Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa





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Gender in the Marshes

Posted on Thursday 23 February 2006

..."I lived in the Marshes of Southern Iraq from the end of 1951 until June 1958...I spent these years in the Marshes because I enjoyed being there...Soon the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear."

— The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger,1964
Wilfred Thesiger lived with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq for many years. He was a keen observer and this excerpt provides a fascinating glimpse into how gender and trans-gender issues were dealt with in this traditional society. Unburdened by much of the baggage of more connected and modern societies these attitudes were straightforward, sensible and humane. This quote was taken from a post by emily0 at quench zine.
One afternoon, a few days after leaving Dibin, we arrived at a village on the mainland. The sheikh was away looking at his cultivations, but we were shown to his mudhif [guest house made of reeds] by a boy wearing a head-rope and cloak, with a dagger at his waist. He looked about fifteen and his beautiful face was made even more striking by two long braids of hair on either side. In the past all the Madan [Marsh Arabs] wore their hair like that, as the Bedu [Bedouin] still did. After the boy had made us coffee and withdrawn, Amara [one of Thesiger's boat boys] asked, 'Did you realize that was a mustarjil?' I had vaguely heard of them, but had not met one before.'A mustarjil is born a woman,' Amara explained. 'She cannot help that; but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man.'

'Do men accept her?'

'Certainly. We eat with her and she may sit in the mudhif. When she dies, we fire off our rifles to honour her. We never do that for a woman. In Majid's village there is one who fought bravely in the war against Haji Sulaiman.'

'Do they always wear their hair plaited?'

'Usually they shave it off like men.'

'Do mustarjils ever marry?'

'No, they sleep with women as we do.'

Once, however, we were in a village for a marriage, when the bride, to everyone's amazement, was in fact a mustarjil. In this case she had agreed to wear women's clothes and to sleep with her husband on condition that he never asked her to do women's work. The mustarjils were much respected, and their nearest equivalent seemed to be the Amazons of antiquity. I met a number of others during the following years. One man came to me with what I took for his twelve-year-old son, suffering from colic, but when I wanted to examine the child, the father said, 'He is a mustarjil.' On another occasion I attended a man with a fractured skull. He had fought with a mustarjil whom I knew, and had got the worst of it.

Previously, while staying with Hamud, Majid's brother, I was sitting in the diwaniya (brick guest house) when a stout middle-aged woman shuffled in, enveloped in the usual black draperies, and asked for treatment. She had a striking, rather masculine face, and lifting her skirt exposed a perfectly normal full-sized male organ. 'Will you cut this off and turn me into a proper woman?' he pleaded. I had to confess that the operation was beyond me. When he had left, Amara asked compassionately, 'Could they not do it for him in Basra? Except for that, he really is a woman, poor thing.' Afterwards I often noticed the same man washing dishes on the river bank with the women. Accepted by them, he seemed quite at home. These people were kinder to him than we would have been in our society.

— The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger pp. 168-170
Alas, much of this ancient way of life was destroyed when Saddan Hussein drained the marshes and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Given the hold of doctrinaire religious groups over the politics of post-Saddam Iraq, I can only guess that this tradition of acceptance would have become an early casuality of this tragedy.

If you are interested in reading my earlier postings about the Marsh Arabs start here with a post about the continuity of the role the marshlands played in Southern Iraq from the time of ancient Sumerians right up until the mid-20th century when it was occupied by Shia Ma'dan.

Then follow the sad tale of the marshland drainage carried out by Saddam as part of the plan to fight the 1991 insurgency and as collective punishment of an entire population — all under the watchful eyes of forces patrolling Iraq's southern "no fly zone". The article goes up to the attempts to partially restore the marshes since the overthrow of Saddam. An update on these efforts can be found here.

Finally, a reprint of a 20 year long anthropological project led by Edward Ochsenschlager to document the traditional marshland way of life as a way of informing and providing social context to archaeological digs in this ancient region.

You may also be interested reading this background on the marshy origins of the Noah's Ark story, Noah's archetype, Ziusudra, was a marshland sheik!