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Women Speak Out! A Report of the Pacific Women's Conference. October 27 – November 2

New Zealand

New Zealand

* In considering the present day position of Maori women in New Zealand society, I want to distinguish between our role in Maori and pakeha society.

If we accept that women in traditional Maori society occupied a far better position than historians and anthropologists have generally accorded us, then it follows that we occupy a position of even greater eminence in Maori society today.

It is undeniable that the kaha (strength) of Maoridom today comes from the women. The Maori Women's Welfare League, which was established to care for the young, the elderly and the sick, was for many years the most effective voice of Maori hopes and aspirations. In my home area, women joined page 80 the league to free themselves from the oppression of Pakeha Society

Today, the League has lost much of its momentum because it has tended to concentrate on patchwork welfare aid instead of actively pressing for political change. Nevertheless, it is still far more effective than its male counterpart, the New Zealand Maori Council, although it has lost ground to the more strident demands of younger political pressure groups such as Nga Tamatoa.

But in the broad spectrum of Maori life, women continue to play even greater leadership roles than in the past. The new, younger, rising groups are dominated by women members who articulate most effectively the grievances of our people.

The leader of the Land Rights March, which started on September 14, an 82-year old woman, Mrs. Whina Cooper, illustrates the new involvement of women in a leadership role in the land issue. In the past, land has been an issue which women have left in the care of the men. This new involvement of women in land affairs may be seen as partly a criticism of the men, because of their lack of success in dealing with the all-important question of land retention.

More probably, however, it marks just a more open comment of the position Maori women have always occupied in Maori society.

While this is the position we as Maori women occupy in our own society today, we, with our men, continue to be oppressed and exploited by Pakeha society. We are the victims of both the racism and sexism of Pakeha society. We are doubly discriminated against.

As women, we are considered to be the sex-objects of Pakeha men, some of whom treat us as just a good and easy lay. Many of our women who are so unfortunate as to marry one of these racists pays for it with a lifetime of suffering from a man who is unable to reconcile his sexual desires with his own racism.

page 81

As a people, we are denied justice in our own land. More than 50% of the total prison population are Maori, and 75% of the female inmates of penal institutions are Maori. Yet we now make up only 10% of the total population.

But although we outnumber everyone else in the prisons, we do not enjoy the same position of prestige in the better-paying, better-prospect jobs. We are discriminated against by a chauvinistic and racist education system, which is supported by an equally racist and sexist society. This ensures that we are the slaves in New Zealand. The dishwashers, the waitresses, the cleaners - that's us. More grandly, we drive buses, we man the toll circuits, pack packets, fill cans and bottles, write parking tickets and serve hamburgers.

All our people are victims of an education system which is geared to our psychological destruction. One result of this is that we have far too few university graduates, although a fair proportion of these are women. Many of them have gained prominence in the Public Service.

While some Pakeha women talk in very middle-class terms of directorships on boards and improved management courses, we fight for economic, social and cultural survival. We suffer with our men in their battle to survive as men. As women, as mothers in a culture which prides itself on its feeling for people, on family and tribal affiliations and communalism, we are under increasing attack from Pakeha society. With its emphasis on individualism, acquisition of things and small, nuclear families, Pakeha society is attacking us through the budget-conscious, the family planning freaks, the abortion on demand protagonists, Christians, and anyone else who is concerned about the rate at which we are increasing our numbers. Since contact, some Pakehas have always feared that they would be swamped by hordes of brown-skinned natives.

The Maori Women's Welfare League has consistently opposed moves to restrict the size of Maori families, as has every other Maori group. We choose to do this because it ties in with our values, and because these remain important to us. To us, people remain more important than the Pakeha dollar and material things.

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The involvement of Maori women in the political structure is naturally tied into the leadership role we have in Maori society. One of the two Maoris at present in Cabinet is a woman, Mrs Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, and at one stage two of the four Maori representatives in Parliament were women. There has been greater representation by Maori women than there has been by Pakeha women.

The Kingitanga Movement, a Maori political movement which started in the 1850's, has at its head a woman, Queen Te Atairangikahu. Maori women are active at all levels of politics, but too much of this involvement, especially in Pakeha-type organisations is in the expected women's roles of tea-maker and supporter rather than leader. We have far more to offer than this.

One of the greatest needs for Maori women is to develop even deeper political awareness and to become more involved in politics. A seminar is being organised during International Women's Year with these two objectives in view.

As Maori women, we have a firm desire to work with Pakeha women on the mutual problems that confront us. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that most Pakeha women are prepared to work with us only on their terms and only on issues which are of concern to them. Their attitude is marked by a total lack of understanding of us, and their expectations of us reveal this attitude. At a women's conference held in Auckland to consider the Government's Report on Women, it was moved that Maori and non-Maori Polynesian women be trained in home and child care to improve their skill and status. This resolution was not passed in 1875, as you might well have expected, but on the 16th August, 1975.

From this, it can be seen that we have much to do, for at the moment is seems that Pakeha women are equally our oppressors.

In conclusion, it may be said that Maori women are liberated in our own society. We are a powerful and effective voice among our people. In the broader context of Pakeha society, however, our struggles are the struggles of all our page 83 people – to free ourselves of the burden of racism which threatens to engulf us. As we strive to liberate our men and children, so too, we liberate ourselves. At the same time, we must also fight sexism in New Zealand and create greater awareness between Pakeha women and ourselves of the common roots of sexism and racism.

Our attitude to our menfolk and our Pakeha sisters is appropriately summed up in the following Maori proverb:

“Nau te rakau, naku te rakau, ka mate te hoariri”. With your help and our help the oppressor will be vanquished. Ti Hei Mauriora.

* part of a paper prepared for the Pacific Women's Conference