Upon hearing the words “Tonga” and “athlete,” the first thing that most likely comes to mind is an image of Olympian Pita Nikolas Taufatofua in all his oily, muscular glory. Taufatofua competed in taekwondo.
But the Pacific nation is better known for another sport, rugby, for which it has an undying love.
So Tongans and rugby fans around the world were outraged when it was revealed recently that the country’s Ministry of Education and Training was apparently imposing a ban on females participating in rugby — as well as boxing — in public schools.
The ban was even more perplexing in light of the fact that the country has had a national women’s rugby sevens team since 2006, their head coach, Fehoko Tu’ivai, told The Washington Post in an email Wednesday. (Rugby sevens are played by teams of seven playing seven-minute halves, rather than teams of 15 playing 40-minute halves.)
Conflicting explanations came from the government.
According to a letter from the ministry reported by Matangi Tonga Online, the purpose of the regulation was to preserve the dignity of Tongan women and hold on to Tongan cultural values.
But officials told New Zealand media that they canceled the sports to allow more time for the students to attend the government’s public schools. After all, they had missed school time during a cyclone last month.
The letter comes less than a year after ABC Development International reported that the country integrated rugby into the physical education curriculum for primary schools.
A member of the girls’ touch rugby team at Tonga High School told Matangi Tonga Online that her team was pulled out of a competition and “told to stop playing rugby because they were girls.”
The website also reported that the school’s principal confirmed she was directed by the Ministry of Education and Training to stop female students from playing rugby for the school.
Tongan women have played rugby for years.
“Rugby is one of the oldest sports in Tonga,” wrote Tu’ivai, who is also president of the Tonga Women’s Rugby Association. “We have realised that we Tongans were born to be great sportsmen and women especially in rugby.”
Keeping girls from playing would stunt the growth of the country’s beloved sport, she said, adding that exposure to the game not only produces athletes, but also referees and coaches.
Off the field, the ban — seen as a threat to women’s rights — drew criticism from scores of people ranging from Tongans to Olympians and politicians.
‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, a women’s rights advocate, told Radio New Zealand that the letter has undermined efforts to improve gender equality and set the country back “a hundred years.”
“It takes us right back to the thinking that education is only academic and for girls to remain in that kind of academic lane, sports is just the alternative for boys,” Guttenbeil-Likiliki said.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke out against the ban.
According to Radio New Zealand, Ardern said she played touch rugby in school and would “encourage all the young women to engage in whatever sporting code they are interested in.”
Two-time Olympic shot put champion Valerie Adams, who competed for New Zealand but is half Tongan, took to social media to respond to the letter.
“Tongan women must be free to choose their destiny, and not be held back by misguided and stubborn misinterpretation,” Adams shared in a Facebook post that included a photo of the letter.
Adams was joined by hundreds of other Facebook users who also shared and commented on the post, describing the ban as “prehistoric” and praising rugby for the opportunities it brings to women.
One user wrote that had she stuck to Tongan tradition and custom she would have missed out on a successful career in the Australian military, where she also played rugby.
Although people are concerned the letter will halt the progression of women’s rights, Tu’ivai wrote in an email that she believes it will make the movement stronger. She added that she plans to continue empowering women through the sport.
Amid all this backlash, however, Tongan officials are saying there’s been a misunderstanding.
Manu ’Akau’ola, acting chief education officer of the Ministry of Education, said the letter was written due to concerns that students missed too much school after a devastating Category 4 cyclone struck Tonga in February, according to Radio New Zealand.
“Our minister had directed that all government schools, because of the cyclone, [that] they are not going to be involved in any sports during this term because we have already lost enough school time — class time,” ’Akau’ola told Radio New Zealand. “So his direction is not because we’re not supportive of the sporting events, it’s just make up the lost time we’ve lost because of the cyclone.”
When Tu’ivai heard this was the intention behind the letter, she only had one response.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” she wrote.