Gender Identities in Aboriginal Society
"How clearly does the behaviour of that unlearned heathen prove that shame is an artificial sentiment resulting from education alone; and that different communities measure propriety, nay even right and wrong, by various standards established under the operation of dissimilar circumstances."
From Convict J.F Mortlock -. From Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)
Gender identities reside at the heart of how a community reproduces itself both culturally and physically. Because different societies have different problems in their world, they have different ways of living and different moralities toward gender.
The differences in gender identities between pre-historic Aboriginal Australia and contemporary urban Australia has made the study of Aboriginal gender quite problematic. In short, contemporary academics have wanted to portray Aboriginal society in a positive light; however, the gender morality needed to deal with the threat of inbreeding, food scarcity and inter-tribal warfare is very different to the morality needed to maximise economic production in a capitalist society and raise children in a nuclear family.
To deal with the problematic nature of the difference, anthropologists such as Leacock and Karen Sacks (1981) have accused previous writers on Aboriginal gender of being corrupted by the European lens of racism. Basically, they argued that previous writers wanted to see Aboriginal women being mistreated because this allowed them to feel that European society was morally superior.
Ironically, such accusations have also revealed the difficulties that the likes of Sacks and Leacock have personally had in coming to terms with gender identities that were unlike their own and which had developed in response to different problems. In a nutshell, they have cried racism to avoid considering the cultural differences and needing to understand why the differences existed.
The most important reason for the difference was the threat of inbreeding. Due to the threat, hunter gatherer societies needed to exchange genetics between different tribal groups in a way that left little scope for “romantic love” or for women to choose who they had sex with.
The trade of women was one way that the tribes could gain fresh genetics. By today's definition, the trade of women was a form of rape because the woman could not refuse the will of her tribe, nor that of her chosen partner, nor his kin. Although this trade was in the interests of both tribes, perhaps it was not a nice experience for the woman being traded. Consequently, a number of rituals developed to make the transition easier. One of these rituals was infant betrothal whereby the lady was promised while still an infant. For example, in the western desert region, the main circumciser had to promise one of his daughters to the novice in compensation for having ritually "killed" him. Promising a girl while still an infant may have psychologically prepared her for her destiny in life. This knowledge may have decreased the likelihood that she would feel a sense of injustice regarding her trade. It may have even encouraged her to look forward to her marriage as a sign of becoming a woman.
In other areas, a girl may have been unaware that her marriage was impending. While she was out collecting food with the older women, she may have been seized by her intended husband and his "brothers". Once seized, her husband's brothers had sexual rights to her until she had settled down.
In some areas, a girl may have lived in her intended husband's camp for a period of time. She would then be formally handed over to her husband, and his kin, so that the marriage could be consummated with sex. A retaliatory ritual may have been created to help girls cope with stress. An 1897 anthropological report described groups of men using their fingers or penis-shaped sticks to enlarge a girl's vagina. Several men then had sex with the girl. The second part of the ritual allowed dancing girls to hit any men whom they held a grudge against. This was done without fear of retaliation.
One final method of diversifying the gene pool was to seek out women to rape. Men might have attacked women gathering food or killed the men or other tribes and raped the surviving women (perhaps then inducting them into their own tribe.)
Rape, orgies and arranged marriage seemed to have an effect on how Aborigines thought about fathers. Children conceived in such sexual unions are difficult to reconcile with a celebration of love between man and women. Perhaps this explains why Australian tribes did not credit semen as having a role in procreation. Instead, spiritual forces were believed to be responsible. The spirit of a plant or animal, known as the conception totem, was assumed to have entered the human mother.
Although hunter gatherer women had little power when it came to their choice of sexual partners, it would be wrong to say that they were completely powerless in the tribe. As gatherers, they had economic power based upon their contribution to the tribe. In addition, when they banded together in a sisterhood, they gained physical power that could resist the predatory advances of men.
It should be stressed that for almost 1,000,000 years, the ancestors of all humans today were reproducing in such a fashion. Elements survive in arranged marriages that still exist in many communities today and perhaps the rape of women that still occurs in the wars that humanity can't let go off. Perhaps the discrepancies in the relative sizes of the male and female body may be a physical legacy of reproduction that left little scope for female choice. No other animal has such a strength discrepancy between male and female and no other animal has had a comparable biological evolution in which females have been denied choice.
In a modern industrialised society, human reproduction generally occurs within the nuclear family. Accordingly, morality has been developed to protect this institution. The right of women to choose their sexual partners has been one such moral. In addition, as an economy becomes more intellectually based, the surplus can be maximised via gender equality where men and women can work side by side. In turn, morality has developed to facilitate the erosion of distinct gender roles that place women in the home and men in physical labour.
Although it might be wrong to say one form of gender morality is superior to another, it would be logical to say that one form of gender morality is more conducive to one way of life than another.
Bad Dreaming (2007)- In a taboo breaking book, Louis Nowra explores the role of women in hunter gatherer societies. He notes that in hunter gatherer societies, women were exchanged to settle disputes, that women of other tribes were kidnapped and gang raped, and that young girls were promised to older men. Nowra doesn’t judge Aborigines negatively for such customs. He merely points out that hunter gatherer societies had to function in such a way in order to survive. While it was necessary in the past, Nowra doesn't feel such customs are necessary today. He advises Indigenous communities to recognise that they are part of Australian society and to integrate into their cultural sensibility the idea of personal and individual responsibility for their actions. He advises them to accept that certain aspects of their traditional culture and customs – such as promised marriages, polygamy, violence towards women and male aggression – are best forgotten.
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