Indigenous Women's Movements in New Zealand
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image Source: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images
New Zealand has been making headlines all over the world in the recent past and for all the good reasons. Whether it was Jacinda Ardern’s efficient handling of the coronavirus pandemic, her landslide victory for a second-term as Prime Minister or the shaping up of one of the world’s most diverse parliaments, New Zealand seems to be the place everyone wants to be. In the beginning of November, the country appointed its first woman, and first Māori woman Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta. She continues to retain her portfolio of Minister for Local Government and also became the Associate Minister of Māori development. An MP since 2016, Nanaia was previously a cabinet minister in the Fifth Labour Government. She had served as the Minister of Customs, of Local Government, and of Youth Development, as well as the Associate Minister for the Environment and of Tourism. She has also the distinction of being the first women in parliament to have the moko kauae, a traditional Māori tattoo, on her chin while she was an MP in 2016.  As Rukuwai Tipene-Allen, a political journalist for Māori Television, said "wearing the markings of her ancestors shows people that there are no boundaries to Māori and where they can go." 
While undoubtedly only just another feather in her already-brimming hat, Nanaia’s appointment as the Foreign Minister is not just historical but also a move in the right direction to decolonise New Zealand’s voice in foreign affairs.
Against this backdrop, this article takes a deep-dive into the history of New Zealand’s indigenous women, their activism, role in politics and how they continue their uphill battle against colonial practices.
Women’s Suffragette Movement
In 1893, New Zealand became the first country in the world to grant universal suffrage to its women. While many would have heard of feminist icons such as Christina Henderson and Kate Sheppard and their persistent fight for the women’s right to vote, it is not common knowledge that native Māori women also played a huge role in this movement. Traditionally, Māori women held positions of leadership in their communities as there was no distinction between private and public life. However, with the arrival of British colonisers, the women were disenfranchised on two fronts – because of their gender and their indigeneity. With the emergence of the suffrage movement, Māori women fought alongside non-indigenous women and supported the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an international temperance organisation, and its advocacy.  As Māori writer Kahu Kutia put it, “suffrage was just a small part of removing colonization from their lives and returning to the democratic power they always had” and “their presence pushes back against the prevalence of whiteness and masculinity in government”. 
Alongside this, Māori women were also fighting another battle for their inclusion in the Māori Parliament, Kotahitanga. Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia was the most prominent figure in this political movement as she worked tirelessly for fairer laws for Māori women’s rights to governance. While addressing the parliament, she presented a motion demanding that they were given the right to vote and stand for membership. Her rousing speech remains memorable to this day as she relentlessly argued that as landowners, women should be allowed a “say on it, going so far as to say some women were more competent with land management than their husbands.”  Eventually, in 1897, Māori women were given the right to vote and currently, the New Zealand parliament reserves a quota of seven seats for indigenous candidates. While this has been a step in the right direction, indigenous women continue to be heavily underrepresented in comparison to their male counterparts.
Contemporary Indigenous Activism
In 2014, little did Pania Newton and her cousins know that their kitchen-table conversations would end up sparking one of the largest grassroots protest in recent history, with thousands of Māori women rallying together for indigenous land rights. One of the several land disputes in the country, Ihumātao is believed to be a sacred land to the Māori community but was sold to a private developer to build housing. Primarily relying on social media and crowd-funding, Pania, the co-leader of activist group Save Our Unique Landscape, mobilised community support to call to attention not only to Ihumātao, but also other issues, including high-suicide rates and the forced removal of at-risk infants into state care. 
In August 2019, Newton spearheaded the rally at Ihumātao and emphasised how the Māori people view land not just as an inanimate object, but as a lifeforce in itself. She also explained that ‘it’s not just a fight for the land itself, but a fight for justice, history, recognition and feminism’. Paying homage to the women who started this fight back in the late 19th century, Pania strongly expressed that the women of today would carry forward the torch.  Indeed, even though the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi restored some rights and assets to the native people, the Māori community believed that they have still endured the erosion of many cultural rights and were not given justice for the massive dispossession of land due to colonisation. Coupled with increasingly discriminatory capitalist and patriarchal policies and systemic violence in the form of silencing and forced obtention of land, those at the forefront of the peaceful occupation have fought immense resistance from their own families and others from the Māori community. Nonetheless, they have kept the fight going. They even called Jacinda Ardern to take notice of their protests and although she did not make any visit, she halted further development until the dispute was resolved. 
Ultimately, as Pania perfectly summed up, “women have a great connection to land. We are the child bearers, we are the carers, we are the mothers, we are the nurturers. So, it only makes sense that women are leading this campaign.”  Indeed, indigenous Māori women have a long herstory of making their voices heard in matters of public life, from politics to representation to land ownership. After experiencing pillage from colonisers and non-indigenous Kiwis, Māori women are slowly fighting to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs and subverting traditional state-indigenous power-dynamics in the process.
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