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Personal and Professional
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ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
Essays on NATO and Kosovo, 1999
Andre Gunder Frank
On Gender Relations and History
7. Gender relations. Were they different in Central Asia from those elsewhere, and if so, how? This question has become important in recent feminist (re)interpretations of history. Since history has been very much written by, of, and for men (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln), all people can or should welcome this new feminist historiography and its effort to set the historical record straight. However, Marija Gimbutas (1980,1981) and Riane Eisler (1987) in particular attribute patriarchy (in the West) to the incursion of warring nomads from Central Asia.
As Aryans in India, Hittites and Mittani in the Fertile Crescent, Luwians in Anatolia, Kurgans in eastern Europe, Acheans and later Dorians in Greece, they gradually imposed their ideologies and ways of life on the lands and peoples they conquered. There were other nomadic invaders as well. The most famous of these are the Semitic people we call Hebrews (Eisler 1987:44).
It is what seems most definitely to unite these peoples of so many different places and times: the structure of their social and ideological systems. The one thing they all had in common was a dominator model of social organization: a social system in which male dominance, male violence, and generally hierarchic and authoritarian social structure was the norm. Another commonality was...not developing technologies of production, but through ever more effective technologies of destruction....There seems little question that from the very beginning warfare was an essential instrument for replacing the [gender equal] partnership model with the [patriarchal male] dominator model (ibid. 47 emphasis in the original).
However, the reading of history by Gimbutas and Eisler is open to many doubts if not denials. For instance, Khazanov (1979: 90) calls the Kurgan culture, which plays a prominent role in the argument of Gimbutas, only an artificial and speculative construction. There is indeed considerable question whether previously egalitarian partnership was really the norm, and warfare absent, in the southern and western Eurasian societies, as Eisler claims. Moreover with regard to Central Asia, there is also some question as to whether patriarchy was especially the norm among the invading nomads from Central Asia. James De Meo (1987,1990) argues in favor of both cases and even in support of greater egalitarianism in Central Asia itself before climactic change supposedly obliged people there to abandon what he calls matrism and to adopt patrism. He says "these are nearly identical in concept" with those of Eisler (De Meo 1990: 22, footnote 2). He refers to what he calls Saharasia, a 1000 mile wide belt running from the Sahara through Central Asia to North East Asia.
What of the peoples who inhabited Saharasia during the wetter times of plenty? The evidence is also clear on this point: These early peoples were peaceful, unarmored, and matrist in character. Indeed,I have concluded that there does not exist any clear, compelling or unambiguous evidence for the existence of patrism anywhere on Earth significantly prior to c. 4000 BCE. However, strong evidence exists for matrist social conditions (DeMeo 1990:30 emphasis in the original).
A systematic and global review of such evidence (DeMeo 1985, Chapters 6 & 7 of 1986) revealed distinct global patterns in these archeological transitions, wherein entire regions were transformed from matrism to patrism within the same general time periods, or where the transition to patrism swept across major portions of a continent, from one end to the other, over a period of centuries. Of major significance was the finding that the earliest of these cultural transformations occurred in specific Old World regions (notably in North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia, around 4000-3500 BCE), in concert with major environmental transformations, from relatively wet to arid conditions in these regions (ibid. 25 emphasis in the original).
Thus DeMeo attributes the change from matrism to patrism first to the desertification of previously settled Saharasia and the starvation, nomadization and mass migration produced by this climatic change. Then patrism was diffused from Central Asia to the outlying regions of still sedentary settlement and civilization.
De Meo resurrects a sort of Huntingtonian climactic determinism, even of character. He correlates 34 "dichotomous behaviors, attitudes, and social institutions" grouped under rubrics of child rearing; sexuality; women; cultural and family structure, including violence and military structure; and religion, beliefs and attitudes for hundreds of societies for which archeological, historical and some contemporary data are available. He concludes that patrism is highly correlated with the nomad warrior societies in Central Asia. However, it is also found in those outlying settled societies that received migrations, and had to adapt to military and other pressures, from Central Asia. Thus, DeMeo goes even further than Gimbutas and Eisler in his claims, which would support a new feminist reinterpretation of history.
I have therefore tried specifically to ask every professional Central Asianist I have met whether the evidence available to them supports the Eisler and DeMeo theses. Unanimously, they have all said that it does not. According to their evidence on the contrary, Central Asian nomad societies accorded women higher status and had more egalitarian gender relations than their sedentary neighbors in Eurasia. I hesitate to cite the people who could only offer their evidence to me orally. However, I can quote some who have written something about this matter. Presumably, the did so without any or much awareness of the controversy I have set out above.
Central Asian nomad societies were certainly patrilineal and patrilocal. Although womens status was definitely lower than men's, their authority and prestige grew as women aged and assumed economically and socially important roles within the family and society. Hambly (1965) notes relatively free fraternization among men and women and their important roles in managing nomadic households and sometimes herds. Krader (1966: 145) attributes women a domestic and agricultural empire within a nomadic empire. Inheritance, however, was a patrilineal corporate family matter. Nonetheless,
Women had more authority and autonomy than their sisters in neighboring sedentary societies. Among political elites polygyny was common, but each wife had her owen yurt. It was not possible to practice the forms of seclusion so common in many sedentary Asian societies. Day-to-day life required women to take on a more public role in economic activities. Although the details cannot be confirmed for the entire history of Inner Asia, most visitors made comments [to this effect] (Barfield 1989:25)
The impact of alien [semi nomad] rule in [early Tang] north China was illustrated by many debates between southerners from the Yangtse region, which had remained under Chinese rule....In the north women had much greater freedom. They handled legal affairs, business, and lobbied for themselves at court. A sorry state of affairs that could be attributed to the steppe traditions of the T'o-pa Wei, according to southern writers - who secluded women (ibid. 140).
The recovered commercial documents provide tantalizing insights into economic and social practices of the time. Information dating from Mongol times suggests that women in the steppe empires had more rights and independence than their counterparts in sedentary states. These indications are confirmed for the Uighur empire. Women were entitled to own property and were free to manage and dispose of it as they saw fit. They were also entitled to act as guarantors in contracts, and were provided for in testamentary regulations (Kwanten 1979:58). This important question remains open for others to pursue the evidence more assiduously. Whatever the answer(s), greater study of Central Asia can only emerge as still central to yet another of our contemporary concerns.
The critique of the Gimbutas/Eisler thesis above has since then been substantiated by new archaeological finds form nomad societies in Central Asia. This critique disconfirms the supposed greater role of patriarchy in nomad/warrior societies who allegedly carried and implanted it in ''civilized'' settler societies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent that allegedly were much less patriarchic before the arrival of ''barbarians'' from Central Asia. However the thesis of no- or less- patriarchy that Gimbutas and Eisler derive from female deities in religious art in the Eastern Mediterranean has also been disconfirmed. Further study of this art form, in particular by Lynn Meskell,demonstrates that Gimbutas and Eisler misinterpret it. Anyway that art form constitutes no more evidence for less or no patriarchy than does the ubiquitousness of the Virgin Mary in European art.
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