Revisiting the Baruya and the concept of "male domination"

Abstract : Like many documented populations of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the Baruya have seen the relationship between men and women transform under the influence of Western pressure – be it Christianity, capitalism, the presence of law and order, schools, etc. A strong gender-based antagonism was deemed structural to this society in the olden days (Godelier 1986), the time of male initiations and sister-exchange; is it still the case? Has the exchange of money for wives reshaped gender relations, and if so, how? What does it mean to be a wife in this context? I will argue, against other trends, that the brideprice system is liberating for Baruya women, and does not result in their commodification or appropriation by men. I will show that changes in the matrimonial sphere go together with a reshaping of discourses pertaining to the body and its substances: semen is no longer seen as a source of life, but carries the stigma of sexually transmitted disease; meanwhile, it is through the idiom of blood that people now express a shared identity, far from the connotation of “female pollution” that this substance used to bear. In this respect, the male hegemony is tackled on a symbolic level; it is questioned on an economic one too, as women play a larger role than before through the control of money acquired by selling coffee. At the same time, traditional expectations projected on women have been reinforced in the face of new forms of agency and independence. As prostitution emerged in village life, ideas of what a “good woman” should be and do were reinforced, thus (re)defining the limits of spheres (domestic and public) that were otherwise blurred. Politically, the place given to women is ambivalent, and shows a double standard beneficial to men. Masculinity is otherwise harder than before to establish, with the absence of war, the progressive disappearing of initiations and with very few economic opportunities presenting themselves. All these simultaneous changes provide some answers to a question, raised by Godelier two decades ago (1992), about the relationship between kinship systems, representations of the body and the roles allocated to both sexes in a society.
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Contributor : Anne-Sylvie Malbrancke <>
Submitted on : Tuesday, February 9, 2016 - 1:14:11 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 1:30:31 AM

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Anne-Sylvie Malbrancke. Revisiting the Baruya and the concept of "male domination". 10th ESfO Conference "Europe and the Pacific" - Session 4 "Muddled models - revisiting Oceania’s classic texts", European Society for Oceanists (ESfO), Jun 2015, BRUSSELS, Belgium. ⟨hal-01271573⟩

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