So while I was not in Samoa for the recent 50th Independence celebrations, when I recently read a well written article by Sita Leota, in the Samoa Observer, 17 June 2012, which shared her opinion about when, and how, one should display the malu, I felt compelled to reply.
Albert Wendt writes beautifully and I love his line "There are no 'true interpreters' or 'sacred guardians' of any culture. We are all entitled to our truths, insights, intuitions into and interpretations of our cultures." I don't deny Sita, nor any of the other Samoans who are/were in furious agreement, the right to interpret our culture. I do however, take serious issue with the imposition of that interpretation on others.
The article sets out "when you are tattooed as a female, the first rule has always been that you don't display your malu in public unless you are in full traditional Samoan wear about to dance the siva Samoa or in a ta'alolo." Is that really what the first rule has always been?
The truth is that the art of tatau was almost lost to colonisation and to Christianity. The missionaries were not overly fond of tatau. Whether it was because they literally interpreted Leviticus, because they saw this cultural practice as possible pagan competition, or simply because they saw it as "the mark of the savage", tattooing was so successfully discouraged throughout the Pacific, that of all our Polynesian brothers and sisters, only Samoa managed to maintain this "mea sina". Even today there are calls for the churches to be more accepting of tatau.
Not so coincidentally, colonisation and Christianity also had a major impact on our clothing or lack thereof. Now I like the mu'umu'u as much as the next woman, who has experienced the sauna that Samoa can be, they're lovely and cool, and they cover a multitude of sins
Sita quotes Albert Wendt when entreating and exhorting those of us who have malu to "protect it, shade it, cover it". Somewhat ironically, it is the eminent Professor Wendt who sets out in the same article that "Being clothed (lavalava) had little to do with clothes or laei. In pre-Papalagi times, to wear nothing above the navel was not considered 'nakedness.' To 'clothe' one's arse and genitals was enough."
Isn't it likely that the church's traditional position on tattooing, on women, and on covering up, has something to do with the compulsion to (or more accurately in the case of this article), to tell others to cover the malu? It may be that traditionally women covered to below the knee before they went under the 'au, and indeed, many contend that was the reason for the malu - to clothe. The fact that women show malu when they are "in full traditional Samoan wear about to dance the siva Samoa or in a ta'alolo", i.e. in our most traditional of activities, reflects that women traditionally showed their malu, that "the malu for women ...[was] considered 'clothing,' the most desired and highest-status clothing anyone could wear." (Tatauing the post-colonial body; Albert Wendt)
I'm proud of the fact that our culture is a living, breathing culture. I accept it adapts and adopts. Obviously Christianity is an important part of our culture - Fa'avae i le Atua Samoa. So I can accept an argument that our culture changed with Christianity to incorporate covering the malu. In a living and breathing culture, things change. But if it did change then, can't it change now? Can't Samoan women display their malu now, as their ancestors did, without being subject to an opinion piece?
Sita takes umbridge with what she considers is using the malu as a "fashion accessory". Again Wendt insightfully says, "much of what has been considered 'decoration' or 'adornment' by outsiders is to do with identity (individual/aiga/group), status, age, religious beliefs, relationships to other art forms and the community, and not to do with prettying yourself." It may be that one does not agree with displaying the malu, it is another thing altogether to say that just because one displays the malu, they don't do it out of "any sense of belonging, of culture, of being Samoan" as Sita asserts.
Sita writes that the definition of malu is ‘to be protected'. But it can also mean "to protect". As Zita Sefo-Martel puts it "The woman is therefore seen in Samoan culture as the protector of the children, the family, and the village. She is the giver of bloodlines." I am a strong Samoan woman. I have a malu and I can protect what is mine - my malu, and my culture. I do not need an article in the Samoa Observer to guide me, to tell me when and how, I can display my malu, and I very much doubt, any other Samoan woman does either.
O le malu o le laei o tamaitai Samoa.