The Fa’afafines of Samoa: The Third Gender

gender, men, Samoa, third gender, travel, Women

I recently discovered, after watching the incredible documentary “Next Goal Wins” by British filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, that in Samoan culture there exists a third gender, called fa’afafines. Highlighted by the talented football player Jiyah Saelua, a defender in the American Samoa national team who had notoriously been named the worst football team of all time. This inspiring not only seeks to change that but also opens up a new category of discrimination – gender.

You may already know about third genders, as many cultures and countries recognize a third gender. For example, if you are Australian you can choose to be gender “X”, in Thailand there is a community of third gender kathoeys, known colloquially as ladyboys, and India there is a large population of third gender hirjas, an estimated five to six million.

However, even though third genders openly live in a number of cultures, many culture do not fully accept them. In India, the hirjas are treated as lowly citizens, and usually live on the margins of society. While the term hirja often used as a negative or derogatory word, and doctors often refuse to treat them.

In 2014, the country recognized the third gender as “other”, neither male nor female, and that they should be treated as a socially and economically “backward” class, after the country had re-criminalized homosexuality and bisexuality in December 2013. The battles in India are prevalent in the large cities where hirjas are forced to work on the street or as prostitutes, with little opportunity afforded to them.

Historically, hirjas have been a part of Indian and South East Asian culture for centuries, and they even feature in sacred Hindu texts. However, with the arrival of the British Empire a law was passed to condemn hirja activity as illegal. As a result, a lot of hirjas have formed their own ostracised communities and are unaccepted in mainstream Indian society. Because of their separation from society the community have even created their own secret language Hijra Farsi.

The small islands of Samoa and American Samoa are located in the Pacific Ocean, around 5,893 km from Australia, and also have a history of a third gender, a history that is an inherent part of Polynesian culture. Fa’afafines are men who are raised as females, or identify as females, and it is not uncommon in Polynesian culture to base this decision on household roles, effeminate behaviour or assign this gender to a son in a family with all sons and no daughters.

While there have been some reports that some Samoan men find it difficult to accept fa’afafines, a lot of encouragement seems to come from within the family unit. Sometimes men feel an identity with femininity and choose that path, but sometimes the role is elected by a parent. If an elected son in an Samoan family rejects his femininity, he will have been raised as a girl and so will still exude feminine behaviour and find it very confusing. But, most of the time, however, when a young boy shows effeminate behaviour, it is accepted and supported in Samoan culture.

Historically, Samoan culture accepts the idea that every gender has its role in society – including boys with feminine behaviour. And despite fa’afafines having relationships with men and women, Samoans do not accept terms such as “gay” and “homosexual”, and prefer the more complex third gender identity.

The incredible documentary “Next Goal Wins” shows Jiyah live and work among the men of the football team, and hears her talk about how she feels fully accepted and supported by them. Aside from the negatives surrounding third gender treatment in Samoan society, such as elected fa’afafines, the freedom and understanding of third gendered people on these small island communities seems very open minded.

The documentary, surrounded by the traditionally masculine sport of football, is exhilarating taken to the next level when Jiyah helps the team to secure their first win. While, in the West we are still struggling with the perception of women’s football, with the Women’s World Cup still not receiving the credibility or respect it deserves, this ancient tradition in the middle of the Pacific, of supporting ones gender decisions, seems incredibly advanced.

There must be a thing or two we can learn from these ancient cultures. Does it matter if you are male, female, fa’afafine, kathoey or hirja? If you can play football, you can play football. And if you have a heart that still beats you deserve the same treatment as every other person. At least that’s what I think.

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