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Gender in Ancient Egypt


Two recent introductions to gender in archaeology:
Gilchrist 1999
Sørensen 2000

Problems with terminology
Several words used in gender studies have more than one meaning in contemporary English. It is important to define, for example, whether by 'sex' the writer intends to refer to the male or female sex of a body, or to sexual activity. Here are two outlines for the terms 'sexed bodies' and 'gender':

Sexed bodies - bodies identified in archaeology as male or female
Note the cultural selection restricting the range to two options in such identifications. In order to avoid ethnocentric assumptions, it may be useful to replace the two categories with a more self-conscious spectrum of anatomical possibilities. Excavation reports tend to apply the male/female opposition without discussion. The two categories of male and female sexed bodies are reinforced by the observation that a large number of different human societies categorise individuals according to reproductive role (individual role in the reproduction and therefore survival of the society).

Gender - the sum of associations, attitudes and practices prescribed by human societies for their members according to their sexed bodies. These prescriptions are 'cultural', that is, they derive from society, not from physical capabilities. Most men and women are broadly capable of the same activities, with the major exception of childbirth itself. The ethnographic spectrum of gender constructions makes it unsafe to assume anything in advance, whether in the number of genders or in the specific associations. To take a couple of simplified examples, in the northern European gendered division of labour, washing clothes and milking cows are two activities often assumed to be 'women's work', whereas, in Ancient Egyptian formal visual and written records, both were carried out by men.


Problems with binary oppositions

Note the problems inherent in imposing such a divide between 'nature' and 'culture', between body and mind, or individual and society. The binary structure can be a useful introductory device, but may overpower any potential insight into the workings of these different human individuals and groups.



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