Gendered Violence and Silence in the “Country of the Unspoken”: Reflections on Ethnographic Writing in New Caledonia

New Caledonia deserves its nickname of “Country of the unspoken” for many reasons. One of these concerns the ways it tended to silence the violence of settlers and penal colonialism  (Barbançon 1992), another refers to the social role played by secrets in indigenous Kanak communities (Demmer 2009). Clans guard the secrets of their own history, and they often keep silent about conflicts with another clan as a way to restore the social contract (Naepels 2017:3). Furthermore, the possibility of speaking aloud varies according to gender and age. As a consequence, for Kanak women it is very difficult to denounce instances of violence, especially gender-based violence.

During the decolonization process at the end of the 1980s,  Kanak women started to challenge these inequalities in the distribution of speech by speaking out against gender-based violence (Salomon and Hamelin 2008). However, progress remains partial, and as I witnessed during my research, the accomplishments of that time had sometimes been turned back. On the island of Lifou where I conducted my fieldwork (2012-2016) on mental healthcare, the Kanak psychologists I was working with confirmed the high rates of gender-based violence shown by official government statistics. However, most of my female interlocutors remained silent on this facet of their lives, even when we had built the kind of friendship that emerges from long periods of ethnographic fieldwork. Indeed, our complicity usually built itself around other forms of shared intimacies, such as gardening, caring for their children, cooking or playing games.

To open up questions about the ethics of ethnographic writing about silences in such context, I want to highlight a testimony of one of my Kanak friends, who I will call Marie. It occurred in one of those ambiguous moments that are characteristic of the ethnographic apparatus, where the relationships we build are marked by an ambivalent form of intersubjectivity, crossed over by transference and counter-transference (Naepels 2012; Devereux 1967). One day, I was sitting on an empty beach with Marie, when she started to ask me about my research. She had never been really curious about it, but she had seen me going around with the psychologist of the mental healthcare facility of the island. She then disclosed to me the memory of sexual violence that she had experienced years earlier, when she was a very young woman. It was a story she had never confessed to anyone, but which was still haunting her. What struck me was the strength Marie had in keeping secret this event, while still having to face her aggressor, who was a very close relative, every day.

How do we give an account of violence when testimonies are reluctant, partial and sealed by secret? How do we respect the intimacy of those who testify to the violence they endured, when such confessions occur in the context of secrecy? Struggling to address these questions, I have tried different forms of writing. In one piece, I described the context and the conditions in which this testimony occurred, while in another I tried to convey the quality of friendship that linked me to this woman. Yet, I hesitated to share these writings, because I felt that, even though they were inspired by my sincere will to reflect on the ethics of storytelling, they failed to address the central contradiction, the conflict to write about something that should not be written, that is a secret. By focusing on the possibility of retelling fragile confessions, my gaze remained stuck in the place of anxiety produced by the ambivalence of relationships we build during the ethnographic fieldwork (Naepels 2012; Devereux 1967). A place where the silences of my interlocutors were like blank doubts on the pages of my fieldwork notebooks. Blank anxieties, witnesses of my possible failures as an anthropologist. I felt I needed to find a way to articulate silences that did not only rely on words.

As I went through my interviews and my notebook, I came to look at the blank spaces of the field not as data that I failed to collect, but as opportunities to displace my gaze towards other directions. Anthropologists do not always have to make silent suffering apparent in their public discourse. I share the views of Veena Das and Michael Jackson, for whom the verbal reconstruction of suffering caused by repression risks denying the existential reality of the suffering victim (Das 1995 quoted by Jackson, 2004:50). They invite us to find the prose of silences to describe how women respond to suffering. Such prose acknowledges how silences can be a form of response and a way to reorganize one’s world in relations to the others, as Jackson shows in the case of women in Sierra Leone (Jackson 2004). It is also a way to break with the obsession with confession prevalent in the West (Foucault 1976).

In New Caledonia, the unspoken and the unsaid lay the groundwork for an ethical and epistemological reflection on what it means to do ethnography in a context marked by (post)colonial violence: the attention to silences displaces our gaze toward the scenery which allows the erasure of voices – an attention to structural violence and the forms of lives that inhabit it. One way to approach the silences I encountered, therefore, is to describe how the voices of women in Lifou have been erased in the context of colonial and postcolonial violence. As Hélène Nicolas showed, Kanak and colonial patriarchy converged within the “patriarchal junction” (Paredes 2010 quoted by Nicolas, 2017:120) in such a way that the burden on women increased, while their room for manoeuvre decreased (Nicolas 2017). Unfortunately, the decolonization process had a paradoxical effect on women: when Kanak feminism entered the institutional decolonization process, it lost its claims in terms of emancipation, leaving that path to a discourse of indigeneity produced by Kanak male leaders who tended to institutionalize patriarchal organization and further reify gender differences (Salomon 2017). In this context, standing against any form of patriarchy risks being perceived as taking the side of the colonial power.

Thus, I believe that for the Kanak women I met in Lifou, the prose to be found, is what I would call a prose of enduring. Many of the women I encountered were “single mothers” and remained unmarried even at an old age, which kept them within the status of “young girl” in the eyes of Kanak social organization. This generally meant that they had a lower social status than married women and some of them would not be able to leave the family home because they were given the responsibility to care for their elders. One of them, who I will call Wasako, is still unmarried at the age of 45. She is the youngest of ten siblings and, as such, she is the one responsible to care for her old mother. She wakes up every morning at 5 to prepare the breakfast and the rice for lunch. She then spends part of the day with her mother, to avoid leaving her alone. However, Wasako also found a job as a nanny and, after many years, she managed to gather enough money to travel to New Zealand and to France. Her cousin cared for her mother while she was away. A lot of the women I met had professional jobs or a small piece of land to garden. They would sell their vegetables at the weekly market, or grow vanilla to earn money. For others, tough conditions of having to raise a child alone and of remaining dependent on a brother, were compensated by the small income they generated, which made them able to travel to Noumea, the main city. There, they would partially escape, for a week-end, the social control of their communities, and they could enjoy going out with friends in bars and restaurants. A few of them told me they refused all marriage proposals, so as to avoid finding themselves stuck in a matrimonial household where they felt they would lose the little freedom they had found at the hands of a husband who could, in addition to everything else, one day turn violent.

With these single mothers, I found some of the silent forms of organizing one’s life slightly on the margins of a form of social organization which makes the denunciation of violence and indeed any manifestation of a woman’s voice hazardous. For me, one way of addressing the ethics of ethnographic writing in the context of silence, then, is by looking at the distribution of power and speech that erases the voice of women from public and private spheres and at the same time exploring the silent forms of resistance to such social order.

Nathanaëlle Soler, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales



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Image caption: “In the garden”  (Photograph by the author)