Monday, September 16, 2013

Writing Culture and Gender: Lessons from West Africa and Europe

When we write, it's important to remember that gender norms vary greatly in different cultures. For example, in many tropical agricultural societies, women are (to oversimplify) the primary 'breadwinners' of the household, doing the agricultural labor to support their children and families. Their economic independence translates into social independence, for in these societies, we find far fewer men and women in monogamous pair-bonds.

See, for example, Cosmic Yoruba's post, How single unmarried women thrived in one pre-colonial West African society, the Baule:

"...gender attributes were not rigidly defined. The division of labour in which men and women were assigned different tasks were apparently upheld due to efficiency in production and were not enforced by supernatural or civil sanctions. Deviations were acceptable when necessary or convenient meaning that men could perform women’s labour tasks when the situation called for it and vice versa. Finding a partner of the opposite sex to aid with labour did not necessarily mean finding a husband or wife, but could mean finding a “sister” or a “brother”. Deviations were only rare in the cases of apprenticeship though healers and diviners could be men or women.

Women chiefs were important, although they grew less in number at the time of colonisation. Women could attract vast amounts of wealth and dependants (both men and women), they played their role in trading and gold prospecting expeditions, and acquired domestic slaves in their own rights."

In other societies, like the European ones most of us are familiar with, men have taken on the primary food-procurement duties, while women have taken on more 'homemaking' duties (at least, before the industrial revolution made earning an income less physically demanding.) In these societies, women are more dependent on men (if they want to raise families, anyway,) and we see more monogamous pair-bonding.

When we write, it is not important to create a character who conforms to their society's gender norms and expectations. It is important to understand how the character fits in with their society. One culture may value women who are strong leaders and place few constraints on their sexuality, while another values chastity and meekness. Different behaviors are seen as 'normal', and whether your character fits in, sticks out, or has new and different ways of doing things will affect other people's reactions to them, expectations, and the character's own self-image. And societies are very often in flux.

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