Home Work: An Examination of the Sexual Division of Labor in the Urban Households of the East Indian and African Guyanese

By Nettles, Kimberly D. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Home Work: An Examination of the Sexual Division of Labor in the Urban Households of the East Indian and African Guyanese


Nettles, Kimberly D., Journal of Comparative Family Studies


Home Work: An Examination of the Sexual Division of Labor in the Urban Households of the East Indian and African Guyanese*

KIMBERLY D. NETTLES**

Studies of kinship amongst African peoples in the Americas have focused on examining the "problem" of so-called disorganized family life amongst the lower classes. Essentially, the debate has evolved around questions of culture versus structure. In other words, is the lack of an identifiably nuclear family structure (husband, wife, children) the result of a retention of traditional African cultural patterns or of the harshness of the slave system? In either scenario, matrifocality or mother-centeredness is viewed as a negative manifestation. In economic terms, women as single mothers are unable to provide adequately for their children and become part of an unending spiral of poverty. In moral terms, the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births reflects the lack of strong cultural values, the unnatural dominance of the women, and the seemingly shift-less quality of the men. In many ways, class status and debased morality are inextricably linked in the dominant ideology.

Indeed, in the context of the Caribbean -- which extends beyond just those of African descent, the debate has centered on an implicit comparison between lower and middle class families. Lower class families are often described as disorganized, female-centered, and darker skinned. While middle-class families, on the other hand, tend toward nuclearity, patriarchal authority and brown to light skin. In Guyana, the focus of this paper, the most likely comparison is between those of African and East Indian descent. (East Indian referring to those from the Asian subcontinent, and not aboriginal Indians). In this way class divisions are bound to racial differences and together inform variations in cultural values. What we find in the studies of kinship in Guyana (see Smith, 1956; Smith and Jayawardena, 1958, 1959; and Smith 1988) is an examination of the patterns of family formation amongst the Afro- and Indo-Guyanese. The key aim of this paper is to extend Smith and Smith and Jayawardena's primarily ethnographic studies of family life in the region to an exposition of the sociological importance of women's roles within these families. In so doing, I have problematized the assumption that variations in family types (whether patrifocal or matrifocal) or whether variations in family formation patterns impact on the roles women and men play in the household. In an examination of women's responses to questions related to the division of labor in their households, I have compared African and East Indian's women's relative position within their family unit.

Given the historical and cultural differences between the Afro- and Indo-Guyanese one would expect the former to have a more egalitarian conjugal relationship than the latter. Smith (1988) argues that Afro-Caribbean women enter into and maintain either married or cohabiting relationships with men later in life. The Afro-Caribbean woman may have been in a series of visiting and/or cohabiting relationships prior to marrying which implies that she "chooses" a partner with whom she can establish a mutually satisfactory home arrangement. Amongst the East Indians, the opposite is true. Marriage is usually arranged by the parents at an early age where the degree of control and/or selection by women is minimized. Overlaying these cultural differences, however, is a pervasive ideal of normative family life. Because the ideal exists in the minds of all Caribbean - male or female, African or East Indian, or whatever - can we expect differences in the structures of their "married" lives that parallel perceived and actual cultural/ethnic differences? Clearly, the family and/or marriage is a salient context in which to examine the continuing importance of gender domination, not only within the household, but also the society at large.

This paper begins by briefly specifying the assumptions of gender roles in the family developed by Smith (1956, 1988) and Smith and Jayawardena (1958, 1959). …

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