Social transformations and gender distinctions
: 'locating' Balif Arapesh women in contemporary Papua New Guinea society

  • Wendy Mortill Macdonald

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    In this study, the changing contours of Balif Arapesh gender distinctions are analysed against the backdrop of colonization and missionary endeavour which constitute an important component of Balif Arapesh contemporary history. Although encompassed within an independent State for almost two decades, Balif Arapesh society today reflects the influences of its colonial history. I argue that social transformations were not only imposed by powerful outsiders; volition was entailed in Balif Arapesh responses to introduced institutional forms, ideologies and social practices, through which indigenous authority structures were transformed and the re-ordering of gender distinctions effected.

    Central to the organization and maintenance of pre-colonial Balif Arapesh society were the male rituals and ceremonies through which men attained prestige and influence and, through their association with cult spirits, attained the power to protect the community and ensure its social regeneration. Women's exclusion from secret male rituals, and beliefs and practices which constructed a negative relationship between women and spirit beings, sustained a male-dominated spiritual hegemony.

    In the unsettling context of foreign intrusion, pre-existing authority structures were challenged and the efficacy of ritual practices questioned. Villagers hoped interaction with a purportedly more powerful Christian God would bring equality with outsiders, and the social and material prosperity which they observed these others to possess. As the acceptance of Christianity entailed a radical break with pre-existing ritual practices and the rejection of cultural beliefs in the polluting powers of women, the reformulation of religious beliefs contributed to transformations in Balif Arapesh gender distinctions. In the dis-ordering of the gendered opposition which conventionally structured ritual practices and sustained a separation in the social interaction between men and women, a male-dominated spiritual hegemony gave way to religious ideas clothed in the same ideology of complementarity which informed the gendered social practices and interactions of everyday life.

    Contrary to arguments which posit a universal asymmetry in gender distinctions, I argue that the form they take, and the inequalities they encode, are historically and socially specific and are constructed through a dialectical process in which novel experiences are interpreted within a framework of earlier cultural forms. In the transformed social conditions generated by their colonial and missionary encounters, Balif Arapesh women's position within a familial sphere was reinforced as their same-sex autonomy within this sphere diminished, whilst male authority in all cross-sex public/political contexts was elaborated. Despite a re-ordering of gender distinctions, to which reformulated religious beliefs contributed decisively, the differential social value attributed to the discourse, actions and purported capacities of men and women is sustained within an ideology of complementarity which strategically advantages men. In altered contexts, the male dominant order contains contradictions which emerge between ideology and lived reality through re-negotiation which, nonetheless, proceeds within a framework of socially-dominant representations in which the respectively restricted and generalized interests of women and men are naturalized as cultural values which recursively inform future action.

    Prevailing economic conditions, which have their genesis in the colonial past, limit Balif Arapesh opportunities to benefit from the services and resources of the independent State. I therefore argue that economic conditions combine with culturally-constructed gender distinctions to ensure men rather than women are the social beneficiaries of the limited resources of the modern State.
    Date of AwardApr 1995
    Original languageEnglish

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