There is always a degree of hesitation that I apply when writing about members of my family, perhaps it comes so naturally to ensure that objectivity is observed in my writing, but today however, International Womens Day, it is only fitting that I honour this woman, whose work, life and passion I know so well, that it is only fair to represent her in the only way I know, as a daughter.
She was bestowed the title of Va’asiliifiti at the age of 22 in Savaii, at the time it was rare for women to receive titles. But her grandmother, Savaliolefilemu insisted. She had the right to the title and so she would receive it. That act of equality by my great grandmother, whose respect for her granddaughter was founded on merit and not on gender, would dictate my mothers pathway for many many many years to come.
Since receiving her title in the village of Safua in Savaii, my mother has been the only constant female in the village council. Year after year after year she sat in the meetings, the only female in the council of men. She was and continues to be resented, ill-treated and demeaned by many in the Council. I used to be so afraid of saying this out loud, for fear of repercussions on my family, but today on International Womens Day worldwide, I choose not to be silent, I choose to speak up for the woman who paved my way. Some in the council refer to her as ‘Tina’ or mother and not by her title or reference to her placement in the cultural hierarchy. She was after all just a ‘woman.’
For the past 30 years this ‘woman’ fought to protect the Chiefly titles of our family in the Lands and Titles Court of Samoa from my village. These titles, like all titles that belong to any family in Samoa are jewels of our heritage and the natural inheritance of our children, they are not merchandise to give away. Three times my village banished her because she refused to let go of our family titles. I saw it ― men, three or four times her size and in large numbers stood in our house, on our land, demanding she let go of our family titles of the names of my ancestors, so they may give her back the privilege of re-entering the village she is rightfully a part of. Each time, she has refused, because according to her they are not hers to give.
I have sat with her in meetings as she makes her voice heard within the richness of our language, within the realms of cultural mythology and legends, and many many times she is given respect for her oratory skills, with many, not even taking her gender into account. So there was, still and will always be hope for equality in this culture.
I am honouring her this International Women’s Day, for that bravery and her strength, for her foresight in founding ― along with the Chiefs of Savaii ― the Fa’asao Savaii Society, the first indigenous conservation society of Samoa. I am honouring her today, for ensuring that I along with many young people in my village value and protect our environment. I am honouring her for establishing the first Hotel on the island of Savaii. I am honouring her for co-founding along with other amazing pioneers, the Samoa Umbrella for Non Government Organizations. I am honouring her today for not conforming, for her strength and determination and for persisting in the face of adversity, of traditional patriachal mindsets, for rising above it all.
So although Moana the Disney film is quite a beautiful story, awe inspiring, and quite riveting, the journey of the female Chief like my own mother is not smooth nor picturesque. It is not charming or glamorous. It is marred with heartache, injustice and cruelty. It is filled with entrenched hostile masculine hierarchy unjustly justified by culture. It is therefore a journey that is even more meaningful for all the strong women of Samoa who choose to pursue it, as they have to be strong, be amazing in all they do and persist throughout their lifetimes. It is these women, like my mother, like her friend Taimalelagi Fagamalama Tuatagaloa, one of the first female Archdecons of Samoa, like Papali’i Viopapa Ananndale, the first female Doctor and much like Mata’afa Fiame Naomi, the first female Minister of Cabinet in Samoa, that need to be honoured for paving the way for the future of Samoan women, for the future of indigenous women leaders.
Today, on International Womans Day, I honour Tuisafua Va’asiliifiti Saosili Leilua Tauo Moelagi Tiatia, my mother, a brave woman and a High Chief, I honour alongside her, the indigenous women leaders all over the world who continue to fight the good fight despite impediments.