Accepted Paper:

Women's hidden economies of exchange in two patriarchal cultures  


Laura Stark (University of Jyväskylä)

Paper short abstract:

Economic systems which seem to subordinate women can actually involve secret economic transactions which may go against public morality but allow women to fulfill contradictory social expectations. Cases discussed are: low-income areas of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and 19th-century rural Finland.

Paper long abstract:

This paper applies James C. Scott's concepts of 'hidden' versus 'public transcripts' to gender relations in two cultures: 19th-century rural Finland, and present-day low-income, predominantly Muslim neighborhoods in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. For 19th-century Finland, I examine ethnographic archival data on the practice known as 'home thievery', in which farm mistresses secretly sold goods from the farm behind the farm master's back in order to buy clothing with which to display their superior status, and to pay 'gossip-women' to gather and disseminate information on their behalf. In Dar es Salaam, I have employed ethnographic methods to study transactional sex among poor Muslim youth, in which young women receive money and material goods in exchange for sex with men who have better access to work and wages. This practice, while ensuring that women are dependent upon men as providers, also ensures that they can resist parental authority and be self-sufficient and therefore respectable vis-à-vis other women in their neighborhood.

I argue that gendered arrangements which appear to subordinate women can involve hidden economic transactions which go against public concepts of morality but which allow women to fulfill the contradictory social expectations laid upon them. I use these two cases to also argue for a more nuanced picture of female social agency in patriarchal cultures as composed of (1) economic dependence on men and (2) resistance to the public transcript of patriarchy through subversive practices, as well as (3) the attainment of autonomy and status vis-à-vis other women through these practices.

Panel P030
Innovation and continuity in the anthropology of gender and sexuality (Network for the Anthropology of Gender and Sexuality)