Colonisation has had a particular effect on Indigenous wahine that disadvantages them to this day
The Mana Wahine Kaupapa Inquiry hearings will begin this week, investigating claims regarding the specific tiriti violations of the crown that have led to injustice against wahine Māori across social, physical, spiritual, economic, political and cultural dimensions.
It has been a long time coming, having first been filed in 1993 and led out by the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and then initiated as an inquiry in 2018. While it can be said that all Waitangi inquiry hearings are traumatic, frustrating and difficult, it’s expected that this one in particular will reveal a history that is as foundational, on a national scale, as it is disturbing.
The hearings are taking place against a backdrop of social extremes for wahine Māori, who are at once recognised globally for their leadership in Indigenous academia, business, justice, environmental advocacy and education, but who are also significantly underpaid for their work, experience numerous barriers to adequate healthcare and social assistance, and suffer one of the highest incarceration rates for women in the world. In order to understand the role of the crown in the injustices faced by wahine Māori, we must first understand the roles they held prior to European contact.
Aotearoa New Zealand is often lauded as a global forerunner in women’s rights, praise which is usually rooted in our parliament securing the women’s vote before other nations, in 1893.
What is so often missed in this accolade is the fact that wahine Māori, under the colonial regime, suffered greater political oppression than they had at any other time. Pre-colonial wahine Māori were landowners, spiritual and political leaders, fighters and navigators. While the acquisition of the vote was a relative step ahead within the colonial context, wahine Māori nevertheless struggled, and still struggle, to recover their political rights.
In fact, even within the suffrage movement, Māori women were racially oppressed, having to sign agreements that they would never take on their ancestral sacred markings if they wished to join the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which spearheaded the suffrage movement. Indeed, the introduction of colonial land tenure systems disproportionately affected Māori women landowners, as colonial misogyny inhibited the already fraught process of the Native Land Courts, economically and politically disempowering Māori women. The status and roles of wahine Māori were, in many ways, an anathema to colonial Britain.
While Māori female elders were repositories of sacred knowledge, women were restricted from even attending school in Britain and Europe. And even though women were significant landholders and political leaders at the time of the treaty, they were in many cases disallowed or discouraged from signing by the men who were charged with collecting signatures.
Much of the discourse around the roles and respect for wahine Māori prior to European contact have been obscured through early white anthropological perspectives who either misperceived, deliberately misrepresented, or simply erased altogether the presence and importance of wahine Māori. As scholar Aroha Yates Smith has noted: These early ethnographers predominantly focussed upon Atua Tāne – male gods – and ignored a multitude of Atua Wāhine, resulting in a male biased perception of our pantheon.
Anthropologist Elsdon Best – who provided much of the written material upon which we would come to base our understandings of precolonial Māori – literally referred to our most sacred centre thus: “This ‘house’ of misfortune, of ominous inferiority, is represented by this world, by the earth, by the female sex, and by the female organ of generation, which holds dread powers of destruction and pollution.”
The colonial lens is indeed a misogynistic lens, in addition to being a white supremacist lens, and so the policies and legislation which stemmed from this view naturally placed wahine Māori within crosshairs which have continued to shape our destinies, and that of our children.
This is no unfortunate coincidence but a deliberate feature of the colonial project. The disruption of social organisation was a vital step in the colonial process, and the oppression of women was the fastest route to destabilising the unit which sat at the heart of Māori social organisation. Such practices were seen around the world, wherever colonisation took place. At the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in North America, officers noted that the women and children were specifically targeted because they would “make up the future strength of the Indian people”. Colonial conquest is, at its heart an act of war, and like all wars, it comes with sexual violence.
Rape featured in the colonisation of Aotearoa New Zealand throughout its history. It occurred at the hands of Cook’s crew. It occurred as a tool of the land wars, at Rangiaowhia, at Parihaka , at Maungapōhatu. Our tipuna were further exposed to wartime sexual violence in the battlefields of Europe and North Africa during the second world war, returning home without any support from the crown that enlisted them. The trauma of war was then visited upon the women and children at home. The ensuing cycles of addiction, violence and assault have been intergenerational for Māori whanau, and compounded by a state system that, alongside the absence of effective support, is significantly more likely to remove Māori children than non-Māori children from their family’s care, and subsequently significantly more likely to visit further abuse upon those children whilst they are wards of the state.
All of this must be taken into account when considering the specific ways in which the crown has affected wahine Māori. The care and wellbeing of mothers, in particular, is termed a “circuit breaker” in intergenerational patterns of harm precisely because of the role they play in the wellbeing of families. Tiriti justice cannot be achieved for Māori families without tiriti justice for women, and the imminent hearings, while overdue, will carry painful and powerful histories to the surface. Like all treaty issues, these truths, once heard, must be responded to with actions that will restore justice. Only then can we hold our heads high as a progressive nation for women’s rights.
Tina Ngata is a Ngati Porou woman and indigenous rights advocate