As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Māori academic Ella Henry reflects on indigenous women’s rights, and the need for women to re-politicise their personal lives.
Many women of colour in the West share life experiences in societies inculcated by Eurocentric values and culture. Indigenous women also deal with the effects of colonisation, too often encountering discrimination on the basis of our race, gender and class. In the Pacific, this has also involved the systematic diminution of our indigenous culture and language, the cornerstones of our identity.
I am a Māori (Indigenous) woman, 60-years old, an academic in a New Zealand university. My mother was born in an impoverished tribal community, in a country where she could not go into a hotel with my father because of her ethnicity. My grandmother was among the first generation of Māori to cope with the worst effects of poverty, land-loss, disease, and the Land Wars with the settler government. My great-grandmother was born before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, in a world where Māori had complete sovereignty over our lands. I want my daughters to grow old and bear my grandchildren in a community that validates their identity, celebrates their culture, respects their gender, and provides a plethora of opportunities for women to reach their full potential, regardless of their race, gender or class.
In 1971, aged 16, transported to an urban ghetto from a rural community, I stumbled upon the Women’s Liberation Movement. I met powerful, articulate, strident women, who opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities in my barely formed mind – it was a revelation! I was proud to call myself a Māori feminist.
Over the last forty years, the indigenous movement has burgeoned alongside the women’s movement. However, tensions have emerged. In Australia, black feminist activists accused the Women’s Liberation Movement of ‘attaching itself’ to the black movement. Koori/Aboriginal, academic and activist Jackie Huggins wrote: “Black women who have worked from necessity are apt to view women’s liberation as a white middle-class battle irrelevant to their own bitter struggle for survival”. Despite this, indigenous women, particularly in New Zealand, are developing counter hegemonies to challenge the power-base of the oppressors, calling upon white feminists to acknowledge these struggles, and walk alongside us, as the equal partners envisaged in the Treaty of Waitangi.
Māori have achieved significantly in education, employment, business and acknowledgment of the Treaty of Waitangi. These have been hard-won, by a generation of activists who were often decried by their peers and communities at the time, but who believed that the ‘struggle’ was so important, it was worth the approbation. However, Māori are still over-represented amongst ‘the mad, the bad and the sad’, incarcerated, mentally unwell, under-employed, and Māori women are far too frequently, victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Now, I can look back optimistically at some of the changes, in my community, my country, and the world. But still, I ask myself, what have we really achieved forty years later, when, to many women in developed nations, the icons and role-models for many young women in developed nations appear to be vain, vacuous, clothes-horses, more interested in the size of their booty, and their latest ‘selfie’, than the state of the world in which they live. That is why I am still here. For me, the political is personal, and the personal is political.
Dr. Ella Henry has worked in academia for over twenty years, gaining degrees in Sociology, Māori Studies, Management Studies, and Māori Media. Ella has been involved in the development of the Māori screen industry, and recently served as Chair of the association of Māori in screen production, Ngā Aho Whakaari.