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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2

On religion

Black and white photograph of a church.

Women can be ordinary members of the church but not its organisers or leaders…

page 17 On religion

page 16


Religion is, to me, a personal thing, a faith that shapes a woman's life. To me, religion is God living in your heart and He living in your heart will rule from there and I sincerely believe that we will never go wrong if we have that administration from within us.

In Tonga, religion has played quite a lot on women's lives. It has given us freedom. You see, I think from all the Pacific islands, we all had religions in some kind of way. We were groping around in a dark room, touching a chair feeling, and thinking that was something suitable for a God. With us it was like that. When Christianity was brought in and our King was converted, our people welcomed it. There was a great change; there was freedom in the land. And not only from the higher ranks but from all ranks.

What I think about now is that we might get too narrow-minded about religion; that our minds may be taken up too much with religion in the old gospel, I mean religion in the Old Testament, and not with the New Testament. And what is the leading spirit of all is love. If we women could learn to love each other, to love your husband, and your children, to love people as you do yourself, as the bible says, which is the compass for Christian religion. That, I think, will solve all problems.

Cook Islands

I speak as a Cook Islander and as a member of the Cook Islands Christian Church of the Ngatangiia Parish. I am also a promoter and organiser of the World Day of Prayer services in the Cook Islands and the President of the Rarotonga CICC Women's Council.

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The four main denominations in the Cook Islands are the Cook Islands Christian Church, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons).

Religion plays a very important part in the life of most Cook Islanders, men and women. In the CICC denomination, men have an advantage over women and I hear that this is the same in the Roman Catholic Church and the Seventh Day Adventist church.

In the Cook Islands Christian Church, all the ministers of the 22 CICC parishes are men. Not one is a woman. In each parish there are between 12 (at the most) and 6 (at the least) deacons. Only two women in the CICC parishes are deaconesses in their own right. One is from Mauke Island and the other is from Ngatangiia, Rarotonga.

Further, women do not preach from the pulpit – only men do that. I often wonder why this is so, especially since women clean and sweep the pulpit. If only men are allowed to preach from the pulpit, then why can't they sweep and clean it?

In the Cook islands, women have to wear hats or cover their hair whenever they have to enter a church. Women do all the preparations for any feast at a religious function and wait on the guests. After the feast the women have to clean up. The men decide the feast but the women do all the work. Women have accepted this and the men took advantage of them. I think its about time we do something about it.

There are many other ways in which women do all or most of the work in the church. Yet to hold a position in the church, for example, to be a deacon, one must; a) be a man, b) be an elderly person, c) preferably be a chief traditionally or a son of a chief.

Another interesting thing about deacons and ministers is that if their wives die, they cannot remain as minister or deacon because they have no wife to do all the woman's duties. Unless he marries again, he will lose his position. In our church at Ngatangiia, the ‘deacons’ wives clean all page 19 the utensils used for Holy Communion.

This goes back to our traditional culture which, with Western culture, has a great influence on religion in the Cook Islands. For example, only the wives of a minister or deacon can sweep the pulpit, which is a throwover from when the wives of the early missionaries did this. The influence from traditional culture comes in from only sons having access to titles, not daughters, for example.

Most men like to stick to these traditions but it is simply a way of preventing women from becoming ministers or deacons. Thus, women can be ordinary members of the church, but not its organisers or leaders. I think its about time we do something about it. We will speak out.


Guam is predominantly a Catholic island and this religion tends to shape women in the image of the Virgin Mary, a pure and humble mother and wife. Although parents tell them this on Guam, illegitimacy is quite high. One out of nine children is born illegitimate or born out of wedlock. This problem had been taken care of by the extended family during the old days. The nuclear families have left a lot of children neglected and unloved. They grow up criminals, delinquents, or if they get married they grow up as bad parents. Certain effective family-planning methods are prescribed by the Catholic Church. Well, men and women go to church on Sunday but on Monday the woman has the choice of getting her free-birth-control pill at the Department of Health or getting an abortion at the Public Hospital if she needs to, and usually she is free to make this choice. Unfortunately, abortion is not covered by her insurance because the Legislature, mainly made up of men, were pressured by the Catholic Bishop to write a contract by the insurance company not to include abortion among a woman's medical benefits. That's a fact.

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I want to ask a question to all the women from the other islands. A very important question in Tahiti is religion. Nearly everybody is religious, either Catholic or Protestant, or Mormon. The more important religion is Protestantism, and the Catholics coming after, Adventists next and the Mormons. I want to know if the pastors and priests in your islands have taken a position socially on economics and politics? In Tahiti we have a very special problem whic is the bomb, and we should like to know if, in your countries, your pastors and your priests take a position in all these subjects.

The time I want to tell you about is when John, my brother, was the deputy in the French National Assembly, and he was against the bomb. As he is a very religious man, (he's Protestant), he thought he would get help from the pastors and even from the Catholic bishop, so he went to see them And that was just to help the Tahitians… So he went to see the Bishop first and the Bishop said: “I can't speak against France because I'm French and I don't want to speak anything against my own government”. So my brother ‘phoned us and said: “Please, can't you do something?” (because I live about 40 miles from the main town of Papeete). “Please, would you try to see the priests in your place because your husband is a Catholic, and ask him (the priest) if he could help us.”

So I went to the priest and after a small talk I began to direct the conversation to nuclear tests and the priest was so afraid to talk about it that he just ran out, forgetting his hat in the house! He was so afraid to say a word about that. So I told my husband what it was and he said that it was a French priest and maybe the bishop had told him not to talk about the bomb. So now there was nothing to do, so I decided to turn to my Protestant pastors.

I was not happy about it because first, they are Tahitians. And so I couldn't understand when the Protestant pastors would not talk about the bomb because I said: “We are women and we are thinking about our children, and you page 21 should think about our children too.” But the Protestant pastor explained to me that they were afraid to talk about it because just a little while before one of the French Protestant priests had talked about and against the bomb and he was sent right away to France. So they were afraid to talk.

That's the question I want to ask you. Why are priests afraid to talk about all these things against the bomb? They represent God and God wants the good of the people, and they should want the good of the people too. And I want to know if this is the same in your countries, if the priests take the same position, and don't want to be involved. This year it's a bit better because the bishop wrote an article in which he says, very vaguely, I must say, a little against the atom bomb. And the Protestants are talking a little bit more. But I must explain that I didn't know about the South Pacific Bishop's meetings (the World Bishops Conference, Vatican, August, 1975) in which the bishops decided against all these things. So the Bishop in Tahiti had to write something about this and say something, but it was very, very mild.

But I didn't realise about the conference because in Tahiti we have no contact with the outside world. They cut it off. Everything is turned to outside, to Europe.

But this doesn't mean that I'm no more Protestant. I'm still a very good Protestant and my husband is still a very good Catholic because the religion is God's; the pastors and priests are human beings.

New Hebrides

I'd like to answer the question that our sister from Tahiti has posed.

Her first question was that she'd like to know from us – from other countries – what our ministers or what our churches' stand is in relation to the bomb and nuclear testing in Tahiti.

I am very grateful that this Conference has made it page 22 possible for people from New Caledonia, New Hebrides and Tahiti to meet, as we have a common area that we share and that it is that we are French Territories. We come under French Colonialism, and this particular system makes it very very difficult for our three peoples to meet, to communicate As our Tahitian sister has stated, information to come out is very difficult and the relevant information to come in to us is also very difficult. This is the first time that I am able to hear anything from a Tahitian.

In the New Hebrides, as far as Christian religion is concerned, we have something like a dozen different denominations of one kind of Christianity or another. I have beer brought up in the Anglican tradition, my father being an Anglican minister. I went through Anglican church schools and have been involved in church activities.

The point is this: in the New Hebrides we have not had the education, we were denied education. People were educate by different churches, but what they were taught were only Christian teachings and may be how to read and write. So any knowledge of anything outside the religious traditions, they don't know very much about. For example, maybe a world-view or a world-outlook, anything on economics, and things like this, many people do not understand because they have not had the chance to be educated.

Coming back to our ministers, in the Anglican Church in the New Hebrides we have between sixty to eighty priests who are Anglican and out of these only two have had high-school education. They did not have high-school education because the Government made it impossible for them to have this. They had schooling because their families made it possible for them. Therefore, many of our ministers, because of lack of education, do not understand much about politics, economics, or, as you said, the bomb. However, a few priests who understand the world problems and the world situation as it is today, are involved in political developments like some of you might have heard about in the New Hebrides. There are a number of political parties now and one of them being the National Party which is headed by and the core of it is, the Church from the different denominations. Much of the page 23 leadership are ministers.

Our stand is with you. We are against the bomb. We are against militarism in the Pacific.

However, our voice is not yet a united voice because the few who understand us are so few, and our people who are the masses are so much for us to cope with that the information has not been channeled back into the grass-roots effectively yet. But the few who have had the chance to be educated or to see this light, realise that that is the challenge, and that that is the direction that educated and the more understanding are taking. And we hope more will come to understand that we must stand together and that things like militarism and other aspects that arise from it, I think we have to handle carefully and maybe base our ideas on real Christianity – not the Christianity that has been created after Christ dies, but Christ's true teachings has to be involved.

New Caledonia

I'm from New Caledonia which is a French territory like Tahiti. Like the New Hebridean girl (Grace Mera) we have a very similar situation and it is very different from your situation, because we are under a colonial system.

In New Caledonia the priests and the ministers are going on with the colonial system. They are supporting it. My Tahitian sister was saying that the Bishop refused to take a stand against the nuclear tests. Like the sister on the Protestant side, I was not surprised because it is exactly the same in New Caledonia. When you know that the people who have come to speak of God perpetrate the colonial system, you ask yourself the question if they really represent God.

My Groupe, Groupe 1878, tries to get independence in New Caledonia. The young people don't go any more to church because they ask themselves if God really exists. Because the same people talk to us on the bible and now we have been left with the bible and they kept the arms.

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I would like to say that the Tahitian people are not alone in their struggles to stop the nuclear testing in Tahiti.

This is the statistics right now – between 1946 and 1958, the United States had detonated 93 bombs of all sorts, including hydrogen bombs, on the island of Kwajalein. Thus far, the people are the only ones who have been struggling to free the Pacific, especially Micronesia, from these tests

They have not involved the priests and the ministers of the various denominations, simply because priests and ministers are considered non-political people although they could probably help along those lines in the name of helping people as people of God. They have not been political along those lines and for that reason we have not involved the priests or the ministers. But rather, we have tried to work among the native people only.

New Zealand

I'd like to comment on the question of religion. I'd like to say again that religion for my people has not only affected them but has totally screwed them up, and today our young people not only reject religion but also reject the education system as a whole.

Religion. I belong to the Ngapuri tribe which is from the north of Auckland, up. Ours strayed from the main tribe. The missionaries came to our tribe and they taught us how to do away with any carvings at all, because my people were mad to believe that they were carved in the image of some of the evil people, of evil spirits and the devil. So they did away with this beautiful culture.

This is how religion had affected my people, and i still affecting them today. The churches own more land i the Ngapuri area than my people. We were made to believe that if you prayed long enough and you look up to God while page 25 the white man takes your land, you will get to heaven. This is what happened and is still happening today.

New Caledonia

As for the missionaries, none of them could possibly conceive of the fact that Jesus Christ could be coloured and a woman, as our Maori sister Ti Harawira of New Zealand said. They are pleased to present us with a pure, white and civilised god. Just before 1853, it was an archbishop called Douarre who intervened with Napolean III to have the French government take possession of New Caledonia, for above all, it must not be left to the English and to their pastors of the Mission Society of London. After that, these missionaries dare come to us insinuating that it is a sin to get involved in politics, that to demand one's land is to cry vengeance, hate and violence, that one must love one's enemy as oneself. I answer them that from the moment they do not take issue with the colonial system, they justify it. And to justify a governmental system is to get involved in politics.

Violence! As it is, they who did not hesitate to massacre the Kanaks with guns in order to implant their christianity in my country, while he of whom they claim to speak, Christ, let-himself-be crucified-peacefully, it is they, along with the administrators, the military and the settlers, who have imposed violence on my people, stealing their land and annihilating their culture.


When we are talking about religion, we are, without knowing it, talking about the introduced religion that has pervaded all the islands. Very few of us have mentioned the traditional religion. So it goes to show that we have been thoroughly socialised in the Western religion and we therefore have come to accept some of the Western values. We can no longer differentiate this from our traditional religion. We have incorporated some of these Western religious values and even have called this our own.

page 26
Black and white photograph of a church's interior.

“Women do not preach from the pulpit—only men do that. I often wonder why this is so, especially since women clean and sweep the pulpit. If only men are allowed to preach from the pulpit then why can't they sweep and clean it?” Ataiti Ama (Cook Islands)

page 27

The second thing that has come out is the great influence of religion in shaping lives, our women's roles, so that in effect religion, the Christian religion especially, has reinforced the social patterns, has reinforced the traditional patterns, that we have been used to. And I think that it has become evident that some of these norms, some of these rules that have been introduced by this Western religion have been constructive-we can certainly do with a bit of love, we can certainly do with a bit of unity that Christianity preaches. But some of these norms as they have been pointed out, have tended to restrict us women from developing our full potential.