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Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective


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In order to convey the difficulty encountered with the word “feminism”, the irritations and negative responses to the word, and the way in which this initial response was dissolved, this session is presented here as it occurred, (in an edited version of the discussion). As the workshop went on, the feelings, discussion and ideas about feminism changed. Here are the difficulties and first awkward moments of the workshop:

What we have clearly identified in the workshop programme is that we do want to develop a Pacific women's perspective. We want a Pacific women's perspective of ourselves and on the position of women in the Pacific-politically, economically and socially, and we want this to be a feminist perspective.

What we should do first, now, is just talk about feminism and what we think of it. Any responses to the word? Has feminism any relationship to what Pacificwomen think they are doing? Let's just ask around the table and see how we respond if we mention the word “feminism”, especially in connection with what we are doing or think should be done in the Pacific. What does feminism mean to you?


LAURA (GUAM)* Up until now, I had my doubts about feminism in the Pacific because the feminism that I know is Western feminism, a feminism that is different. What I knew about feminism before this workshop - since I was not in the Pacific during the Decade -is that the perspective is primarily Western, page 3 primarily about the struggle that women had in an industrial society. Pacific women have a different kind of struggle. It is not only a struggle to form an identity as a woman in our respective Pacific cultures, it is also a struggle to form an identity for the Pacific societies that we live in and from which we have to confront other countries from outside the region, because we have been colonised, and because some of us have been to other countries or have been educated in other countries. Perhaps in this workshop, we will have a chance to define ourselves as Pacific Women. Let us have a look at what parts of Western feminism are appropriate to our lifestyles and our women. Let us also think about our cultures which help us define ourselves as women and our roles as people…

The question was then posed to the workshop as a whole: how general was the impression that feminism involved “Western” women and Pacific women were outside it? Did the workshop believe feminism did not exist in other parts of the Third World and if Pacific women wanted to identify with feminism, they had to respond to the guidelines set by Western feminists?

Black and white photograph of a woman weaving.

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I'm talking about the ideological side of feminism, what's been written about it. Pacific cultures all have a feminist strain. Women in the Pacific have always had a particular place - we call it farihana which means “the house we are going to live in”. The man (male) world is represented by the word “tohkamo”.

The speaker added that the roles referred to above did not reflect social circumstances in Tonga today.

At this point, it would be honest to describe the meeting as tense and strained. There was silence. Someone asked the room at large, somewhat angrily: “I'd just like to ask you, what does that word “feminism” really encompass?”

Maybe we can start by discussing our views on Western definition of feminism? If there can be a quick response to that from everyone? For example, have you heard of the word? Do you like being been called a feminist, or do you not like it? What we really want to start talking about is the concept behind the word “feminism”. We are not trying to arrive at a definition. We are actually trying to understand the concept, or ideas of feminism.

Feminism has tended to be associated with what we call “Western feminism”, which itself does not have a single interpretation. But for now, let's try to keep it simple, and not try to define or form a more accurate image of feminism. We are just trying to understand the concept, what feminism means to us now.

The workshop still found it difficult to respond. Someone said: “If you tell us what it means, and define what you mean, maybe we can answer your question.”

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It was explained that there was no single definition of feminism; that each person would have her own understanding of feminism and what it meant to her, and the purpose of the workshop was to find out what women in the Pacific would like feminism to be, for them. After a quite unco-operative silence (!), to begin the discussion, the Chairperson said she would talk from her own personal experience of what feminism meant for her, and how her views had changed over the years.

My conscious knowledge of the women's movement began in 1971–1972, when I was at the University of the South Pacific (USP). With some friends of mine, we were just beginning to read about what was happening in the women's movement in the Western world, in America. Articles were also appearing in the local newspapers. The media presented an image of the women's movement as bra-burning and all that sort of thing. We were also beginning to read, in the 1970's, some American women's movement books on the position of women, on sexism, etc. A few of us could grasp, without even coming from that world, that there was a universal element of truth in these writings. We took these ideas seriously and began writing about them, very briefly and simply and crudely, in our own student newspaper.

At that time, in the 1970s, there was not much use of the word feminism, but rather the term “Women's Liberation”. The term “women's libber” was used to label us, and male colleagues said we were just “copying” the Western women's movement. This name calling does not just happen in the Pacific, but in Asia, Africa and in other Third World countries, where women who question the conditions of women are told: “You are just copying the Western women and their struggle. It is against your culture. If you start fighting for women, our whole way of life in which we traditionally organise ourselves will be challenged.” We heard that at USP too.

Those were the early days in the 1970's at USP. Feminism is a movement that only now, women outside the Western world are beginning to redefine. More women are saying: “Yes, we will now identify what we are doing as feminist”.

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I went through a period, after attending some international women's meetings, of resenting the fact that we, as Third World women, had to constantly struggle to assert a Pacific women's view. At some meetings, there was a tremendous difference between the thoughts and feelings of our small Pacific delegations and that of other. Third World women, and the views and perceptions of the American or European women present, who seemed to define what “Women's Liberation” was all about for the rest of us. Sometimes we withdrew and said: “Well, we are interested in women and we are doing things for them, but somehow what is being talked about here on the international stage is not for us”.

Only recently have I been prepared to say that what I intend to work on is a feminist struggle. Why I can say that now is because something has changed in what women internationally are defining as feminism. Third World women are beginning to have an effect on defining what feminism really means. Before this, what was considered feminist appeared to us irrelevant. We thought that Western feminists did not take into account conditions such as poverty, colonialism or imperialism or racism, and white domination in some parts of the world. Western feminists sometimes separated the wider issues of international social and economic relations.

At our first Pacific conferences in 1975, many Pacific women had come just to talk about “women's issues” and about women's organisations. But some Pacific women present, from the French colonies-for example, Dewe [also a participant at the 1987 workshop] from New Caledonia - reminded us we could not divorce our women's struggle from the struggles of our people. In 1975, many of us learnt from this contact with our sisters in New Caledonia (Kanaky), the French colony. What was considered feminist or women's struggles at the time did not incorporate these ideas however, or so it seemed to us.

We then felt the need to define our own meaning of feminism. Sometimes, we felt we were on the sidelines and were not quite as feminist as Western feminists. Now, I think it is in our interest to define feminism for ourselves in the Pacific, because the definition of feminism, and world thinking on feminism, has changed. Latin American women, African women, Asian page 7 women, have managed to put across their views and different feminist perceptions, to First World women (the so-called Western women) and have argued that for them, women's struggle or feminism is not a simple and narrow concept.

There has been a sharing amongst women in the world, so now feminism has a wider meaning: women are defining it differently. Feminists realise this and though continuing to work on improving the condition of women generally, they are aware that women cannot ignore conditions affecting the whole society and country - especially ones which exist under a system of domination which takes many forms. Women are realising that there are other forms of oppression and injustices that the women's struggle has to incorporate if it wants to help women. Women also realise that this wider view of oppression has to be understood if anything is to really change regarding the status and position of women in our societies.

The idea of feminism has been broadened. A fundamental aspect of it is recognition of the inequalities and exploitative nature of male-female relationships in all societies in the world. That is the universal aspect of women's condition. Women have found that they cannot ignore other issues related to women, such as how their country is organised, who controls the country and the economy, and the dependence of that economy on the world economic system. With a wider perspective, women are able to see feminist struggle as not just changing the little things that affect aspects of women's lives, but as an effort to seek a broader transformation that would improve the position of women - of men and women equally - for a better world.

That is an evolution or development in “feminism” that women in Third World and other countries have moved on to. The feminist perspective described is only a guideline, but it is the redefining of what feminist struggle means from different women's viewpoints that is important. This process has helped change the international view of feminism for women everywhere - in the West and in the Third World.

It is this progress that enables me to now say that I am for a feminist world.

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I would like to see some defining of feminism evolving in the Pacific and the development of a perspective that women in the Pacific could live and work with. What we are trying to do at this workshop is to arrive at a perspective or philosophy which would be our Pacific understanding of what feminism means to us.

Black and white print - pacific design.

The discussion of feminism and what it meant to each person expanded at that point, with varied responses being made:

My own experience arose when I was working on my dissertation on women. I tried to come to grips with the idea of feminism in the wider context. I interviewed 82 people (in Guam) for my work, and asked them what they thought of feminism - in exactly the same manner as we are trying to do today. I asked: “Are you a feminist? What do you think of feminism?” Without exception, they said, “Please don't call me a feminist”.

We have a great allergy to the word “feminist” and “feminism” and “women's liberation”. Those interviewed were about 45–65 years old, not a generation to be very excited by those ideas and definitions. The women said things like: “I am not a bra-burning person; I never wore a bra, so, I do not know why bra-burning is so important to the feminist”. Another example of what is associated with that word “feminism”: “feminists” do not want babies and yet women's lives are defined terms of their children. Some respondents did not want to have anything to do with women who wanted to live only with other women, or who rejected the family. In their view, the base of women's lives was the family.

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Women also felt that the traditional power source, and the source of empowerment for women, was the family, and through the man in her family. If a woman gave up that power base, what other power base was there? They regarded positions in the legislature, or directorships in government as not long-term or secure sources of power for women.

In talking to women in Guam, I often heard them say, “No, we are not discriminated against; we do not need to be liberated”. And that bothered me a lot. Having studied in the United States, I came filled with all kinds of new ideas and powerfully persuaded by feminism. I thought and felt it was glamourous and romantic because of the sense of sisterhood and sharing I had experienced overseas.

Black and white photograph of women cooking.

It took me many years-maybe, about 10 years - before I began to understand that the white woman's feminism, the First World woman' feminism, if you will, was a feminism that came out of their personal experience. They did not have to live in extended families or have to fight colonialism, imperialism, cultural imperialism and dominance, in the way that we have had to. They did not have such a dramatic presence of the church and religion in their lives Their personal experiences from which their ferminism came was different from my personal experience. So, I really began to understand that.

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Until Third World feminists begin to speak and recognise that First World experiences are not related to ours, we will not be listened to by our women. In the United States, we started group discussions and women from the Pacific realised that these groups were talking about communities that would be completely segregated from men, where only women would live together, for example.

Those things were not quite my dreams. My dreams were that my people would be liberated from the oppression that they experience. I began to back away from that kind of thinking and say, no. Every time I was in a white feminist situation, I had to defend the fact that I loved children and wanted children.

When I got into women's history, and I began to use feminism for scholarship, for research, I began to develop a different sense of feminism, and that was a feminism that allowed us to question in a different way. It enabled us to ask questions that were never asked before, to bring out realities about colonialism, imperialism, racism, gender oppression, class oppression, etc. I began to be aware that by asking those questions, by challenging institutions, I also began to understand our own cultural oppression. That is when feminism began to take a hold of me.

The reason I react negatively towards the concept of feminism is that I view any kind of liberation as people's liberation and the particular oppression that women have had to face comes under that umbrella. I don't put human liberation first and then liberation in terms of gender. I have been in situations where I have definitely reacted against the label of “feminist”. That may be partly because coming from a society where women are given high rank in the society, I have never felt as though I have to struggle for anything as a woman. If I do not get what I want from my own brother, I pinch it from my own women; if I don't get what I want from my father or my husband, I will get it from my brother. But I have had to struggle against attitudes from men which are exclusive and present a very narrow attitude and definition page 11 of a woman's job. For example, ideas that you cannot do this or that because you are a woman. That I am against.

You have just said that a woman in Tonga can get what she wants - if she can't get it from her father, she can get it from her brother or husband. Perhaps we should consider this: Why does a woman have to get what she wants from this man or that man? Why can't she decide what she wants herself and get it? If women have a freedom of choice in Tonga, it is still within another umbrella and that is, patriarchy. Men are still in charge.

In answer, it was stated that women were in charge, but indirectly. The position of women in Pacific cultures and societies was debated later. One speaker spoke strongly against the workshop being uncritical of traditional ways, an issue that was debated at length in the next few days.

The session's aim of getting a quick reaction to feminism continued.

Let me summarise my reactions to the word feminism. I do not have any hassles about it, because a feminist is a woman, I am a woman. My particular interpretation of feminism depends very much on my personal experience which would, of course, be very different from that of another Tongan woman. The label of feminism - I may or may not choose to identify with …

The workshop discussion was directed to the questions: What is feminism? What does it mean to us? What did Pacific women think or fear about feminism? In the page 12 first session, an attempt was made to share common views of feminism and our prejudices. For example, was feminism anti-family, anti-children, anti-man? Was it for the First World?

The discussion of feminism and what was meant by it was a difficult but necessary beginning to the workshop. The workshop organisers felt it was necessary to deal with the word, and the ideas about “feminism” and “the women's movement” that existed in the Pacific. One person compared “feminism” to the label attached to the words “freedom fighters”, which people associated with guns, tanks, violence: a negative meaning. Yet, “freedom fighters” were people fighting for liberation. She asked:

Are we to say they cannot call themselves “freedom fighters” because people do not accept it? That is wrong. That is letting the people who have dominated us tell us what we should call ourselves. For me, it is very important that if I decide to call myself a feminist, even if the society does not like the word “feminist”, I will continue to call myself feminist - not because I want to challenge society, but because it is important for our own self-confidence and self-definition.

A further comparison was made between being a feminist, and being a colonised people:

It would be the same as not claiming your heritage or not claiming something that was rightfully yours because other people stopped your claims to it, by labelling it dirty. In other words, it would be the same as a colonised people bowing down to pressure because people criticised them for wanting independence.

We women are doing the same thing, if we have to hide under some other label because people do not accept the word “feminism” or “feminist”.

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Whether or not to use the word “feminism” or to call oneself “feminist” was the issue raised. It was agreed that “feminism” created a lot of negative feelings. The important point however, was to understand feminism and be able to think clearly about it. It was important to analyse why women might feel they could not openly call themselves “feminist”.

Considering my own experience in my own society, I would say that the word “feminism” is used in a different way. Most women grow up in the villages. It's the women who grow up to be the elite of society who are the ones who are associated with feminism.

One participant explained that she had to consider the effect her using the term “feminist” would have on her work with women. If she called herself a feminist, she would be called pro-women. Her work in the Women's Crisis Centre could not have continued if the women involved had called themselves feminists:

The Women's Crisis Centre is playing a very vital role in the community and our very existence depends on what we call ourselves. I recognise it is dangerous and actually demeaning, however, that we cannot call ourselves what we really want to call ourselves.

Black and white photograph of a woman working.

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I think women reject the word “feminism” because it is not relevant to our lives. Men and people who have power reject it for various other reasons. Maybe, some feel it challenges their power. If we can offer a new and different definition of feminism, which is relevant to our lives and which includes women and children, then maybe there will be a different reaction.

Another thing that bothers me is the danger of looking at our own personal lives because we are satisfied with what we are doing then concluding that there is no oppression of women, there is no need to liberate. What we forget is that apart from the private lives of people, there is the institutional life of women. There we have inequality.

Women's lives are determined by the institutions of the society in which we live. We must look at the institutional lives of women, alongside our personal experience. We are here because we are free to move and to collectively get together. There are many other women whose husbands or mothers or fathers would beat them before they let them out of the house, to have meetings or do other things freely. We need to remember that.

It was agreed at that point that there was a problem in using the word “feminism” and with its image. “Feminism”, as an English word, also was foreign to many women. A distinction needed to be made between rejecting the word “feminism”, and rejecting the concepts or ideas behind feminism, which had changed.

At the session's end, a summary of the discussion's general points was then made. With the summary, an argument was presented on the need for a Pacific women's perspective, in order to advance women's work and status in the region.

Black and white prints - pacific designs.

World YWCA (South Pacific)