Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Femal Heads of Patriarchal Households: The Baggara

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Femal Heads of Patriarchal Households: The Baggara

Article excerpt

Whenever anthropologists study or write about patrilineal, gender-segregated societies, they almost invariably conjure up a particular package of gender-related characteristics. These characteristics may be sorted in several ways, for example, as hierarchies or oppositions, but are almost always infused with the notion of an imbalance of power that favors men. Cases of women who do not accede to the exigencies of patriarchal authority assumed to be inherent in such societies are framed, explicitly or implicitly, as anomalies. Even the analytical terms used to describe this "anomalous behavior" - "circumventing male authority;" "manipulating their position;" "negotiating for power" - semantically reinforce our notion of an imbalance of autonomy, power, and authority between genders in patrilineal, gender-segregated societies. All are neatly subsumed in the term, patriarchal, which seems frequently to be analytically coupled with patrilineality. Another concept analytically linked to patrilineality and patriarchy is patrilocality, making a triad. (See, for example, Fakhouri, 1984 and Sharabi, 1988).

Inheritance is also an issue which must be considered. Additionally, the concepts of public and private bring another dimension and further complexity to analyses of patrilineal, gender-segregated societies. This is not to suggest that any of these analytical concepts, or even a package including them all is invalid. However, it does seem that the tendency to reify the linkages between the concepts should be examined carefully.

We must question our assumptions that managerial and economically powerful women in patrilineal societies achieve their positions in opposition to cultural norms as deviants, subversives, or crafty manipulators. Doing so will bring fresh insights to understanding the dynamics of gender-segregated societies. I believe that by examining the natural fluidity of these interacting gender components it will be possible to show that women in such societies may hold political and economic power and have personal autonomy, not by subverting the system, but by working legitimately within it. The cases used to explore these ideas are drawn from my fieldwork with the Baggara pastoralists in the Sudan.


Briefly, the Baggara are pastoralists found in the western provinces of the Sudan. Their society is divided genealogically into five sub-tribes, each of which consists of hundreds of pastoralist households that herd camels or cattle, in combination with sheep and goats. The members of the Hawazma sub-tribe, with whom I lived, are located in South Kordofan where they specialize in cattle pastoralism. Their genealogies are based on patrilineal descent. Their preferred marriage partners, however, are selected from a range of both patrilineal and matrilateral kin, so that men tend to marry their close cousins (FBD, MBD, MZD, FZD). Marriages are generally polygynous (usually two, perhaps three wives for each man). Camping units are comprised of ten to fifteen households, depending on overall herd numbers. Activities are highly gender-segregated, with men focusing on animal husbandry and politics and women concentrating on household management, childrearing, and milking and milk sales. (For further ethnographic information see Cunnison, 1966; Michael, 1987a; 1987b.)

The Hawazma are adamantly pastoral. Scrutiny of their activities and decision-making suggests that most of their economic enterprises have the goal of enhancing their supply of animal resources. Several economic activities support this strategy.

Polygyny and the Economy. Polygynous marriage typically results in the formation of one nomadic pastoralist household and one sedentary household for every married man. Superficially the sedentary household may appear to consist of "failed" nomadic pastoralists. However, viewed as one element of the Hawazma economic system, the non-nomadic pastoralist households are better understood as followers of a strategy of "tactical sedentarization", an ingenuous adaptation designed to facilitate the maintenance of pastoralism. …

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