Choose to Challenge

This year’s International Women’s Day on Monday became an unexpected launching pad for new chapters and unapologetic liberation from the shackles of chauvinism. 

That turn of phrase might well turn away a few of you, dear readers, but we encourage you to stick around and bask in the warmth of female empowerment, if only for one day.

The obvious starting point would be Monday’s biggest story - the symbolic ceremony between Lotofaga and opposition party Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi to officially induct former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa as its newest member.

Fiame was handed over to the F.A.S.T. party by her constituency, who said it was to “serve out her purpose as God has called her to do, for the Samoan Parliament”.

There were speeches, ava ceremony, dancing, singing and gifts exchanged. In short, it was a feast of culture, class and closure.

The event was well attended by both her constituency and F.A.S.T. supporters, and live streamed on Facebook, attracting over 6000 comments and almost 1000 shares.

Her joining the opposition with such festive flair on International Women’s day was a strategic masterstroke in sticking it to the powers that be.

What could have been just another Monday became the statement of a free woman, taking charge of her own destiny and no longer waiting for crumbs from the patriarchy. 

Then the announcement on Tuesday that she had been unanimously elected F.A.S.T. Party Leader swept aside all the pomp and circumstance of her symbolic handover, cementing F.A.S.T.’s call to arms and showing the country that they mean business.

It also sets the scene for what will be an impressive battle between herself and Tuilaepa, finally as equals.

On the front page of today's newspaper, the new party leader summed up what it felt like to go against her former party, and her former leader.

“I have no problem with it." 

“I mean this is the purpose of political parties. I felt that I couldn’t stay with H.R.P.P.

“I think they’ve moved away from what I had understood was the base of the organisation, so I moved to another organisation that shared similar values, wanting the same outcomes. 

“I think the biggest problem facing H.R.P.P. at the moment is the attitude of absolute power and corruption.” 

Fiame's moment has indeed arrived.

As the only candidate of her party to be guaranteed her seat in the next Parliament sitting, Fiame now has a mammoth task ahead of leading her candidates to a win that will guarantee them legitimacy as a party. 

This means they need to win at least seven more seats to be recognized as an official opposition party. This will not be an easy feat, considering only four of their candidates – Fiame, Laauli, Olo and Faumuina – were M.P.s in the last parliament.

Her political experience, mental fortitude and knowledge of Government processes are surpassed only by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. 

And perhaps that is why her choice to challenge her former boss and incumbent leader of the nation, is leaving us all the more transfixed on the ‘what ifs’, come April 9. 

As the saying goes, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. 

But will Samoa ever get to a stage where the role of women in politics isn’t subject to such in depth scrutiny, ridicule and somewhat condescendingly, astonishment?

At a women-only roundtable earlier on Monday morning, discussions centered on Women and Political Participation in Samoa. Panel members included former M.P. Aliimalemanu Alofa Tuuau and former Attorney-General Taulapapa Brenda Heather-Latu, who said one of the fundamental barriers was whether women were willing to enter the prevailing environment in Parliament.

“I think it’s hostile, aggressive and an abusive place at the moment and it has been for a long time,” said Taulapapa.

She went on to say that such an environment would only change if more women were in Parliament and it was a question of how the way can be eased for more women to step in to “an angry house”.

It was her view that women are needed to change an environment that she says is “crude, rude and graceless”.

Aliimalemanu said a barrier for women is not participating in village fonos. She said it has always been her advice to anyone thinking of a life in politics - to serve your village by sitting in on meetings. But she acknowledged that it is difficult for women to get into those meetings.

Other panelists shared their views, including Muliagatele Dr. Potoae Roberts Aiafi, who said attitudes had to change.

“I was brought up in the village, went overseas, came back and now I’m back in the village and I do feel vulnerable, even among my own family. When you try to speak up as a woman, you get shut down.

“That kind of mindset, that kind of attitude that we women face in your own family and village. Being vulnerable… sometimes the barriers, the discrimination is very subtle. But we have to accept it and navigate it.

“There are times when you hear it from the women themselves - that you should know your place.”

That these learned, accomplished and respected women of Samoa would have such jaded views of our political environment – from grassroots to the legislative assembly – says a lot about how our country views women.

And why Fiame’s symbolic induction and leadership of F.A.S.T. will hopefully have a ripple-effect on our political status quo. 

But while we celebrate the achievements of top government officials and high profile members of society for International Women’s Day, let's not gloss over the challenges faced by your average mother, sister, daughter or wife. 

Perhaps the symbolism of the last two days will provide a much-needed rethink by those in power not to diminish the voices of half of our people, and instead acknowledge the power of women to effect change in the most unlikely of spaces.

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