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Women’s dress & violence – is there a relationship?


Phil Fitzpatrick - 'women do not invite attacks'

TUMBY BAY - For the last couple of months I’ve been writing a memoir about growing up as a young migrant child in Australia.

It’s one of a couple of writing projects that have been occupying my time.

The period I cover in the memoir is the 1950-60s, which was an extremely conservative time in Australia. This was particularly so with regard to sexual and moral matters, and I’m sure it had a detrimental effect on my upbringing.

In the process of delving into this repressive era I couldn’t help thinking about what happened when I first went to Papua New Guinea in 1967.

This was just before the great social changes that swept the western world in the late 1960s.

In those days Papua New Guinea was a much earthier place. Among other things people didn’t wear too many clothes, especially in the bush, but also in the towns. Men and women in traditional dress was the rule rather than the exception.

For a 19-year old cadet patrol officer emerging from straitlaced Australia, the sight of women only attired in very brief grass skirts and pulpuls was quite a shock.

Interestingly, my fascination didn’t last very long and I became used to the idea and even blasé about the way people dressed.

Given the climate and lifestyle, traditional dress was a healthy and natural response on the part of the Melanesian people.

However, I also recall both my own and the colonial administration’s misgivings about the growing demand by many missionaries that people cover up and adopt European dress.

In reflecting upon this and the overtly repressive attitudes to dress in Australia, I can’t help but wonder how much those misguided attitudes pursued by the missionaries and other moral zealots ultimately affected the increase in violence and sexual offences against women in PNG.

I don’t recall that sort of crime and unacceptable behaviour was anywhere near as prevalent in those times.

Of course, the rule of law introduced by Australia and strict pre-existing traditional laws acted as useful deterrents.

You often hear Papua New Guineans talk about women who have ‘invited’ attacks because of the way they dress. People say ‘the way she dressed she was asking for trouble’ or ‘the way she dressed she deserved it’. Even women say this.

And yet, that same woman’s grandmother probably went around in a very brief grass skirt with no fear of ever being attacked.

I’m not suggesting that men and women in PNG would be better off going back to traditional styles of dress but I wonder whether the good intentions of missionaries and others in those earlier days might have been counter-productive.

In trying to protect men from temptation by covering up women they may have had the opposite effect. They may have actually increased the attraction by bringing in an element of mystery.

I know that the prurient interest of Australian men in their modestly attired women in the 1950-60s was a very discernible and dangerous undertone.

It bristles with irony that this might now be the case in Papua New Guinea.


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`Daniel Kumbon

'Civilized men arrived in the Pacific, armed with alcohol, syphilis, trousers and the Bible' Havelock Ellis 1859-1939, English scientist and writer.

Michael Dom

Damn straight Phil.

Respect: nothing to do with culture, traditional or modern societies, political systems, economics status, race, religion or even intelligence.

Moreover, men who don't respect women as equals and ignore the inequity that women face worldwide are doing them a criminal disservice tantamount to saying that rape is justified if she was 'asking for it'.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I recall one time in the highlands in the late 1960s when some men dragged a man into the patrol post saying he had touched a woman on the breast.

I forget what we charged him with but he served a couple of weeks in the kalabus.

That seems to be what is missing today Philip, respect for women.

Philip Kai Morre

Humans are sexual beings and the moment a young man sees a woman dressed immodestly, his mind is preoccupied with sex.

Sexuality is the driving force that shapes human personality. Sex and aggressive drives create violence in our society that is beyond control.

Traditional people were controlled by strict cultural norms, values and sexuality is a taboo and not to be discussed in public.

The dress was simple, women going around with bare breasts, almost half naked, but not much violence occurred. Women were highly respected because they were producers.

There is modernisation and change in the way people think and how they behave, and we have moved from a spiritual and ethical society to a culture of secular humanism.

Jakub Majewski

Was there really no violence against 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.

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