Women's leadership in traditional villages in Samoa: The cultural, social, and religious challenges
Samoan legends and myths document that matriarchal leadership existed prior to colonisation and Christianity. This was evident in the administration of Queen Salamasina, the first official tafa’ifā (holder of four paramount chiefly titles) in the history of the country. However, the era of matriarchs began to erode and was completely worn away with the introduction of male leadership, firstly, and most severely, by Christian missionaries in 1830, and later by colonial powers after World War 2. Leadership positions in families, churches, local government, national government, and most cultural, religious, and modern organisations have been predominantly held by males. Aspiring women leaders strive to gain leadership positions, but are faced with a variety of restrictions. Therefore, a search for gender equality in participation and representation in traditional village judiciaries (local government) warrants this study. This study focussed on exploring the challenges that impede Samoan women from leadership positions in local government (pulega o nu’u). This qualitative study employed multiple methods for data collection consisting of interviews, observations, and document analysis. Interviews and observations were facilitated by the talanoa research framework, an indigenous research method effective for indigenous people conversing in their own vernacular, in this case, in the Samoan language. The data collected from interviews and observations was analysed by thematic analysis where major themes were constructed from consistent patterns emerging from coding, recoding, and interpreting data. Participants were selected through a purposeful sampling technique to yield in-depth information for the study. The study found that barriers limiting women’s opportunities for leadership positions in traditional villages in Samoa are based on cultural values, religious beliefs, and social assumptions. Cultural values are most influential in people’s perception of a leader, as male leadership is entrenched as the true cultural norm. Religious beliefs that emphasise the importance of the father as the leader and the head of the family reinforce cultural restrictions on women accessing leadership positions. Social assumptions that associate women’s work with household tasks further curb women’s leadership aspirations. The participants in this study believed their rights to leadership were disrupted by the structure of the local government, as leadership for them has been restricted to the confinement of the women’s committees. Women cannot participate fully in village councils (fono a le nu’u) because they neither hold matai titles nor recognised by male leaders. In addition to not gaining full participation in village councils, women without matai titles were excluded from standing for parliament. This study sets the platform to generate further dialogue about the exclusion of women from positions of authority in local government, as well as addressing general gender inequality issues. This study also makes a valuable contribution to feminist thinking, promotes the field of women’s leadership, and makes an important contribution to the Pacific cultural leadership, specifically.