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Salmah Eva-Lina Lawrence has been awarded Doctor of Philosophy in Gender, Media and Cultural Studies from the ANU. She is one of nine PhDs from the School of Culture, History and Language in this year’s December 2018 graduation ceremonies. We recently spoke to her about her work in gender and social justice and her time at ANU.
Congratulations on being awarded your PhD. Can you tell us more about your chosen discipline in gender, sexuality and culture? I had an established career before I started my PhD and I was working in gender and development for various UN agencies– even on submission of my thesis in December 2017, I left immediately for Bhutan to do some work with UN Women. But it was while working in Afghanistan, and seeing the stark contrast between gender relations in Afghanistan and the part of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where I come from, which is matrilineal, that led me to my research questions. It got me wondering what it was about my matrilineal society that produced very different egalitarian gender relations in comparison to Afghanistan. So I decided to do a PhD centring on questions of gender relations in matrilineal societies.
My community itself, the fact of being matrilineal and the fact of it being so different to other social systems, has always been a curiosity to me; it was always my intention to research and to write about it. Being in Afghanistan simply framed the questions I wanted to ask.
I continue to teach gender and development studies and to research matrilineal ethics and epistemology as well as my new role as Head of Consulting at The Ethics Centre in Sydney.
Could you tell us more about your home community in Papua New Guinea? I come from a part of PNG called the Milne Bay Province and this province is primarily matrilineal – women inherit land and other forms of wealth and can hold political power. When women have that kind of financial independence, it makes for a very different set of relationships between the sexes. Both women and men can inherit wealth. Basically it is a system that allows both men and women to accumulate wealth.
What drew you to the ANU when you decided you wanted to do a PhD on gender relations? I hadn’t intended to come to the ANU at all– I was intending to do my PhD in London or Paris. Then I happened to meet Professor Margaret Jolly and Dr Katherine Lepani and that influenced me to come here. They convinced me that the depth of Pacific expertise at the ANU is unparalleled.
Have you encountered any significant challenges or personal struggles over your course of study? Yes, for much of the five years of my PhD, I was separated from my partner and that is a significant emotional challenge to live with. Part of me thinks that I made the wrong decision to do it in Australia because it kept us apart for so long. The other challenge is that although the ANU has a strong Pacific research cohort, there is no specialisation in my theoretical interest which is postcolonial and decolonial epistemology but then I would not have had that Pacific research strength.
Who is your source of encouragement and motivation? My grandfather was a very inspiring figure, he was one of the first Papuans to be involved in the political administration of the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea. I have always been inspired by the kind of person he was – very compassionate, very fair and a man of great presence. And my mother was also a woman of grace and dignity and she inspires me. So it’s my ancestors from whom I draw strength.
Could you describe one of your most rewarding academic experience? In my first year, I set up a decolonial reading group, there were six or seven of us who were all doing PhDs. We discussed texts that were post-colonial and decolonial and at that time in 2013, it was the only space on campus where we were able to have those kinds of conversations. For me, it was a chance to share our different experiences of being from societies that were colonised and how our ancestors, and even up to the present, how our communities deal with the different aspects of a continuing colonisation. That was really rewarding because out of that came some very deep friendships which I still hold today.
What accomplishments are you most proud of? I am proud of my thesis because it has been so well accepted by my community. They were very supportive throughout my PhD and when several of them read my thesis, they became very emotional as they felt they were able to relate to what I had written. I’m proud of the fact that I have honoured the people that helped me. I suppose my pride is their pride. I think my mother and grandfather would be proud too.
How are you able to manage your time so well? I think it’s possible to have a full life and to do many things if you maintain a high level of health. I know how my body responds to physical activity – going for a walk or a swim helps with my energy level, and I use that energy to do a multitude of things. In general, I think self-care is very important, and I think you are able to give more to others if you look after yourself first.
What advice would you give to potential students considering doing something similar? For anyone doing a PhD, I think you need to be passionate about what it is you are going to dedicate four or five years of your life to. You have to be really passionate about your topic; I was passionate about mine because it was my own community that I was doing research into and my subject was also related to my professional life.