Geography and Feminism

The sands of the desert surround the lives of the !Kung and the El-Eshadda. Without greater knowledge, one could assume that such climates would draw a large number of similarities between the cultures of the two. However, the differences could not be more definite, especially their behaviors and treatment of women. If the women of the El-Eshadda and !Kung were to question where their standard of treatment originates, a globe would give them the best answer.

In all periods of human history, land location is key to the politics of the local regime. A recent example of this can be gauged by examining early 20th century Germany and Great Britain. Twice during the early 20th century, Germany’s aggressive politics eventually led to a double fronted war. Unable to maintain sufficient defense over such a large area, Germany’s tactics became entirely offensive. When their armies were turned around in the hearts of France and Russia, defeat became imminent; the German army simply had nowhere to run. In contrast, Great Britain has not had to fight a land war since the 14th century, and its politics were allowed to run a self-catering isolationist route that German politics could not afford. The pillar of real estate, location, turns out to be the pillar of politics. The geographic location of the El-Eshadda and the !Kung peoples stand in complete contrast to each other. Modern day Iraq is located in the heart of the Middle East. When you look at a globe, you should notice that any land trade route between Africa and the rest of the world had to approach the lands of Iraq. In addition, water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers allowed for a permanent settlement amongst an arid climate. It is clear that from a colonial standpoint, the Middle East is worth its weight in oil. Countless wars ravaged Middle Eastern history as groups from around the world sought to control the trade routes. Iraqi defenders simply had too much land to cover to form a formidable defense; the topography is overwhelmingly against the defending armies. Encarta has a terrific quote that explains Iraq’s military struggles:

“The river valleys and plains of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) are open to attack from the rivers, the northern and eastern hills, and the Arabian Desert and Syrian steppe to the west. Mesopotamia’s richness always attracted its poorer neighbors, and its history is a pattern is infiltration and invasion.”
Mesopotamia’s history is littered with empires and rulers. Since 1300 B.C., Mesopotamia has been ruled by the Assyrian Empire, to the Persian Era, the conquest of Alexander the Great and the Greeks, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongol hordes, the Ottoman Turks, and after World War I, Great Britain. It wasn’t until 1932 that Iraq finally became its own sovereign state.

Iraq’s militant history, which is directly related to its geographical location, has fostered a less tolerant treatment of women. In Guests of the Sheik, the gender roles are quite defined, and it is easy to observe that women are treated as second-class citizens. One of the first noticeable differences between men and women in the El-Eshadda is the unspoken “regulation” that women must cover themselves in around men or in public with an abayah. Initially, wearing an abayah is very foreign for Fernea. In fact, Fernea even despises the idea of having to cover herself in such a fashion. There are many little regulations and differences between women and men, such as the taboo against women at the market. Also, women in the Sheik’s harem flee from sight when the men enter to avoid being seen. When men are around, the women are expected to remove themselves from attention. Two of the largest differences in the unwritten social contract between El-Eshadda men and women pertain to family structure and women’s social lives.

Near the beginning of Guests of the Sheik, Fernea describes how women snuck across the bridge to visit friends while attempting to be unnoticed. When married women are noticed walking around town, they are looked down upon and become the subject of gossip. Much of the gossip would accuse the woman of being a poor wife, and a poor mother.

Just what does it mean to be a good wife, and a good mother? Fernea describes the characteristics of a good mother on page 50:

“A model wife stays at home, cares for her children and for her house, prepares good food for her husband and his guests, and keeps out of sight of strangers.”
Therefore, overly social women are considered bad wives because they spend too much time with their friends, and not enough on their “duties”. It is perfectly acceptable, however, for a man to be surrounded by his friends all day if he so desires.

In sharp contrast to the El-Eshadda and their history, the !Kung thrived in the Kalahari Desert located in Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana until the Tswana moved into the region at the beginning of the 19th century. The !Kung had survived the reign of the Zulus basically untouched, since the Zulus desired nothing of the land that the !Kung occupied. Thus beyond minor scale tribal conflicts, the !Kung have never really had to deal with major invading forces that harbor threats of war.

A careful observation into the structure of the !Kung people would show most people that this group of people has not had to deal with major conflicts often. For example, there is no head of state and there is no chief or leader. The only revered positions in the !Kung tribe are those of the elders of the tribe, which involves older men as well as older women. The !Kung decide how the group is going to act by calling a meeting of the entire clan. In this meeting, the women have just as much of a voice in the actions of the group as the men do, although typically the more aggressive males of the group monopolize conversation. If the !Kung had to deal with larger scale military conflicts, the need for formal leaders might have arisen, as was typical with most other early civilizations.

In addition, the protection of women is much less prevalent amongst the !Kung than of the El-Eshadda. Women are free to cluster and socialize at their own will, and are even allowed to leave on their own trips without any male assistance for gathering food. Women are even allowed to stay out on trips overnight like men are, although they typically would not choose to leave their children home by themselves.

To contrast these two histories with an American counterpart, we must consider that current Americans have only inhabited our lands for 350 years. Since 350 years is only a minor blip in the timeline of male/female relations, we must additionally consider British history. British history, as previously stated, was allowed to be much more isolationist and self-catering than politics of Mesopotamia. However, the British people still had a greater number of large scale conflicts and enemies than the !Kung had. As expected, British women have attained a status lower than that of !Kung women, but higher than that of the women of the El-Eshadda.

In fact, Britain was one of the first countries in the world to boast a woman’s suffrage movement. In the 1840s, Chartism in Great Britain fought for universal male suffrage and planted seeds for the woman’s movement as well. Likewise, in America in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton began a similar movement inspired by the female British activists. Most other European societies at the time could not construct similar movements, despite the encouragement of the Americans and British. Once again, a geographically isolated society pushes for greater women’s rights.

How does a propensity for conflict directly relate to a decrease in the rights of women? This question is not easily solved, although scientists and historians have done much cataloging of behaviors and formed many hypotheses.

Perhaps the most prevalent hypothesis relates to the male hormone testosterone. Although a direct correlation between testosterone and aggressive behavior has been shown, there hasn’t been an absolute direct correlation between testosterone and the suppression of women. However, there is some evidence to support the idea that testosterone causes men to suppress women found in Fernea and Shostak.

In the !Kung society, testosterone generating behavior and intra-male selectivity are highly discouraged. The !Kung do not train their young men to fight other men, they instead teach their young men how to hunt native animals, and how to gather food. Competition, formalized aggression, individualism, boastfulness, and self-aggrandizement are all highly discouraged in every aspect of !Kung culture.

For the !Kung and the El-Eshadda two drastically different geographical locations shape two drastically different cultures. In a broad spectrum, the two lands represent somewhat of the least desirable and the most desirable lands of the world. The necessity to defend one’s land, or the lack thereof, has a drastic impact on the treatment of the women in a particular society. The !Kung should see no problem with allowing their women to gather overnight, since the !Kung have very few enemies. At a sharp contrast, Mesopotamian women would be locked in a strongbox, protected from the strange travelers and looming aggressors.

Modern society and globalization has lowered the need for women to be protected and has increased their social standing. In addition, new forms of information exchange have delivered a feminist spirit to sectors of the globe where women’s rights were never considered. The change in the role of women worldwide has occurred because the human race has conquered geography with [airplanes, cellular phones, and satellites. The age of nuclear weapons] has dawned a new passiveness that demands diplomacy where militancy was employed. The new era of peace also can be attributed to the increase in the social status of women.

It is easy to perceive a particular culture’s rhetoric towards women as being restrictive and inappropriate. However, it is important to be aware of the nature of such behavior. Fortunately for most Americans, there is no need to fear invasion or attack. Not every society in the world has enjoyed such freedom from harm as much as the British and Americans have. American and British geography and politics have allowed women to rise higher in their societies than other countries have. The message of equality is now being broadcast, and only time can tell what path the women of the world will choose to walk.

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