Posted by: Johan Normark | March 2, 2012

Maya women and the impact of colonialism

In her upcoming dissertation thesis “Journey to the East: Pilgrimage, Politics, and Gender at Postclassic Yucatan,” Shankari Patel discusses gender issues at the end of the Prehispanic period. She has earlier worked with the shrines and caves on Cozumel. Cozumel was an important trade port and pilgrimage destination, dedicated to Ixchel, a female deity.

Patel says that with the arrival of the Spaniards they branded women healers and diviners as witches. Women who spoke for their men were considered to be improper. Women’s status was reduced. Indeed, Clendinnen (1982) argues that the status of Yucatec women diminished due to forced shift in labor obligations (tribute and domestic service in Spanish towns). However, the Spaniards overcoded pretty much everything with their reducción. They did not necessarily target women per se. Considering the importance of Virgin Mary in Mexico, she probably replaced several of these earlier female deities. In the end the clergy was unable to suppress parallel “pagan” rites. They could enforce a code of dress in public but the Maya did not give up their topless dress for women and loincloth for men in their homes (Farriss 1984:94ff). Many Creole children also learnt Yucatec since they spent their infancy and early childhood with Maya women, so in that sense Maya women had an important impact on Colonial society.

I partly disagree with Patel’s final statement that “our” society is so patriarchal and that we are not aware of how that affects the way we look at the past. Here I feel inclined to quote Slavoj Žižek who says that “the critical claim that patriarchal ideology continues to be the hegemonic ideology is the form of the hegemonic ideology of our times” (2010:50). After decades of feminist and gender theories of various kinds most academics are aware of these issues. But there are so many other factors, apart from gender relations and identities, that affected the Prehispanic and Colonial Maya. This will be described in my upcoming article.

In fact, the role and status of women in the Prehispanic Maya area has varied. Some sites, like Yaxchilan, mention women quite often, at least during certain periods of the sites’ history. Notable are also the “warrior queens” associated with sites affiliated with the Kan kingdom during a very narrow time period. At least among the royalty women had important roles but it is difficult to say if they had that role because of their own capacity or if they were part of greater assemblages (just like the male rulers I must add). Commoner women’s status is not as easy to determine. How did the Spanish Colonial system impact on their status? It was not for the better for sure on most occasions but Farriss argues that it was the later inclusion of Yucatec Maya into a capitalist system that really made things worse on the haciendas. Before the Bourbon reforms the earlier Colonial period Maya had largely been kept outside the capitalist system.

In short, this is a very complex issue and I do not believe “patriarchy” is a major part of it.




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