Monthly Archives: February 2015

(How) Do Anthropologists Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

As an anthropologist, the first thought that comes to mind as we approach an upcoming holiday is typically, How do they celebrate this holiday in X?X being a faraway land where the celebration is likely to look quite different from how it looks in my hometown. The next thought that typically follows: Is this holiday even celebrated universally? And, if not, why not?

Cultural relativity may have taken a bashing at the hands of assorted theoreticians, but it remains a pernicious habit of mind for cultural anthropologists who’ve spent months or years living in places far from home. Once you’ve become used to eating new foods in a new way (say, using the first three fingers to delicately cup a small chunk of cooked yams pounded into a beautifully rounded, elasticky ball, then dip it into a delectable peanut sauce cooked by your West African hostess),

Foutou & Peanut Sauce

or walking down the street a different way (say, bowing your head gently to every stranger you pass on the sidewalk of Addis Ababa, to acknowledge your shared humanity), it’s hard to forget that no matter what folks around you are doing and saying, they might be doing and saying those things differently, if only they had been born elsewhere.

Take the small matter of love. This Valentine’s Day, while relishing the sentimental clichés we may, against all odds, enjoy reading in the greeting cards that come our way, and scanning delectable rows of fancy chocolates in the local gourmet food shop (some of which I have already enjoyed as gifts from my thoughtful husband), I can’t help but think about how love has looked (and felt) in other times and places.


As a freshman in college, I felt shocked to discover that the medieval French love poems assigned by my French Literature professor all addressed adulterous lovers urged to leave the castle before dawn–and before the castle’s mistress, or master, awoke. In medieval Europe, romantic love was alive and well, but rarely within the scope of marriage.

Terry, Lays of Courtly Love

Among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, romantic love is an ideal state for a married couple to attain–but, in this society organized partly around marriages arranged by elders, romantic love is more often seen not as the catalyst for marriage, but as the result of several years of marriage and becoming closer through sharing the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

In any case, by no means does allying romantic love with marriage create happiness. The U.S. divorce rate of ~50% testifies spectacularly to the frequent failure of that effort.

As a new ideal, romantic love in some places may contribute to women demanding rights they previously lacked, as the anthropologist Janneke Verheijen says happens with Guatemalan women when they watch telenovelas. But a new ideology of romantic love may also ally with old problems. In Belize, anthropologist Joan van Wijn describes how local Afro-Caribbean men who romance white tourist women perpetuate all the racism of the British colonial color hierarchy.

In this century, romantic love continues to encounter an almost unthinkable and sometimes brutal array of challenges. In southwest China, anthropologist Shanshan Du has documented how, since the 1950s, unrequited Lahu lovers forbidden by their community to divorce the spouses they did not love all too often made a joint suicide pact while singing tragic love songs at a public gathering . . . producing the world’s highest suicide rate by far.

Elsewhere, ruthless anti-love laws continue to be enforced. In Uganda, gay couples still risk spending their lives in prison if government agents discover their sexual orientation, and marriage remains an elusive hope for many of the world’s gay couples.

Ugandan Anti-Gay Law Protester-Rainbow Mask
In the U.S., interracial couples were forbidden to marry in 16 states until 1967. Thankfully those odious laws no longer govern marriage, but while interracial couples now constitute some 7% of all marriages in the U.S., they still risk having their houses polluted with liquid mercury or their car windows shattered.

Even in such trying circumstances, the very possibility of love remains a luxury not all people can even imagine elsewhere. Do the thousands of teenage girls trafficked every year from Nigeria to Italy, to be forced into sex work, ever have a chance even to conceive of romantic love?

Next fall, I will include a section about sexual slavery when I teach my Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives course.

The “Ow” of Pain

New research claims that saying “Ow” really can ease the pain.

Why am I skeptical?

Or, rather, why am I skeptical that this works globally?

For one thing, in Côte d’Ivoire, when Beng folks I’ve known slash a finger while chopping wood, or feel the effects of parasites churning in their stomachs, they don’t say “Ow,” they say “Aba” (“Father”)–or, if it really hurts–“Aba-eyyyyyyyy!” (“Daaaaaaaad!”)

But beyond whatever specific words or sounds we might say when we’re in pain, more striking are the cases of people who stringently avoid uttering any sounds, even moaning, when they’re in pain.

That would include many laboring West African women, whose elders teach them that they will bring tremendous shame on themselves and their families if they vocalize pain during childbirth.

Traditionally, Asante women in Ghana were told that going into labor is the feminine version of going to war. Under such training, withstanding pain is not just a matter of personal pride; it’s a cultural necessity. There’s even something about gender parity going on here. In anthropology, the Asante have a reputation for having one of the most gender-egalitarian societies around. Asante queens were fierce political rulers, and kings’ mothers were accorded the highly respected title of Queen Mothers. In 1900, an Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, led a major military rebellion against the British colonial powers. Down the social hierarchy, ordinary market women continue to be respected by all. Showing vocal restraint in the face of pain during childbirth seems to be part of an overall package of demonstrating power over many arenas, including one’s bodily experience.

And let’s not even talk about the common expectation that girls undergoing genital surgery for ritual reasons in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa must remain silent to demonstrate self control . . . and train themselves to withstand the pain they will undoubtedly experience later, in childbirth.

Gendered expectations about complaining about pain operate in Western societies, too. How many men remember being told, “Buck up/be a man/don’t complain like a girl” from a young age? Later in life, alcohol may offer men a socially acceptable means to cope (quietly) with pain.

Beer in Childbirth

I don’t doubt that moaning, screaming, or “Ow-ing” can alleviate pain–in societies that train people to complain about bodily discomfort, as many Western societies train women to do. (I speak from experience here. During the last minutes of my second childbirth, my nurses chided me that I could be heard loudly by their colleagues down the hall.)

But there’s the rub. Our cultural expectations about our most intimate bodily experiences are taught to us from so early on that by the time we’re aware of them, they feel “natural.” And maybe they are–in a culturally shaped way.

* * *

A postscript: A recent NPR piece sensitively explores the hard work of cultural listening required of health professionals who aim to treat people suffering from “depression,” “anxiety,” and other emotional disturbances. What cultural and linguistic forms do such deep-seated experiences take? Three psychiatrists and psychologists profiled in the piece (treating Asian and Asian-American patients) get it.

Why Not “Je Suis Lassana”?

Much of the Western world has expressed solidarity with the right to publish offensive cartoons by identifying with the cartoonists at the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by Islamicist fundamentalists.

To date, the Je Suis Charlie Facebook page has garnered some 315,000 “Likes.”

Multilingual “I am Charlie” mottos abound.

I am Charlie-Multilingual

“I am Charlie” bumper stickers and buttons flood the global online market.

I am Charlie Bumper Stickers

I am Charlie Buttons

Meanwhile, another living Parisian hero has received far less attention.

Two days after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo journalists, a young immigrant named Lassana Bathily saved the lives of fifteen people trapped inside a Kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, after another armed Islamicist militant, Amedy Coulibaly, invaded the shop in which Lassana worked.

A practicing Muslim from an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a teenage Lassana had left Mali in 2006 to join his father in Paris. Completing high school and qualifying as a trained tile worker, Lassina had overstayed his tourist visa to live as a working but undocumented immigrant until 2011, when he finally received working papers, but not citizenship.

Lassana Bathily

After gunfire rang out while he was working in the supermarket, Lassana immediately led five adults and a three-year-old down to a walk-in freezer in the basement. Lassana turned off the lights and raised the temperature. Cold and scared, the group nevertheless remained safe from the gunman (who had already killed four other customers).

Then, while the supermarket’s attacker remained at large inside the store, Lassana fearlessly used his knowledge of the building to exit (at high risk) through an elevator shaft and a fire escape, the goal being to help police free those still captive inside.

As soon as Lassana emerged onto the street, police immediately held, handcuffed, and questioned him for an hour-and-a-half under the mistaken impression that he was another attacker. (Dare we allege unconscious racism?)

Finally convincing them that he was, instead, a supermarket employee trying to help save the lives of his customers, Lassana effectively sketched the layout of the supermarket and gave the police a door key.

With the building design and key supplied by Lassana, the police were able to surreptitiously enter the supermarket (rather than storming the edifice, which would have alerted the attacker to their presence and further endangered the lives of the hostages). This quiet entry allowed the police to kill the gunman and free every one of the 15 live customers who had remained as terrified hostages.

Supermarket Hostages Released

In a television interview, Lassana later explained, “Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers. It’s not a question of being Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. You have to help each other to get through this crisis.”

In his home country of Mali, Lassana was recently welcomed by the nation’s president, foreign minister, and population at large as a national hero.

Lassana Bathily Arives in Mali
And in France, after having had several previous petitions for citizenship rejected (most recently in 2011), Lassana has finally received French citizenship.

Lassana Bathily with French Passport

Two lessons to take away from Lassana Bathily’s acts of courage:

1. Labeling someone a “Muslim” says nothing about the likelihood that s/he will kill–or save–a non-Muslim.

2. In an “othering”-crazy world enamored by the tendency to bifurcate everything and everyone into simple good/evil dualities, it’s still possible to raise human beings to transcend stereotypes and see the common humanity in species-mates.

And two questions:

1. Currently, immigrants in France wait an average of 14 years to be naturalized. Will all future undocumented migrants living peacefully in France, and contributing productively to the nation’s economy, have to undertake similar life-and-death acts of heroism to attain French citizenship in under 14 years?

2. As a small group of scholars who specialize in the study of Mali and surrounding populations have recently suggested in an online conversation, instead of “Je Suis Charlie,” why hasn’t the global meme been “Je Suis Lassana”?


P.S.  On March 24, 2015, Lassana Bathily was awarded a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an “international Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism worldwide.”   If only this micro Jewish-Muslim collaboration could serve as a model for the Mid-East . . .