Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

10 A Wife is Clothes Family Politics, Cultural Organization, and Social Structure

Gender Statuses and Differences Between Them

Virtually all adult women maintain close social relationships with their neighbors, especially those, who may or may not be kin, from houses only a few meters from theirs. For some purposes—weddings and funerals are the most frequent and notable—relations with all the women in the mtaa (see chap. 3 for a discussion of the neighborhoods of Old Town) become quite active and, often, intense, and this sometimes extends to all the women of the community in an attenuated way.[4] The expectations in the women's neighbor-neighbor role are notable for their supportive and expressive character, but they also contain a great deal of open competition for prestige and power.

There are a variety of means whereby women attain precedence among their fellows, but the wearing of new and fashionable clothing and the display of an impressive collection of gold jewelry at weddings are very high among


these. I will show that the competition among women and the importance of finery in that competition are crucial in leading women to made demands on their husbands which both spouses see as burdensome and unwelcome to the husband.

The man status and the expectations in that status are sharply different from those in the woman status. Men's relations with one another are ideally and often characterized by reserve and careful following of rules for proper behavior. Men of the higher classes have adopted what other community men see as quite Arabized manners involving elaborate etiquette and reserve. In relations among men of the other social classes, there is also concern for propriety and restraint, even if the expression of that concern shows less Arab influence. Regardless of class, men avoid talking about "delicate" issues that might bring shame to anyone present and there is a pervasive concern with honor (fakhri). As the expectations in the woman status involve affectivity, openness, and engagement, the man status's expectations emphasize calm, reserve, and detachment.

The reserve and avoidance of things of personal and possibly emotional significance (for that is what makes things "delicate") is characteristic of men's behavior across a wide range of situations. When men are together at their barazas, the talk is quiet, the topics are impersonal, and the tone is affectively neutral. Male neighbors spend a good deal of time with one another, but the laughing is muted if present at all and the conversations are far more likely to concern politics, soccer teams, or religion than family affairs, scandal, or experience of a personal sort.

Brothers greet one another much as they greet any other man, and even close friends spend most of their time talking about neutral topics of general interest. A man who is displeased with a shopkeeper most often states his objections quietly and in a matter-of-fact tone, and the stinging insults mothers hurl at their daughters and, less, other women (see Swartz 1990a ) are more rarely heard from fathers directed at their children and almost never at other men.

The competition between men, when present, is implicit. Men do not try to outdo one another in any observable way and, unlike women, make no comparisons based on any traits, whether physical, characterological, or in possessions. Men may feel competitive, and there are hints that having more honor than another—or at least not having less—is important, but there is none of the open rivalry said to be characteristic of women.

The Swahili saying, "Women are not freeborn nobles" (Wanawake si wangwane ) is taken by men, the only ones who use it, as meaning that women do not have proper regard for honor and the avoidance of shame. There are women who agree that the members of their sex are less obsessed with shame and honor than men, and they agree with the men that the difference is due to God having created men and women differently. The difference in concern


about shame is based in broader differences with women being understood as more emotional, less logical, and less able to plan effectively than men are. These differences manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including greater freedom and emotional lability in relationships between women as compared to those involving men.

The God-given differences, as community members see them, between men and women find expression in gender status expectations. These operate jointly with the expectations in a wide range of other statuses to guide behavior across a broad spectrum of social life. Both men and women are expected to be helpful as neighbors, for example, but men's help is mainly limited to that of a practical and unemotional sort, while women's includes hugs, tears, and laughter.

10 A Wife is Clothes Family Politics, Cultural Organization, and Social Structure

Preferred Citation: Swartz, Marc J. The Way the World Is: Cultural Processes and Social Relations among the Mombasa Swahili. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.