Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A 'Different' Body? Desire and Virginity among Gitanos

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

A 'Different' Body? Desire and Virginity among Gitanos

Article excerpt

Early in my fieldwork among Gitanos (Spanish Gypsies) in Madrid, Aunt Tula, an elderly woman of great influence, told me that she had decided to explain to me 'how the Gitanos get married'. She opened a drawer and took out a small and withered plastic bag. Inside were three white squares of cloth which she carefully spread over her bed. 'Among the non-Gitanos', she said, 'there are no decent women. But with us, in order to get married, you have to prove that you are pure. We take the virginity out of women's bodies with the handkerchief. These are the handkerchiefs of my daughters-in-law'. She passed her finger over the handkerchiefs, which were marked with round yellow stains, and added: 'You see, each of these two has three roses. In this one there is only one and some blood; the girl was too closed and we stopped. My daughters-in-law are decent, even Rosa who eloped. Rosa was a virgin, a good woman. This is what you have to take to England: let the English know we Gitanos are decent'.

The extent to which biological sexual difference determines cultural constructs has traditionally been one of the key analytical dilemmas in the anthropology of gender: although anthropologists have tended to emphasize the transformative power of culture, the idea that some attributes of human bodies 'cannot be ignored and require interpretation' (Errington 1990: 17) has remained a basic premiss in the literature. Although the 1980s were marked by a revision of earlier and more deterministic standpoints, as Moore has recently pointed out 'one fixed position remained and that was the division between sex and gender ... Underlying that idea was a notion that although gender was not determined by biology, it was the elaboration ... of the obvious facts of biological sex difference' (1994: 12, second emphasis mine; see also Haraway 1991: 134).

In the late 1980s Collier and Yanagisako had suggested that, in order to move forward in the sex-gender debate, it was necessary to focus on how relations between men and women are viewed and organized in particular contexts without assuming that they are everywhere structured by the fact of their 'difference' (1987: 15). According to them the task of feminist anthropology was to uncover the

specific social and cultural processes [that] cause men and women to appear different from each other. Although we do not deny that biological differences exist between women and men ... our analytic strategy is to question whether these differences are the universal basis for the cultural categories 'male' and 'female' (1987: 15; second emphasis mine).

What they called for requires a paradoxical mental exercise because, as they themselves explained, anthropological ideas about gender revolve around the role of the sexes in physical reproduction. I agree with their view that the primacy of binary sexual difference has not been sufficiently interrogated. Our relativism has failed either to transcend, or to come to terms with, the seemingly unavoidable: all cultures distinguish between men and women, and what is a man but a human being with a penis, and a woman but a human being with a vagina?

In fact, anthropological debates keep coming back to a binary and reproduction-oriented view of what sexual difference is: discussion is still dominated by the culture/nature dichotomy(1) with 'nature' coming to assume the form of a fuzzy yet universal 'biological' foundation (Cornwall & Lindisfarne 1994; del Valle 1993; Errington 1990).(2) And yet, for some time now we have been aware of the growing body of historical evidence that makes it clear that the boundaries, content and significance of the terms 'nature' and 'biology' have changed through time and are still changing (Butler 1990; 1993; Haraway 1991; Laqueur 1990; MacCormack & Strathern 1980). It is generally acknowledged that we need to pull anthropology out of what Gagnon and Parker call the 'sexological approach' which, mainly between 1890 and 1980 and still in much of anthropology today, portrays sex as a 'natural force' as against culture or civilization, and within which heterosexual images dominate theories of sexuality (1995: 7). …

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