Keeping Kinship Alive

For well over a century, women in the Tongan Island, an independent kingdom in the southern Pacific, have resisted missionary and government efforts that would confine them to a domestic sphere. In this former British protectorate, women have become the main defenders of faka-Tonga -"the Tongan way" - presenting a cultural bulwark against both patriarchy and the social and economic insecurity that can accompany development.

While commoner or working-class women are subordinate in the civil arena, they continue to exercise considerable authority in their families and communities. Tongan women use this authority to mitigate some of the direct and indirect consequences of rapid development.

Even in cities, Tongan communities are comprised of people related through both the mother's and the father's sides of the family. These ties are far more than superficial: men often form exchange labor teams for gardening or building houses; women frequently exchange labor to plait mats, or they work in cooperative groups to produce decorated bark cloth (ngatu). In connections are also called into play during such ceremonies as funerals, weddings, and, increasingly, graduations, which can entail massive feasts, the exchange of valuables, and fundraising.

Nevertheless, the combined processes of development and ongoing state formation are fostering conditions where the patriarchy that already characterizes the civil sphere might come to permeate communities as well. Women have lost authority over the past century and a half, in particular through missionary and government policies that made marriage a central institution and fostered a dependency of wives on husbands. For example, sisters can no longer legally call on a brother's goods and services.

Such changes have contributed to the disadvantages women face in the emerging public domain, a discrimination that applies to women of all classes. Yet the conclusion of this process is far from decided. In Tonga today, commoner women in particular cope simultaneously with rapid economic and political change in such areas as migration, tourism, education, domestic abuse, health, and family planning. Alongside these concerns, women are coming to represent faka-Tonga in efforts to democratize the state.

Judging from their actions, Tongan women understand well the fusion of economic and political changes with social ones. They want prosperity for their children but not at the expense of solidarity. As a woman explains, "If my son gets a degree and forgets his family, then his children will be lost, like American children get lost. They might have money, but they won't know who they are."


Churches and the Tongan state present the nuclear, male-headed family as ideal, but economic demands make it impossible to realize. In fact, the international division of labor has buoyed extended kin networks, although along lines different from the customary ones, as women have become the linchpins of family ties that may stretch from Australia to the United States.

Over the past 15 years, increasing cash needs, land scarcity, and a labor market that can't absorb all those seeking work have led to a steady large-scale flow of Tongans overseas. About 40,000 Tongans reside in New Zealand, the United States,and Australia, compared with 108,000 people at home. The government estimates that remittances from overseas relatives outstrip revenues from agricultural exports, and many farming or fishing families receive most of their cash from overseas.

Overseas women tend to earn less than men yet send more money home more consistently. Married women tend to send money to their mothers and sisters, husbands t wives and mothers. These patterns relate to two features of Tongan culture: women are traditionally repositories of wealth and are also central to maintaining the extended family.

To send someone overseas, to go themselves, or sometimes to return home, women mobilize kin networks. for example, women may raise the money for air fares by organizing a feast. The men butcher pigs and other animals and prepare and tend earth ovens, while the women prepare special dishes and serve the food. Young females, from toddlers to adults, perform traditional dances during the festivities. Guests show appreciation by pasting pa'anga (currency) notes on the dancers' coconut-oiled skin or discretely tucking the money into the folds of the costumes.

Overseas, Tongans encounter gender-segregated job markets and pay scales. Both sexes usually qualify only for semi-skilled jobs at best - women as domestics or assembly-line workers and men in construction, shipping, farming, or landscaping. Many risk deportation by overstaying visas.

The Tongan press and the government say that migration involves mostly men, but I visited two communities that have sent almost equal numbers of women and men to work outside the kingdom. In part, the question is one of bureaucratic visibility: when a wife goes overseas, it isn't seen as labor migration, although almost all the women I met had worked overseas. In practice, husbands and wives often both migrate, going at different times to maintain a presence in Tonga.

At home, the absence of adults for up to four years at a time means revising tasks from either the customary or missionary-inspired roles. The person left behind tries to get other relatives to absorb the absent spouse's tasks. Teenagers tend to work more, often taking on the duties of an absent parent. A niece or nephew may come to live in the home and help in exchange for access to better schools. Single women and women whose husbands have migrated often move in with a married sister.

Although most migration was temporary until recently, and despite the intention of most migrants, the lack of paid work in Tonga means that permanent emigration will probably increase. In Tongan towns, making a living often relates to the growing tourist industry. The government has spent millions to build an infrastructure for tourism. Although the industry doesn't dominate the economy, it is expanding rapidly, even in Nuku'alofa, the capital.

Tongan women take part in this sphere in several ways. Many women - alone and in co-ops - continue to make and market fine baskets, mats, and ngatu. Before consistent European influence began in the late 1700s, these were the major forms of wealth, and even today presentations and exchanges of mats and ngatu are central to life-transition ceremonies. Now, when cruise ships arrive or during yachting season, women sell crafts at city marketplace, government or private cooperatives, and privately owned craft shops.

A few women have prospered as owner-managers of guest houses, offering room and board to foreigners. Some young women, especially in Nuku' alofa and the port of Neiafu, find work as waitresses, domestics, or cooks in hotels or guest houses through family ties.

What concerns Tongans is the extent to which tourism can coexist with mores that, since Christian conversion in the nineteenth century, condemn premarital sex for women. Prostitution does exist in the major towns but not as a full-time occupation. It can also be difficult to distinguish prostitution from a concerted family effort to attract and keep, through marriage, a foreigner who offers the chance to get cash and an overseas work permit. People know what has happened in Tahiti and other Pacific tourist havens - and know the same fate could happen to their daughters.


Other aspects of development have had important consequences for women, commoners in particular.

Training for the future matters much to Tongans. Queen Salote, who ruled between 1918 and 1965, instituted a public-school system and mandated free, compulsory education through primary school. Today, the Tongan literacy rate is higher than that of the United States.

Daughters, however, receive less encouragement than their brothers do to stay in school. Because government schools beyond the primary grades and all parochial schools charge tuition, parents must decide which children have the best chance to find work later. Given that the state is the largest employer and men are favored in that patronage-ridden sector, fewer girls graduate from high school. Women who attend college primarily become teachers - two of the four vice-ministers of education are women.

While women are discriminated against in education, their work supports the tuition structure of higher education. In 'Atenisi University, a private college, the women of a graduate's kin donate fine mats and ngatu at graduation. Such donations can be given in lieu of the last term's tuition. The school ells the valuables over the year to people needing them for ceremonies, and the revenue supports salaries and equipment purchases. That's not all: after presenting this women's wealth, the relatives of most graduates present one of their young women (and sometimes young men) in a fundraising dance for the school. Without such donations, this and other private schools would collapse.

Development has not yet changed one fact of life in Tonga: wife battering is rare. This is primarily because women have independent sources of authority and income. And even today, married couples often live near the relatives of both spouses. In addition, community practices mitigate wife battering: one woman I met was widely supported for barring her drunken husband from the house. Another young woman, married to a chronic drunk, called upon relatives to stay at their house when he drank. A third couple argued outside, so neighbors would intervene if hitting began.

The problem is what happens when couples go overseas. If they move to a place where the wife has relatives, the pattern remains intact. However, beatings can and do occur if the wife is isolated. Compounding the isolation is the inability of spouses to do subsistence work, as they would do at home when cash income is scarce. Problems obtaining and keeping jobs,the cost of living overseas, and the difficulty of overseeing teenage children in rough neighborhoods exacerbate domestic tensions.

In another realm of social life, primary health care is good by Third World standards, thanks to Queen Salote, who established government hospitals and clinics throughout the kingdom. On the other hand, postpartum sex taboos and abortion, which women once controlled, traditionally regulated the size of Tongan families. Missionaries put an end to both practices. The birth rate has risen in this century, while infant mortality has fallen. The average number of children has grown from two or three to five or six.

Birth control, while available for free or at low cost, is unpopular. Children are wanted and helpful, although most people understand that it's hard to get ahead if you have a lot of children. Since malnutrition and poverty are rare - thanks to subsistence farming even in cities - the only argument that makes sense to women is a health one, namely, that spacing children makes mothers and children stronger and healthier. Even so, women deeply mistrust the health effects of IUDs, pills, shots, and implants, which are the available forms of birth control.

Obesity and attendant stroke and heart problems after both women and men, but diabetes is an added risk for pregnant women. Although King Taufa'ahau Tupou's died and health program make fitness a topic of conversation, there is little incentive to lose weight. Heftiness in adult women is considered a sign of prosperity and good spirit. By contrast, weight loss implies ill health. The growing awareness of AIDS as a wasting illness has provided confirmation for people who believe that thin is dangerous.

Only a few men - and no women - have died of AIDS thus far, and people are decidedly unsympathetic, holding the victims accountable for being careless while living overseas. There is little awareness that an infected person might transmit the disease before symptoms show, and little question that, given the degree of overseas and return migration, AIDS will become a major health issue in Tonga.


To outsiders, Tonga's constitutional monarchy looks stable, but discontent festers just beneath the surface. Commoners openly criticize the rampant corruption in the government, which nobles and royal appointees dominate.

The voices of commoner women were heard indirectly in politics until recently, through husbands and sons at village meetings and through the few women elected to the parliament. In the past six years, however, women have been prominent in reform movements involving a cross-class alliance of merchants, professionals, farmers, and fishers. Although the movement isn't necessarily anti-monarchical it does press for control of the parliament by commoners, greater involvement of commoners in policy-making, and an overhaul of the salaries of the nobles and royal retainers. At present, nobles in the parliament and the cabinet can overrule representatives of the people.

In the capital, women have participated in major anti-corruption actions. For example, they spearheaded a petition drive that demanded a meeting with the king regarding a scandalously corrupt official, although a royal dispensation later immunized the official from prosecution. Women were more successful in helping stop plans to displace many families and use their land as a lucrative international dump site. The latest scandal, in which the government sold Tongan passports to foreign businessmen, came to light when a woman working in airport immigration noticed that several Taiwanese families arrived as Tongan nationals. Long before the government admitted the sale, the people knew about it.

These women's efforts challenge the nobility's self-representation as the embodiment of Tongan tradition. In popular opinion, it is women who defend and embody Tongan custom and morality, above all the accountability of kinship and the mandate to share.

The passport scandal drove this point home. "Look, my mother's sister married a palangi (foreigner), and they live here," one women told me. "We don't think of them as half-castes - the children speak Tongan and live in the Tongan way. But according to the law, her children are not Tongan. So be it. But now look, here not Tongan. So be it. But now look, here come these foreigners with no kin and, because they gave the king some money, they're Tongan. It just isn't our way."

As state practices become more estranged from what most commoners consider to be Tongan, commoner women, in their defense of faka-Tonga, are coming to represent the nation, as opposed to the state. They are widely perceived as the makers and mobilizers of kin, and the makers and holders of real wealth - the mats and ngatu that cement kin - as opposed to the transitory wealth that money represents.

In sum, Tongan women actively try to ensure security under conditions they don't control. Many women speak of the devastation that accompanies development elsewhere, obvious in the violent neighborhoods many live in abroad. Others speak of the dangers of individualism and increasing stratification, citing such examples as the profiteering by government officials, overseas husbands deserting loyal wives, and relatives ceasing to send remittances.

Women's opposition to these features of development isn't that of blind traditionalism: it is an attempt to fuse new opportunities and needs with custom. The goal is to ensure a dynamic cultural continuity.

But, asked a woman who had returned from New Zealand, "What is culture?" As she dipped her coconut fiber brush into a used corned-beef time filled with vegetable dye and stroked the ngatu, she answered her own question: "Helping one another, that's culture. Giving and sharing food and koloa [women's wealth items] with your kin, your neighbors, your family, passing things from generation to generation ... that's culture."

To the consternation of development officers with short-term goals, Tongan women devote energy and creativity to maintaining and extending family ties. Careful attention to those thousands of woman-hours spent in plaiting mats and pounding tapa, of making dance costumes and oiling their daughters shows the genius of Tongan women. They are working to keep kinship alive, for through kinship they are stronger than the state, stronger that the boom and bust cycles of capitalism.


Christine Gailey, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Overseas Migration and the Decentered Family in the Tongan Islands," Critique of Anthropology, January 1992.

Mona Etienne and Eleanor Leacock, eds., Women and Colonization, Praeger, 1981.

Albert Robillard, ed., Social Change in the Pacific Islands, Kegan Paul International, 1992.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: