Rethinking men’s violence and bodies from Papua New Guinea: Papua New Guinea’s masculine societies

Academic exploration of masculinity aside from its physical body/embodiment remains underdeveloped, at present. More must be understood about how masculinity is constructed, apart from its essential physical qualities. The following case from Papua New Guinea stands as an example of such an inquiry.

While Papua New Guinea has a multicultural society, with over 700 distinct ethno-linguistic communities and pronounced geographic diversity, it is regarded as an extremely patriarchal society dominated by men. As of 2012, only three women were among the country’s 109 parliament members.Violence, including sexual assault, is widespread in urban areas and unmarried men constitute the majority of the offenders. Papua New Guinea is also home to the practice of strict gender segregation and antagonism toward women, especially in the Highland regions (Gelber 1986), owing to the belief that masculinity is violated and damaged through excessive contact with women.

However, one should not interpret men’s violence in urban space as an expression of the inherent violence of Papua New Guinean men. Rather, they reflect the real impacts of a gradual othering of ethnic groups, or wantoks, in urban space. Wantoks (a pidgin word derived from ‘one talk’) are associations formed of people of the same linguistic or geographic roots, and they serve as social safety nets in urban areas. Wantoks are crucial providers of housing and jobs in a state that offers insufficient public assistance. Many migrants to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, are living in spontaneous (squatter) settlements comprised mostly of wantoks. Moreover, against a background of competition and conflict among wantoks, violence has become a means for making visible the cohesion within groups (Kumagai 2016).

The spatial structure of the city reinforces these conditions. The urban spatial layout of Port Moresby carries the vestiges of Australian colonial rule, seen in the diffusion of urban zones and the reliance on private vehicles for travel, which is not only inconvenient for ordinary people but hinders the formation of autonomous local communities. Public transport stops running in the evening and the city streets never attract crowds at night. Street vending, mostly undertaken by women, and other informal income opportunities have been suppressed in the name of urban beautification, and the city lacks even competitive sports or movies at evening events. Young men are frustrated by their circumstances and are practically channelled into crime by the lack of public space for interaction and avenues for earning an honest living to support families (Kumagai 2016).

In recent decades, urban life has been imbued with two forms of hegemonic masculinities: the wantok system governing grassroots social organizations, and Western masculinist systems (encapsulated in the postcolonial city) governing urban design and management in ways that exclude people’s survival strategies. The development of a new ‘commons’, one that connects people beyond the present wantok system, would carry great potential for overcoming both masculinist systems and, in particular, the physical and economic violence that they normalize. Frazer (1992,126) states that the idea of an egalitarian, multicultural society only makes sense if we suppose a plurality of public arenas in which diverse values and rhetoric participate. However, in urban Papua New Guinea, such socially interactive and inclusive public spaces have been hampered by necessarily exclusive hegemonic violent masculinities in parochialism that perpetuate antagonism and isolation. As a result, alternative public spaces — as well as alternative masculinities — that allow for the inclusion of more women and younger men in social arrangements are thus far absent, yet are as crucial as ever (Kumagai 2016).

Masculinity and the male body in rural Papua New Guinea

Rural Papua New Guinea also shows signs of continuation and change in men and masculinities, not unlike the cities. In coming of age ceremonies, for example, boys endure physically taxing rites of passage to manhood, as a parallel to the strength that women show during childbirth. These rites of passage in the Sepik River Basin of northern Papua New Guinea include skin cutting, one of the world’s most grueling rituals, which uses incisions and scarification to produce patterns similar to crocodile scales along the young men’s stomachs and backs (see Figure 5.1). While these rites were eliminated from many areas in and around the Sepik River Basin following the arrival of Christian missionaries, a few villages in the Black Water Basin that 1 have visited almost every year since 1986 continue these rites as the Catholic missionaries

Four young men on the morning after the skin-cutting ritual. Kraimbit village, Papua New Guinea, August 2018

Figure 5.1 Four young men on the morning after the skin-cutting ritual. Kraimbit village, Papua New Guinea, August 2018.

Photograph: K. Kumagai.

had been lenient over their practice. This rite has three cultural meanings: first, one is seen as becoming a man through a process of expelling the blood inherited from ones mother;second, strength of manhood is achieved by enduring the ritual physical pain; third, one is transformed into a brave man and a warrior by carving into one’s body the scales of the crocodile, a symbol for the region.

When I observed this ritual in 2018, it was more than simply the performance of a traditional cultural ceremony exclusively for men. One neighbouring community has in recent years increasingly commercialized its traditions to earn income through tourism. Therefore, the re-enactment of the coming-of-age ceremony serves as affirmation of a collective identity and a source of pride for the community, as well as its authenticity. Not only men but the whole community gathers for the ceremony, to act as witnesses and to participate. On the day after the skin cutting, the expressions on the faces of the newly initiated men were most extraordinary: radiant and beaming with a quiet pride.The male elders who led the ritual, the relatives of the initiated and the community as a whole, including women and children, carried warm expressions of gratification. Here, in a region infiltrated by globalization and monetization of its economy, the ritual of masculinity serves as an opportunity for the local society to affirm and re-assert its own cultural fortitude and strength.

Cases of masculinities in urban and rural Papua New Guinea reveal that issues involving men and masculinities are necessarily produced at the intersections of culture, ethnicity, class, economy, society, (post-)coloniality and space and place, among other things, thereby underscoring the importance of intersectionality in their consideration.

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