Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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A comparative study of the fa'afafine of Samoa and the whakawahine of Aotearoa/New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-14, 00:46 authored by McFall, Ashleigh

This study explores the meaning of the fa’afafine of Samoa and the whakawahine of Aotearoa/New Zealand. I compare and contrast the experiences of six fa’afafine and four whakawahine. I also examine the historical evidence for the existence of fa’afafine in Samoa and whakawahine in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The theoretical approaches underlying this research incorporate feminist, indigenous, and queer aspects but oral history is the primary theory and method used. As a fa’afafine who researched her own identity and whakawahine, the complexities of insider and outsider are explored.  This thesis discusses how narrators understand and/or make meaning of western categories of identification such as gay, transgender, drag queen and/or transsexual. These categories are largely rejected; preference for the culturally specific terms fa’afafine (Samoan) and whakawahine (Maori) are demonstrated. Narrators take issue with western researchers’ focus on sexual aspects of fa’afafine and whakawahine. For them, gender role, specifically feminine dress, behaviour and activities more accurately characterise their identities.  This thesis argues that fa’afafine and whakawahine are fluid identities. How one behaves as a woman varies, but narrators insist that fa’afafine and whakawahine are born not made that way, and ‘feel’ like women. The meaning of fa’afafine and whakawahine is not static; westernisation, colonization and the availability of gender reassignment treatment have all impacted on how each narrator defines her identity.  By focusing on the experiences of fa’afafine, most of whom live outside of Samoa, and whakawahine this thesis adds to the body of knowledge about gender variation.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Gender and Women’s Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis




Hall, Lesley