Case 25: The Runaway Wife

A reader wrote:

"I experienced the following dilemma during fieldwork several years ago and never reached a satisfactory resolution to the problem in my own mind.

"One evening a woman in tears came to my home in a rural Mexican village to ask if I would be driving into town the following morning. When I said yes, she asked if she could have a ride in order to run away from home. Her husband was an abusive alcoholic whose beatings were becoming more violent. Recently, in his rage, he had not only injured her but had destroyed all of her clothes. She said that her in-laws, with whom the couple and their three children lived, offered her no support or protection. She feared that if she tried to leave on the bus, she would be spotted and forcibly removed by her husband or one of his relatives. Despite his alcoholism, her husband was very influential in community affairs while she herself had not relatives living in the community.

"The woman was so frightened during our meeting that night that at the sound of a knock on the door, she scurried to hide.

"I wanted to help her but I also feared that the months of work I had devoted to developing relationships in the community would be jeopardized if not destroyed by doing so. I knew the woman only slightly and I really couldn't judge what the community's reactions would be were I to help. Her mother-in-law, whom I considered a friend, considered her daughter sloppy, insolent, and lazy. Moreover, male domestic authority was usually unquestioned in the community and wife beating not unusual; what happened within a household's walls were the concern of its members alone.

"I agreed to give her a ride out of town the next morning, although I spent a restless night wondering whether I had made the right decision. Maybe I should have gone to speak with the woman's husband, or seen if I could learn more about the situation before I acted. Maybe I should have just canceled my trip to avoid becoming embroiled in the situation. The next morning I waited for the woman as I readied myself to leave. She never arrived. On questioning a neighbor I learned that she had left that morning on the early bus, taking the new baby but leaving behind the other children.

"I still feel troubled whenever I think back to that time and grateful to the woman for having spared me from making any decision.


Maria Luisa Urdaneta, University of Texas-San Antonio, and Tom Thompson, Social Science Research Association, San Antonio, Texas:

The situation raises several points which almost every anthropologist confronts at some point during fieldwork. Should one interfere in what is essentially a domestic argument?

The first thing that the anthropologist should do is determine if the person requesting aid is in pain or danger. That is, in this case, was the woman showing any signs of physical abuse, were there broken bones, and the like. After determining whether or not there are immediate problems needing attention, the anthropologist should try to place the matter in cultural perspective. What would a "native" do if a similar request were made? Assuming there is time to investigate, the anthropologist should ask a trusted informant(s) a hypothetical question: "What would someone here do if . . . ?" Use that information to construct a plan.

Other questions that might be addressed are: Who is the person making the request?; Why is that person asking me instead of someone in the village?; Can I trust this person to be giving correct information?; Is there any reason for this person to want to mislead me?

This woman was the wife of a power-broker. Is it in the fieldworker's best interests to get involved? Is there a way to be involved less directly than actually taking the woman from the village? That is, can the fieldworker help the woman get aid in the village from someone else? Is this a culture in which an outside "mediator" role is accepted and can the fieldworker approach the husband with the problem and try to mediate the dispute saving her own position in the community? Is there any reason for this woman to suspect the motives of the fieldworker and try to make trouble for her? That is, does this woman suspect the unattached, outsider female fieldworker of having designs on the husband?

A less dramatic solution but possibly more practical is to invite the person in to have a cup of tea (or coffee) or whatever, let her unburden herself, commiserate about men in general, and tell some stories about "your culture" or your family and what people did to solve those problems, suggesting that she might try to use those tactics. Holding someone's hand in a crisis is often a very good way to help them think of how to solve their own problems. There are many ways to go about being a kind shoulder without having later repercussions from angry husbands and mothers-in-law.

From this perspective the question seems to be, "Would you risk your field situation, and possibly career, for someone in the village?" This, obviously, is situational--how long the fieldworker has been there, how well understood the culture is, and how well known the person is to the fieldworker.

Above all, a fieldworker really must be able to face these situations without panicking and jumping to premature conclusions. Follow the Ukrainian practice of "sitting down before you begin a long journey." It clears the route as well as the mind.


Edith Turner, University of Virginia:

Several points can be derived from this reader's story: one concerns the gross subordination of women within the social structure of this Mexican society, especially that of a young wife with children, living in the home of her in-laws. One can infer that attempted escapes such as the one described here are not uncommon. One would like to know more about this case, including a follow-up on the fate of the woman in town. Would she have been able to obtain employment easily in economically stricken, urban Mexico, or would she have had to engage in some kind of prostitution?

The fieldworker wonders if she should have discussed matters with the husband and family, but obviously the woman's escape was supposed to be secret, in case she were "spotted" and forcibly taken back home. It seems that any discussion would have had a foregone conclusion. One is back in the dilemma, which is one of rapport and also conscience. Can a fieldworker have rapport with both sides of opposing factions at once, in this case a wife and the allied husband and in-laws? Both sides would be watching the fieldworker, weighing her up. And we have seen what happened. The abused wife came to the fieldworker for succor, and by doing so treated her as a real factor in her life. And our friend responded, thus becoming herself involved in a potential social drama. Our own western feelings are outraged by the patriarchalism ruling here; generosity dictates to help the women, and feminism tempts us to fight the system and change it.

Yet the anthropologist is the guest of the society--as Mexicans put it, "My sad house is your house." How can one offend against this courtesy? The dilemma increases.

I myself experienced dilemmas among the Ndembu both in the 1950s and recently. In the 1950s a woman of about 22 came to me for medicine, and as she stood in the yard of my grass camp, underwent a massive hemorrhage of the lungs; she was suffering from tuberculosis. I was encountering a fatal disease and, being a normal westerner, my reaction was that hospitalization was essential. But the woman's mother forbade such a move, because, she said, her daughter must stay and hoe the fields as was her duty. I could not let the matter rest there and contacted the authorities. To my horror two police officers turned up in an official jeep and practically arrested the patient before us all, and in a moment the jeep had disappeared up the road to town and the sanitarium. The story might end with the assurance that the young woman had a good chance of recovery, as many do with treatment. But the story doesn't end. The mother's offended and hostile face haunts me still.

Should we try to alter the systems among which we find ourselves? Should we even judge them? Richard Rorty in his lecture on "Anti-Anti-Ethnocentrism," given before the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia in 1986, said yes, our system is objectively better, we liberals decry it too much. Others, including ecologists, point out that the imposition of western patterns upon ethnic ones have many times badly upset or destroyed the ecological balance, or marred a meaningful working religious system, often one that we have learnt to understand too late. Roy Wagner in The Invention of Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) and Johannes Fabian in Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) remind us that we have no right to judge using our own fixed standards. They ask each fieldworker, indeed each westerner dealing with ethnic groups, to create a new living ongoing relationship with their people--and they also imply that the westerner is herself a real person too, and does have the right to work out, "invent," some kind of workable, viable interaction with her people. I myself see anthropology as trying to give birth to a true version of some society.

I do not believe this aim is necessarily deflected by such problem situations as in this example. In her very dilemma this fieldworker felt the system in her pulses, as Victor Turner used to say, and this would enrich her work. Furthermore, men anthropologists, far more numerous than women, have portrayed their societies from the men's point of view, willy-nilly. Now this reader is putting the women's side. That is in order, and is part of the completion of the dialogue between one society and another.