Papua New Guinea: Bartered Bride Says No

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Jun 9, 1997, 3:00:00 AM6/9/97
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** Topic: Papua New Guinea: Bartered Bride Says No **
** Written 10:48 PM Jun 8, 1997 by mmason in cdp:headlines **
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[This article has been excerpted.]

A Bartered Bride's 'No' Stuns Papua New Guinea

Rejection of Tribal Custom Is a Sign of Changing Times By
Seth Mydans

MINJ, Papua New Guinea, 7 May 1997 (New York Times):
The compensation demand for the killing of a clan
leader in this remote mountain village followed a
complex tribal calculus: $15,000, 25 pigs and an
18-year-old woman named Miriam Wilngal.

Dollar by dollar the offending clan began to collect
the money. One by one the pigs were rounded up. But
then something happened that shocked the elders of
both clans and...reverberated through this largely
tribal nation.

Miriam Wilngal said no.

At first, she said, it had not occurred to her to
object. Women have been bought as brides in parts of
Papua New Guinea for centuries. It has been only a few
decades since the tribes that populate the remote
mountains here discovered...they are not the only
people on earth, and village life still mostly follows
ancient codes.

...in a striking sign of changing times, Miss Wilngal
had a personal ambition. She wanted to finish high
school. ''I want to learn to be a typist,'' she said
in an interview in Port Moresby, the capital, 300
miles...to the southeast, where she has taken refuge
from her angry relatives.

''I want to have my own money,'' she said, covering
her face with her hand in embarrassment. ''I don't
want to have to depend on a man.''

As Papua New Guinea, an independent nation for just 21
years, seeks to find a way to integrate traditional
and modern values, the ''compensation-girl case'' has
taken on broader dimensions.

Susan Balen, another woman who broke with tradition to
become a lawyer, has taken the case to court, using
what is known here as ''written law'' to challenge the
treatment of women under tribal tradition.

''This is a landmark case in recognition of women's
rights to equality and freedom,'' Miss Balen said.
''Women are not animals.''

The customary law of the tribes coexists in Papua New
Guinea with the legal system, she said, but can be
challenged if it is in violation of the nation's
democratic constitution.

A National Court judge in the city of Mount Hagen, 40
miles from Minj, recently ruled in favor of Miss
Wilngal, saying her rights to personal freedom and
equal status had been violated.

...the elders of the aggrieved Konumbuka subclan of
the Tangilka tribe have only become angrier.

''They say, 'We still want a woman,''' said John Muke,
a professor of archeology at the University of Papua
New Guinea, who is a Kumu Kanem clansman of Miss
Wilngal's and at whose home she is...staying. ''They
want to take my clan to court for cheating them, for
denying them their rights.''

In effect, they are threatening to use the modern
legal system to demand their traditional tribal
rights.

The continuing court battle demonstrates the
resiliency of tribal customs, he said, which absorb
and adapt the new ways that have intruded on them.

Viewed within the belief system of the country's
highland culture, he said, the demand by the Konumbuka
clan for Miss Wilngal appears less shocking.

''Yes, a woman is treated as a commodity, but in a
spiritual sense it is much more than that,'' Mr. Muke
said. ''A woman is an object, but she is a divine
object.''

In Papua New Guinea's highlands, as in much of
Melanesia, he said, women are at the heart of a
complex system of relationships that is based on what
he called a ''botanical concept of growth.''

In his tribe's language, the mother is known here as
the ''base'' of the family tree. Her children are her
cuttings or transplants. Her brothers - their uncles -
are called root people. The father, he said, has no
blood tie to the family and is known by a term that
literally means ''the place where I stay most of the
time.''

When a girl is given in marriage her husband's family
receives the bounty of a ''cutting'' from the maternal
base and acquires an obligation to her brothers. The
labor of a wife and mother is given a material value.
It must be repaid.

When a generation has passed, according to tribal
custom, one or more of her granddaughters are expected
to be returned to her family, in a tradition...known
as ''returning the skull in a net bag'' or sometimes
simply ''head pay.''

Rather than merely being the barter of young women,
Mr. Muke said, it is a social custom that is not so
different from the marriage system of European
royalty.

''I would do the same,'' said Mr. Muke. ''I have
maternal uncles. I have a daughter. I must repay the
debt of all the work my mother did. One way is to make
the payment in a lump sum and give my daughter back in
marriage.''

In a complicated application of this tradition, it is
Miss Wilngal's uncles in the aggrieved clan who are
demanding her as ''head pay.'' Seen in this way, her
refusal is a fundamental challenge to the social order
of her tribe. ''There must be a continuity, and this
continuity is through the woman, the source of divine
relationships,'' Mr. Muke said. ''Miriam's case
strikes at the root of things: it is kinship on
trial.''

** End of text from cdp:headlines **

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