THE active involvement and high profile stand by women in the recent student protests against Peter O’Neill and his corrupt government has largely gone unnoticed in the media.
A short article by writer Michael Dom about their courageous march during the week attracted little comment on PNG Attitude. I found this is decidedly worrying.
In the face of fierce opposition and overt threats by O’Neill’s cronies in the ministry and elsewhere, including the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary and the University of Papua New Guinea’s administration, these brave women took the lead ahead of the men and stepped into the fray.
They were taking a huge gamble.
Their logic was that, if a male-led demonstration would result in the sort of inevitable violence that despots like O’Neill use to quell dissent, perhaps a female-led demonstration would have a more subdued response.
Luckily their gamble paid off. So far at least. It is unclear whether this was because they took the government and police by surprise or because O’Neill and his cops were loath to exert violence on Papua New Guinean women in such a public way.
Given that many Papua New Guinean men, like their counterparts in other countries, prefer to exercise violence against women in private, I suspect that the latter is the case.
I hope that these gutsy young women will not now be subject to intimidation at a personal level behind closed doors and in the shadows. No doubt many of them will be wary of the possibility of retribution.
Perhaps O’Neill’s in-house female attack squad will advise him to be cautious.
With regard to being taken by surprise, men like O’Neill must be well aware of the traditional ability of Papua New Guinean women to step into the breach of the chaos so often created by their men and to pick up the pieces.
In that sense, it is curious that Papua New Guinean men don’t take more notice of what their women say. Rather than listening, they take advantage of them. We will rape and pillage the country but it is okay because the women will fix it later.
There are, of course, Papua New Guinean women who seem to turn into men when they are elevated to public office.
And when that happens, they do tend to be more savage than men at oppressing their sisters. I can think of a couple of prime examples.
So-called ‘women’s issues’ seem to have become a mandatory but token consideration for many people, especially politicians. They make the right noises but don’t really believe in what they are saying.
I suppose, in some way, when women demonstrate high moral values, like marching against O’Neill, the men feel threatened. Rather than applauding the women who have the courage that they don’t, they stay silent.
I suspect that’s why the men who comment on PNG Attitude are silent about Michael’s article.
Of course, someone will come out soon and say, what’s wrong with you men, your women are showing you up. That would be the worst thing anyone could say in the present situation and it won’t do women any favours, especially those who are protesting.
The feminist Gloria Steinem is in Australia at the moment, 50 years an activist and still going strong. In an interview a few days ago she pointed out something very similar about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest attempt to placate some of the women he’s insulted in the past.
He’s trying to counter these previous misjudgements but comes across as just another manipulative man engaging in tokenism.
Steinem claimed, incorrectly I think, that in primitive society men and women were different but equal. I think that is an ideal that she and many women and some men would like to see prevail now.
How you bring that about is difficult. About as difficult as taking up the cause of public protest that the brave UPNG women did.
One of the things I’ve always tried to do is have strong female characters in my fiction, Ruby in the Inspector Metau books for example. Some female readers pick up on this but the male critics never mention it.
That’s one of the few things, as writers and poets, that we men can do. We owe it to plucky women like those who put their health and future on the line in Port Moresby the other day.
But you have to be careful how it’s done. The nauseating poems and stories about mothers we seem to get every Mother’s Day are all pretty much hypocritical guilt trips and tokenism.
If you are man enough to support your women, it must be done in a respectful way. And it must be done frequently and with enough force to render lasting change.