Gender Roles in Economics

Married women tend to remain and work within their husband's residence ward, gardens, and riverbank. Women, as noted earlier, are responsible for daily subsistence. They fish by canoe with traps and nets, tend gardens, catch prawns, and cook all meals. Because women are associated with the warmth of houses, they also care for the small hearths that smoulder underneath dwellings.

Men, too, work in gardens, but this labor, like other male tasks—felling trees, hewing canoes, building houses, clearing gardens—is intermittent. (I have heard some women complain that men, for all the work they do, are like children!) Men's work is often collaborative, involving different descent groups. Women mainly work individually. When they labor collectively, women generally perform parallel tasks within their natal or husband's group.

Men and women work together, albeit in well-defined roles, when gardening and producing sago. The latter activity is a cultural symbol of gender complementarity. Men chop the pith, which women knead and process through an apparatus of troughs and filters. Women fry or boil the sago—as men say, only women can properly cook it.

Women, reported Mead (1949, pp. 180-181), work more willingly than men, who labor begrudgingly. Economic independence is highly valued in women, especially by men (Hauser-Schaublin, 1977, p. 148).

Traditionally, both men and women participated in prestige exchanges. Women pleated baskets and sleeping mats, cultivated tobacco and tubers, harvested fish, raised pigs, and fed visitors. Husbands exchanged female products for shell valuables and prestige, which also enhanced the status of their wives. However, men do consult with female kin before transactions.

Today, men and women derive intermittent cash income from the sale of tobacco, betel nut, fruit, fish, chicken, pig, crocodile skins, and cocoa. Villages contain small trade stores. They are largely, but not exclusively, owned and managed by men. Many Iatmul men and women migrate to towns and cities for employment as teachers, soldiers, lawyers, mine workers, civil servants, hotel staff, policemen, store clerks, and so forth. They may periodically return and send remittances. My sense is that more men are employed in these capacities than women (in Tambunum, one third more adult women than men reside in the village). But this may reflect more on a capitalist division of labor than Iatmul culture.

Traditionally, neither men nor women labored outside the village environs. Today, Iatmul who relocate for jobs are commonly accompanied by spouses and children. Employed women still remain responsible for female-coded domestic tasks such as cooking (Stanek & Weiss, 1998, pp. 320-321). Because women produce most food in the village, Stanek and Weiss continue, unemployed women who live in town find themselves in a new position of total economic dependence on their husbands.

Tourism is the primary source of income today in the village. Men carve wooden objects such as masks, tables, animals, and ornamented stools, while women create netbags, baskets, and small rattan animals (Silverman, 2000). Often, wives and female kin decorate a man's woodcarvings.2 Proceeds are dispersed to those who contributed materials and labor, regardless of gender. In the town of Wewak, women rent stalls at outdoor markets to peddle baskets and occasionally woodcarvings. (Travel by truck on the dirt roads to Wewak lasts anywhere from 4 to 15 hours.) Women, too, sometimes with men, vend objects outside a Wewak hotel. A tourist guesthouse in one Iatmul village (Tambunum) employs men and women as security staff, grass cutters, maintenance staff, housecleaners, and cooks. Tourists, too, occasionally pay men as canoe drivers and guides.

Both men and women within the patriline inherit property, which is often gender specific: houses, canoes, outboard motors, fishing nets, cooking implements, storage jars, kerosene lanterns, and sometimes a little cash. Men, not women, tend to inherit totemic names, magic, and ritual prerogatives. A widow remains in her husband's house and continues to have full access to his gardens, property, and so forth. I am unaware of either major disputes between men and women over the inheritance of material property or any eviction after a spouse's death.

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