it’s been a while since my last microwoman blog. 9 months to be exact…i did say this was slow feminist stewing, right? but i may have to revise that to slow feminist weaving.
earlier this month, the republic of the marshall islands elected its youngest president, casten nemra, aged 44. but just a couple of days ago, nemra’s presidency ended in a vote of no confidence, demonstrating that his meteoric ascendancy as a first time candidate had more to do with backstage maneuvers than his own leadership.
and then…the republic elected its first woman president, dr. hilda heine. this is a historic first for the whole pacific, too– never before has an independent pacific island country elected a woman head of government.
although new zealand has had two women prime ministers, jenny shipley (1997-1999) and helen clark (1999-2008), as a member of the oecd (organisation for economic cooperation and development, aka a first world nation), new zealand does not count as a pacific island country on certain indices.
of course, there have been women heads of state in the pacific islands, historically: queen pomare of tahiti (1827-1877), queen lili’uokalani of hawai’i (1891-1893), queen salote of tonga (1918-1965).
but in the postcolonial decolonized democratized pacific? it’s been a matter of embarrassment to many for some time that fewer women are represented in our region’s parliaments and legislative assemblies than in arab countries. the real embarrassment in my opinion is because the majority of our countries’ populations profess to be christian, and many of our people have inexplicably adopted a sense of moral superiority towards muslims (who they conflate erroneously with arabs), especially on gender issues, when in fact we collectively have failed to remove the misogynist motes from our own eyes. (for perspectives from some of the pacific islands’ more seasoned women politicians, check this site and hear some of my commentary in conversation with others in 2013 here.)
so what are we to make of dr. heine’s election?
as veteran journalist giff johnson has noted, although she has been a senior public servant and served as cabinet minister for education under the last government, dr. heine will have her work cut out for her. apart from the environmental and economic threats from climate change, the marshalls have a whole lot of other development issues calling out for attention and action. can we say ‘compact of free association’, nuclear reparations, the trans pacific partnership agreement, and those baffling flags of convenience?
like it or not, heine’s success or failure will impact all pacific islanders’ inclination to seek and/or accept women as national leaders. that’s a big burden to carry.
but what’s most important to remember is that electoral politics is not the only realm of leadership that matters. hawaiian scholar, activist and poet, haunani-kay trask once proposed that electoral politics is a negation of authentic indigenous hawaiian leadership. to rephrase trask optimistically, the more people feel empowered to take leadership positions outside of electoral politics, the better equipped a society is to keep all of its leaders accountable and its ecology and spirituality in balance. indeed, i would want to, like trask, celebrate those agitating and organizing outside of parliaments and legislatures as much, if not more than, the folks who get themselves elected.
which makes it all the more significant that heine comes into office on the heels of some impressive contributions to national life by other marshallese women, and she is the mother of arguably the most globally well-known of micronesian women activists and poets this century, kathy jetnil-kijiner.
does it matter that the first woman to be elected a head of government in the pacific islands is a micronesian?
given the incredible diversity of histories and cultures in micronesia, i am not sure we can or should want to attribute this landmark to anything quintessentially micronesian. what we can say is that sometimes big changes are easier to make in small countries. [go micro!]
i wish dr. heine the very best and much strength for her term in office. our pacific island countries need good leaders now more than ever. i don’t believe women are inherently better or less corruptible leaders than men. (i lived in england for a year under margaret thatcher…it was not good.)
but i guess what heine’s election has done is it has rolled out a mat — to use a very pacific metaphor. it is a mat for pacific people to have a conversation about how we support all our leaders to truly represent us once they get into office. her election has rolled out a mat for pacific people to imagine regional heads of government meetings where white women aren’t the only women who get to lead delegations (as when julia gillard represented australia and hillary clinton represented the u.s. in rarotonga 2012, and clark and shipley represented new zealand at regional meetings before them).
most clearly, heine’s election has rolled out a mat for pacific people to broaden our definitions and understandings of political participation, not just for women, but for youth, sexual minorities, the displaced, disaffected and all communities who get marginalized either by intent or accident.
the election of the marshall islands’ and the pacific islands’ first woman head of government in 2016 reminds us that in the pacific islands, the most meaningful of exchanges and deliberations take place on or in mats, and most mats of any social, cultural or political import are made by women. in the marshall islands there are particularly fine traditions of mat weaving that are also experiencing a revival. pacific women can claim back mastery over the size, the weave and the function of our mats (material and metaphorical) wherever, whenever we choose to make a difference. jeramman im komoltata.