Māori Women in Society pre and post Colonisation

The view of the modern Māori women as a proud and upright female with an established self-perception as strong, rightful and faithful is the outcome of a long and hard fight. A fight for their rights, their place in society and not at least their mana.

Women always played a vital role in the story of the creation of the world in indigenous cultures. The ability to bring life into this world is a power that is associated with gods and godlike beings. We as humans can access a bit of this potency when men and women as two opposed principle come together. But it is the body of a woman that is needed to nurture and protect this new life until the point where it is able to survive in the outside world.

The Māori know three strong female characters in their creation myths: Papatuanuku, the earth mother who, together with the sky father Ranginui brought forth their seventy-odd children, each a guardian of a certain part of creation. Hineahoune who was formed out of the fertile clay of Kurawaka, Papas pubic region and her daughter who was conceived, in combination with Tane as her male counterpart, and developed into the first human, Hinetitama.

Other stories about Maui and his Kuia, who gave sacred insights and items to him, show that not only creation but also gathering, keeping and passing on of knowledge were areas in which women took a great part to mantain the balance between mana wahine and mana tane.

This sense of all-embracing equality is represented in every part of Māori lifestyle, be it creation, legends, the everyday life and even in the language. Te Reo Māori, wich is a big part of the identity of Māori people, gives a good idea about how important this balance is, for the personal pronoun “ia” and the possesive pronouns “tona/tana” are both gender-neutral. On the other hand it also provides a few examples that show how significant women were in terms of keeping the tribe alive. Women were refered to as “[…]whare tangata (the house of humanity)[…]” (“To us the dreamers are important” in Cox S (ed) Public and Private Worlds (1987) 59, as mentioned in Mikaere, A. “Māori Women: Caught in the Contradictions of a colonised Reality”) and the word “whenua” which means both land and afterbirth as well as the word “hapu” which means large kinship group and pregnant show very well the established connection between the survival of whanau, hapu and iwi and the female principle. Not to talk about Papatuanuku, the earth itself, the provider of food, shelter and mana who is classified as female.

Every principle of Māori life was founded on the overarching idea of balance, the balance between tribes and land, people and their atua, balance inside the community and inside every single person. One simple example would be the genealogy of a child. Men and women both provided one half of the whakapapa and each child was allowed to decide on its own wether it wanted to identify with the family of their fathers or their mothers side.

Women would keep their name even after marriage and they were never perceived as a posssession of their husband. Kuia and Koro would work togehter side by side to teach the children of the whanau and iwi and to give them the best and most diverse education as possible. This arrangement allowed women, even in their childbearing age, to take on crucial roles in the structure of the tribe, as strong participants in the rituals of the marae, as warriors or political leaders, they were not bound to their own household and kitchen.

“[…] the distinct roles of men and women were equally important, […] the sexes were expected to complement and support each other so that the mauri of the group remains intact. The principle of balance, vital to the well-being of the whole community, ensured that both the male and the female roles were valued and respected.” (Mikaere, A., 1995, p. 63)

It clearly shows, that the power of women was a vital and important part of the tribe, not only because of their reproductive abilities but also because they were the soothing, calming and restoring element to the male counterpart. And besides all that they were valued and honored partners in a sexual relationship who were, in most cases, free to chose with whom they wanted to share their life and bed.

Early reports from the first settlers show, how intrigued they were by these strong, exotic looking women that were so different from the women that they knew. The “[…] Maori women deviated considerably from the English ideal of womanliness […] she was unclothed or scantily dressed, her hair hung loose, […] was free with her affections, moved freely about the countryside, slept or swam as the mood took her, and killed prisoners as any male warrior might.” (Rountree, 2000)

This all was about to change with the arriving and growing influence of the western missionaries.

The idea of a large kinship group which helped and supported one another especially with the task of teaching and raising children was unknown to the English. The open space in which every member of whanau, hapu and iwi operated and the authority that women practiced in this structure were contradictory to their beliefs.

According to english law, which itself derrived from the ancient roman law, the women and children of a household were the property of the head of the family, the husband and father. It was his privilege to do what and however he wanted to with his family. Men ruled society, womens domains were the household, giving birth and raising the children, all secluded in their little nucleos of a family. But even here they were not save, they still had to fear the use and abuse by the men of the household. Even up until 1985 rape in a marriage was not punishable by law in New Zealand.

The missionaries of the christian churches tried to force their own ideas of the relationship between men and women on to the Māori people, thereby destroying the old traditions and the balance that served them and their whanau, hapu and iwi so well for such a long time.

One of the first working points, as K. Rountree describes in “Re-making the Maori Female Body”, was the transformation of the Māori women’s appearance and “[…]restricting their sexual expression […]. Women’s nudity and their long, unbound hair, along with their apparently greater sexual freedom, were viewed as signs of moral degeneracy.” (Rountree, 2000).

By trying to form the image of the ideal women after the english rolemodell they tried to tame the savages and slowly worked their way into the structure of Māori society. They changed the way how women behaved, how they were perceived by men, both Māori and Pakeha, and finally, by spreading the idea of the original sin managed to diminish and in some cases even destroy the intrinsic mana and tapu of women, declaring them as completely noa and denying them their “[…] special powers in the mediation of the boundaries of tapu and noa.” (Mikaere, A., 1995, p. 67).

From this point on, Māori women were little more than the mirror of the english missionary wifes. They were dressed like them, they spoke english and they were trained only in housekeeping, cooking, needlework and other disciplines that were declared as womanly. Rountree describes a festivity in February 1829 at Pahia where “[…] 176 Maori, ‘the males clothed in white duck and trousers, the females in dark blue gowns, white aprons and buff handkerchiefs’, sat on the ground in a large circle eating a meal of beef and pork stew, kumara puddings and fish, arranged by the missionaries.” (Rountree, 2000). Like children at a teaparty they were gathered around for the western missionaries to watch and after that to exermine and judge the needlework of the women. The first steps to westernize these people were made and even though the missionaries were not able convince every single member of the tribes of the idea of British superiority, they managed to plant the seed that grew.

And it did, it grew to the point where Māori men and even women themselves were convinced about their inferiority. They accepted it as god given (by a god that was only introduced to them by foreigners) and while Pakeha women slowly came to the point where they developed a more women centered general consciousness and delved into the realms of feminism, Māori women were still stuck in the roles their were pressed in by the missionaries. The structure of whanau, hapu and iwi was not available anymore, no Kuia and Koro helped with the upbringing of children and even the connection by language was prohibited. This state led to a feeling of restlessness and unconectedness. Women were cut off from their people, their whakapapa, their mana.

But finally with the econmy crisis in the 1970ies the circumstances changed. Māori as a people indicated their problems and especially the danger of extinction for Te Reo Māori. The Māori Language Act in 1987, installing Te Reo as official language in New Zealand, provided further buoyancy to the Māori Renaissance and in its course women finally started to stand up. A new or more an old idea about the role of Māori women emerged from the collective consciousness. More and more started to go back in history to find their roots and purposes, talked to their Kuia and renewed their connections to land and people by learning Te Reo, claiming back their lands and their culture.

As far as I can judge, there is still a lot to work on and many diminishements to compensate but again a seed is planted and as Mikaere puts it “Mana wahine and mana tane must operate side by side, the equilibrium must be restored. Māori survival depends on it.” (Mikaere, A., 1995, p. 144)



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Mikaere, A. (2003). The Balance Destroyed – Consequences for Maori Women if the Colonisation of Tikanga Maori. Waikato, New Zealand

Rountree, K. (2000) Re-making the Maori Female Body. Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 35, p. 49-67. Retrieved from:

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