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Indigenous rights and women's rights in the Samoan Bahá'í community

by Maureen Sier

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 9
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1999
The Pacific islands of Samoa are governed by an indigenous system where the key decision-makers are primarily men. Bahá'í communities in Samoa are influenced by this system and, as a result, this inhibits female participation in Bahá'í administration. This paper outlines how the Samoan chiefly system operates and then demonstrates its links to the process of Bahá'í elections at a national level. The following analysis relates to the wider question of whether Bahá'ís can respect traditional Samoan culture without undermining the fundamental Bahá'í principle of equality of men and women.

Upolu and Savaii are the main islands of Samoa, known until recently as Western Samoa, and have been independently governed since 1962. The mainstays of the Samoan way of life are agriculture and fishing, remittances from family members living abroad, tourism and light industry. Politically, Samoa has maintained stability since independence. The continuation of a system of chiefly government at the village and national level is a contributing factor in this stability.

The Samoan islands are predominantly made up of villages housing between 200 and 500 people. Samoa's urban capital, Apia, on Upolu, has around 35,000 residents. The other 125,000 live in rural villages on both Upolu and Savaii. Within each village or nu'u people live in extended families known as aiga. Extended families vary in size but are much larger than the typical western nuclear family. Each extended family appoints a person as their chief; this chief is called a matai,[1] and is usually the family chief for life. Matai titles are hierarchical in that some titles hold more prestige than others. Some titles have only local significance; others confer powers over very large districts and even over whole islands.

The matai is charged with general responsibility for the care of the family, allocation of resources, is custodian of the family land and represents the family on the village council of chiefs known as the fono. The fono is by tradition sole executive and judicial authority in each village. Matai are also the only people eligible to stand in national elections, ensuring that national government in Samoa is made up entirely of matai. Until 1990 only matai were eligible to vote and although now there is universal suffrage for all men and women aged twenty-one and over it is still the case that only matai may stand for election.

The matai system is fairly democratic as a matai is the elected representative of his family and will in theory have their best interests at heart when consulting at a village fono meeting or when standing for national election. However when one realizes that around 94% of all matai are male, the system does not appear to be democratic in relation to women's involvement in local or national government. Samoan Bahá'ís are part of their cultural milieu and, as such, Samoan Bahá'í families will appoint a matai as their family head and as their family representative on the village fono: not to do so would isolate Bahá'í families from village affairs. In fact without a matai they would have no one to represent their land claims or to protect their interests at a local or national level. In the history of Bahá'í persecution in villages, for example, it is often the Bahá'í matai who have successfully interceded and protected their fellow village Bahá'ís.

The decision making and governing body of a Bahá'í community at a national level is the national spiritual assembly. This institution is elected yearly by delegates who are themselves elected representatives of local Bahá'í communities. Annual local conventions are held, where the Bahá'ís of three or four villages or urban districts (the number varies depending on the size of Bahá'í community) come together with the primary purpose of voting for their delegate or delegates. These go forward and vote for the national spiritual assembly at a national convention. In 1999, there were 28 local conventions held for 49 communities in Samoa and 38 delegates were elected.

This process is theoretically democratic in nature as Bahá'ís the world over vote for national delegates from amongst the "most capable" men and women in their communities. In Samoa traditionally the 'most capable' people are perceived to be matai and therefore it is quite natural for the assembled Bahá'í communities to vote for the matai in their locality. As very few women are matai in the Samoan cultural context this spills over to the Bahá'í context and so in 1999 the majority of delegates were male matai. Only seven of the 38 delegates were women, four of these were actually matai and two were non-Samoan prominent women. The Samoan island of Savaii sent twenty-three delegates to the national convention, again the majority being matai and all were male. The vast majority of Samoan delegates therefore were, without doubt, matai and following the Samoan custom they were predominantly male. Subsequently the national spiritual assembly of Samoa for 1999 was an all male, predominantly matai assembly. Four members of the national assembly in fact hold prestigious matai titles.

Although this paper is primarily concerned with female involvement in national Bahá'í elections and institutions in Samoa, it is important to note that the electing of matai for both the position of delegate and national representative also precludes young talented non-matai men from being fully involved in national Bahá'í administration.

Women in Samoa are reasonably well represented on the local Bahá'í institution, the local spiritual assembly. There are 49 local spiritual assemblies in Samoa and between 30 and 40% of the people serving on the assemblies are women. On the surface the 40% female involvement is very encouraging and is certainly a much higher ratio than the average 6% female representation on the Samoan village fono. However, this situation may only be temporary. At present in most Samoan villages where Bahá'ís reside there will be an average of two to three extended Bahá'í families. When it comes to voting for a nine-member local spiritual assembly, at present, there will only be the potential for two to three matai to be voted for, leaving the other six members to be a mix of women and untitled men. In the future should Bahá'í communities grow to say fifteen extended families at a village level the potential is there for fifteen matai to be present and the further potential for nine of these to be voted for to serve on the local spiritual assembly. If this should transpire then at both a local and national level the decision making, governing bodies of the Samoan Bahá'í community may be predominantly matai and male at both the national and local level.

The situation is in some ways exacerbated by the very nature of Bahá'í elections where any form of electioneering is forbidden. Bahá'ís simply cannot make suggestions that certain women would make good delegates, local assembly members or national assembly members as this would violate the spiritual principle of allowing people to vote unhampered by any overt or covert pressure to vote for certain individuals. However, if the predominant Samoan paradigm of voting for matai is uncritically accepted then the situation in the Samoan Bahá'í communities will not reflect the Bahá'í principal of equality of men and women and this would be a tragedy for future generations of Samoan Bahá'ís. A male bias (even if it reflects current cultural practices) clearly is in contradiction to the fundamental principle of equality of men and women.

A Bahá'í paper presented in 1995 to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Equality, Development and Peace states that:

The principle of equality has profound implications for the definition of the roles of women and men. It impinges on all aspects of human relations and is an integral element in domestic, economic, and community life. The application of this principle must necessarily entail a change in many traditional habits and practices. It rejects rigid role delineation, patterns of domination and arbitrary decision-making; calls for women to be welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour and allows for the evolution of the roles of men and women.

The development of women is considered vital to the full development of men and is seen as a prerequisite to peace. Hence, the members of the Bahá'í community, male and female alike, and its democratically elected administrative councils share a strong commitment to the practice of the principle of equality in their personal lives, in their families, and in all aspects of social and civic life.[2]

Within Bahá'í communities in Samoa women have influence in most aspects of Bahá'í community life, from services at the Samoan Bahá'í temple, to consultation in the regular community gatherings. Women are also represented on all committees within the Bahá'í community, such as the national media committee, the national children's committee, the national institute board and the national teaching committee. However final decisions on national Bahá'í matters are made by the national spiritual assembly and women are under-represented on this institution.

Effort is being made by Bahá'í counsellors and auxiliary board members operating in Samoa to encourage women in Bahá'í administrative elections.[3] The Bahá'í counsellors for the Pacific region show an awareness of the need for gender balance in Bahá'í administration in Samoa. This institution within Bahá'í communities may prove to be the main catalyst of change. Visiting counsellors suggested that their influence through "advice and encouragement" have the potential to alter the gender balance. They stated that they are making a conscious effort to appoint more female auxiliary board members and to encourage them in turn to appoint more female "assistants." This may have the effect of awakening an awareness within Bahá'í communities of the potential and capacity of the non-matai in their midst. They also hold workshops, seminars and discussion groups on the Bahá'í principle of equality of men and women and they are in constant liaison with the national spiritual assembly of Samoa.

During my fieldwork in Samoa a focus group was organized to critique an earlier version of this paper. Although the focus group had only nine participants, these participants were from diverse backgrounds, and all were either Samoan or had long term academic interests in Samoan culture. During the discussion that followed presentation of the paper some of the Samoan women spoke in defence of the role of women in Samoan society claiming that although men make the decisions women often influence the decisions of men. One of the participants stated that Samoans often describe men and women's roles in Samoa in terms of a fish. The men are the head of the fish and make the final decisions but the women are the tail of the fish and often influence the direction the fish should take. A Samoan national spiritual assembly member captured the Bahá'í response to the fish analogy when he stated that men and women should be present in both the head and the tail of the fish. They should not operate within separate spheres of influence but should learn to swim together.

It is apparent from statistics gathered by the international Bahá'í community that progress is being made in other communities around the world in relation to female participation in Bahá'í administration. The most recent survey (1993-1994) of the status of women in the Bahá'í community internationally found that women make up 30% of the membership of national spiritual assemblies, and 40% of the membership of local spiritual assemblies. Moreover 47% per cent of those appointed to inspire and advise the community (auxiliary boards) at the sub-national and regional level are women.[4]

In the Samoan context although women are well represented on local assemblies and on the appointed institutions of the Bahá'í community, in the process of election for the national spiritual assembly, because of the matai bias, they are not.

In Samoa it is not only local and national government structures that favour male decision making but also religious influence, including, as has been shown, the Bahá'í Faith. One of the interesting features of the Samoan Bahá'í paradigm is the ability of the matai social structure to influence a new structure. In theory there is the possibility for full female involvement in Bahá'í administration at both a local and national level but because of the power of the faa matai [??this phrase needs to be defined], to date this has not occurred. This demonstrates that the Bahá'í Faith in Samoa is integrated with the local culture – however, this integration with the local culture may in fact be detrimental to the full participation of women in the Bahá'í election process.

It is quite likely that the Samoan Bahá'í community is not unique in operating within a traditional structure of government and that other cultures also operate within highly gendered structures. It is therefore critical that a start is made to explore how Bahá'ís can support traditional culture while simultaneously promoting full equality of men and women.

The Bahá'í Faith upholds the right of indigenous[5] peoples to "develop and take pride in their own identity, culture and language." However, the Universal House of Justice only supports the view that the "cultural traditions of the people should be observed within Bahá'í communities as long as they are not contrary to the teachings."[6]

The Bahá'í and the UN definition of indigenous communities is "peoples and nations which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop, and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems."

This definition of indigenous people, however, inadequately describes the situation in Samoa, where the indigenous population is in the majority, and has maintained its own "cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems," despite being colonised prior to independence in 1962. From a Bahá'í perspective, no culture is static and the Bahá'í Faith promotes the ideal of culture evolving towards ever more appropriate forms of governance. The writings of the Bahá'í Faith are clear on the encouragement of indigenous minorities within Bahá'í communities. However, guidance is not so clear when the indigenous population is in the majority and still practice their traditional way of life. This paper has shown that the traditional matai system of government in Samoa works against women participating equally in national Bahá'í elections.


End Notes
  1. Matai titles are of two kinds, Ali'i and Tulafale. Titles that are linked to aristocratic lineage and can trace their origin back to the Samoan creator God [Tagaloa-lagi] are known as Ali'i. They are viewed as sacred. Matai with Tulafale titles render service and oratory skills on behalf of their Ali'i and are often referred to, by westerners, as "talking chiefs".
  2. Janet Khan cited in The greatness that might by theirs (New York: Bahá'í International Community, 1995) 3.
  3. These Counsellors and Auxiliary Board Members include both men and women and are appointed to encourage development within Bahá'í communities. There are eleven counsellors appointed for Australasia, six men and five women. These counsellors appoint Auxiliary Board Members within their jurisdiction, who work at a national level, and they in turn appoint assistants to work at a local level. In Samoa Auxiliary Board Members and their assistants are an even ratio of male and female. They are outside of the matai structure as they are appointed rather than elected.
  4. Greatness 82.
  5. The Bahá'í definition of indigenous peoples is in line with the UN Economic and Social Councils.
  6. Universal House of Justice, letters dated July 1995 and August 1977 to individual believers
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