Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective
CULTURAL AND TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, AND WOMEN'S STATUS IN THE PACIFIC
CULTURAL AND TRADITIONAL PRACTICES, AND WOMEN'S STATUS IN THE PACIFIC
A very controversial point that arose from the discussion on feminism was its relationship to traditional culture and “traditional” women. A controversial comment made was that:
It is feminist to be a woman and to be in a traditional role, if women are happy with that.
In many Pacific women's conferences, the view has been expressed that Pacific women have equal status and significant power and influence in some areas in some traditional cultures, for example, women's control over land. The view that Pacific women have power traditionally and that the women's movement should not criticise traditional cultural practices, was raised and then seriously debated.
Two issues were identified for discussion:
Cultural practices and whether they gave Pacific women status and power in society
Religion and how it defined women's status and roles.
Amelia (Fiji) picked up the issue, saying she felt very nervous whenever she heard statements that “Pacific culture had always been feminist”. Particularly she questioned any view by the workshop that it was feminist for women to be in a traditional role “if they are happy”. Amelia argued that it was very important that the workshop examine this view carefully, and went on to explain her view of women's traditional role in Fiji:
The two major cultures - Indian and Fijian - are not feminist at all. They have never been feminist. I would be brave and say that that is the same with the other Pacific cultures. They are not feminist. I think we have to be very honest about it. I am worried that uncritical statements might eliminate the possibility of us examining our cultures - because there are good points and bad points about them.
In her view, there was a danger in making blanket statements or being on the defensive about Pacific cultures, and, speaking from her Fiji experience, Amelia explained why. Fijians had inherited a lot of customs and relationships in their culture which were not Fijian culture but introduced by the colonial government.page 24
One example was the system of land ownership that the British had formalised, and had declared derived from “traditional” Fijian culture. The system of land ownership imposed had been changed in the 19th century to suit the colonial government and was not cultural. In her view, these examples raised the issue that the workshop needed to keep an open mind on: what was “cultural”?
Another point for discussion was the difference between Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian cultures. It was decided that the workshop would not go into the regional differences between Pacific cultures. It was more important to look at the general areas of life which culture or religion affected, and the contradictory practices that affected women. Some cultural practices could give a very positive treatment to women while others were negative.
It was recognised that it was important not to make an assumption that there were no contradictions between Pacific cultures and feminism. Further, Pacific women needed to be brave and to take a hard look at their cultures.
The discussion of feminism continued, based around this point, that a Pacific women's workshop on feminism needed to look at and be critical of, Pacific cultures -particularly as they affected women.
The one thing that has pushed me to challenge the situation about women in Fiji is because of how I am treated in my family. I resent the fact that when I eat I sit at the bottom; I resent that very much and I resent the fact that the women eat second in the villages.
What I resent in Tonga is that a man can fool around and a woman cannot A man can wander around at night and woman cannot do that. But I do not resent being placed second as far as eating is concerned.
I resent all those things because I am not given the same treatment as my menfolk. That does not mean that I do not like my village. I love my village. There are strong points in our culture but I do resent some of those horrible things that happen to women. I see them practised at my home, in town - when the relatives come, all the girls pop into the kitchen. They wash all day and they wash all night while all the boys are sitting around. Those are the things that make me say, “I am going to be a feminist, and I will fight”.
Someone raised the question that not all women might resent these practices. The reply:
I think my mother has always resented it [discriminatory practices against women] too; many women in my village have always resented it.
Other examples were given of how village life and practices in the Pacific could discriminate against women. For example a village association which held annual general meetings and collected money for improvements in the village, used a mix of the traditional and modern democractic ways of doing things at village meetings. The people chose a chairperson, but the page 26 village chief was always asked to say something first; secondly, though a ruling was made that everybody was allowed to speak, all the men sat at the top of the meeting place and when a woman wanted to speak, they told her to sit down. When a woman chairing on one occasion firmly allowed anybody to speak, including women, this was practised. However, once the strong and assertive woman left, village meetings soon reverted back to the old form, with village women not being allowed to speak.
Women at the workshop related similar Pacific experiences and the double standards that were used to judge women's social behaviour. In Tonga and Samoa, if women expressed themselves freely sexually, they were considered “bad”, regardless of their role or contribution in the society.
The discussion of traditional culture and women's status indicated that Pacific women could not separate the two issues. There was a need to be critical of Pacific cultures using a feminist perspective, because culture and women's status could not be separated.
Cultural differences in the Pacific were recognised. In Vanuatu, culture varied from area to area. In some areas, women had high status; in other areas, colonialism and the church had changed women's traditional status and it was agreed that Pacific culture was really a mixture of old and new influences. Not every woman had the same status in society, even traditionally. Some societies had different positions of privilege and power, held by men or women. There were differences in status between women as well, in the Pacific.
On this note of questioning and debate, the first discussion of feminism ended. The session had branched out and broadened from an initial negative and uncomfortable response, to an examination of the living conditions and experiences of women in the Pacific. The development of a feminist perspective, and a feminist process in the workshop, had just begun.