Women leaders of the Pacific

  • Breaking
  • 10/06/2012

Opinion by Falaniko Tominiko

At a recent Samoan Independence panel discussion, we were asked whether the under representation of women in the Samoan government (2 out of 49 seats) was result of “Fa’a Samoa”. I responded simply by saying that the under representation is not a true indication of Fa’a Samoa. The other three panellists (all female) also responded by saying that women’s positions in Samoa are highly valued and respected and not reflective of the representation in government. This made me think about women in Pacific as a whole. Despite evidence showing inequality between men and women not only in the Pacific but throughout the world, history shows that women in Pacific were indeed very powerful and had a lot of influence in this region. I thought it would be appropriate to write a piece highlighting our ‘women leaders’ of the past.

The Hawaiians have had a long history of powerful women leaders and chiefs. Before the unification of Hawaii by King Kamehameha I in 1795, each island of the Hawaiian group was ruled independently. The first woman to rule over an island was Queen Kukaniloko of Oahu (c1350-1400) and was succeeded by her daughter Queen Kalaimanuia (c1400-1450). Other rulers include; Queen Kaikilani (c.1575-1605), Queen Keaka-mahana (c.1635-1665), Queen Keakealani-wahine (c.1665-1695) of the big island ‘Hawai’i’; Queen Kapau-a-Nuakea, Queen Kamauliwahina and Queen Kane’alai of Molokai; Queen Kamakahelei (1770-1794) of Kauai. When Hawaii was taken over in 1893, the monarch at the time was Queen Lili’uokalani. She became the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

French Polynesia was also another group of islands that had a strong history of women influence. On the island of Ra’iatea & Taha’a, Queen Rereao Hauroa ruled from 1881-1884. On Borabora, three of its eight recorded monarchs were women; Queen Maeva (1700s), Queen Maeva Rua I (1860-1873) and Queen Maeva Rua II (1873-1888). The island of Huaine had the biggest influence with six out of ten of its recorded monarchs being women, Queen Te-ha’a-papa I (c1777), Queen Teri’i Tari’a II (1839-1852), Queen Ma’i-hara Te-ma-ri’i (1852-1854), Queen Te-ha’a-papa II (1868-1888), Te-mari’i-a-Teururai Ma’i-hara (1888-1890) and Queen Teri’i-na-vaha-roa Ta-tia Te-ha’a-papa III (1893-1895). The most well-known of the monarchies in French Polynesia, the Pomare family of Tahiti was ruled by Queen Pōmare IV Vahine-o-Punuatera’itua  for about half a century (1827-1877). These former kingdoms lost authority and power shortly after the French takeover during the late 1880s.

The neighbouring Cook Islands have had, and still have a strong presence of female leaders. Currently on the island of Rarotonga , four out of its six paramount Ariki are women. They are; Pa Ariki Marie Peyroux, Makea Karika Ariki Takau Margaret, Tinomana Ariki Ruta Tuoro and Kainuku Ariki Kapiriterangi. Of the remaining two, one is held by a male (Makea Vakatini Ariki)  and the other (Makea Nui Ariki) is currently vacant. In recent times, the Pa Ariki title has been dominated by women with five out of the last six holders being women. Of the 23 total Paramount Ariki that rule across the entire Cook Islands, eight are currently women, twelve are men, and three are currently vacant. Despite the numbers favouring the men slightly, it indicates a rather equal society. Even in the smaller islands like Uvea where the title of ‘Lavelua’ is the equivalent of their king, women have risen to assume paramount leadership. Female rulers of Uvea have included Queen Lavelua Toifale (1825-1825), Queen Lavelua Falakika Seilala (1858-1869), Queen Lavelua Amelia Tokagahahau Aliki (1869-1895) and Queen  Lavelua Aloisia Brial (nee Tautuu) (1953-1958).

In the Western Polynesian Islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, it seems its politics and leadership is dominated by men, but they too have histories of powerful women. Fiji’s history doesn’t record many women holding paramount chiefly titles, however more recently the tides have changed. The Roko Tui Dreketi chiefly title, traditionally ranked in the top three of all of Fiji is currently held by a woman, Roko Tui Dreketi Teimumu Tuisawau-Kepa, a former politician. She succeeded her older sister Roko Tui Dreketi Lady Lala Tuisawau-Mara, the late wife of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Adi Samanunu Cakobau Talakuli the eldest child of the last Vunivalu Ratu Sir George Cakobau has at times been touted as a possible Vunivalu candidate is a woman of great mana and respect. She is a former politician and has been the chairperson of the Great Council of Chiefs. Despite the rarity of women succeeding to chiefly positions within the Fijian system some women have succeeded to becoming district and village chiefs. They include, Tui Noikoro - Adi Kuini Teimumu Vuikaba Speed, Marama Tui Ba - Adi Laite Kotomaiwasa and Tui Sigatoka - Adi Joana Rokomatu. 

Tonga has not had a woman take the throne since the death of Queen Salote in 1965. According to the current constitution, whoever ascends the throne as the monarch of Tonga is also bestowed the title of Tu’i Kanokupolu, the highest traditionally ranked title in all of Tonga. The last women to have held the title was Queen Salote, however she was not the first. This honour went to the 12th Tu’i Kanokupolu Tupou' Mohe'ofo during the late eighteenth century. She was also the wife of Tu’i Tonga Fatafehi Paulaho so whilst the sacred authority was vested in her husband, she was the one who held the political power. Given that the constitution states that only the eldest male inherits the father’s title, chances of seeing another female Tu’i Kanokupolu are slim, however there is a train of thought amongst some Tongans that despite the current king Tupou VI being the highest of all chiefs in Tonga, he is in fact of lesser rank than his sister, Princess Pilolevu Tuita, based on the Tongan fahu relationship. Based on this principle, Princess Pilolevu would be the highest ranked person in Tonga.

Last but not least Samoa and its matai system seems to be male dominated. As mentioned earlier, only two of the 49 electoral seats are held by women. Again I reiterate that this is not an indication of Samoa’s history. Prior to the coming of Christianity, women often had influence in traditional Samoan politics. For instance the first ever supreme ruler of Samoa was Queen Salamasina, the first to achieve Tafa’ifā status in Samoa around the sixteenth century. Then there were her three immediate successors, Fofoivaoese, Taufau and Sina who all held the Tui Atua and Tui A’ana titles after her, and were all women. Even the more ancient Tui Manu’a of Manu’a that once dominated the Pacific has been held by women. According to genealogies, the 27th Tui Manu’a, Seuea was a woman and the only other was Tui Manu’a Makerita who held the title just before the American takeover in 1900. Even the only two women members of parliament, Fiame Naomi Matā’afa and Gatoloaifaana Amataga Alesana-Gidlow are in their own rights chiefly women. They are also both daughters of former Samoan Prime Ministers, Matā’afa Mulinu’u II and Tofilau Eti Alasana respectively.

Although there are only few women represented in governments across the Pacific, there are plenty of strong Pacific women doing wonderful things, influencing and making their marks not only on the Pacific but throughout the world. We have strong Pacific women dominating and succeeding in all areas, education, sport, business, entertainment etc. Politics is not the only arena that measures one’s success, and in saying that success also applies to the many warrior women who raise families, who are mothers etc.

Well these are some thoughts as well as a brief history on influential women of the Pacific. I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Soifua.

source: newshub archive