Relative Status of Men and Women

In an early ethnographic study of Kuna female gender, Reina Torres wrote that "within her culture, the Cuna woman occupies a truly exceptional place. During all her life she is the object of the greatest consideration, flattery, and respect" (Torres de Ianello, 1957, p. 3). Torres' opinion has been echoed by many observers since then, especially naive amateurs, who typically describe Kuna society as a matriarchy. Although few social scientists today feel comfortable making such sweeping claims about gender (see Swain, 1978, pp. 43-75), one can say that Kuna women do indeed receive respect from men, mixed with some condescension and even a little scorn. Moreover, the consideration mentioned by Torres constrains as well as protects women

Overall assessments of the Kuna gender hierarchy depend to a great extent on judgments about the significance of art and dress. Kuna women are preoccupied with beauty and fashion—with changing designs in tradecloth skirts and headcloths, new ways of wearing headcloths, expensive gold jewelry, and innovations in blouse form as well as mola motifs—all of which might at one time have struck some feminists as a diversion or form of false consciousness. Salvador (1997), on the other hand, speaks for most observers of Kuna society in praising the ensemble of Kuna women's dress as well as molas in particular as a notable form of cultural expression.

Men and women are traditionally most equal within the domestic sphere, especially the senior couple in a household, who work in close cooperation. As mothers, women receive devotion from their children. Although women no longer do much agricultural labor, their domestic work is highly valued, they own land and houses, and since the late 20 th century they have been making major contributions to household income, though they are often exploited by foreign mola buyers and Kuna middle-men.

Women are most subordinate in the public sphere. Men fill most political and ritual roles, and they take the lion's share of power and recognition, to the extent that women's names were often not remembered or known, even by relatives.8 Male protectiveness has also constrained and confined women, who until very recently were not allowed to travel away from home without a husband or male kinsman—or at all.

In the village gatherings men work to rein in the conduct of women, whom they depict in their speeches as unruly and difficult (see Howe, 1986, pp. 229-233). But such attempts at control ultimately extend to everyone's behavior, including their own, and in the adjudication of disputes and quarrels, senior men enforce the rights (as they understand them) as well as the obligations of women and junior males. Villages vary widely today in their rigor, from those that attempt, for instance, to prohibit divorce and cut off rumors and quarrels, to others that have more or less given up on social control. Quite a few communities have tried to discipline the behavior of members resident in Colon or Panama City, but with only mixed success, and it is in urban settings that Kuna women, especially educated women, have gained the greatest freedom.9

Overall, though women use the weapons of the weak to undermine male control, they have seldom challenged public patriarchy directly except in the city and a in few of the most sophisticated island communities. On the other hand, they have great influence in the domestic sphere, and in the game of love (see below) they are as active as men. Perhaps most important, in the small interactions of daily life, the egalitarian ethos of Kuna society overrides gender hierarchy, as men and women speak their minds in the most frank, straightforward, and undeferential manner.

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