31 May Warrior Women and Freedom Fighters: The Stories we tell of Women

As a Pasifika writer from Samoa, I am interested in the stories we tell about women, the stories that shape us and help define how we view women and how we value them. As a mother, I am interested in how those stories – of my ancestors, of my cultural past and present, of my lived experiences – can help me raise my daughters and sons.

Too often, people cite ‘our culture’ as an excuse for discriminating against women.  As if culture is some stagnant constricting thing, a stone box meant to contain us. Others talk of how we need to adopt ‘western ideals’ of equality to better address a barrage of problems related to gender. While no cultural context is  perfect, and do I see aspects of my cultural heritage that contribute to things like gender violence – I also question how correct it is to look to (supposed) palagi concepts and practises for all the answers.

What can our stories tell us? Our mythology, our history? Two examples – keeping in mind that there are many different versions of ‘history’ and many different tellings and interpretations of myth!

1.  The Mau was a  non-violent movement for Samoan independence from colonial rule during the early 1900s.  The motto for the Mau was, Samoa mo Samoa (Samoa for the Samoans). On 28 December 1929 — which would be known thereafter as “Black Saturday” — New Zealand military police, one of them wielding a Lewis machine gun, fired upon a peaceful independence demonstration of unarmed men, women and children.

Eleven Samoans were killed including the resistance leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi, and about 50 were wounded. One policeman was clubbed to death. Following the massacre,  the Mau was outlawed and the men fled to the mountains for many months where they eluded NZ armed forces. It didn’t occur to the NZ local leaders to ban the women and so the resistance movement continued as the women’s Mau moved forward with the independence work.

Women's Mau Leaders & Committee, 1930. Photo by AJ Tattersall. Original in NZ Archives.

Women’s Mau Leaders & Committee, 1930. Photo by AJ Tattersall. Original in NZ Archives.

We have a cultural legacy of men and women working together. A tradition of women as activists, co-leaders in their community.  We can often see this today in the everyday running of a Samoan village where matai of the Village Council (both men and women) work together with the Women’s Komiti to make decisions and carry out projects. A favourite proverb captures it well,  “Se’i fono le pa’a ma ona vae.” The Crab’s legs must agree before the crab can walk. Meaning: A leader must have the support and agreement of the people before they can move forward together.

2. Probably the greatest female figure in our Samoan history and one who rules our mythology – is Nafanua, the goddess of war. There are many versions of her story but my favorite tells of Nafanua as the daughter of Saveasi’uleo, God of Pulotu the underworld. There was a war between the eastern and western districts of the island of Savaii. Nafanua’s father sent her to help his aiga, including those in the village of Falealupo, who had been enslaved by their enemies. First she fashioned legendary weapons from the Toa tree that grew in Pulotu. Then she ventured forth to aid the oppressed. Even though their numbers were small, Nafanua rallied them each day and led them in battle. She fought tirelessly, killing her enemies with ease, yet showing mercy to those who surrendered. She was successful in liberating her people. At the final battle, a strong gust of wind came and lifted up the tiputa Nafanua wore, thus exposing her breasts. The enemy cried out in shock because they had been under the impression that they were fighting against a man. They then surrendered and peace was restored. From then on, many people came to Nafanua for her war counsel and so she could teach them how to fight.

Vaimasenu'u Zita Martel as 'Nafanua' : Re-imagined and photographed by Jordan Kwan.

Vaimasenu’u Zita Martel as ‘Nafanua’ : Re-imagined and photographed by Jordan Kwan

It’s fascinating to me that there was a time when our ideal Samoan woman was this – an army general, a warrior, a fierce passionate fighter who knew how to be merciful and preserve life, a tactical strategist,  and leader of liberation. Then the palagi (Western/European) missionaries came along and the ideal woman of worth morphed into this…


They just don’t look very happy to me. Perhaps its those hideous – and impractical – dresses the missionaries made them wear in the sweltering heat! Or perhaps it’s because the mission wives were militant about teaching Samoan women their proper role as homemakers. Where before it was the job of the young men to prepare the food for the family, now ‘good Christian women’ all over Samoa were learning how to cook, sew and cover-up their temptress bodies…

Back to Nafanua. For me, her story is a powerful reminder that it’s not our biology that makes us worthy, that makes us leaders, warriors – it is our actions. Our choices. The tautua, the service that we render in our families, to our churches and in our wider communities. You don’t need #ManParts  to lead a family, a village council, a school, or a government. Just as it is not our breasts or giving birth to a child that make a person a nurturer, caregiver or even qualified to be called a mother. At age 7, I was taught how to dance the Samoan siva by a very graceful, very skilled fa’afafine who prepared me to act as the taupou for my father’s village while my big sister was overseas at school.  An example of nurturing and compassionate motherly love in my life has been my second mother, a woman called Peka who helped raise me and my siblings, a woman who has never given birth to any children of her own.

This is one of the things I love about Samoa. We are a service-oriented people. We recognize and respect whoever works the hardest and makes the greatest contributions to the aiga. I believe this is why Samoa has an exemplary rate of male/female representation at all levels of public service and business with approximately equal numbers of women occupying executive and middle management positions within the public sector. It’s why there are fa’afafine working as CEO’s for govt ministries, Women’s Komiti  that work together with the Village Council to oversee much of the running of a villages affairs. A high proportion of urban businesses in Samoa are owned or managed by women. In education, female enrolment rates are comparable to and, at the secondary and tertiary education levels, better than male enrolment rates. In these respects Samoa’s gender equality indicators are comparable to those of Australia and NewZealand. (Now if we could just have that represented in our parliamentary system that would be great!) Yes, there are problems and inequities, and we have much work to do, towards greater participation of women in village and national government – as shown by a research project by the Centre for Samoan Studies  . But there is also much to celebrate and much in our history and mythology that we can learn from and be inspired by.

It’s an exciting time to be a woman, a woman of Pasifika. We have much to offer – to each other and to the wider world outside our Pasifika communities. When we look to our rich cultural heritage for guidance on how to be and how to raise the next generation, I hope we will remember that culture is not a stone box meant to contain us. It is sinnet woven of many strands and we can choose what we weave into it. For me, I choose that which has been a strength to me from each of my different ancestries as a Samoan, Maori and palagi. That which is harmful, I set aside and refuse to weave into my daughter’s stories.

There is no one way to be a woman of Pasifika. We can’t all be warrior women charging into battle. Nor do we all want to! The key is being able to CHOOSE what kind of woman you want to be and then not being demonized for it.

 We need to see the many different realities of Pasifika womens experiences represented and challenged in the stories around us. In the stories of our ancestors, in the media, in our school curriculum, in our cultural practises and arts. I hope we can be brave enough to question, challenge and re-define what it means to be women of Pasifika. As we mark Women’s History month, I hope you will seek out the women who have wrought their influence on you, those whose “sinnet of myth” is woven into your veins. Celebrate them, honor them, be inspired and uplifted by them. 

Excerpt from a guest lecture given at SLCC, Utah, for Women’s History Month, by visiting Samoan author Lani Wendt Young. Cross posted at FEMWOC (Feminist Mormon Women of Color) Lani blogs at Sleepless in Samoa. She’s the author of eight books including the international bestselling Young Adult series TELESA

  • Mamari

    Kia ora for this, I learned a lot in this post!

    May 31, 2015 at 11:30 pm
  • Anonymous

    I study Sociology and Pacific studies at the University of Auckland and reading this article really expand my ways of thinking about the difference between womens in the western world compare to womens in the Pacific especially Samoa. I love our you use culture to break this stereotype of womens. And thank you Lani i have a perfect evidence to talk about in my next essay coming up. Thank you.

    June 1, 2015 at 7:05 am
  • LOVE this post.

    June 1, 2015 at 7:40 am
  • Wonderful and empowering post for all pacifica women! I recently started reading your Telesa book and I am so enthralled by your way of writing and how visual it actually is… now I wish I got to meet you in American Samoa last month; I missed you by a couple of days! Tamiano (Pacific Roots) tells me you’re pretty awesome which I can totally imagine.

    All the best!

    June 5, 2015 at 1:47 am
  • Bronwyn

    Thank you for this post! I teach the development of the Mau Movement to my Year 12 History class and some of the girl’s have chosen to write about the perspectives of the women involved in the Mau for their assessment – I will direct them to this blog for inspiration! much appreciated.

    June 9, 2015 at 4:10 am

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