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Competing gender norms and social practice in Himalayan farm management

Nina Bergan Holmelin

Gender relations in Himalayan farm management are influenced by differentiated social expectations of men and women. How people negotiate their gender role space and how they relate to explicit and tacit gender norms, shape gendered patterns of decision-making in agriculture. In this case study from the Nepali Middle Hills I argue that there are two competing sets of cultural gender norms at work, in contrast to Sherry Ortner’s classical theory of a gender hegemony, where she describes a hegemonic collection of cultural logics, meanings and practices related to gender. In this case, modern development ideas of women empowerment and gender equality currently challenge traditional gender norms, but there are also areas of conjunction between the two. Traditional gender norms constrain women’s decision-making power to mostly within the household and farm. While men increasingly migrate for work, women take over more of the agricultural labor, and temporarily, all farm-management decisions. When both spouses stay at the farm they often decide together, contrary to common assumptions that men mostly decide in agriculture. However, cultural conflicts arise when women engage in social spheres outside the farm and household, such as in financial, public, or political matters. How people through social practice relate to competing gender norms, and to what extent they either feel caught in a cultural conflict or have a sufficiently strong social position to take advantage of the situation and alter local gender roles depends not on gender per se, but on other markers of social prestige such as caste/ethnicity, wealth, age, and marital status. Interactions between modern development norms and traditional gender norms inspire cultural change at the local scale, which has implications for women’s participation in financial and market spheres.

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