Māori women are leading the way - again

Tribunal claim one step towards restoring balance between mana wāhine and mana tāne

Māori women cop it twice: first as Māori, then as women.

This seems so obvious it’s scarcely worth mentioning. Māori women know it, and the statisticians can confirm it. The average Pākehā bloke takes home $32 each hour. The average Māori bloke takes home $26. But the average Māori sheila takes home only $23. That same sheila will die younger than her Pākehā mates born in the same year, and she’s more likely to suffer violence and discrimination in her life. Mana tāne and mana wāhine must exist in balance, but in New Zealand one is worth more than the other.

Some people might write this off – you get out of life what you put in, or something – but that ignores how the real world works. Career men can choose to ‘work’ or ‘care,’ but women are told to do both. Women who choose their career over care are condemned as selfish and barren, and women who choose to care over their career are slagged off as lazy and self-indulgent. Men who work are paid better for it, and men who care are celebrated as ideal fathers or grandfathers or uncles. We expect more from women. Men get a pass.

This is bizarre, at least for Māori. In the Māori world men are never permanent. Only women are forever. The human story begins with Hine-ahu-one, the woman who sprang from the soil, and it ends with Hinenui-i-te-pō, the goddess guarding the threshold between life and death, and who crushed an immortality-seeking Māui between her cosmic thighs. In the Māori world women are the beginning and end of time. Men are just a thing that happens in between.

Even in the colonial tellings women call the world into existence. ‘He ao, he ao,’ roars Hine-te-Aparangi, not Kupe or his crew, when they arrive in ‘Aotearoa’. Wairaka (or Muriwai, depending on who you ask) saves the Mātaatua, not Toroa or Puhi. At every moment in this country’s history — from its founding during Hine-te-Aparangi’s time, its settlement during Wairaka’s time and its recent history in our time — women are at the very centre of social life. Mana tāne’s lead over mana wāhine is a very recent invention.

And a Crown invention, the mana wāhine claimants are arguing in the Waitangi Tribunal. Pay inequity is not inevitable, the unions joining the claim will argue, it’s the outcome of Crown policies privileging men over women and Pākehā over Māori. Discrimination happens from the bottom to the top, whether it’s the pay gap between early childhood educators and kōhanga reo kaiako or the funding gap between the mainstream courts and the Māori Land Court. You cop it once as Māori, and you cop it again as a woman.

This is galling. It’s also typical. Not typical in the sense that ‘yeah, of course Maori women cop it, always have’ but typical in the sense that of course Maori women are leading the way (again). Māori women are doing the work, whether it’s supporting survivors where Māori men question them or undoing the discrimination many Māori men are complicit in. Socialists will tell you progress always come from below, but Māori might modify that and tell you progress comes from behind (‘behind every great man is a greater woman,’ and so on).

Hine-ahu-one. Hine-te-Aparangi. Wairaka. Muriwai. Te Puea. Dame Whina Cooper. The list goes on.

But what happens from here? The Tribunal is almost certain to find discrimination against Māori women constitutes a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi, a finding almost certain to force the government to expand its consideration of pay equity to include equity between Māori and non- Māori women. But more than that the mana wāhine claim is about restoring, well, mana wāhine rather than merely affirming deficit thinking and asking a panel of mostly men to affirm it too.

Donna Awatere-Huata, one of the original claimants, put it best:

“Tribes that once took their lineage from both the mother's and the father's lines, increasingly the whakapapa have been reoriented to favour men and so many women have been left out of native land titles, have been left out of succeeding to their land, and mana tangata in terms of the esteem given to Māori women, there has been a devaluing of women.”

In other words, the claim is about bringing mana wāhine back in balance with mana tāne. This nothing more than the way it should be. It’s up to men to get behind and support, or get out of the way.