Out of Breathe? A Re-evaluation of the Use of Feminist Theory in Interpretations of Archaeology in Non-Western Countries

Soren Blau (Australian National University) soren@coombs.anu.edu.au

…a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her… (Said 1978:6)

Over the last 20 years the definition of archaeology as being merely “the study of remains of the prehistoric period, a systematic description or study of antiquities” (The Shorter Oxford Dictionary) has come to be regarded as increasingly minimalist and outdated. Archaeological interpretation has been seen as subjective and potentially political (for example, the use of archaeology in Nazi Germany and Zimbabwe: Trigger 1984; Spain: Diaz-Andreu 1993; and Southeast Asia: Anderson 1991:178-185). Consequently, archaeologists are now encouraged not only to study material culture, but also incorporate a study of attitudes towards these remains (Blau 1995).

Because the past, including archaeological remains which represent the past, encompasses common aspects of the inheritance which groups of people may draw on in order to maintain a sense of belonging, archaeology is no longer used purely in a search for historical roots (Kristiansen 1989:24), but is often part of a struggle to (re)capture a cultural identity. Archaeology has been used to undermine peoples (Ucko 1983), as was the case with the general lack of concern with change in prehistoric archaeology in the United States during the nineteenth century, and in Australia during the early decades of the twentieth century. This contributed to both the Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians being viewed by the general public as ‘primitive’, and “incapable either of initiating progressive cultural development or of benefiting from it” (Trigger 1981:135). Archaeology can also legitimate new national identities by the creation of a unique past (Layton 1989; Silberman 1989; Trigger 1984; Kohl and Fawcett 1995) and thus may contribute to the creation of nations.

With an acknowledgement that there is no monolithic understanding of the past, an awareness of the ramifications of interpretations made by different peoples is important. In this paper, the foundations and tenets of feminist theories will be summarized to highlight questions which need to be considered if such theories are to be used in developing archaeological interpretations in non-Western countries. While such concepts are discussed with reference to the archaeology of southwest Asia, in particular the United Arab Emirates, questions raised have obvious relevance to other, quite different cultural contexts, such as Aboriginal Australia.

Many of the questions directing archaeological research in areas such as modern day Jordan, Iran, Iraq or Arabia (traditionally referred to as the ‘Middle East, a term now regarded as Eurocentric; Heard-Bey 1982:6), have often been considered antiquated. Interpretation is often lacking, with emphasis being placed on description and typology (Trigger 1989:197-200). Despite vibrant debates concerning methods of archaeological interpretation, approaches to explaining southwest Asian archaeology remain predominantly culture-historical. While the origins for such an approach may be understood in terms of the history of European exploration in southwest Asia, that is, predominantly deep-seated, antiquarian interests leading to exploration and colonization, it is interesting to question the cultural-historical approach in the light of the postmodern promotion of multiple voices. Consideration should be given to interpretations provided by both Western archaeologists and indigenous peoples in an attempt to disband the ‘colonial’ nature of much of the archaeological investigation in the region (see for example Blau 1995). Further, acknowledging multiple explanations about the past may confront the culture-historical nature of the interpretations which helps perpetuate the peripheral nature of archaeology in this region.

Often seen as a consequence of the current postmodern phase or condition (Kourany et al. 1993; Rosenau 1992:119-121 cf. Knapp 1996:130-135), plurality within postprocessual archaeological interpretation (see for example, Englestad 1991; Hodder 1991; Shanks and Tilley 1987) has been encouraged, not only to incite varied ways of viewing the past, but also as an attempt to acknowledge and accept difference. Some of the voices which have gained a wider hearing in the last two decades are those of women, especially in attempts to incorporate feminist theories into archaeological interpretation. Because feminist theories have radically shaken the way we think about many issues in language, education, personal interaction, status and so on, their potential in developing new approaches to archaeological interpretation in non-Western countries or settled/colonized nations, needs to be considered.

Emerging out of the French Revolution, but with a background in the Enlightenment (Rendall 1985:2), the feminist movement has gained a wide following, influencing many disciplines including anthropology, sociology, and history. This following has arisen mainly in response to the growing awareness that accounts of human behaviour are predominantly accounts of male actions (Roberts 1993:16). From a background of 20 years of explicitly feminist scholarship (Conkey 1993:8), feminist archaeological inquiries were inspired by Conkey and Spector in an attempt to formulate an ‘archaeology of gender’ (Conkey and Spector 1984). A relatively recent recognition of a one-sided telling of the stories of the past has resulted in an increasing reassessment by archaeologists involved with gender of the ways the past is interpreted and who controls these interpretations.

Having their origins in a long-standing Western tradition, feminist interpretations begin with a critical stance and a strong commitment to that tradition and the theoretical knowledge that accompanies it. Feminists challenge and continue to question history, authority, language and the entire Western intellectual view that places women in a subordinate position. Feminist scholarship involves a scrutiny of Western concepts (Conkey 1993:4), and in this questioning, with its critical self-positioning, helps provide the means by which women can take apart the givens and simultaneously generate not just alternatives but replacements (ibid:7).

Present-day problems in society, such as gender inequalities, oppression, control, and male domination or biases which confront women, have resulted in people (mainly women) involved with archaeology attempting to investigate these issues in the past. Similarly, ideas about inequality in the past provoke women to strive more for equality in the present and reject the notion that inequalities can continue. For this reason, feminist interests in archaeological research must be seen to be carried out, not purely to investigate ‘women in the past’, but also as a political tool in the present. Further, feminist thinking implies that the past is relevant not just because it explains the present, but because it challenges the present, just as feminism itself challenges history, authority and language (Conroy 1993:11). In sum, the aim of considering gender in archaeological interpretations should not be limited to a search for evidence of gender concerns in the past (Roberts 1993:20), but should also consider what we are saying about these issues in the present.

A major concern of archaeologists confronting gender is to “problematise underlying assumptions about gender and difference” (Conkey and Gero 1991:5). Based on feminist writings regarding assessments and critiques of issues such as family, kinship and labour divisions (Conkey 1993:5), archaeologists who deal with gender in antiquity have investigated long-standing concerns of archaeology including the formation of states, trade and exchange, lithic production, and food production, to name a few, refuting stereotypes such as “man the hunter”, “man the toolmaker” and “man the artist” (ibid:15; Moser 1993:75).

In addressing nearly all aspects of archaeological inquiry, feminist theory contests traditional phallologocentric Western paradigms and philosophies (Meskell 1996:2). However, feminist scholarship is very much a product of the European intellectual tradition of containing knowledge, and thus a product of European philosophy and science (Balme and Beck 1993:62). Feminists began with a commitment to the development of theory. Although gender theory has been seen to provide a way to enter into “archaeological analysis independent from the empiricist and positivist epistemologies and procedures that have had such a problematic (and limiting) effect on archaeological interpretation” (Conkey and Gero 1991:8), the development of a body of explanation known as ‘theory’ has been seen to function as the attempt to turn knowledge into a truth or science (Gunew 1990:16). Theory may thus represent an attempt to move beyond the chaos and abstractions of individual experience to objective and universal truth; to transcend the particular (ibid:16), a very Western (if not male) intellectual pursuit. Theorists and philosophers who have influenced poststructural/postmodern ideas, including Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Ricoeur, Bourdieu and Giddens (note they are all men!), have also had a prominent influence on feminist post-modernists (Engelstad 1991:503). Like all other forms of theory, including gender-based ones, feminist theories are dependent upon and reflect a certain set of social experiences (Flax 1987:628). Feminist philosophizing has stemmed almost completely from Western foundations.

There is no doubt that the early stages of feminist theory placed considerable emphasis on maintaining an image of unity among women (Kaplan 1996 quoted in Neill 1996:11; see also Scheper-Hughes 1983:109, 111-112). By the 1980s however, White feminist women could no longer ignore “the critique of white feminist racism by feminist/radical women of colour” (Frankenberg 1993:2; see also Ang 1995:58-65; Brooks 1995:292-293). Thus, many feminist writers have recognized that a ‘universal woman’ does not exist and that women’s experiences vary depending upon ethnicity, class, history and culture (Engelstad 1991:504; Kourany et al. 1993:25). In engendering the past, a central concern must therefore be to take into account what gender means in non-Western countries and how this will affect archaeological interpretations which consider gender (Lesick 1993).

Although Western cultures tend to define a person’s gender “primarily through their biology which is seen as invariant throughout life” (Herdt 1990:435), other cultures may have very different views of what gender is and how it develops and changes. Thus, while “sex is a result of biological phylogeny…gender is a result of the human enculturation of sexual identity” (Balme and Beck 1993:61), and will differ depending on the society. That is, gender is both culturally and socially constructed, with gender roles being given meaning in historically and culturally specific ways (Conkey and Gero 1991:8; Flax 1987:629). Thus, “knowing whether a child is a ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ acts as an organizing focus for perception of its physical and emotional attributes, even its future potential” (Conroy 1993:153). There is no universal distinction between sex and gender in recent human societies. Further, if, as it has been argued, “language and the use of symbols are fundamental to the construction and maintenance of gender” (ibid:154), the diversity of linguistic and symbolic meaning in non-Western countries means the potential for differing concepts of gender is vast. There is, therefore, no simple single definition of gender. We cannot assume that gender is a global idea, because gender as developed by feminists is a European concept (Gunew 1990:29).

The fact remains that the main intellectual resources for feminist theories are all Western in origin, created to question and deal with specific conditions and interests. With such an obvious load of Western intellectual baggage, how then is it possible for feminist archaeologists working in non-Western countries to engender the pasts of those societies? Although many feminists have called into question the very concept of objectivity, to what extent can feminist theory move beyond the gender-biased theories it critiques (Flax cited in Englestad 1991:504), especially with regard to work and interpretation of non-Western ideas? Many feminists take “gender as a central analytical and conceptual category, as a socially constructed historical and dynamic process, as embedded in other cultural experiences, ideologies, and material social institutions” (Conkey 1993:5). If this is the case, how can Western archaeologists who work in foreign countries, and who adopt feminist perspectives, hope to engender the past as well as retain awareness of and respect for indigenous perspectives? Will not Western feminist archaeologists impose their own cultural categories onto the indigenous world (as seen in feminist anthropological studies; see for example, Nelson 1993:95)?

While postmodern feminist theorists attempt to articulate feminist diversities, when feminist archaeologists make use of such theories to interpret the past, will the indigenous community agree with, or support such interpretations? For example, gender is one of the major forms of constituting subjectivity in contemporary Western society. For this reason, assumptions are continually made about prehistoric societies by Western archaeologists. If gender is considered when interpreting the archaeology from southwest Asia, a predominantly Islamic region, how will Western feminist theories be accepted by local people, especially if the reader is male (which is more than likely considering the structure of societies in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where 66.5% of the population is male; Anon 1997:1045)?

Although interpretations of archaeological remains recovered from the United Arab Emirates are beginning to move away from being predominantly descriptive, recent publications concerning activities undertaken in the past perpetuate simplistic and sexist interpretations. Thus, for example, skeletal remains exhibiting large muscle attachments are attributed to men who developed these muscles through the “demands of lifestyles such as navigation, hunting at sea, fishing, [and] making tools” (Kunter 1996:49). Alterations on the bones attributed to conflict are interpreted as belonging to men, while pathological defects indicating anaemia are attributed to women (ibid:50). Such interpretations of course invite questions about the attitudes of those people (who are predominantly Western) positing renditions of the past in the United Arab Emirates. However, given that the majority of archaeological research is carried out by foreign scholars, an equally important inquiry would be to examine the extent to which local people adopt and utilize such interpretations (Blau 1995:126).

While work is in progress to question and refute the sexist interpretations outlined above (see for example, Blau 1999), it is debatable whether suggestions that perhaps both men and women undertook such activities in the past will be tolerated, especially considering contemporary attitudes towards women in the workforce of the United Arab Emirates. Given that contemporary politics plays a significant part in the ways in which interpretations of the past are accepted, it is interesting to note that social attitudes in the Gulf (which includes the United Arab Emirates) are more conservative than anywhere else in the Arab world. The great speed with which ‘modernization’ took place in the Gulf as a result of the discovery of oil resulted in a tightening of customs and traditions, including the low participation of women in the work force (Hijab 1988:123).

Problems which may occur when attempts to engender the interpretations of the archaeology from Islamic countries are made include the “well established tradition to discuss Muslim women by comparing them implicitly and explicitly to Western women, which reflects the underlying concern about who is more civilized than whom” (Mernissi 1985:7). In some cases, non-Western critical intellectuals align themselves with feminists because they identify a parallel struggle, that is, both groups confront the dominant, predominantly male-powered West (Sharabi 1990:44-48). However, it is necessary to consider how the public, as opposed to ‘educated’ intellectuals will react when viewing, for example, museum displays which, written from a feminist perspective, might suggest that in pre-Islamic nomadic society women were not separated from men, were treated with esteem, and played a significant part in public life (as suggested by Lichtenstädter in a study of written sources; Lichtenstädter quoted in Nelson 1993:97-98).

Reflecting on these issues in terms of Aboriginal archaeology in Australia, it is equally possible to see the ‘needs’ of White academics advocating engendered interpretations of the past dictating to Aboriginal people. “As feminist research [increasingly] settles into academia” (extract from Kaplan 1996 quoted in Neill 1996), interpretations of archaeological meaning focusing on women, or at least seeing the role of men and women as equal, are more evident in the literature. While many White Australian women working in Australian archaeology have benefited from such studies, there has been little interest in the ways in which gender-specific studies affect Aboriginal people. Such considerations are worthwhile especially, given the recent acknowledgement in Australia that Indigenous people need to regain control of their knowledge and resources in order to avoid further exploitation (Fourmile 1989; Tjamiwa 1992; see also Anon 1996).

Working out how feminist interpretations of archaeology in non-Western countries can be carried out or whether they are possible at all is difficult to resolve, as such work in foreign countries is often seen as a threat to accepted norms. Archaeological teams working in non-Western countries surely contribute to Western domination in academic research, and can therefore be seen as political (Shennan 1989:66). If people work in foreign countries and wish to carry out feminist interpretations of the material culture, is this not yet another ruling ideology being written for the indigenous person? Feminism may, for example, become to Muslim peoples what male biases have become to feminists, that is, yet another oppressing presence (for differences in perceptions see Sharabi 1990:45). In a country such as the United Arab Emirates, where relatively little archaeological investigation has been carried out by indigenous people, a danger exists where by interpretations of material culture by foreign archaeologists, feminist or otherwise, become the dominant understanding of the past.

Feminists necessarily argue for the superiority of their own point of view (Rosenau 1992:86) and although postprocessual theory in archaeology and postmodern theory more generally may advocate pluralism, deciding on who hears a particular voice appears to be a matter of relative power (Englestad 1991:505; Rosenau 1992:86). Given that since its beginning archaeology has been associated with aspects of colonialism (Kohl and Fawcett 1995:9), it will more than likely be the Western voice (feminist or otherwise) which will be heard in the interpretation of indigenous archaeology. Will feminist interpretations in a non-Western country therefore continue Western domination, keeping ideological information and interpretation firmly in the hands of the ruling ideology? (Gidiri 1974:449-451).

While many questions have been raised in this discussion on the use of feminist interpretations of archaeology in non-Western countries, “gender does matter” (Conkey and Gero 1991:17), because investigations into gender have challenged the dominant ideology and made people question their assumptions (which surely must be good for archaeologists who need to continually re-evaluate interpretations). But caution is needed in seeing that the archaeology of gender does not create a situation where one cannot talk about difference without implying hierarchy, as has so often happened in anthropological studies of different cultures (cf. Moore 1993).

If, however, Western archaeologists are going to continue excavating in foreign countries (as they will undoubtedly do), and people incorporate feminist theories into their interpretations of the material culture, then consideration needs to be given to both the social and political effects of these interpretations, and whether they can in fact be accepted at all by the indigenous people. More to the point, indigenous people need to be able to speak on their own behalf. Perhaps, therefore, the real challenge to feminist archaeologists is how to theorize the experiences and views of indigenous people about archaeology. Should feminist archaeologists be striving for the goal of autonomy, rather than equality, which would include both women and indigenous cultures (Sharabi 1990:46), or would that too be a Western imposition? There is clearly much work to be done in utilizing feminist theories in engendering the past outside of the West.


I would like to thank Ian Lilley for providing me with the opportunity to present a version of this paper at the 1996 Australian Archaeological Association Conference. Thanks must also go to Ian Lilley, Paul Rainbird, Penelope Allison, Jane Lydon and Meredith Wilson for their comments on earlier drafts. Kurtis Lesick sent me a copy of the paper he delivered in Calgary, which I greatly appreciate. Unless otherwise referenced all views expressed are my own.


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