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Trobriand Islands: Status of Women

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The myths, magic and mysteries that determine the status of
 women in the Trobriand Islands, based on the findings of a 1918 ethnological study.

The ideas of the native concerning kinship and descent, with their assertion of the mother's exclusive part of propagation; the position of woman within the household, and her considerable share in economic life: these imply that woman plays an influential role in the community, and that her status cannot be low or unimportant. In this section it will be necessary to consider her legal status and her position in the tribe; that is, her rank, her power, and her social independence of man.

The kinship ideas of the natives are founded on the matrilineal principle that everything descends through the mother. She is entrusted with the real guardianship of her family which remains not with herself, but with her brother. This can be generalized into the formula that, in each generation, woman continues the line and man represents it; or, in other words, that the power and functions which belong to a family are vested in the men of each generation, though they have to be transmitted by the women.  


Let us examine some of the consequences of this principle. For the continuation and very existence of the family, woman, as well as man, are indispensable; therefore both sexes are regarded by the natives as being of equal value and importance. When you discuss genealogies with a native, the question of continuity of line is constantly considered in relation to the number of women alive. This was noticeable whenever a man of a sub-clan of high rank, such as the Tabalu of Omarakana, discussed the ethnographic census of its members: the fact that there were a great number of women would be emphasized with pleasure, and said to be good and important. That there were only two women of that sub-clan of high rank in Omarakana, while there were several male members, was obviously a sore point, and every Tabalu informant volunteered the statement that there were, however, more women in the younger line of Olivilevi, a village in the south of the island also ruled by the Tabalu. A man of any clan would often, in speaking of his family relations, expatiate on the number of his sisters and of their female lineage. Thus girls are quite as welcome at birth as boys, and no difference is made between them by the parents in interest, enthusiasm, or affection. It is needless to add that the idea of female infanticide would be as absurd as abhorrent to the natives.

The general rule that women hand on the privileges of the family and men exercise them, must be examined as it works. When we do so we shall be able to understand the principle better and even to qualify it somewhat. The idea of rank--that is, of an intrinsic, social superiority of certain people as their birthright--is very highly developed among the Trobriand Islanders; and a consideration of the way in which rank affects the individual will best explain the working of the general principle.

Drying skirt fibre. The bunches of frayed banana leaves
 are hung in the sun after having been stained with crimson and purple dye.
In the inner circle of this lagoon village (Teyava) only yam houses can be seen. 

Rank is associated with definite hereditary groups of a totemic nature, which have already been designated here as sub-clans. Each sub-clan has a definite rank; it claims to be higher than some, and admits its inferiority to others. Five or six main categories of rank can, broadly speaking, be distinguished, and within these the minor grades are of but small importance. For the sake of brevity and clarity, we will chiefly concern ourselves with a comparison of the sub-clan of Tabalu, the highest of all in rank, with its inferiors.

Every village community "belongs to" or is "owned by" one such sub-clan, and the eldest male is the headman of the village. When the sub-clan is of highest rank, its oldest male is not only headman of his own village, but exercises over-rule in a whole district, and is what we have called a chief. Chieftainship and rank are, therefore, closely associated, and rank carries with it, not only social distinction, but also the right to rule. Now, one of these two attributes, but one only, social distinction, is shared by men and women alike. Every woman of the highest rank, that of Tabalu, enjoys all the personal privileges of nobility. The male members of the clan will perhaps say that man is more aristocratic, more guya'u than woman, but probably this merely expresses the general assumption of male superiority. In all concrete manifestations of rank, whether traditional or social, the two sexes are equal. In the extensive mythology referring to the origin of the various sub-clans, a woman ancestress always figures beside the man (her brother), and there are even myths in which a woman alone inaugurates a line.

Another important manifestation of rank is the complex system of taboos, and this is equally binding on man and woman. The taboos of rank include numerous prohibitions in the matter of food, certain animals especially being forbidden, and there are some other notable restrictions, such as that prohibiting the use of any water except from water-holes in the coral ridge. These taboos are enforced by supernatural sanction, and illness follows their breach, even if it be accidental. But the real force by which they are maintained is a strong conviction on the part of the taboo keeper that the forbidden food is intrinsically inferior, that it is disgusting and defiling in itself. When it is suggested to a Tabalu that he should eat of stingaree or bush pig he shows unmistakable signs of repulsion; and cases are quoted in which a man of rank has vomited, with every sign of nausea, some forbidden substance which he had taken unwittingly. A citizen of Omarakana will speak of the stingaree eaters of the lagoon villages with the same disgusted contempt as the right-minded Briton uses towards the frog-and snail-eaters of France, or the European towards the puppy - and rotten-egg-eaters of China.

Now a woman of rank fully shares in this disgust, and in the danger from breaking a taboo. If, as does occasionally happen, she marries a man of lower rank, she must have all food, all cooking utensils, dishes, and drinking vessels separate from her husband, or else he must forego all such diet as is taboo to her; the latter is the course more usually adopted.

Rank entitles its possessions to certain ornaments, which serve both as its insignia and as festive decorations. For instance, a certain kind of shell ornament, the red spondylus shell-discs, may only be worn on the forehead and on the occiput by people of the highest rank. As belts and armlets they are also permitted to those next in rank. Again, an armlet on the forearm is a mark of the first aristocracy. Varieties and distinctions in personal adornment are very numerous, but it will enough to say here that they are observed in exactly the same manner by male and female, though the ornaments are more frequently made use by the latter.

Certain house decorations, on the other hand, such as carved boards and ornaments of shell which are in pattern and material exclusive to the several higher ranks, are primarily made use of by the male representatives. But a woman of rank who marries a commoner would be fully entitled to have them on her house.

Trobriand Island house lintel.

The very important and elaborate ceremonial of respect observed towards people of rank is based on the idea that a man of noble lineage must always remain on a physically higher level than his inferiors. In the presence of a noble, all people of lower rank have to bow the head or bend the body or squat on the ground, according to the degree of their inferiority. On no account must any head reach higher than that of the chief. Tall platforms are always built on to the chief's house, and on one of these he will sit so that the people may freely move below him during tribal gatherings. When a commoner passes a group of nobles seated on the ground, even at a distance, he has to call out tokay ("arise"), and the chiefs immediately scramble to their feet and remain standing while he crouches past them. One would think that so uncomfortable a ceremonial of homage would have been circumvented in some way; but this is not the case. Many times when a commoner would pass by the village grove when a chief was in conversation, he would call out tokay, and though this would happen every quarter of an hour or so, the chief had to rise while the other, bending low, walked slowly by.

Women of rank enjoy exactly the same privilege in this matter. When a noble woman is married to a commoner, her husband has to bend before her in public, and others have to be still more careful to do so. A high platform is erected for her and she sits upon it alone at tribal assemblies, while her husband moves or squats below with the rest of the crowd.

The sanctity of the chief's person is particularly localized in his head, which is surrounded by a halo of strict taboos. More especially sacred are the forehead and the occiput with the neck. Only equals in rank, the wives and a few particularly privileged persons, are allowed to touch these parts, for purposes of cleaning, shaving, ornamentation, and delousing. This sanctity of the head extends to the female members of the noble sub-clans, and if a noble woman marries a commoner, her brow, her occiput, her neck and shoulder, should not--in theory at least--be touched by the husband even during the most intimate phases of conjugal life.

Thus in myth, in the observance of taboo, and in the ceremonial of bending, the woman enjoys exactly the same privileges of rank as the man; but she never exercises the actual power associated with it. No woman is ever the head of any sub-clan, and thus she cannot be a chieftainess. What would happen should there be no male members in a given generation it cannot be said, for there are no actual cases of this on record; but the interim regency of a woman seems by no means incompatible with the ideas of the Trobriand Islanders. The privilege of polygamy is the foundation of a chief's or headman's power, and women, of course, have no such similar privilege of polyandry.

Many other social functions of rank are directly exercised by men alone, the women participating only in the social prestige. Thus ownership of canoes, for instance, is vested in the headman--though all the villagers enjoy definite rights in them--but his kinswomen only have the benefit of the renown (butura), that is, the privilege of talking in proprietary terms of the canoes and of boasting about them. Only in exceptional cases do they accompany their men-folk on over-sea expeditions. Again, all sorts of rights, privileges, and activities connected with the kula, a special system of exchange in valuables, are the prerogatives of men. The woman, whether the man's wife or sister, is only occasionally drawn personally into the matter. For the most part she but basks in reflected glory and satisfaction. In war, men have the field of action entirely to themselves, though the women witness all the preparations and preliminary ceremonies, and even take an occasional peep at the battlefield itself.

It is important to note that in this section, when comparing the parts played by the sexes, we have had quite as often to set the brother and sister side by side as the husband and wife. Within the matrilineal order, the brother and the sister are the naturally linked representatives of the male and female principle respectively in all legal and customary matters. In the myths concerning the origin of families, the brother and sister emerge together from underground, through the original hole in the earth. In family matters, the brother is the natural guardian and head of his sister's household, and of her children. In tribal usage, their respective duties and obligations are strictly regulated, and these form, as we shall see, one of the main strands in the social fabric. But in their personal relations the strictest taboo divides brother from sister--and prevents any sort of intimacy between them.

As woman is debarred from the exercise of power, land ownership and many other public privileges, it follows that she has no place at tribal gatherings and no voice in such public deliberations as are held in connection with gardening, fishing, hunting, over-sea expeditions, war, ceremonial trade, festivities and dances.


On the other hand, there are certain ceremonial and festive activities in connection with which women have a great deal both to say and to do. The most important of these in solemnity and sanctity, as well as the most imposing in display and extent, are the mortuary ceremonies. In the tending of the corpse, the parade of grief, the burial with its manifold rites and long series of ceremonial food distributions: in all these activities, which begin immediately after the death of any important tribesman and continue at intervals for months or even years afterwards, women play a large part and have their own definite duties to fulfil. Certain women, standing in a special relationship to the deceased, have to hold the corpse on their knees, and fondle it; and while the corpse is tended in the hut, another category of female relatives performs a remarkable rite of mourning outside: a number of them, some in couples facing each other and some singly, move in a slow dance, forwards and backwards across the central place, to the rhythm of the wailing dirge. As a rule, each of them carries in her hand some object worn or possessed by the deceased. Such relics play a great part in mourning and are worn by the women for a long time after their bereavement. The wrapping u of the corpse and the subsequent vigil over the grave is the duty of yet another category of the dead man's womankind.

The mortuary dance.

Some functions of burial notably the gruesome custom of cutting up the corpse, are performed by men. In the long period of mourning which follows, the burden of the dramatic expression of grief falls mostly on the women; a widow always mourns longer than a widower, a mother longer than a father, a female relative longer than a male of the same degree. In the mortuary distributions of food and wealth, based on the idea that the members of the deceased's sub-clan give payment to the other relatives for their share in the mourning, women play a conspicuous role, and conduct some parts of the ceremonial distributions themselves.

In the long and complicated ceremonial of first pregnancy and in the rites of beauty magic at festivities, women are the main actors. On certain occasions, such as first pregnancy ritual and the first appearance after childbirth, as well as at big tribal dances and kayasa (competitive displays), women appear in full dress and decoration which correspond to the men's full festive attire. 

An interesting incident occurs during the milamala, the annual season of dancing and feasting held after the harvest. This period is inaugurated by a ceremony, the principal aim of which is to break the taboo on drums. In this initial feast there is a distribution of food, and the men, adorned in full dancing attire, range themselves for the performance, the drummers and the signers in the centre of a ring formed by the decorated dancers. As in a normal dance, standing in the central place, the singers intone a chant, the dancers begin to move slowly and the drummers to beat time. But they are not allowed to proceed; almost at the first throb of the drums, there breaks forth from inside the huts the wailing of those women who are still in mourning; from behind the inner row of houses, a crowd of shrieking, agitated female figures rush out and attack the dancers, beat them with sticks, and throw coconuts, stones, and pieces of wood at them. The men are not bound by custom to display too considerable courage and in a trice the drummers, who had so solemnly initiated the performance, have entirely disappeared; and the village lies empty, for the women pursue the fugitives. But the taboo is broken and, on the afternoon of the same day, the first undisturbed dance of the festivities is held.

A woman wearing a pregnancy
cloak at the first pregnancy ceremony.

In full dress dancing it is mainly the men who display their beauty and skill. In some dances, such as those performed in a quick tempo with carved dancing boards or with bunches of streamers men alone may participate. Only in one traditional type of dance for which men put on the fibre petticoats of the female are women not debarred by custom from participations. There are many long, continuous periods of amusements in the Trobriands besides the dancing season, and in these women can take a more active share. The nature of the amusement is fixed in advance, and has to remain the same during the whole period. There are different kinds of kayasa, as these entertainments are called. There is a kayasa in which, evening and after evening, groups of women, festively adorned, sit on mats and sing; in another, men and women, wearing wreaths and garlands of flowers, exchange such ornaments with each other. Sometimes the members of a community prepare small toy sailing canoes and hold a miniature regatta daily on shallow water.

In all the public festivals and entertainments, whether women take an active part or not, they are never excluded from looking on or freely mixing with the men; and this they do on terms of perfect equality, exchanging banter and jokes with them and engaging in easy conversation.


One aspect of public life is very important to the Trobriand Islander and stands apart as something peculiar and specific. The native sets on one side a certain category of facts, one type of human behaviour, and designates these by the word megwa, which may be quite adequately translated as "magic". Magic is very intimately associated with economic life and indeed with every vital concern; it is also an instrument of power and an index of the importance of those who practise it. The position of women in magic therefore deserves very special consideration.

Magic constitutes a particular aspect of reality. In all important activities and enterprises in which man has not the issue firmly and safely in hand, magic is themed indispensable. Thus appeal is made to it in gardening and fishing, in building a large canoe, and in diving for valuable shell, in the regulation of wind and weather, in war, in matters of love and personal attention, in securing safety at sea and the success of any great enterprise; and, last but not least, in health and for the infliction of ailments upon an enemy. Success and safety in all these matters is largely and sometimes entirely dependent upon magic, and can be controlled by its proper application. Fortune or failure, death or plenty, health or disease are felt and believed to be mainly due to the right magic rightly applied to the right circumstances.

Magic consists of spells and rites performed by a man who is entitled by the fulfilment of several conditions to perform them. Magical power resides primarily in the words of the formula, and the function of the rite, which is as a rule very simple, is mainly to convey the magician's breath charged with the power of the words, to the object or person to be affected. All magical spells are believed to have descended unchanged from time immemorial, from the beginning of things.

This last point has its sociological corollary; several systems of magic are hereditary, each in a special sub-clan, and such a system has been possessed by that sub-clan since the time that it came out from the underground. It can only be performed by a member, and is, of course, one of the valued attributes and possessions of the sub-clan itself. It is handed on in the female line, though usually, as with other forms of power of possession, it is exercised by men alone. But in a few cases such hereditary magic can also be practised by women.

The power given by magic to its performer is not due merely to the effects of its specific influence. In the most important type of magic, the rites are intimately interwoven with the activities which they accompany and are not merely superimposed upon them. Thus in garden magic, the officiator plays an economically and socially important role and is the organiser and director of the work. It is the same in the building of a canoe and its magic, and in the rite associated with the conduct of an over-sea expedition: the man who technically directs and is a leader of the enterprise has also the duty or privilege of performing the magic.     

The long and complex series of spells which accompany the building of a seagoing canoe can never be made by a woman, and, as no woman ever goes on a ceremonial overseas expedition, the magic of safely and kula which then has to be performed can only be done by a man.





Public Garden magic (Towosi) Rites of first pregnancy Beauty Magic
Fishing Skirt making Love Magic
Hunting Prevention of dangers at birth Private garden magic
Canoe building Toothache  
Magic of kula (Mwasila) Elephantiasis, swellings  
Weather (sun and rain) Affection of the genitals with discharge  
Wind (Gonorrhea?)  
War magic (Boma) Abortion  
Safety at sea (Kayga'u Female witchcraft (Yoyova or  
Wood carving (Kabitam Molukwausi)  
Sorcery (Bwanga'u)    

Again there are some important types of magic which are obviously adapted to female hands and lips, for they are attached to activities or functions which by their nature or by social convention exclude the presence of men. Such is the magic associated with the ceremony of first pregnancy; the magic of the expert which gives skill in the manufacture of fibre petticoats; and the magic of abortion.

There are, however, mixed spheres of activity and influence, such as gardening or love-making, the control of the weather or human health, where at first glance there appears to be no association with one sex rather than the other. Yet garden magic is invariably a man's concern and women never perform the important public rites, most scrupulously observed and highly valued by the natives, which are carried out by the village magician over the gardens of the whole community. Even those phases of gardening, such as weeding, which are undertaken exclusively by women, have to be inaugurated by the male garden magician in an official ceremony. Wind, sunshine, and rain are also controlled entirely by male hands and mouths.

In certain mixed activities a man or a woman can equally well perform the required magic, and some minor rites of private garden magic, used by each individual for his or her own benefit, can be carried out indiscriminately by men or women. There is the magic of love and beauty of which the spells are recited by anyone who suffers from unrequited love or needs to enhance his or her personal charm.

The most definite allocation of magical powers to one or other of the sexes is to be found in the dark and dreaded of sorcery: those forces which most profoundly affect human hope and happiness. The magic of illness and health, which can poison life or restore its natural sweetness, and which holds death as it were for its last card, can be made by men and women alike; but its character changes entirely with the sex of the practitioner. Man and woman have each their own sorcery carried on by means of different rites and formula, acting in a different manner on the victim's body and surrounded by an altogether different atmosphere of belief. Male sorcery is much more concrete, and its methods can be stated clearly, almost as a rational system. The sorcerer's supernatural equipment is restricted to its power of vanishing at will, of emitting a shining glow from his person, and of having accomplices among the nocturnal birds. Extremely poor means of supernatural action if we compare them with the achievement of a witch.

A witch - and be it remembered that she is always a real woman and not a spiritual or non-human being - goes out on her nightly errand in the form of an invisible double; she can fly through the air and appears as a falling star; she assumed at will the shape of a fire-fly, of a night bird or of a flying fox; she can hear and smell at enormous distances and she feeds on corpses.

The disease which witches cause is almost incurable and extremely rapid in its action and killing, as a rule, immediately. It is inflicted by the removal of the victim's inside, which the woman presently consumes. The wizard, on the other hand, never partakes of his victim's flesh, his power is much less effective, he must proceed slowly, and the best he can hope for is to inflict a lingering disease, which may, with good luck, kill after months or years of steady labour. Even then another sorcerer can be hired to counteract his work and restore the patient. But there is little chance of combating a witch, even with the help of another witch.

First charming of the pregnancy robes. The breath carrying the words has to
enter the robe, so the women bend over and place their mouths close to the fibre.

A witch, when she is not old, is no less desirable sexually than other women. Indeed, she is surrounded by a halo of glory due to her personal power and usually she has also that strong individuality which seems to accompany the reputation for witchcraft. But the profession of which, unlike that of sorcerer, is not exercised openly ; a witch may receive payment for healing, but she never undertakes to kill for a feed and for this she differs from the sorcerer. Witchcraft is inherited from mother to daughter and an early initiation has to take place.

There are a number of minor ailments, among them toothache, certain tumours and swelling of the testicles which women can inflict on man by means of magic. Toothache is exclusively a female specialty, and one woman would be called in to cure it when some other has caused it. There are also some form of hereditary magic which can be carried on only by male members of sub-clan, or, exceptionally by the son of such a member.

Thus we can see that the strong tribal position of women is also buttressed by their right to exercise magic - that toughest and least destructible substance of belief.

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