Pōwhiri and gender essentialism

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)


8 thoughts on “Pōwhiri and gender essentialism

  1. I personally think that these practices are sexist, and fall into the areas you have mentioned of benevolent sexism, but these are up to each iwi and hapu to work out. Tradition is a hard thing to shake. I disagree that Parliament cannot decide for itself its tikanga in these matters. Parliament is (in theory) there to represent us all, and there is no reason I can see to give Te Atiawa kawa precedence in this setting. Parliament is not a marae. The House should develop its tikanga so it is respectful to all . How iwi and hapu deal with themselves is up to them, and I have no voice there, but with Parliament I believe I do. And I do not want women, or anyone, put in one place because of what’s between their legs.


    1. Hi Michael,
      Thanks for your comment! To be clear, my criticism was aimed at whether Maori should change their powhiri practices in general because the Speaker has an opinion. I am weary however of tikanga being appropriated or dictated by Parliament given the ToW and the principle of partnership. But I personally agree that women should not be excluded simply because they are women!


      1. I agree – powhiri practices are in general none of anyone’s business but the iwi or hapu concerned. I may have an opinion on them, but I do not expect to have a voice on the mater. But I do not think Parliament fits the category of marae, or iwi or hapu property – hence it can and should find its own way in these matters.


  2. As I understand it as well, there are iwi where women have always been allowed to do whaikōrero. It seems that a lot of the time people want Māori culture to be this one monolithic thing, especially I think as Pākehā maybe we’re not used to those big regional variations in some things and it would be easier to just pretend there’s one answer so we ignore the fact that it’s not that simple. Not sure. Either way, while I’m happy to school a white guy on WHY it is done that way if he’s talking bullshit I’m certainly not qualified to discuss WHETHER it should be that way.


    1. I had huge reservations in publishing this piece, because I too doubted that I was suitably qualified to have an opinion. You are well versed in tikanga Maori and I find it difficult that people like yourself feel unable to have an opinion on these issues or are berated sometimes for even daring to speak. And yes there are some iwi who allow women to whaikorero. Its why I think the narrative shouldn’t be dominated by iwi or hapu or individuals who have a preference for the dominant practice.


  3. Kia ora, he mihi tēnei ki a koe i taukumekume haere i te kaupapa hirahira nei. I have to agree, there is a powerful argument to be made that our tikanga across most marae and similar settings are gender essentialist. I think it is important that this argument and the drive for change is led from within our own whānau, hapū and iwi, and that the leaders of change are our wāhine Māori, such as yourself, supported by tāne Māori, particularly those who sit on the paepae. I wrote my blog because I was so very uncomfortable with the Gaze of Pākehā upon our tikanga, and the potential for that use of power to deconstruct our tikanga in a way that colonises us again.

    One of the difficult issues we will need to wrestle with as hau kainga as we attempt to make the change to bring gender equality is how this will fit with story we are trying to communicate in that process. This is and will be complicated, particular as all of our purakau that underpin our tikanga have been irretrievably affected by Christianity and colonisation. In Tauranga Moana there has been some interest and conversation towards rebalancing ira wāhine and irā tāne in relation to our atua, as a first step on this journey to greater equality.


  4. Great post. This issue raises its head in various guises periodically and inevitably Māori commentators say “it’s up to Māori to have this conversation and make any changes” but fail to acknowledge the reluctance to start a discussion.

    Personally I have no interest in women being kaikōrero for a simple, selfish reason… I don’t want men to be kaikaranga! That’s an honour and gift passed down to me through generations of women and I’ll kick up a huge stink if a guy even tries it. No logic. No political stance. Just pure emotion and self interest.


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