Where To From Here? (Young Women of Tonga & the Heilala) Part II by Chesta Fa’otusia

Tonga has been characterised as one of the most hierarchical, centralised, and highly stratified societies in Polynesia. When Taufa’ahau (Tupou I) preserved Tongan sovereignty in the face of colonial predators by the adoption of European institutions, certain hierarchical principles failed to find a place in the Constitution of 1875. Among the principles rejected were those particularly concerned with the “potency” of high-ranking women and certain concomitants of these ideas. It is this passage of our past that can help us better understand the evolving nature of our people and young women at present. Tonga is in a critical era for change, and youth need to be recognised as engineers of that change. As such, we as a nation need to identify what aspects of our society have earned continuity, and what demands change. Due to its nature and recent upheaval, we cannot avoid discussing the Miss Heilala pageant. It has shown itself as a vessel for mentalities we should no longer distil. The pageant has brought to light some of our more pressing societal issues, which can only convince us that there is more work to be done if we are to achieve an equal and just society.

We cannot concern ourselves with correcting the conduct of individuals because the shock factor of ‘Heilala drama’ will make the news only until the next hot topic, that is the nature of human behaviour and the media. It is crucial to forgive, young people are prone to make mistakes, we all are. Looking to the future, we must be more concerned with what is important for youth and this means addressing the systematic disadvantages young people face and what we can all do to turn the mechanisms which enable this, inside out. This will enable youth to manifest positive outcomes for our communities, and themselves. It is timely to look beyond the Heilala pageant, as previously, we have viewed issues at surface level without getting to the root of them. This mindset should no longer be encouraged. The only way we can make sustainable reform for the greater good of Tonga is to relentlessly resolve negative forces together, long after a Heilala finale comes to a close. Tonga may be hierarchical, but we are a people communal in spirit, it is how we meet one another on an equal level.

Since the Heilala pageant finale on Friday, July 5th the online community has been in chaos over the controversial events that unfolded, and rightfully so. The public has expressed disgust, humiliation and embarrassment, with New Zealand news media featuring the event. These headlines on the Heilala pageant covered racism, cyber-bullying, calls for resignation of officials and speech disruptions. However, if we were to take a step back, it is evident we witnessed not only the break-down of a pageant, but the resurfacing of issues that we had neglected for some time within our society; sexism, oppression of women, the favour of eurocentric beauty, colourism, body-shaming, bullying, abuse of power and essentially, division between our nation and children of the diaspora. When a young educated woman who was raised in New Zealand, stands up in front of a crowd of Tongan people to address ill-treatment, we must not ignore how this event might possibly reflect the fabric of our society. Whether we can agree about it being positive or otherwise, it’s a significant opportunity to talk amongst ourselves as a people. This sentiment is not designed to subtract from the personal adversity of any young woman but, perhaps, Ms Funganitao’s display of personal justice is another chance for our social justice. Allegations of misconduct within the Heilala pageant needed to be unravelled at an earlier time, yet, many have chosen to let it continue. We must now hold all parties accountable and move forward.

As a start, it is necessary that a formal apology is made to Ms Mercy Kariha. Discrimination and racism is unwelcome and should be dealt with as such because no woman, or man, should be dehumanized for the colour of their skin. Going forth, we must acknowledge our problematic favour of eurocentric features and colourism, which since the day of colonial influence in the Pacific has shaped our ideals of beauty. We have then asked our young women to be something they are not. This is not a new discovery and evidently, there has been a gap between feminist dialogues and the people of Tonga.  The representation of beauty and femininity is ever-changing because young Pacific women have decided they will not settle for anything less than being respected, supported and accepted for who they are, beyond the exterior. Young women who lead in the beauty industry are creating a lane to show our young women of Tongan and Pasifika descent that we can ascend beyond the confines of societal apprehension. We are not short of role models, we are short on creating inclusive environments within Tonga that adopt healthy ideals. If we are to truly appreciate the emancipation of toxic standards for women, we must be more willing to understand one another. Thus, it is clear the Miss Heilala has shown a present divide between our nation, and children of the diaspora.

It is a critical time for children of the diaspora. Tongan youth, and all Pasifika, are attempting to regain and maintain their cultural identities away from the shores of their ancestors. Additionally, with the growing population of Pacific migrant children living in Western societies, culture is being explored fluidly. So, when young people from abroad join Tongan society, they experience what is called ‘culture shock’: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Perhaps, for some time now, we have neglected to truly consider how much our culture and attitudes will clash with our diasporic youth. Thus, when young women join the national pageant, it becomes evident that we have not properly prepared ourselves for their disorientation and how we might react. Of course, the Ministry of Tourism has keenly welcomed young women from abroad to join the Heilala festivities in hopes of heightening their industry. These young women bring with them intentions of speaking on issues with an understanding of topics and solutions that has not been accredited in our culture. For instance, when a young woman stands before a crowd ‘speaking her truth’, it will be viewed by some as talahu’i (disrespecting elders), ikai angaa fakatokilalo (lacking humility) ikai faka’apa’apa (lacking respect). Yet, in Western society it is praised for being inspirational, empowering and brave. We must all understand these two different realms if we are to secure a future where young people of diverse thinking can live harmoniously, while advancing Tonga economically, socially, politically and culturally.

As established, there have been pleas in the past for a review of the Heilala committee. It would be feasible, after all considerations, to talk about sexim in this case. In my opinion, it is one of the most unfortunate reveals by the Heilala. I had previously discussed this point in Part I of ‘Young Women of Tonga & the Heilala’, our Heilala has been used as an oppressive tool against young women. For the purposes of this discussion, it is viable to make some interpretations. When the MMT lost against Australia during the 2017 World Cup, we rallied against a referee we believed made the wrong call. Circulating petitions and rebutting racist notions from outsiders, we were adamant our men deserved better. Following this, we were praised on world news outlets for being proud and unified as a people. All the while, when Heilala contestants are not ‘beautiful’ or ‘smart’ enough for our entertainment, we condemn them and threaten their safety. We pit them against one another online, and isolate young women we think are undeserving. This is no longer about these two events and their differences, it is about the habits we need to shatter. Do we not place spaces dominated by women on the same pedestal we do men? Admittedly, it may be a speculative analysis but it is highly apparent that we can do much when we agree an injustice has occurred. Yet, most Heilala seasons people are hasty to take to their online platforms, sharing negative opinions, dividing our young women. Meanwhile, perpetrators remain in their influential positions. There is no use in pointing fingers. We need to reclaim our power to protect all young people, whether man or woman.

Nonetheless, Tonga has great potential for good. Being conscious, and sometimes critical of our actions, will only help us progress. What has occurred during the recent Heilala week is not a true reflection of who we are as a people, our nation and our future. We have issues, as do all societies, some of these shortcomings we share with the rest of the world. Tonga will not be defined by the demerits of one, but by the continuous resilience of many. We do not want to disregard the autonomy of certain individuals over the decisions they make however, we must all stand up and do our part, to make Tonga and Tongans alike better. Our Tongan values, traditions and practices have for a long time ensured we lived peacefully. Granted, while some of our practices have endured the changing times, others have not translated well. It is imperative that we grasp this, and be unafraid of change. When Tupou I offered Tonga to God, one of his greatest visions for our people was education and the acquisition of knowledge. Education allows us to talanoa (discuss) in an informative and empathetic manner, while embracing our unique culture as our foundation. We are able to prosper by understanding one another and our different experiences, this is the true enlightenment of our people. So, we have to acknowledge our flaws, and move forward. This is how we create a healthy society for young people to grow, and lead. As for young women, patriarchy may be unnatural to us, but if we want justice we must create it together. Understand that the empowered young Tongan woman, acts with a heart of service for her people. Ko e ‘otua mo Tonga ko hoku Tofi’a. No matter where we are in the world, we are Tonga, and we do not leave our people behind. This is the nature of mehikitanga and fahu, roles that may only have jurisdiction within their respective families but nonetheless, depicts the abilities of a Tongan woman to speak life into her circle. Women empowerment does not mean we can all be friends, but rather that we have the capacity to still celebrate one another, while resolving conflict with virtue. I stand by my hope for young Tongan women to occupy decision-making spaces, but as with every other sphere in our culture, we achieve it with collectivity, agility and honor.

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