Women in the past

Yes, I am casting a wide net with the title for this blog. We all celebrated March 2021 as the Women’s History Month. The discussions around the representation of women in culture drew various strands from deification of feminine power to the gaze of women as the “second sex” (in the words of Simone de Beauvoir). I wish to acknowledge the complex ways in which the records of the past have been lopsided in the favor of cis-gendered males in the society. It is time that we move beyond the binary of looking at men and women or males and females, by reassessing the ebb and flow of the narratives from the past.

Pre-historic women

If we start from the very beginning (I am talking about Stone-Age here, some millions of years ago…), the binary between men and women dictated by occupations of hunting and gathering, respectively, start out as exclusionary characteristics for the respective sexes. In reducing the gender to a particular occupation, the long-held belief among archaeologists and anthropologists has given rise to a keyhole view of looking at the ancient world. By declaring men as exclusively in-charge of welding hunting equipment, performing long-range physical activities, we are narrowing the possibility to see both genders capable of performing the tasks. Conversely, by assigning the acumen of color differentiation (by the virtue of differentiating variously colored berries and flowers) exclusively to women, we proceed with a myopic understanding that men too, can and have been attuned to color differentiation, organisation of domestic spaces, and care-giving! Gender division in labour thus seems to have been a later imposition to categorise the roles in neat categories that do not overlap.

The ethnographic studies across the globe attest to the porous boundaries of labour division. Archaeological data supports that cave-painting, tool-making, leather-work, storytelling, and other many such tasks were also a shared endevour between mean and women. Do you know that the history of brewing or beer-making in Europe was mainly a woman’s domain!? It may sound outlandish, but the connection of beer or brewing activities and females (later dubbed as witches) is an intimate account of a particular gender associated with a specific labour! (Check out the details in the podcast below)

Gazing at the women in the past

As the pointy-hat wearing, beer-selling women became a part of the cultural narratives or then urban legends, so did the revivification of the idea of powerful women as witches. The jaundiced view of women as temptresses gained momentum on one side, offset by the idea of women as the fertility deity, or all-nourishing mother figure. Balancing the two extremes of womanhood in ancient society, the ordinary woman was pushed in the crevices of historical and archaeological record, save for a few ones. Female rulers such as Queen Didda of Kashmir (c. 980-1003 CE reign), or Naganika in Western India (c. 100 BCE) left their mark through the material and scanty literary trail. [Although do you know that Queen Didda was dubbed as the “Witch Queen”? – again powerful woman conveniently labeled as a Witch!] Other illustrious queens of their time were the Kakatiya Queen Rudramadevi (c. 1262-1289 CE reign) or Sultan Razia (c. 1236-1240 CE reign) of the Delhi Sultanate. There are many more accomplished women from the past, and we need to dig in more.

One way to bring out the hidden stories of women in the past is through analyzing the available data in the form of material culture and literary accounts. In a case from an ancient site, 28 stray marks were interpreted as being a menstrual calendar left behind by an unknown female. Or remains of specific herbs to ease child-birth found at a site in Europe suggested the presence of a child-bearing woman at the site, and care-giving in the form of attendance and herbal medicines. The oral narratives handed down from grandmother to grandchildren and so on, form a stream of continuous knowledge in this very tradition.

The Grandmother Hypothesis

The “Grandmother Hypothesis”, as we discuss in the podcast episode, ties with the role of women in the society as custodians of culture. Unlike females in most other mammals, human females survive well after their menopausal stage, ie. after their ” fertile window”. The women then, part-take in bringing up young children, provide care and guidance, and are often the conduits of cultural knowledge. This hypothesis popular for studying societies in the paleolithic (or stone-age period) rings true for many communities of tight-knit kin network. Although some cultures privilege the role of male story-tellers in a standard social setting, the role of females needs to be analysed further in the domain of cultural repositories.

The spatial data on the use of landscape and space in the past societies, along with the skeletal data establishes the migration, pilgrimage and other activities shouldered equally by the men and women. The vicissitudes of the role of women in the societies of the past and the present is not merely to acknowledge of celebrate the involvement and contributions by women, but to understand the layered histories of shared societies and outlooks that make the present.

Catch the full episode 1 “She sells sea-shells on the sea shore” of Season II Chippin’ Away Podcast here:

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