Beic sex roles
Beic sex roles are unusual enough to warrant an extended explanation. This description applies prototypically to Mauraŋ, Belesao and Mɔlɔsɔu, and broadly to the peripheral Bé peoples. It doesn’t extend to the neighboring Linaminče peoples, but it does influence them; most of them have fairly egalitarian societies, as compared to male-dominant Uytai.
The basic social structure
Women dominate at all levels of society; but it should be recognized that lifestyles and family structures differ dramatically by class. It is upper class women who enjoy the dominant position and personal freedom which so surprises outsiders.
We might begin, then, by looking at the poor— the majority of the people. Their life is not that different from peasants, fisherfolk, and craftsmen in any pre-modern society. Both sexes work hard; marriages are arranged by the family rather than by the participants; women marry in their late teens and have many more babies than survive to adulthood. The major differences from most other societies:
Women are the acknowledged leaders. They are usually older than their husbands; they control the family’s wealth; inheritance and naming are matrilineal; husbands join the wife’s family and take her name. Women are considered smarter, tougher, more even-tempered, more virtuous (yet, when they are bad, more evil). Men are recognized for their strength, but the comparison is inevitably made to the even stronger nawr ox. Men are considered the more emotional sex, and the sexual tempters.
Society is organized into extended family groups called bands (Lé jɔ), led by an elder woman (háɔ) and consisting of her descendants, plus males who have married into the family.
Bands rather than marriages are the basic economic unit: members work for the band as a whole, and wealth is pooled. Raising children is a task of the entire band.
The optimum size of a band is one to three dozen people; when the band becomes larger than this, it splits. When an elder dies and has two adult daughters, they each become the nucleus of their own bands. When a band splits, it will abandon its old fields and begin two new plots. This practice helps maintain the ecological health of the jungle.
(Bands don’t legally own land— noble families do; poor bands simply have the right to work somewhere on the estate, and the nobles don’t care how many bands there are.)
Sexuality and marriage
Since women are not the property of men, there is no cult of virginity, nor any concern that women be faithful to their men. Nonetheless a woman is not supposed to have sex till a few years after menarche. They’re expected to devote themselves to learning their band’s work and ways.
Men technically do not marry a woman; they marry into a band. (Indeed, the word for marriage, jɔhù, means ‘band entry’.) As marriage is not the basic economic unit, marriages are not accorded the importance they have in our society— both parties are free to terminate it. Men will not lightly do this, however: since wealth stays with the females of the band, leaving the band will almost always be a severe economic loss. Moreover, bands are reluctant to accept older males.
Moralists spend much more effort exhorting women to keep their men— a clue that, often enough, they do not. On the other hand, if a woman has tired of a man, she can stop sleeping with him without kicking him out of her band (which is the elder’s prerogative anyway). The band won’t lightly give up an extra pair of hands.
A marriage is sought for a particular girl in the family, when she’s old enough. It’s not inappropriate, then, to use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. Nonetheless, sex between any band members of the same generation is licit. To put it bluntly, a man can and probably will sleep with his wife’s sisters, and with her cousins if they are part of the band. His primary pair-bond may even shift to one of them. The Bé like to say that their morality allows the male (considered the randier, more animalistic gender) to stray, but within bounds.
Marriages are sought with allied bands; these are often ultimately related, but the rule is that one cannot marry into bands which have split off from one’s own within living memory. (In our terms, you can’t marry your cousins, because they’re probably in your own band, nor your second cousins, because their band split off only a generation back; but your third cousins are fair game.)
Young women bear and nurse babies, but that’s the extent of their formal responsibility. Past infancy, the primary caregivers are younger girls, middle-aged women, and older men. This wide range is considered healthy for the child.
To put it another way, a young girl is learning the skills needed for her band’s lifestyle; that includes raising children, so she helps out. A healthy young woman, however, is best used working at the band’s primary economic activity. As she ages, she has more time for leisure pursuits— including caring for children. When she becomes an elder her primary responsibility is governing the band.
Boys will help take care of younger siblings, but it’s not so important for boys to learn the band’s ways— they’ll be leaving it when they marry. Thereafter, their primary task is working to help support their new family. Their working life is longer mostly because of sexism. As old men, however, they’re not expected to work hard, and they have little role in running the band, so they’re most useful in taking care of the children.
Inheritance and extra daughters
The band system developed when the Bé were relatively land-rich. Bands would multiply over time, expanding the area of settlement. In established countries, however, there is no virgin land. Social norms have developed to prevent too much splitting of bands. The marriage age has risen past puberty, restricting pregnancies; more important, however, is the cultural expectation that third and later daughters don’t inherit. There are several things that can happen to these.
- They leave the family to join the priesthood or the army. More on this later.
- They stay in the band but do not marry— one more mouth to feed is no problem if there’s no children to compete for the inheritance. (They can even sleep with the men, if they’re careful not to have children... or at worst to have only boys.)
- They stay in the band and marry, but with the understanding that their daughters will be adopted by one of their sisters.
- An older sister dies prematurely, without marriageable daughters of her own. In that case the third daughter moves up a slot, gaining the right of inheritance. (If the deceased sister has minor daughters, her sister adopts them as her own.)
- They're adopted by another band that has no daughters or just one.
If this sounds severe, there are mitigations. The women retain their dominant role, meaning they can boss around the men. They continue to enjoy their property and their family home. They’re not restricted from sex. In a society without modern medicine, mortality may restore their inheritance at almost any time. And the seemingly harshest measure, leaving the band, is actually a path upward in society.
(Raising too many boys is not a bad thing— after all, they’ll be leaving the band; they’re someone else’s problem. And at the social level, they can’t ever divide anyone’s inheritance or cause overpopulation.)
According to Marvin Harris, earthly sexism is ultimately a way to control population. Frequent warfare puts a premium on raising fierce young males— that is, crucially, it discourages raising fertile young females. Beic society achieves the same goal with different tactics: surplus girls are removed from the reproducing population by making them priests and warriors.
To be stable in population, women should have on average just one married daughter. Ignoring child mortality, we would expect half of the peasant women at any one time to have one daughter, a quarter to have two, and a quarter to have none. In practice the latter two cases are somewhat more numerous, as not all women have two adult children, and women that have borne only boys are more likely to keep trying for a girl.
If times are bad, or a band has very little land, even second daughters may be considered superfluous.
The ideal band has at least two females in every generation; in practice this means that once a woman has two adult daughters, their lineages may continue together in one band for several generations, if none of them manages to repeat the feat.
Middle class mores
The middle class comprises traders, merchants, innkeepers, manufacturers, craftsmen, doctors, lawyers, artists, magicians, larger landowners, and other richer professions. The basic matrix applies, but there are some differences.
- Middle class bands are larger— more of a clan than a family. Thus, over and above the larger income allowed by their profession, they are wealthier than poor bands, and have the personnel to run a larger enterprise.
- Bands often split as a way to branch the business— i.e. to open a new factory or workshop, or to begin business in a new city.
- Here too daughters may choose religious or military service— but this will be at a higher level, and the daughters aren’t considered to have left the band. Since the band is likely to be part of the money economy, they’ll have a monetary inheritance; but they’re also expected to contribute financially to the band.
- Middle class women have a good deal more independence from the band as well. Many middle class professions are more solitary— the woman may work and even live apart from her band. It’s also more common to take an extended absence away from the band to study, or travel, or undertake a trading expedition.
- As a corollary, pair-bonding is stronger in the middle class. There’s more of a feeling that a man and woman are marrying and living together, as in our society. They’re less likely to sleep with other members of the band; on the other hand, adultery (sex with someone outside the band) is more common, though it isn’t encouraged.
- The money economy also allows the idea of individual wealth and possessions. The band’s capital— its real estate, houses, and machinery— is still owned in common; but individuals can own smaller items and, of course, their own stock of money.
- Men too have more freedom and personal wealth. There are professions open to men, especially in the cities, which opens up the possibility of living on their own— even, exceptionally, owning houses or businesses. (A man’s property, however, is inherited by his daughters.)
- Since middle-class men are not economically helpless, and marriages are more individual, there is more of an idea of divorce. It’s still likely to be a step down for the man, although he’s entitled to alimony.
Upper class mores
The upper class consists of nobles; they are the rulers and landowners of the Bé. (In the modern countries, there are bourgeois bands with wealth to rival the nobles, though the process is nowhere near as advanced as in Verduria or even Xurno. They dominate the cities, however.)
An upper class band never splits. Since its wealth and power are based on its land ownership, splitting would mean becoming poorer and weaker. The bands thus operate much like a European noble family, except that daughters rather than sons inherit.
In effect, all daughters but the first are superfluous. They remain attached to the estate, and indeed are usually kept quite busy; a large estate needs stewards, supervisors, envoys, councillors, and the noblewoman trusts her sisters more than hired strangers.
Sons are valuable too— though mostly because they can be married off to other noble families (or, in a pinch, to rich bourgeois) to cement alliances or favors.
The sisters can marry and have daughters; but what then? Technically they are valued members of the band and can live off the estate forever... but in practice it’s desirable not to clutter up the estate with remote relatives. So it’s the nieces who tend not to marry.
If a branch of the family does multiply, it will probably move to a distant region as a new middle class band.
Freedom and restriction
In a sense the heiress of a noble estate is one of the most restricted of Beic women: all she can do is inherit the estate. All other women in the family, however, have extraordinary freedom. They have a right to be supported; they have no obligation to work; they have few restrictions on what professions they can take up, where they can live, who they sleep with.
The army and the temples
Several times I’ve mentioned the priesthood and army as a sort of relief valve for excess daughters. From their own perspective, of course, these are important institutions with a higher purpose, but which depend on the bands for recruits.
Both institutions adopt much of the terminology and lifestyle expectations of band life, but reapply them to themselves. The army or the temple is your new family; the old woman in charge is your new elder (háɔ). The command hierarchy is the age hierarchy: each age consort can give orders to those below it.
Again, these professions serve in part to reduce the childbearing population, so it’s anomalous for priests and soldiers to marry or have children. Sex itself isn’t restricted, and the within-the-band rule applies: you can sleep with any other member of your age cohort. If you regrettably do get pregnant, as with other bands, the institution will raise your babies for you. They are a kind of orphan, however; they are not automatically members of the institution, and many drift into the lowest classes— servants, criminals, beggars, prostitutes.
- How can the women dominate when their lives are interrupted by childbearing?
- As the detailed explanation makes clear, women begin having children later than in other societies, and have fewer children— and other people do most of the child-rearing.
- In addition, soldiers and priests generally don’t have children at all.
- Finally, recall that the most powerful members of society are old women.
- Doesn’t that lead to a lower population?
- No; people don't have to have huge families to keep the population up. Most Bé live in not very dense settlements and move their plots every few years, which cuts down on disease. And like our own society, and unlike a traditional terrestrial premodern society, Beic society is more K than r. To be blunt, children are cared for better, so there’s less infant mortality, so women don’t have to bear a constant stream of children just to ensure that two survive.
- Aren’t women afraid of men getting violent?
- No more than they’re afraid of the nawr bulls. Like bulls, males can be dangerous if angry and unrestrained. As in warfare, the general rule is: make sure the fight is on your terms. You try to keep the men happy, direct their competitive instincts at each other, and in the worst case keep some dirty tricks up your sleeve. (E.g. a Be woman usually has a knife and a man doesn’t; she also knows how to kick a man in the balls. For what it’s worth, she’s also probably better fed.)
- Beic socialization is also opposite ours. Terrestrial men have been socialized for tens of thousands of years to be violent, to enjoy fighting, to treat women as possessions. Our own society is changing, but this is so recent that the old ways are still very much alive. Beic society conditions women to be leaders and fighters, and men to be obedient, affectionate, sexy followers.
- Why don’t the men rebel?
- For the same reason Western women didn’t rebel until they had a modern society to rebel in and modern notions of personal independence. What’s a man supposed to do if he steps outside almost every institution of Beic society? Outside the bands, he’d have no wealth, no house to live in, no sexual partners, and few skills for making his way in the world— plus he’d face the hostility of the priests and the armed forces.
- This isn’t to say that Beic society is any more monolithic than ours. There are niches where men can make a living on their own.
- There also the important episode of the Men’s Empire.
- How can a female army work?
- For one thing, the entire Beic zone is female-dominated. So mostly, female armies face female armies, and everything works pretty much as you’d expect.
- Beic social mores produce a dedicated soldiery, and professional armies outperform mass conscripts, at least before the era of the rifle. A swordswoman who’s trained for war all her life will make short work of a male peasant with a javelin.
- Just as our armies have used elephants or horses, men are used for their strength. In some areas, men are trained as swordsmen. They’re also used as pikemen, either defensively or offensively, as their ability to absorb or inflict a blow is better.
- However, Beic warfare emphasizes feminine advantages: endurance and maneuverability. The quintessential Beic warrior is an archer, and the basic military doctrine is to deal with a stronger opponent from afar, when it can’t bring its strength to bear. Women have greater endurance, as well, which allows a greater emphasis on maneuverability.
- It’s also worth pointing out that in a female-dominant society, women are healthier and better fed. A Bé soldier may well be bigger and stronger than her male compatriots, though not than an Uytainese soldier.
- What if the female army faces a male one?
- If an army from a male-dominated culture attacks a Beic force, it typically sends the infantry charging, confident in the momentum of their strong bodies. Then, seemingly from all over, volley after volley of Beic arrows decimate the overconfident invaders. It’s hard to see where they’re even coming from; the archers move around with confusing speed. If the men do get close enough for a pitched battle, they find that the opposing army is either better-trained or more numerous or both.
- Geography helps too; the Uytainese states are in a different ecological zone, and have never conquered the north. The Bé region is dense tropical forest unsuited for massed infantry. The barbarians are a different story— but they are fewer than on Ereláe since the zone of the plains is so much smaller; and lacking horses, their dominant form of attack is the bow anyway. With a large standing army, the Bé have usually been able to stand up to the nomads. (And in social structure the nomads are in between Beic and Uytainese norms— typically they arm both men and women.)
- Do women fear rape?
- Not any more than they fear being gored by a nawr ox.
- To the extent that rape is an act of control by men socialized to expect sexual favors from women— well, that whole mindset doesn’t exist in the Bé. There aren’t subsocieties of men that encourage such behavior, either. Serious weapons are in female hands. And men don’t even have the freedom to be out looking for trouble.
- Do men resent their inferior status?
- Some do, certainly— thought these tend to be upper class men with an unusual degree of freedom, but who want more.
- Men are brought up believing that their culture is the Way Things Ought to Be, approved by the ancestors and the gods. Indeed, men do a lot of the socialization of boys; and most men who read the writings of the masculinists are disgusted and even angry.
- These days, Beic men (especially of the middle and upper classes) are more aware that things are different in other parts of the world. For some of them, that’s exciting and provocative; but for the majority, perhaps, the corollary is that masculinism seems foreign. It’s already clear that the more advanced nations of Ereláe are a threat: they’ve taken over two regions of Arcél already. That creates pressure both to adopt and to indignantly reject foreign ideas.
- Are women better or fairer at sexism than men are?
- Not really. Beic sexism certainly isn’t more enlightened or more virtuous than ours. Any doctrine that half of humanity isn’t quite as human as the other half is morally questionable, and will make a lot of people miserable.
- Most people are not monsters, and Beic women love their husbands and sons as much as any other humans do. But this can be compatible with enormous sexism— even decent women can be disdainful of men, and there are plenty who can be mean or even violent.
- Of course, some of the ways men can oppress women have no real counterparts. Beic women can’t rape men, or force them to bear children, and they don’t even demand that they keep to one woman. On the other hand, they’ve gone ahead and invented new sins of their own. There are ways to sexually humiliate men, for instance, or to permanently mar their bodies.
- Aren’t men biologically more aggressive, women more nurturing?
- Are they? There’s an enormous range in human culture, from what are arguably matriarchies like the Iroquois, to fairly egalitarian societies like our own, to repressive cultures such as Arabia or ancient Athens.
- Also consider subjugated populations in our own history, from English servants to illegal immigrants to slaves: men can be quite servile.
- Recall also that Beic female dominance isn’t about aggression, it’s about control. Men are considered more emotional, and no one is surprised when they fight among themselves.
- Also, the idea isn’t to produce the male counterpart to (say) an anime schoolgirl, sweet and harmless. Men are expected to be high-spirited, somewhat crude, and apt to compete with each other. (The characters in a Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith movie are fair approximations to urban Beic males.)
- What about homosexuality?
- As in many premodern societies, any amount of homosexual activity is tolerable so long as it doesn’t interfere with one’s reproductive duties. The eldest daughter had better have a daughter of her own; her husband had better be willing to help. (Even here, though, the band structure means that there are always backups. The band structure is a lot more tolerant of non-reproducing members and weak pair-bonds than our couple structure.)
- Women generally consider male homosexuality to be harmless and even titillating. (If they take notice of it at all; what inferiors do in their own beds is not, after all, very important.)
- Just as penetration is not considered a dominating act among Beic heterosexuals, it isn’t in homosexual sex either. Some homosexuals assume ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles, in which the latter is the bottom and takes a dominant role, but this is by no means universal.
- Similarly, lesbian sex is considered quite appropriate for third daughters, nobles’ nieces, and others who aren’t supposed to bear children. It’s more reliable and less of a hassle than most forms of contraception. It’s very common in the priesthood and the military, though it’s frowned upon when it crosses age cohorts.
- For women who are supposed to reproduce, it’s a little strange and shameful, especially if it’s blatant or long-term.
- See also the questions on the discussion page.