My mind, my thoughts, my words

Bodies, genders, rites and the role of women in some societies

For the Bimin-Kuskusmin (New Guinea) everything is divided into male and female. There is male food, and there is female food. Men mustn’t eat female foods, females may not even enter the garden where male food is planted. This describes two different personas: Men who are complete, and women who are impure and dangerous. Their menstrual blood is poison; they are weak and bring illness along, thus men and women are kept separately.

Babies are different – they have both male and female substances constituting their bodies. Good patrilineal blood that lasts long and is associated with health and vitality, semen from their fathers that creates important organs as well as hard body parts such as teeth and bones, as well as female fertile fluids and menstrual blood.
To become a proper being of their kind, children must undergo rituals.
Female substances must be extracted from boys’ bodies. They are tortured in a ways so that they lose their female substances, and their male substances are reinforced. This process takes many years.

  • Poole, F. J. 1982 ‘The Ritual Forging of Identity: Aspects of Person and Self in Bimin-Kuskusmin Male Initiation’. In G. H. Herdt (ed.), Rituals of Manhood. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Similarly, the Hua (New Guinea) see women as polluted (through menstrual blood) and separate them from men. As men, the pure ones, eat food that women cooked they are in danger of getting polluted (e.g. if a woman’s nails were dirty). The polluted man gets ‘pregnant’ – his stomach swells and if it bursts he dies. To cure him, his stomach is cut open to let the ‘menstruation blood’ flow out.

Through sex and birth a woman becomes less polluted, as the polluted substances are passed on to her babies and husband. After three kids a woman is said to be pure – so basically, a man. This demonstrates how in this culture, sex isn’t locked up. With the change in sex, rights and responsibilities change too.

  • Eriksen, T. H. 2001 Small Places, Large Issues.
  • Herdt, G.H. 1984 Semen Transactions in Sambia Culture.
  • Moore, H. L. 1988 Feminism and Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity Press. Chapter 2
  • Errington, S. 1990 Recasting Sex, Gender, and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview.

In Somalia, young girls are turned into women by being circumcised. A tiny hole is left for urine and menstruatThis girl was circumcised in Somalia five days before the picture was taken (in 2004). Her legs were bent together to let the wound heal better.ion blood. Girls that are not circumcised are seen as impure.
The protruding parts of the vagina are regarded as penis; to produce the right kind of body to reflect their biology, these parts are removed. The remaining scar is a symbolic hymen.

A man gets circumcised as his foreskin is associated with impurity and fleshiness, by exposing his glands he becomes pure and a proper man. He is furthermore created through the way he ‘opens’ his wife; if he needs a knife (which can traumatise the woman!) or the help of a midwife he is seen as lacking fidelity.

Women don’t have sexual freedom; men manipulate them and make sex a non-reason to get married, as it only pleases them. Many girls die at the time they get circumcised or at some other point, as they may suffer (internal) infections, affecting the kidney or bladder for example. When a circumcised woman gives birth, she needs to be cut open and sewed up again – and on average a woman has six kids…

  • Talle, A. 1993 ‘Transforming women into “pure” agnates: aspects of female infibulation in Somalia’. In V. Broch-Due, R. Ingrid and T. Blei (eds), Carved Flesh/Cast Selves. London: Berg.

Some major questions that arise here are – what is morally right? What about ethics? Human rights? Treating men and women equally? Should we expect other cultures to follow our ‘example’? Or is it their cultural right to live in their ways, to construct their bodies in the ways they do?

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