By Betty S Chapau
An entry in the Abt Associates Award for Women’s Literature
The Southern Cross had advised the coming of the Trade Winds and the beautiful island women rose majestically from the platform of their outrigger canoes, lifting conch shells to mouths and blowing in unison. They were announcing the coming of the Trade Winds.
The Solomon and Bismarck Seas carried the melody of their voices toward the mainland. Guarding the coastline stood the women, swaying in vibrant-coloured grass-skirts.
They raised their hands to welcome this familiar voice and greeted it with smiles of gratitude. They strengthened the message of their island sisters with the beating of kundus resounding into the mountains.
Emerging from the mountaintop, radiant like the birds of paradise, stood the women of the mountains. They danced, sang and embraced this beautiful message of unity.
From islands to highlands stretched this unity of diverse beauty. Colourful bodies glowed with shades of red, black and gold. Despite the multiplicity of their languages, there was a common sense of pride that threaded through their tongues. These are us, the resilient women of Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinean women are blessed with a kind of strength that can stand the test of rough seas, fast flowing rivers and rugged terrain. Though the labour of the land has calloused our soles and palms, there is a sense of softness in the warmth and comfort of our embrace.
Our bodies carry the stories of our clans, intricately mapped onto our skin. We preserve traditional legends intertwined in the weaving of our baskets and bilums. We have curly, kinky and wavy hair that never wavers as we balance the weight of our homes on our heads.
An array of melanin amour embroidered on our skin glimmers every time the sun kisses the horizon and the moon rises. Our bodies embellished with scars from rebellious youth adventures make us sentimental every time we tell our stories.
These are the same stories that have grounded and seasoned us into strong Papua New Guinean women. The stories with an underlying message of how, so often, we dimmed our own light so the men would shine brighter. For a long time we have felt misunderstood.
Chimamanda Adichie writes in ‘We Should All Be Feminists’: “A thousand years ago. Because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival; the physically stronger person was more likely to lead.”
This I believe to be one of the main factors of how our traditional hierarchy was designed, one where men are often leaders of clans. On the other hand, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution teaches us that, for life to continue and for us to survive, we must learn how to evolve and adapt to a changing world.
Thus traditional cultures and gender responsibilities continue to evolve with time. However, in Papua New Guinea, we seem to believe differently and we are deeply rooted in the ways of our ancestors.
This may be admirable but most of the rules that governed our ancestors were made by men. This unwillingness to adapt with the passage of time has caused ripple effects that have left Papua New Guinean women disadvantaged relative to our male counterparts.
So today the world is moving on and we are trying desperately to adapt while trapped in a cage.
This cage had been built according to the instructions of a manual written in the time of our ancestors and it makes us feels so helpless that its bars will take a long time to be broken down.
Even before we are born, our society has made a pedestal for us and God forbid that we fall down or go against the grain. Instead, we become the pedestal and hurt our edges fitting into a mold that wasn’t customised for us.
The stagnant Papua New Guinean culture sees women as a liability with the exception of our bride price.
To be born female in this country is to inherit a mostly foreseen future, to bear a fatherless child or endure an abusive husband or perhaps be so lucky to embrace a wonderful husband. But the worst scenario is to be unmarried.
The quality of our life, it seems, depends on the kind man we settle with and is rarely about the kind of person we are. We are conditioned into believing these are the only options we should aspire to.
The opportunity for education is most often not guaranteed but falling pregnant has always been expected. We are required to learn how to cook, clean and keep a house hospitable. It is important for us to learn these skills for survival. Shouldn’t our brothers be taught the same?
We grow up disciplined in a manner that makes us feel we’re always wrong. Is this the reason we often say “sorry” even for little things not our fault?
We are taught to respect everyone around us and never talk back. Consequently, we don’t know if we should speak up because of fear to be disrespectful if we do. Our society questions and scolds our decisions when we don’t follow their social rules.
Most often our society blames us first when we find ourselves in unfair situations because we are always expected to know better. Yet, our society never seems to question the social norms and cultural lifestyle that gave them their beliefs and perspectives.
The way our society defines us Papua New Guinean women is like looking at an optical illusion. Are we the beautiful statue on the pedestal or are we the pedestal instead? And what if we don’t want to be either?
I believe as human beings we become products of our own environment. We continue cultural practices that have been passed from one generation to another and that we know to be right and just. Our people are so comfortable with what they know that change seems to have a stigma attached to it.
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity of education that has given me the chance to see Papua New Guinea through a different lens than the one I grew up with. My mother’s exposure to western culture has also taught her how to balance two very different worlds.
She often reminded me that if I wanted to walk in high heels, I should also be able to walk bare feet on the ground.
Even though I am fortunate to express my true self, it is only limited to being within my immediate family. When I’m outside my home, I no longer have my freedom to express my individuality or my human rights. I have to confine myself to this cage because society will judge and criticise me.
The part I fear most is that I could get physically, mentally and emotionally hurt just for wanting to have the freedom to be myself. I can’t express myself through fashion because society sees what I wear as an invitation to be catcalled or raped.
I can’t speak up for myself without fear of being physically attacked or verbally abused. I’ve been told to accept that being abused by my boyfriend or husband is normal because it’s part of being in a relationship.
I’ve seen our PNG women candidates lose in elections, a major factor being that our gender is stereotyped as incapable of leadership.
Each of these is an unfortunate reality I’ve experienced and observed. They are a discomforting reflection of our society and where we stand in this world.
Our parents and guardians and their parents and guardians before them raised us as best as they knew. They unintentionally continued with the same rules from one generation to another, despite that they may not have been appropriate in a world continuously evolving. This does not discredit the value of the disciplines and manners they used over time.
I always believed that one good thing that came out of colonialism was education. We should focus more on improving the quality of education in our country. The opportunity of education helps us filter out cultural traditions and ignorant beliefs that are no longer healthy.
Education teaches and guides us on how we can preserve our culture and create new ones that are appropriate for the time we are in. Education also helps us to see our cultural lifestyle from a new perspective where we may not always divide our roles and responsibilities in terms of physical strength and gender.
More importantly, quality education enables Papua New Guinean women to avoid letting our lights stay dimmed. It allows the freedom to express our individuality without fear.
Eventually education will break down that cage that keeps us from finding our vocations and living our true authentic selves. Ergo, I beg you to change the lens from which you view our country and allow good change for a better Papua New Guinea.