Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea

Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea

Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea

Women as Unseen Characters: Male Ritual in Papua New Guinea


Rituals have always been a focus of ethnographies of Melanesia, providing a ground for important theorizing in anthropology. This is especially true of the male initiation rituals that until recently were held in Papua New Guinea. For the most part, these rituals have been understood as all-male institutions, intended to maintain and legitimate male domination. Women's exclusion from the forest space where men conducted most such rites has been taken as a sign of their exclusion from the entire ritual process.

Women as Unseen Characters is the first book to examine the role of females in Papua New Guinea male rituals, and the first systematic treatment of this issue for any part of the world. In this volume, leading Melanesian scholars build on recent ethnographies that show how female kin had roles in male rituals that had previously gone unseen. Female seclusion and the enforcement of taboos were crucial elements of the ritual process: forms of presence in their own right.

Contributors here provide detailed accounts of the different kinds of female presence in various Papua New Guinea male rituals. When these are restored to the picture, the rituals can no longer be interpreted merely as an institution for reproducing male domination but must also be understood as a moment when the whole system of relations binding a male person to his kin is reorganized. By dealing with the participation of women, a totally neglected dimension of male rituals is added to our understanding.


During the fall of 1994, while I was in the New Guinea Highlands, male initiations were held in an Ankave valley. There I saw that, while the male novices stayed in the forest, their mothers and elder sisters were secluded together inside a vast house built of branches erected on the outskirts of the village. For the duration of the ceremonies, they left this house only in order to execute certain rigidly codified ritual gestures, and they respected a number of dietary and behavioral taboos similar to those imposed on the young boys. The presence of these close female relatives of the novices was, the Ankave told me, an absolute condition for the initiations. And it had always been this way.

This ethnographic situation did not quite match up with what I had read about the male rituals of the region. Regarded both as the place where maturation of the boys takes place and as the instrument for reproducing and legitimizing the domination of men over women, male initiations were analyzed as an exclusively masculine area founded on secrecy and on the exclusion of women (Read 1952: 5; Herdt 1987b: 72; Langness 1999: 98). Because women were effectively denied access to the male ritual space where the small boys lived with adult men, it was somewhat hastily deduced that they were consequently excluded from the ritual process itself.

Clearly the commonplace that male rituals are an exclusively male affair did not tally with the Ankave ethnographic reality. Ankave ritual practices and what men and women alike said about them drove me to broaden my focus to embrace a larger ritual “space, “ one that was not confined to the forest, where novices and adult men stayed during the rituals, but took in another space, located at the edge of the hamlet, where the novices’ mothers were secluded. This “female” ritual space was by no means less marked by codified and imposed gestures and behaviors than the male space in the forest.

Insofar as the presence of women during male rituals had been established . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.