The smart Hela woman: a subordinated mother of invention
13 December 2016
A contribution to ‘My Walk to Equality’, the first anthology of PNG women’s
writing, to be published on International Women’s Day in March next year.
THE famous bow and arrow combination used by Huli men during tribal fights were invented by Hela woman who also taught the men how to use it.
Women taught Huli men how to build houses and invented the first Huli musical instrument.
These innovations and others are mentioned in Hela history but men try to ignore this and regard women as inferior child bearers.
The work of these women inspires Hela today but they receive no recognition.
In Hela history, Huli women were considered as aggressive and outspoken as Huli men and had great influence in society. They contested with the men to contribute to making decisions in the akali palamanda (men’s house).
Perhaps this was because they were largely responsible for the care of the pigs, the most important Huli exchange commodity.
Huli women owned and inherited land and argued for their rights in legal disputes. Today Hela women are not as aggressive and outspoken as they once were. They hardly participate at the top level of decision making.
So far no woman has ever been among the 111 members of Papua New Guinea’s parliament. I don’t know what happened to them on the way. Is it because they’re not responsible for anything more important than a pig? Or is it that they’re too scared to come out and fight for their rights?
Huli women are considered the backbone of society, making up the majority of agricultural labourers. Most of their skills and knowledge are acquired from their mothers or elders in the village.
Gardening techniques are learned early in life. Both men and women cut bushes and burn off the dry grass, but mounding and cultivation are usually done by women.
Around the age of five, girls are given greater responsibilities, such as carrying crops home from the gardens in their bilums (net bags) and minding pigs and younger siblings. Girls are taught by their mothers to make grass shirts, bilums, bilum caps, pig-tethering ropes and the women’s pandanus rain cape.
Another important skill passed to daughters is the special mourning lament, kiabu dugu, and stories with important genealogical information and knowledge of clan structure. Today most of these skills are still taught and passed on to daughters.
In Huli traditional society, men were the centre of communities and women were said to be the quiet ones. Sons were preferred to daughters and women were expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands and sons.
When Huli girls reached puberty, they covered their breasts with a piece of bark or empty bilum until they married and produced children. During early pregnancy, a woman worked doubly hard in her gardens so she would have sufficient food to relax with her infant child.
As pregnancy advanced, she avoided the presence of men who would feel shame at seeing an obviously pregnant woman. When the birth was due, the women retired to a small bush house with pitpit walls with fern leaves covering the ground. Huli women traditionally gave birth alone, without assistance from other women.
When it came to feasting on the pigs killed and then cooked in ground ovens, men and women received equal shares of pork. Huli men were wise and supportive towards their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. The only taboo was that women were not allowed to speak on their behalf.
Huli men marry more than one wife to help his first wife in garden or household work. But to take another woman, he had to get permission from his first wife. Sometimes the first wife helped him find another woman.
Traditionally, violence against women was unknown in Huli society. Even though a man married more than one wife, all lived happily in one house.
But during the development and operation of the liquefied natural gas project, violence against women has become widespread. The wealth that has been introduced has affected marriage and had other negative impacts on family life and sexual relationships.
Today in Huli society, children learn hundreds of details of cultural behaviour that become incorporated into their gender identity. The Huli ideology considers women to be inferior and subordinate to men.
Women’s place is in the family where they manage the home and supply male heirs. But they still have a long way to go in their struggle for real equality in terms of educational opportunities, political rights, economic independence and social status.
In the field of education, we do have more educated women who are gradually attaining economic independence and social status. But men always have more chances to receive a better education. Despite these obstacles, there have been a few Hela women who have been political candidates and councillors.
Huli male attitudes towards women are more difficult to change than laws because gender inequality is deeply rooted in Hela culture.
Hela women were once a great inventors, teachers, singers and poets. They were mothers, producers of humankind and very hard workers.
The Huli world is created by these great woman with their powerful fertility, bodies desired by men and knowledge of arrow usage and house construction.
Huli women teach Huli men to hunt, to defend themselves, to build houses. Men depend on women for life, sex and knowledge; women are rather more independent of men.
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