Written by: Karallyn Fitisone
Fa’afafine are Samoa’s third gender and a largely misunderstood community (Barrett J., 2019). Western constructs and social norms have made it difficult for indigenous identities to exist without comparison. Although Fa’afafine do not identify with these western ideas of gender and sexual orientation, the shared western terminology has allowed for outsiders to understand what it means to be a Fa’afafine. They consider themselves non-binary, and non-cisgender. They are often used interchangeably with transgender terminology, but they are not necessarily the same. Fa’afafine were assigned male at birth but over time adopted feminine qualities. They hold a combination of masculine and feminine qualities but ultimately remain gender fluid (Beyond Gender: Indigenous Perspectives, Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama, n.d.). It has been estimated that 1-5% of Samoans identify as fa’afafine (Tan, 2016) with much of the population still residing in the Samoan islands.
Context/History: The term fa’afafine translates into “manner of woman” - many other regions of Oceania and Polynesia have related words in their own languages for instance in the Tongan language/culture - an individual who was assigned male at birth but went on to adopt feminine qualities and identify with a third gender would be known as a fakaleiti or fakafefine (James, K.E., 1994) The history of fa’afafine shows evidence of chiefs, leadership, and innovation.
Current day: Fa’afafine are widely accepted in Samoan culture and an important part of contemporary society. Although some religious institutions and traditional leaders still have trouble fully accepting fa’afafine ways of life. Fa’afafine are known for their many roles in society some of which are to care for the elders, charitable efforts, and their determination to preserve culture and family values (Beyond Gender: Indigenous Perspectives, Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama, n.d.). The main organizations for fa’afafine in the Samoan islands are - Society of Fa’afafines In American Samoa (SOFIAS) or the - Samoan Fa’afafine Association in Independent Samoa.
Violence: Data for violence to gender non-conforming (or transgendered, non-binary, non-cisgender) individuals is scarce. Much of the existing literature also only highlights heterosexual couples as well as Eurocentric populations. Albeit the scarce research, the data shows that transgender individuals suffer greater occurences of IPV, experiences of threats or intimidation, harassment, and police violence (NCADV, 2018). As much of the diction surrounding fa’afafine and trans individuals is similar it might also be true that the prevalence of violence warrants the need to further investigate our own population of nonbinary/non-cisgender individuals.
Violence & Fa’afafine: Carney, 2015:
After reviewing the literature, it is easy to see that not much has been explored about the prevalence of violence in the fa’afafine population. In Carney’s article he observed that violence of fa’afafine is tied to male privilege in that because Samoa has become a male-dominated culture- as a result of globalization, and the indoctrination of Christianity, women are then subjected to oppression and marginalization. Carney discusses how violence has served as a way to disrupt their access to and utilization of health services and maybe even certain health outcomes. Carney also highlights how there are currently no data on how fa’afafine experience interpersonal, sexual, or domestic violence but that their experiences are related to the same cultural values of male privilege that impact women. In the Alliance’s efforts to promote inclusivity and awareness of DV/SA, they have provided a safe place for fa’afafine to come to the table and be a part of the discussions. Another way is through the new Rural Grant Project.
Rural Grant Project:
The goal of this project is to inform the general public of American Samoa on several concepts. The project seeks to raise awareness on the fa’afafine experiences of violence and to whom they are able to get help from. The project aims to collect data to inform the development of service provider training for issues specific to the fa’afafine population. Over a series of surveys, interviews, reports, media outreaches, educational efforts, it is the hope of the project to outline priorities and strategies for building infrastructure for advocacy training and sustainable partnerships for service users and providers. Training and outreach efforts will emphasize the creation of safe spaces and empathy. More services and collaboration for our fa’afafine and the community means more equality and hopefully less instances of violence amongst our people.
For More Information on the Fa’afafine Community:
information can be found here - http://www.asalliance.co/contact.html
Carney, R. (2015). The Health Needs of the Fa’afafine in American Samoa and Transgender
Research Methodology. The Columbia University Journal of Global Health, 5(1), 38–43. https://doi.org/10.7916/thejgh.v5i1.5299
Barrett, J. (2019). Samoa's 'third gender' delicately balances sex and religion. Reuters. Retrieved
Beyond gender: Indigenous perspectives, Fa'afafine and Fa'afatama. Natural History Museum.
(n.d.). Retrieved from https://nhm.org/stories/beyond-gender-indigenous-perspectives-faafafine-and-faafatama
James, Kerry E. (1994). "Effeminate Males and Changes in the Construction of Gender in
Tonga". Pacific Studies. 17 (2): 39–69.
Tan, Yvette (2016). "Samoa's 'third gender' beauty pageant". BBC News.
Image from: https://twitter.com/vlad_sokhin/status/656439861235179520?lang=de; internet.