I have a five year old called Bella. The very last child that will ever alien-grow in my uterus, she is the supreme ruler of our universe - and woe be it unto any creature who does not understand that SHE should be the ruler of THEIR universe as well. (In other words, Bella is spoilt rotten. Yes I’m owning it. But let’s all agree it’s her father’s fault.)
Bella has announced that when she grows up, she’s going to “be a Princess, own an ice-cream shop, weld big buildings with my Dada and study bugs like the scientists on the Discovery Channel.” She also plans to “find a nice boy to marry, not a yucky one, and he will have the boy babies and I will have the girl babies.”
I like that my daughter believes with fierce intensity, that she can be anything and all things. Do any and all things. (Some of those things might have to be revised once she has a better understanding of biology… )
But it’s my hope she never lets go of that belief, my prayer that the world with all its soul-crushing weight of gendered roles and expectations doesn’t succeed in driving that fiery optimism out of her. Raising girls who are strong, confident, assertive - and happy to be so – is a challenge in any culture. Is it more so in Samoa?
The other day, I got into a Twitter argument with someone who was ranting about how sexist Samoa is. How women here are oppressed, devalued and subjugated… While I agree there are many things we can improve on when it comes to the way we treat women – I am more inclined to stand with lawyer/writer, Sisilia Eteuati, when she speaks about ‘Fire, Feagaiga and Feminism’:
The culture I grew up with was feminist. It was the type of feminism that didn’t name or declare itself loudly- it just was. Both men and women can become matai or chiefs. And we treat in-laws who stay with the family- nofo tane and fai avawith equal disdain whether they are men or women. In my own family, my Grandma ruled supreme. In Samoan culture, people take the first name of their father as their last name- this makes it easier to ‘tala le gafa’ or tell genealogies. My father took his mother’s and his father’s first names. It wasn’t a statement- it was just who he was. I was brought up believing that I could do anything that my brothers could- though I did feign female weakness when it came to taking out the rubbish…
I always felt my culture valued me as a woman. This was encapsulated in the concept of feagaiga- the sacred relationship between a brother and sister. In Samoan we say- ‘o le tuafafine o le ioimata o lana tuagage’- a sister is the very pupil of her brother’s eye- she is the centre of his being. It is my brother’s duty to protect and look after me, it is my duty to guide them. In the distribution of gifts and titles, mine will be the final say among my brothers, as my grandma’s was the final say among hers. A sister has traditional spiritual power. It is this most special of relationships that is signified by the stars of the malu. It signifies that a sister is a guiding light to navigate by. And woe be to the brother who invokes his sister’s curse…the malu itself, the centre of the entire design, the diamond, represents being protected and to protect. That a woman is the protector of bloodlines and of knowledge and the bearer of children.
(From an address given at Griffith University, Book Launch of ‘The Bone Bearer’. Read the full speech at - http://sydneyfob.blogspot.co.nz/)
The truth of these things was emphasized for me on my trip home this week. I read in the news about my former classmate, Leilani Tuala and her appointment as a Judge. During a visit to NUS, I was grateful for the support of educators like Dr Emma Kruse Vaai and Dr Sina Vaai. I visited with my second Mum, Peka Siloto, a woman who never had children of her own but dedicated her life to caring for me and my siblings, who taught me the meaning of unconditional love, who even though she’s in her 70’s and shaky from a stroke, still clings to her independence with an iron fist and insists on weeding the garden and climbing on chairs to clean the ceiling. I watched as Vaimasenu’u Zita Martel received an award for her Services to Samoa Tourism, recognizing the strength of her leadership and example in business and sport.
At church, I was uplifted by a lesson taught by President of the women’s Relief Society, Rebecca Lolo, who’s also a fulltime mother and homeschooler. I saw leaders in the government sector, like senior Cabinet Member, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and Sonja Hunter, CEO for the Tourism Authority.
I did a book signing at SSAB, owned by powerhouse businesswoman, lawyer and author, Fiti Leung Wai. And I valued the opportunity to spend time with the cleverest
woman I know, my mother Marita Wendt, the creative force that drives Plantation House.
All these women and many more, stand as role models for the rising generation, examples of what can be achieved with determination and hard work. For me, they are a reminder that here in Samoa, a woman can do and be whatever she wants to.
Yes, there are things that must be worked on, but in many ways, our culture IS feminist. My culture DOES value me as a woman.
On a good day then, I am hopeful for my daughters and their future choices…whether it be bug scientist, builder, icecream shop owner OR all of the above. Anything is possible - when we hold fast to our dreams with fierce intensity and fiery optimism.