I'm Tongan - My Mother: “Girls DON’T Box, Respect Yourself and Your Body…."
By Joanna Bourke
Yes – Im 100% Tongan, born and raised here in Aotearoa. As the eldest of 5 siblings – I had a somewhat strict upbringing – and only has been in the last 10 years have I come to understand that it has a lot to do with being a female – and being Tongan.
Today I spend most my time living in Tonga – immersing myself in the culture and the community to help make a difference – and on the face of it – looks straightforward.
It gets frustrating at times – but you develop a resilience to just push through despite the challenges.
Being a woman – one who is educated and experienced – it doesn’t mean shit in Tonga. People get by and succeed by who you know – and not necessarily what you know – but over time (a long time) people get you – they get you – but yet they are still dubious – eventually – the penny drops.
It is hard being a female in Tonga
It is hard being a female in business in Tonga
It is tough being a Tongan female in Tonga
If you want to be respected and be really known – you just keep showing up.
You keep doing what you do.
Thats what I do – I just keep punching on in Tonga, and I continue to do what I do and what I believe I am great at.
The Boxing Ring
I got my shit together in May 2015 – I decided to train for my first ever boxing match. It took 6 months.
I walked to and from the gym 3 times a week for early morning training – with additional training sessions outside of that – to prepare. There was the dieting, massages, steam rooms, physio appointments, – it was a tough regime – in addition to holding down a full-time job as the GM of 2 large hospitality businesses and yeah I was also a full-time single Mum to a 2 year old.
I loved every minute of it – I thrived on the challenge that it presented – I didn’t do it so that I could lose weight – I did it because I believed in myself that I could do it – and smash the ceiling out there about girls not being able to do well at certain things – like boxing.
Everyone in my circle was supportive of this journey. The chefs prepared special meals, my staff made sure that I made time for the training sessions, my sister did the walks and rpm classes with me, my brother and dad helped out with sparring sessions in the backyard.
Except my Mum.
This is when my Mum played her ‘Tongan’ card.
This is when my Mum became a ‘Tongan’
This is when Mum reminded me I was a woman.
The Tongan Mother
Mum hated it that I had gone against her wishes to enter the ring.
I had been wanting to box for years – and each time I would bring it up – she would scowl and say – “Remember your a woman, you need to respect yourself and your body. There are so many other sports out there – do one of those – just not boxing”
That was my Mum being ‘Tongan’ – despite leading a very modern NZ life for most of her being.
It hurt me to hear my mum say that – but she was one of those mothers where the saying goes ’silence was golden’.
Except for BOXING. Every time I would bring up the subject – I could see that it really riled her.
If you are Tongan (or Polynesian) you will understand this.
I had aunts (lots of them) – reminding you (a.k.a.telling you off ) that you’re a girl and too stop acting like a boy – and to stop doing things boys do, and stop playing with the boys.
It was a Tongan thing – I didn’t know it at the time – but looking back at it now – they were just instilling that cultural belief – that girls had to conform to certain ways – as did the boys. I remember – girls would sit in one room – and the boys in another – and we weren’t allowed to even watch TV together.
It was different at my home – as the oldest, siblings 2,3 & 4 were boys and there was no difference. My brothers were taught to respect their 2 sisters. My sister and I in return were taught to box our brothers if they ever stepped out of line! (Dad taught us)
When I traveled to Tonga for my first ever visit at the tender age of 15 – my Tongan grandparents were less stringent. I got away with so much! I would get up early in the morning and follow my boy cousins to the wharf where they would go fishing – and we would hang out in their hut with the neighbours and talk shit and laugh – and even watch movies on the verandah….with my Grandma supervising.
Those were the fun days – getting away with not having to conform to the tradition where girls and boys were separated from having fun together outside of bible sessions and church.
So I accepted, that bullshit aside – my Mum just didn’t like me partaking in boxing – because it was a sport best left for the boys.
November 2015 – I entered the ring – I fought a younger female – we trained together – we were friendly to each other – right up to when we were standing backstage getting ready to enter the ring.
Thats not the excuse for my losing – there is no excuse for the loss – the better fighter on the night won the bout.
I fought my battle in a ballroom filled with 700 people – 690 people didn’t know me well and they all cheered us on for the 2 x 2 minute rounds.
Breathless, Battered, Bruised – I stood there proud in front of the crowd as the ref raised the winner’s arm, and out of the corner of my eye – there was Mum at the end of the ring pretending to look happy.
She followed me back to the dressing rooms so that I could shower and change – and I said to her ‘Mum I want to do another fight -so I can win!”
With that mixed sound of relief and disappointment – she scowled once again and said ‘No more! You’re a mother, a sister, an aunt and my daughter – and they’ll be no more of this nonsense understand. Once is enough – just stick to going to the gym – just no more boxing”
This has been the only time where my Mum has meddled in my choices – so I decided for once in my life to listen to her!
Not because I was beaten,
No because I was bruised,
But because in her Tongan eyes, boxing as a sport was not for women, girls or ME.
My parents like most parents are instrumental in our successes.
My entire family have played a role in my success for being the woman that I am today.
I have smashed the ceilings in my personal defeats on many fronts.
If there is one mantra that BOTH my parents have instilled – You can do anything!
So as a female, a mother , an entrepreneur, a sister, an aunt and a friend – I know that I can do ANYTHING!
My gender, my race, my culture and my curves – are just my weapons – the weapons for my success.
How do we find a happy medium in comprehending our cultural traditions with the relevance of issues today?
Where I don’t agree with a recent decision by the Tongan Minister of Education in banning girls in playing rugby or boxing – perhaps like my mother – they cling to that belief that there are domains that are best left to the other gender?
You just need to understand and appreciate those traditional old world beliefs – and whether you choose to follow them or not – the power is in striking the right balance to defeat your purpose.