When watching the show about the men of Vanuatu, I became curious about the state of women on Tanna. In the show, there are no interviews of any Tannan women. In fact, the women aren't mentioned much at all, except when the Tannans are commenting on the housework practices of the Western families. The Tannan men say that in their culture, such housework (cooking, cleaning) is something only women do.
So I started reading more about the women of Vanuatu. The situation is complex because, as usual, most of the earliest accounts are written by Westerners, but luckily we have the accounts of both missionaries AND anti-missionary tradespeople. They are remarkably consistent in some ways, so it seems that the people once practiced widow strangulation after the husband's death, something similar to the Indian Sati widow immolation. Colonialist efforts to stop the practice were mostly successful, though it persisted in some areas for a long time. There are also accounts of women being beaten by their husbands.
Vanuatu now seems to be in a situation where some of the tribes were Christianized by missionaries and others are part of a traditionialist reactionary movement called "Kastom." Based on the practices portrayed on the show and their religion, it seems that these men are part of "Kastom" tribes. There is good evidence that Kastom has had some harmful effects on women as people have become more strict about taboos. A huge burden of the taboo system lies on women since many taboos are about childbirth and menstruation. If a woman does something improperly, like gardening during menstruation (they are supposed to seclude themselves in menstrual huts), she may be blamed for misfortunes that befall the village, particularly if she does not sacrifice pigs to repair the violation.
Vanuatu is not completely isolated and their are women's movements in islands across the Pacific (which I'm aware is a very diverse place). This interesting article gives a voice to some of their concerns.
I am not a bra-burning person; I never wore a bra, so, I do not know why bra-burning is so important to the feminist. —Participant in “Women, Development and Empowerment” workshop, Naboutini, Fiji, 1987
It's clear that many women in these places feel that Western feminism is concerned with very trivial things. I would confess that I agree, having most recently been in an argument with a feminist tech writer over whether or not the face that we give little girls "gendered" toys leads them to not chose careers in tech and science (I don't agree.)
Many women's writers in the Pacific, such as Tongan writer Konai Helu Thaman, in fact reject the feminist label. This phenomenon is not just Pacific, a growing number of young women in the West, even those that hold classical feminist ideas, also reject this label.
Interviewing 82 people in Guam in order to gauge their thoughts on feminism, Laura made the same mistake that I had made in my interview with Thaman.14 We had both used the term feminism without first defining it. Laura recalls asking “Are you a feminist?” “What do you think of feminism?” “Without exception,” she states, “they said: Please don’t call me a feminist”
Like many Western women who are further quizzed on their rejection of feminism, Thaman later qualifies her statement “when people ask, are you a feminist, if feminism is about equality, equal worth, then, yes, I am a feminist”
I think it's quite interesting that Western social conservatives often lament the decline of the nuclear family, often pointing out that children that grow up without a father are worse off. Many Western feminists spend a large amount of time critiquing the nuclear family as being oppressive to women. But the nuclear family is a modern invention. As Folese, a Samoan writer, says:
The origins of western feminism arose out of suburbia [sic] depression and the need women felt to “get out of the house,” leave the kids behind, burn bras, overcome depression and addiction to things like valium etceteras. In life in a Samoan village, the extended family acts as a support system for mothers. The trap of the nuclear family simply doesn’t exist in the village situation.12
To me, the Western nuclear family has many parallels to Western agro-monocultures, in that it represents a less robust and rich caricature of the natural human family structure. Furthermore, the Western nuclear structure often is packaged with a belief that it is bad for women to work outside the home. Pacific women have always worked, tending their crops and animals.
In the Pacific, feminism is perceived as being hostile to the communal and family values. As a women in the Guam workshop put it:
… “feminists” do not want babies and yet women’s lives are defined in terms of their children. Some respondents did not want to have anything to do with women who wanted to live only with other women, or who rejected the family. In their view, the base of women’s lives was the family. (Griffen with Yee, 1989, p. 8)
Furthermore, traditions that the women do not view as oppressive, which involve separate complementary spheres for men and women, are often labeled as oppressive by Western feminists. As Tupu, a Western Samoan women says: “We don’t seek a social structure of total “equality”—we don’t want to do the same things as men. We have a social structure that has reciprocal power relations in different forms."
The women often do not want to do away with traditions like menstrual seclusion (something not alien to the West certainly. Less than a mile away from me in Williamsburg there are Hasidic Jewish women who do the same thing). Among Maori feminists, there is currently an argument about whether or not the traditional Maori culture was oppressive to women. Some Maori women believe that women were powerful in their own way in the traditional culture and their goal is to reclaim this from Westernization. It seems that in some ways traditional cultures were better, such as in Tonga where women had access to land which was prohibited by colonial governments. In other ways they seem worse, such as the widow strangulation in Vanuatu.
Having grown up in the South with some of my family being very traditionalist, the skepticism of the Pacific women towards feminism is very familiar to me. However, I find that such skeptical traditionalist women in America are often belittled, whereas feminists are willing to listen to non-Western women, though their voices are often conspiciously absent, perhaps because they do not toe the party line.