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1st World Congress on Matriarchal Studies
Luxembourg 2003
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Center for the Study of the Gift Economy

International Academy Hagia

Shanshan Du

Frameworks for Societies in Balance:
A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Gender Equality

Questions concerning the equality/inequality of men and women comprise an enduring humanistic inquiry – from Plato's philosophical exploration of gender roles in his ideal society, to Marx and Engels' social and historical accounts of the origin of sexual inequality, to the increasingly heated debate among feminists over competing visions of gender equality.  Despite all these inquiries, in the vast majority of human societies, gender equality has been relatively underdeveloped in ideologies, social institutions, and gender roles.  At the beginning of the twenty first century, mainstream academic voices and popular opinion alike still tend either to deny, or are ambiguous about, the existence of gender-egalitarian societies.

Is there any gender-egalitarian society on earth? Proposing answers to this question constitutes an integral part of the debates over major academic inquiries and feminist endeavors. Despite their scarcity, societies do exist that are documented to have achieved remarkable levels of gender equality.  Early anthropological literature documented the Andaman islanders of the Indian Ocean  (Man 1883, Radcliffe-Brown 1922), and the native American Iroquois (Wallace 1971).  As I will show below, more recently, following the declining influence of the notion of universal female subordination since the late 1980s (Mukhopadhyay and Higgins 1988), ethnographic studies of gender-egalitarian societies have greatly increased.

What can we learn from these societies?  What are the possible sociocultural frameworks which facilitate gender equality not only in dominant symbolism and social structures but also in people's daily practices?  In this article, I intend to explore these questions by offering four types of frameworks that empirically foster gender equality.  I term these: "maternal centrality," "gender complementarity," "gender triviality," and "gender unity."  I have tentatively constructed this classification in order to expand our current analytic capacity regarding the diversity of gender equality.  My research indicates that while rooted in different gender ideologies and expressing sexual equality in diverse ways, these frameworks all promote harmony and interdependence between men and women and they discourage the development of gender-based competition and hierarchy.  In other words, gender-egalitarian societies are also societies in balance. 

1. Frameworks of Gender Equality

1.1.  Maternal Centrality

I term the first type of egalitarian framework "maternal centrality," which greatly overlaps with "matriarchy" defined respectively by Sanday's (2002:237), Göttner-Abendroth (1999), and McCall (1980:252).  Typically associated with societies that are characterized by matrilineal descendent rule and matrilocal residence pattern, the sociocultural framework of maternal centrality tends to highlight gender difference.  Rather than stressing the symmetrical complementarity between the two sexes, the symbolism of this model tends to elevate the female principle over its male counterpart, a phenomenon that is particularly salient in matrilineal kinship structures.  The principle value of this framework is placed on the characteristics that are commonly associate with maternity, such as life-giving, nurturance, connection, and harmony.

Despite the asymmetrical gender symbolism that favors the female, the framework of maternal centrality does not lead to male subordination.  Instead, this model promotes gender equality by glorifying the maternal power that links the members of a society to the source of life, rather than ranking them according to sex difference (Sanday 2002:230).  Maternal centrality fosters the interdependence of male and female in layers of cross-sex bonding, especially in that of mother-child and siblings relations.  The expansion of the mother-centered connections and values result in matrilineal kinship groups at different levels.  Within such mother-centered networks of relationships, men and women are identified primarily as partners with shared interests, benefiting from harmony and interdependence rather than from competition for domination.  Societies that have been documented for their coherent socio-cultural expressions of maternal-centrality include the Minangkabau of Indonesia (Sanday 2002), the preecolonial Iroquois (McCall 1980, Wallace 1971), and the Muoso of southwest China (Cai  2001, Yan and Song 1983).  I highlight the Minangkabau case here as it is particularly well documented and analyzed for the contemporary era.

The cultural framework of the Minangkabau revolves around the mother-child bond; the nurturing of the newborn is believed to be the source of fertility, growth, and social well-being (Sanday 2002:214).  Specifically, maternal features that are associated with nurturing and growth constitute the core of what is defined as "power" in Minangkabau culture.  Asymmetrical gender symbolism that favors the female is well exemplified by the association between the origin of Minangkabau and anapical ancestress who is taken to represent "the repository of the vital life-force, the centripetal force around which social connections and access to land are formed for each generation" (ibid.:237).  Additionally, both men and women are similarly expected to possess certain characteristics that are commonly associated with femininity, especially nurturing and politeness.  The centrality of Minangkabau women in social life is manifested not only in the fact that land ownership and lineage membership are passed down to the next generation exclusively through the female line, but also in the social and symbolic significance of women's roles in various social and ritual contexts.  Nevertheless, Minangkabau men are not devalued within the maternal centered society.  In contrast to the Western association of "power" with domination and masculinity, Minangkabau men are valued as equal members of the society, and are especially appreciated for their contribution as brothers and mothers' brothers in the public and educational domains.  In fact, the common association between men and public domains, and the significant role of the mother's brother in matrilineal societies, were often misinterpreted in earlier anthropological literature as signs of gender inequality, expressed by husband and brother competing for authority over women (Richards 1950).  By contrast, valuing above all nurturing, growth, and harmony, the maternal-centered sociocultural framework of the Minangkabau fosters interdependent and egalitarian partnerships between the two sexes, rather than producing male subordination.  Remarkably, the Minangkabau have maintained this orientation while being adherents to Islam, a religion that historically has tended to produce a notably patriarchal orientation (Sanday 2002).  The commitment of the Minangkabau to gender equality while remaining faithful Muslims makes a careful examination of their case especially compelling.


1.2.  Gender Complementarity

The perceptions of the two sexes as "different-but-equal" are evident in another model, which I term "gender complementary."  I suggest that the framework of gender complementarity generates equality between men and women by promoting symmetrical reciprocity of the two sexes.  Similar to that of maternal centrality, the framework of gender complementarity also highlight gender difference symbolically and socially.  By stressing the reciprocal interdependence of the two sexes, the complementary principle not only symbolically highlights the differences between men and women, it also institutionalizes gender separation in social and economic domains.  This principle also resembles that of maternal centrality in perceiving each sex as fully reliant on reciprocity with the other and attaching equal value to both men and women as well as to the different roles they play.  Specifically, by placing core values on the interdependence between the sexes, the complementary principle identifies men and women as reciprocal partners with shared interests—both benefiting from their harmonious cooperation—rather than as competitors with conflicting interests.   Different from that of maternal centrality, however, the gender symbolism of the framework of complementarity tends to be symmetrical.

The "dual-sex" system of some precolonial Igbo groups, especially those who live in Midwestern Nigeria, seems to represent the most coherent application of the principle of gender complementarity (Okonjo 1976).  Traditional Igbo gender ideals made sharp symbolic distinctions between men and women, serving to maintain and perpetuate the reciprocal system between the two sexes in all major domains of the society (Nzegwu 1994, Okonjo 1976).  In the economic arena, men and women grew their own crops, contributing complementarily to the family and community and engaging in intense economic reciprocity.  The principle of gender complementarity was also widely realized in the realm of social organization.  Men and women had their own kinship institutions, age grades, and secret and titled societies to manage their own affairs and to interact with each other as equal partners in a variety of social institutions (Okonjo 1976).  Most dramatically, a male monarch (obi) and a female monarch (omu) functioned as complementary political entities that jointly governed various local political units that were also divided by sex.  Being unrelated to each other and living in their own palaces, these two monarchs represented the highest authorities in the region to deal with the affairs of the members of their own sex.  In other words, the king and the queen, together with the two monarchies that they ruled, symbolized and operated as the complements of Igbo society as a whole, rather than as two competitive kingdoms (Nzegwu 1994, Okonjo 1976).  Remarkably, the well-known Igbo ritual called "sitting on a man"  (the "women's war" in the context of anti-colonial protests), by which women gather to sing songs of ridicule to a man for transgressions such as wife-beating, was traditionally used to maintain harmony within the dual-sex systems, rather than expressing institutional confrontations between men and women.

In sharp contrast to "maternal centrality" and "gender complementarity," which promote harmony and balance between the sexes while highlighting their differences, the next two frameworks that I will discuss below foster gender equality by minimizing the sociocultural significance of sexual difference, especially in gender roles (Du 2004)

1.3.  Gender Triviality

I term third type of egalitarian framework "gender triviality," by which I mean the scarcity and social insignificance of the symbolic elaboration of "men," "women," and their relationships in a given culture (Du 2002).  Every known society distinguishes "male" from "female," at least biologically and linguistically.  However, this fact by no means suggests that gender is universally and uniformly judged significant, as is commonly assumed in the dominant Western discourse.  From a cross-cultural perspective, the degrees of conspicuousness and significance of gender constitute a spectrum on which gender triviality occupies an extreme end. 

Within the framework of gender triviality, sex difference is socially and culturally insignificant because men and women are primarily considered as individuals and members of a community regardless of their sex difference.  By minimizing gender differentiation in both ideological and practical arenas, gender triviality leaves little space for discrimination against the members of either sex.  In other words, gender equality is achieved effortlessly within such a sociocultural framework, i.e., simply by ignoring gender itself.  Based on the principle of gender triviality, gender equality manifests itself in the form of "same-thus-equal"—i.e., men and women are equal because of the gender-blind attitudes of the dominant ideologies and institutions.

I observe that the egalitarian societies that trivialize gender tend to highly value individual autonomy and collective cooperation.  The Vanatinai islanders of New Guinea (Lepowsky 1993) provide a well-documented example of such a society.  In accordance with the scarcity of gender symbolism in the society, gender-blindness is closely associated with the Vanatinai ideal personalities, including characteristics that promote both individual autonomy (such as strength, wisdom, and magical power) and communal solidarity (such as sharing, generosity, and nurturing) (Lepowsky 1993:116, 119, 283).  The ideological triviality of gender is also reflected in the overlapping of sex roles. Most significantly, individuals who possess desirable characteristics often attain the prestigious titles "big men" or "big women" through their extraordinary hard work and generosity.  At the same time, there is a high degree of tolerance of idiosyncrasy and variation among all members of the society.  The tendency to trivialize gender is also institutionalized sociologically to a great extent.  Specifically, the Vanatinai matrilineal system is counterbalanced by other gender-blind institutions such as the relatively unusual bilocal pattern of postmarital residence, which obligates a married couple to live alternately with their two natal families for many years (Lepowsky 1993:47).

To date, I have identified two additional societies as "gender-trivial": the Aka of the western Congo, and the Okinawans at Henza.  The Aka people are characterized by a similar unelaborated gender ideology (Barry Hewlett 2000, personal communication) and an ethical orientation toward collectively grounded individualism (Hewlett 1991).  The core values of the Aka include individual equality, independence, autonomy, sharing, and cooperation (Hewlett 1991:27-28).  Both men and women regularly participate in net hunting and in intensive and intimate care of infants.  The depth of this society's patrilineages is remarkably shallow, corresponding to weak lineage identity (Hewlett 1991:22) and close relations between a married couple and their relatives from both sides.  The autochthonous Okinawans at Henza exhibit related strategies of trivializing gender (Sered 1999).

1.4.  Gender Unity

The final type of gender equality I have identified to date is one I term "gender unity."  I suggest that while distinguishing men from women and recognizing certain superficial differences between them, the gender-unified societies minimize the symbolic and social significance of sex differences.  In particular, the unitary principle maximizes gender similarities and mutuality by highlighting the entities that are made complete by incorporating both male and female.  Accordingly, the two sexes are defined as essentially similar and are bound to each other in value, interest, obligation, authority, and social status.  In other words, gender equality is fostered in the unity of the two sexes, rather than being achieved by a careful distribution of equal power and prestige between males and females.

As I will elaborate in the second passage of the article, my major fieldwork to date has been with the Lahu, a society that is organized around the principle of gender unity.  Elsewhere, I have catalogued consistent sociocultural elaboration of gender unity as recorded among the Andaman Islanders (Radcliffe-Brown 1922) and some indigenous Andean groups living in Ecuador (Hamilton 1998) and Bolivia (Harris 1978).  Reminiscent of the Lahu expression, "Chopsticks only work in pairs," some Andean cultures express the principle of gender unity by phrases such as "It takes two wings to fly" (Katherine Litherland  1999, personal communication).

2.  Gender Unity among the Lahu People

My fieldwork research focuses on the Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman-speaking people in Yunnan, Southwest China. The subsistence pattern of the Lahu is usually a mixture of farming, raising of domestic animals, gathering, hunting, and fishing. Lahu villages generally lack stratification, and the major markers for hierarchical status are generation and age.  Monogamous marriage is practiced, and households constitute the center of village life, serving as basic units for production and consumption.

The Lahu egalitarian value of male and female is deeply rooted in their dyadic worldview centering on the concept "pairs", which suggests a single entity that is made of two similar yet distinguishable components.  This worldview is organized around the principle of gender unity, or, male-female dyads.  Such a dyadic perspective highlights the similarities and harmony between the two components, which identify with each other through their shared membership and joint function in the whole. When applied to Lahu cultural perceptions of men and women as well as their relationships and roles in society, such an ideology produces gender equality as a byproduct (Du 2002).

The dyadic principle provides the fundamental order for Lahu cosmology. According to Lahu mythology, just as the supreme god of creation (Xeul Sha) is a male-female dyad, so are all the other entities and beings in the universe, including the Sun (female) and the Moon (male), the earth (female) and the sky (male), as well as the original ancestors of human beings. Conforming to the dyadic cosmological order, joint gender roles in managing the supernatural realms is believed a matter of course. While the paired supreme god forms the top of the spiritual power framework ruling the universe, deities or spirits that are subservient to the paired supreme gods also operate in male/female units, including the paired spirits or deities of a household, a village, and a region. The cosmological order of male-female unity is coherently elaborated in the Lahu indigenous religion, which combine beliefs in a supreme god, parental spirits, and animism. Overall, Lahu cosmology perceives the world in terms of male-female dyads, as expressed by their motto that "everything comes in pairs, aloneness does not exist."  Interestingly, even the Buddha worshipped in some Lahu village temples has been transformed from Gautama to Xeul Sha, i.e., the paired indigenous gods (Du 2003, Wang and He 1999:179).

Applying the dyadic cosmological order to the life cycle, Lahu perceptions of personhood revolve around monogamous marriage in both the social and spiritual realms. Specifically, the Lahu threshold for adulthood is the wedding, which unites two socially immature individuals into a single social entity and transforms them into full members of society. After the wedding ceremony, the couple simultaneously achieves the social rank of "adult"  and is expected to share responsibility, prestige, and authority when they go through the life journey together. After fulfilling their joint responsibilities in life, a couple is believed to be able to reunite in the afterlife. Holding the honorable and authoritative position of "parental spirits," the deceased couple jointly enjoy offerings and ritual respect from their children and children-in-law.  Since the eternal bond between husband and wife constitutes the essence of ideal human life, those who die before marriage or before fulfilling marital responsibilities are considered the worst failures at life and are said to be marginalized as lone souls in the afterlife. 

The cosmological emphasis on the entity of husband and wife correlates with the ideal of joint roles and authority of the two sexes, as is encapsulated in an oft-cited metaphor: "Chopsticks only work in pairs" (Du 2000).  The equal contribution of each stick in a pair of chopsticks in their joint performance of tasks echoes the Lahu naturalization of joint gender roles in all possible arenas, including pregnancy, childbirth (the husband serves as midwife), childcare, domestic chores, subsistence work, and leadership. Additionally, the uselessness, and thus powerlessness, of a single chopstick serves as a metaphor for the joint power and authority that are accorded men and women. Such a value is expressed by the traditional belief that households, villages, as well as the whole universe are manageable only when "a pair of male-female masters rules together."  While a co-headship of husband and wife in the household is still widely practiced, the tradition that requires married couples to hold political and spiritual posts in the village and the village cluster has been threatened by interventions of the Chinese state and is now retained in only a few areas (Du 2002, Wang and He 1999).

3.  Implications of Gender-Egalitarian Studies

The preceding sections have discussed several types of gender-egalitarian frameworks derived from a selection of ethnographic data from different continents and my own fieldwork on the Lahu people.  Rather than intending to provide a few pigeonholing models, I hope that my preliminary classifications may encourage more comparative studies on the equality between men and women, a critical component in both humanistic inquiries and major theories of social sciences.  I argue that more systematic comparison and theoretical analysis of known gender-egalitarian societies can serve both scholars and activists who work to propose feasible parameters of gender equality that may be possible elsewhere.  The contributions of such studies can be broken down into three interrelated aspects.

Most importantly, they help to break through the long-enduring and deeply rooted Western emphasis on hypothetical utopian societies that has prevented us from recognizing the existence of extant gender-egalitarian societies. I argue that the difficulty in recognizing the existence of gender-egalitarian societies is rooted in Western utopian ideals towards gender equality, which, ironically, often turn the notion of the universality of female subordination into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Such a tendency has been exacerbated by the double standard used to measure gender equality and hierarchy – i.e., while gender equality must be perfect to exist, gender hierarchy can exist in any degree.  Under the shadow of this utopianist bias, very few scholars who have encountered gender-egalitarian societies directly acknowledge those societies as such, thus further weakening the impact of their studies.  Comparative studies of gender-egalitarian societies can contribute greatly to the removal of the utopian blinders that hinder our recognition of gender-egalitarian societies.

Furthermore, gender-egalitarian studies can enhance our understanding of the diverse meanings of "gender equality" across cultures.  Such studies can demonstrate that not only do gender-egalitarian societies exist, they also differ in the respective sociocultural frameworks that foster equality between men and women.  These explorations can also reveal that these different underlying principles of gender equality are rooted in the diversity of cultural perceptions of men and women and their relationships.  Accordingly, comparative studies of gender-egalitarian societies can provide insight into the recent academic effort to develop both general and specific indicators of gender equality in cross-cultural settings.

Finally, by recognizing the existence of more distinct frameworks for gender equality, gender-egalitarian studies encourage individuals from different sociocultural backgrounds to reflect on the goals, challenges, and strategies for promoting gender equality in their own societies.  Such reflections may contribute to more constructive dialogues between non-Western women and feminists in the dominant societies of North America and Europe.  An increased recognition of the diverse meanings and manifestations of gender equality can expand the horizons of cross-cultural communications regarding how to define, assess, and achieve gender equality in particular socio-cultural contexts.



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Du, Shanshan.  2000. "‘Husband and Wife Do It Together': Sex/Gender Allocation of Labor Among the Qhawqhat Lahu of Lancang, Southwest China."  American Anthropologist 102, no. 3: 520-537.

--. 2002. "Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs": Gender Unity and Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwest China.  New York: Columbia University Press. (to be released in November, 2002).

--. 2003.  "Is Buddha A Couple?: The Lahu Gender-Unitary Perspectives of Buddhism."   Ethnology: An International Journal of Cultural and Social Anthropology 42, no.3:253-271.

Goettner-Abendroth, Heide.  1999.  "The Structure of Matriarchal Society, Exemplified by the Society of the Mosuo in China",  ReVision, 21, no.3.

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Lepowsky, Maria. 1993. Fruit of the Motherland: Gender in an Egalitarian Society. New York:   Columbia University Press.

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Nzegwu, Nkiru. 1994. "Gender Equality in a Dual-Sex System: The Case of Onitsha,"  Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 7, no. 1: 73-95.

Okonjo, Kamene.  1976.  "The Dual-Sex Political System in Operation: Igbo Women and Community Politics in Midwestern Nigeria." In N. J. Hafkin and E. G. Bay, eds., Women in Africa, pp.45-58. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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Sanday, Peggy R. 2002. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sered, Susan. 1999. Women of the Sacred Groves: Divine Priestesses of Okinawa. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wang, Zhenghua and Shaoying He. 1999. Lahuzu Wenhua Shi [The History of Lahu Culture]. Kunming: Yunnan Nationalities Publishing House.

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I would like to thank American Council of Learned Societies for offering me a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship to support this study.  I also thank Heide Göttner-Abendrothand Alma Gottlieb for their comments. 

The major ethnographic examples I have found to date in my research derive from societies located in East Asia and the Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.  While the socio-cultural conditions of the vast majority of these societies are contemporary, some exist only in historical records.