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Historically, feminism has always been more widely discussed in relation to social, political, and economic movements in Western culture. However, a slightly more diverse representation of feminist ideologies has been observed in more recent times. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talks speech features in Queen Bey’s hit “Flawless”, and there is of course the endlessly important work of Pakistani teen activist Malala Yousafzai. But despite all this, not much is devoted to discussions of feminism in Māori culture. I certainly did not learn the label of “feminist” on the marae. But I think my upbringing immersed in my māoritanga has, nevertheless, been incredibly influential on who I am as a feminist.
In cultural practices and rituals, Māori have established ideas surrounding the roles each gender can play. However, these roles reflect no hierarchy, but rather, envisage all people working together as one, well-oiled Māori machine. Our cultural practices have been efficiently honed into over hundreds of years. In a pōwhiri, it is the kuia, the matriarch of the marae, who calls visitors onto the marae. In most iwi, it is the men who then host the whaikōrero speeches, but in some Eastern tribes, the women present speeches as well. In our rituals, our kapa haka, our everyday social practices, there are alternative understandings of the different roles that genders can play. These roles come from spiritual constructions of tapu and noa, of life and death, and above all, our beliefs recognise the value of all people.
Māori have a very strong oral tradition; many of my family members love to talk. The stories told to me by family members and teachers helped me, as a young person, to articulate Māori values. My hometown is named for the acts of Wairaka, a brave female leader in local mythology. Wairaka noticed the waka Mātaatua floating away into the ocean, and grabbed the paddle to row the women and children to safety, even though touching the paddle was sacredly forbidden to her as a woman. In Māori mythology, the land is personified in Papatūānuku, the mother of gods. Above all else, Māori hold a very sacred respect for the land, as a giver of life and substance. The concept of “Whare Tangata” celebrates the womb, and asserts the connection between both the land and women as givers of life to the people. Māori myths that I was told over and over again offered a substantial and diverse range of female figures—Hollywood cinema could learn a thing or two from. Stories featured lovers and fighters, happy women and sad women, figures that were rooted in history, and figures that were magical, all of whom influenced me immensely.
This is not to say that there are no issues for Māori women in society, both in contemporary times and historically. But here, I can acknowledge the work of groups such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League. They work hard to promote Māori values of kotahitanga, mana tangata, whanaungatanga, and hauora for Māori today. I have always been surrounded by influential women who shaped my conception of what it was to be myself in the world. Aunties who are just as capable of bringing back food from a hunt as they are at weaving together a harakeke flax mat. Grandmotherly figures who remain formidable leaders on the marae. I have witnessed young Māori women deliver technically excellent and culturally beautiful whaikōrero. This culture is a thing of beauty, and something I am extremely proud of. Ko au he wāhine, ko au he Māori, ko au he tangata.