Samoa has produced some of the world’s best rugby players. But for decades, cultural norms prevented women from playing the sport.
As a young girl, Tafale longed to play the game, even though her parents discouraged her from taking it up.
Now a single mother, she embraces Samoan customs, known as the Fa’a Samoa, and diligently meets her family responsibilities. But she hasn’t given up her rugby dreams.
When Olympic try-outs are announced, Tafale is determined to make the women’s national team. Can she maintain local traditions and still fulfil her ambitions?
By Jihan Hafiz
My mother and I were at the Fiji airport en route to my grandmother’s funeral when we first met the Samoan women’s rugby team.
Initially, we were shocked to see these young women in rugby training gear, some with cuts and bruises on their faces, arms and legs.
My mother looked at me and said, “surely, they are not rugby players.”
We asked one of the women and she confirmed they indeed were members of Samoa’s national rugby team and had just finished second place in a rugby tournament in Hong Kong. I was both shocked and fascinated.
I did not grow up in Samoa, but I was raised by a Samoan mother, and from an early age I learned that respect for family, one’s elders and the Fa’a Samoa, “the Samoan way,” were sacrosanct.
Women playing rugby seemed to fly in the face of the strict gender roles that form part of the Fa’a Samoa, an all-encompassing code of conduct whose origins run as deep as the people’s history.
The culture of respect (faaaloalo) is ingrained in all Samoans living on or off the island. To be seen in any way challenging the Fa’a Samoa is a struggle few Samoans are willing to risk.
So how did these women, born and raised in Samoa’s socially conservative villages, convince their families and traditional societies to let them play a brutally physical sport like rugby?
Samoan women have the physical strength and mental toughness to play rugby. From an early age, Samoan girls and boys work on family farms known as plantations and are accustomed to physically demanding tasks, such as planting taro, hauling coconuts, and manually cutting the grass with a machete.
“Taro is stronger than potato” is a common expression in Samoa to explain the toughness of their rugby players in comparison to their potato-eating competitors from Western countries.
Samoan boys are encouraged to put that toughness into practice by playing the national sport, but for decades, girls were discouraged, if not prohibited, from becoming rugby players.
All of the women on Samoa’s national rugby team have faced daunting obstacles.
In nearly every village on the island women are forbidden from wearing shorts or engaging in men’s activities. If they snuck away from their chores to watch the boys play or attempt to play themselves, they were physically disciplined.
Such was the case for Tafale, a 24-year-old single mother whose short stature and mischievous smile belie her fearless ferocity on the rugby pitch.
Tafale dreamt of playing rugby since she was a child. But she was ridiculed by family members and neighbours for trying to play. Tafale fought a long and lonely struggle to be on the team. Like many of her teammates, she had to walk the thin line of respecting the Fa’a Samoa and training to play rugby.
Days after I met Tafale, her father dragged her out of practice, demanding she return home to take care of her daughter. Tafale was not alone. Other players frequently missed practice because family prevented them from going.
The women’s team’s assistant coach, Filoi, had played on the national team herself until recently and suffered through the same family and societal opposition. Much of her time was spent visiting the players’ families to try and convince them that their daughters could be rugby players without abandoning their responsibilities or violating the Fa’a Samoa.
Filoi must convince not only the players’ families, but the players themselves. As determined as Tafale is to play rugby, her dedication to her family and the Fa’a Samoa is unwavering.
In many ways, the sense of purpose and strong sense of identity instilled by the Fa’a Samoa have been a source of strength for her. But in other ways, Tafale’s unquestioning respect for elders gets in the way of her quest to excel at rugby.
It is this internal struggle to reconcile her dream of playing rugby with her dedication to the Fa’a Samoa that is at the heart of this documentary.
For years, Tafale and Filoi climbed mountains in silence, hoping their determination and dedication to the game would convince Samoan society women are just as capable as men at playing rugby.
But their struggle now is not only personal. Tafale, Filoi and other female rugby players are involved in a growing effort in Samoa to convince families and villages to encourage girls and young women to play rugby.
Supported by Samoa’s Rugby Union, an initiative known as “Get Into Rugby” sends female players out to villages to set up training programmes inside schools and villages.
Many parents remain skeptical, but Tafale believes that the next generation of rugby players, which include her own daughter, will be able to focus their time and energy on improving their rugby skills without having to worry about opposition from family and society.