The handle ‘feminism’ has been both criticised as distracting and divisive in decolonization work and embraced as essential to it.
In February, I facilitated a conference session that explored ‘decolonial feminisms in Oceania’ at the Association of Social Anthropology in Oceania annual conference, this year held in Kona, Hawai’i. My co-facilitators were Dr Jenny Munro, an anthropologist at the University of Queensland, and Ms Elvira Rumkabu, an international relations academic at the University of Cenderawasih in West Papua. The session was inspired by desire to look more deeply into the reasons why the term feminism has historically held such deeply hegemonic connotations that is has triggered “allergic” responses in Oceania (Souder-Jaffery in Griffen 2016) and to see whether it could be or should be salvaged. It has been criticised as distracting and divisive in decolonisation work – “Given our nationalist context, feminism appeared as just another haole intrusion into a besieged Hawaiian world. Any exclusive focus on women neglected the historical oppression of all Hawaiians and the large force field of imperialism” (Trask 1996, 909), and as blind to its (often) white, middle-class, western positionality (Molisa in Tusitala Marsh 1999, 666). Feminism has also been denounced as non-customary by some Pacific men who have manipulated definitions of custom to limit women’s exercise of power (Otto 1997, 44; Zimmer-Tamakoshi 1995, 122, Jolly 2016, 359). It is perhaps because of these reactions that, as Teresia Teaiwa has pointed out, Pacific feminist scholarship has been “slow to gather momentum” (quoted in Naepi 2016, n.p.). Yet, despite misgivings about the “western monopoly” over feminist discourse (Tutsitala Marsh 1999, 667), perhaps in response to the myriad perduring injustices facing women in the Pacific – violence, poverty, and exclusion from leadership to name but a few—Pacific scholars have persisted in seeking to identify the tenets of a “female philosophy of liberation” (Souder-Jaffrey in Griffen 2016).
More than 20 years ago, Selina Tusitala Marsh (1999, 666) questioned whether feminism can be productively transplanted to the Pacific? Or whether indeed the “concept of feminism [has] always existed in the Pacific” (Tusitala Marsh 1999, 666)? And even what a “rejection of feminism as ‘Western’, to a reconceptualisation of locally relevant and culturally resonant feminism” might look like in the Pacific (Tusitala Marsh 1999, 666). Reflecting on whether there is space within the broad handle of ‘feminism’ for Indigenous Fijian perspectives, author Sereana Naepi concluded “Feminism in its current form does not speak to my Aunties, so in many ways they are right; feminism does not come into it because until feminisms make space for more ontologies and ways of knowing, they really will not be part of the Fijian conversation” (2016). Naepi’s conclusion demonstrates that Tusitala Marsh’s questions are still relevant today. Two decades on, we might also ask if, and in what ways, access to social media and digital networking has contributed to the creation and articulation of “vernacularised” (Merry 2006; Monson 2013) feminisms in the Pacific? And whether increased solidarity of action across the Pacific in response to climate change as well as activism against gendered violence has contributed to a reconsideration of these issues within Indigenous feminist frameworks? Have new questions around feminist responses to ongoing colonisation in Kanaky and West Papua, accelerated resource exploitation, and renewed Black and Indigenous identity struggles led to novel ways of thinking about feminism in the Pacific?
Attendees to our session who came to discuss the issues raised above numbered 19 in total. The session commenced with a discussion about varying assumptions across the Pacific concerning the central tenets of feminism. We debated whether feminism was a useful gloss for the types of politics, motivations, criticisms, actions and networks many of us in the session were interested in focusing on and we proposed potential alternative terms including women’s empowerment and women’s rights. The wide-ranging conversation that followed canvassed differences in approaches to and experiences of feminist activism among urban and rural women in the Pacific and among women living ‘at home’ and women in diaspora; the political rhetoric of women’s empowerment at the government level of Pacific countries versus the reality ‘on the ground’; whether and how discourses and the implementation of women’s rights and human rights intersect; whether there has been or should be an analytical shift in thinking about rights ‘translation’ to rights ‘transnationalism’ in Oceania; gender based violence and responses; women’s political representation in Oceania; the relationship between women’s empowerment and age; feminism and class; the regional character of feminism(s); and links between feminism, coloniality and modernity. As an overarching conceptual framing, it was proposed that future contributions in a follow up session could be united by an intersectional approach to thinking about women’s empowerment work in Oceania, from grassroots mobilisation to the role of the state in reform efforts. Participants referenced women’s experiences and feminist networks and movements in Papua New Guinea, West Papua, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, Hawaii, and the Netherlands.
Following the session, we compiled a substantial list of references regarding Indigenous feminisms, decolonial feminisms, and feminisms in the Pacific which I am happy to share with anyone who may be interested.