I WRITE in my journal. I write letters to self. I write social media disgruntles and discussions. I write submissions.
I can’t remember the last time I tried writing creatively. I first attempted writing this several months ago, to look back at and mark a low point in my 30 years.
A point, where I thought I had done everything expected of me that was within my control but it was still not enough. The expectation of marriage.
My experience, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in the struggle of being a Papua New Guinean, more so a Papua New Guinean woman.
We Papua New Guineans are always too harsh on ourselves. We imagine we should be years ahead in development, in the state of our economy and in the education of our people.
But the reality which dawns on me every 16 September is that it was only in 1930 that “first contact” was made with the Highlands people of PNG. Only 86 years. That’s one person’s lifetime.
It’s this dilemma that continues to shape the growth, attitudes, understandings and ambitions of us as a people and a country.
We are akin to tumbleweed, picking up speed and all kinds of debris, some good, some bad, but constantly in motion and moving where?
There seems to be no method to this madness and every day I struggle to make sense of and balance all the contrasting and different pressures, expectations, realisations, goals and visions that make up me.
Me, the Papua New Guinean who comes from a very distinct old indigenous culture.
Me, the Papua New Guinean who is exposed to the Western world and Western ideas, having lived in a Western culture.
Me, the Papua New Guinean who is also exposed to non-Western cultures and ethnicities and sees their struggle in this world centuries after their own “first contact.”
Me, the Papua New Guinean who is passionate about human rights yet, is challenged by living in this country, to question at various moments, are they universal?
Me, middle-class Papua New Guinean woman.
It’s within this context that a seemingly small matter, like the expectation of marriage, throws me off my path, crushes my ego and ambition, and makes me ask myself: will I ever achieve what is required of a young Papua New Guinea meri? And who dictates what that is anyway?
I don’t believe my experience (and it’s continuing of course) is unique. I have many girlfriends who are going through the same thing, the same frustrations and the same questions.
Every year since I turned 25, the question has been, “when are you getting married?”
When are you getting married? WHEN ARE YOU GETTING MARRIED?
When I turned 30, it reached the stage where my mother formed prayer groups. She did this in several locations to dedicate my singleness to God.
A couple of years ago she thought maybe there was an ancestral curse that hindered my marriage prospects.
At present I do not know her thoughts on the matter because I have decided I do not wish to discuss something beyond my control.
This is not an issue particular to Papua New Guinean women, however for us it’s more confusing because we don’t really know our society’s stance on it.
In one generation, we have gone from traditions that have arranged marriages and clear boy/girl, male/female, husband/wife roles to some level of social anarchy.
Many parents have no idea what messages they are sending to their children and our society is still trying to figure out gender roles and expectations. Meanwhile we are progressing by feel, by personal interpretations of what society’s expectations are or might be.
As a girl-child growing up, my family and community’s expectations of me included assisting with the housework, carrying a billum, sindaun isi, welcoming guests, making tea.
When I got too rowdy, I was told “yu man ah,” or in my mother’s tongue, “rol kang eh.”
On the other hand, people also recognised the value of accessing Western culture. We were told to focus on school, achieve a good education, become career women, think independently and be independent.
Women who are part of the expanding middle-class in PNG have a voice in the home and in the family but, beyond that, we go by feel, by intuition, by trial and error.
We figure out pretty quickly when we can say something and when we can’t; like when it’s a forum just for the men. Even in a professional setting, we have the same challenge. Calculating when we should and should not assert ourselves.
Many times we gauge wrong. There are no set rules. It can be very confusing. Because - if you can’t discern, if you don’t listen to your intuition, if you don’t observe your environment - this crazy balancing act (with no tangible weights) becomes impossible.
What makes things even more difficult is the fact that what is a successful balancing act in one setting may not be so in another.
And that is exactly why the expectation of marriage was a sucker punch to the stomach for me.
After everything I thought I had achieved, that achievement was still not sufficient.
In my life in Port Moresby and overseas, as an educated career woman I had done well. However, it seemed not as a Papua New Guinean woman whose traditional culture seems to only allow for the roles of small girl, young girl, married woman, old woman, widow and perhaps to a very limited extent, spinster.
Where do I fit? I am none of these things. Can I just be a “young woman” or even “a woman” without my existence being defined in relation to a man?
Culture changes, it shifts, it takes different forms as time progresses and as society’s values transform, but I fear we are moving so fast that we are not dictating where we are going but being dictated to by circumstance.
Driven by the warped power constructs that develop as a result of this tumbleweed of progress. And we remain confused about the standards and behaviour we expect of our men and women.
The expectation of marriage is a mild but personal example of this unregulated change. On the other end of the spectrum, the most pressing issue affecting PNG women right now is violence, and the attitudes of those men and women who condone it.
What I wish more than anything is that what women are experiencing today might be a phase, a developmental hiccup and that, in another generation, a young PNG woman can look back and ruminate on how much things have changed for the better.