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Mana. Aside from being the political love child of Hone Harawira, it is also a term that is entrenched in every element of Māori culture. Endowed by ngā Atua (the Gods), it is the intangible inner force that dwells within us, and is continually transferred from one to another. Mana is the source of one’s – or a group’s – authority and honour: inherited through chiefly lineage, earned through gaining the people’s respect, and lost by trampling on the mana of others.
Mana Wahine, then, can be understood as the mana specifically held by women. It acknowledges our essential and special place in Māoridom, as carriers of te whare tangata (the womb). At the end of our lives, it is to the mana of Hine-nui-te-pō (Goddess of those passed on) we are entrusted, who cares for our wairua (spirit) eternally. Our history is rich with narratives featuring Mana Wahine, where strong female figures defy the odds, change the rules, and tell men how it is. Like everything in te ao Māori though, there is a delicate balance involved, and Mana Wahine is intrinsically linked to Mana Tāne. They exist as two forces that complement rather than oppose each other, just as the karanga (opening call performed only by women during major ceremonies such as pōhiri) and whaikōrero (formal speeches that follow karanga) work together during pōhiri.
Mana Wahine is also present in academia as Māori Women’s Studies, and examines the intersected experiences of what it is to be Māori and female. Of course, intersectionality is not new to feminism; however, there remains a space in such discussions that can only be enlightened by the intersected individuals themselves. Mana Wahine, then, refers to the authority of Māori women to make sense of their unique and increasingly complex identities, and to lead discussions about their progress within their own iwi and hapū, and within wider Māori society.
For those avid Native Affairs–watchers among you, the recent saga concerning Parliamentary pōhiri protocols only reaffirms this.
Following a pōhiri at the Beehive last year, Annette King and Maryan Street complained to the Speaker of the House after being asked to exchange their front-row seats for a place behind the men. Annette, in particular, spoke very publicly about her views on the outdated nature of Māori customs, claiming “a change is long overdue.” A Parliamentary review has thus been conducted regarding their in-house pōhiri protocols, which supposedly includes consultation with local iwi, Te Āti Awa – on whose land the Beehive currently resides.
While I understand where Annette and Maryan are coming from, the issue here is that neither of these women are Māori, nor do either of them possess a meaningful understanding of Māori culture, let alone the pōhiri process. Rather, they have thoughtlessly imposed their views of feminism and gender relations from the outside-in – and that’s not very cool, really. By making such a complaint, they not only diminish the importance of the karanga, or the reasons as to why the protocols are in place (and they’re pretty damn important reasons), but they are also disrespecting the mana of Te Āti Awa and of Te Āti Awa women by trampling on their mana as the ‘rule-setters’ for the area. If that wasn’t enough, the delicate balance of mana tāne and mana wahine is thrown by their assumption that neither are of contemporary importance, and their carelessness in assuming feminism and Mana Wahine are synonymous. All while sparking a debate that is actually not theirs to spark.
Solidarity has its limits.
Instead, I would encourage non-Māori women to support Māori women, and stand by their side, but never lead them in their own discussions – discussions, Annette and Maryan, which have been going on far longer than your lifetimes, and will continue hereafter.
Now, as someone who is merely beginning their exploration into the profundities of the Māori world, I feel my contribution to this conversation can only be brief. There is a spiritual element to this kōrero that spans far beyond my knowledge and understanding, so broad and complex that you could devote a lifetime-and-a-half to it and only begin to scratch the surface. Yet, te mana o te wahine is a part of me; it is so natural, so real, and so crucial to our identities as Māori women that we must not hesitate to speak about it at every opportunity.
After all, right now, we are talking about women and men, and in time, we may be discussing the meaning of gender itself. But regardless of where the conversation leads, the mana must remain in the hands of the beholder, kia mau tonu ai te mana o te wahine.