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10 A Wife is Clothes Family Politics, Cultural Organization, and Social Structure
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Understandings about Women, Social Structure, and Wives' Power

Men's emotional dependence on their wives is a key element in explaining wives' ability to get what they want from their husbands. Another element, and it is the one that makes the first effective, is to be found in the social structure. Out of the whole array of relationships involving adult men, all have expectations precluding emotional expression and support with the sole exception of the spouse relationship. That relationship takes on unique importance for the man because of its unique expectations, and this is the major factor in men's acquiescence to their wives' requests for money.

This explanation is not, however, the same as the one offered by the participants in the marital relationship. Their explanation of the ability of wives to get what they want has a dual foundation: the already discussed value on love as a basis for the marital relationship and the understandings concerning the nature of women, especially women's mental and emotional qualities. These latter understandings are important in that they not only play a key role in explaining why wives are able to get what they want but in that they also provide what Malinowski called a "charter" (1944:52, 111, 141 passim) for women's demands on their husbands.

It is basic to these understandings that women are seen as fundamentally different from men. Women are understood as being quite as intelligent as men and at least as likely to show such highly admired traits as compassion and consideration of others. However, the Swahili believe—and they buttress their views with references to the Koran—that women are less able to plan for the future than men are.

Women, however intelligent they may be, are believed to be less logical than men and to be unable to control their emotions as men can. Women's emotional lability, as seen at weddings, funerals, and everyday life, is taken by Swahili of both sexes as undeniable evidence of their deeply emotional natures. The widely shared understandings is that women cannot, as a result of their God-given natures, curb their desires on the basis of a logical assessment of what is possible and practical. There is some implicit belief that in areas where the women's own interests and emotions are not directly engaged (in matters of science, scholarship, or business, for example), women can be as logical as men, but there is general agreement that in their personal lives, it is not realistic to expect women to behave with control and on the basis of logic.


Women, including educated ones, accept—even embrace—this view. I was interviewing eight Swahili high school girls when I mentioned, with what was clearly a disclaimer in my voice, that a number of men had told me that women were highly emotional, poor at planning, and illogical. The girls were quite forceful in their response. "Do you think that is not true?" one of them asked. "Women are not at all like men," another said, "the Koran itself tells us that." I replied that perhaps women were different but asked whether it was not possible nevertheless that they be able to plan well and to control their emotions. All those present denied this vigorously and several of them picked up the theme—not uncommonly heard in a range of discussions with Swahili—that the Koran supported their views. They held that God had made women the way they were, and it was worse than ignorant to deny that this was so.

In discussing the allocation of power in marital relations with several male informants, I asked why husbands give in to their wives if, as they had been telling me, sometimes it is financially harmful for them to do so. One of them answered me with an analogy: "In some ways women are like children. It may be bad for them to have candy, but they want it and you can't explain to them that it is bad. They just become unhappy if they do not get the candy, so, because you love them, you give it to them even if it is not the best thing."

This was heartily agreed to by the other men present and is as close as I ever came to a direct, emic explanation of the ability of wives to get what they want. The men had told me, in sum, that there is no more point in trying to reason with women than with children and that if the women want something it is often best to give it to them since they cannot be brought to understand that it may not be really desirable. There may be some point in withholding desired things from (male) children since they may learn from the experience, but no such result is likely with women because of their God-given nature. The husband's love leads him to avoid causing his wife unhappiness, as the participants see it, and because of her nature, this involves giving in to her demands.

The shared understanding that women are unable to think logically or to control their emotions is not only used as a key element in community members' explanations of women's ability to get what they want but it is also important as a self-justification. So, women are at least as interested in the family budget as are men, yet some of them sometimes use substantial parts of their husbands' income—generally the family's only source of funds—on things they want but that contribute nothing to meet the family expenses for housing, food, clothing, and education. Some women explained that the use of even substantial sums of family funds in ways they particularly desire is not really frivolous. The gold jewelry, especially, is explained as a way to store wealth to be used in times of crises, which is particularly attractive given the Islamic prohibition on interest from bank savings.


Even here, however, when they are asked why it is that many women spend very considerable sums having goldsmiths rework their old jewelry into new and more fashionable designs—as is fairly common—the basic answer is that this is the way women are. Women, female informants told me, like to have things that are beautiful and they do everything they can to get them, especially if other women have them, even if doing so presents their families with financial difficulties.

In addition to comments and observations gleaned from talks with a variety of informants of both sexes, I discussed women's desires for finery and ceremonies intensively with four female informants. They all agreed that women were "not good at planning" and that they often spent money on things that did not really provide for their families', or their own, welfare. The informants reported that to some extent, at least, the many women who they believed used money this way could not help themselves. It was the way women were, and for many, there was nothing they could do about it. Three of the women said they knew of cases in which houses had been mortgaged to pay for elaborate weddings, with the wives and mothers being the principal ones responsible for the mortgaging. Although all of them condemned this as "dangerous" since the family home could be lost in this way, they also agreed that, as one of them said, "women don't think about the future very much . . . they just know what they want and they follow that."

Malinowski reserved the concept "charter" for the explicit justification of such organized sets of activity as those carried out by families, age groups, and religious congregations. These charters, often in myths, provided a statement of the "value, purpose, and importance" (1944:111 et seq.) of the groups' distinctive activities and contributions. The demands women make on their husbands are not institutions in the sense that families or religious congregations are, of course, but they are patterned and recurrent activities and the idea that women cannot avoid making them provides them with a culturally constituted explanation and justification. It gives the wives' demands a stature they would not otherwise have, because they are rooted in the belief in women's unique mental processes, which are understood to be as God wishes them to be.

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