Māori women’s voices in politics – protecting our environment and our people


This blog is based on the presentation I did for the University of Waikato Kingitanga Day environmental symposium on Thursday 12 September 2013.

Today I am a Māori woman carving out a space to reflect on our unique relationship with Papatūānuku and our roles as kaitiaki and defenders of our lands, seas and people. This discussion throws a light on how the voices of wāhine are held in certain political arenas and what this means for Aotearoa as we ponder our economic, social, environmental and cultural future.

Women and oppressive patriarchy

It is annoying feeling stuck in the 1980’s but as recently as September 2013 I was labelled as man-hating for mentioning the word “patriarchy”. My further reasoning for using this word then earned me the labels of ‘hot-head’ and ‘ego-driven’. Well perhaps. But that will not change the fact that generally the time we are living in still tries to stifle the voices of women. That there is yet to be a general acceptance of this pisses me off quite frankly.

Mana whānau asks that the wellbeing of families is at the core of our everyday walk. Mana whānau requires that we uphold the dignity of our men, our women, all genders, our children, our elderly and all the parts that makeup the collective of whatever defines family for us. So calling on the moonlight to shine solely on the status of Māori women in the political world for a second is not to deny the amazing work of our brothers and other allies. It is about highlighting the fact that, in terms of local and central government level at least, there is not a fair representation of women’s voices and even less of Māori women. When women do assert themselves in these arenas to dismantle the oppressive patriarchy, this is often met with hostility. This hostility towards women has dire consequences, of which we have been bearing the brunt for some time now. The hostility can be seen in the types of legislations, policies and programmes that we roll out at a government level.
Māori women have always had strong voices

It is here that I acknowledge our female warriors at all levels who have given so much of their lifetimes fighting for us. Last week the iconic photo of Eva Rickard, Whina Cooper and Titewhai Harawira standing together at Waitangi in 1985 did the rounds on social media as another sequence of Treaty negotiations ensued. They are women known for leading activism on Māori issues and particularly fighting for our land and sovereignty rights. I recently attended the investiture ceremony where Dame Nganeko Minhinnick received her Queens Honour Medal for her services to Māori and the environment. Angeline Greensill, Annette Sykes, Ani Mikaere, Dr Linda Smith, Dr Leonie Pihama, Aroha Mead, Robyn Kahukiwa and Dayle Takitimu are just some of the many women I respect for the work they have done for our people. These names are some widely known ones and there are lesser sung warriors also. The nannies from my local Manurewa Marae continue to role model true whānau ora in our community. The Glen Innes residents who are trying to save their polluted rivers and their state houses are the epitome of grass roots resiliance and resistance. In Maraenui we can find the same local heroes as their community is also being ripped apart by housing ‘development’. In my Hokianga homeland there are women leading the fight to save our polluted harbours and rivers. In Te Tai Rāwhiti my other homeland our wāhine are fighting for our entire heritage including our land, language and histories. I am in awe of these local heroes because I have been speaking out only since a metaphorical five mins ago. Already I am exhausted and have realised how much more there is to learn and overcome.

Māori women and our connection to Papatūānuku 

In my advocacy for the protection of our environment I start with some founding philosophies of our stronghold as Māori women. These understandings are well told, researched and documented by our women but are often overlooked in many other arenas where they should really be paramount.
Since the beginning of our whakapapa back to before the creation of the earth, our female deities have been strong powerful figures and this was the foundation for the status of Māori women in our traditional societies. Today I look consistently to our primal parent of Papatūānuku, our earth mother and creator and one of our first atua. Like Papatūānuku, women are creators of life, water carriers and whakapapa protectors. The returning of the whenua or the placenta to the earth solidifies our union as children of Papatūānuku and our relationship to all other things on the planet such as our rivers, trees, rocks and animals.
As whare tangata our wombs provide the first house for humanity and all human beings arrive through our waters. Our menstruation or Moon waters keep us tied to our tupuna Moon, Te Marama. We are linked to her monthly cycle and magnetism as she throws her light to us in darkness. Te Marama controls our tides and our times of reproduction. Te Marama also prays on our minds and impacts on our mental wellbeing and therefore guides our spiritual walk. These are just some of the unique connections that we have as wāhine to our planet and the powerful forces that rotate us.

So it is imperative for me that we realise that whatever we do to Her, our Big Mama, we are doing to ourselves.

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Care for ourselves and each other must translate as much into care for te taiao, our environment. Disregard for ourselves and each other manifests into what we have done to our planet.

These musings are almost raw and personal undertakings that I am coming to terms with as I negotiate my own responsibility to our environment and our people.

Māori women and our political voice

I am interested in how this unique relationship with Papatūānuku and our voice in standing alongside Her translates in the political arena. I do not limit our ‘political voice’ to government but in this blog I am focussing on local and central government and mainstream media.

Women have always been societal leaders of change and that will and must continue. But also our women’s voices are often marginalised, sometimes even terrorised. And this is why today we still have for example central government representation of all women lagging around a shameful 32ish %. Local government is even lower. Māori women in both arenas is even less.

However – I am delighted with what seems like a surge in Māori women putting their hands up for local elections this round. We have those seeking election onto local boards and councils and even for Mayor! Around the motu there are Māori women who I guess are realising or voices are needed everywhere and this pleases me. I am proud to have received feedback from at least a few of them that my stand in the recent Ikaroa-Rāwhiti byelection helped their own confidence in considering themselves for election. I owe the same reverence to role models around me and it goes to the work of pioneering women who trudge the coarse tracks for us all. The work now is to support those women in their campaigns so that we can strive for better representation of the interests of our communities, our families and our environment.

The example of Shane Jones and Willie Jackson 

Here I will discuss how men in influential government and media positions can discourage Māori women from taking a stand.

I disagree with Shane Jones’ un-economic principles, his stance on the destroying the environment and his casual and ongoing swipe at women with misogynistic remarks flung off under the guise of humour. Recently we had Moana Mackey, Louisa Wall and Nanaia Mahuta labelled as sell-outs by influential Willie Jackson for not supporting Shane Jones in his Labour Party leadership bid. Willie went so far as to say those women are breaching tikanga by not supporting Shane because he is Māori. I cannot speak on those women’s reasons for not supporting Shane but to be called sell-outs by someone with a platform is part of the testosterone laden lion’s den that does not inspire women’s participation. On Shane’s leadership bid, I have said before that Māori whakapapa does not guarantee Māori advocacy. What is even harder to listen to are the many commentators, even funnier coming from a plethora of Pākeha males, who attribute Shane Jones’ oratory skills as part of his big potential. Well okay. Regardless of what language and how magnificently his rhetoric on economics, environment and women is performed – his words do not garner for me a vision that I would like to see Aotearoa head towards. And I yearn for more media voices that will counteract those remarks that come from the likes of Willie Jackson in asserting what a breach of tikanga actually is. For me it is the politics of Shane Jones that does not align with a kaupapa Māori approach.

The Shane Jones/Willie Jackson leadership dialogue is but one example of where powerful platforms are used to discredit Māori women. I also reject the rather presumptive and dominating dialogue that most Māori desire Shane jones in a leadership position as the first hopeful Māori Prime-Minister. So many voices that claim to speak for me, do not speak for me. There are so many Māori with real vision for our communities that I would prefer well ahead of Shane, thank you.

Women hold up half the sky

Half the sky maybe. But in other challenging areas of life we are harbouring more than we should. Before we even stand to kōrero, we have to over-ride being disproportionately impacted on by domestic violence and poverty for example. And because our child-raising villages are still resurrecting themselves, we are largely responsible for the full on job of growing our children up. We have to get kai on the table and the laundry on the line, and that might just be as political as it gets that day. This is also how this colonised world has kept our political voices at bay.

Women and the turning of the world

But we are seeing change. Slow maybe, but rumbling undeniably. I mentioned what might be a record number of Māori women putting their hands up for local politics. And indigenous groups around the world are taking their place as leaders to oppose deep sea oil drilling, fracking, mining and so forth. The Idle No More movement is an indigenous solidarity movement originating in Canada and spreading around the world, led by women, to better protect our living systems especially from corporate control and greed. Dame Anne Salmond stated in her Kingitanga Day address that we have damaged our waterways with our out-dated thinking of consumption and destruction but we are now starting the work to restore our rivers and lakes. This is where the voices of our environmental warrior women are needed in the political arena to push back the false dichotomy between nurturing our environment and improving our economy. The pro-greedy corporate laws that prevent our democratic protest at sea, the intrusion of our privacy with spying legislation, the attack on social security and family welfare, the way our institutions further compound domestic violence and do not protect women and children – all policies that should never have seen the light of day in the first place. Our kaitiaki wahine voices are needed at all levels to help the work of others already standing up for our communities. We pour ourselves onto the streets in response to crappy legislation constantly, as did those great wahine Whina Cooper, Eve Rickards and Titewhai Harawira. I wonder what it would be like to have enough of our voices at the decision making table in the first instance that our people would not have to energise ourselves at the other ends of those decisions. Some might bemoan the objective of having more women’s voices in parliament, in media and in local government. I see the goal simply as women needing to provide that essential element to the decisions that are impacting on us all daily, and to move the current narrative of our mainstream media into enlightenment.

Five action points 

Encouraging a Māori women’s voice in political spaces is not to undermine all the other work that we are doing in all facets of the fight. I have stated previously how our activism needs to be diverse and is only effective when we are doing what makes our heart feel good and with what resources we already have at our disposal. The following action points are aimed at supporting Māori women to be better represented in local and central government and media.

1. Make contact with the Māori women who have put their hands up for local elections in your area and ask how you can support their campaign.

2. Support the positive work that is already happening in your communities that is being led by Māori women and tell the story of those initiatives at every opportunity you can, especially if you have a public profile.

3. Give your support to Māori women who are already putting their voices forward in the political arena by making contact with them and encouraging them.

4. Encourage Māori women leaders from your community to think about standing for the 2014 general elections.

5. Continue to develop your own critical thinking on why Māori women’s voices are not sufficiently represented at government decision making level and constantly challenge those barriers in everything that you do.


  1. Thank you. Great action points. And yes, sometimes putting kai on the table and putting the laundy on the line (where it will remain for the next two days) IS as political as it gets. It is hard to have the strength to fight when your tank is kept so dry and when those who try to silence us fight to maintain their priviledge with such dirt.

  2. great piece marama. for hamilton city council, let me plug jamie toko, robin fletcher & tureiti moxon for the west ward; margaret forsyth for the east ward. they are strong, articulate women & would be an asset to council.

    • And I endorse you too as a great asset to Hamilton City Council 🙂 and have been spreading the word and getting good feedback on you too from my Hamilton networks.

  3. As a male from another culture, but very aware and respectful of tangata whenua and wahine whenua, I look forward for more female assertiveness and participation as Marama is standing for.

    We need this in the Maori and also environmental sphere, and absolutely for NZ society as a whole.

    Bring it on, Marama, you are one of the best, and most respected and listened to. I look forward to you achieving more of what needs to be achieved.

  4. Hi Marama,

    Thank-you for your excellent post. I’m really interested in your comments about Papatuanuku, and the relationship between her, Maori women, and Maori women’s political agency.
    For my English Honours dissertation, I’m writing about the way indigenous women creators use goddess representations as a pro-sovereignty tool. In the Aotearoa context, I’m looking at Robyn Kahukiwa’s representations of Hine-titama and how Hine-nui-te-po is invoked in the poetry of Karlo Mila. I’m also interested in how I can engage with these works, as a Pakeha woman.
    Would you be happy for me to cite your blog post in my paper?

    • Kia ora Jo – that is absolutely fine and thank you for asking. I love Robyn’s work and Karlo is fantastic and a good friend!

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