Assessment: Contemporary South Pacific Governance and Crisis

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¶ … Standards of Gender Equality are Invariably Undermined by Efforts to Promote Kastom in the Modern Pacific State

One of the harsh realities of the human condition anywhere is the ability of some people to wield an inordinate amount of influence over others. Although this influence varies from place to place and time to time, history has shown that most societies feature a favored class that will go to enormous lengths to ensure the status quo remains in place to protect their status and power. In many societies (but not all), this favored status has been assigned to men based on a wide range of religious, social and philosophical dogma that has been used to maintain the male-dominated status quo. During the last half of the 20th century, though, these long-held standards were threatened by the global women's rights movement and many former gender-related barriers have crumbled and been swept away on the winds of history. In some cases, though, long-held gender-related beliefs remain firmly in place in ways that constrain the ability of women to gain gender equality. One such belief is kastom, a concept that holds significant meaning for many people in the modern Pacific state and which has been used to sustain male-dominated social, religious and political practices that have prevented women from gaining true gender equality. To demonstrate how contemporary standards of gender equality are being undermined by efforts to promote kastom in the modern Pacific state, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

It is difficult to translate "kastom" into English because of the subtle but significant meanings that are associated with the term that largely do not have precise corresponding meanings in the West. While the term "kastom" can mean "traditional," "traditional ways" and "indigenous" (Rodman 1987, p. 12), for example, it can also convey some other meanings that are more sinister. For instance, according to Kapferer, "In many respects, the concept of kastom, the Bislama term and pan-Melanesian idiom for a pre-colonial realm of 'customary' practices, can today be used synonymously with sorcery. Even though kastom refers to ceremonies of food exchange, men's cults and 'the indigenous way' in general, it now also carries with it a conception of evil, of malevolent and uncontrollable forces dwelling inside these powerful practices" (2003, p. 131). There are some variations on the usage of the word, though. For instance, Colchester advises that, "Kastom is the Bislama word which niVanuatu use to designate indigenous knowledge and practice in opposition to all that has been introduced. It is not a term which refers to a specific body of knowledge and practice as much as it is a form of classification. Not everything described as kastom is strictly indigenous: the term kastom jif (chief) for example, refers to a type of leadership which amalgamates both indigenous roles and colonial structures" (2003, p. 136).

When a country's national interests are at stake, the powers that be have historically resorted to extraordinary methods in response. In the case of many of the former colonies in the Pacific state, the kastom concept strengthened by this need, both before and after independence. In this regard, Rodman (1987) notes that, "National unity now is one of the most critical problems facing an independent Vanuatu. Although mission and state tried to eradicate certain island traditions, the containment of indigenous societies often strengthened a local sense of unique identity expressed through a distinctive pattern of kastom, 'traditional ways'" (p. 19).

According to Rodman, "Colonialism emphasized and maintained local differences in tradition while leading people away from a customary way of life. Kastom has been a national rallying point since the early 1970s, but loss of knowledge of traditions combined with the diversity of kastom that colonialism nurtured are important contributors to the problematic nature of kastom" (pp. 19-20).

Not surprisingly, the concept of kastom has had some profound effects on gender-related issues throughout the modern Pacific state in recent years. For instance, the kastom term is applied to debates concerning proper attire for women. For decades, the traditional "island dress" has been used by women to express regional differences throughout Vanuatu. In this regard, Colchester report that, "Ironically enough, one of the biggest gender issues for ni-Vanuatu at the start of the twenty-first century relates to clothing. Young women are increasingly seeking to wear loose wide traosis, rather like culottes. These 'trousers' actually facilitate modesty, enabling girls to sit, bend and jump without fear of skirts flying up, or falling back" (2003, p. 136). Although this female clothing trend appears benign enough by Western standards, it has become the focus of a significant gender-related controversy in Vanuatu. As Colchester points out, "There is endless media coverage of male opposition to trousers, both on the grounds that they expose the contours of the female body, and that they are not kastom. In asserting that traosis are not kastom, however, opponents do not advocate a return to grass skirts and pandanus textiles. They want women to wear skirts or dresses. In particular, it is island dresses that are described as kastom dresing blong yumi - our traditional dress" (2003, p. 136).

Many women in Vanuatu, though, find the traditional island dress favored by the male population to be untenable. In this regard, Colchester emphasizes that, "Since the achievement of independence the island dress has come to be regarded as the closest thing to a national dress. For women in Anglican areas, this has posed a certain problem. Most lack the knowledge and skills required to turn a length of cloth, bought in a trade store, into an island dress, and many report these problems in discussing the idea of island dresses as national dress" (2003, p. 134). Women in Vanuatu who have embraced this manner of traditional dress have also experienced some inter-gender problems concerning its design and manufacture. For instance, Colchester adds that, "Presbyterian women, especially from central Vanuatu (where the island dress developed) see the dress as particularly their own, and notice when they see other women who have clearly purchased their dresses in a Chinese store in the towns of Port Vila and Luganville" (2003, p. 134).

While this issue may appear to be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, the debate over the appropriate style of dress in this Melanesian region reflects the larger debate that is taking place over women's rights in general in the Pacific state today. In this regard, Colchester suggests that these female clothing-related debates are taking place during a period in the region's history when women are also pressing for greater rights and a more equitable share of resources in ways that threaten the longstanding male-dominated status quo -- and the emotions are running strong. According to Colchester, "The extent of feeling on this matter is reflected by the fact that in some areas of Vanuatu, traosis for girls have been banned. While in some places women are able to wear traosis in the privacy of their hamlet yards, or in their food gardens, in others they are forbidden in all contexts. The chiefs on Paama island, for example, have ruled that women must not wear them at all" (2003, p. 136).

Based on his empirical observations, Colchester (2003) suggests that women are insistent on claiming their rights to wear the traosis and will change into them at every opportunity, sometimes surreptiously and sometimes in a clear attempt to confront and perhaps even provoke local authorities. There is also a clear double-standard being promoted by the reliance on the concept of kastom to restrict the type of clothing women are allowed to wear. For instance, Colchester notes that, "The opposition to traosis could seem surprising, given how comparatively recently men worn sarongs on a daily basis" (2003, p. 136). The male opposition to the traosis, though, is firmly based in a desire to maintain the status quo and this is reflected in Colchester's observation that the controversy "can be understood as an expression of discomfort at the rapid pace of change in the country since independence, a pace people may find hard to manage" (2003, p. 136).

The focus on female clothing and the male resort to invoking kastom-related proscriptions against modernized female clothing is understandable -- if not supportable -- by the role played by clothing in this society. In this regard, Colchester concludes that:

It is revealing that the issue which such anxieties have fastened upon relates to clothing. Clothing in Vanuatu has always been a signifier of gender and status. Dresses do not only signify gender. They also signify the specific form of status difference between men and women that was introduced with clothing in the colonial era. The opposition to traosis has developed over the period when urban-based women's organizations have increasingly advocated women's rights, when women have started to seek election to Parliament, and when some women are achieving employment in government and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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