TUMBY BAY - Baka Bina’s recent short story, ‘When the rains fall red’, set me to thinking about women’s issues and my role as a kiap before independence.
The kiap fraternity was, after all, an all-male body but the fact was that the communities we were sent to administer were pretty much half and half male and female.
During our training at ASOPA we had been made aware of all sorts of cultural and other differences we would encounter in our work, including taboos around things like taim bilong mun (menstruation).
It had been emphasised by our lecturers that unless a custom was somehow a health threat or against common decency it was not to be interfered with.
This policy of non-interference was an important principle that set kiaps apart from the missionaries.
Although I knew about the taboos associated with taim bilong mun I didn’t encounter them until I patrolled into the Murray Valley in the Star Mountains.
This was only the second patrol into the valley and we and the villagers were still working out the technicalities of our association.
During the first patrol there had been a skirmish and everyone was still on tenterhooks.
One task of this second patrol was to consolidate the census data collected on the first one to determine the distribution of people among the various hamlets and villages in the valley.
In each place we did the usual thing and set up a table in the centre of the village and called out the names of the people already recorded. We then added the names of all those who had been missed on the first count.
In the first village several women couldn’t be found when their names were called. This struck me as unusual until I realised what was going on.
I quickly told the mamusi (village constable) to tell the missing women to congregate in a spot about 50 metres away and wave their arms when I called their names.
A young girl was despatched to tell the women and then to relay the names if they couldn’t be heard by the women as I called them out.
The same procedure was repeated in several other villages, although by this time word had spread and I didn’t have to tell the mamusi what to do.
After all these years reflecting on that experience, I’ve come to realise that what happened was a fairly explicit demonstration not only of men’s power over women but their innate fear of them and their need to supress them.
The power of women to reproduce and nurture is a fearsome thing for some men.
As a reaction to this power, taim bilong mun has to be demonised and turned from a strength into a weakness thus enabling men to manage it.
This need to suppress women because they are feared still runs through Papua New Guinean society and manifests itself in things like domestic violence.
It’s also not unknown in modern western societies.
In Australia many men still express distaste at the idea of menstruation and actively avoid women, including their own spouses, at such times.
It is a commonly held view that women become irritable and bad-tempered at this time.
Women, on the other hand, complain of the discomfort and pain that their hormones cause.
Many women play along with these male scenarios and seek to hide what is happening to them. As one result, a very profitable industry (probably run by men) has grown up around what are euphemistically called ‘women’s hygiene products’.
In a comment on Baka Bina’s story I mentioned an incident described in Robyn Davidson’s book ‘Tracks’ when she was trekking alone (except for her team of four camels and a dog) across Australian western deserts from near Alice Springs to the west coast.
When her taim bilong mun arrived she just kept walking and let it happen. She described that experience as truly liberating.
As a thinking animal we humans have tied ourselves up in all sorts of unnecessary cultural knots.
Examining and untangling some of them has great potential to make for a better future.
We all know that women have as much or more than men to contribute to human society if enabled to do so.
Undoing the hideous knot of inequity and improving our world will only be possible by engaging women’s help.
Recognising, and removing, the taboos around such seemingly small things like taim bilong mun is where some of that unravelling can start.
Or so reasons the ancient kiap.