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The Transformation Of The Gender Concept In Asmat Papua Society

By: Onesius Otenelli Daelli OSC, Ph.D (Lecturer in the Philosophy Study Program)


No-one can probably distinguish the differences between the definition of Sex and Gender. Both are at a glance very similar due to the distinction between male and female. But if we analyze more deeply, we can identify significant differences between both definitions. In lay man terms, Sex is the differences between male and female in terms of biology and physiology. It’s natural, congenital and not easily or even impossible to change. Gender is not congenital and natural-biological in nature but culturally shaped. Gender is a society’s construct that can differ between one society and another and can also change setting and time. (Barfield.1997:217).  An example of gender concept is that males build houses while females cook.

The Application of the Gender Concept in Asmat Society

Asmat is patriarchal in nature where the male becomes the measurement, decision-maker and determiner (Fleischhacker 1991:9). The female can not interfere with the male’s businesses, and also cannot do the male’s jobs, even though they have the willingness and ability to do them. Therefore, the gender concept is based on the male perspective. The Asmat males feel they are generally superior in every way due to the fact that they are stronger, superior and physically powerful.

In an interview I conducted while writing my dissertation, an anonymous male informant said: “females are different from the male in the way they paddle the boat. It depends on style: the male style is naturally different from the female style. The female cannot be compared to the male. The Male brings about mightiness. Females are females, as “mama”(mother figure) (Daeli 2013:141). This statement is echoed by a female informant who vented her feelings as follows: “The Asmat females have become second class citizens, and are imperialized by the ‘male ego.’ The Asmat males see that females have to be second-rate and cannot exceed the male” (Daeli 2013:147) that was how the Asmat comprehend gender differences among them, which differs from other areas.

This gender concept is applied in the Asmat’s daily life. The Asmat territory lies between many rivers, both small and large that are uncountable in number. Therefore, the main transportation that enables the Asmat to move from one place to another is the boat. The boat enables Asmat families to live and not be reliant on others, because with it they can go deep into the forest to hunt harvest sagu or go to the river to fish or catch fish, shrimp, crabs using nets. The boat is the best medium to observe the application of Asmat gender concept. Which means the boat will show the differences between male and female through symbols and phenomena contained within it. For example, when paddling the boat the male is in the “ci cimen” (the bow of the boat) while standing, the female on the other hand is in “ci ep” (the stern of the boat) while sitting (Daeli 2013:139) in addition, the way to hold the paddle differs between male and female. Therefore, the way to hold the paddle is a simple indicator to identify who is paddling in a boat, whether he/she is male or female (Daeli 2013:151) in Asmat society, this concept and application of gender cannot be broken for fear of the social and supernatural risks to be disobeying the ancestors.

The Transformation of The Gender Concept and ItsApplication

With the changing and development of time, Asmats are no longer ‘faithful’ to their ancestors’ values that have governed how families should live and act. Nowadays, females do not have to sit at the stern of the boat, but they can sit at the bow and are still well received by the society including the custom protector elders, if the female holds prestigious public positions such as being a teacher, local government official, nurse and chair person of certain organization.

We have to admit that what can boost the female into strategic occupations and positions in society is education so that they are able to obtain diplomas and beat the myth of the superior, dominant, outstanding, and powerful male. Females can stand at the bow as a symbol of a leader. Thus, education has opened the eyes of all Asmat Society that male and female are equal.



Barfield, Thomas (ed.). 1997. The Dictionary of Anthropology. USA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Daeli, Onesius Otenelli. 2013. “The Ci, Gender and Social Change among The Asmats of Papua, Indonesia”. Dissertation, Quezon City: University of the Philippines (Unpublished)

Fleischaker, Marcus B. OSC. 1991. Making The Invincible Visible: Asmat Art and Spirituality. Minneapolis: The Crosier Fathers and Brothers, Inc.