The battle of the sexes

  • 29/09/1995

The battle of the sexes On the Andaman islands, located in the Indian Ocean close to Burma and Indonesia, live the Onge, the indigenous negrito hunter-gathers of modern times.

The Onge are one of 4 hunter-gatherer groups who occupy different islands of the archipelago. These groups have been separated long enough to have developed substantial linguistic differentiation and are referred to in literature as 4 distinct tribes.

At present the approximately 100 Onges who are left, are housed in 2 permanent settlements on Little Andaman. This is a part of a development effort packaged as a welfare system administered by the Indian government. They are a shrinking minority in an island now occupied by a rapidly expanding population of rehabilitated refugees from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and other groups from mainland India.

With the influx of mainland culture, things are changing in the faraway islands. The indigenous culture of the Onge is under dilution, and the distinct social structure of the Onges, including the special status traditionally given to women, is under threat.

According to Onge cosmology, woman was made first, and only later was man created (Pandya, 1992). However, ever since the advent of the British and later the Indian administration, the consequent displacement and marginalisation of the Onge society has brought with it an altered perspective on the relations between genders.

Depending on the specific situation, Onge men are both willing and unwilling collaborators of the imposition of the values and the hierarchy of gender relations existing in mainstream Indian culture on to the topography of Onge society. Onge women, on the other hand, challenge this intrusion, and assert a separate and autonomous space for themselves.

The assertion of independence by Onge women, while established in Onge traditions, now has the added connotation of a diminished masculinity for Onge men. The behavior exhibited by Onge men during the use of alcohol suggests that alcohol is a means to overturn the structure of gender relations in Onge society, simultaneously asserting a masculinity which attempts to replicate the Indian patterns of gender behavior.

An added complication is the attribution of an innate inferiority of genetic stock that has been an integral feature of any discourse involving the Onges.

The racial construction of the islanders forms the unarticulated but pervasive backdrop against which the ethnographic situations played themselves out.

Much of the priority accorded to women in Onge society can be traced to Onge cosmology, and the myths describing the specific interaction of women and men with the spirits within a universe that encompasses all of these entities. In the beginning was woman who existed as dew (Pandya 1992), or as forests of cane in 2 versions of the Onge myths of genesis. And it was from her in either of these forms that all other manifestations of life emanated.

The universe is peopled with beings including the ancestors with whom the Onges have a special relationship and who play an active role in their everyday lives. Moreover, men and women are differentiated by their relation with the spirits. Men are 'seekers of spirits' while women are 'those who are sought by the spirits'.

When a girl starts menstruating, she is said to have been visited by Tineabogalangle, the one who sends children, and the blood marks her a Tamale angabe, "one within whom a spirit as a child can find residence". Men, however, have to strive to seek the spirits, and only some, the torale or the spirit communicators learn to negotiate between the spirit and human worlds. The torale is the only man whose contract with the spirits does not end in death.

This broad distinction between the sexes within the Onge universe, sets the stage for understanding Onge rituals and the roles and behaviors that are attributed to women and men. The primacy of women within this universe permits them much independence and the final decision on matters pertaining to the community. Gendered resistance by the endangered
Within the Onge universe, women are neither subservient nor are they subordinate. But their experience of colonisation with its typical sharp exclusion of women from the domain of 'official' politics and the more formal decision-making bodies of the colonial administration, has challenged and shaken the basis for Onge women's traditional structure of authority within the community.

The loss of Onge territory has simultaneously corresponded with the fragmentation of their hunting-gathering modes of subsistence, together with the disintegration of patterns of rituals which reaffirmed and endorsed the complementary roles of Onge women and men within their conceptual world. All of these factors have led to emerging contradictions between Onge and Indian perceptions of gender roles and relations.

Assuming that the hierarchy of gender relations prevalent in British and mainland Indian societies was replicated in the indigenous populations that they encountered, the British who administered the Andaman Islands, had appointed Onge men as "chiefs" or rajas as they were referred to on the basis of their fluency in Hindi, which was the predominant medium of communication in the island. As in most forms of bureaucracy perpetuated in India after independence, the Indian government, simply continued what the British had initiated, without evaluation of the relevance of the system.

Discussions with government officers as well as conversations with the Onges indicate that such appointees have never been a success: linguistic ability was in fact the least important of the criteria required to a raja whose task was to mediate between the community and the administrators. More often than not, the appointments exacerbated conflict within the community and tended to erode a more egalitarian pattern of decision-making through a council of elders. Interestingly, as situations played themselves out, there was an emerging pattern in which older Onge women had the final word on decisions in the community.

Onge women never speak Hindi although all communicative events suggest that they comprehend the language perfectly, including colloquialisms. A question posed to a Onge woman in Hindi will in every instance, only bring forth a response in Onge, ever when the woman knows that her interlocutor may not comprehend a word of that language. Onge men posses varying degrees of fluency in Hindi. A question posed in Hindi may initially bring forth a response in Onge, but on indicating one's difficulty with that language, an attempt is made to respond in Hindi however rudimentary and halting that may be. Onge women, on the other hand, insist that any communication with them be conducted in Onge, thus subtly underscoring their control over the interaction.

A number of interpretations can be given to this behavior. One, Onge men are more obliging and willing to help out when someone has difficulties with their language. Or Onge men have perforce had to engage with an outside world within which there was never any possibility off setting the terms of discourse. Following the line of this argument, we can suggest another way of understanding the British term of pacification. Onge men relinquished any semblance of control over their lives after their resounding defeat in battles with the British. A third interpretation and one after offered by Onge men, is that the women are shy and feel bashful about speaking in Hindi. While this explanation does give one pause, it is not corroborated by other elements of women's behavior. Moreover, it does suggest that Onge men want to accommodate the women's behavior within the strictures of 'femininity' that have been laid down as normal for the mainland Indian women who now live on the settlement and on Little Andaman.

Collusion course
Onge women feel strongly about being excluded from any decisions regarding what is stocked in the small shop in the settlement. Some Onge men have been designated helpers to the welfare staff and are frequently consulted about what they desired to bury from the shop, but the women were never asked to indicate their preferences.

While individually, within the domestic space, Onge men concurred with their wives' grievances, as a group they tended to keep separate this area of interaction with the welfare staff. This was the arena of collusion which provided access to alcohol. There is a drastic change in the behavior of Onge men when they have consumed alcohol resulting in a swagger, bad language, and advances they make to non-Onge women. The remarkable feature of this change is how closely they mimic the behaviour displayed by the welfare staff or the drunken exhibitions witnessed in the nearby towns. When drinking, Onge men speak only Hindi, the most halting speaker discovering an amazing facility with the language. In that language, their conversation acquires a certain lewdness and the kind of discussion they engage in is one they shy away from when sober. The frequent topic is generally sexual dalliances. A certain pattern emerges from these discussions. In each case, the men gossiped about are married to older women, beyond child-bearing age who have either never had any children or lost those from earlier marriages. The women, who are supposedly indulging in affairs with such men, are relatively young, and have several children. To a great extent, these accounts mirror the escapades of the numerous welfare staff who have stayed at the settlement over the years.

For the Onge women, who in other respects tend to keep a tight check on their men, drinking and alcohol have become spheres through which the men evade and elude them. Their pre-eminence in matters of rituals, and the deference shown to them by their husbands in their daily lives is erased at a single stroke with alcohol.

For the Onge male, through the conspicuous consumption of food and alcohol they can evade the lived reality of colonisation (by the mainland) and aspire for membership within the club of men with power. For the Onge women, the problem of power places their own traditions of autonomy and independence at risk, thus inspiring a more clearly defined trajectory of resistance rather than a path of either accommodation or collusion.

Women power
An example of the condescension with which the Onges are treated is the fact that all the names of the children in the settlement have been conferred by the welfare staff after some popular Indian film-star, although these names are never used by the Onges among themselves. Onge children are not named until they have acquired teeth and hence the capacity to chew food. Moreover, forms of appellation are on the basis of kinship categories or some unique characteristic of the individual that distinguishes her or him from other.

One incident at Dugong Creek brought to a head the various alignments and struggles over who had the decisive voice at the settlement. Rocky, one of the children of Sheila, a recently widowed woman, had been ailing since his birth. He finally sank to a point where his death appeared imminent.

As the Andaman islanders are labeled an "endangered people" who are rapidly becoming extinct, every birth of an Onge child is rewarded with a sum of Rs 1,000 to the parents, and every death has to be explained to the highest authorities in the government.

The island's medical officer, who is the person held accountable for each life, had ignored Rocky's condition until the precariousness of his health alerted the medical officer to the possible consequences for himself. The possibility that he would be found negligent in the discharge of his duties produced a flurry of panicked responses on his part. He signaled the Directorate of Health Services at the capital office in Port Blair, that the child was critically ill and had to be removed to Port Blair immediately for more specialised treatment. He then he convinced all the other welfare staff that they too would be held responsible if Rocky died, and therefore they should all help persuade Sheila to take Rocky to Port Blair, and only then would they be let off the hook.

This was a particularly formidable task since Sheila's husband had earlier been sent to Port Blair for treatment and had not returned alive. Sheila and her family were offered every kind of inducement, an advance of money, new clothes for the whole family, any gift that they wanted and a new suitcase to carry everything to Port Blair.

Sheila, under pressure on all fronts, was reluctant to leave. Having run out of all the reasons that she had put forward for refusing and apparently tempted by the inducements offered, she appeared to give in. However, the small knots of Onge women who were conferring together caused her to change her mind again.

Dugong Creek being a particularly rough terrain, the helicopter that had been summoned landed at 6 am with much difficulty. Each such trip costs the administration as much as Rs 50,000. The medical officer accompanied by other welfare staff and the helicopter crew, trooped to get Shiela from her house, only to find she had locked herself in, and refused to come out or talk to anyone. Despite blandishments and threats, Shiela remained inside. The helicopter had to eventually leave without her, and the embarrassed and enraged medical officer, who perceived the situation as a personal affront, was told that he would have to send explanations for the debacle.

The Onges, on the contrary, were vastly amused by the spectacle, and when charged by the welfare staff with duplicity, shrugged and replied that the women had decided that it would not be appropriate for Shiela to go to Port Blair, and therefore, there was nothing further to be said about the matter. The medical officer's discomfiture kept the Onges in good humour for a while.

But over time, the occasional jibes and taunts of the welfare staff that they were all dominated by their women, stung, and the mood among the men changed to disquiet, paving the way for confirmation with the gender norms of the outside world.

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