Anthropologist Sheds New Light on the Role of Women in Mayan Society

Shankari Patel, a native of Hawaii who is Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of California at Riverside, has won two awards from the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for her research on the role of women in Mayan society. Her research showed that women played a major role in Mayan culture but that women’s role was diminished under Spanish colonial rule.

“Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated,” Patel explains. “But I found many towns named for women, and female deities on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. I started asking how women came to be removed from religious institutions and activities, and from the history of the region.”

Patel’s research included extensive field work in Mexico and an examination of uncatalogued artifacts in the collections of the British Museum. The British Museum held more than 2,000 objects from a small island off the coast of Veracruz that documented a female deity pilgrimage network that existed between 1100 and 1500. The objects were delivered in crates to London in 1844 and fewer than a dozen had ever been put on display. Among these artifacts were many items that point to a central role played by women in Mayan society.

Patel explains why her research is important by stating, “Our society is so patriarchal, and archaeologists often don’t realize how that affects the way they look at the past. What we say about the past is important to the people who live there today. It’s political how you talk about people in the past. If you say women are subjugated today because they always have been, that’s a way of justifying what’s happening today. If you can show that was not true, that it happened because of colonialism, there is opportunity for new interpretations of history and for change to occur.”

Patel, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University in Los Angeles, hopes to receive her Ph.D. this June. She has already been awarded the Dissertation Award from the AAA’s American Feminist Association and the AAA’s Minority Dissertation Fellowship.

Filed Under: Research/StudyWomen's Studies


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