By Lt. Jessica Koningisor
Staff Judge Advocate, Pacific Partnership 2015
The engagement was another event on the Fiji schedule, a schedule already jam-packed with subject matter expert exchanges, community health engagements and opportunities for Pacific Partnership leadership to meet with Fijian Government and Republic of Fiji Military Forces leadership. But by the end of the night, the engagement proved to be one of my more memorable times in Fiji.
We had been in Suva for four days, and in that time I had interacted with many female Fijians, mothers at the mall while browsing Fijian woodcrafts, nurses in pink smocks in the passageways of the ship, and cooks and hostesses in the local lawn bowling club restaurant who I was told were the wives of club owners who filled these roles while the men played the game.
So when our diverse group of junior and senior officers, male and female, of several different nations and even more professional backgrounds from Pacific Partnership arrived at the Officers Club of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces for an evening social event, I was not surprised to be greeted by women in traditional dress passing out drinks. One soldier graciously guided us into the Mess where there was a cluster of Fijian military officers in brightly colored shirts and sulu.* All of them were men, with one exception. Major Amelia Tadu’s presence was stately, elegant and assured, an RFMF military officer, and a woman, with clear command and respect of her peers. Also in bright traditional dress and jewelry, amongst the sea of men, she was instantly relatable and my friends and I were instantly drawn to her. As my friends and I bombarded her with questions, we discovered she was a Staff Officer 3 for Logistics who had been serving for nearly 30 years in the military, was one of only nine female RFMF officers currently serving, and one of the original first seven women RFMF officers who were commissioned in December 1988. Our curiosity turned to awe. We shared stories, exchanged personal and professional histories, and without any explicit statement, recognized an understanding of our mutual experience as women in a male dominated profession.
As the night progressed with music and dancing and ever full glasses of sweet wine and dry draft beer, the Fijian military band moved from American Blue Grass, to an Australian pop classic, to Fijian slow songs and eventually the American, Australian, Canadian, Kiwi and Fijian officers began singing and laughing, giving high fives and pats on the back. It was the kind of raw human diplomacy that I associate with a bygone era, where music and clinking glasses fosters multilateral partnerships that secure our world. But there was one marked difference I noted from the scene in 2015 and the scene I imagined in that same Mess from previous decades. The women dancing around me were not spouses or girlfriends in supporting roles to the male officers present. The women were nurses and doctors and pilots and scientists and officers themselves. And in that moment, I appreciated my female peers with whom I share this experience of serving all the more as I watched Major Tadu stand as one women among her fellow officers. And I appreciated the American female officers who preceded me, and stood as one woman like Amelia. I was struck thinking of her strength and her example, to the women of Pacific Partnership, and the girls of Fiji.
Amelia was a proud and welcoming RFMF officer who will forever embody my image of the heart and grace of the Fijian people. And I smiled in hindsight, thinking how I had first imagined the women of Pacific Partnership going out into the host nation communities and serving as an example to the women we would encounter, when in fact, it is women like Major Amelia Tadu who are the greatest examples and provide the most significant contribution to the women, peace and security aspirations of the Pacific Partnership mission.
*Regarded as the national dress of Fiji, a sulu is a traditional piece of clothing worn by both men and women, consisting of a rectangle piece of cloth of varying length wrapped around the hips and legs and fastened at the waist.