The introduction of Christianity in Samoa by English missionaries and their wives led to their imposing of models of gender based Victorian ideals that promoted the roles of women as being maternal and domestic.
Reverend Latu Latai, a London Missionaries Society (L.M.S.) tutor at Malua Theological College from the Australian National University (A.N.U.) spoke of the changing covenants (feagaiga) in Samoa during his presentation at the second Pacific Islands University Research Network Conference at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.).
“These ideals were taught by missionaries at Malua seminar and portrayed by the wives of missionaries who allegedly served as role models of the ideal women to be emulated by their local counterparts,” Rev. Latu said.
Rev. Latu said that the homes of missionaries became the ‘object lesson’ where local women observed and learned from the missionary wife as she performed her domestic duties.
“Later boarding schools such as Papauta were established where girls were taught domestic skills,” Rev. Latu said.
“Consequently in promoting this ideal of women as domestic and maternal, missionaries undermined the status of Samoan women as ‘feagaiga’ or sacred covenants both within their kin and village.
“Overall Christianity has had a negative effect on the status and valuation of Samoan women. Once the practices and institutions that gave women much power were destabilized by missionaries, their influence as sisters was weakened, while their status as wives was emphasized.
“For women as sisters, this decline in power was not only political but sacred,” Rev. Latu said.
He also mentioned that under the missionary dispensation, the old role of sacred sister as ‘feagaiga’ was replaced by that of sacred pastor.
Today pastors are referred to as ‘fa’afeagaiga’, depicting the transposition of the values of the brother-sister relationship between the pastor and the village congregation.
“It meant that women’s sacred status under the new order was devalued while the new figure of the pastor’s sacred power was enhanced,” Rev. Latu said.
Research published as ‘The Introduction of women’s fellowship by missionaries and health committees by the New Zealand Colonial Administration in the 1920’s’ further emphasises this (Dunlop 1998, 2000; Tcherkezoff 2008).
Such groups which were often led by the wives of pastors and chiefs, amalgamated all women in local villages, blurring the distinction between women as ‘feagaiga’ and those who were married into the village or ‘nofotane’.
This promoted a novel social binary between the sexes, where all women were grouped on one side and all men on the other, despite the differences in rank and status.
“The impact of this gendered binary based on the husband-wife relationship has had a major impact on the status of women as sisters and in their social organization of the ‘aualuma’,” said Rev. Latu.
“Women who are married into the village are now taking more prominent roles in the village.
“This is made possible by the amalgamation of all women in the village through the church led by the wife of the pastor.”
In some villages there is still an effort to distinguish the ‘aualuma’ from wives.
The success of women’s fellowship in Samoa means that the power and influence of sisters is gradually being eclipsed by that of their brothers’ wives.
“It was through women, that cosmological justification of rank and power was legitimated, where sanctity permeated all aspects of life, rather than being relegated to the sphere of religion, the power of women, once very substantial, gradually declined,” Rev. Latu concluded.
The missionaries’ emphasis on the role of women as domestic and maternal are largely blamed for the devaluation of the status of women as ‘merely’ wives.
*Katalina and Julie are media and journalism students at N.U.S.