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Women as Unseen Characters

Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea

Edited by Pascale Bonnemère
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Women as Unseen Characters
    Book Description:

    Rituals have always been a focus of ethnographies of Melanesia, providing a ground for important theorizing in anthropology. This is especially true of the male initiation rituals that until recently were held in Papua New Guinea. For the most part, these rituals have been understood as all-male institutions, intended to maintain and legitimate male domination. Women's exclusion from the forest space where men conducted most such rites has been taken as a sign of their exclusion from the entire ritual process. Women as Unseen Characters is the first book to examine the role of females in Papua New Guinea male rituals, and the first systematic treatment of this issue for any part of the world. In this volume, leading Melanesian scholars build on recent ethnographies that show how female kin had roles in male rituals that had previously gone unseen. Female seclusion and the enforcement of taboos were crucial elements of the ritual process: forms of presence in their own right. Contributors here provide detailed accounts of the different kinds of female presence in various Papua New Guinea male rituals. When these are restored to the picture, the rituals can no longer be interpreted merely as an institution for reproducing male domination but must also be understood as a moment when the whole system of relations binding a male person to his kin is reorganized. By dealing with the participation of women, a totally neglected dimension of male rituals is added to our understanding.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0137-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Note for Readers
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction The Presence of Women in New Guinea Secret Male Rituals: From Ritual Space to Ritual Process
    (pp. 1-15)

    During the fall of 1994, while I was in the New Guinea Highlands, male initiations were held in an Ankave valley. There I saw that, while the male novices stayed in the forest, their mothers and elder sisters were secluded together inside a vast house built of branches erected on the outskirts of the village. For the duration of the ceremonies, they left this house only in order to execute certain rigidly codified ritual gestures, and they respected a number of dietary and behavioral taboos similar to those imposed on the young boys. The presence of these close female relatives...

  6. Chapter 1 Sambia Women’s Positionality and Men’s Rituals
    (pp. 16-33)
    Gilbert Herdt

    The interpretation of gender positionality and hegemony have long been debated in the literature, with scholars differing on the degree to which material or ideological factors, or religious and ritual factors, or both, are primary in how men and women interact.¹ As the work of Kenneth Read (1952) hinted and Donald Tuzin (1980) in particular has stressed in Melanesia, the relationship between positionality and domination in the domestic sphere can differ greatly from or even contradict matters in ritual. Maurice Godelier’s (1986) critical work among the Baruya has generally opened up the richer complex of material, ideological, and sexual factors...

  7. Chapter 2 Embodiments of Detachment: Engendering Agency in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea
    (pp. 34-56)
    Sandra C. Bamford

    The societies of Papua New Guinea have long occupied a prominent place with respect to the development of anthropological ideas of gender. Throughout much of the country, males and females appear as polarized beings who are not only different, but anathema to one another. As many ethnographers have noted (see, e.g., Herdt 1981; Meigs 1984; Langness 1967; Read 1972; Herdt and Poole 1982; Lindenbaum 1984; Gode1ier 1986; Meggitt 1964), the distinct sexual substances of men and women are often seen to adversely affect members of the opposite sex. A pervasive gender dichotomy is also revealed in a strict division of...

  8. Chapter 3 When Women Enter the Picture: Looking at Anga Initiations from the Mothers’ Angle
    (pp. 57-74)
    Pascale Bonnemère

    In November 1994, in one of the three valleys they occupy, the southern Anga people known as the Ankave performed initiation rituals for all boys between ages eight and twelve or so. During my first stay in 1987, I learned from talking with them that the women living in the area played a role of some sort on such an occasion, but our discussions on the matter never went very far because in the end “initiations are men’s business,” a women’s utterance perfectly symmetrical to what is said by men when asked about anything having to do with babies and...

  9. Chapter 4 Ujawe: The Ritual Transformation of Sons and Mothers
    (pp. 75-97)
    Marta A. Rohatynskyj

    It is to some extent a matter of perspective whether one sees male initiation as an instrument of male domination and oppression, as Bonnemère notes in the Introduction. The analysis of male ritual within the context of the sexual antagonism literature of the 1950s and 1960s along with what Strathern and Stewart (this volume) see as the male exclusivity model is associated with a set of problems largely defined by issues of gender inequality and male domination. In what was termed a “new Melanesian ethnography” at the time, many of these issues were made to disappear, as josephides (1991) puts...

  10. Chapter 5 The Bachelors and Their Spirit Wife: Interpreting the Omatisia Ritual of Porgera and Paiela
    (pp. 98-119)
    Aletta Biersack

    Gender first became important in New Guinea research when anthropologists discovered elaborate male initiations that seemingly reflected a sexual politics of gynophobia and “antagonism” (Herdt and Poole 1982). Among the early texts, Mervyn Meggitt’s “Male-Female Relationships in the Highlands of Australian New Guinea” (1964), which reported on a central Enga clan ritual called the sanggai, was perhaps the most influential. In the sanggai, the bachelors of a particular clan retreated from the residential area and assembled in the forest, where they purified their eyes, learned magic, and grew bog iris plants. The purpose of the ritual was largely prophylactic, a...

  11. Chapter 6 Cults, Closures, Collaborations
    (pp. 120-138)
    Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart

    In this chapter we review some of the ideas which have fed into the project of rethinking the category of “male cults” in terms of “female participation” in them. The chapter specifically builds on a model we have proposed called the Collaborative Model of cult activities, which replaces a preexisting model in the corpus of Melanesian literature that we may call the Male Exclusivity Model (Stewart and Strathern 1999a). We do not intend by this model to lump together all instances of cult activities as equally reflecting it or to ignore the obvious differences between societies that can be discerned,...

  12. Chapter 7 The Variability of Women’s “Involvement” in Anga Male Initiations
    (pp. 139-153)
    Pierre Lemonnier

    Anga societies occupy a special place in the ethnographic and theoretical context of gender studies in New Guinea. The northern Angans, who live in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a region for which Lewis Langness, Kenneth Read, and others stressed the crucial role of gender relations in local social organization, are the object of one of the most detailed accounts of male initiation ceremonies in the island, for which we must thank Maurice Godelier (1986) and Gilbert Herdt (1981, 1987b). Following these studies, devoted respectively to the mechanisms of male domination and to the development of boys in...

  13. Chapter 8 Of Human and Spirit Women: From Mother to Seductress to Second Wife
    (pp. 154-178)
    Polly Wiessner

    The peripheral position of women in the exotic religious ritual of Highland New Guinea has captured the attention of anthropologists for the past three decades. For parts of the eastern Highlands and Highland fringe areas, men are seen as manipulating cosmology and relations with the spirit world so as to appropriate female powers of reproduction with the ultimate goal of domination (Allen 1967; Godelier 1986; Herdt 1981, 1984a). Underlying these interpretations is an implicit assumption that a major axis of competition exists between men and women, and that ritual is part of the struggle through which men control, repress, or...

  14. Chapter 9 Relating to Women: Female Presence in Melanesian “Male Cults”
    (pp. 179-200)
    Bruce M. Knauft

    It seems so obvious that one has to wonder why it hasn’t been done sooner. In highly selected ways, of course, previous writings have considered the presence and spiritual imagery of women in the so-called male cults of Melanesia. But not in the same way as in the present contributions. This chapter attempts to assess the distinctive contributions of the current volume, to contextualize them in larger historical and theoretical terms, to specify some comparative insights raised by the contributors, and to apply these insights—critically and reflexively—to the male rituals and initiations that I documented in 1980–82...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 201-220)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-234)
  17. List of Contributors
    (pp. 235-238)
  18. Index
    (pp. 239-252)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 253-254)