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Rastafari women’s work in twenty-first century Shashamane, Ethopia, reflects changes in gendered behaviors and enduring patterns of Caribbean colonial plantation societies.

Kinship was the lynchpin of anthropology’s “classic” theme of culture linking society, economy, and politics. Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) or Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935) provided familial relations, ties, and obligations as entry points to studying what used to be called “peoples and cultures.” The family supposedly provided a microcosm for understanding wider social dynamics.

But given five centuries of racial capitalism dependent on forced labor regimes (think of Indigenous and African enslavement or Asian indentureship), modern West Indian/Caribbean kinship systems were not as easily affixed in ethnographies of small-scale societies and corresponding kinship diagrams. Within anthropology, the Caribbean was, to use Sidney Mintz’s words, “an ambiguous region, ethnographically speaking.” Mass-scale plantation production within European colonialism institutionalized this ambiguous system.

Recognizing this ambiguity and building from extended fieldwork from the inter-war period onward, one enduring theory of Caribbean kinship is the “dual character”—particularly of Creole kinship. Anthropologists such as Edith Clarke in post-World War II colonial Jamaica and, more recently, Karen Fog Olwig from multisited fieldwork in Nevis and throughout the Caribbean diaspora, have researched this dual character. Caribbean kinship has both an aspirational component predicated on White European colonial elite models and a “folk” component in which the lived experience of the mostly Black poor incorporates commitments to expanded alliances of family. The latter includes biological and fictive kin such as community members and neighbors. In the Jamaica Safar (Jamaica Neighborhood) in the city of Shashamane, Ethiopia, family also refers to fellow Rastafari.

Following a twentieth-century grant of land from the former Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie I, this community developed out of several migrations of Rastafari from the Caribbean, in particular from Jamaica to Ethiopia. Considering historical and material contexts helps in understanding how gender roles are shaped within this contemporary spiritual repatriation. Refocusing the center of worldviews from Europe to Africa with Ethiopia as divine—the birthplace of the Rastafari divine figure, Haile Selassie I, as well as the birthplace of humanity—Rastafari both challenge global disparities and reproduce hierarchies in the local space of the Jamaica Safar. While the worldview challenges modern racialized hierarchies, gender hierarchies re-emerge in Shashamane.

Credit: Shelene Gomes
Photograph of a group of houses and a sign that reads "Africa Unite."
A roadside view of Shashamane/Melka Oda, circa 2009.

The implications of these historically situated material and symbolic contexts are observable in the yard, pronounced “yaad” in Jamaican Patois. Emerging in the colonial era, yaad signalled poor urban areas where many families shared one space. As the yaad was typically organized around a common standpipe or water source, selected household activities such as cooking were completed together. Yaad residents provided support in difficult financial and emotional situations and shared in good times, as expected of kin.

The yaad also describes a single-family dwelling and its surroundings. In the postcolonial Caribbean, Barry Chevannes writes, the “yaad…is a central reference point of self-identification among African-Caribbeans,” it is “the summary of memory, life and hope.” This too is observable in Rastafari yaads in Shashamane, underscoring that the yaad is a prime site to examine social reproduction.

Among diasporic Caribbean peoples, with Rastafari in various locales across political borders functioning as kin, the yaad can also be conceptualized as translocal. Global networks contribute to the expansion of Rastafari kinship through financial and in-kind remittances that are sent to sustain the community in Shashamane. This reliance on global networks is not devoid of tension between support and conflict.

Like changes in Caribbean Rastafari kinship, there are observable changes in gendered behaviors but not in gender expectations. What is noticeable in Rastafari yaads is the reproduction of gendered norms of reproductive and productive labor—while men also challenge these norms by doing certain kinds of domestic work and childcare out of economic necessity. Yet changes to gender roles caused by economic conditions do not presage changes to norms and attitudes. Behaviors change to ensure social reproduction.

Peter Wilson’s discussion of the reputation and respectability value system characteristic of Caribbean societies is a useful reference to help explain this point. Drawing on fieldwork with English-speaking Jamaican-descended populations in Providencia, off the Colombian coast and from a comprehensive review of ethnographic work conducted in the French-, English-, and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Wilson conceptualized a value complex based on sociological classifications of gender, class, occupation, race, and age. Competing Eurocentric elite values of respectability and Afrocentric folk ones of reputation ensured that those of low status (the poor) could counteract their exclusion from respectable status. Exclusion of this sort occurred when persons typically were not able to fulfil juxtaposed ideals of masculinity and femininity within a capitalist heteropatriarchal system.

While the worldview challenges modern racialized hierarchies, gender hierarchies re-emerge in Shashamane.

For instance, citing William Davenport, Wilson writes that women were positioned as “carriers of respectability” in Jamaica. In attempting to achieve respectability, women aimed to realize Eurocentric-derived values and behaviors of sexual chastity, modesty, and obedience. These values were visible in behaviors such as having sexual relations only within monogamous marriage, getting married in a church wedding, and working indoors for the family, as well as the status of wifehood and motherhood. But poor women (mostly but not entirely Black and Brown, i.e., Amerindian, African, and Asian within the Caribbean) could not fulfil these ideals. They survived by doing so-called productive work in formal or informal economies. By contrast, men acquired reputation through performative behaviors in public among peers. These behaviors included drinking, sexual relationships with women, siring children, and being witty. If men were unable to financially support families, performance of this sort demonstrated their dominance in spite of constrained circumstances.

These gender and class patterns are visible in typical Rastafari and Rastafari-local Ethiopian households in the Jamaica Safar. In households with lower collective income, women tend to take on the so-called breadwinner role associated with a patriarchal ideal of masculinity by engaging more regularly than men in waged work outside the yaad. But they do not take on all the characteristics of being a breadwinner. Attributes including strength, aggressiveness, protectiveness, and discipline continue to be associated with masculinity and fatherhood, a gendered expectation that is observable in Rastafari yaads, for instance, in the masculine role of “watching the yaad.” This reproduction of patriarchal gendered characteristics and behaviors occurs in spite of the intermixing of typical Western gender roles and expectations with alternative, Western-influenced Creole values.

Cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and nurturing continue to be activities associated with women and femininity, even when Rastamen do such domestic work when living alone or when wives or women partners work outside the home. Brother Fyah’s case is an evocative example: he watched the yaad and cared for his and his wife’s children, while his wife supported the family with her earnings from waged labor. Aware of Eurocentric gender roles and expectations, this Rastaman, who repatriated from Jamaica, remarked, “You see how the [typical gender] roles are reversed,” phrasing this domestic division of labor in terms of lived Caribbean gender behaviors.

The persistence of ideal gender behaviors situated within heteropatriarchal capitalism through socioeconomic structures and cultural expectations means that women’s labor continues to be undervalued, even into the twenty-first century. Women engage in waged work outside the home only in cases in which men’s work does not provide sufficient family or household income, spotlighting the persistent institutionalization of these gender expectations—that men will provide financially. These gendered expectations result in women earning less than men’s already low wages and in having less income to contribute to their families, even when this income is needed.

Among my interlocutors, women rarely spoke of their double duties as embedded within these cultural logics and systemic inequalities. When they did, it was in terms of being responsible for maintaining the family. Sister Pauletta, for instance, ran her family’s food business, including buying materials from wholesalers, cooking food for sale, doing the accounts, caring for children, maintaining the family house, and occasionally collecting remitted funds from relatives abroad. Her husband also worked in the business while he watched the yaad.

Simona, another Rastawoman who was younger than Pauletta, also cooked niche food items for sale and sometimes supplied more established food businesses in the Jamaica Safar. Like many Rastawomen, Simona and Pauletta asserted that both waged and unwaged labor was vital to support the family and part of their responsibility as a woman, wife, and mother.

The persistence of ideal gender behaviors situated within heteropatriarchal capitalism through socioeconomic structures and cultural expectations means that women’s labor continues to be undervalued.

Rastafari men and women in Shashamane experience the chronic uncertainty of earning a living through precarious work in the formal, but especially the informal, wage economy in Ethiopia. Engaging in productive labor locally is thus central to social reproduction, as is engaging in waged reproductive labor abroad. Whereas Peter Wilson observed that men’s labor migration is another route for enhancing reputation through personal consumption of clothing as well as household goods for the family home, for example, it is Rastafari women in Shashamane who tend to migrate for work.

Factors including the global demand for women’s care work, its undervaluing, and occupational stereotyping, in addition to macroeconomic factors, have recently led Rastafari women to engage in labor migration to wealthier economies after their spiritual repatriation to Ethiopia. Several Rastawomen in first- and second-generation households have migrated to countries of the Global North to work as nannies, caretakers, and domestic workers, which demonstrates the persistent significance of women’s waged and unwaged reproductive labor within a transnational context, extending their responsibilities as women, mothers, and wives.

Similar to the dual character of Caribbean kinship constituted within modern capitalism and imperialism, Rastafari social reproduction in twenty-first century Shashamane shows the lingering patterns of Caribbean colonial plantation societies with the changes in gendered behaviors over time and space. Women’s work remains central to the anthropological and ethnographic study of family and kinship.

María Lis Baiocchi and Leyla Savloff are contributing editors for the Association for Feminist Anthropology’s section column.


Shelene Gomes

Shelene Gomes is a Caribbeanist sociocultural anthropologist at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago. Her monograph, Cosmopolitanism from the Global South: Caribbean Spiritual Repatriation to Ethiopia (2021) traces Caribbean cosmopolitan sensibilities through contemporary Rastafari imaginaries of and migration to Ethiopia.

Cite as

Gomes, Shelene. 2023. “Reproducing Caribbean Gender Hierarchies in Rastafari Yards.” Anthropology News website, April 24, 2023.