micronesian first is first for pacific islands

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.

Hilda Heine
Dr. Hilda Heine. Photo credit: RMI Education Department

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.

Marshall Islands mat
Working Title/Artist: Mat Department: AAOA Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 10 Working Date: late 19th-early 20th century photography by mma, DP145516.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 10_13_09
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micronesian first is first for pacific islands

microwomen everywhere

i’ve just come back from a 48 hour academic writing retreat with some colleagues and students. before i unplugged and re-oriented myself towards long overdue and neglected projects, i was excited by some of the stuff that was coming through my social media feeds, which made me think that this might just be the year it rained microwomen!

the first micronesian item to come through my feed earlier this week was this interview with milañ loeak, a young woman from the marshall islands who was one of 30 activists from the pacific who this past october raised a significant amount of international awareness about climate change by paddling canoes out into a major australian port to blockade the huge ships that export coal from there. this was part of a campaign organized by the international NGO 350.org :

the next micronesian item to come through my feed was a notice about a documentary that had won a special prize from connect4climate, a group funded by the world bank and the italian ministry of environment. the film was made by victoria burns, a young woman of i-kiribati and british heritage living in england. you can read the story here. watch the film titled “tinau* (my mother)” here:

what immediately struck me about milañ, victoria and her mother, was the quiet gentleness of their voices. but there was also no mistaking their strength.

as a feminist i’m interested in all kinds of voices–not just the loud ones, or the eloquent ones. in her signature essay “situated knowledges”, donna haraway helped name this interest for me when she described feminism’s love of “the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood.” (1988:589) you can get a pdf of the article here.

while milañ never missed a beat in her interview, what was unusual was her pacing. this was not going to be one of those rapid fire angry activist interviews–and the interviewer has to be commended, too. he seemed at ease with the pace and tone that milañ was setting. it was slow and fluid, almost underwater-like.

the documentary by victoria burns, however, really captured for me some of the issues of “interpretation, translation, stuttering and the partly understood” that haraway believes feminism loves. and victoria explored these issues with such tenderness and self-reflexivity. i wept. i wept for victoria’s mother. i wept for kiribati. i wept for climate change. i wept for the stuttering, for the misunderstanding. at first the contrast between victoria’s polished english accent and her mother’s halting cobbling together of kiribati and english is painfully poignant. but finally i wept at the amazing possibilities of interpretation and translation that victoria had on the tip of her own tongue. ko rangi ni bati, neiko! e rarabwa te tamnei ae ko raweia!

victoria’s and milañ’s work, of course, remind me of the work of their respective compatriots pelenise alofa pilitati (from kiribati) and kathy jet nil-kijiner (from the marshall islands), both of whom i have blogged about: giving thanks for microwomen  and giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

but wouldn’t you know? there are even more microwomen out there! check out “the little island that could”, which is a blog i’ve started following by a young woman of i-kiribati and australian heritage named marita.

so you see why i was excited before going on my retreat on monday. i could not wait to come back, plug in and write up this blog. but when i returned, the next micronesian item that came through my feed took the shine off my microwomen euphoria: on november 3 of this year, the u.s. supreme court ruled that the state of hawai`i is not required to provide medical benefits to citizens of the federated states of micronesia, palau or the marshall islands: story here.

while it may seem like global media is paying more attention and giving a bit of air time to micronesians speaking up about climate change lately…there are some issues for micronesians, particularly in the u.s., that the media have either been part of the problem on or simply have not helped with. my microbruddah, joakim peter, has put a massive effort into the campaign for access to medical benefits for micronesians in hawai`i. and a polynesian ally, kat lobendahn has been instrumental in mobilizing protests and helping to facilitate community discussion around derogatory comments about micronesians in the hawai`i media, and the ongoing racism faced by micronesians in hawai`i. check out some of the stories here.

in more poetic forms of activism, kathy jetnil-kijiner and guam-based pohnpeian writer emelihter kihleng have addressed some of the discrimination and stigma micronesians have been facing in hawai`i. check out emelihter’s poem “the micronesian question” here.

and kathy’s poem “lessons from hawai`i” here:

i use both these poems in my teaching at university in aotearoa new zealand. but having lived outside of the u.s. for close to 20 years now, i’m still learning about the more recent struggles of micronesian migrant communities over there.

so, i started out wanting to celebrate “microwomen everywhere”, and ended up being rudely reminded that for some, seeing “micronesians everywhere” may not be something to celebrate. but as we like to say down under: stuff ’em.

go micro! there’s plenty more to come!

*that’s pronounced see-now, just as kiribati is pronounced kiri-bassey or kiri-bass (as in the fish, not the instrument)…heavy sigh.

microwomen everywhere

when life’s got you too busy to blog, reblog!

it’s been another busy week. my backlog of uncompleted items on ‘to do’ lists is almost paralyzing. i say *almost* because i’m determined to get the better of them.

as a product of my generation, in the midst of a multitude of competing work and family pressures, i have found it difficult to resist breaking out into the late 1980s anthem by karyn white, ‘i’m not your superwoman.’ but…what a disappointment that song is. i’m so going to blog about its unfulfilled feminist potential one day. maybe i’ll rewrite the lyrics to better describe the actual pressures on me to be a superwoman. after i’ve conquered this backlog, of course.

when i want feminist inspiration, i know better now than to go to american soda pop factories. this past week, i visited “lapkat mixes”, a blog by melbourne-based dj lisa greenaway which features a breathtaking selection of polyglot/multilingual music and conscious poetry from around the world. my pick for the week is entitled “tell our daughters: warrior poets mix”. you can also find it here on mixcloud. check it out!

p.s. i guess this is technically not a ‘reblog’, huh? i’m still figuring the mechanics of the blogosphere out. add that to the ‘to do’ list. (sigh)

lapkat tell our daughters

when life’s got you too busy to blog, reblog!

from little things, big things grow

paul kelly and kev carmody’s, ‘from little things, big things grow’ chronicles the struggle of the gurindji people in the northern territory of australia. a māori friend of mine introduced this song to me after she spent some time on a writer’s residency in australia.

the ancestors of australian aboriginals settled the continent tens of thousands of years before the ancestors of most pacific islanders arrived in the region, and although there have been some lamentable conflicts between aboriginals and pacific migrants to australia in contemporary times, there have also been many occasions when pacific islanders and aboriginal australians have joined in solidarity–most notably in the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s-1990s. the initial protest that this song commemorates was over the gurindji’s rights as workers. this led to an 8-year labour strike and eventually expanded to a land rights movement led by a man named vincent lingiari. the gurindji’s resolute stand against the exploitation of their labour and the alienation of their lands was finally addressed by legislation awarding indigenous australians in the northern territory title to their traditional lands.

admittedly, the version of the history recorded in this song is very male-oriented. as a feminist, i am of course curious about what the gurindji women’s experiences might have been during this time, and how the legislation may have affected their subsequent well-being, especially in relation to mining and other developments on their lands. i hope to be able to provide a follow-up to this in a future blog. but my awareness of the partial nature of this version of history doesn’t stop me from enjoying the song, and taking inspiration from the gurindji victories of 1975 and 1976.

from little things, big things grow

up, up and away!

as a child, i always wanted to be a superhero. bionic woman. wonder woman. a whole raft of comic book ‘heroines’. what little girl in the 1970s exposed to american popular culture failed to have her imagination captured by these icons? i spent a lot of time as a child growing up in fiji dreaming up ways that i could invent rocket-powered boots or web-spinning wristlets so that i could fight local, global and interplanetary crime. (sigh) i eventually grew up to be an academic. a feminist academic of course. a feminist academic from the pacific islands…a region located in the world’s largest ocean, but with some of the world’s smallest nation-states and populations.

there are not many pop cultural renditions of superheroes from this part of the world. (apart from the x-men’s samoan character mondo, my part-samoan husband reminds me.) but we’ve actually produced our fair share of local and indigenous heroes, necessitated in large part by the onslaughts of colonialism and neo-liberal economics we’ve experienced in the past and continue to experience in the present. now that i’m in my late 40s, though, i’m learning to be skeptical of hero discourse…mainly because i have seen too often how it’s been used to sacrifice the brave, and excuse the lethargic, lazy and cowardly from taking positive action. so meet my alter-ego, “microwoman”. she’s no superhero. she’s not even trying to be a hero. she’s just going to keep doing the best she can to make small changes, small interventions…and as they say, “from little things, big things grow.”

up, up and away!