Published: 2017-04-12

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Joel Matthews, professor of Engineering Technology at Diablo Valley College, shared some comments after reading EDN 134. “Thank you for your excellent and timely article on women's agricultural participation in EDN 134. I have a few comments that I would like to share. First, I highlight what Laura Meitzner Yoder said regarding no absolutes in terms of gendered behavior. This truth is reinforced by the contrast between Laura's experiences of men and women working together in Asia, and Stacy Reader's experiences of separation between men and women [in one context] in Tanzania.

“As a cultural anthropologist I must remind people that, if we subscribe to the concept of cultural relativity (no single culture has the objective ability to interpret and critique the values of other societies.), then we must acknowledge that this concept cuts both ways. In other words, even our supposedly superior egalitarian ideals must not be considered absolutes. This means that we should always be careful of imposing our ideals, however well-intentioned, on others. This imposition occurs when we organize 'village meetings' where we insist that men and women join forces. Clearly, as Reader noted, such meetings are considered inappropriate [in one context] in Tanzania.

“I have observed many well-intentioned development facilitators imposing mixed meetings in contexts where such mixing is inappropriate, but this 'steamrolling' over community values is allowed, or even encouraged, when we believe that our values are superior to theirs. It is easy to imagine that if the Tanzanians would follow our lead, they could achieve the type of egalitarian society that we envision for them. This is a difficult area to sort out, especially when women are oppressed, which they often are. However, my experience in West Africa has shown me that forcing men and women to attend meetings together may ultimately harm the very women we hope to assist. This is particularly true in regions of West Africa where men and women operate in separate, parallel organizations.

“In Niger, where I did much of my research, successful men and women conduct social relations and business operations in the context of small voluntary associations. Among the Hausa women of Niger, these are often much more successful than men's associations. One of the dangers of forcing mixed development planning meetings in this context is that men can easily take control of what had previously been highly successful women's enterprises.

“Thus, I suggest that in some contexts, men and women may function in separate societies, not because women have been denied joint control over resources with men, but rather because women do not want to risk losing control of the resources that they already manage. One of the most important pre-cursors to sustainable and equitable development is to understand what already exists, and why things are the way they are. Once this is understood, it may be discovered that, rather than being haphazard, customs are based on informed decisions.

“I address these very issues in a recent article published by Taylor and Francis."