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Australian Aboriginal Women Essay


The term aboriginal is used to describe Australia’s indigenous people and the term has been in use since 1789. For the longest time, this term has been used to refer to all indigenous Australians. However, this has changed with time and it now only refers to those that used to practice hunting and gathering. People who used to live in Torres Strait are not under this name since they used to be farmers (Crystalinks 2010).

Australian aboriginal women are the natives or indigenous inhabitants of Australia and according to reports, they are grossly marginalized. According to the (AJIC 2010), these women are subjected to racism, domestic violence and sexism as they are considered lesser people.

This case study seeks to discuss the roles and responsibilities of Australian Aboriginal women within ‘traditional’ societies, and the ways in which they have been researched in the past.

Roles and responsibilities of Australian Aboriginal women within ‘traditional’ societies

According to Bell (1981), aboriginal women were looked down on and were not considered to have any cultural importance to Australia. However, even in the height of this marginalization, the aboriginal women had held their rituals secretly. It is questionable how these women related with the men and if they took up their role and what exactly it was.

Bell (1981) seeks to explore whether these women had a mind of their own or they were subjected to the men’s rules. Australian men took centre stage and headed all the activities that characterized an Australian traditional setting. They took lead when it came to religious matters and it is of interest wanting to know what role the women played in native Australian culture. Some of the rituals that were performed on Australian aboriginal women included shaving their hair as one of the mourning procedures during funeral ceremonies.

Diane lived there for eighteen months and had the chance to experience the life of an Australian aboriginal woman firsthand. One of the roles she played was participating in the initiation ceremonies, which were performed for the young men. She coupled up as a mother, a sister, and a mother in-law as was the norm with women here. She was eligible to participate in these ceremonies since she was old enough according to their criteria and she was already a mother having two grown children.

Bell (1981) states that for an aboriginal woman to play any part in the religious roles, they have to belong to the society fully. Australian aboriginal women are considered unattractive by the white males and this could be a contributing factor towards their being marginalized when it comes to cultural practices.

This is evidenced by a reference made to Peron’s observation, which and I quote, “she was uncommonly lean and scraggy, and her breast hung down almost to her thighs’. Another man referred to these Australian aboriginal women as ‘ancient hags’ and this spreads hate to many people”. (p. 39)

The Australian aboriginal women always retreated to their camps where they would hold important discussions on the cultural rituals. These women play an important role in marriage arrangements though the men sideline them. Women related ceremonies were highly religious and this it was more than evident how much they are excluded in these processes.

Their views on issues are dismissed though the men fear them for their various abilities that included giving life. Australian aboriginal women play an ancestral role whereby they make contact with Australia’s past; these ceremonies are characterized by song and dance and these bring out the true meaning of this cultural practice (Bell 1981 p.240).

The ancestors played a huge role in the lives of the Australian desert people. A law known as jukurrpa serves as a unifying factor together with the aboriginal religion, which is vital, and the women are the main characters in this. The role of the Australian aboriginal women in religion was to master the beliefs and knowledge about the ancestors by heart.

They had sacred boards and they had to be conversant with the songs that characterized the mythological heroes something referred to as dreamtime. The women also had to be experienced in painting designs which would be used to illustrate the dreamtime and it is however a sad fact that most of the roles of the aboriginal women are neither clearly defined nor documented (Crotty 2010).

The women worked hard to ensure that social harmony was maintained through the rituals they performed religiously. This was something they had in common with the men where they celebrated their cultural heritage.

Women traced their dreamtime through a descent known as the kurdungurlu and played the role of aboriginal through the jaja (granny), a name that was used to represent a person’s native country. It is important to note that the aboriginal women had no right to ownership or relationship with the ancestors and men believed that this kind of relationship was derivative.

This status changes when the laws are put in place and they bring a completely new light to what the role of aboriginal women should be. The law clearly draws a line between what women are entitled to being members of this society and it sees them as equal to men and rules out supremacy.

The roles for both are distinct but complementary and these include the performance of rituals, economic situations, as well as social matters. This law is known as the dreamtime law and it depicts men as having creative power while women have the power to give life and nurture according to (Crotty 2010 p.41).

Women have a role to commit fully to the Dreaming code through the performance of rituals and so are the men and this strikes a balance as the law demands. The roles and responsibilities of the aboriginal women further surface when it comes to ceremonies; the women have their own independent ceremonies where men are out of bound though there are others where both parties are involved.

The aboriginal women feel that they exist in this society out of their autonomy as they are self-pinioned. They are viewed as a species that craves independence and feels that they are being sidelined by their men. They get support from the jukurrpa as earlier explained as well as the jilimi, which here is used to refer to as the independent camps these women retreat to so as to discuss their social welfare (Crotty 2010).

They find a refuge here away from the men and the ones in charge are the ritual leaders, the older women, and their relatives who rely on them. It is a taboo for men to show up at this camp and this further defines the assumed independence of the aboriginal women. This sort of setting shows disparity on the side of the women since they had to submit to the men; and there this retreat can only be termed as an escape mechanism from the harsh reality of how things really are.

The older aboriginal women have the responsibility of passing on their knowledge to the younger generation. They start teaching these young people as soon as they are relieved from the duty of taking care of the young children. Lessons taught are mostly on the spiritual aspect of this society and they ensure that the values are highly upheld (Crotty 2010).

According to Haider (2010), aboriginal women had the role of child rearing which they took over dominantly. They were also providers for their families and worked hard in food gathering to ensure that their families had enough food. The aboriginal women also shared roles with men and this interdependent relationship characterized this society. Also women would serve as healers, a field where men also featured prominently. (p.1)

They could also paint just as men did and they intervened when it came to making laws in the aboriginal traditional society. The aboriginal women were also performers and ensured that the traditional ways or culture were highly upheld, something they did through engaging in the performance of rituals. To ensure that this traditional knowledge lived to the next generations, the women preserved it through painting as well as holding women ceremonies (Crawford et al. 2010).

Aboriginal women serve as ancestors and that is why they are key participants in Dreaming according to Haider (2010), and to make it clear is that the term Dreaming here refers to the aboriginal creation time. Their myths embrace this ritual, which they believe represents the creation of the earth and everything in it, and thus celebrate it.

Another role of the aboriginal women is to train the young aboriginal girls the skills involved in food gathering as well as taking care of their siblings. The aboriginal women are highly armed with knowledge about their country, something they attribute to the stories that do their rounds during the Dreaming ceremonies and this helps them in tracing places where they will be assured of finding food for their families.

Many of the paintings the women have done are on various flora and fauna, which all make up their menus at a point. When it comes to healing the aboriginal women especially those from Yuendumu perform ceremonies that are believed to ease the sufferers of their pain. Some of the healing rituals carried out on sick persons include singing and the drawing of designs on their skins.

They also use their vast knowledge on plants to make medicine, which they administer to the sick. The aboriginal women also have the role of discussing and teaching about fertility to all women and that is why they are prohibited to men; they discuss stuff about women only in an effort to educate themselves and the young women.

These ceremonies are also represented in paintings, which seem to be a vital tool of expression among the aboriginal women. These women are also involved in decision-making processes in matters concerning their community. It is interesting to note that these women become progressive with age and the older they get the more prestigious they become and the more they are viewed as powerful (Haider 2010).

The aboriginal women had the role of erecting houses and maintaining them and this made them even more of breadwinners; they were also in charge of the family affairs and thus ran their households. The aboriginal women were viewed as nurturers and this was not restricted to giving birth only.

These women were seen as life creators and this meant that they had the role of planting food crops and also harvesting them this means that they were giving all the creative responsibilities out of this fact of ‘creating lives. The aboriginal women played a great role in sustaining their communities and were thus the rightful owners of lands and the crops in them. Another role that was given to women was skinning the animals that their men hunted down.

They had the responsibility of preparing the hunting expedition and packing all the necessary items their men required for this task. The aboriginal women were also fishers and when spring fell, they would accompany their men on a fishing mission. The aboriginal women when compared to men came out stronger judging from all the responsibilities bestowed on them; this made them very powerful as they were also the inheritors of all the properties such as land, which was passed through the female line.

The aboriginal women were so powerful that when they got married, they did not move to the husband’s home; the husband moved in with them and lived in with the woman’s family (Kanawayhitowin 2007). To add on is that sex segregation took centre stage in the aboriginal society and women would only relate to women.

This goes right into studying this society where only a woman can study them in an effort to analyze their livelihoods. Diane Bell was lucky enough to be granted an opportunity to conduct a study on them as she was viewed as one of them.

Cultural changes and their impact on the aboriginal woman

With changing times, the culture of the aboriginal people has changed and the women have not been spared either. They have been seen as primitive and uncivilized in regard to their way of life and Europe has been working towards redeeming them from these backward cultures as these women have been undermined and they have lost their equality.

Also to be noted is that these women have been described as unnatural and even subjected to racism due to their skin colour. They have been forced to abandon their way of life, which they were very comfortable as change is inevitable at a point (Bell 1981).

According to Reed (1995), the aboriginal women have been fighting for their rights to discard marginalization and take the path towards gender equality.

Past researches into the Australian aboriginal women way of life

The reasons that Diane Bell took to account these women was that she only sought to study their ritual practices and was divorced. The fact that she was also under the scheduled government pension which aboriginal women hold important was also a contributing factor.

Aboriginal women are independent and thus love to associate with people of their status. They consider themselves as emotionally and economically independent and thus fear relating with women who depend on their husbands for such. The aboriginal society has been a closed society that has not allowed for a proper study into their way of life according to (Crotty 2010, p 43).

However, the much that is known about this society is accredited to Baldwin Spencer and W.E. Roth who were scholars at the prestigious Oxford University. These two came across this society in around the 19th century as they embarked on their scientific work. Earlier studies about this society had just been casual and the people who brought any information were explorers who would find themselves here while on their discovery missions.

Further studies depict the Australian aboriginal woman as primitive and untamed in regard to her everyday life activities. Studies concerning the Australian aboriginal woman have been haltered by many factors some of them relying on the people conducting the studies themselves.

The major blamed researcher is a Sydney born anthropologist, Radcliff Brown who carried his studies in Australia. Out of a stereotype attitude, a lot of information on the aboriginal women was left out as they were looked down upon; they were not seen as people with opinions of their own and what they did in regard to their activities and values did not count.

That is why it took a woman like Diane Bell to unearth the independent Australian aboriginal woman. Most of the studies that came forward portrayed the aboriginal women as timid though these women were the strong hold of this society.

In an effort to get a comprehensive study on the Australian aboriginal women, various models have been adopted. One of these models is known as “Man Equals Culture” which seeks to document a marginalized woman’s role in a society that is highly dominated by men.

This study was initiated by one Roheim who concluded that a woman did not have a life in matters concerning religion and social life and went ahead to formulate a thesis that she only relies on her magic. The second model, “Anthropology of women approach” depicts women as people who have rights just like men and that they have values, which they hold close to their hearts; it also shows that women have their own opinions just like men.

All these are said to occur naturally and are not derivative as other studies would like to prove. This is further proved in this paradigm in regard to women’s role in matters concerning social structures, marriage, and family. Phyllis Kaberry heads this investigative model and goes further to demystify the role of aboriginal women in religion and here she sums up the aboriginal woman as complex independent and hardworking.

She details this in the duties that she performs on a daily basis as well as her deep involvement in religious rituals and beliefs. The aboriginal woman is viewed as independent and with choices and the ability to make decisions concerning her well-being and that of her society (Crotty 2010).

The third model is titled “Towards a Feminist Perspective” whereby women are seen as people who believe they are the best and take up every role according to Huggins (2010). The author of this model called Stanner seeks to explain it as what the aboriginal women were and they had too much control over many things in the aboriginal society and that they seem to dominate the whole scenario almost threatening the male hegemony (Crotty 2010, p.45).


The study on the Australian aboriginal woman takes us on a walk through her roles and responsibilities within ‘traditional’ societies. We see the aboriginal woman as an independent person who runs literally the whole society. She is seen as a life giver having the capabilities of giving life, not only to her household but also to the society as a whole.

Her duties are several and she is not just a mother but a breadwinner with the duty of putting food on the table for her family unlike other societies where men are the breadwinners. The Australian aboriginal woman is a teacher who takes up the role of training the next generations on the society’s norms and religious practices, which are vital to this community. She is well versed with manly activities that include building houses and fishing among others.

On the other hand, the aboriginal woman is a healer, a painter and even takes part in offering advice on how her community runs. She represents her daily activities with these paintings, which have gained a large world approval due to their authenticity (Art knowledge news, 2010).

She puts her emotions into these paintings and is viewed as an independent woman who is aware of whom she is. Also to add on is that the aboriginal society is one that exercised equality and women are autonomous to men; they even seem to be doing so much more than their men do and it is intriguing that they even inherit property. This study also managed to reveal how this information about the aboriginal women came to be through reviewing other researchers’ work which was vital.


Aboriginal justice implementation commission (AJIC) (2010) Aboriginal women. The Justice System and aboriginal people.

Art Knowledge News. (2010) Dreaming their way: Australian aboriginal women painters At NMWA. Web.

Bell, D. (1981) Women’s business is hard work: Central Australian aboriginal women Love rituals. Signs, Vol. 7, No. 2, Development and the sexual division of labour (winter, 1981), pp 314-337.

Crawford, J. Et al. (2010) Australian aboriginal culture. Roles and responsibilities of Australian aboriginal women.

Crotty, R. (2010) Aboriginal women and the religious experience. The Charles Strong Lectures, 1972-1984.

Crystalinks. (2010) . Web.

Haider, S. (2010) Aboriginal women. Aboriginal art store journal. Vol (33). 23-30.

Huggins, J. (2010) Sister Girl. The writings of aboriginal activist and historian Jackie Huggins. Australian Humanities Review.

Kanawayhitowin. (2007) Traditional women’s roles. Ontario federation of Indian Friendship centres.

Reed, D. (1995) Indigenous Women: Taking control of their destiny. President of the Cree society for communications.

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"Australian Aboriginal Women." IvyPanda, 13 Aug. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/australian-aboriginal-women/.

1. IvyPanda. "Australian Aboriginal Women." August 13, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/australian-aboriginal-women/.


IvyPanda. "Australian Aboriginal Women." August 13, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/australian-aboriginal-women/.


IvyPanda. 2019. "Australian Aboriginal Women." August 13, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/australian-aboriginal-women/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Australian Aboriginal Women'. 13 August.

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