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
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

giving thanks for microwomen

last week was pretty big for microwomen. one microwoman in particular got to lead a four hundred thousand-strong people’s climate march in new york city and address world leaders at the united nations climate summit. kathy jetnil-kijiner is a 26 year-old poet, activist and educator from the marshall islands, and a master’s graduate of the center for pacific islands studies at the university of hawai’i. selected from over 500 nominees to represent civil society, kathy’s speech at the u.n. garnered the uncommon honor in that forum of a standing ovation. kathy’s message acknowledged the ravages of climate change in islands across the pacific, while asserting a resolute optimism and faith in world leaders’ ability to make the policy and practical changes necessary to stem the rising tides. kathy was breathtaking in her confidence, her poise, even her fragility. if you haven’t yet, you have to see it for yourself:

watching kathy speak and perform poetry at the un, i couldn’t help but recall another occasion when a woman of the marshall islands compelled a global audience to listen. in 1983, darlene keju, addressed the world council of churches conference in vancouver on her country’s post-world war two experiences of nuclear and missile testing. in the youtube clip below, darlene’s speech is prefaced with an introduction by a samoan anglican bishop named jabez bryce, who invokes the poetry of flower and shell garlands or lei, followed by a group presentation of an anti-nuclear message from the people of the pacific.

darlene died thirteen years after she gave this speech at the wcc. in the face of the kind of desiccating colonialism that is very particular to the united states, she inspired marshall islanders, micronesians, pacific islanders, and citizens of the world to see through the “american dream”…and “dream good dreams again,” as the late maori poet hone tuwhare would say. last year, darlene’s husband published a biography detailing her extraordinary life, titled don’t ever whisper: darlene keju, pacific health pioneer, champion for nuclear survivors. kathy jetnil-kijiner was one of the first to review the book. you can read her review here.

two micronesian women. one took on nuclear colonialism. one is taking on environmental… [what do you call this insanity?]…imperialism? big stuff. but not too big for women from small islands used to living–and thriving–in the world’s largest ocean.


postscript: although the nuclear testing that darlene testified about before the wcc has ceased, depressingly, the missile testing she also discussed continues to this day. in fact, on the same day that kathy gave her speech at the un, the us air force launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from vandenburg air force base in california aimed at kwajalein in the marshall islands. our struggle is complex. and it continues.

giving thanks for microwomen