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Does my Gender Define Who I am as a Pacific Person?

Every culture has something to be ashamed of, but every culture also has the right to change, to challenge negative traditions, and create to new ones.  – Ralph Nader

Pacific culture is not exempt from shame. We have much to be proud of, but we also have our flaws. What worked 100 years ago may not work for us today. As a people, it’s our responsibility to continually revisit and reaxmine that. Thankfully, culture doesn’t have to define us. Instead, we have the power to create it, transform it and redefine it – with the hope that ultimately it will help us to redefine ourselves.

To begin doing that, we must start honest, open and meaningful talanoa. As most will agree, we are human first, Pacific second. If this is true, why do we allow gender roles to define us?

Over the years, Pacific culture has decided on the identity of men and women. But what happens when we don’t naturally fall between the guidelines of who Pacific culture says we are? Culture then becomes oppressive, and the onus is on us to change it.

Let’s talk about the expectations Pacific culture places on the Pacific man and the Pacific woman. What do we expect of them? How does this reflect in the way we treat them? Why do we have these expectations, and who says they cannot be challenged?

The Pacific man

Pacific men are now asked to change their attitude towards women. We ask them to be more sensitive, gentle and kind. But if we’re being honest, when was the last time we accepted a sensitive and vulnerable man? Pacific culture tells us we want our men to be strong – the providers and protectors. But what happens when a Pacific man fails to measure up?

What do we do when a Pacific man says he’d rather be the nurturer, the stay-at-home parent? Or that he’s in love with a man, and feels more comfortable wearing a dress?

What do we do when our Pacific men are too strong – too violent? How do we view men who are too protective – too controlling? How do we treat men who are in and out of correction facilities for committing these crimes?

Do we embrace, reassure and support him? Or do we shame him for his inability to live up to these expectations? Do we consider his childhood, his experiences, and his past traumas? Why are we so quick to judge and join the band of people who scream shame and condemnation?

“Unresolved trauma in (Pacific) men will remain a stigma if we do not give permission for them to express their vulnerability.” – Mariana Waqa

The opposing Pacific man is rarely accepted by his loved ones, let alone his community. Too often, he is rejected and he is isolated. He is criticised for pushing the boundaries of what culture and religion says he is. Rarely is the Pacific man taught to embrace vulnerability and deal with shame.

The Pacific woman

Pacific women are encouraged to find and use their voice. She is told to be strong, to raise awareness, and to stand up to men who use their power to suppress her. But again, if we’re being honest – how warmly is a strongly opinionated woman received in our Pacific community?

We want our women to be gentle, nurturing, and supportive. We’re all for her having a say, but what happens when a Pacific woman really begins to shake things up? What happens when she begins to challenge our thinking, and the way things have always been? What happens to a Pacific woman who is unable to bear children? Why do we ridicule and label these women? Why do we minimise their feminine power so men can be more comfortable in their masculinity, or so other women will feel better about silencing their own insecurities and inward cries of change?

The brave Pacific woman faces more than just rejection and isolation. She meets prejudice and looks him square in the eye. She swims against the tide to achieve change, and is constantly exposed to double standards and a fear of gender equality – from both men and women alike.

Change begins with us

Whether you agree or not, the reality is that we have serious gender issues in our culture – and it’s up to us to change it. As Pacific people there’s no reason why we can’t question what we believe and how we view one another. We can and should raise awareness, but just knowing of these issues is not enough.

We must stand as individuals and as a community and take responsibility of our views and expectations of the Pacific man and the Pacific woman. Because if we don’t, the only change we’ll ever see is in the alarming rise of statistics in gender based violence and oppression. Voices will be muffled and stories will be silenced. Our culture will suffer, and as a result, our people will suffer. But again, we can change that. And it all starts here, with a conversation. Conversation can change a culture, and culture can change a people. Let’s start talking about broadening acceptance, embracing vulnerability and most of all, welcoming change. Our Pacific culture needs it.

Photo credit: Rae Photography

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Tom and Charlie