I’ve just come out of a 3-day Women’s Conference with the theme: Voices of Pacific Women. I’ve never really considered myself a feminist or doubted my ability to speak up, so I didn’t expect to feel as inspired and uplifted as I was.
One of the panel discussions was on the impact of culture on business. A woman raised a question, which made me want to put pen to paper with my own thoughts on the matter. She prefaced her question with: Firstly, I apologize in advance for asking this question. Her question was: Don’t you think the Samoan culture discourages women from speaking up? Don’t you think Samoan culture contributes to women in abusive situations not being able to express their voices?
One of the ladies on the panel was a faletua, who replied with (effectively) – it’s not culture’s fault that people don’t speak up, it’s people’s abuse of the culture and it’s a reflection on man/ woman’s own weakness that gives the Samoan culture a bad name.
Nobody else responded to her question.
It’s left me pondering. How do I, as a fiercely proud Samoan woman reconcile the question of whether my beloved Samoan culture contributes to and perhaps even worsens the problem that Samoan women in abusive situations feel they cannot speak up?
It’s no secret: Samoans are a proud people. We are a God fearing nation steeped in centuries of rich tradition passed down through generations. We are fortunate and proud that our language, dance, traditional tools, clothing, medicine, art, foods, our way of life is largely preserved for us to impart to our children. We are self-governed, we own our lands, and we are forging our own future. As a nation and as a culture, indeed, we have a lot to be proud of. As a Samoan, I think it is our natural instinct that if/ when the integrity of our culture is ever questioned that we fiercely defend it. Though it seems arrogant/ ignorant, I believe that for many people, the notion that our revered and beloved culture is even remotely responsible for suppressing the voice of our women, or is responsible for leaving women in abusive situations is not only hard to swallow but absolute blasphemy. Also I believe the persona of the Samoan woman, is that she is strong and not short of confidence or voice. We are the revered advisors, the actual force behind our husbands, fathers and families. We just let them think otherwise. So I think it’s also difficult to reconcile this version of the Samoan woman, with one whose voice is suppressed.
Growing up in Samoa, I was taught from a young age, to respect my parents, to speak when I’m spoken to, to do my chores without complaint, and if I felt like complaining to hold my tongue, and to generally know my place. While I’ve certainly grown up and I’ve lived my life as my own independent woman, I think there is still a part of me and probably other island women that have internalized this notion that silence is golden.
At least in my own experience, I would say being quiet, and not questioning authority, are values perpetuated by Samoan culture. I can’t deny that growing up I certainly knew that to question a decision of a person/ village council/ church leader of authority would result in a good whacking, being disowned, and a life of shame. As an educated woman and as an objective human being, I also can’t deny that abuse happens in Samoa. The growing number of instances being reported is just harrowing.
While I don’t think it’s culture’s fault that women don’t speak up, I can’t accept that being a proud Samoan is an excuse not to recognize the role that the culture is playing in suppressing women’s voices.
I think as Samoan men and women in the 21st century it’s important to realize that culture has evolved to where we are today and will continue to evolve in a more accelerated manner due to the advent of technology.
I think it’s important to recognize that culture will change. Truly, change is the only constant there is and ever has been. Even as we try to maintain our culture, we are in fact re-creating it. Accepting that as a matter of fact, culture WILL change. This doesn’t mean we are rejecting who we are or that we are spitting on the legacy of our forefathers (though it may feel like it). It doesn’t mean you have to start changing anything actually. It means that culture changes daily, with or without our consent. And more importantly it means that we have a choice to affect the culture of our children. It means that we have the power to evolve our culture into the desired culture for our future generations.
So as a proud Samoan, I think it’s important to recognize that there are aspects of our culture that contribute to negative things like discouraging women to speak up and step out. Undoubtedly, this is not unique to Samoan culture as it happens, probably everywhere the world. The key thing is, we need to create a culture where women in Samoa can speak up. How do we do this? I believe it starts with our fundamental roles as mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and wives. We instill the value in our daughters, that they must exercise their voice. We instill in our sons, fathers, uncles and brothers that women’s voices are to be heard and respected. We lend ourselves to our sisters, girlfriends, and aunts, that when they speak up, we will receive them with open hearts and open arms and when they cannot speak up, we will speak for them.
Speaking up is less about opening your mouth than it is about opening your mind and opening the minds of the others.