Gender Roles and Marriage Among the !Kung

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Gender Roles and Marriage Among the !Kung
Although we have yet to discover complete equality among the sexes in any pre-existing or presently existing society, the !Kung people are among the closest to reach such equality. The !Kung are an egalitarian society, meaning everyone has access to the valued resources. While the amount of access does vary, just the fact that everyone is included–at least on some level–when it comes to meeting the essential needs of living is significant.

Much of !Kung life consists of caring for one another and there is a strong effort put forth to keep everyone relatively on the same status level. A great example of this exists in the traditions of hunting. When a man returns to the village after killing a large animal, there is a certain role-playing he is expected to participate in. As people approach him about what happened, he pretends that nothing worth mentioning took place. This signifies to the rest of the !Kung that the hunt was a success as they continue to inquire for further detail. The successful hunter continues to tell his story, however, if he appears to be too proud the people will not hesitate to make jokes as a means of humbling him. The credit for the hunt invariably goes to the one who made the arrow (which, although rare, can be a woman as well as a man) and it is his (or her) duty to divide the meat fairly between everyone in the village. One way or another, either directly or indirectly, everyone will be given a part of the animal. The !Kung also have a "network" of relationships among them called hxaro relationships in which gifts of various quantities and qualities are given. Men have these relationships with other men and women have them with other women. Each adult has around five or six people with whom they exchange gifts. This system of gift giving contributes to the !Kung egalitarian way of life and in making sure that everyone, in one way or another, is taken care of. These relationships, along with kinships ultimately determine how much one gets. In short, the !Kung people work hard and take care of each other. While much effort is put into maintaining a fairly equal status among the people of !Kung society, this is not to suggest that gender roles are non-existent. Men and women have different roles in society, while the roles of men and women are more equal than in most societies, men do have a more dominant role than women. Both men and women can gather, however, women are the main gatherers and contribute the most toward food consumed on a daily basis. Despite this, there is still more importance placed on the contribution of meat through the hunting done by !Kung men. The roles of men and women are taught to children through enculturation both directly and indirectly. Growing up, children, both boys and girls, accompany their mother when she gathers (some stay in the village and play). When boys get a little older (around 12-14) they begin to go out on hunts with their fathers to observe. Usually by their early twenties young men are able to start killing larger animals. Young men also go through an initiation called Choma (Shostak, 215). This initiation lasts six weeks and allows for the "ritual knowledge of male matters to be passed down from one generation to the next. (Shostak, 215)." These are the primary ways young men learn their place in society. Women, in turn, learn their roles through observation and direction given by their mothers. Young girls gather with their mothers and marry young (around 16). When a young woman gets her first menstruation, she is brought to a hut made especially for the occasion and there she and the women of the village celebrate for three or four days or however long her period lasts. During this time, it is considered very bad luck for the hunt if a man were to see the young woman's face. The segregation of men and women during the celebration of a women's first menstruation is...
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