Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

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Ilongot Society: The Sexual Division of Labor, Abilities and Emotions


The Ilongots of Northern Luzon had been studied by Renato and Michelle Rosaldo, two anthropologists who had extensively documented their cultural practices. In “Chapter 4: Horticulture, Hunting, and the Height of Men’s Hearts” of the book Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life, Michelle Rosaldo’s telling narration and feminist analysis illustrates contradictions in the Ilongot’s cultural views of gender equality as against their actual practices. According to Michelle Rosaldo, men and women generally view their contributions garnered through their division of labor (of hunting and horticulture respectively) to be complementary; however, their truths, system of logic and practices reveal that they attach more value to the work activities, skills gained from gender-assigned labor, and contributions of the male.

In exploring Ilongot conceptions of men’s and women’s activities as represented in the imagery of hunting and horticulture and realized in the organization of productive labor, Michelle Rosaldo found that the sexual division of labor in this society achieves three things: it governs and upholds the logic of their concepts of knowledge and passion; it informs their perceptions and evaluations of their everyday action; and it turns “potentially problematic expressions of male dominance into the obvious and inevitable consequences of everyday life”[1].


Ilongot Violence: Rage and Grief as the Domain of the Male

Renato Rosaldo’s essay, “Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage”, details how rage borne of grief brings an Ilongot to kill a fellow human being.[2] The discussion is male-centered, illustrating the essential ritual of headhunting as a necessary act of venting and throwing away his anger. For the male Ilongot, anger is an emotional state that is celebrated and ritualized. Rage is categorized as that present continuously in youth, that which springs from the death of a loved one, and that caused by one’s wife running away with another man. It seems that rage is an emotion exclusive only to the male by social standards. It is an entitlement, the prerequisite for which are male rituals, which heavily embody violence:  headhunting, pollarding, hunting game. The activities that necessarily accompany these rituals (traveling, storytelling, distributing game among the people) are highly valued, and the experience and skills derived from them (strategizing, attacking, killing) as well as the development of their physical prowess cement the men’s position in society as the gender that has a higher capacity for leading, discerning, deciding, and, of course, feeling extreme emotions. The male’s reign over the nature reinforces their domination of society.

Though women are not the concern of Renato Rosaldo’s paper, Michelle Rosaldo’s discussion reveals the Ilongot working assumption that a woman does not have any rage or grief of such magnitude to throw away given the absence of an equivalent ritual for females, who are marginal participants at best and experience vicariously through dramatic storytelling the casting away of anger with the severing and tossing of a head. Renato Rosaldo’s reflections on both this ritual and the death of his wife Michelle enlightens me but also raises within me queries about the male-female dynamic in operation here. Where are women located in this elaborate practice and celebration? If women are bereaved or young, how do they “survive” their rage? Does a vicarious experience suffice? And, in light of Michelle Rosaldo’s report that a woman “may” accompany the men on a hunt, has a woman ever been included in such an activity? What are the possible implications on a headhunting woman in terms of her emotional development, her social status, and her perspective on the biologically determined work given her participation or crossover?


Ilongot Traits of Knowledge and Passion

The valued Ilongot traits of knowledge derive from their learning experiences while passion derives from their work. Given the nature of headhunting and hunting game, Ilongot men gain and develop qualities of prowess, strength, daring, and bravery – and are therefore considered more knowledgeable because their activities afford them opportunities for travel, adventure, and conquest. Males are considered “angrier” (and thereby more passionate) because their work necessarily entails active energy and more expression of emotion. Should any event cause them rage or grief, men are entitled to go headhunting, a ritual which enables them to metaphorically sever their anger from their bodies and cast it away, causing them to feel lighter of step afterwards. Women, however, are perceived and expected to be less capable of leading and feeling extreme emotions. The inferiority of women’s skills is interpreted to be an inherent feature of their gender and not a matter of development of a different set of skills derived from their gender-assigned work of horticulture. Because of women’s socially ordained inexperience and immobility, they are regarded as having neither reason nor capability to feel extreme emotions.

The traits associated with men and women are thought to be biological but are actually linked with the quality of daily activities that they engage in. Rather than regarding women as people who are limited in their opportunities for self-expression given the limited tasks and locales for horticulture, Ilongots consider women’s feelings instead to be in keeping with the activities and experiences of their daily lives – monotonous and uneventful. Ilongots believe that male and female hearts and forms of passion are determined by their modes of action. Given the nature of their activities and the repetitive and reflective actions these involve, women are not perceived to possess the ability of feeling the same quality of rage or grief that the men can. “Anger” of the male variety has been outlawed and recast into “sadness” for the female, with gender roles and societal expectations crystallizing women into a mould for reflection through repetitive activities and submission through institutionalized male dominance. Said to have no place to go with passion and anger, women do not have a socially sanctioned activity for addressing female rage that acts as a counterpart to the headhunting for the male.


Hunting and Horticulture

Hunting game is a male activity, “born of a moment”[3] and thus fulfilling immediate wishes and needs. Consistent with headhunting, much importance and prestige is also attached to this because of the elements of conquest, adventure, and danger and discovery. It is the subject of much dramatic storytelling. Confronting the strange and unknown in search of a sudden reward entails more of discovery or “knowledge” and more intense, focused “passion” – two important concepts in Ilongot society. Whether an individual or collective effort, hunting occupies men for between a day to a week and takes them out of the domestic realm into the forest, depending on both their purpose in hunting and habits of animals in different seasons. Their return is met with excitement and celebratory talk, and their game is ceremoniously butchered, apportioned, cooked and distributed among the families.

Planting is the exclusive responsibility of the women, and is generally unaccompanied by ritual. The men are active in the early phase of planting, cutting down trees and engaging in construction. They clear the forests to become gardens, a process called “pollarding”[4] which gathers an audience of females awed by the boastful displays of slashing off the leafy canopy and branches – another activity consistent with the actions and virtues associated with headhunting and hunting game. After the clearing, the women then take over the entire production of rice and other crops – thus the land is associated with women’s nurturance, maintenance, and fertility. Their labor is agonizing and repetitive, and their produce and efforts are viewed as a source of renown and fulfillment (or blame, in event of crop failure or shortage). Every woman makes sure that her produce is enough for the consumption of her family and their guests.

Implications of the Gender-Delineated Tasks

The gender-delineated tasks explain for the Ilongots the differences between the men and women. The men are hunters, “strong” ones who “know” and make use of the forest, while the women are the “fearful” but steady and reliable producers. The rice fields are the foundation of family survival because there is no assurance that game would always be caught. However, hunting is highly ritualized while planting is not celebrated at all.

Men use their game “to establish the unity of the men in a settlement, to assert lines of friendship and mutual dependence, and shape ties beyond home.”[5] Their distribution of game is framed by prestige and public expectations. The women, on the other hand, think first of family and household. The rice she produces is for private consumption, though she would make sure to feed those to come to her home for both hospitality and reputation.

The Ilongot male’s assertion of control over the forest is linked with adventure, the unexpected, and the violence of headhunting. It becomes the source of a more intense, focused passion than the repetitive work of the women in the gardens. It is because of these gender-delineated tasks that women have come to be viewed by their society as having “more local and limited orientations”[6] as compared to the men, who have more expansive and “knowing” thoughts, actions and feelings.


The Male-Female Dynamic: Incongruence in Cultural Views and Practices

The Perception of Socially Constructed Roles as Naturally Occurring Biological Traits. The concept and qualities of the productive and reproductive work divide, which are used to characterize and determine valuation of gender-delineated tasks in different societies, is remarkably present in Ilongot society. Productive work, defined as work assigned value in terms of compensation or prestige, is in Ilongot society solely the task of the male: hunting – from which the male derives his sense and celebration of self, his value in society, and his superiority over the female. It is what affords him opportunities to develop within himself qualities deemed important by society, and from which he derives his knowledge and passion.

The reproductive sphere, in contrast, is the sole domain of the woman. It includes childcare, maintenance and nurturance of household members, and production of crops. Uncelebrated and unacknowledged in value, this work is characteristically considered inferior while being relied on to sustain and maintain the family and enable the husband to leave and engage in productive work. The traits gained from reproductive work are not valued and are also perceived to be the only kind that females are capable of developing.

The extent and acceptance of participation in socially institutionalized roles and tasks determine an individual’s development in particular fields and skills. The social assignment of roles to particular sexes necessarily results in the development of traits specific to the designated work tasks. However, Ilongot society does not view the absence of prized traits in females as a reflection of the absence of opportunities afforded males – but instead is viewed as a female’s lack of skills. Thus this social construction of roles has led to what has come to be viewed as biologically superior traits of the male and inferior traits of a female.

Gender-Marked Tasks Produce Different Gender Perceptions. The biological assignment of tasks and traits has resulted in deep-seated sexual differences. Men speak in images that have more to do with notions of violence, destruction and killing while women speak in terms of growth and stability. Males are mainly concerned with life-taking, as compared to reproduction, nurturance and maintenance for the females. The Ilongot concept of warmth translates into fire that consumes forest and grassland when referring to a hunter and his hand, but shows a more stable, domesticated imagery when used to describe a gardener and her heat. Men cast spells for repeated successes while women ask for stable and constant rewards. When it comes to challenges, males disdain failures while women are more accommodating of them.

Socially Assigned Tasks Determine Heights of Hearts. Male superiority is also expressed through many of their life concepts. The height of men’s hearts assures them of focus and force, making them rightful leaders whereas women are declared to have weaker hearts, rendering them less capable of virtues assigned importance in Ilongot society. Women must also accept and follow the commands of their spouses because of fear of male force and anger, derived from the fact that men can take heads

Ilongots describe themselves to be an egalitarian society, where men and women are viewed as complementary producers whose contributions are both regarded as important in their society. Though they typify themselves through the style and organization of their characteristic tasks, they describe themselves as similar in that the labor of both demands envy and “anger”. By linking vitality with production and declaring that labor derives from passion, the quality of work thus determines how passionate a person can become.  However, the higher importance with which they regarded male labor grants men “higher” capacities for feeling, which translates into the capability of men’s hearts to reach greater heights. The metaphors for these (pollarding and headhunting activities) and their exclusivity to males make the idea of equal sexes problematic. Both males and females feel that men surpass women in knowledge and passion, and Ilongot women themselves acknowledge that men are more capable of thinking and leading due to their higher hearts – an acceptance which I believe is a manifestation of internalized oppressions characteristic of patriarchal society.

Control of the Female. Michelle Rosaldo’s words that they are “potential equals”[7], a very telling description which goes beyond the mere concerns of semantics – potential equals means that they may become equals but are not actual equals. Her other statement, that men CAN help with the housework while women MAY accompany them on a hunt, also reveals an aspect of their male-female dynamic: “can” presupposes ability and choice, while “may” presupposes permission.

 The violence sanctioned by their society in the form of headhunting also finds its way into the domestic sphere. Beatings, threats and other shows of violence have been acknowledged to be real but the Ilongot claim that these acts are not approved nor are they common features of their culture. However, “only men hit their spouses.” They explain too that women may choose to ignore or resist male assertion, and state that men always think twice about beating their wives due to their own dependence on the women for the production of food.

A New Religion Reinforces the Patriarchy. A final complication for Ilongot women is their Christianization, the realities of which compel me daily to struggle with many personal contradictions as a non-practicing but Catholic-educated, Holy Trinity-believing, Jesus’ teachings-subscribing, Filipino feminist. With the woman being considered inferior and sinful by virtue of the Eve motif as only the beginning, this imposition of a monotheistic religion “organized around a central concept of a Father God”[8] sends a message of male supremacy in combination with their already male-dominated society. The new religion comes with stipulations of female possession, virginity, passivity, and self-sacrifice, to name only a few. And by virtue of being a daughter of Eve, women are rendered deserving of pain and punishment due to Adam’s indecision, gullibility and denial of culpability. The Ilongot woman’s acceptance of male superiority, acquiescence to socially structured inabilities, and internalized emotional restrictions must then also contend with Christian concepts of sexual guilt and misconduct, reward-and-punishment system, and perpetual self-sacrifice – forever the other to the one created in the image of God.

[1]Michelle Rosaldo, “Chapter 4: Horticulture, Hunting, and the Height of Men’s Hearts,” Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p.102.

[2]Rosaldo, Renato. “Grief and the Headhunter’s Rage: On the Cultural Force of Emotions,.” (Photocopy) p.150.

[3]Michelle Rosaldo, p.112.

[4]Michelle Rosaldo, p.104.

[5]Michelle Rosaldo, p.119.

[6] Michelle Rosaldo, p.120.

[7]Michelle Rosaldo, p.102.

[8] Rosalind Miles, The Women’s History of the World (London: Paladin, 1989), p.83.

“VIOLENCE AND SANCTION in the Male-Female Dynamic of the Ilongot, Tausug, and Teduray Societies: A Research Paper” written by Cindy Cruz-Cabrera | March 2008

Next: Tausug Society: Male Dominion Over Society and Everyday Life


Author: cindycatz: occasional pianist and coffee shop philosopher

fond of the sun, sky, sea, sand and starfish; passionate about literacy, education, media, feminisms, development, popular culture, counterculture, migration phenomenon, anthropology and the fourth world; fascinated with crochet, sushi-making, fiction, creative non-fiction, storytelling, some films and series | books and comics | anime and manga | music and videos | bands and groupies, Latin and Italian, mom-and-pop consumerism, tavern bards and cafe philosophers, trinkets and bric-a-bracs, and steampunk and lolita couture; and absolutely enamored with nail polish and bag charms, frappucinos and margaritas, conversations and moments, her 41 year-old piano, and - of course - CATS. credentials? visit &

2 thoughts on “Ilongot Society: The Sexual Division of Labor, Abilities and Emotions

  1. Pingback: Violence and the Male-Female Dynamic | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

  2. Pingback: Violence and Sanction in the Male-Female Dynamic of the Ilongot, Tausug, and Teduray Societies: Abstract and Blog Post List | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

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