14 January 2011

Sex, gender, and politics

credit: CEDAW
Roughly 20 years ago, the UN published an international treaty for women's human rights, called CEDAW. It calls for equal rights for women, female access to education, women's health, and calls for measures against violence and trafficking. Most prominent nations signed it: the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, Brazil, among many others, as well as most smaller nations. So far, only a handful of countries have failed to ratify this treaty - one of them is Tonga. And another is the United States.

This past week, we've been in our Mid Service Training (MST) at Peace Corps, a time when all the Tonga volunteers come into Nuku'alofa for a week of training and reconnecting. I ran two sessions on resumes and networking, and really enjoyed several of our guest speakers, especially those from the Women and Children's Crisis Centre, the Tonga Leitis' Association, and the Salvation Army (talking about men's issues). One guest speaker slipped in at the very end of the previous session, stylishly attired in a beige linen pants suit and crisp white shirt, offset by chunky turquoise jewellery and plastic square rimmed glasses. She is prominent in Nuku'alofa; a caterer for the King, a judge on a hugely popular recent talent show, and the executive director of the Tonga Leitis' Association. Her name is Joey.

Leitis (lay-TI)s are a third gender in Tonga: as children, Leitis are boys raised as girls, but the term actually covers men who have relationships with men, men who live as women, men who occasionally dress up as women, and men who were raised as women but now are married and live as men. (Lesbians and bisexual women do not have a social classification.) Joey said, "Tonga only has one word for GLBT - that's leiti. And once you flick your finger," she said, giving a stereotypically gay hand gesture, "you're a leiti."

The term comes from "fakaleiti" or "similar to a lady," which itself comes from "fakafaafine" or "similar to a woman." Leitis are a part of life in Tonga; several months ago, everyone in town looked forward to the next night of the Miss Galaxy pageant, a talent show put on by the Tonga Leitis' Association showcasing the fashion and talents of their members, as well as educating about safe sex and condom use.
A Miss Galaxy contestant

Leitis have a long history in Tonga, Joey told us. Historically, many of the King's head chefs were leitis, and families considered having a leiti for a child a big bonus- she was able to do the housework that normally only girls should do, and could culturally navigate a middle line between male and female roles that gave them a marked amount of freedom. Today, leitis are the only ones able to do condom promotion- a subject that is generally restricted in male and female roles. Unfortunately, Tonga has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the Pacific, and an unmarried pregnant woman is likely to be fired from her job, banished from her social circles, and sent home to live with relatives, hiding inside at home until she gives birth.

It wasn't until AIDS came to Tonga in the late 80s that any social hostility towards leitis developed, unfortunately because of the ideological spillover from the rest of the world about AIDS being a "homosexual disease" and leitis having "mental health issues," to which Joey said in a crisp accent "sometimes I don't know whose more mental - they are or we are!" But today, because of the hard work of the association, an HIV test last year to all the members came up all negative- 100% HIV-free.

A speaker on mens' issues in Tonga later talked about the contrasting roles of men and women. He showed a slide of a conference several years ago with the slogan brightly painted on the banner above the participants' heads: "Real Men Don't Violence." It was just recently that domestic violence was declared to be a crime- before that, it was just a way of life because, he said, of the interpretation of the biblical passages saying the husband is the head of the household.

He especially emphasized the relative lack of freedom that women have; he said "men can go to kava [a male gathering time to sit and drink], sleep the whole next day, and the wife is left home with the kids." Generally, only men hold prominent leadership roles as well: as the town officer, minister, boss, etc. He pulled up a list of contrasts between traditional male and female roles: the "male" side listed more free time, status, money, control, opportunities, privilege, and decision making power, and for each of these qualities, the "female" side listed less.The majority of Tonga's workforce is female, but the majority of Tonga's leadership is male.

Tonga has yet to ratify CEDAW because women cannot own land under Tongan law. A widow can own her deceased husband's land, but if she remarries, the land goes back to her deceased husband's family. Some Tongan leaders are also concerned that CEDAW will encourage women to have abortions, a touchy subject here as much as it is in the US, and could open up Tonga to foreign mandates that will encourage globalization and deteriorate Tongan culture.

Just like socially-leading leitis, none of this seems to stop Tonga's women. Powerful female leaders run their husbands' businesses, do the company's work, prepare the town's feast food, and we know women leaders who run their own companies, are pastors, senior managers, and have huge standing in their communities. And to break stereotypes, some prominent women are just as against CEDAW as male counterparts.

Things have been changing slowly, but they do change with time - not to some Western ideal, but to a better-suited new Tongan way, one shaped by leitis, women, and men alike.

Thanks to Kira for requesting this post

Endnote: ABC news just came out with two special reports on 20/20 today relating to Peace Corps: One on a preventable murder of a volunteer in Benin in 2009 that was covered up by Peace Corps, and another on the volume of volunteer rapes that occur unknown to the public. They are sensationalistic as expected of a news story, but ... well, you decide. A similar exposé in book form was published about the murder of a volunteer here in Tonga by another volunteer in the 70s.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Mark and Elena. Great post.


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