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Women’s dress & violence: All that’s changed are the standards

Jakub Majewski
Jakub Majewski


GOLD COAST - Was there really no violence against Papua New Guinean women in the time before?

When I read accounts of missionaries in the 1930s, who worked and lived even in areas still beyond the reach of the patrol officers, I get the exact opposite impression.

It would be utterly ridiculous to argue that women are now worse off than they were then.

Sexual violence may have been more specifically channelled, for example rape would probably be limited to raids on another village and to one's own wives, as it certainly would not have been acceptable for them to refuse their husbands regardless of circumstance - but it would hardly be less common.

I suspect that for many women, covering up their breasts seems like a small price to pay for the enormous, enormous advancement of their social position that Christianity gave them.

And let us be specific about this: it is Christianity, not Australia, that gave them this. We all know how many Australian patrol officers fell short of Christian standards, particularly in regards to respecting the local women.

By the way, it's also crucial to note that while dress codes differed, modesty did not.

I recall reading a particularly poignant account of a very public marital disagreement one of the missionaries witnessed. A man accused his pregnant wife of infidelity. She angrily denied it, but the man refused to accept her denials.

Finally, determined to punish her, he ripped off her exceedingly skimpy grass skirt in front of the whole village. The woman, horrified and ashamed at being so exposed, immediately climbed up a tall tree and before anyone could see what's coming, she leaped, killing herself and her baby.

Why did she feel such intense shame given that objectively, she was hardly any more naked than she had been already? Because modesty is not about how much you wear, it's about whether you wear as much as is the accepted standard.

PNG women now are neither more, nor less modestly dressed than they were when they wore grass skirts - the only thing that's changed is the standard.

Jakub Majewski grew up in Papua New Guinea rather and has retained a life-long affection for the country and its people .  He is a graduate student in the Faculty of Society & Design at Bond University researching the use of role-playing games to show indigenous cultural heritage, mainly focusing on Aboriginal Australia.  


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Rob Parer

Jakub, you are talking about the part of New Guinea which was administered by Germany.

In Papua or British New Guinea the law was that the village people could not dress in white man’s clothes when they came into town.

It was the complete opposite in German New Guinea as the Christian missionaries made the women cover up their breasts and made them feel they were sinning.

I have lived most of my life in what was the German side. Maybe people who have lived in the Papuan side may like to comment.

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