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Pacific Women and the Law: The Status of Fiji
By Cristina Verán
Imrana P. Jalal is a preeminent expert on Pacific Islands feminist issues and regional law. She is author of the groundbreaking text Law for Pacific Women: A Human Rights Handbook . In this special contribution to thewitness.org, international journalist Cristina Verán interviewed Jalal about the ways that race, religion, custom, and law figure on the post-colonial national construct of Fiji and the lives of its female citizenry.
My partner, who is an indigenous Fijian, maintains that I'll never really be able to be a "real" Fijian, because our Indian ancestors were immigrants to Fiji. So I always say to him, "How many generations does it take to be considered a 'Fijian'?"
Cristina Verán : Race has always been a central determining factor for all sorts of contexts within Fiji, both during and following British colonial control. Describe the effect this has on the sense of identity for the Indian, or Indo-Fijian, community, of which you are a member.
Imrana P. Jalal : The question of "who is a Fijian" and "who is NOT a Fijian" is a major political issue here, indeed. For a lot of Indo-Fijians like myself - who is fifth generation on my mother's side and fourth on my father's - it's a crisis of identity. My partner, who is an indigenous Fijian, maintains that I'll never really be able to be a "real" Fijian, because our Indian ancestors were immigrants to Fiji. So I always say to him, "How many generations does it take to be considered a 'Fijian'?" I can be a citizen of Fiji, but that does not mean that I can also become "people of the earth." This is a very interesting debate.
Cristina Verán : Some indigenous leaders from other parts of the world have positioned the Fijian/Indian conflict as a case of, simply, the Fijian people defending their land and their sovereignty. For instance, New Zealand activist Tame Iti, who visited your country to pledge Maori support for coup leader George Speight, has aligned the Fijian situation with the struggles of Maori, Native American, and Australian Aboriginal peoples.
Imrana P. Jalal : A lot of [indigenous] Fijian Nationalists will look to those situations as examples saying, "This is what's going to happen to us if we're not vigilant." But the Pacific is an exception to that global norm. If there's one thing the British did right for Fiji, it was that they realized that they screwed up in Asia and Africa and so on. And so, under our country's law - as opposed to that of those other places - 83% of the land can never be alienated from the indigenous Fijian people. It can't even be sold by them if they wanted to do so. Under the legal system in place now, Fijians can NEVER lose their land.
Cristina Verán : The key area of focus for both your law practice and activism is women's rights. What are the ways in which you and the Fiji Women's Rights Movement (FWRM) have built bridges among women from such otherwise divergent peoples in Fiji?
Imrana P. Jalal : In Fiji, we are defined by race in a way that we are not defined by anything else. The issues arising from colonization take precedence over those specific issues shared by all women, both colonizer and colonized. Issues of decolonization, democracy, and demilitarization obviously aren't just women's issues, but rights issues, in general. To try to get both Fijian and Indo-Fijian women to see their common oppression across those lines from the beginning, to recognize that as an over-riding factor, was and is still a difficult thing. Historically, all organizations in our country formed on the basis of race. Both the FWRM and the Women's Crisis Centre (WCC) were among the first Fijian organizations to be truly multi-racial, bringing women all together around the issues of democracy, employment, and poverty.
The Fijian culture, however, does not teach competition amongst individuals... whatever you earn, you must share. This works very well when you're in a village situation, but once you come into an urban area, it becomes really difficult to live that way, financially draining.
Cristina Verán : Contrast the economic realities between Fijian and Indian communities.
Imrana P. Jalal : "Absolute poverty" in donor terms, in development terms, is defined internationally as living on less than $1 per day. Fiji does not fall into that category because so many people here are able to live off the land. There is, however, a wide gulf between the two groups when it comes to the cash economy and the different living standards it can provide. Indians are more like Europeans in the sense that they thrive on competition. The Fijian culture, however, does not teach competition amongst individuals. To strive for individual, rather than group, success amounts to calling unwanted attention to oneself - a quality that is not prized. [Fijians] also believe that whatever you earn, you must share. This works very well when you're in a village situation, but once you come into an urban area, it becomes really difficult to live that way, financially draining. That is a key reason why indigenous Fijians have failed to be successful in business, commerce, and industry in the same ways that Indians have.
Cristina Verán : You've described an across-the-board scenario, but how do women, specifically, if examined separately, fare, comparing Fijian and Indo-Fijian women's living standards. Are there some areas where Indian women are less fortunate than their indigenous counterparts?
Imrana P. Jalal : Well, the indigenous Fijians feel a strong sense of obligation to look after the "strays" of the family. [Fijian culture] is much more accepting of illegitimate children, for example, then are Indians. If you're an Indian woman who breaks the rules of marriage in any way or, say, gets pregnant outside of marriage, you'll get thrown out, literally, right away. Considering that one-fifth of Indo-Fijian girls are pulled out of school at 16 to marry in an arranged marriage, this custom leaves them with no education to fall back on. They basically have to turn to prostitution just to feed themselves. At least a Fijian woman can rely on her matagali , her extended family, to look after her, so she will always be in a better-off situation because of this.
Cristina Verán : Within their own communities, respectively, what kinds of support networks, particularly those that are less formal in their organization, can Fijian and Indian women access?
Imrana P. Jalal : Unlike so many indigenous Fijians, Indian women don't live in a village collective type of situation. If they are not in the towns, then they are out on some isolated farm. Fijian women have a stronger social network, belonging to church clubs or sewing organizations or handicrafts groups, the very networks through which they can access information and which also breed successful organizing and money-raising abilities.
Cristina Verán : Layout a timeline, if you will, with regard to the establishment and growth of the women's movement in Fiji.
Imrana P. Jalal : The first kinds of truly feminist ideas came out of USP, the University of the South Pacific. The Women's Crisis Centre was established in 1984, set up as a rape crisis clinic. From that grew the Fiji Women's Rights Movement in 1986. Prior to that, actually, the first women's organization in Fiji was the YWCA, the Young Women's Christian Association, who, although they were first and foremost Christian women, took on several progressive issues like the anti-nuclear movement. They weren't prepared to openly engage and confront on a "women's platform," however.
Cristina Verán : How would you describe the history of progress made for and by women in Fiji under both pre- and post-2000-coup governments? Has the women's movement been sidelined or sidetracked in discernable ways due to that political crisis, and any ongoing political issues?
Imrana P. Jalal : First of all, women had indeed made significant gains during both the Sitiveni Rabuka and yes, the [overthrown] Mahendra Chaudhry regimes. There were three very progressive bills on the legislative agenda, which had to be shelved because of the 2000 coup, however. A very important one was the "Family Law Bill," which was meant to become law literally the week that George Speight led the coup.
Cristina Verán : Please explain its significance and current areas of application.
Imrana P. Jalal : I, personally, had been involved for twelve years in the making of this bill, giving up my private time and my unpaid services along with my work with the government and the NGOs, convincing the Fiji community to support changes in the family law. The Family Law Bill was designed to remove 100 years of discriminatory laws implemented by the British in all Commonwealth countries. These laws we are still under today were changed in the U.K. all the way back in 1953.
The church is very conservative here, and wields a lot of political power - has stood officially in opposition to any [family law] reforms... It's widely accepted that even if a woman's partner is abusive, she is expected to put up with it because "God will forgive him."
For example, it is very difficult for women to get a divorce in Fiji. They not only have to wait five years, they've got to prove cruelty or desertion or sodomy or bestiality on the part of their husband in order to get it. The church, however - which is very conservative here, and wields a lot of political power - has stood officially in opposition to any reforms in this area, claiming that they would "break up the family." It's widely accepted that even if a woman's partner is abusive, she is expected to put up with it because "God will forgive him."
Cristina Verán : How do such Christian organizations use their "muscle" within the political arena in Fiji, vis-a-vis other religious bodies?
Imrana P. Jalal : One of the principals of democracy is that all religions are equal and that religion must not intrude in the arms of government. But in developing countries, this separation is often very nebulous, very tricky. Here in Fiji, for example, [indigenous Fijian] Christian fundamentalist nationalists have wanted to establish a Christian state to specifically exclude those who are Muslim or Hindu from holding power. Of course, this is exactly what the Muslims are doing in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, where Islam permeates all the principals of statehood.
Cristina Verán : With the case of the Middle Eastern Islamic nations, it can be challenging for outsiders to discern which practices - particularly those which Western observers may read as prohibitive or oppressive toward women - derive from sacredly-held religious doctrines and which are more a matter of ethnic custom. Are the lines similarly blurred in Fiji, with regard to women's rights?
Imrana P. Jalal : There are a number of wherein the respecting of "custom" conflicts with that of respecting human rights. To explain the Fijian custom of bulu bulu , for example, a woman gets raped. Conceivably, the rapist could simply come to her father, bringing yaqona and doing his traditional greeting, and just say, "Look, I'm really sorry that I raped your daughter. Blah-blah-blah." And because it's considered "disrespectful" for him to say no and refuse his apology, the father will accept this. The girl, the victim, cannot say anything. Really, it was intended to be applied to situations where, for example, someone steals your cow or something. Under the true custom, it would be a question of the thief paying compensation for his crime. The purpose of bulu bulu was to heal the rifts between communities, but today Fijians have taken it out of context, a misinterpretation that is now being applied as if it were the law.
Cristina Verán : As a legal expert and activist, how are you able to challenge a custom like this while still demonstrating respect for its culture of origin?
Imrana P. Jalal : My response to those people who insist "But that's our culture!" is to say that, well... racism was part of the culture of the white people, those who colonized both India and Fiji. Was that acceptable?
Cristina Verán : How applicable are the strategies developed by the feminist leadership in Western, industrialized nations to the context of Fiji and the Fiji Women's Rights Movement?
Imrana P. Jalal : I do think a Western feminist would deplore some of our strategies. With the Indian community, for example, it's not easy to convince them to keep their daughters educated. So we might use this type of argument saying, "If you educate your daughters, they'll become better mothers and wives." My Australian colleagues will say to me, "But how can you say that?!" And I tell them, "What do you want me to say to some father who doesn't even want his daughter to go past the 5th form level - that he must leave his daughter in school in order to 'deconstruct patriarchal ideology'?" Yeah right!
Cristina Verán : Finally, how have the Fiji Women's Rights Movement and its membership prepared themselves to meet yet a new series of challenges during this new millennium?
Imrana P. Jalal : In the past five years or so, we've deliberately cultivated a younger membership for the FWRM, because we wanted the organization to be dynamic and to incorporate younger women's issues that way. Among the younger generation, the under-35s, Fijian and Indo-Fijian women are more willing to integrate more - as opposed to those of my mother's generation who came of age during the whole colonial era of divide-and-rule policy. We have a very good grassroots outreach and a massive training program, although yes, our membership is mostly middle-class women. Let's face it though, how many poor women have the time to do what we do? That's true in Fiji, true in India, and wherever you go in the developing world.
Cristina Verán is a journalist, historian, and lecturer who has documented global cultural phenomena and socio-political movements extensively, for wide-ranging media outlets from Ms. Magazine to Vibe to News From Indian Country . As a United Nations Correspondent, she has focused considerably on the coverage and dissemination of news, issues, and interests pertaining to indigenous peoples. Cristina may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
See also Resisting Exploitation in the Solomon Islands , an interview by Cristina Verán with Ian Aujare of the Zazao Environmental Rights Organization.