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close this book Measuring drought and drought impacts in Red Sea Province
close this folder 1. Introduction to Red Sea Province
View the document Physical Geography
View the document Precipitation
View the document Political organisation
View the document Infrastructure, economic activities, and employment
View the document Agriculture
View the document Pastoralism
View the document Drought-coping strategies
View the document Population and human geography
View the document Land Tenure
View the document Gender Relations in Beja society
View the document Overview of famine relief in Red Sea Province
View the document References
View the document Appendix 1.1.
View the document Appendix 1.2.

Gender Relations in Beja society

There is a clear sexual division of labour in Beja society and it may be said that gender is one of the most important issues in Beja life. The table below presents the sexual division of labour of rural Beja people in Red Sea Province.

Table 1.4. Traditional sexual division of labour In Red Sea Province.

Task

Performer

 

Men

Women

Basket making

 

X

Wool blanket weaving

 

X

Charcoal making

X

 

Domestic chores*

 

X

Erecting tent

 

X

Fetching water*

X

X

Food preparation

 

X

Fuelwood collection*

 

X

Harvesting cereals

X

X

Harvesting cotton

 

X

Herding camels

X

 

Herding goats**

X

 

Herding sheep**

X

 

Labour in Gash

X

 

Labour in Tokar

X

 

Leather bag making

 

X

Marketing

X

 

Mat making

 

X

Milking livestock

X

 

Planting cereals

X

X

Raising chickens

 

X

Rope making

X

X

Temporary shelter construction

X

 

Trade

X

 

Wage labour in Port Sudan

X

 

* Also performed by children around the tent.

** Performed by women around the tent with the milk herd.

In addition to the sexual division of labour there is a strict division of between public and private life that is based on gender. Women's roles are private and domestic while men's are public. As in many traditional societies, the Beja women's role is principally related to food preparation, homemaking, and reproduction. Women's roles are totally rural and home oriented while, men enjoy a mix of rural and urban activities.

Although women do own property in animals, they are not allowed to milk them and their ownership has to be seen in context. If an animal needs milking, even if it is her own, she must call a male relative to come and milk it for her. Women accumulate assets in livestock and jewellery earned from a variety of economic activities depending on location, however, women are dependent on their husbands or male relatives to market all goods and crafts they produce. Although shar'iyya law stipulates that women should inherit one-half the share of her brothers, women generally cede al} their rights of inheritance to their brothers. An exception to this is the inheritance of the tent and the implements belonging to the tent. These are passed down from woman to woman. Adobe and wooden houses, in contrast, are built and belong to men and form part of their inheritance.

The woman's domain is rural and she rarely in her lifetime visits the towns of Red Sea Province; it is the man's role to act as the interface with the outside world. The practical implication of this system is that men, entitled to be public creatures, obtain the benefits of the towns and women and their children do not. An example of the implications of the dichotomy between the public world of men and the private world of women is the more varied and nutritious diet of men who eat in roadside restaurants and in Port Sudan where lentils, beans, meat and other nutritious foods are available at little cost. In normal times, however, rural women are poorly nourished (Anonymous 1968) and in times of drought or economic inflation the food stress problem is critical. The irony is that women's nutritional needs during their reproductive years are greater than those of men.

Education for women is viewed by rural people as sinful and dangerous because it leads to public life and dishonour. Town dwellers normally only educate their daughters, if they educate them at all, to primary level. There is much social pressure against the father who wants to educate his daughters above the primary level. It is commonly believed that women will become uncontrollable and dishonour the family if they are educated. Traditionally, women are not permitted to enter the market in the town of Sinkat, one of the most conservative areas. Destitute women forced from the rural areas into the periphery of Sinkat by drought and the breakdown of their families sell mats and other goods along the road several hundred metres from the men's roadside service centre and a kilometre from the market. In urban areas women go about veiled and they travel in pairs to ensure each other's honour and presumably to act as witness to the conduct of the other. In areas of comparable conservatism women are sometimes killed because they were believed to have brought shame upon their families by their conduct (see Antoun 1968, Al-Sada'awi 1982).

Women are excluded from political affairs in Beja culture. For example, women were forbidden to go to vote in the last election for the National Assembly (Mohammed Osman Omer 1989). The reasons advanced for such action were:

1. Women's duty is to reproduce and rear children.

2. Women have no understanding about public affairs.

3. It is sinful for women to be with men in public.

The historical basis for Beja gender relations may be related to extreme resource scarcity and the property relations that have developed over time under such conditions of scarcity in Red Sea Province. Fear of alienation of land from the kin group (loss of control) goes far in explaining the genesis and development of gender relations in Beja culture.

To understand the Beja system it is useful to first consider the reproduction of the family, the control over the reproduction of the family, and the control of scarce resources. There are two methods of controlling individuals: social and physical. In general, social controls extend from internal controls developed during socialisation, to mild sanction, to ostracism. Physical controls extend from mild punishment, to irnprisonment, to amputation (in cases involving theft under shar'iyya law), to execution. Control of resources involves restrictions on use and access and sometimes physical presence. En earlier times it required violence. Control over the reproduction of the family is similar to control of resources in that it involves restrictions on use and access.

The Beja system minimises the contact of the female with all outside males who possibly could have a sexual interest in her and who could interfere with the preferred first cousin marriage. The purpose of this practice in the highly competitive Beja tribal society is to minimise land claims and keep the little agricultural land and meagre pasture with the smallest and most closely related familial unit (see Hassan Mohammed Salih 1976, and Abdel Hamid forthcoming).

The family unit is not without competition and conflict. Control of resources within the family and even the composition of the family unit itself is a gender issue. Basically, the family is divided into two groups: the herding unit and the tent cluster (Hassan Mohammed Salih 1976).

The herding unit, a cooperative, patrilineally segmented unit of production designed to overcome labour constraints is composed of one of three groups of men.

1. The household head and his married sons.

2. Brothers and their married sons.

3. A man and his brother's sons.

This group may not have collective rights to the herd but may be instead an "anticipatory inheritance group" (Hassan Mohammed Salih 1976). Brothers will usually keep their herds together unless one of them is particularly industrious, in which case he keeps his animals separately and hires herders.

The tent cluster, in contrast, is composed of females of the family. It is a cooperative group for female tasks. The tent cluster is made up of the mother's tent and the tents of her married daughters and/or sisters with their husbands. The tent cluster expands as its daughter's get married and begins to dissolve after the last daughter's marriage. The reason for this is that at marriage the rules of residence are uxorilocal; this means that the new husband resides at his wife's residence. Control of livestock and livestock products expands with the marriage of daughters as bridewealth is brought to the tent cluster by the sons-in-law. Later, when the daughter's daughters are ready for marriage, she moves her tent away from her mother's tent in order to establish a new tent cluster of the diwaab. This move away from the family is accomplished in this resource-scarce society through the gaining of bridewealth for her daughters. Bridewealth is normally in animals and has the potential to represent for a family the most significant contribution to the family members' lifelong food security. Ownership of animals, however, is not the ultimate arbiter of food security in Beja life. Control of animals, use of the bridewealth, is more important. This is because there is an inherent conflict of interest and competition over the control of animals between the herding unit and the tent cluster. This competition is at the household level between the patrilineal family and the tent cluster that a man joins after marriage. The woman's family attempt to increase the resource transfer (bridewealth) from the son-in-law's family as much as possible while at the same time, the male siblings of the prospective son-in-law attempt to minimise it as far as possible in order to enhance their command over bridewealth for their own marriages. Ultimately, conflict is avoided through the use of first cousin marriage which maintains close relations and minimises the alienation of animals.

An alternative explanation of the Beja system of resource use is resource spreading in a resource scarce environment. Divested of its competition and conflict the Beja system may be explained as a strategy or mechanism, although this explanation is not complete. The herding unit/tent cluster dichotomy, however, may be what remains in this isolated corner of the world of a once-prevalent matriarchy which was replaced by a patriarchal system, later codified in Christianity and Islam. Morton (1989), however, presents a convincing argument against the existence of a matriarchy in ancient times. This matter deserves further investigation.