Relative Status of Men and Women

On the surface, the Samburu are highly patriarchal. Central cultural institutions such as marriage are regulated by men. Men are socially sanctioned to beat their wives if there is "just" cause, and as long as the beatings are not too severe. Men also have the last word on the disposition of the family herds, sometimes overstepping ideal restrictions on their use.

On the other hand, men are highly dependent on women for their domestic well-being (Holtzman, 2002). Women feed men and provide men with children through their sexuality, which they control to a great extent. It is not uncommon to encounter very thin men whose wives have been withholding food partially or utterly from them. A husband's recourses are limited, since men who complain risk being perceived as putting their own stomachs above the needs of their family. Similarly, women frequently engage in surreptitious extramarital affairs, giving birth to children not sired by their husbands. These children will be raised in the settlement, except in rare cases, directly affecting men's happiness, prestige, and well-being.

There are a number of ways in which women oppose wrongdoing, or undermine their husband's authority. When a couple live with the wife's family, her brothers will typically prevent all beatings, and even restrict the husband from talking to her harshly. Women also frequently run away from their husbands when they feel they are treated unjustly. Usually a man must travel to his wife's parents' home and negotiate for her return, which can be embarrassing, particularly since the parents or other relatives will usually support their daughter and may repeatedly refuse to return her. The wife will fully air her grievances, the husband must agree to curb his behavior and sometimes pay a fine. Since a man's reputation depends largely on his ability to successfully manage his family, his power can be significantly limited by the consequences he will feel among his peers.

As they age, the deference accorded to men and women increases, and their relative statuses become more equal. All old people have considerable power to curse those younger than themselves. Women's curses are particularly feared because they bear such stark contrast to their nurturing role. Neither old men nor old women do much work, but are cared for by their children. The fact that women control food distribution can sometimes mean that old men are in more danger of malnutrition than old women.

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