As the 1980 documentary “Maasai Women” illustrates, the role of women in that tribe’s culture and society has remained structurally subordinate to men. The Maasai tribe, a high-lands people who reside primarily along the Kenyan-Tanzanian frontier, are an ancient people with customs and traditions markedly primitive in how they view the role of women. As the film demonstrates, theirs is a difficult existence, made more so by the poverty endemic to such indigenous groups.
The Maasai are traditionally a sheep and cattle-herding nomadic people whose existence is consistently encroached upon by the far more modernized groups concentrated in the heavily populated urban areas of both Kenya and Tanzania. While the governments of both countries have repeatedly attempted to incorporate the Maasai into their societies, the tribe has resisted such efforts and clings tenaciously to its ancient customs. Among those customs are the “formalized” subordination of women to men. As a herding society, the Maasai place tremendous value on their livestock, especially the cattle. Women’s role in this structure involves the day-to-day care of the cattle in addition to the more traditional responsibilities of raising the children and serving the men. Multiple wives per male are not uncommon, and the women work together to fulfill what is expected of them. Maasai girls are increasingly receiving an education under the aegis of nongovernmental organizations like Maasai Women Development Organization (MWDO), but this process continues to be resisted by many tribal men, especially among the elders. To these men, education for girls is a superfluous exercise and arranged marriages at a young age more in keeping with the practical responsibilities of the female as traditionally defined.
It is in the context of the subordinate role of women in Maasai culture that the myth of “the women’s cattle” was born. According to this myth, women responsible for tending the tribe’s cattle made the egregious error of allowing those cattle – again, the most prized commodity – to wander off while preoccupied with their children. Men, then, were vital to the tribe’s survival, as they would never make such a perilous mistake. The myth of “the women’s cattle” is solidly grounded in Maasai culture. Whether efforts by groups like MWDO are ultimately successful in improving the lives of Maasai women remains to be seen, although, as this and other documentaries illustrate, progress has been made. More and more Maasai women are beginning to appreciate the value of education not just for their female children, but for themselves. As with the long-term prognosis for the education of Maasai girls and women, the ramifications of such developments for tribal customs and survival are yet to be determined.
Discuss your observations of the film, Masai Women. Consider the social structure and gender roles you observed among the Masai in the film. How does the myth introduced at the end of the film justify and support this social structure? What are some of the key values in Masai society, as depicted in the film? How do the rituals of society communicate and sustain these values?