RoundTable Podcast – Transcription

Introduction
Elsie: Halo olgeta, I’m Elsie, welcome to the RoundTable Podcast. We’ve created this space for Ni-Vanuatu women to speak freely on issues affecting us today. Let’s navigate life in the islands together. Join me as I speak to a new guest every episode and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Ale yumi storian. This project is made possible with the support of the WeRise Coalition and PACMAS.
TRANSLATIONS: Hello everyone, I’m Elsie, welcome to the RoundTable Podcast. We’ve created this space for Ni-Vanuatu women to speak freely on issues affecting us today. Let’s navigate life in the islands together. Join me as I speak to a new guest every episode and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Let’s discuss. This project is made possible with the support of the WeRise Coalition and PACMAS.
Interview
Elsie (E): We will be exploring dress codes according to Vanuatu’s societal standards. And I have with me today the lovely Ms Umi. Hi Umi!

Umi (U): Hi!

E: Thank you for joining me on this episode. Before we delve into this conversation, maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself.

U: Sure. So I’m not originally from Vanuatu, but I did grow up here. I used to work here at Sista, I left somewhere in September last year to pursue other careers and now I’m working in real estate. I work for IProperty Vanuatu. I was quite surprised to see that you guys had reached out to me to come be a part of this. Because, fun fact, I was a part of this when it started and then I left. But I’m very happy to be back and to discuss this with you.

E: Thank you Umi. Yeah so that is a fun fact and it’s a great circle of events for you to be here on the podcast as a guest now. So, thank you so much again for coming. So I’ve already introduced the topic, we’re going to be talking about dress codes. Now before we get into the nitty gritty and all these different questions, I just wanted to get your perspective on the topic. What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘dress code’ and relate it back to our context here in Vanuatu?

U: When I hear ‘dress code’, I immediately think what’s acceptable to wear. That’s literally what comes to mind, or you know what’s okay to wear, what’s not okay to wear. Because whenever people say ‘dress code’, it’s always strict.

E: Exactly, and I think for those of you who aren’t from Vanuatu there are different dress codes for different places. We have dress codes for certain events, if you work at a particular office or we have dress codes for communities, yumi we yumi stap long aelan. And so there are all these different dress codes that we could address in this conversation but I want us to start off with just a personal observation that I realize that when a woman who is confidently curvy or is on the slimmer side wears something, it can be any outfit at all, people are always quick to judge, people will always have something to say about what they’re wearing. And it even goes to the extent of them body-shaming the woman and her outfit. I’ve been in situations where people will say “if she was a little slimmer, she would look good in that outfit” or there’s a phrase that I’m not sure if we still use this but it’s a phrase that people will use here to describe someone who is very skinny and the common phrase that I will hear and that kind of annoys me is “bodi blong hem i stikbrum tumas mekem se dress ia i no really naes long hem”. And I’m sure you’ve heard people say those kinds of things as well and it’s annoyingly common. And so have you ever experienced body-shaming or have you heard it happen to someone else?
TRANSLATIONS: Exactly, and I think for those of you who aren’t from Vanuatu there are different dress codes for different places. We have dress codes for certain events, if you work at a particular office or we have dress codes for communities, for those of us in the islands. And so there are all these different dress codes that we could address in this conversation but I want us to start off with just a personal observation that I realize that when a woman who is confidently curvy or is on the slimmer side wears something, it can be any outfit at all, people are always quick to judge, people will always have something to say about what they’re wearing. And it even goes to the extent of them body-shaming the woman and her outfit. I’ve been in situations where people will say “if she was a little slimmer, she would look good in that outfit” or there’s a phrase that I’m not sure if we still use this but it’s a phrase that people will use here to describe someone who is very skinny and the common phrase that I will hear and that kind of annoys me is “her body is too much like a broom so that dress isn’t really nice on her”. And I’m sure you’ve heard people say those kinds of things as well and it’s annoyingly common. And so have you ever experienced body-shaming or have you heard it happen to someone else?

U: I think every girl, whether you’re thin or chubby, I think we all have experienced some form of body-shaming. I’m someone who’s been chubby and skinny, I’ve been a few different sizes in my life. And what I noticed was never good enough for anybody, you know the aunties would always go “oh you’re getting too fat”, so I lose weight and they go “oh you’re getting too skinny, you’re not eating, are you sick?”, and I gain back weight, “oh you’re getting fat again”. So I’ve learned to just be okay with my body. But some girls haven’t reached that stage yet so when they continuously hear stuff like this and it’s really disheartening and it makes you not want to make an effort with yourself, you don’t really want to dress up, you don’t want to wear anything that’ll draw attention to you because you don’t want to hear these comments.

E: Yeah, exactly. I think I have gone through the same. And it’s so annoying because it’s like yeah I’ve lost weight and they automatically think that you’re sick and you’re just like “no I’m actually looking after myself”. But what annoys me the most is that they always have something to say about your weight and they never have something like “how are you? How’s work, school” or whatever. It’s always “oh you’ve put on so much weight, what’s happening? You need to be exercising more”, along those lines. But for those of you who don’t quite fully understand what body-shaming is, because I don’t think that’s a term we yumi usum tumas long Bislama, I’ve gone to trusty Google for the definition and so Googl defines it as “the action or practice of mocking or stigmatizing someone by making critical comments about the shape, size or appearance of their body”. Now for me, like this is my own personal observation again, I often find that it’s usually women who body-shame other women or just have something to say about another woman’s outfit.
TRANSLATIONS: Yeah, exactly. I think I have gone through the same. And it’s so annoying because it’s like yeah I’ve lost weight and they automatically think that you’re sick and you’re just like “no I’m actually looking after myself”. But what annoys me the most is that they always have something to say about your weight and they never have something like “how are you? How’s work, school” or whatever. It’s always “oh you’ve put on so much weight, what’s happening? You need to be exercising more”, along those lines. But for those of you who don’t quite fully understand what body-shaming is, because I don’t think that’s a term we use a lot in Bislama, I’ve gone to trusty Google for the definition and so Google defines it as “the action or practice of mocking or stigmatizing someone by making critical comments about the shape, size or appearance of their body”. Now for me, like this is my own personal observation again, I often find that it’s usually women who body-shame other women or just have something to say about another woman’s outfit.

U: Yeah. I’m not sure because I’ve seen and witnessed more women body-shame other women more than men. I mean, you know I’ve had cheeky uncles who after their wife has a baby they’ll have little cheeky comments about her putting on some weight, but I haven’t really seen men really body-shame women. It’s us who are doing it to ourselves.

E: Yeah, I think the same for me, I haven’t really heard men body-shame other women or other men. Yeah, I don’t really know or like from your experience or your personal view, do you think there is a difference about how it’s mostly women who body-shame other women?

U: Well honestly I don’t think men care that much, you know, when a woman is chubby or skinny or whatever. I don’t think they care that much but for some reason us women actually you know. And I think it’s also because you know since childhood you watch all these movies and you have this image in your head of what the perfect female body should look like. And even when a woman does not have that perfect body, she tends to shame others as well. It’s like you have to look perfect like not too fat, not too skinny, have a bum, have a good chest on you.

E: Yeah!

U: Yeah, I think we are our biggest critics.

E: Yeah, definitely. I think the same, like women are the ones who body-shame other women and I think with both our experiences, we haven’t really heard men body-shame women. But I think that our situations where men will sexualise women. And at the end of the day, I guess it’s not the same but it’s the same in the sense that it’s disrespectful.

U: Yeah. I wouldn’t categorize it as body-shaming but you are using my body to make me uncomfortable.

E: Exactly! And it makes us feel like objects.

U: Yeah.

E: Basically just objectifying us at the end of the day.

U: I know what you’re saying. I know girls, when in highschool I was friends mostly with boys and there were some girls, we actually didn’t know what their names were, but they would have nicknames for these girls like the one with the bubble butt, you know what I’m saying? Like these girls weren’t really human beings to these boys, they were just like pieces of meat that was nice to look at.

E: Exactly. Yeah, that’s a whole other conversation in itself but it’s like you’re fully disrespectful and men shouldn’t be doing it, period. And I think another thing when it comes to dress codes and the way someone dresses is you know people are always quick to say something about someone else’s outfit, critiquing other people’s outfits.

U: I guess it’s where you are. I’ve noticed different places, there are dress codes for everywhere right?

E: Yeah.

U: If you want to be accepted and not judged, you have to be in the appropriate clothing everywhere you go. Which is not ideal.

E: It’s a lot of work.

U: Yeah! I don’t know how to say it, but people just need to start realizing that clothes don’t matter that much. Walking down my community or village, it’s (10:02 – UNCLEAR).

E: Exactly.

U: But when you go to church there’s “that skirts too short” or “that dress is this or that”, like there’s always something.

E: Exactly. I think a lot of people don’t think about or don’t realize that for some people, their clothing is a way to express themselves, you know choosing a bold color, choosing a certain material or unique pattern, it’s a way for them to express themselves, their personality, how they’re feeling that day. But I want to know, you’ve touched on it a bit, but do you think your clothes are an extension of your personality or should we conform to the stereotypical norms?

U: I think younger girls, like when I was a teenager, if someone came up and told me what I was wearing was not okay, I would’ve been like “and? So? It’s not like I’m going to be in any important space where I’m supposed to”, you know. That is my time to be all free and stuff, but the more you grow up, dress how you want, in the way that makes you feel beautiful and feel good with yourself. But also if you know you’ve got a partner or a boyfriend, I guess you don’t want to be parading around exposing everything for everyone. Why would you want to show the world that? Your body is your value. Show enough of it, but not all of it. And also for me, when I dress this way, when I try my best to dress in a respectful way, it’s really not because I’m afraid of disrespecting anyone else, I’m respecting myself. But in saying that, honestly I really do believe women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without any judgment, it’s their choice.

E: But another factor for us in Vanuatu, and I guess you could say it’s a way we express ourselves and how we identify ourselves, is through our customary and cultural clothing. There aren’t many communities and islands today that still wear customary clothing like on the daily. I know of only one community in Santo where they still wear the nambas and wear their customary clothing proudly. And I know there are few communities in Tanna that do the same, but otherwise the majority of the population, olsem yumitu talem smol finis long beginning blong episode, we know that there is a time and a place to wear certain clothing, there is a particular dress code especially when it comes to the communities o ol komuniti long ol aelan blong yumi. I gat ol certain dress code we yumi especially ol gel mo ol woman yumi mas folem. And that particular dress code is not wearing trousers in the community and to show it’s a sign of respect. But I think for other communities they’ve created bylaws or the chief has created certain rules to stop women from wearing trousers or shorts, or revealing tops. I found an article from our website, sista.com.vu from 2016, granted this was seven years ago and things have gotten better. But the chief was talking about creating this bylaw, he created this draft bylaw to basically try and control the anti-social behavior in the community. One of these was trying to control how young people drink alcohol irresponsibly in the community, and then the next major concern which came under that bylaw was to stop girls wearing short trousers and tops that are too revealing. And he went on to say that the fight in that particular community, that most rape cases was due to girls wearing short trousers and showing parts of their body. Now again this is seven years old, it was from 2016, things have definitely gotten better. But it’s still very common for women and girls to be expected to wear a lavalava or an island dress or wan clothing we i mekem olgeta oli luk humble and respectful. And this just relates back to society’s standards and expectations for girls and women to be humble, to be quiet, to show respect at all times and to make sure that basically they don’t wear clothing that makes them stand out and if they do wear clothing that makes them stand out or is deemed too revealing, people are quick to judge and say that they’re asking for it. So with all of that, what are your thoughts about these particular dress codes long ol komuniti mo ol aelan blong yumi long Vanuatu?
TRANSLATIONS: But another factor for us in Vanuatu, and I guess you could say it’s a way we express ourselves and how we identify ourselves, is through our customary and cultural clothing. There aren’t many communities and islands today that still wear customary clothing like on the daily. I know of only one community in Santo where they still wear the nambas and wear their customary clothing proudly. And I know there are few communities in Tanna that do the same, but otherwise the majority of the population, like we spoke a bit about in the beginning of the episode, we know that there is a time and a place to wear certain clothing, there is a particular dress code especially when it comes to the communities or the communities in our islands. There are certain dress codes that we, especially girls and women, have to follow. And that particular dress code is not wearing trousers in the community and to show it’s a sign of respect. But I think for other communities they’ve created bylaws or the chief has created certain rules to stop women from wearing trousers or shorts, or revealing tops. I found an article from our website, sista.com.vu from 2016, granted this was seven years ago and things have gotten better. But the chief was talking about creating this bylaw, he created this draft bylaw to basically try and control the anti-social behavior in the community. One of these was trying to control how young people drink alcohol irresponsibly in the community, and then the next major concern which came under that bylaw was to stop girls wearing short trousers and tops that are too revealing. And he went on to say that the fight in that particular community, that most rape cases was due to girls wearing short trousers and showing parts of their body. Now again this is seven years old, it was from 2016, things have definitely gotten better. But it’s still very common for women and girls to be expected to wear a lavalava or an island dress or clothing that makes them look more humble and respectful. And this just relates back to society’s standards and expectations for girls and women to be humble, to be quiet, to show respect at all times and to make sure that basically they don’t wear clothing that makes them stand out and if they do wear clothing that makes them stand out or is deemed too revealing people are quick to judge and say that they’re asking for it. So with all of that, what are your thoughts about these particular dress codes in our communities or in the islands of Vanuatu?

U: This is tricky. And just my opinion, honestly no one really has the right to tell anyone “you can’t wear this, you can’t wear that ”. But it also comes down to you as well as a young woman or a girl, we live in a world with bad people, there are bad people everywhere. Sadly you’re not going to be protected, so you have the freedom to dress how you like. But there should also be a limit especially if you are living in one of those communities where they’re very conservative. Say you live in Freswota, wear what you want, you’re basically in town that’s fine, but if you live in a community or in a village, you know very well their standards of how a woman or a girl should dress and you go against it by wearing really revealing clothes, you know there’s a limit. Wear what you want, but sometimes you also have to know when it’s too much. There’s always going to be a rapist around the corner, and it’s no excuse to be raped because like “you wore those short pants” or “you wore this top that revealed you chest”. It’s not a good enough excuse, but the sad reality of this is these people are out there, they exist and especially if you’re a young girl and you know you walk the streets at night, you’ve got to protect yourself. I guess that’s it because for years, I myself rebelled against this, I was a big tomboy before, I wasn’t one for wearing much revealing stuff earlier on in my teen years but I was always for you know, wear whatever you want. But it was only when I grew up much older that I realized I was wearing those clothes because of what people were saying. I also stopped wearing nice, pretty clothes because I didn’t like the way men would look at me, it made me so uncomfortable. But, yay to the girls who don’t care, who can just walk by these men with confidence and just feel good about themselves. There should be some kind of limit, because again we live in Vanuatu, Vanuatu is a small Melanesian country that’s still developing. There are a lot of people that are modern now and more civilized or whatever that have more open minds but honestly majority of this country’s population, tingting blong olgeta i no open ap gud yet long ol samting olsem. They still like this whole you know being humble and don’t show off basically, we have these older mama’s and aunties they see a girl wearing a nice dress and it’s always like “hem i stap mekem flas blong hem, hemi tingse hemi naes” it’s never “she looks so pretty!”, it’s always you know. And as far as the pants thing, it’s kind of harder for someone to rape you when you’re in pants than skirts and dresses. But also some of these girls I see in these villages I see wearing pants, they’re wearing boy pants, you know pants that boys wear but they still get told off at that. How is it okay for that boy to wear it but I can’t? I mean when I went to my dad’s island, that’s how it was, I was a tomboy, I wore pants that boys wore but somehow it was not okay that I wore it. I didn’t understand it because to me, I asked my dad I was like “Dad, how am I being disrespectful by wearing this?”, and he couldn’t really answer me, it was funny at that time, he couldn’t really answer me but of course our father’s are not going to admit that we’re right. But I could tell he couldn’t really answer me because I wasn’t disrespecting anyone, I wasn’t revealing my bum or showing too much leg or whatever, but because it was pants you’re not allowed.
TRANSLATIONS: This is tricky. And just my opinion, honestly no one really has the right to tell anyone “you can’t wear this, you can’t wear that ”. But it also comes down to you as well as a young woman or a girl, we live in a world with bad people, there are bad people everywhere. Sadly you’re not going to be protected, so you have the freedom to dress how you like. But there should also be a limit especially if you are living in one of those communities where they’re very conservative. Say you live in Freswota, wear what you want, you’re basically in town that’s fine, but if you live in a community or in a village, you know very well their standards of how a woman or a girl should dress and you go against it by wearing really revealing clothes, you know there’s a limit. Wear what you want, but sometimes you also have to know when it’s too much. There’s always going to be a rapist around the corner, and it’s no excuse to be raped because like “you wore those short pants” or “you wore this top that revealed you chest”. It’s not a good enough excuse, but the sad reality of this is these people are out there, they exist and especially if you’re a young girl and you know you walk the streets at night, you’ve got to protect yourself. I guess that’s it because for years, I myself rebelled against this, I was a big tomboy before, I wasn’t one for wearing much revealing stuff earlier on in my teen years but I was always for you know, wear whatever you want. But it was only when I grew up much older that I realized I was wearing those clothes because of what people were saying. I also stopped wearing nice, pretty clothes because I didn’t like the way men would look at me, it made me so uncomfortable. But, yay to the girls who don’t care, who can just walk by these men with confidence and just feel good about themselves. There should be some kind of limit, because again we live in Vanuatu, Vanuatu is a small Melanesian country that’s still developing. There are a lot of people that are modern now and more civilized or whatever that have more open minds but honestly majority of this country’s population, tingting blong olgeta i no open ap gud yet long ol samting olsem. They still like this whole you know being humble and don’t show off basically, we have these older mama’s and aunties they see a girl wearing a nice dress and it’s always like “she’s such a show off, she’s thinks that she’s pretty” it’s never “she looks so pretty!”, it’s always you know. And as far as the pants thing, it’s kind of harder for someone to rape you when you’re in pants than skirts and dresses. But also some of these girls I see in these villages I see wearing pants, they’re wearing boy pants, you know pants that boys wear but they still get told off at that. How is it okay for that boy to wear it but I can’t? I mean when I went to my dad’s island, that’s how it was, I was a tomboy, I wore pants that boys wore but somehow it was not okay that I wore it. I didn’t understand it because to me, I asked my dad I was like “Dad, how am I being disrespectful by wearing this?”, and he couldn’t really answer me, it was funny at that time, he couldn’t really answer me but of course our father’s are not going to admit that we’re right. But I could tell he couldn’t really answer me because I wasn’t disrespecting anyone, I wasn’t revealing my bum or showing too much leg or whatever, but because it was pants you’re not allowed.
E: You’re not allowed. And if you do, yu mas fasem wan lavalava.
TRANSLATIONS: You’re not allowed. And if you do, you have to tie a sarong around your waist.

U: Exactly. You’re already covered down to your knees with these big baggy pants yet you’re expected to put a sarong or lavalava over it. So yeah there’s limits and lines everywhere, but I do believe that some of these rules go a little too far, like that chief putting down those rules. It’s sad to see them going through this effort of getting people together, having this big meeting and just saying like “ok we’ve decided this and that” but not ever having one of the same things but bring the boys together, sit with the boys in the community and say “please rispektem ol gel blong mifala, stop doing that”. So like I said there’s bad people out there, but especially with our young boys in these communities and villages, oli yang yet, they’re still young where you can still teach them something, you can still encourage them to be good boys. Makes the girls’ lives a little easier.
TRANSLATIONS: Exactly. You’re already covered down to your knees with these big baggy pants yet you’re expected to put a sarong or lavalava over it. So yeah there’s limits and lines everywhere, but I do believe that some of these rules go a little too far, like that chief putting down those rules. It’s sad to see them going through this effort of getting people together, having this big meeting and just saying like “ok we’ve decided this and that” but not ever having one of the same things but bring the boys together, sit with the boys in the community and say “please respect our young girls, stop doing that”. So like I said there’s bad people out there, but especially with our young boys in these communities and villages, they’re still young where you can still teach them something, you can still encourage them to be good boys. Makes the girls’ lives a little easier.

E: Yeah, true. And I think with the bylaw like you said, he could’ve taken that opportunity to talk with the men and the boys to be, I guess putting that bylaw out there for women not to wear trousers but then saying that “look there is an actual problem here” and it’s holding them accountable saying why aren’t you respecting the women and the girls in this community. Communities are families.

U: To add to that, sorry I wanted to say this earlier already, they do that. But in the islands, I hear about rape cases in the islands all the time. You know how these women in the islands dress, all respectful, island dresses.

E: Yeah!

U: They dress so respectfully, they follow all these dress codes given to them. Yet women and girls are still being raped in these islands. So to me that tells me something, that tells me it’s not the clothes, it’s the men.

E: Definitely not the clothes. Yeah and it’s holding them accountable and that’s a whole different conversation that we can unpack. But I’m being cautious of time so I’m going to go to the next question, and I just want to know what you think these women and girls feel like when these bylaws are put in place. Do you think it makes a difference, do you think they feel any safer with these bylaws or these rules that are basically telling them how to dress?

U: I can’t speak for any of these girls, I myself am a girl who if I’m not happy with something I’ll speak up. Whereas a lot of these girls especially in these communities, they don’t. If they could, if they weren’t so afraid to speak up, I think they would say why should they have to when these men could just have some love and some respect for the women and girls in their community. And it’s not fair in the end by telling them that it’s almost like you’re saying they’re the problem and that they deserve what they get because you know you wore this one top or this one pair of pants. I honestly think, for me I know if I was in one of these communities and the chief held a big meeting and told us we couldn’t, I would leave. I would not accept it because it’s taking away my right.

E: Exactly!

U: I really do have the right to wear what I want to wear. It’s up to you whether you want to be respectful with it or not, but at the end of the day it is her choice and her right, and I honestly truly believe that it does not matter what a woman wears. There are some sick people out there, you can’t really stop it whether whatever you wear, it’s going to happen.

E: Overall, it really does come down to respect and I think we’ve brought that up in the conversation. It doesn’t matter what anyone wears, whether you like their outfit or whether their clothes are in line with your own beliefs or your own style, you shouldn’t judge anyone, period. Making a comment on anyone’s body shape is disrespectful, whether it’s men sexualising women or women body-shaming other women, just don’t do it. And you shouldn’t feel like you can tell someone what they should and shouldn’t wear, if anyone dictates what someone should wear, they’re breaching their fundamental duty by not respecting the rights and freedom of others and to cooperate fully with others in the interest of independence and solidarity and this is stated in Vanuatu’s constitution. So I think overall respect is the bare minimum, whether you know the person or not, whether you like them or not, whether you like the clothes that they’re wearing.

U: Whether you have your urges, that’s your problem, that is a you problem.

E: That is a you problem, that is your responsibility. And someone’s clothes shouldn’t define the way they are treated. Thank you so much Umi for joining me in today’s episode, such an insightful conversation.

U: Thank you so much for having me, this has been fun!
E: Make sure to check us out on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok at Sista Vanuatu and our website sista.com.vu. This is Elsie, from the RoundTable. If you want to hear more from the RoundTable Podcast, make sure to tune in to the next episode.