Jul 18, 2013

Powhiri: the sexism edition

Consider this from Voxy:
While Youth MPs were sworn into parliament today, Labour’s Annette King showed outrage over a gender segregated Powhiri.
One hundred and twenty one Youth MPs participated in a traditional Maori Powhiri whereby males spoke from various iwis and were placed in front of females who completed the welcoming call, otherwise known as Karanga.
Labour MP Annette King said she was not comfortable with the "segregated nature" of the welcoming.
And this:
I think it's wrong to impose a western conception of sexism on Maori protocol. Maori views don't have to conform to western norms. To argue that they should is to impose a particular worldview as the only truth. It stinks of the cultural imperialism of the 19th and 20th century. The rationale behind the arrangements is clear, but those rationales might not have existed for as long as many people assume. Reverand Chris Huriwai explains:
After sounding out others, it appears that powhiri were "organic" occasions. Can anyone else explain further?


  1. "I think it's wrong to impose a western conception of sexism on Maori protocol. Maori views don't have to conform to western norms. To argue that they should is to impose a particular worldview as the only truth."

    The problem is that the worldview reflected by these practices appears to be a sexist one. I don't think

    "The rationale behind the arrangements is clear, but those rationales might not have existed for as long as many people assume."

    I very much doubt that anyone can explain the rationale without resorting to sexism.

  2. There's the beginning of an interesting slippery slope argument here. Or at least I think there is. Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

    "wrong to impose a western conception of sexism on Maori protocol"

    If we accept this, then do we not also have to accept that it is wrong to impose a western conception of sexism anywhere outside of the western world? So pointing out and trying to stop sexism becomes a bad thing. Think girls should be educated in Afghanistan - can't interfere, that would be cultural imperialism.

    It's a position I'm still uneasy about. If something is considered to be a core value of a society, like equality on the basis of gender or race, is it not a pretty weak core if you can then turn around and say those values hold for me, but not you because you're from a different culture? Why can I not then turn around and say these rights that I hold to be essential to humanity no longer applies to that person over there because they are poor?

    Then again, I realise that I'm saying this through the eyes of a middle class white male, who's never really had the opportunity to suffer from cultural imperialism in pretty much any form. As I say, it's an idea I'm trying to put right in my head. I don't see how calling something cultural makes it all right though.

    1. That is a slippery slope and let me join it.

      There's a world of difference (almost literally) between, say, Taliban policies towards women and seating rows at powhiri. Human rights are inherent and universal, but it isn't a human right to be allowed to disregard the practices of a traditional Maori welcome.

      Any distinction based on gender is arguably discriminatory, but the question is whether it can be justified. Male and female toilets are discriminatory in an un-nuanced sense of the word), but clearly justified. Male and female seating is discriminatory (in an un-nuanced sense), but justified on cultural grounds. The seating arrangements at powhiri are not tied to patriarchal supremacy, female inferiority and so on. The arrangements are tied to ideas and rules around about how the world operates. After all, the most important role in a powhiri is performed by women.

    2. Special pleading, Morgan. A sure sign that, intellectually, you haven't a leg to stand on. This kind of cultural relativism has zero philosophical and scientific credibility.

      Maori are not a separate species.

      If you wish me to treat you fairly on the basis of our shared humanity, then you must be prepared to do the same for our sisters.

      If you're unwilling to recognise that obligation, then, brother, all bets are off.

    3. I'd direct you here:


      Multicultural pluralism is rising, Chris, you better get used to it.

    4. So is the Pakeha Party, Morgan.

      Has it ever occurred to you that the two phenomena might be related?

      And if we're not able to relate to - and accord rights to - one another on the basis of our shared humanity, then that majoritarianism you're so concerned about will very rapidly cease to be a problem for Maori and become a threat.

    5. If you think the Pakeha Party is rising, you don't understand Facebook, social media or the internet. Take care when equating a Facebook like with real world support. After all, Ruck attempted to sell the party for $100,000. Whale suspects it's a marketing scam. In reality, it's a Facebook page. A Facebook page tapping a diminishing sentiment. I'll reconsider when New Zealanders are marching in the street and John Ansell is swept into Parliament.

      We hold different conceptions of rights. The law - and customary practice - makes distinctions. That's why s5 of the Bill of Rights Act exists. Or s1 of the Canadian Charter. The pension is discriminatory - it makes a distinction based on age - but it's untenable to argue that it should be extended to cover people of all ages. To quote well established law, "the enjoyment of rights and freedoms on an equal footing does not mean equal treatment in every instance" (Thomas J in Quilter). It turns on a nuanced analysis (a proportionality analysis for example).

      I'm using the language of human rights because that's the appropriate analysis. Is a universal human right at issue and has it been breached? If the answer is yes, the customary practice cannot withstand scrutiny and must yield to universal values. Seating at powhiri, well, it would take a creative human rights lawyer/philosopher/etc to argue that there is a breach.

    6. "Human rights are inherent and universal, but it isn't a human right to be allowed to disregard the practices of a traditional Maori welcome. "

      But it is a human right to be allowed to disregard the practices of a traditional Afghani school system?

    7. Hi Hugh,

      Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 would, prima facie, cover the Afghan education system. It would not cover powhiri. However, article 26 ("everyone has a right to education") is the most relevant. Article 29(2) would also, I'd argue, insulate powhiri practices against interference (the article would operate similarly to s5 of the Bill of Rights Act).

    8. Morgan, perhaps the letter of the UDHR doesn't cover this situation. However, you have not been a proponent of the narrowly legalistic reading of such documents in the past, so it seems a bit particularist that now you are taking a strictly textual reading of the UDHR and ignoring its spirit.

      You're right, nowhere does the UDHR say anything specifically about seating arrangements. However, it does make a pretty clear point about treating the sexes as being 'without distinction', so I'd say the powhiri arrangement is against the spirit of the UDHR if not against its letter. And, once again, you have argued that we need to respect the spirit, not merely the letter, of documents in the past.

    9. That's right (and fair point). I do prefer a wide reading of human rights instruments. Taken at its widest, the UDHR (and the NZBORA) would cover situations where the law makes distinctions based on a prohibited ground (e.g. sex, race, disability and so on).

      Firstly, seating arrangements at powhiri are not laws, but I'm prepared to treat them as such in order to undertake a human rights analysis. Secondly, the test (both legal and philosophical) is "any distinction based on a prohibited ground that...". There are two elemenets. In New Zealand it's any distinction that imposes material disadvantage. That's arguably a high threshold. Material disadvantage. That's the point where a human right is triggered and breached. Powhiri seating might damage your dignity or ego, but it's a stretch to argue that it imposes some sort of material disadvantage. Also, there are competing rights (like in article 29(2) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People) that would insulate powhiri even if the second limb of a discrimination test was satisfied. This is a balancing exercise between competing rights. The right to culture on one hand and the right to equality on the other.

    10. The material disadvantage is indeed a high thresh hold. It tends to disregard the entire cultural arena, since cultural practices, however they're engaged, rarely result in a tangible material disadvantage.

    11. Indeed and I think courts have been very careful to avoid the question.

    12. Well, let me look at it another way. Remember when Hone suggested that marriage equality was against Maori traditional practices, and you (among others) criticised him, saying that somebody who asks for consideration for their own minority should not deny other minorities their own considerations? That was all well and good, but if we used the same test you have used here, we would have to conclude that traditional customs need to take precedence over marriage equality, since denying someone marriage does not result in a material disadvantage*.

      Below, you said you would be 'interested in hearing a feminist argument'. Leaving aside the fact that I'm not sure you're able to dismiss Annette King's feminist credentials, I'm going to have a stab at it.** Feminism views the disadvantages women experience as the product of patriarchy. Patriarchy is not just a series of offenses, it's an interweaving system that combines a whole range of degradations and obstacles inflicted on women.*** Most of these blows that patriarchy inflicts don't involve actual material disadvantage, at least not directly.

      When women are described as weak and irrational, when sports culture creates a woman-unfriendly argument, when people assume that a woman will be the primary caregiver for a child, nobody is materially disadvantaged. But these kinds of things are, for most women, the main way they experience patriarchy. To wave it aside and say 'well, there was no material disadvantage, so deal with it' is not exactly to deny patriarchy exists, but to deny that most of it exists.

      *Or at least, it didn't under the legal regime prior to marriage equality becoming the law, since it was already illegal to discriminate on the basis of marriage. I'm aware that's not the case in every jurisdiction where marriage equality is an issue.

      **Of course, I am not a woman nor a self-proclaimed feminist, so take this with a few grains of salt, but nobody else seems to be willing to give you the feminist side so I hope I'm better than nothing.

      ***And a few very selective advantages, although only for women willing to keep within a very narrow role.

    13. 1) I don't think Hone's opposition was rooted in the idea that marriage equality is against Maori values. If it was, he was wrong. No inconsistency arises between Maori values and marriage equality.

      2) Thanks for articulating the argument.

      3) The thing is, though, that powhiri practices are not a result of patriarchy. The most important role in the process (the karanga) is a female role. (However this enters areas around gender roles which makes things even more complicated). I readily accept that there are offences to human dignity in many instances. However, that is a result of the world view that the powhiri is analysed from. For Maori women - especially those conducting the karanga or waiata - powhiri are empowering. It turns patriarchy on its head. Women (in effect) control the process. For example, women can choose to cut off a male speaker if he, for example, breaks tikanga or kawa.

      4) I'm not hostile to changing the rules of powhiri. In fact, I'd welcome that. But that's not a decision for Annette King or Maryan Street to make. It's not a decision for all New Zealanders either. It's a decision for Maori.

      5) I hope this clear (it's a rushed comment).

  3. The debate of multiculturalism vs. feminism has been a hotly contested one amongst middle eastern nations for decades, islam is seen and enforced as anti-feminist but many of the people criticising the religion and various cultures stemming from it are outsiders and I feel that's the bigger problem.

    In my view, which as a Pakeha should be taken with a grain of salt, is that feminism should trump multiculturalism in so far that it doesn't interfere with the traditions of that culture. That is to say women deserve the equal autonomy that men are granted as long as that autonomy doesn't compromise the cultural significance of the tradition.

    But as I said, I am Pakeha and as such have no right to speak about, identify or debate racism against Maori. My voice is given too much weight, and this is an issue to be discussed amongst Maori, not as a cross-cultural discussion.

    1. Thanks. I'm not sure this debate should be framed as multiculturalism vs feminism. Or feminism vs anything. I think this is about indigenous values vs majoritarianism. I'd be interested to hear/read a feminist perspective, though (rather than King's perspective. I take her complaints lightly).

    2. I'm pretty sure Annette King regards herself as a feminist and sees her criticism as coming from a feminist viewpoint.

  4. I was trying to think of a better example than education in Afghanistan (comparing the two felt a little hyperbolic) but I couldn't readily think of anything else to compare two extremes of the continuum of thought I have on this.

    The point where I have difficulty is that where the justification sits - obviously the powhiri example is at the "a lot easier to justify" end of the spectrum. Where does the line sit and who gets to draw it though? At what point does saying, it's justified on cultural grounds does sexism (in this example) become acceptable. Does it then follow that cultural imperialism is good sometimes (taliban) and bad (powhiri) others? Or does relieving oppression by interfering with a culture not count as cultural imperialism?

    The idea of it not being tied to a dominant patriarchal hierarchy is an extremely good point. I'm guessing the line gets crossed when it does become about superiority/inferiority. Or about power.

    I have trouble seeing the line sometimes though. Doesn't help if you're on the outside of a culture looking in I suppose (I'm not completely ignorant, but I'm definitely not steeped in Maori culture either).

    I'll stick with my current modus operandi of not thinking the "cultural significance" is enough to justify oppression, whilst not making a judgement on whether something is oppression or not until I know a enough about the culture in question.

    Thanks though. Pointing out that fact about the powhiri has allowed me to advance my thinking a little (I think). Not just for the powhiri example which seems to crop up once a year or so, but in general, so to speak.

    1. In terms of where the line sits, I think it's useful to ask "is a human right breached". Human rights are subjective, of course, but I think it's fair to identify a set of universal human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Internation Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and so on might be good starting points. I think that's the closest we can get to making an objective judgement about what constitutes discrimination, oppression and so on. (Granted that human rights are still value-laden and subjective, but international instruments that the vast majority of countries have adopted constitutes the closest we can get to universal values). I'm not sure if I've explained this very well. But this how I evaluate it.

  5. Considering that different iwi have different customs and practices relating to powhiri though, surely the 'women sit behind the men' rule shouldn't be set in stone.

  6. Interesting discussion. What I found ironic about this whole story was the fact it was taking place inside Parliament - a Crown institution.

    If any semblance of Maori authority exists there then surely its at the whim of the Crown? Which means Crown kawa rules.

    So on those grounds surely Annette King is well within her rights to question the role of powhiri within this most Western (in Anglophile-oriented culture at least) of legal institutions?

    On the flipside, it would be different if powhiri on a marae was questioned by Crown authority, for exactly the same reasons.

    Noah (apologies, i am not registered here so signed in as anonymous)

  7. As a Maori woman i get really tired of women who have no concept or wish to learn why powhiri is the way it is.Usually its the "power hungry" middleclass feminists who cant stand that they have to sit behind men. What does Annette think she is going to do in the front row? can she korero maori and take part in the removal of tapu that is occurring? and really great comments to be making at a time when the Maori party is falling apart and Maori voters are looking to head back to Labour.....thats right...just put your foot in your mouth and tell maori voters to go vote for Mana!dumb mate, really dumb....its an easy one to fix....Parliament is not a marae so dont have powhiri and then the power hungry females can talk all they want! pity they couldnt talk about what really matters at the moment like getting some decent leadership to sort the bolshie femmes and the old boys network out....
    im not registered either but I'm Jenna :-)

  8. Tena koutou. The problem with the above arguments is that they all depend for their validity on the universality of the rights set out in the UNDHR. The reality is that this bundle of rights is a western construct, and this point was made when the UNDHR was debated and signed. Many of the non-signatories noted this very point. Islamic nations created their own version. Opposition wasn't just from islamic nations. Asian countries also opposed it for the same reason. Some of the rights may be universal, some not. To ram the whole lot down the throats of the entire world is cultural imperialism. It is time we re-examined the issue and ask; what rights, if any are universal, and regardless of the foregoing, what rights should be demanded of all nations. Remembering that we are not all americans, we are not all christians, and we are not all rational self interested neo liberals. Tena rawa atu koe Godfery mo o korero.

    1. Tradition is by its nature a conservative instrument.
      Cultural symbolism is taken seriously , but often its purpose is forgotten.
      One of the factors of living in a modern society is that new generations can weed out practices they find irrelevant.
      Most Maori enjoy access to modern rights and choices (to dismiss these as a western construct racistly ignores the wonderfully complex diffusion of human history and everybodies input - ideas, technology etc).
      The daily lives of Maori NZers are more akin to their fellow citizens in the Anglosphere than any outside it .
      Our Maori love to retain deeper ties to their ceremonial self, but do so only if it does not interfere with their modern priorities - sport, education, career, material comforts.
      When travelling with my Maori friend in India it was obvious we came from pretty much the same culture, yet the current meme inside NZ focuses on our differences.
      Are these differences mostly symbolic? Remember it is common to have nearly identical populations at each others throats over largely symbolic arguments eg, Shiites and Sunnis.
      Wether we like it or not the trend in modern societies is to give cultural differences the same importance as genetic differences.
      Less and less.
      Thank you Mogan for providing this forum.
      Si Shep

  9. Under the UN charter on Human Rights, the Powhiri quite clearly discriminates against women. It does this under every definition of the word discriminate. Unless there's a Maori definition of discriminate.

    However, perhaps we have gone too far in our universal coverage of human rights? How much of our history is this wide sweeping charter destroying?

    A Powhiri is an ancient Maori practice and perhaps should remain as it is to preserve it's history and tradition. The same should apply with any historic tradition. After all, these are things we tend to Choose, to be part of. We can just as quickly choose not to be.

    Worst case scenario would be that tomorrows children will be able to appreciate so much more of what they have and how far we have come.




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