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Gender and Religion: Gender and Oceanic Religions

GENDER AND RELIGION: GENDER AND OCEANIC RELIGIONS

Oceania, a vast area encompassing a variety of social and religious systems, is often divided into three regions: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. In Polynesia, with its chiefs and ascribed ranks, a woman's position depends more on rank than on gender. The populations of Polynesia are historically related, and there are similarities in social patterning throughout the region, including the system of hereditary ranking. Sherry Ortner observes: "Sensualism, eroticism, and a high level of sexual activity are actively cultivated throughout the area. Homosexuality is unstigmatized. Relations between men and women are relatively harmonious and mutually respectful" (Ortner, 1981, p. 359). Melanesia, to the west, shows greater diversity in social organization, whereas Micronesia, to the north, is closer to the chiefly patterns of Polynesia. The Melanesian cultures of highlands New Guinea are often described as egalitarian, but the egalitarianism refers to relations among men and not to social relations across genders. Traditionally the peoples of Oceania have engaged in subsistence horticulture. People grew crops such as taro, sweet potato, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts, and various green vegetables. Gardening, supplemented with cash cropping and wage labor, remains the basis of their economies and is an important metaphor for life's work.

Approaches

Those who have studied gender and religion in Oceania have approached their subject from various perspectives. A male bias pervades the observations of early missionaries and colonial officials in the Pacific, and much early anthropological study was done by men who lacked access to the religious practices and ideas of Pacific women. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the large majority of the peoples of Oceania were Christian, and thus Christian understandings were reflected in their ideas and practices. At the same time, as many young people moved to urban centers for education and work, understandings of gender derived from ancestral traditions and from Christianity were changing.

Margaret Mead, the pioneering anthropologist who studied male and female identity in several societies in Oceania, also used her research as a basis for exploring "male" and "female" in the United States. For those who have followed her, there has been a convergence between interest in gender relations in their home cultures and in the cultures they study. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, as scholars worldwide turned their attention to the cultural construction of gender, a profusion of studies focused on Oceanian societies. Marilyn Strathern's doctoral dissertation, later published as Women in Between (1972), presented the mediating roles played by women of the Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea and foreshadowed the feminist anthropology that soon challenged the ways scholars studied Oceania. Strathern is remarkable not only for her feminist anthropology but also for her interrogation of the relations between feminism and anthropology. In The Gender of the Gift (1988) she suggested that the study of gender relations in Melanesia has been distorted by the assumptions of Western anthropologists who have imposed several Eurocentric binary oppositionssuch as nature and culture, female and male, subject and object, domestic and publicon their Melanesian data. Her observation could be extended to all of Oceania.

Much of the postWorld War II writing on the patrilineal societies of highlands New Guinea emphasized male domination, male cults, and male fears of menstrual pollution. Later studies gave more attention to understandings of women's roles and female spirits in fertility-oriented cults and rituals. In the early 2000s accounts of violence toward women in Papua New Guinea and other parts of the Pacific caused researchers to ask to what extent violence has a traditional mandate and to what extent it is the result of rapid and disorienting political and socioeconomic change. Some scholars of highlands New Guinea societies, among them Aletta Biersack and Lisette Josephides, have argued that men take advantage of women just as in capitalist societies those with means exploit the working classes. In analyzing the relationship between masculinity and motherhood in an Eastern Iatmul (Papua New Guinea) society, Eric Silverman drew on the distinction the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin makes between the "moral" and the "grotesque." Eastern Iatmul men, according to Silverman, "idealize an image of motherhood that is nurturing, sheltering, cleansing, fertile, and chaste, in a word, moral. But men also fear an equally compelling image of motherhood that is defiling, dangerous, orificial, aggressive, and carnal, hence, grotesque" (Silverman, 2001, p. 2). The ideology and ontology of Eastern Iatmul masculinity are established, he argued, through "an unresolvable dialogue with motherhood" (Silverman, 2001, p. 159).

Describing the situation on Vanatinai, literally "Motherland," a small island southeast of the main island of New Guinea in the Louisiade Archipelago, Maria Lepowsky depicted male-female relationships as markedly different from those of the highlands. Vanatinai, she says, is a place where "there are no ideologies of male superiority and female inferiority." In this matrilineal society, "Both women and men give and receive ceremonial valuables, foodstuffs, goods made by women such as clay cooking pots, sleeping mats, and coconut-leaf skirts, and goods made by men such as carved hardwood bowls and lime spatulas" (Lepowsky, 1993, p. viii). Women and men may both lead mortuary rituals and participate in a range of ritual activities, and women figure prominently in myth as shapers of the culture. From their mothers and their mothers' brothers, women and men equally inherit land, the use rights over forest and reef areas, and valuables. The postmarital residence pattern is bilocal. Women, Lepowsky maintained, "are construed as life-givers, nurturing children and yams, and feeding the heirs of the deceased in mortuary ritual" (Lepowsky, 1993, p. 302).

Fertility, Spirits, and Power

Food and fertility are major concerns of Oceanian communities and are the foci of ritual. It could be argued that the religions of Oceania consist of symbolic processes directed to the fertility of land and community. Throughout Oceania agricultural labor is divided between the sexes, with men clearing land and breaking up the soil for new gardens and women doing the planting and weeding. The actual distribution of tasks varies from place to place, and in many societies men take care of "male" crops, such as bananas, whereas women are responsible for staple "female" crops. Their cooperation is represented in the conjunction of male and female in garden rituals. In some places a couple will have sex in a new garden before planting takes place. In male cults of the New Guinea highlands there are "father" and "mother" officiants, both of whom are male. Thus gender is not only a social reality but also an idiom for thinking about the fruitfulness of vegetal and social life.

In Oceania economics and religion are not separate domains. Practical physical work and symbolic work (ritual) intersect in gardening, fishing, and exchange activities. Oceanian societies put a great emphasis on wealth exchanges. Men and women participate differently in these exchanges, with men taking the more public role in oratory and the transaction of valuables and women supporting their husbands and brothers by such activities as raising pigs, weaving mats, preparing tapa, providing food, and offering hospitality to guests. At the same time women also have exchange networksmainly with other womenin which mats, baskets, net bags, and food products are transacted.

The religions of Oceania vary in their ideas about and practices concerning spirits and gods. Everywhere people interact with a variety of gods and spirits. Spirits of the dead are believed to have an ongoing relationship with the living. Following death, the spirit of the deceased is encouraged by gifts and entreaties to move on to its next destination. Many societies have practiced ancestor veneration, inviting the deceased members of the community to join in periodic festivals. In some areas people retain the skulls of the deceased for ritual presentation of food and dance. In chiefly societies cults honor the spirits of chiefs and high-ranking members of noble lineages. In highlands New Guinea the male cults typically honor the collective spirits of the patriline and in many societies provide for the initiation of males (Godelier, 1986; Herdt, 1982).

Where male cults flourish or once flourished, a female spirit may also be venerated. The Female Spirit, known as Payame Ima among the Duna of Papua New Guinea, is associated with parts of the environment, with other spirits, with human welfare, and with witchcraft (Stewart and Strathern, 2002, pp. 93109). She dwells in the high forest where the wild pandanus nut trees grow and is regarded as an owner of these trees. She also dwells in forest pools, and people may cast pieces of pork into these pools as offerings to her. She can possess men and women and thereby endow them with abilities such as the power to heal, to divine, or to identify witches. She may endow ritual experts with the powers necessary to ensure the growth of boy initiates. These ritual experts must be bachelors at the time the relationship is established and remain so while they carry out their role in the initiation cult. Payame rewards her male devotees with shiny, healthy skin.

In her form as the Yuro Ima, the spirit of the Strickland River, she directs wild game, including wild pigs and cassowaries, so that hunters can catch them. She also gives inspiration to the singers of the pikono epic cycles that recount some of her own actions in helping humans. Payame Ima has a dangerous side, however. Gabrielle Stürzenhofecker points out that for the Duna, witchcraft is conceived of as a predominantly female power that men see as threatening their control over women. Witches are portrayed as mobile and attracted by valued foods, characteristics usually associated with men. The Female Spirit, she says, is "described as both originator of, and the protector against, female witchcraft" and "powerfully encapsulates the duality inherent in the relations between the sexes" (Stürzenhofecker, 1998, p. 10). Comparable understandings of witchcraft are found throughout Oceania. A rash of witch accusations and killing of witches in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea in the 1990s may well be a scapegoating response to social changes that have disempowered men.

In Polynesia and also in parts of Melanesia and Micronesia, sacred power is denoted by the related terms mana and tapu. Mana is understood as a state of being in which a person or object is temporarily or permanently under the influence of gods, spirits, or powers. The mana, or supernatural power, of chiefs is a largely innate and inherited quality. Tapu, often glossed as "forbidden," may, when used in reference to gods, chiefs, and temples, also be translated as "sacred." The "sacred maid" of western Polynesia is at the same time powerful and forbidden. In Samoa she is supposed to be a chief's sister's daughter but might in fact be his daughter (Mead, 1949). She leads a group of unmarried girls and untitled men's wives who are responsible for hosting visitors to the village. Unlike other unmarried young women, the sacred maid is under strict sexual constraint and is expected to retain her virginity until marriage. The prestige of the village is vested in her.

Myth and Ritual

In Oceania, as in other regions of the world, the identities and relationships of men and women are explored in myth and song. A myth widespread in Polynesia tells of a woman called Hina (in some places Sina or Ina) who lived long ago and who established women's activities, such as the making of tapa cloth. In one version of the myth Hina falls in love with a handsome chief, Tinirau (or Sinilau), who lives on a faraway island. She runs away from her family and swims across the sea (or rides on the back of a turtle or a shark) in order to marry him. In another version Hina is seduced by Tuna (Eel) while bathing. The trickster hero Maui realizes what is happening and kills the eel. Hina buries her lover's head, and it grows into the first coconut palm or, in a version narrated by the Maori of AotearoaNew Zealand, the lover is chopped into many pieces that grow into the different species of eel. Some versions of the Hina myth tell that the heroine climbed up to the moon, where she can still be seen seated under a banyan tree beating tapa cloth. Maori narratives maintain that the moon is the true husband of all women, an idea found among many peoples of Oceania.

Whereas culture heroes and heroines may lay down patterns for human behavior, myths also explore the tensions between males and females. In many New Guinean cultures it is narrated that women were the trustees of ritual sacra such as bamboo flutes until they were stolen by men and came to be played in the male cult to impersonate the spirits (Silverman, 2001; Gillison, 1993). When men play the flutes in the context of the men's cult, they are doing something that originally, the narratives say, belonged to women. Moreover their ritual activities are held to produce on a social level what female reproduction does on a biological level. Gillian Gillison describes how, among the Gimi, men and women have their separate but complementary sets of myths that inform the understanding of kinship, marriage, and exchange relationships (Gillison, 1993).

Oceanian cultures understand that power resides in individual, social, and cosmic life. Ritual is the means to tap into power. Even in modern circumstances it is usual for women to carry out rituals for the "growing up" of children, for the fruitfulness of crops, for healing, and for success in attracting men. Similarly men carry out rituals for fishing and hunting, for success in exchanges, for healing and the overcoming of misfortune, and for finding and keeping sexual partners. Some, but not all, cultures in Oceania have rituals for the making of men (Godelier, 1986; Herdt, 1982; Langness, 1999) and the making of women (Lutkehaus and Roscoe, 1995).

Many societies in Oceania employ traditional processes for entry into marriage. These usually involve the exchange of wealth items between the families of the couple and, in the case of patrilineal societies, require a larger payment on the part of the man's supporters to compensate for the childbearing capacity and labor that are transferred from the woman's family to the man's family. Traditionally marriage in Oceania marked not only the union of a couple but the alliance of groups. Marriages that are entered into in traditional ways are usually also celebrated with Christian ceremonies, and indeed some people have only a Christian ceremony.

Periodic rituals to empower the land and to restore the collective good punctuate traditional Oceanian religious systems. If fertility is a major focus of ritual, the restoration of well-being through healing processes is its complement. Everyone knows some herbal remedies as well as spells and ritual actions for healing, but specialist healers, both male and female, command a larger repertoire. Some inherit their healing practice and are trained in it by a parent or other relative. Others may receive healing power through a religious experience. While overall there are more male than female healers, the situation differs from place to place, and even societies that once relied exclusively on male practitioners have seen women assume the practice of healing.

Women's Leadership

In the old Pacific, women of high rank in the chiefly societies exercised social and ritual roles, and throughout the area women participated in rituals concerned with land and garden fertility and with the growth and health of children and animals. Senior women initiated the young, and there were women who functioned as healers. Women priests are documented in the Solomon Islands (Burt, 1993, pp. 58, 138, 145, 271). Since the arrival of Christianity, which came first to the eastern parts of Oceaniato Tahiti in 1797 and to Hawai'i in 1820and then made its way westward, women have also assumed roles of leadership in Christian communities. Some have become pastors in Protestant denominations, although not all denominations permit female ministers; some have served as catechists and evangelists; many have become Catholic and Anglican sisters. A missionary couple from the Cook Islands, Ruatoka and his wife Tungane, went to Papua in 1873 and served there for the rest of their lives. The first Papuan to be baptized, Aruadera, turned to Christ during a Sunday service in which Tungane was presenting the Christian message.

All the Christian denominations in the Pacific have fostered women's groups, and women's fellowships have frequently been a base for social activism. While Christianity provided some scope for women's agency, European missionaries tended to impose Western understandings of appropriate female behavior and family patterns on Pacific Islanders, resulting in changes in dress, housing, and domestic life (Jolly and Macintyre, 1989).

A variety of religious and social movements, some of which have been dubbed "cargo cults," emerged in Oceania in response to colonial and missionary activity. Women have played a role in these movements as mediums and diviners and sometimes as leaders. In Samoa a religious movement that came to be known as the Siovili Cult, after its male founder, arose about 1830 shortly after the introduction of Christianity by the London Missionary Society and lasted until about 1865. Siovili preached the imminent arrival of God's son, Sisu, with judgment to follow. God spoke through Sisu by way of Siovili and other mediums, many of whom were women. The leaders also carried out healings. It seems that this movement was a bridge between the old religion in which families and local communities paid homage to local gods and the Christian era with its universal God.

In Papua New Guinea too the transition from indigenous religions to Christianity gave rise to movements in which women functioned as mediums or prophets. In the early 1940s a Mekeo prophetess, Philo of Inawai'i, experienced dreams and revelations in which she understood that the mother of Jesus, "Our Mother Mary heavenly chief," was addressing her and asking her to work for the renewal of faith in her Catholic community (Fergie, 1977, p. 163). Part of Philo's message was that traditional values and Christianity are not incompatible. There were also male leaders in Philo's movement, some of whom took an anti-European and antimission stance. With the coming of World War II to Papua New Guinea, the Inawai'i movement faded. Philo married, and when she was interviewed by Deane Fergie in the 1970s, she was working as a healer in her village.

Philip Gibbs describes the leadership of women in the God Triwan movement, which started in the Catholic Pompabus parish in the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea in 1989 and spread to other parishes. The movement, which is characterized by divination and prophecy and, as in Philo's movement, devotion to Mary, was still active in the early twenty-first century. A number of scholars have described the emergence in Christian communities in Papua New Guinea of "spirit women," Christian spiritualists who share much in common with traditional male spiritualists embarking on soul journeys and acting as mediums (Lohmann, 2003, pp. 5354).

Lorraine Sexton describes a women's movement known as Wok Meri (in Tok Pisin, "women's work") that began in the Eastern Highlands and Simbu Provinces of Papua New Guinea in the 1960s. Groups of women under the direction of senior women, called "big women," accumulated money and entered into exchange relationships with other groups. A mother group symbolically gave birth to daughter groups, with women tracing their Wok Meri ancestry through several generations. Members of the groups told Sexton that they were protesting against men's wastefulness in using money to buy beer and play cards and that they were showing their own competence and setting an example for both women and men to follow. Thus Wok Meri spoke to the responsibility women assume for their families and communities in a time of change. From the "sacred maids" of Samoa, to Christian evangelists, to spirit women and "big women," the agency of women in Oceania has been shaped both by social environments and by innovations in times of transition.

See Also

Cargo Cults; Christianity, article on Christianity in the Pacific Islands; Gardens, article on Gardens in Indigenous Traditions; Melanesian Religions; Micronesian Religions; Polynesian Religions; Spirit Possession, article on Women and Possession; Taboo; Witchcraft, article on Concepts of Witchcraft.

Bibliography

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Mary N. MacDonald (2005)

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