Leadership in Public Arenas

To a greater extent than in many societies, political power is divided fairly equally between the genders among the Beng. Ideally, each matriclan has a male and female chief, each village has a male and female chief, and each political region (savanna and forest) has a ruling king and queen. The two members of each pair are expected to rule cooperatively. It may happen that there is only one member of the pair ruling at a particular time because of unusual circumstances. During such periods, it is said that misfortunes may occur to the group at large— drought, childhood disease, and so on—that can only be rectified when a new officeholder is inaugurated.

Each king (but not queen) has a formal speaker, who must be male. Moreover, the king generally speaks during public occasions, holding trials and announcing decisions, whereas the queen (as with the female village chief) remains somewhat on the sidelines at such events, although she frequently advises the king privately. Beng explain the lack of a female speaker by claiming that women's "hearts are hot" or "heat up quickly," predisposing them to become angry and engage in disputes more quickly than men, making them poor leaders. Generalizing from this attributed quality, many adult men and women alike claim that women "can't rule in Bengland." Accordingly, during public meetings, men often sit at the center of a decision-making circle and women stand on the periphery. Nevertheless, women often make their ideas known about an issue at hand from the sidelines; their opinions may be decisive in some cases. Men acknowledge that although they appear to be in charge of political decision-making, they must always consult with the women involved in a case. Some men claim that, despite their imputed innate tendency toward disputatiousness, women naturally have more force (leg dre kro) than men. In general, a tendency toward male dominance of the political sphere is somewhat offset by a more gender-egalitarian model of power.

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