Tracing Kanak Feminist Earthly and Oceanic Paths



While the Kanak liberation struggle tends to historicize the role of men such as Jean-Marie Tjibaou, Eloi Machoro, Yeiwéné Yeiwéné, Nidoïsh Naisseline, Alphonse Dianou, etc. Kanak women such as poets, writers, and activists Déwé Gorodé and Suzanne Ouneï have been front and center of the movement. This text by Sarah Pelage and Anaïs Duong-Pedica retraces their paths and place them in a broader context of Oceanian feminisms.

Wane Funambulist
Artwork by Annabelle Wané.

Epeli Hau‘ofa’s vision of Oceania as a sea of islands understands the ocean as a space that favored connections between peoples and islands. This perspective contrasts with a reductive Western view of the ocean as a barrier between islands and islanders, who are seen as living confined and separated lives. While the ocean has never divided Pacific islanders, colonization, on the other hand, brought with it a variety of strategies and mechanisms of division of Oceania. For example, the division of the region into three cultural areas — Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia — according to racial typifications in the 19th century, created a racial and cultural hierarchy of Pacific islanders. As Kanaka Maoli Maile Arvin argues, this hierarchy is based on the Western idea that “Polynesia is almost white but Melanesia is absolutely Black” (“Polynesia is a Project, Not a Place,” 2018). This idea aims to facilitate the settler colonial project by naturalizing whiteness as indigenous to Polynesia and the rest of Oceania. Indeed, in the Western consciousness “Polynesia” ends up representing Oceania as a whole. One of the results of this Western project is the invisibilization of Black Oceanians, itself a form of anti-Black racism. On top of this, the introduction of colonial languages to the region and English imperialism have also contributed to the invisibilization of “francophone” Black Pacific islanders, such as the Kanak people, beyond the francophone world.

By tracing Kanak feminist paths in Oceania and beyond, we aim to weave together Kanak feminist stories and regional Oceanian women’s struggles, to make evident transisland, transnational connections and to nourish the soil of Oceanian feminist history with Kanak voices. As we do this, it is worth noting as Yvonne Te Ruki Rangi o Tangaroa Underhill-Sem has observed that “not all Pacific peoples have the same relationship to the sea or ocean” (“The Audacity of the Ocean,” 2020) and ocean epistemologies may not necessarily fit all Pacific contexts. In the context of Kanaky-New Caledonia, while the ocean is important, the spatial imaginary of Kanaky is mostly developed around the land. That being said, there are regional differences and the significance of the ocean may vary based on the genealogy and ancestral positions of specific clans and tribes in space. For example, in the context of Kwenyii or the Isle of Pines, Aïlé Tikuré from the Kenu One Project has explained the importance of the spirit of the canoe and how the relationship to the sea structures the way Kanak people in Kwenyii see and are in the world.

By tracing Kanak feminist paths in Oceania and beyond, we aim to weave together Kanak feminist stories and regional Oceanian women’s struggles, to make evident transisland, transnational connections and to nourish the soil of Oceanian feminist history with Kanak voices.

Feminisms in Oceania ///

In Oceania, feminism as a political concept remains weak due to skepticism. For Yvonne Te Ruki Rangi o Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, the reasons for this reluctance to embrace feminism “include the postcolonial insistence on rejecting non-Pacific or ‘western’ concepts and naming practices in Pacific struggles; the growing influence of conservative, faith-inspired ideologies of traditional gender egalitarianism; as well as personal ignorance, misogyny and malice” (“Pacific Feminisms,” 2019). Despite this, Oceanian feminists have worked regionally to challenge the legacy of colonialism, therefore confronting oppression, poverty, the continuation of nuclear testing, the presence of extractive industries and the lack of representation of women in institutions and patriarchy.

For example, the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement was a pan-pacific movement in which Oceanians gathered to organize around resisting nuclear presence and militarisation. They notably challenged the notion of islands as expandable spaces for nuclear testing. Kanak feminists such as Suzanne Ouneï and Déwé Gorodé supported the movement. Women’s organisations were essential parts of these movements which, as Teresia Teaiwa argued, “radically challenge[d] military and especially tourist notions of the island Pacific’s significance” (“bikinis and other s/pacijic n/oceans,” 1994). Fijian academic Vanessa Griffen explained that while working regionally between many island nations may sometimes be a problem “there’s a particular problem and a particular strength that we gain from actually bridging the ocean that divides us, and meeting as small countries, often with very little money, but getting together to discuss the issues that concern us” (Speech at the European Nuclear Disarmament, 1988).

In 1974, a women’s collective of the University of the South Pacific students secured funds to organise the 1975 Pacific Women’s Conference. Papua New Guinean activist Josefa Namsu explained that the conference encouraged Pacific women to think liberation on their own terms, which led to discussions on the themes of issues of nuclear testing, environmental justice, women’s rights, and Pacific liberation struggles against colonialism as Quito Swan points out in “Giving Berth: Fiji, Black Women’s Internationalism, and the Pacific Women’s Conference of 1975,” 2018). Kanak activists Déwé Gorodé and Lucette Néaoutyine were present to discuss the Kanak struggle against French colonialism in Kanaky-New Caledonia.

Women and the Kanak Struggle for Liberation ///

In 1853, France took possession of the archipelago and made it into a settler colony. Rapidly a white settler bourgeoisie developed, supported by French administration and the Church. This settlement required the spoliation of Kanak land, forced migration and labor, prohibitions and eventually the creation of indigenous reservations. French administration encouraged migration from France in order to place the Indigenous Kanak people in minority, which it saw as a threat to French sovereignty in the islands. With colonization, two hierarchical systems of power were accumulated to the detriment of Kanak women: colonial patriarchy and Kanak patriarchy. As Drehu author and political figure Wali Wahetra notes, pre-colonial Kanak patriarchy was legitimated by colonization and christianity. In relation to other women on the islands, Kanak women were not considered women to the same extent that “European” women were by the French administration since Kanak women inclusion in political and civic life, through the right to vote, came after that of both elite Kanak men and “European” women.

Because Kanak women were and are excluded from or marginalized in the political arena, they organized themselves in associations. Several associations have emerged for Kanak women living in rural areas. These spaces played a key role for women to get out of domestic isolation, denouncing gender inequalities and in supporting economic growth by initiating all kinds of small projects such as the sale of crafts. These associations saw the home and the tribe as a site that required collective action, therefore politicizing the private sphere. In that way, the situation of Kanak women reflected a broader observation of the position of women in Oceania, since as Tracey Banivanua Mar noted “[i]n the Pacific more widely women tended to be incorporated into the new nation as mothers, or the keepers of the custom rather than as political individuals, and the home and the village tended not to be sites for marked for decolonization” (Decolonisation and the Pacific, 2016). Towards the end of the 20th century, much feminist activism was practiced through associations, many of them were created and/or led by Kanak women. Recurrent goals are the fight against sexual violence, domestic violence and feminicides, but some also struggled for sexual reprodutive rights and gender parity in politics.

The Birth of the GFKEL and Radical Militant Feminism in the 1980s ///

The “Foulards Rouges” was a group of pro-independence Kanak students which was created in 1969 by Nidoïsh Naisseline. Two years later, the Groupe 1878 was founded by Elie Poigoune, in reference to the great Kanak revolt of 1878 and its leader, the High Chief Ataï. These movements aimed to struggle for Kanak’s liberation, land restitution and then for political independence from France. During the first meetings of the “Foulards Rouges”, some of the women noticed the unequal treatment toward the women of the group and denounced it. Through this, there was a realization that Kanak women needed to organize themselves if they wanted to struggle for Kanak liberation and women’s liberation simultaneously. The idea for the Groupe des femmes kanak et exploitées en lutte (GFKEL) first arose when Suzanne Ouneï and other young Kanak from the Groupe 1878 were arrested and beaten by the police in 1974 for protesting against the celebration of September 24, 1853, the day that France took possession of the islands, and for occupying the court to protest against the imprisonment of activists. It is while in prison with Déwé Gorodé that they began to question how to address women’s liberation within the national liberation movement.

The GFKEL was created in 1982. It made itself known in January 1983 when armed military police had come to seize sawmill equipment that Ouipoin and Koinde tribes were blocking, because they had established that the settler-owned sawmill to which they belonged was polluting the river which the tribes used for their everyday water consumption. The operation ended in a conflict that resulted in the arrest of 16 Kanak men and one Kanak woman. The GFKEL protested in front of the High Commission in Nouméa in solidarity with Kanak political prisoners and five activists notably chained themselves to its gates.

In 1984, the GFKEL was one of the co-founders of the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS). One of the GFKEL primary aims was to recover all Kanak land which had been expropriated by settlers, so that unemployed Kanak women living in tribes could grow food to feed their families. They also denounced the specific oppression that they faced as women such as domestic subjugation, lack of political recognition and sexual and domestic violence. Women activists from the GFKEL were often told by men that the fight for women’s liberation was secondary to the struggle for independence, but they persevered in believing that women would always be seen as secondary if their specific struggles were not taken seriously from the beginning. The politics practiced by the GFKEL departed from an analysis of the social situation of women at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy which means that they simultaneously fought patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism.

However, the militants of the GFKEL transgressed age and gender norms in Kanak society and were perceived as “the extremists among the extremists,” as Suzanne Ouneï explained it. They ended up being gradually marginalized within the nationalist movement until the dissolution of the group in 1986. Déwé Gorodé, Suzanne Ouneï, and other activists within the GFKEL made radical demands addressed to the French state and settlers, the pro-independence movement, and settler women’s organizations. Their chant, “No Kanak liberation without women’s liberation!”, reflected an uncompromised definition of decolonization by Kanak women.

Their chant, “No Kanak liberation without women’s liberation!”, reflected an uncompromised definition of decolonization by Kanak women.

Déwé Gorodé, a Feminist Figure on Multiple Fronts ///

Déwé Gorodé grew up on the East Coast of New Caledonia’s Great Earth and studied literature in France from 1968 to 1973 to become a teacher. She was the first Kanak woman to obtain a university degree. She defends a socialist independence which refuses the elitization of the Kanak society. Criticism of the racist and patriarchal character of the western and capitalist system became her central focus.

During several international meetings, she noticed the overall ignorance of participants from Western countries concerning the situation of women in Oceania. Déwé Gorodé affirmed that women have a major role to play in the process of the decolonization of peoples. After understanding the western-centered work of the UN, Déwé Gorodé turned to a regional decolonization committee. From 1975, Gorodé attended half a dozen meetings in Oceania and North America which aimed at the internationalization of the Kanak struggle beyond the French colonial circuit. She became involved with the network of non-aligned countries, leading to conferences in Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, and Algeria.
During her stay in Suva, Gorodé contacted the Pacific branch of the United Nations International Women’s Year Organizing Committee. During the International Women’s Conference in Mexico City, Gorodé met Vanutuan activist Hilda Lini and reunited with Fijians whom she had already met during events in Oceania.

In 1994, in an interview with Suzanne Ouneï entitled “Kanak women speak,” Gorodé stressed the importance of Kanak women writing their own stories and history so that the knowledge about Kanak women’s lives and experiences is created by themselves. Indeed, her involvement is also literary as she is an acclaimed poet and writer. In her poetry and fiction, she notably denounces violence against women as well as settler colonialism.

Gorodé was the first Kanak woman involved in electoral politics from the elections of May 9, 1999, and was elected to the Assembly of the Northern Province. She served in the local government from 1999 to 2009, notably in the sector of culture, youth, sports, the status of women and citizenship.

Suzanne Ouneï, Bringing the Kanak Struggle for Liberation to the International Scene ///

Suzanne Ouneï is originally from Ouvéa island. She was involved in the independence movement from 1969. Her interest in feminism grew out of her experience in the fight against racism and sexism. She has talked about the racism she experienced as a child from white settlers (children, police officers, teachers, etc.), but also from non-Black Oceanians and Asians in Oceania. Her feminism not only addressed the settler colonial state but also the place and treatment of women in Kanak society. She was committed to a radical critique of the oppressive system under which Kanak live as well as of the anti-colonial movement she was a part of. For her, “activism isn’t just setting up roadblocks, writing on walls or making great speeches locally, regionally or internationally, but it’s what you do on the ground.”

Ouneï participated in what David Chappell called a “gendered internationalism” (The Kanak Awakening, 2014) by bearing witness to French colonialism in Kanaky worldwide. For example, in 1985, as the official representative of the FLNKS, she did a two months tour in the United States where she spoke at anti-apartheid rallies including one organized by the Free South Africa Movement in Chicago. Part of the tour’s objective was to raise funds to help establish a Kanak radio station and newspaper in Kanaky. That same year, she also spoke at the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace in Kenya. Throughout her activism, Ouneï noticed that she never received support from French women politicians implicated in women’s rights when she asked for it and that she only received political support outside of France, for example among Black and Indigenous people in Turtle Island, or Māori women in Aotearoa. The importance of the international context of the anti-colonial struggle is clear in Ouneï’s writings and speeches.

For many years, she was the editorial director of Bwenando, “Kanaky’s first newspaper”, which was set up as a counter-move by the FLNKS against the right-wing and settler monopoly on media in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Ouneï was assistant director for the Decolonisation at the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre in Suva, Fiji. It is in this context that in 1994, she organized a meeting of women from Non-Self-Governing Territories and Colonies of the Pacific in Nadi, Fiji. The aim was to establish a grassroots network of Pacific women with the initial aim of participating in the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women and NGO Forum being held in Beijing in 1995. Enabling Pacific women to come together to identify common concerns was essential. As Ouneï stated: “Despite having different colonial masters and being at different stages of struggle, the similarities of our experiences and needs are overwhelming, so we need a network to support each other wherever possible.”

This history should move us to interrogate the type of feminist politics that are thought, practiced, needed, imagined, and imaginable in Kanaky-New Caledonia.

While figures like Suzanne Ouneï, Déwé Gorodé, and the GFKEL are part of our local feminist history and memory, we should not limit ourselves to remembering them. This history should move us to interrogate the type of feminist politics that are thought, practiced, needed, imagined, and imaginable in Kanaky-New Caledonia. In 1990, Suzanne Ouneï asserted that “even if the GFKEL no longer exists, the ideas are still alive. Everything has a beginning.” For her, just like for us, “the future of the women’s struggle in Kanaky will be built by Kanak women on the ground.” ■