You’ve all probably read Gaea’s rundown of the gender divide from her point of view so I figured I’d put up my take on things.
I think that one of the other volunteers put it very well during our training when he said that men here are rock stars. Basically, it’s true. To be fair, just being white makes us both celebrities. We walk around and are known everywhere. It’s actually strange being in Vila where I am relatively unknown. Even here I can get a bit of the celebrity treatment just by talking in Bislama and telling people what island I’m from. On the island, everyone knows who we are and wants to chat with me, usually over a shell or five of Kava. When I say everyone, I do mean the men. The women mostly want to chat with Gaea and don’t really want the kava. Of course, the kava happens in the Nakamal, which is also where the business of the village is discussed. Not that I can understand what’s going on, everything being in language but I can be there.
I do get a good deal of enjoyment from pushing their ideas of gender roles. I wash clothes, I cook, I clean the house. I do all these things publicly. It causes confusion. Of course, I’m white and expected to be strange. I also take the opportunities I can to discuss with people that Gaea and I share all the housework. I really don’t know how much mind-changing I’m doing but I like to think I’m at least opening windows if not doors. Not everything about the culture is 100% divided, especially in our area. Kastom dictates that the young men go live in the Nakamal where we are told that they’re expected to cook and clean their own clothes as these are important life skills. Once they get married, they’re not expected to keep doing such tasks but they do learn and if their wife is sick or visiting family they may have to take care of themselves. They are also expected to help their wife raise their grandchildren.
Domestic violence is acceptable here but hitting your wife or kids hard enough to injure is not. Of course, there are only certain people that can actually tell someone to knock it off unless the woman goes to the authorities, be that the chiefs or the law. Hitting someone else’s wife, especially your brother’s, has been demonstrated to carry a pretty hefty fine. Rape is being dealt with more harshly than I understand it has been in the past. Enough so that a chief was stripped of his position and banned from the Nakamal for it. Being banned from the Nakamal is a HUGE deal. It means you aren’t even allowed to witness ceremonies and you aren’t included in community business. That this happened to a chief says something to me.
I don’t excuse some of the behaviors I’ve seen here. It’s incredibly frustrating to see some of the attitudes here. On the other hand, I do feel like progress is being made. I feel like the society as a whole wants to change. Is it moving fast enough? No, but these things take time and I have hope.