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Commodification of indigenous crafts and reconfiguration of gender identities among the Emberá of eastern Panama

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This article examines the recent involvement of Emberá indigenous women from eastern Panama in the production and commercialization of handicrafts for national and international markets, using life stories collected in two Emberá communities. Emberá women's increased participation in market economies provides a critical medium through which dominant norms of gender roles are partly reworked and new subjectivities are forged, providing them temporary spaces of authority from within to negotiate relationships with men in domestic spaces. The study does not look for obvious shifts of power inside the household. Instead, it conceptualizes handicraft activities and the conflicts they spark as discursive sites, thus focusing on how women (through their work and purchases) understand themselves and their roles, and how power operates through competing discursive constructions of ‘women’, ‘men’, or ‘work’ in everyday practices. This approach produces a nuanced understanding of the complex reconfiguration of gender relations, and the particular shapes that changing social interactions and meanings of femininity/masculinity take, and it challenges dominant representations of indigenous societies as static and inexorably harmed by capitalist transformation. Findings demonstrate that indigenous women's experiences and realities are multifaceted and dynamic, and that the outcomes of market economies in indigenous communities are complex and ambiguous, rather than uniform and necessarily oppressive.
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Keywords: Emberá society; Latin America; Latinoamérica; artesanías indígenas; feminist theory; gender roles and identities; indigenous crafts; indigenous women; mujeres indígenas; roles e identidades de género; sociedad Emberá; teoría feminista

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Carleton University, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Publication date: June 1, 2013

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