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Thoonen, Louise 2005 The Door to Heaven: Female Initiation, Christianity and Identity in West Papua, PhD Dissertation, Radboud University, Nijmegen.
    © Louise Thoonen, 2005. Use of any part of this thesis for any purpose must be acknowledged.


Based around the life history of Maria Baru, an influential leader in the spheres of both indigenous cultural practices and of local Christianity, this study explores how individual Papuan women experience and use female initiation and missionisation in relation to identity formation. Female initiation rites in the Northwest Ayfat area of West Papua are intended to transform individual novices into adult women who, especially by internalising ancestral rules, fit in the socio-cultural group and share a common identity. However, The Door to Heaven shows, despite the ritual's profound effects, initiated women can experience inconcistencies between the group identity they are supposed to have internalised during initiation, and their personal identity. They can also experience tensions between their 'traditional' and Christian identity. These tensions between the various conflicting identities form the focus of this study.

The book is based upon anthropological fieldwork conducted in Northwest Ayfat, located in the interior of the Bird's Head region. It offers a new understanding of initiation rituals - seen not as an isolated event but as part of a life experience and embedded within the changing socio-religious environment. It traces the arrival of the Catholic mission and the views of both missionaries and local people on the missionary process. Louise Thoonen convincingly demonstrates how Maria Baru succeeded in blending ritual elements derived from two religious spheres in the creation of a new identity, how people who have to deal with processes of rapid religious change cope with this at specific points in their lives, and how personal and social factors converge in managing processes of change.

The actor-oriented perspective of the study responds to the call for a new approach to initiation rituals. The author has integrated documentary history, oral history, and ethnographic information into a unified narrative that focuses on an individual life history.


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