I went to a presentation a month or so ago about Pacific feminism and was surprised to hear that many Pacific women, and Pacific people more generally, do not readily identify as being ‘feminist’. I thought hard about this idea, wondering why many Pacific people would struggle to identify or see themselves as being a feminist. The following week I went to a Feminist Parenting Forum, where one of the panellists Sisilia Eteuati, a very proud Samoan feminist advocate, spoke specifically about Samoan feminism and what it meant to her and her family. She spoke about the same disbelief that I felt about hearing: that many Pacific people do not identify as feminist.

Since both presentations I have been quietly reflecting on this, and so when I was approached about writing a short blog post I thought what a perfect moment to put into words my thoughts and reflections.

I am a feminist.

I am a Samoan feminist.

Though reflecting on what this means to me and how I have had to navigate this position, I notice multiple points of tension in terms of my being a feminist. I notice that my being a feminist is often associated with, or attributed to, attending university in New Zealand. Even though I was raised in Samoa, my feminism is often stained with negative connotations of being an adopted and/or colonised position or way of thinking about the world and my position within it. A position that has somehow been interpreted as speaking against tradition, as speaking against religion by questioning or challenging the patriarchy that is so clearly pervasive is Samoan society (and not just Samoan society, but all societies). For example, as Sisilia aptly pointed out in her talk, despite the fact that both men and women in Samoa can become matai’s (chief’s), only 11 percent of matai’s are women. Women are not only under-represented as matai’s, they are also under-represented in parliament, making up only 10 percent of parliament (i.e. out of the 50 seats, women hold only 5). After the 2016 parliamentary elections in Samoa I raised this issue and I was politely told that a women’s place wasn’t in politics, but at home with her family and children and that the government’s move to add five floating seats reserved specifically for women in parliament was ‘unnecessarily generous’.  I suppose the logic is that 5 seats out of (or added to) 49[1] is equal? I’m not sure about this math, and what does this math or that sort of rationale reveal about what we think about women and their contribution into matters that affect the entire country?

I have found that when I have challenged or questioned gendered or gendering practices, for example, expectations around women’s subservience to men and its association with the systemic problem of intimate partner violence (where it is predominantly men who are the perpetrators and women the victim), I have often been met with resistance. Resistance at the idea that intimate partner violence has anything to do with gender. It must be a coincidence then that more often than not, women are the victims and men the perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Instead, of speaking to this issue what instead seems to happen is an exchange of victim-blaming stories or justifications. When talking about a case of intimate partner violence, I have even been out rightly asked ‘what did she do to make him angry?’ I have also been told on more than one occasion why the incident (or series of incidences) occurred, like any explanation would justify the behaviour. In one particular conversation, someone condescendingly explained to me that domestic violence (or intimate partner violence) is not a feminist issue, but a societal problem. I agreed on one point: that domestic violence is a societal issue, but added that it is also a feminist one.

I felt like this might’ve been a penny drop moment, or I hoped.

I wonder if this is why some Pacific people do not identify as being feminist. Could it be that they identify feminist issues as societal problems? And that they cannot see the nuanced difference?

I raised this idea – that Pacific, or more specifically many Samoans don’t identify as being feminist – with some acquaintances. I noticed that before we could get into any constructive or productive conversation about why this was so or about Pacific feminism more generally, I – or the mere mention of the word ‘feminism’ – was almost immediately met with ‘oh here we go, you’re one of those people’ eye rolls. After starting and failing to get into any real conversations about feminism or feminist issues in Samoa and the Pacific, it appeared that the word ‘feminism’ for some invoked a feeling or sense of my being fiapoto (a know-it-all, who doesn’t know anything at all). How strange that my being a feminist could ever be considered synonymously with being fiapoto? As though feminists are pushing some out-there and radical agenda? How radical is the idea that men and women are equal? Is it fiapoto to question, challenge and advocate for equality between men and women?

What I found even more perplexing was that when the topic of race and in particular racism came up, everyone in this group spoke freely and openly about the existence of racism and their experiences of racism – from every day to more extreme forms of racism. Now without trying to minimise or take away from their experiences of racism (because it did and does happen and it is not OK), I found it interesting that there was a recognition of one’s differential treatment based on one’s ethnic position, but that the same connections couldn’t be made in reference to gender. Where racism was real, but the existence of sexism needed convincing.

I think somehow feminism has been misunderstood as something-to-do-with-the-West, as a western way of thinking that contradicts Pacific cultures and customs.

Feminism has a place in Samoa and in the Pacific (just like it does everywhere in the world).

Feminism is compatible with Samoan culture.

Samoan culture and customs have evolved and continues to evolve to accommodate changing times. Feminism should not be considered a threat to Samoan (or Pacific) culture, custom, and norms, but a way of enhancing and fostering a culture that has a long history of valuing and celebrating women (just look up the stories of Nafanua and Salamasina). Rather than shying away from feminism, we should be collaboratively working together to cultivate a uniquely Samoan (and Pacific) strand of feminism that incorporates and speaks to our position as Samoan (and Pacific) people.

Moeata Keil is a PhD Candidate at The University of Auckland 

[1] The Constitution Amendment Act 2013 introduced a 10 percent quota of women representatives in the national legislative assembly.  As such, five floating seats are reserved specifically for women. If no woman is elected into parliament, five seats are added in addition to the 49 seats, in which case Samoa’s parliament will comprise of 54 seats.  If one woman is elected, only four seats will be added and parliament will comprise of 53 seats, and so forth. In 2016, four women were successful in their campaign, and one woman was added thereby increasing the number of parliamentary seats from 49 to 50 for this five year period.