“Who Wears the Trousers in Vanuatu?” by Maggie Cummings

Cummings, Maggie. (2005). “Who Wears the Trousers in Vanuatu?” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (51-64). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

This chapter focuses on the fieldwork of Maggie Cummings in Port Vila, Vanuatu, concerning the “cultural politics of femininity, dress, and appearance for young women” (2005:51) and how this intersects with national identity. This final chapter of the section on ‘initiations’ continues the authors’ inquiry into the dilemmas that anthropologists may have to negotiate when trying to act responsibly and ethically in the field. Typically understood as a rite of passage for many anthropologists, fieldwork always involves some level of risk that requires the researcher to be conscientious of his personal and professional limitations. As Cummings points out by the end of her chapter, even when the researcher goes to greater lengths to ensure that these limitations are respected or observed, adverse or unexpected reactions to the presence of the fieldworker or the nature of the research are still possible.

The contentious debate over the appearance of young women in Vanuatu society largely revolves around the clash between traditional and modern modes of living: Ni-Vanuatu women asserting their individuality and femininity are considered to be a threat to the patriarchal elite of Vanuatu society. Just prior to her arrival in Vanuatu a group of chiefs ruled for the banning of women from wearing trousers that, intermittently enforced, became the focus of much public debate.  By the time that Cummings had arrived justifications for the ban had been elaborated by a “vocabulary of blame, protection, and ‘trouble’” (2005: 54) within a traditional and religious (Christian) context.

The preconditions set out by the government of Vanuatu demand collaboration with local researchers and the production of research initiatives that benefit the local people (2005: 23). Cummings was assigned by her doctoral supervisor to such an initiative that involved the production of a video aimed at providing Vanuatu women a means to express themselves about everyday matters. This work provided her the opportunity to engage with the Ni-Vanuatu women regarding their disputes with the patriarchal assertions that women wearing trousers were on the one hand being disrespectful to the traditional domain of “kastom” and, on the other hand, asserting themselves too provocatively making them vulnerable to rape.

In order to negotiate the delicate issue of her assumed anthropological interests in ‘kastom’ by the local women, she adopted the suggested label of volunteer. This seemed to be supported by her collaborative work with the VYPP (Vanuatu Young People`s Project) that her supervisor had assigned her to. This helped her get closer to these women to illicit more comfortable and willing responses about their experiences, thoughts, and feelings about this contentious issue. The label of volunteer and the anthropological nature of her work, however, brought with it the expectation of involved activism (‘making a difference’ or ‘making things happen’ so to speak) and implicated Cummings in a direct-action protest by a group of women in the VYPP –showing up to work wearing trousers rather than dresses –that ended with those involved being harshly reprimanded.

Cummings work raises important considerations regarding the collaborative nature of research in general, let alone research involving corporate or institutional oversight, that can be of great value to any budding anthropologist in the field. In particular, she draws attention to the difficulty of trying to fit into one’s field setting and research population. Her choice to wear dresses and skirts and to adopt the label of volunteer may have helped her avoid being categorized as just another controlling, wealthy, white, foreign woman; it did not save her from discursive invocation of her whiteness and academic status by other local parties.

At the same time, Cummings seemingly glosses over the discussion regarding the pressure to confirm to the institutional imperatives set out by her doctoral supervisor and university. The question of “who wears the trousers?” could also be asked of her in the sense of who she must answer to in the course of her research: does Cummings not answer to a higher academic authority? What were the repercussions she suffered for having strayed from the original intentions of her work?  Were there any repercussions? She was sent to produce a video, not involve herself in the local politics, regardless if this involvement came out of her initial mandate. She remarks how her collaborative fieldwork was not what it seemed and invokes the moral imperative that anthropological work should be relevant to the local populations where it is conducted. Though apposite, this explanation falls short of contributing to the discussion of the anthropology of academic practice that this volume speaks to and the lack of any discussion regarding the matter leaves this reader curious as to what hidden tensions may reside under the surface of Cummings contribution.

Overall, Cummings contribution does well to highlight the challenges involved in collaborative projects and the possible tensions that can arise in the field. She does well to display that Ni-Vanuatu women are not duped by the patriarchal discourse of blame and corruption eschewed by the ruling chiefs. These local women have agency and awareness –as evidenced through her discussions with local women and their having taken direct action –and do not share the implications that their mode of dress is being disrespectful of traditions or putting them at greater risk of physical or sexual assault. Importantly, Cummings shows how the decisions and actions made by anthropologists in the field regarding the extent of collaborative research, even if accounted for, can still have unintended consequences.


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