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.