, which are used for carrying most everything. They also care for the pigs, which are butchered and cooked by men. Men do the hunting, build the houses and fences, weave mats, and cut timber. They also do the majority of arts and craft work, including carving ritual wooden objects, painting with clays and ochers, making spears, adzes, and other tools, and decorating utilitarian objects.

Although division of labor is pronounced, men and women can be seen working together on many economic activities, each laboring at their own tasks. In gardening, for example, women and men often cooperate. Men clear the heavy brush and cut down trees, while women cut the smaller or secondary undergrowth. Men build trellises and make and repair fences. Women do the weeding as needed and harvest most of the crops. Certain cultivars are more associated with certain genders. Women plant and harvest taro (mayƩ) and, generally, greens, bananas and sugarcane. Men are solely responsible for the planting of the ceremonial yams (waapi) and, generally, for planting the shorter food yams (njaambi). Taro gardening and taros themselves are particularly rich in female imagery and symbolism, while the ceremonial yams personify maleness.

There is no explicit prohibition against one gender performing most of the labor assigned to the other, but it is thought to be inappropriate. People feel sorry for a person forced to perform the duties of the opposite gender, and make disparaging remarks about the laziness of opposite-sex relatives who make this necessary. Once, before I fully appreciated the "femaleness" of taro, I publicly remarked about planting some in my garden. Several of my adopted female relatives immediately offered to do it for me to spare me (and themselves) from embarrassment, and later chided me for offending them in public.

In the daily round, women and men are often separated. Wives and husbands, and less frequently brothers and sisters, often sit together in the mornings, discussing plans for the day as they eat a simple breakfast prepared by the women. During the day, women may garden and men may tend ceremonial yams, engage in ritual activities, or hunt. At times, families garden together. People normally return to the village in the evenings. Women usually gather around the cook houses as they prepare the evening meal, while men gather around rest houses or yam houses to gossip, smoke, and chew betel nut. In small groups, men and women may eat and chat together in the evenings, but larger groupings are usually sex segregated. A husband and wife may sleep together, although the more common pattern is for women to sleep in a cook house with the small children and for men to sleep in yam houses or rest houses.

Occasionally, men will travel afar for extended periods for wage labor, trade, and exchange, or to attend ceremonies in other villages. It is less common for women to travel away from their own villages. Ritual activities involve gender cooperation, with each attending to its assigned tasks. Women generally prepare the food, which men distribute. The actual performance of the ritual is the obligation of the men.

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