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In Inuit communities, the women play a crucial role in the survival of the group. The responsibilities faced by Inuit women were considered equally as important as those faced by the men. Because of this, women are given due respect and an equal share of influence or power.
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Recent modernization and urbanization have transformed traditional Inuit culture and influenced the role of women within the culture. These changes include both positive and negative impacts on the overall well-being of Inuit women.
In Inuit culture, marriage was not a choice, but a necessity. Inuit men and women needed each other to survive. Married couples had to work together to overcome nearly impossible living conditions. Because every individual had to rely on a partner to survive, marriages were often arranged at birth to ensure the survival of the family. Love marriages, or choice marriages, existed, but these were all but arranged because there were usually few eligible partners. A young woman was eligible for marriage after puberty, but a man had to prove he was efficient enough in hunting to support a family before he could marry.
In Inuit culture, it was believed that the women's respect for the animals killed during hunting trips, and subsequent care when butchering them, would ensure successful hunts. Food, as well as other resources, were often shared throughout the community as needed. Women were in charge of the distribution of food to families in the community.
In regards to conception and pregnancy, young Inuit women were discouraged from engaging in sexual intercourse during puberty, ages 11 to 13 years, until they reached "prime maternity age", after marriage, about 15. Similar to menarche, many young Inuit women were unaware of the indications of their first pregnancy. Elders recount that young women often thought that they had been cured of their menses when they experienced amenorrhoea for the first time. It was not uncommon for the young woman to learn about her first pregnancy from her mother or grandmother when she began to show (or carry weight). According to elders, pregnancy was also determined by, "looking into the face" of the young woman and/or feeling her stomach for a fetus. Once aware, it was important that the woman immediately divulge her pregnancy status to her mother, husband, and close community, as the Inuit believed that her status demanded special considerations and/or treatment to ensure the health of the mother, baby, and camp.
In pregnancy, women's care was traditionally guided by the taboos, known as pittailiniq, from the elders in the community. These taboos, which were passed down through generations and varied somewhat across geographic regions or camps, informed the woman's behaviors and activities in order to prevent complications, promote a healthy birth, and ensure desired characteristics of the infant. For example, in regards to activity, the Inuit had many pittailiniq about maintaining physical activity throughout pregnancy and resisting idleness or laziness, which was believed to adversely affect labor and birth. The Inuit words sailliq and sailliqtuq, distinguished between the women who relaxed (sailliq) as appropriate, and those who relaxed too much, sailliqtuq. Another common pittailiniq instructed the woman to massage her stomach until she felt the fetus move so that the baby wouldn't "stick" to the uterus.
The Inuit also followed many taboos (pittailiniq) about diet and consumption in pregnancy. Consistently, elders report that pregnant women were to abstain from raw meat, eating only boiled or cooked meat, during pregnancy. Men were also expected to observe this rule, but only when in the presence of their wives. The preferential treatment of pregnant women also extended to food, and the best pieces of meat and food were always reserved for the pregnant woman.
According to elders, the women were not taught how to prepare for birth. Women expected and trusted that they would receive instruction and advice from their midwife and other birth attendants (i.e. mother and/or mother-in-law) during the event. When labour and birth were perceived imminent, the woman and/or her attendants would set up a soft bed of caribou skins or heathers nearby. A thick layer of caribou fur on top of the heathers was desired in order to soak up the blood lost during birth.
Labour and birth were times of great celebration in the Inuit community. Traditionally, when a woman began having contractions, her midwife would gather other women of the community to help the labouring woman through the birthing process. Additional signs of labour noted by the Inuit midwife included a brown strip of discharge, broken water, stomachache, or the urge to pass a bowel movement. Although it was cause for great celebration, labour is traditionally a time of quiet and calm in the Inuit community, and the midwife would commonly whisper her counsel to the mother-to-be. If the woman had followed the traditions throughout her pregnancy, she could expect her labour to be quick and easy. Many of these also extended to the actions of the woman's midwife, who was also commanded to be swift in all aspects of her life so that her client would enjoy a quick delivery. Very often, women were expected to continue their daily chores up until the late stages of labour and endure labour pains without the aid of pain management.
In traditional Inuit birth culture, the birth event was handled almost exclusively by the midwife. However, the woman played an active role in her own birth experience and was encouraged to follow her body's own physiologic cues regarding pushing and rest. When she was ready to push, the midwife would tell the woman to pull on her hair with both hands and bear down. While most Inuit women gave birth at home, in some Alaskan communities women gave birth in separate birthing huts (aanigutyak) built exclusively for this purpose. If this was not done, the place where the woman gave birth had to be abandoned.
Along with childbirth and childcare, women were responsible for sewing skins to make clothes; preserving, processing, and cooking food (as mentioned above); caring for the sick and elderly; and helping to build and take care of the family's shelter. Warm, light, and serviceable clothing was perhaps the greatest achievement of the Inuit. For protection against the bitter Arctic winter, it has not been surpassed by even the best modern clothing.
The clothing created by women was vital because life in Arctic conditions was not possible without extremely well-made clothing to protect from the bitter cold. The clothing was created by the careful sewing of animal skins and furs using ivory needles, which were highly valuable in Inuit society. The process of preparing skins to be sewn together for creating clothes was done by women and was an arduous task. Skins had to be scraped, stretched, and softened before they were ready to be sewn.
In addition to this, the households that Inuit women were expected to help construct and care for could range from igloos, to semi-subterranean sod houses, to tents in the summer months. This required an understanding of complex architectural concepts, as well as the principles of insulation. A good amount of strength was required to construct Inuit shelters. Because of this, Inuit women often worked together and enlisted the help of men to build their homes. For both practical and social purposes, these houses would be built close together or were made large enough for more than one family to live in.
Jobs in Inuit culture were not considered men's work or women's work, but the Inuit did believe in men's skills and women's skills. For example, hunting was generally done by men. Sewing clothes, cooking and preparing food, gathering food outside of hunting, and caring for the home were generally done by women. This does not mean that women never hunted, nor that men never helped with other jobs. This was just how the work was traditionally divided.
Women hunted and boated for enjoyment or when food was scarce and the community needed extra hunters. Men and women worked together to create a functioning culture. The men would not be able to go hunting without the warm clothes the women sewed for them, and the women would not have enough food without the meat the men brought back from their hunting trips.
Because of this, the work done by women received equal respect to the work done by men. While men and women generally did different work, one type of work was not considered better or more important than other types. It is easy to think that because men only had one job that they did less work. The truth is that hunting was extremely physically demanding and time-consuming, and often required traveling for days or weeks at a time. As a result, the sexual division of labour in Inuit culture was relatively equal in the amount of work done.
While women were respected by men, and often treated as equals, they did not have equal power in the community. Important decisions, such as when to migrate and where to, could be made exclusively by men. Inuit had as little government as any group on earth, but some groups did have tribal councils or groups of elders who made decisions for the community. These councils were almost exclusively male.
Because of this, the Inuit women had little to no say in some of their communities' most important decisions. Men usually had the final say in issues such as arranging marriages and adoption or infanticide, which have a huge impact on women's lives. Although women had a relatively high position socially, and had significant control of their own home, as well as ceremonially important jobs such as lighting and tending to lamps and distributing food, their power was usually limited to those areas.
In addition to this, if men were unhappy with how a woman was handling her responsibilities, they could take over or transfer her work to another woman in the community whom they considered more capable. With women having less power, they are often put in difficult positions when they are not involved in the decision-making process. For example, a pregnant woman, or a woman with a newborn child, may not be able to migrate hundreds of miles through Arctic conditions in search of better hunting grounds. Factors such as these are rarely taken into account when men are the sole decision-makers for a community.