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My name is Kayla Ngatai Polamalu.
I was named for my major bloodlines—my middle name is that of my great aunt and it loosely translates to “tides”. My parents gave it to me so that wherever I went in life, I carried my cultural identity. It says to people “I am Māori and I am proud.”
Alongside being Māori I am also a feminist, and key to that, an intersectional one. Having existed for years, the theory of intersectionality was only named and defined in academia by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s. Its official definition is:
“The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the intersectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”
My feminism isn’t about “equality for all genders”. My feminism is more revolutionary than that. It is about overhauling the oppressive power structures that dictate the framework within which equality can be achieved. My feminism does not pander to men and it does not pander to whiteness because it is, and always will be, informed by my race.
Feminists everywhere are struggling for more representation, less objectification, and the right to feel safe—all of which are worthy causes.
But sometimes it’s really hard to celebrate when another white woman gets elected to a position of power and Māori women still aren’t being represented in candidacy. While objectification of women’s bodies everywhere is rife, women of colour are consistently hyper sexualised to a further degree—their twerking bodies dehumanised and used as props in the “liberal” performances of white women (cough, Miley, cough).
Being able to feel safe walking home at night is a right all women should have. But with Māori women stopped by police more frequently and incarcerated at rates in excess to those of their Pākehā counterparts, the bigger struggle is getting the institutions employed to protect us to treat us with respect—let alone strangers in the dark.
Actress Kerry Washington made an important point in an interview with The Guardian. Starring as Olivia Pope in the television series Scandal, Washington was the first black lead on a network primetime drama in almost 40 years, and she’s not enamoured with people celebrating her show for being “post-racial”.
“I don’t believe in post-racial… I don’t want to live in a post-race world because being black is really exciting. I mean, it’s who I am. I’m interested in living in a post-racist world, where being African American doesn’t dictate limitations on what I can do—but I don’t want to live post-race.”
Similarly, recognition of my experiences as a person of colour and the racism non-white passing women experience are and always will be integral to discourse I engage in regarding gender equality. I am uninterested in a movement that does not view those elements of my reality as imperative to creating a more just system.
In 2010, white feminists took issue with Te Papa asking women who were hapū (pregnant) and mate wahine (menstruating) to not attend a particular exhibition of taonga—calling the practice discriminatory. It would appear few put the effort into understanding why this restriction was in place. In Māori culture, particular objects are deemed to have their own wairua, and some of the taonga on display had been used in violent combat—making their wairua potentially hostile. Māori women are revered for the role they play as life-givers—their womb and reproductive systems being so tapu, so sacred, that to come close to such taonga may put both themselves and the objects at risk.
Academic Deborah Russell accused Te Papa of imposing religious and cultural values on people, conveniently forgetting Aotearoa’s history of colonialism and the imposition of Pākehā culture on Māori, and encouraged women to disregard Te Papa’s advice (which had been one of the conditions insisted on by the iwi to whom the taonga belonged).
I do not want to be part of the feminist movement Russell is a proponent of, where my people and their culture are not afforded the respect and dignity they deserve, where practices important to the continuance of tradition are disregarded because they do not marry with Pākehā notions of equality. I want no part in a movement that erases my Māori heritage, or calls for me to disregard it so that I might instead dedicate myself to the struggle for “all”. My experiences with my culture are what make me, and consequently they are what also make my feminism.
To all Māori women, in the words of Chimamanda Adichie, “never apologise for the space you occupy in the world. Make your strides long, wide and sure.” Our perspective is important and our culture is important. Kia kaha, be proud.