BRISBANE – The presentation by Papua New Guinean women writers’ to a packed auditorium at the Brisbane Writers Festival yesterday was a great success on the back of a great achievement.
Even after the session had begun, a queue of 20 people – including well known PNG Attitude personalities Murray Bladwell, Ed Brumby and Lindsay Bond – were being shunted back and forth by bemused attendants until finally the doors were flung open again.
As the event got into full stride, with Rashmii Bell expertly chairing the session, her three colleagues illustrator and photographer Tania Basiou, lawyer Elvina Ogil and poet and film-maker Vanessa Gordon provided an engaged audience with a brisk and candid walk through some of the big issues facing PNG women today.
A large part of this audience was new to PNG affairs and an audible gasp ran around the room when people learned that, at the recent national poll, the people of PNG had managed not to elect even one woman to sit in the 111-member parliament.
It seems that this is a statistic that will hang over the parliament for its five-year term and I am confident that will be the case because I will be among those people who will not let it be forgotten.
Unlike some people in PNG who should know better, I do not downplay the humiliation that the 0/111 confers upon this great country.
Meanwhile back in Brisbane, we heard a fascinating discussion on the cultural misappropriation (including into the realm of foreign swimwear) of the iconic PNG string bag, the bilum.
As Elvina Ogil pointed out, the bilum is more than a utilitarian accessory, it is a symbol both of the womb and of the strength of much put-upon Melanesian women.
As the panel moved deeper into the issues, it became clear that Papua New Guineans have some trouble accommodating modern women – professional, ambitious, assertive – into the Melanesian cultural mindset.
In traditional Melanesian society, women often had considerable influence and tended to be well-regarded for that.
But, as things have turned out, these days there can be great pushback against women achievers.
Part of the remedy, Elvina Ogil said, is for women themselves to take responsibility for driving towards gender equality.
At the national political level, though, this task has been made more complex by that total lack of female representation in parliament.
“These elections were unsuccessful,” Ms Ogil said. “And in many ways they were untoward.
“We have lost our way.
“Men say they’ll vote for a woman if she’s ‘quality’.
“But when the time comes, it’s never enough. And it’s made particularly hard because there’s no level playing field.
"PNG is not a meritocracy. Winning on merit is virtually unknown.”
“When we’re brave enough to find our voice,” said colleague Vanessa Gordon, “there’s often an effort by men, and women too, to shout us down.
“They may allow that we are good, but there is often a reluctance to enable us to be great.
“When I started writing, and found I couldn’t stop, I thought to myself, ‘wow, I’ll be making some enemies’," Ms Gordon said.
“One of the challenges women face is to show, no matter what, that we are determined to have a voice.
I hope the publication of My Walk to Equality lights a fire and evokes a feeling in PNG that ‘we don’t want to be ashamed’. I hope it will help PNG women get over their sense of shame,” she said.
Yesterday's discussion was expansive, informed and entertaining and the audience departed for lunch well satisfied with their hour of engagement with four articulate PNG women.
And, when I repaired to the State Library of Queensland bookshop not long after to buy another copy of My Walk to Equality (having given away my own stockpile some time ago), I found myself purchasing the last one in the shop.
Now that too is a sign of success.
Rashmii Bell will again be presenting at the festival tomorrow as part of a panel on domestic violence.
In a session entitled 'Staying Power', the panellists will explore the deeper psychological aspects of domestic violence and ask what happens before the violence and why people stay.
Co-presenters will be authors Kerrie Davies and Michael Sala and the discussion will be chaired by Emily Sexton.
This event is sold out.