Young Women of Tonga & the Heilala by Chesta Fa’otusia

We live in a changing world and along with it, young women are championing change in fields that were conventionally designed for, and by men. This means women are identifying what empowers them and starving systems that do not. I feel a lot of this change has not been celebrated in Tonga and as a nation proud in its traditions, we are yet to discover the new ways women find liberation. As a result, young women are shackled by a society that does not fully support their every endeavor. Women’s rights in Tonga, therefore, have a long way to go.

It is time we began to dismantle the outdated inclinations that continue to bind young women to standards that are no longer relevant to this day. Youth, and young women, are the future of Tonga – we must commit ourselves to advancing them to spaces beyond the confines of our expectations. The Miss Heilala pageant, as one of only a few arenas dominated by young women in Tonga, has brought anti-feminism to surface. Beauty will always be a contested subject for women, society has been committed to aligning their value to it. The pageant has served as a platform for young women to gather in Nuku’alofa to showcase their cultural talents, modesty and beauty. All the things praised of a Tongan woman. Unfortunately, the pageant has also showcased Tonga’s failure to properly invest in young women and inevitably, serve as an oppressive tool for a patriarchy unnatural to us.

This has proven true in recent times as the pageant has become increasingly known for its lack of organization, vision and mandate. Contestants have joined to learn, display and celebrate their culture only to be met with great disdain. All the while, malicious comments and violent behavior is upheld by those who view the spectacle from all corners of the world. Following this, the organizers have watched on and done nothing to resolve this conflict. Truthfully, they continue to exploit these young women’s desire to participate in our society as a pawn for their own cause. Why have they not been held accountable? It is true, competition at its core will leave some unhappy by its result but perhaps then we need to look at the lack of efforts made to heighten these young women on a platform meant to connect them, as a pattern. Have toxic mentalities about young women and femininity been encouraged by our pageant, or revealed? This sort of complacency, Tonga, will leave young women one-down in our society.

At the same time, young women in Tonga are afforded the experience of participating in revolutionary initiatives such as Girls Takeover Parliament. It has been praised for its innovation, and purpose to amplify the voices of young women on national issues that concern them in a parliament setting. A first for our nation’s young female ambassadors. Both events, demonstrate the beauty of young Tongan women and what they have to offer. However, they are not regarded in the same respect because people are divided about the position of young women in our society. This alone is harmful to their growth, and development as leaders and fully capable citizens of our nation.

With this in mind, it is worth asking ourselves whether in improving one space where women exist, are we empowering all young women or a certain few? Elevating women to positions in parliament, means uplifting young women in positions before and beyond that. This means that the message at home, in the classroom, at sports practice and the pageant stage alike should echo the same comfort; you are loved and valued for who you are. It is this freedom of choice that yields a prosperous future, and ensures our young women reach their full potential. So, perhaps it is time we starved the traditional ways of the Miss Heilala pageant. Remember, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. To move forward, we must first address the problems facing young women at present, otherwise we are shifting platforms while applying old mentalities. It does not work.

I cannot propose we abandon the pageant. Many have suggested that this would be the right thing to do, others have accepted its state and left it to be. Yet, little consideration has been given to the dedication from young contestants, their families and support systems in preparation for a show that is for all to enjoy. The choice is essentially theirs to make. Whatever the case, we need to empower them in doing so, and this can be done by prioritising education. Empowering young women through knowledge about the issues youth face and showing them what they can do to help, will not fail any one of us. This should be a requirement, and priority. It shows young women that you believe in their potential to contribute greatly to our betterment. Allow their voices to be heard. If you deny your responsibility to inspire this in young women, then you are admitting your reluctance to enable an equal and just society. It is my hope that young women of our future find themselves in the highest offices of decision-making in Tonga, but today we need to claim the role we all play in achieving this. Thus, we must do what we can to overturn expectations for young women that are detrimental, and work collaboratively to uplift them, in whatever it is they choose to pursue.

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