The treaty of Waitangi was forged to exclude Māori women – we must right that wrong

By Emma Espiner

This week, to mark Waitangi Day, the Guardian is publishing five pieces of commentary from Māori writers.

This year I’m not interested in the symbolism of what Jacinda Ardern does or doesn’t do or say at Waitangi. I’m looking to the Mana Wāhine Kaupapa inquiry. Nearly 30 years since it was instigated, the inquiry investigates the role of the Crown in contributing to the disadvantage that has inequitably burdened wāhine Māori since the Treaty was signed. At the end of this month a judicial conference will be held to consider the claims.

The impact of colonisation on Māori women appears more obvious to me when we have a female prime minister visiting Waitangi. The spotlight on Pākehā women in this setting reminds me of who has been left behind, because the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi marks the point at which Māori women began to be written out of history.

It has been left to us to rediscover what was erased. Writing in 1998, Ani Mikaere collected the evidence for Māori women’s roles in pre-colonial Aotearoa. Mikaere, a barrister and solicitor and scholar, showed that many Māori women held chiefly positions but were prevented from signing the Treaty. She points to the influence of Christianity in making it difficult for settlers to conceive of women holding autonomous leadership roles. There are documented cases where the Crown simply refused to allow female chiefs to sign.

The settler scholars who transmuted our oral language into a written one reframed our myths and legends so that our female deities were subservient to the male. These same “historians” assumed that our chiefs were all men and wrote them into the histories as such. Our pronouns and many of our names were gender-neutral long before the concept became a source of anxiety for conservative columnists, so it was straightforward for ethnographers to assign a male gender to the chiefs named in our oral tradition. Māori women leaders simply disappeared.

Data from the Ministry for Women in 2018 shows the pay gap for Māori women is 18%, compared to the national gender pay gap of 9.4%. The same figures show Māori women face an unemployment rate of 11%, compared with the national rate of 4.5%. We’re unsafe in our homes, experiencing domestic violence at unacceptably high rates, with 57% of Māori women likely to experience intimate partner violence compared with 34% of European New Zealand women. If recent trends persist, this year we’re on track for 14 women to be killed by an intimate partner, and if you’re Māori and poor it is much more likely to be you. Māori women make up 64% of the female prison population, leading Treaty and constitutional law expert Moana Jackson to call us [per capita] the most imprisoned indigenous women in the world.

Being reduced to tears at Waitangi in 1998 is the only instance I can recall of former prime minister Helen Clark being publicly vulnerable. Titewhai Harawira said that Clark should not be allowed to speak while Māori women were denied the privilege. Harawira herself was offered the opportunity to speak in 2014 but demurred in favour of Annette Sykes, a Māori lawyer and political activist.

When asked about this experience, Sykes told the national broadcaster RNZ that she was part of a continuum “of women like Titewhai, like Dame Mira Szaszy, who argued for human rights for Māori women to be extended beyond the kitchen, beyond inside the wharenui out on to the marae ātea”.

Kathie Irwin, writing in 1992, said that the Treaty disrupted the partnership between Māori men and women. That the partnership between Māori and Pākehā men was forged in ways which exclude Māori women. It is sadly apparent that some Māori men have used the Pākehā system to unfairly leverage themselves above Māori women.

A Māori minister of the Crown, Shane Jones, recently dismissed Pania Newton, one of the Māori leaders behind the peaceful land occupation at Ihumatāo, as a little flower. Speaking to RNZ, Newton said she felt the remarks were an attack on all Māori women leaders and the legacies of Māori women in political sovereignty movements. I agree. We will have to do better than reducing our women leaders to floral arrangements if we’re going to right the wrongs of the last 180 years.

The solution is simpler than you might think. Māori women are already doing the necessary work in our communities. We just need to be trusted by the Crown, and funded accordingly, to reverse the harm they have caused. We’ve tried it their way and gotten nowhere - there’s nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

  • Emma Espiner (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) is a writer and final year medical student at the University of Auckland. She comments on social issues, health and politics for Newsroom.co.nz and is the host of ‘Getting Better,’ a RNZ podcast about Māori health equity.