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The social construction of infertility: The case of the matrilineal Nayars in South India

By Deborah L. Neff


This paper explores the relationship between central Kerala Nayar social constructions of fertility and gender, and the Nayar institution of matrilineality, one of the most extreme cases of matrilineality documented in the anthropological literature. The article shows that social responsibility and consequence are implicated in central Kerala Nayar constructions of infertility and that these are traced matrilineally. It is the duty of matrilineal kin to attend to the family god of fertility and to the needs of females of the matrilineage to see that they foster progeny in the kin group's best interests. When this responsibility is violated, powerful forms of negative consequences may transpire for all lineage members, in the idiom of curses of family fertility gods. In the ritual of pampin tullal performed to propitiate these gods, concepts of fertility are extended to include other, 'auspicious' forms of prosperity. In ritual, unattached Nayar women serve as proxy for the well-being of the matrilineage. These unattached women--infertile, unmarried, 'separated', and widowed--are, for the natal kin group, symbolic virgins (kanya), the life force (sákti) of which lineage members seek to harness for their well-being. The concept of fertility is thus extended to include marriage proposals, job offers, and other health and economic concerns of lineage members.infertility fertility ritual gender matrilineality India

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