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),
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.
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.
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.