A RECENT article (‘As women lead the protest, PNG men let them down....’) looked like developing into an interesting debate about the place of women in Papua New Guinean society.
The article concerned female students at the University of PNG coming out ahead of their male counterparts in protesting about the O’Neill government’s corruption and economic mismanagement.
Unfortunately the article was diverted in its purpose by one of Peter O’Neill’s apologists going off on a tangent and bragging about her academic qualifications.
Since then, of course, the male students have joined their sisters in taking the brunt of the government’s diversionary tactics.
I still think what those brave female students did by stepping into an uncertain breach was very telling and a prime example of the unheralded strength of Papua New Guinean women.
In the comments published before the discussion went off the rails, there seemed to be a feeling (depending upon how you interpret the enigmatic Lindsay Bond) that Papua New Guinean men feel somehow threatened by the power of their women and try to keep them subjugated for this reason.
You might think that now is not the right time to be discussing such issues given the momentous events unfolding in Papua New Guinea but I would argue that it is decidedly relevant.
After all, the fact that the women - always more tolerant than their men - are taking a significant role in the protests must mean it’s pretty serious. If you don’t believe me look at the photographs – the women are in the thick of it.
Another thing that got me thinking was the high rate of homophobia among men in Papua New Guinea.
The impetus for this came from a reminder on the ex-kiap website of a much older article I wrote about gay kiaps and the muted response I got from kiaps themselves as well as the virulent responses from Papua New Guinean men, not least in unsolicited emails.
As I noted in my review of Suzanne Falkiner’s biography of the writer and one time kiap, Randolph Stow, I’m not convinced that his homosexuality wasn’t a major issue for his superiors at the time.
Papua New Guinean men, like old kiaps, obviously don’t want to talk about homosexuality. In the kiaps’ case it might be perceived as some sort of threat to the macho image some of them like to portray.
Suggestions that they took the existence of gay compatriots in their stride and didn’t think it was anything to worry about doesn’t wash with me.
In the case of Papua New Guinean men, homophobia seems to be a threat to both their masculinity and place in society. Hence they subjugate homosexuals in the same way they subjugate women.
Strangely though, homophobia is much more pronounced in Papua New Guinea’s urban centres. In rural and more traditional areas homosexuality is tolerated and in some cases accepted as a normal part of life.
Similarly, in rural areas, women have a much more, albeit proscribed place in society alongside their men.
This seems to indicate that both zealous homophobia and misogyny are an urban phenomenon among both educated and uneducated men. It is also in urban areas that churches preach homophobic rhetoric.
If you step back it is not hard to see the multiple pressures that men suffer in urban areas. Not least is the need to provide for their families.
If a man is struggling to survive any suggestions about his masculinity and place in society are sure to elicit a defensive response.
This is what Peter O’Neill and the parade of hopeless, greedy and corrupt politicians before him have created.
The social conditions whereby men subjugate and beat their women and assume a strong homophobic stance is essentially a product of bad politics and governance.
Prior to independence most Papua New Guinean men didn’t beat their women. If they wanted to let off steam they mostly fought each other. Francis Nii and others have pointed out that during traditional fighting women and children were strictly off limits. There were exceptions of course.
There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from all this: violence against women is a male issue, they are the ones who have to address the problem, not the beaten women. They need help though, especially from the government.
A similar situation exists in Australia. Violence against women occurs in socially and economically deprived areas, be it in urban or regional poverty spots as well as in the homes of highly stressed over-achievers.
If we had decent governments that could mitigate economic and social inequality we would go a long way towards solving problems like violence against women, the rising trend of misogyny, homophobia and, indeed, racism.