After 33 years, the Polynesian Island has changed its governing party as well as its prime minister: In May 2021, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa was the first woman elected to office in Samoa. However, she was not allowed to enter the parliament on that day, and she had to swear in outside the building where she had been locked out by the former (male) prime minister. This is a story of endurance, commitment, and perseverance. A story of politics, government, and leadership. Undoubtedly, all these traits characterize a woman who didn’t lose hope, even when her legitimate power and title were put into question. Would it ever happen if she were a man?
A Whole Life In Politics
After four months of negotiations, and after a 22-years old administration conceded defeat, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa became Samoa’s first female prime minister. Despite the surprise and acclaimed election of a woman in a leadership position of this magnitude, Fiame is not a new entry into the political sphere. She is, in fact, a veteran politician, even born and raised in a political family.
Born in 1957 in Samoa’s leading chiefly family, she experienced first-hand her father’s political life, since he served as the Island’s first prime minister over two terms, in 1959-1970 and 1973-1975. But the political involvement was not limited to the man of the family. When her father died, Fiame’s mother represented his constituency, becoming the second female parliamentarian of Samoa. Commitment to the country’s good and dedication to the great cause have led the path of this family, and accordingly of Fiame’s, toward high-level offices.
Her political career began when she was only 28 years old, by winning her parents’ former parliamentary seat of Lotofagu. History has been made since that moment. She was elected as a cabinet minister, the first time a woman held that position, and she also supervised the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development, the Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration, along with other government appointments. She broke the ground another time in 2016 when she was nominated Tuilaepa’s deputy prime minister. Only four years later, Fiame gave proof of the values that will distinguish her as a leader: she resigned to protests Tuilaepa’s controversial “three bills”, which gave to the Lands and Titles Court additional powers over the bestowal of lands and led to extensive protests. In March 2021, Fiame joined the FAST party, created after the passage into law of those bills. The same party that led to Tuilaepa’s political demise.
The First Woman In That Position: Locked Out Of The Parliament
As mentioned before, the way to the position of prime minister was marked by disorder and denial, initiated by the losing party. On a dramatic day after the legitimate winning of the elections by Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, the acting government refused to convene the parliament in order to allow a regular transition of power to the new prime minister-elect and administration.
The first woman ever voted for that role was locked out of the parliament building. By doing this, the caretaker government broke the law and undermined the results of the elections. The latter is a phenomenon not that unexpected nowadays: even democratic nations have struggled with leaders refusing to hand over their power, not just by using harmful language and creating chaos, but also threatening the election process and weakening the new leader-elect.
Fiame held a swearing-in ceremony outside the parliament where she was left by her predecessor, surrounded by her party, the FAST. In a press conference, she pointed out: “The lawbreaking caretaker and his weak and complicit officials have undermined the dignity of this land and all of its people on Monday. That shame and that stain will be upon their hands forever. Monday was when the silent, suffering masses, who have been subjected to years of abuse and neglect, reasserted their right to have the people they voted for swearing-in and taking the leadership from an administration that has lost its love for the people and is unable to accept defeat in the manner of chiefs.”
That was undoubtedly the truth. A woman waited for 45 days before being sworn in. How difficult still is even for powerful women not just to gain, but to be accepted by their opponents in positions of power when it comes to patriarchal societies? How do they have to fight when leadership positions have been monopolized by men for so many years?
Fiame demonstrated to all of us that women can. Women can outsmart their enemies. Women can win an election in a male dominant society. Women can show their innate perseverance, not just to the world, but prove it to themselves.
Last week, finally the court legally recognized Fiame as Samoa’s prime minister.
New Challenges As The First Female Prime Minister
Her admirable temper and extraordinary achievements will make her embody the role with a goal-oriented mind and one driving force: the faith that justice will prevail. Nonetheless, her future position will not evolve without any challenges. First of all, she will have to face strong opposition, something that the previous party, Tuilaepa, didn’t have to resist. Secondly, she will find herself in the position of managing the 52nd parliamentary seat in the by-election, a seat that was created by the previous party to weaponize “gender politics” and keep her out of power. Finally, Fiame will need to contend Tuilaepa’s power beyond parliament, in various other positions.
The above mentioned are the “political challenges” the new prime minister will need to handle as the first female and opponent of the Tuilaepa party. As a matter of fact, other aspects will need careful consideration, above all the vaccination campaign for covid-19. As of today, Samoa didn’t register any death due to covid-19, but vaccinations, supported by an incentive campaign to get people vaccinated are vital to keeping the situation that way.
Notwithstanding all these issues, it is crucial to highlight the powerful role taken by Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and how much this election will impact the discussion about gender in politics, as well as women all over the world to be inspired, motivated, and committed to taking the lead. Fiame is part of the low number of women currently serving as Heads of State or Government.
This year started with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (first woman in that position) saying: “I may be the first woman to hold this office. But I won’t be the last.” Fiame is the first, but she will not be the last either. Time will tell what the future unfolds for women in politics. The path is surely not without pain, but at least there is a glimmer of hope that will be brighter. One step at a time.