The Role of Women in the Maroon Societies of Suriname and French Guiana
Translated from Dutch by Kenneth Bilby
Although the Maroon societies of Suriname and French Guiana are matrilineal, men occupy the most important positions at the administrative and political levels. The tribal leader, the gaaman, is a man, and he is represented by men within the various lo or matriclans. Each of these representatives is called kabiten and acts as head of a village. The kabiten has female and male assistants, known as basia. The positions of gaaman (tribal leader) and kabiten (village leader) are occupied exclusively by men. But in the last few years, the role and status of women in the Maroon societies of Suriname and French Guiana have gradually changed.
In the last few decades, women have been standing up for themselves and have worked to improve their position in the social, economic, and political levels of the Maroon communities. Women now have greater influence in local politics. A female kabiten (leader) was appointed in the Ndjuka region in 1995 and in the Paramaka region in 1998. Women are having more freedom to act independently in other areas of community life as well.
Until the end of 1950s it was not easy for Maroon women to go to the coastal region of Suriname and French Guiana to work or to earn money through the purchase of Western goods. Those who were able to go to the coastal regions usually went for a short time, returning soon afterwards to their homeland. Women needed permission from their mother's brother in order to go to these areas with their spouses. They were not allowed to travel outside their own tribal territory without permission. Those women who were allowed to go had to follow the rules laid down by men in the tribe. The most important rules were the following:
Should the wife not observe these rules, she would be brought back to her own village. Many women found it difficult to be left behind alone and sometimes with children in their village of origin. The husband would then go back, bringing a co-wife. If he had no other wives, he might seek out another wife, and he would take her back with him. Otherwise he would go back alone. The returning of a woman to her village also often led to divorce. The wife who was afraid of such consequences abided by the rules.
In the early 1960s, a man-made lake was created in the Saramaka territory (extending also over a small part of the Ndjuka territory). This caused the evacuation of thousands of Saramakas and a smaller number of Ndjukas people. These groups settled in "transmigration villages" near a place called Paranam and near the capital, Paramaribo. A large number of the women from the transmigration villages received education at mission schools. These women also stimulated their children, including girls, to further pursue secondary education in Paramaribo. They also began to sell their products (crafts, fruits, etc.) in Paramaribo. This led gradually to temporary as well as permanent settlements of Maroon women in coastal areas. Besides this group, there was another group of women who resided permanently in Paramaribo with their spouses, who worked for the government, particularly with the geological mining service. Their husbands remained in the forest for months while the women cared for the children in the city where they received their education.
Between late 1960s and 1980s, a pattern of continuous migration by women arose. They married young men who worked in the city, or joined family members living there. A small group of women migrated with her husbands to the Netherlands. In the mid-1980s a civil war broke out in Suriname, during which Maroon people fled from their villages to neighboring French Guiana or Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname. During this period, women often fled by themselves, with their children, since many men fought in this war or could not leave the areas where they lived. Women from both Suriname and French Guiana also fled to the Netherlands, usually via French Guiana.
Social and Economic Role
As already mentioned, in the 1970s women from the Saramaka region had begun to sell their products in the city, particularly, from the transmigration villages. But beginning in the mid-1970s, many Ndjuka women also went to sell in the markets of Paramaribo. Today women occupy an important part of Paramaribo's two large markets. Not only has their position improved in the marketplaces of Paramaribo, but these women also occupy an important part of the markets in other coastal locations, such as Albina and Moengo.
During the civil war in Suriname, Maroon women had more freedom of movement than men. They could easily move between the two front lines, and were able to travel from Paramaribo to French Guiana over land or by sea to sell goods. They sometimes crossed the border by flying over the interior. During this period many women bought houses in Paramaribo--something which until the mid-1970s, had seemed impossible. Not only did Maroon women travel to French Guiana, they also went to the gold fields. Another group of Maroon women pursued an education and now work in government offices or in particular businesses.
In French Guiana, many Maroon women work regularly or temporarily in coastal areas, mostly doing cleaning work. Certainly, according to Western standards, the majority of Maroon women in French Guiana are unemployed.
From the social and economic standpoint, Maroon women in French Guiana have also achieved a certain amount of independence as a result of the unemployment benefits they receive. Although these benefits are limited, they allow unemployed women not to be completely dependent on their husbands. Some French Guiana people frequently raise the criticism that many Maroon women just want to have children because of the government benefits paid to their children. This is not entirely correct as many Maroon women regularly sell in the markets of Saint-Laurent and Cayenne to support their income.
Administrative and Political Role
A recent and important change in the role of women in the administrative and political life of Maroon communities is that in two of the tribal territories women have been appointed as village leaders. At a meeting in Grand-Santi in 1994, all tribes agreed to change the system to accommodate the appointment of female village leaders. In 1995, Gazon, the tribal leader of the Ndjuka territorry, appointed the first female village leaders, across the entire Ndjuka area on the Tapanahoni River. In the Paramaka territory, such appointment took place in 1998. There are not yet any known cases of women being appointed village leaders in the other tribal areas. The female village leaders work closely together with the male village leaders, but are not able to perform all activities or functions. Among the most important tasks of the female kabiten are the following:
The female kabiten cannot represent their ancestors, at least the ancestors of the village. Nor can they pour libations to the ancestors--at least not at the shrine to the older ancestors, the Gaan Yooka Tiki. The menstrual taboo is probably the reason why women may not pour libations at the shrine to the ancestors.
Among the special duties that female village leaders have are various organizational tasks during specific activities in their own village, or in other villages, when they are delegated to serve outside their own village. They also have more involvement than their male counterparts with the female basia, the female assistants to the village leaders.
This article was commissioned by SITES for the Educational Resource Guide to the exhibition Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Cultures in the Americas.
Thomas Polimé is a co-curator of Creativity and Resistance and was co-curator of the Maroon Program at the 1992 Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a Maroon anthropologist who was born and raised in the Saramaka Maroon community in Suriname. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, and has done extensive research among the Maroon communities in both Suriname and French Guiana.