The Muumuu and Culture

Over the past months, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several conversations with fellow FSM citizens about a number of topics related to our people’s culture. This particular article will be on the topic of the muumuu or the skirt.

I’ve asked many questions to many people and collected their responses into two categories, The male responses and the female responses. Since the participants of this conversation have asked to remain anonymous I will label the conversation as if it were between three people; between myself (Me/OA), a male participant (Man), and a female participant (Woman). I’ve listed my questions and their responses from both participants.

Responses are not direct quotes, they have been re-written and re-worded for clarity.

The idea of this article is to start a conversation about culture in the FSM (specifically Chuuk State), and the role of the muumuu in our culture today.

OA: What are your thoughts on the muumuu? First of all, do you like it? Do you like its function in our culture?

Man: I like it, it is respectful.

Woman: Yes, it is very respectful and it’s also very comfortable especially back home, because of the warm weather.

OA: What about for those who choose to wear it abroad? For example, there are many Micronesians living in the US mainland, in colder areas, but they still choose to wear the muumuu. What do you think about that?

Man: Like I said, it’s very respectful. They wear it because it is not suggestive, it doesn’t show much skin and form. That’s very culturally respectful to me.

Woman: It’s also a show of pride. When you wear the muumuu, you are carrying your culture with you. You are displaying your pride and love of your people.

OA: You mention, that it doesn’t show much skin. Has that always been a part of culture? That the women stay covered?

Woman: As much as I know yes. for as long as I know it is disrespectful for women to show much skin and figure. That’s why the muumuus and even skirts go all the way down to the ankles. They are also loose fitting so they don’t show the figure of a woman. It is to show respect to your male relatives, your brothers, father, uncles etc.

Man: For the current generation yes, but I think it was never always that way. From what I know, the lower body of the women is covered, from the hips to below the knees. But it was not always a big deal for women to go topless, in some islands women still go topless.

OA: The muumuu was introduced by missionaries. What do you think about that?

Man: It’s good. The missionaries are a good thing for us.

Woman: We took it and we made it a part of our culture. Some women added lace to it, the muumuus are now very colorful and bright. Also the skirts, they’re very stylish and have many designs and pictures on them. When we have church or family gatherings we make uniforms. The muumuu has really become a part of our lives.

OA: Would you say that the muumuu is more important in some states than others?

Man & Woman: Yes, in Chuuk.

OA: Why is that?

Man & Woman: Because of culture and religion.

Man: Religion and family are very important to the Chuukese people. For the women, the muumuu can be a symbol of your church and family. Through uniforms and sometimes even writings that they stitch on to their clothes.

Women: Chuuk takes it seriously. The best materials are coming from Chuuk. It has really become a part of the lifestyle there.

OA: Is religion more important in Chuuk than the other States?

Man & Woman: Maybe not religion, but muumuuu yes.

OA: Why do you think that is?

Man: I think it’s because missionaries were the first real foreigners who showed a strong interest in Chuuk. In Pohnpei and Kosrae there were many traders. In Pohnpei I think there were just as many traders as missionaries. But in places where you found more missionaries, you will find a big muumuu influence.

Woman: The missionaries really established themselves and tried to change the culture of Chuuk. If you look at Pohnpei, religion doesn’t have as strong of a hold on the lifestyle. Traditional chiefs still have power there and it’s the same in Yap. Maybe that’s why you don’t really see as many women wearing muumuus there.

OA: So there is a strong relationship between religion and muumuus.

Man & Woman: Yes.

Woman: There seems to be a separation of religion and culture. You can see that clearly in Yap and Pohnpei. But in Chuuk, religion has become a part of the culture. Religion has taken the place of many traditions. You can see it in the songs and the dances, the words are now Christian but they are still sung like traditional chants.

Man: In Chuuk, religion has taken the place of a lot of tradition and culture. In Yap and Pohnpei traditional leaders or chiefs still have power. Chuuk you see religious leaders having real power and influence.

OA: Is it right to say that religion took over culture/tradition?

Man & Woman: Not really.

Woman: Maybe you can say that is more true in Chuuk and Kosrae but not Yap and Pohnpei. Like I said, the missionaries were trying to replace traditional systems with their religion. They were more successful in Chuuk. But in Pohnpei for example, missionaries tried to get rid of sakau drinking, but obviously that didn’t work. Chiefs in Pohnpei still have real power.

Man: It looks like that is what is happening. But it is difficult to say, because culture and tradition is always changing. The culture 100 years ago was different than the one 500 years before that. And the one 500 years ago was different 500 years before that one. Culture will always be changing it’s just part of life. So yes, religion changed cultures but so did the arrival of traders, military, and even other Micronesians. I think the right thing to say is that Christianity has become a part of Micronesia’s culture today.

OA: Do you think religion has been a good thing for our islands?

Man & Woman: Yes.

OA: Why?

Man: Because it brought the word of god. Also, If not for missionaries we would still be fighting foreigners and ourselves. Christianity opened our islands to the rest of the world.

Woman: It showed us the world and the path to save our souls. For Chuuk, it also unified the people. Because before missionaries and foreigners, the Chuukese were always fighting each other. Christianity was one thing that all the people in Chuuk had in common.

OA: As far as introducing the world to the islands, or the islands to the world. Didn’t merchants and traders do that too? What was different about the missionaries?

Man & Woman: The traders wanted something out of us, our islands our resources. But the missionaries wanted us. They wanted to educate us and save us.
OA: Going back to the muumuu. A few people have compared it to the Muslim hijab or burqa. They say that they are similar because they achieve the same goal, to cover the woman from view. But the hijab or burka are also seen to be oppressive and cruel to women. So, are they the same? What do you think of this comparison?

Man & Woman: No, they are not the same. That comparison goes too far.

OA: Well, let’s look at the similarities. The muumuu is worn to show respect to the men. It was introduced by a religion. It is taught to young girls as the appropriate way to dress. Aren’t these the same?

Man: The burqa is too far. It is worn just to cover women from view. But the muumuu is worn for cultural respect and also because it is comfortable to wear back home.

Woman: Yes, but the muumuu as I said before has seen changes. They are now very colorful, we can put lace on it. They are not always loose material, some women can put elastic on it. Slowly the muumuu will continue to see changes but the burqa will always be the same.

OA: As far as comfort goes, what about women who don’t live back home and live in colder climates like in the USA, would you say they are being forced to wear the muumuu, when they don’t have to? The culture in the US is different, would it be ok for women to wear other things when they’re not back home?

Woman: No, they are not being forced. They are wearing it to show their pride and to honor their culture. They choose to wear it. But yes, they can wear shorts and pants and even tank tops but not when they are at home. At home they have to wear the muumuu as a sign of respect to their elders.

Man: It is their choice to wear the muumuu and the skirts.

OA: We talk about choice. It is their choice to wear the muumuu and/or the skirt. But it seems from our conversation that it is not. It is the elders’ decision. Specifically, the men’s decision. Is that right for me to say?

Man: Not really. At first when they are young, the girls will be told how to dress appropriately. But they can choose what they want to wear when they grow up.

OA: But won’t telling them what to wear at a young age lead them to choose what you want them to wear when they become older? And when they get older and they choose to not wear the muumuu or the skirts don’t they get scolded, and sometime humiliated by their peers? A very extreme way to say it is, isn’t that a form of brainwashing?

Man: That’s too far. I don’t think so. If you call that brainwashing then you can say the same for advertisements and commercials in the US. They show half naked women and sexual scenes in public. It makes young girls think that they need to be skinny, or show their bodies, and be open with their sex life. We don’t want that for our girls. That is disrespectful.

Woman: When we talk about choice. If a girl wears something very revealing she’ll get stared at by men. That is very uncomfortable to be walking around town and have men stare at you and even say dirty things to you. If you wear the muumuu you can hopefully stop that so you can go about your day without getting harassed. I think that is the oppression. When men look at women as objects. The muumuu tries to eliminate that.

OA: Those are fair points. But can’t we say that the muumuu can be responsible for that too? Because women are covered up, the men have become very sensitive to the female body. In the past, women went topless and people didn’t pay attention to it because it was normal. Won’t excessive coverups lead to men being overly sensitive to the female form?

Man: Are you suggesting that women go naked? [laughs].

Woman: That’s true. But we have to find a balance I guess. It will also take time. For now the muumuu is part of our culture. Who knows what it will be in the future. Like you said, maybe 100 or 200 years ago it was the style to go topless and wear grass skirts, now it’s the muumuu. Who knows, maybe shorts and bikinis will be OK 100 years from now. But it needs to change on our own terms, by our own decisions. It shouldn’t be forced.

OA: Well, wouldn't you say that religion forced the muumuu onto us? Or do you think that we chose to wear it?

Woman: I don't know that, no one remembers that long ago.

Man: You can say that it was forced. But it was for good reason. Because we were not civilized. We would still be living like we were in the old times if not for missionaries.

OA: But it wasn't only missionaries who introduced us to the outside world. There were explorers, merchants and governments too.

Man: Yes, but like we talked about, those people wanted something from us. They wanted our islands, our coconuts, our waters.

Woman: They had their own agenda to make business and to grow their country. Their agenda was for themselves. The missionaries wanted to save us, they wanted to help us.

OA: So, do we think that the missionaries replacing our cultures and our traditions was a good thing? Didn't the missionaries want our souls? Did the missionaries do anything wrong?

Man: They almost made some of our important traditions disappear. For example traditional navigation. The missionaries wanted to end it. They tried to stop sakau drinking and our chief systems which I don't like that they tried to do that. Some of our old language has disappeared or is going away because of them too, like the itang language. They ended our traditional religions, that was a good thing because that was wrong. But really, the missionaries did more good things for us than bad. When there was disease in the islands they were there to help us. Our entire people almost went extinct because of diseases. But the missionaries were there to save us.

Woman: I don't like to think about that too much. I think that what has happened has happened for a reason. We should be thankful to god for what they did for our people. They didn't want our souls, they wanted to bring our souls to god.

OA: Is there something for men like the muumuu? I mean, what does the culture say about what men should wear.

Man & Woman: No, not really. Cover yourself appropriately.

OA: Do you think this is fair?

Man: Yes because women are not like men. When a man sees a woman's body we can get crazy. It's just natural for us to be attracted to the woman's body.

Woman: I don't think about it.

OA: Do you think women are not as attracted to the male body as men are to the woman's?

Woman: I think men will act on their emotions or their desires more than women. Women are taught at a young age to be modest. It's not nice to think about things like that.

Man: It's not the same. Women are not attracted to us like how we are attracted to them. Men are very shallow, we look at the outside. But women are more complicating. The body is not that important to them.

OA: Do you think that people feel that way because there hasn't been much restrictions on what men should wear? In other words, do you think that if women were not made to dress conservatively that we would not look at them like objects?

Man: No, because like I said men and women are different. Women are not as interested in the body like men. The man's body is not very interesting [laughs]. It doesn't matter what you do, men will always desire women. But women they have no choice but men [laughs].

Woman: So men should wear muumuus? [laughs]. I don't think it's the same for men and women.

OA: So after our conversation, would you still say that the muumuu has been a good thing?

Man & Woman: Yes.

OA: Any other thoughts?

Man: The muumuu is good for us. It's respectful. And women look very beautiful wearing them.

Woman: This is a tough conversation. For me, I like the muumuu. I think it's appropriate and it doesn't objectify women. It gives us freedom to do our daily work without worrying about being stared at impolitely.

OA: My final question. If you have a daughter, will you tell them to wear the muumuu?

Man: Yes. I think it's good. Everything I've said, I think it's a good thing. When she gets older then yes she can choose what she wants to wear but I'll let her know If I like it or not. She's still my daughter.

Woman: I have a daughter. I tell her to wear the muumuu when she's at home or with people from back home. She can wear what she wants but when she's around family or during gatherings she has to wear her muumuus or skirts.