Tailors at work in Vanuatu (Connor Ashleigh/DFAT)

Trending Trousers: Debating 'Kastom', Clothing and Gender in the Vanuatu Mediascape

Debate over women’s clothing and how issues of gender equality are reflected in such discussions is the subject of an article by DLP Research Fellow Tait Brimacombe, published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology’s first issue of 2016.

Trending Trousers: Debating Kastom, Clothing and Gender in the Vanuatu Mediascape considers the content of Vanuatu’s media narratives. It focuses on how different platforms, narratives and actors are engaging in discussions on the politics of tradition and gender equality.

It offers two examples. The first, a community theatre project, encourages participants to consider gender through the lens of women’s clothing, using a story which deals with concepts such as ‘appropriate behaviour for women’, and the taunting of girls who are told by their male peers that they cannot expect to be ‘respected’ if they wear trousers. The second is an examination of the reporting of rape statistics by Vanuatu’s daily paper in an article that gives women’s clothing a prominent place in the discussion. The piece sparked a wide-ranging debate about whether the wearing of trousers by women might be ‘protection’ against rape or ‘incitement’ to it.

Tait outlines how the discourses of Kastom (traditional practices), Christianity and ‘modernity’ are being used in Vanuatu's media to communicate, debate and challenge issues of gender equality. In settings such as the community theatre project, discussions about women's clothing are used to reframe these discourses, while the content of mainstream media platforms uses language of ‘blame’, ‘protection’ and ‘respect’. This reinforces a dichotomy between Kastom and ‘modernity’, suggesting that the two discourses are mutually exclusive.

However, the paper suggests that social media forums offer a new communication space in which individuals can discuss, mediate and debate gender equality and the politics of tradition in Vanuatu. Social media, through which users can straddle the line between producers and consumers of media content, offers an opportunity to bypass the narratives of mainstream media platforms in which existing gendered power structures are often reinforced.

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