Following an Editorial piece in the NZH on 8 January 2014, there is currently a debate (in NZ) regarding whether Māori women should be able to whaikōrero (make a formal speech) at pōwhiri (welcome ceremony) which requires that they sit on the paepae (orators bench).
The discourse is seemingly lead mostly by males – both white and Māori (Update: I am now starting to see voices from across the spectrum, and no I haven’t been reading the NZH comments section).
I was going to publish last night, but decided I should make sure I am certain of my views, since 1) they are probably very controversial and 2)I have been grappling with this issue since it was discussed in one of my Jurisprudence classes at University a couple of years ago (raised by Māori Law Lecturer Valmaine Toki). I decided to publish because I believe that as a Māori woman, I am not alone in my views, so I make no apology for disagreeing with the narrative largely lead by Māori men.
Graham Cameron writes a beautiful piece on the story of the pōwhiri and introduces his views therein. I say its beautiful because he tells the story of pōwhiri so eloquently. And I agree that pōwhiri is not intended to dominate women. But my contention is that it is not sufficient to accuse critics of cultural imperialism while ignoring the views of Māori women who may in fact want to whaikōrero at pōwhiri.
I was introduced to the concepts of ‘gender essentialism’ and ’benevolent sexism’ by a Pākehā woman yesterday. And I agree with her that these concepts are prevalent at pōwhiri and that they are discriminatory irrespective of custom. Additionally, these concepts are not unique to Pākehā culture.
Cameron’s piece alludes to the idea that because these tikanga customs and practices are culturally essentialist, gender essentialism is justified on these grounds.
How about that – a man justifying what is and isn’t important to the experience of Māori women at pōwhiri, you know, because culture dictates it.
Cultural essentialism does not justify gender essentialism. The mere fact I am a woman and must be protected (benevolent sexism anyone?) so I can have babies is no justification for depriving me the opportunity to whaikōrero at pōwhiri. I acknowledge that this is a really uncharitable interpretation of Cameron’s post, but as a Māori woman, this is how it reads to me.
A great proportion of this debate also centres around how karanga and whaikōrero are equally important aspects of the pōwhiri. And this is true, but it doesnt detract from the fact that they might not be equally important to the Māori women who actually want to participate in the whaikōrero.
Do I think that Māori should change this practice because the Speaker of the House says so? Absolutely not. Do I think Māori should have the discussion within their respective whānau, hapū, and iwi, allowing Māori women to express their own preferences and making consensus based decisions? Absolutely.
As Māori we are consistently talking about the fluidity of our tikanga, yet when a male privilege is challenged – cultural imperialism!
Admittedly, I am not as familiar with feminist theories and the various nuances as others are and I do feel like I might be less protective of this particular cultural aspect than others because I was raised in a predominantly urban environment with limited exposure to my Māori heritage.
But I will not sit idly back and let this discussion be derailed by the Speaker of the House and the dominant culture or by Māori men justifying gender essentialism based on a context that no longer afflicts our interactions with each other. Tikanga is fluid. It can adapt. But its up to Māori to decide if they will adapt.
(Note: this post was originally much larger, but I decided to reduce it so the basic message isn’t lost in a typhoon of academic speak)