Female leaders are more than what they look like and what they wear. by S. Filiahekava

While there is progress being made and we are seeing more Pacific women hold space as leaders, female leadership in the Pacific is still too often trivialized. Women who are taking the lead are repeatedly seen as an object or product up for judgement and criticism but on factors that do not take into account their work, qualifications or skills. Comparatively, their male counterparts are more so judged on their actions and decisions that are relevant to their work. 

Last week on a post that was made to celebrate and acknowledge the successful work of young Tongan leaders, The Founder of Tonga Youth Leaders and the Pacific Regional Representative to the Commonwealth Youth Council, Ms. Elizabeth Kite was instead the focus, as she was criticized for her attire of choice at a regional meeting she attended on the second week of October, in Fiji. A female, online critic, from outside of the youth development and leadership space, inserted her opinion via Facebook to share that she was not happy with Elizabeth’s choice of non-traditional Tongan attire, which attracted other online contributions.  

Elizabeth responded to the lady’s comments “I was generously invited to the conference under my hat as the Pacific’s Representative to the Commonwealth Youth Council as well as for my organisation. As such it is my duty to represent all Pacific nations and not just the one that I call home. That would be disrespectful. I do believe that this attack has only been launched because I am a young female. Many official and national leaders who have represented just Tonga, have worn non traditional attire, and they have never been judged as I have been.” says Elizabeth Kite. 

As the Pacific Regional Representative Elizabeth represents Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinnea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu. 

In New York, on 26th September 2019, King Tupou VI, of Tonga, represented his Kingdom and addressed the general debate of the 74th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. 

On 15th August 2019, the late Prime Minister of Tonga, Hon. Akilisi Pohiva represented Tonga at the Leaders Retreat at the Pacific Islands Forum in Funati, Tuvalu. 

On December 2018, The first Pacific Parliamentary Delegation were invited by the Speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, Rt Hon Trevor Mallard. Representing Tonga, was Tonga’s Speaker of the House, Lord Fakafanua and his delegation including the Minister of MEIDECC – Hon Poasi Tei, and Ha’apai 12 MP – Mo’ale Finau. 

These are three examples of official representatives of Tonga, The Head of our Country, and from Government and Parliament representing the nation in non traditional Tongan attire. This does not include the many times of other leaders from fields outside of Government and Parliament, also representing Tonga, in non traditional Tongan attire.

On the 8th October 2019, Elizabeth represented the Pacific Commonwealth Nations under her role, and the Non-Government Organisation she founded, Tonga Youth Leaders, at a Youth Conference that took place in Fiji. Doing so, she chose to wear what she described as suitable and neutral, to represent all Commonwealth Pacific nations. The blazer Elizabeth is seen to be worn also had much deeper meaning – it was sourced and made in Tonga, in a print to celebrate the vibrancy of the Pacific and in a colour to acknowledge Pinktober for Breast Cancer.

Being torn down and being made to explain my clothes by another woman is what is most disheartening. Women before us have worked too hard for us to be here judging another on what they are wearing. Women should be supporting and encouraging one another. I’m so pleased that at least, with youth and the younger generation, as seen in efforts led by my organisation like Girls Takeover Parliament, we are empowering and lifting women, and we are recognizing them for the hearts they have to serve their country and people, their hard work, rather than what they look like and what they wear.” Elizabeth explained.

This particular attack on Elizabeth, represents a bigger issue, that is deeply rooted in sexism and a patriarchal way of thinking that must be urgently addressed and put an end to. Only a few weeks ago users of Facebook in Tonga took to another female leader who is currently running for an election. She was criticized and allegations were made on her private life instead of highlighting her good work in the field of science.

The very symbol of Tonga, His Majesty King Tupou VI, and the other national leaders highlighted above, all chose to wear non traditional Tongan attire while representing Tonga in an official capacity. While all these leaders received absolutely no criticism or judgement for their choice of wardrobe, Elizabeth did, even though she is not an official representative of Tonga, rather just for the organisation that she founded. This is a good indication of where Tonga is when it comes to accepting and encouraging females in the space of leadership.

For any real progress to be made in any nation, women who have the bravery to lead in any field or space, need to be afforded the same respect that their male counterparts are. They must be recognized for the value they have to offer, that they are equal members of society and that their looks and what they wear do not define or validate them as a leader, it’s their heart to serve their country, and the hard work that they do.

Women, let us support each other, lift each other, encourage each other and appreciate the value that we each have to offer no matter what we look like, what we wear, our background, status, age, etc. That is what we as women deserve .” Elizabeth V Kite

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