ONE evening in Cleveland, Ohio, two friends suggested we go for drinks at a bar often frequented by nurses.
I was a bit scared I might end up talking with the wrong woman. I didn’t want a husband, live-in boyfriend or fiancée to catch me talking with their beloved.
And I couldn’t stand it when a woman looked at me in the eyes as we talked. I was not used to women looking at men directly like that.
If she was a relative, yes, you can talk with direct eye contact. But it was uncomfortable talking with strange women.
In America, there was no distinction between a married woman and a single woman. They all dressed alike.
Married women in Papua New Guinea are expected to dress and act differently. And when they talk, they look away in a passive manner. They don’t look at men directly.
On the other hand, having come from PNG which expects girls to marry sometimes as young as 16 or 17, I could not believe that so many attractive young African American women were still single.
“Why is this so,” I asked my friend.
“Because a lot of black men of marriageable age are behind bars,” he said. Was he joking?
“Also some of the women do not want to get married. They earn their own keep and want to enjoy life on their own.”
According to an American study, marriage was often the only route to economic security for women 40 years ago but that’s no longer the case.
In fact, men and women told researchers that one of the reasons men want to get married is because the guys are looking to sponge off their women.
In traditional PNG society, girls were expected to marry so the bride price would enrich their relatives. Bride price was recognised as fulfilling the girl’s obligation. Relatives became worried when a girl failed to get marriage proposals from a suitor.
The older women would prepare young girls to establish a good name for themselves as they started families among different people in their husband’s homeland.
“Clean your ears and listen to your husband and obey his instructions,” they would say. “Do not look down on him, even if he is old, has a short nose or is poor.
“Once he has paid the bride price, you are his wife. He is your husband for life. Work hard for him, bear his children and raise his children.”
The girls were warned that if they did not perform their duties, they would likely be beaten by their husbands. If they committed a serious offence like adultery, they would be tortured.
They were also advised to refuse a marriage proposal if they did not like a man before the bride price was distributed. It would be too late after the warapae pigs were killed to conclude marriage proceedings.
At the time when explorers began to infiltrate Enga Province in the late 1930s, a married woman from my village was caught committing adultery. She was told to strip in front of the whole village in the public square where the tee or moka exchange took place.
Her lover was also ordered by tribal chiefs to strip and perform in public what they’d done in secret. The woman’s fingernails were then burnt slowly until she promised never to commit adultery again.
This was jungle justice approved by society. These forms of punishment were cruel. But people accepted them as necessary to contain people within the confines of established mores.
Traditional taboos were always observed. And the tough punishments ensured stability in the family.
There were few spoilt children, not many broken marriages and, once a woman was married, she remained so for the rest of her life. Not many people lived single lives or suffered in isolation. There was always a wantok with whom to share food with or who would provide consolation. Serious crimes like gang rapes and adultery were rare.
But I thought this trend would change. PNG girls would refuse to marry. They would live in their own apartments, drive their own cars, choose their own soul mate and set the time to get married. I was concerned there would be an increase in domestic violence.
In the United States, I met a young woman from a developing country.
Every time I tried to share my problems with her, she joked about them. She laughed when she saw my messy apartment. Worst of all, she called me a male chauvinist pig – a title I don’t think I deserved.
“What is the position of women in your country? Don’t they do much of the domestic work,” I asked her.
“You men expect us to do everything. Raise kids, cook food, keep house. What do you take us for? Sex objects or what? You male chauvinist pig!” she growled.
“Take it easy. You shouldn’t stereotype all men,” I said.
The patriarchal society I was accustomed to expects women to be submissive and respect men at all times. In America the position of women was different. They stood on an equal pedestal.
But my argument with the lady from the third world helped me to understand the reality of the changing status of women everywhere.
In my view, even in a changing society, married women in PNG would still be expected to dress and act differently from single women. National women who wore a lot of perfume were often rebuked as ‘smelling like a chemist.’
From a western standpoint, this behaviour may seem odd. But, as it was, the situation in PNG was interesting for both men and women as traditional teachings and western influence merged.
And, inevitably, there was change. Not always for the better.