The FFGS convened for the first time during the 11th Congress of the International Society for Folk-Narrative Research in Mysore in January. Present were some of those who had joined our network before the congress and many others who wanted to join during it. I have sent all members a separate letter (in January) telling them what we decided to do, but in case you did not get my letter, let me say it again. At the same time those who still wish to join, will know what is expected from an FFGS member – so far.
At the Mysore meeting we decided to ask members to send in information (to Aili Nenola) about the following issues:
- Corrections and further information on fields of interest in gender studies to be added to the mailing list (to be published later).
- Each member is asked to send an annotated bibliography on her/his publications and other relevant publications in her/his milieu concerning questions of folklore and gender; annotated meaning that a short summary of the topic and content of each item on the list should be added. A compilation of these bibliographies will be made and distributed among members. – You can also send copies of articles, etc., to be distributed among members (within our meagre financial limits); or better still, you can ask other members to send you copies and further information after you have received the bibliographical list. The idea is that the FFGS will work as a network, not as a mere centralised information system.
- Information about ongoing research and planned projects can also be sent in.
Other wishes and promises at the Mysore meeting:
- Translations into English of some Finnish gender studies in folklore. A collection of articles will be appearing in the Studia Fennica series (Helsinki). It should be ready before the end of 1995. We will announce the publication.
- Ruth Bottigheimer is considering editing a book on folklore and gender based partially on the themes of the Mysore conference.
- Any other plans for publication and calls for papers on folklore and gender are welcomed from members. Get in touch with each other, too.
Gender studies at the congress
At the ISFNR congress in Mysore we had a series of six meetings on Oral Narrative and Gender arranged, introduced and chaired by Ruth B. Bottigheimer from New York. The three additional section meetings on Folklore: Gendered Themes, and many papers presented at other sections were also of interest from the point of view of gender, too. I believe that the great interest in gender issues among folklorists indicates that the positions and shifting relations of men and women all over the world are considered as one of the fundamentals of the development present in the congress theme “Folk Narrative in the Changing World”.
The themes of the papers presented varied from the effect of her life experiences on a female storyteller’s repertoire (Margaret A. Mills) to the use of folklore hero/ine/s or other protagonists by Finnish female students in building up a personal “mythology” (on men and women, on love and relationships; S. Apo), and to the re-interpretation of old and new folklore or the collection and study of folklore from a feminist perspective (C. Bacchilega, I. Cardigos, S. Arora, E. Agoston-Nikolova, C. S. Kawan, I. Köhler-Zülch, I. Nagy, A. Nenola, E. Wickett). Women’s rituals (K. Heikkinen), gender construction (B. Meurling) and their role in building up a nationalist identity (M. A. MacKay) were also discussed. And because we were in India, we heard various analyses of the rich Indian folklore from different cultural settings (L. Handoo, K. Durga, T. N. Shankaranarayana, S. Reddy, V. Saraswathi and others). In this connection I want to comment on just some of the Indian papers.
Lalita Handoo from Mysore analysed some Indian folktales about the stupid son-in-law (AT 1332) and was of the opinion that the tales can be heard as women’s “counter reaction” to the status quo within the family system. This counter reaction, which I would like to call “contestant”, was to be heard in other analyses of Indian women’s narratives, too. In their stories, at least, women can take – often humorous – revenge on stupid and dominant men, complain about the hardships of their situation or show how cunning and wise they can be in solving problems that arise in their family situations.
Saraswathi Venugopal had studied tale telling events in a Tamil context from the point of view of gender in the interaction between the teller and the audience. The stories told were about the male dominance over female, women’s indirect way of opposing and condemning men’s attitude and behaviour, the value of yellow metal (gold, jewellery) in Indian society, faith in the arranged marriage system, the mother’s role in her son’s life, etc. Ms. Saraswathi found that gender was an important factor in the interaction; there was a clear difference between women’s and men’s reactions to stories, but also between those of rural and urban men.
It seems to me that Ms. Saraswathi’s analysis shows us that people everywhere can “read” the stories in their own way and find a way to use them in their own interest – and that most stories are only presenting a question to be answered in the discussion on the inter-gender relation or whatever, and not the answer at all. Folklore cannot therefore be used as a direct source of social or gender history in any culture.
Unfortunately, we in Finland and elsewhere in Europe have too many recorded old texts of stories and almost no way of knowing how these stories were used to comment upon inter-gender situations in earlier times. Thus we cannot always hear the different voices behind the stories. So we have sometimes ended up imagining our foremothers as mere helpless or passive victims of the patriarchal system, which, of course, cannot be true. I think that analyses of the actual interaction and negotiations around storytelling like the one by Ms Saraswathi are of great importance for a better understanding of our old materials.
Another example of the gendered voices behind tradition was T. N. Shankaranarayana’s paper on the roles of women and men in performing Junjappa epic (by Kadugollas in Karnataka). Observed systematic differences in the style of performance of the same folklore genres or items by men and women certainly can be analysed to reveal characteristics of the overall cultural gender system also in other contexts.
What seems fascinating for an European folklorist, is how rich India is in potential research. The field seems to be unending; so many different, lively traditions, both historical and present ones, were introduced to us at the congress, and the variations of the gender problems are also many. I think that this richness can teach European or American folklorists and feminists to develop more open and inclusive theories about gender systems or characteristics. The lesson can perhaps be called the lesson of increasing “inter-culturalism”, which we were asking for in our discussions at the FFGS meeting in Mysore.
(FFN 10, May 1995: 9-10)