The United States of America and New Guinea are roughly 7,500 miles apart, and their inhabitants are even further apart in regards to culture. The Iatmul people are comprised of four villages called Mindimbit, Kankanamun, Palimbai, and Malinggai, and they are located in the middle reaches of the Sepik River in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. The American people that will be discussed here refers to white middle class citizens. While an American man may spend his Sunday on a hunt at the hardware store for the latest grill, an Iatmul man may spend his Sunday hunting for a human head. And while an American woman might spend her Sunday shopping for fish to make for dinner at the grocery store, an Iatmul woman may spend her Sunday in a canoe catching fish with her handmade net. Aside from these differences in lifestyles, they are also drastically different in their views on gender. Through the examination of the institution of marriage, labor divisions, rites of passage, and kinship, one can see that the Iatmul people are much less rigid in their gender division.
For the Iatmul people, it is the women who seek out the men they desire and sometimes a man cannot refuse a woman’s offer. Since it is the woman’s choice whom she marries, it is considered her fault if she ends up marrying a fool. Even though a couple will share a home, the husband will spend most of his time in the ceremonial house with other men. Couples will have frequent fights and it will usually end up with the women refusing to cook sago for their husbands. Since it is of great importance that the men have their sago, they are apt to give in to their wives’ demands. The women participate in warfare and do not put much emphasis on their daily appearance. While the women appear to have a cheery and emotional attitude, the men often portray a rather serious tone. She is expected to know her own mind and be assertive. A mother receives honor and pride when her child acquires positive achievements. She spends most of her day inside the home cooking, finding food, and raising her children. She will go out in a tiny canoe in the morning by herself and catch prawns, eels, and small fish. Later, she will collect firewood and old dead stems of the elephant grass. On market day she will gather up her supplies and head to the bush villages to barter for sago.
For an American woman, it is generally the man who will seek out the woman. However, she has complete consent for marriage and will usually base her decision on love. Although she too makes the decision on who she wants to marry, it is not necessarily her fault if her husband turns out to be a fool. Society will usually put the blame on the husband and look at the wife as a victim. A married couple will share the same home and they will both spend about the same amount of time in the home. The amount of fights a couple has is strictly dependent upon the specific couple, so it varies from couple to couple. Who wins the argument is also completely dependent upon the specific couple. Although, modern America is still under a patriarchal system and for the most part the men have the upper hand. Women may enlist in the military, but they will never see combat. They put an enormous amount of importance on physical appearance and will spend large amounts of time and money to achieve the current beauty standard. The ideal woman also has a cheery and emotional attitude while the men are expected to be more serious. And similarly, women will take pride in their child’s achievements. Most women work Monday through Friday, and they are also expected to take on a second shift of housecleaning and childrearing when they come home from work. For food for her family, she will head to the local grocery store and purchase foods which are mostly conveniently made.
These two cultures take a completely different approach in selecting a mate. The fact that Iatmul women seek out the men, goes to show their freedom and power to make their own decisions. American women will generally sit back and wait for a male to approach them because they feel that it is custom to wait. However, if one examines why it is that way, they will find that it is because they live in a patriarchal society and that they have limited freedoms in their lives. An Iatmul woman is blamed for marrying a fool because it is she who has made the decision and so she is blamed for making the bad decision. American women are viewed as having less of a decision in whom they marry because sometimes they are vulnerable in their options of marriage (in reference to women who marry men for financial support). American men spend more time in the home so that they may over see the home, while Iatmul women have more freedom within the home because men are rarely there to supervise. When American couples fight, the women are less likely than Iatmul women to win the fight because they have less to hold over the men. The Iatmul woman can threaten her husband with refusal to cook the sago, while the American woman cannot.
Iatmul men are much more dependent on their women, than are American men. Iatmul women contribute many things which are vital to their society. Men need them to do things such as find and prepare food (feed pigs and catch fish), perform housecleaning, rear children, and sometimes they are called on in the event of war. Women may have considerable authority within the home and a man will consult his wife in the purchase of objects such as a canoe or sleeping bag. In the book The Naven written by anthropologist Gregory Bateson who studied the Iatmul tribe, he describes the relationship between men and women as, “We find them, for example, working together, sharing a house and acting as each other’s agents in barter. There is a very close mutual economic dependence between man and wife” (53). While American men need women as well, they are much less dependent on the women because they can receive their food and housecleaning elsewhere. They need the women for children though, which may be one reason why they are so oppressive in regards to women’s sexuality. Iatmul men also dislike women having too much freedom with their sexuality, which is one reason why the dislike the female dances. But they allow them because they are limited in their abilities to stop them from occurring. The author of Small Places, Large Issues, Thomas Eriksen, argues that “seen from a male point of view, women are a scarce resource..men need women to ensure its [humanity] survival..This fact may be a partial explanation of the widespread tendency to the effect that men try to control the sexuality of women” (108).
In the Iatmul culture there is a clear division of labor but each gender respects each other’s labor contributions because they need each other for survival and they work together as more of a team. In American culture husbands and wives work together to produce the income, but they are not usually dependent upon the other for income. It is perhaps this lack of dependence that would account for a less amount of respect for each other’s jobs in comparison with the Iatmul tribe. Iatmul women catch fish, collect mayflies, wash sago, cook sago pancakes or paste, make fish traps, rain capes or mosquito bags. These are all things that only they as women know how to do and without them, the men would lack these objects. There is no one thing in American culture that women do that men could not. Certainly there are men who are domestically challenged, but it would not take them long to figure out how to run the home or they could hire someone such as a cleaning service to do it for them. An example would be that if a man from the Iatmul tribe lost his wife, he would be at a loss for sago, while if an American man’s wife was gone and he did not know how to cook dinner, he could simply order in pizza.
“All societies distinguish between life-stages in the lives of their inhabitants”, according to Erikson. When Iatmul women have a rite of passage, they call it a naven which is a ceremony to commemorate their achievement. They will perform navens when a woman does something such as makes a fish trap for the first time or bears a child. She will dress up and wear ornaments which are usually worn by men, while performing a ceremonial dance. Men have more navens than do women, and they will dress up as pregnant women and mock them in their ceremonies. American women have no special rites of passage that are different from men, meaning that both men and women celebrate the same amount of achievements and time periods in their life. Women are not extended any special moments of celebration, with the exception of a baby shower which is arguably more for the baby than the mother. The reason why men dress as women in the Iatmul tribe is open to interpretation, but I personally believe that it has to do with their fear of a woman’s power to produce life within her own body.
Both the Iatmul and American people put a strong emphasis on family, but the Iatmul kinship system is highly complex. Since Iatmul people believe a man’s semen gives a child bones, and that the flesh and blood are from a woman’s menstrual blood, a child will receive both parents’ lineage making it a cognatic system. Americans acknowledge the role that both parents play in the production of a child, but they tend to emphasize the paternal line more than the maternal line because they are a patriarchal society. When couples are married in the Iatmul tribe, neither change their last name, whereas in America it is traditional for the woman to give up her last name and take her husband’s. The fact that men carry on the last name is a contributing factor as to why Americans have a greater value on the paternal side.
In the Iatmul culture a child is identified with his father, but at the same time is in competition with him for achievements. However, with his mother he is her and her clan’s achievement and therefore his achievements are also hers. This is not the case for Americans, where sons tend to bring more pride to their fathers and are not in competition with their fathers. Boys generally bring pride to their family in their accomplishments deemed as “manly” activities, so it would be mean more for their father than for their mother. An example would be that if a son made his high school baseball team, it would probably mean more to his father than his mother because his father probably has played baseball or other sports himself in the past. Parents generally like to see their children follow in their footsteps, or they enjoy being involved in their child’s life in an area that they themselves enjoy.
Comparing gender roles within marriage, labor, kinship system, and rites of passage, one can see that the Iatmul tribe and the American people are as different as apples and oranges. The women of the Iatmul tribe arguably have more freedom than American women, but it is difficult to say in which culture women have it better. Better may not be the best term, but simply that their division of gender is less clear than the American division. This may be true based on the high dependence of men on women in the Iatmul tribe, whereas in America men are far more independent.