Aug 12, 2010

Women, Culture, and Negotiation

While waiting in the queue at the bank this morning, I overheard bits of a conversation between two national women. When I was finished with my business, I had to walk over and join in for a few minutes.

Although the women were lamenting the loss of cultural traditions, especially tribal traditions that are failing to be handed down from tribal elders, they were also discussing the difficulties associated with the restraints that they, as women, must deal with in PNG culture. One woman, a "boss meri" (female supervisor) at the bank, explained that she and her husband were both village raised. As such, the expectations for her role has unexpected [by me] effects like keeping her from driving, as it would question the ability of her husband to provide for her, requiring her to wear dresses, as there is no question of her challenging her husband's authority in the household by, literally, "wearing the pants", etc.

I think the most interesting thing about discussing the topic with her was that she wasn't angry or upset by the situation, and didn't appear to take offence to the clearly designated roles, but rather viewed it as a cultural influence that had to be dealt with. I got the idea that she and her husband both discussed the topics, especially the wearing of pants, in a way that allowed them to work toward agreement on the issues by both parties. It seems they were working together to come up with solutions that were good for them, good for their children, and good for the preservation of their culture.

The number of extremely diverse cultures in such a small place (over 650 recognised languages in a country the size of California with only 1/6 of the population of it!) means that this view of women is shared by some, but certainly not all, of the local cultures.

The issues of balancing tribal beliefs with modern knowledge, of respecting and honouring tradition while allowing for growth and development, and of providing rooted connections to the past for young people while encouraging them to seek new ways of educating, collaborating, and innovating, all are complex and occasionally controversial. Still, I love it that I am here at a time and in a place where I can observe, and even learn from, these "growing pains". And as the country prepares for the celebration of independence from Australian rule in just a few short weeks, I am preparing for an explosion of cultural pride across the nation and in my own neighbourhood. I can't wait to see what comes next.

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