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Look. We are Maori before anything. What does cancer, sexuality, rape, individual survival, death, or anything mean without the survival of the Maori as a Nation. It is empty. Meaningless. [1]

Donna Awatere succinctly states the focus of identity politics for many Maori women. We simply cannot conceive of women's issues, sexuality issues or any issues outside the context that we live in every day in Aotearoa. To do so would, as Awatere says, render these issues utterly ”meaningless”. Identifying and recognising this context is an unconscious process, it is a part of who each of us is, it is in our souls, our whakapapa, our whenua, our whanaunga.

This article is as much a contribution to that process of identifying our context, our selves, our world views as it is a personal account of my experience in 1994 in a Waikato LLB course devoted to women, law and policy issues. The first draft of that account was particularly raw, angry and pained. This article attempts to weave those same raw pieces into a framework which I hope will offer some insights into the experience of an isolated Maori woman law student. [2]

Part of my personal agenda in choosing to enrol in this class was to seek out what I thought would be, at the most, like-minded women who were committed to the emancipation of all groups and individuals who have been ”othered” or decentred, especially Maori. At the least, I hoped for a class of inclusion, informed debate, activism and consciously expanding awarenesses. This article unravels these expectations, explores their accuracy and assesses their reality.

The other central theme weaving through this article is a contribution to discourse in the legal education arena where its philosophy starts from the place of accepting the self-ascribed position of indigenous peoples as tangata whenua and thus their inherent rangatiratanga. In dreaming of a bicultural legal education in Aotearoa, I envision a place where Maori can be, dreaming in our worlds, in our reo, safe.

Part II of this article outlines what I term the theory of the course in question. In referring to the ”course”, I encompass the course content, objectives, development and participants, particularly my classmates. In part III I link this to the practice which shaped and sharpened my experience. Finally part IV addresses the question of reconciling this theory and this practice and it offers some whakaaro about future developments of such a course in Aotearoa.

To give context to my selected points of analysis, [3] my theses are located in my experience as a twenty-eight-year-old Ngatihine, Ngapuhi woman, a fourth-year law student committed to the vision of tino rangatiratanga for Maori and for women. My challenge is to all feminists and all groups committed to self-determination in Aotearoa to accept these aspirations and to begin walking that difficult road.


The expressed focus of the course was on understanding the relationship between theory and practice in law, law reform and lawyering as they relate to women. The course considered a series of socio-legal issues presented from the perspective of feminist praxis, that is, the consideration of the law in the light of both the feminist theories informing or criticising it and legal and political practices. These objectives were encapsulated in Phyllis Goldfarb's description of a ”theory-practice spiral”. [4] She wrote:

Feminist theorising begins with the concrete experiences of particular women ... These experiences are then questioned, probed, examined, explored and analysed, a process that produces tentative theoretical conceptions. Once formulated, these theories are continually held up to the light of new experiences for evaluation, refinement, modification and development. [5]

So far, so good. Too bad the other Maori woman dropped out of this course. But, with these goals, I could see a space for me to be, to create, to grow in this environment.

The other central theme flowing through our class was the notion of context. Where are we ”situated”, [6] located, positioned? Who are we? What values, beliefs, ways of thinking do we bring to this situation, location, position? Where is that situation or position located within our society's power structures? What effect does this have on women's experiences? How do these situations and positions affect feminist goals and feminist activism? As Awatere points out: "The oppression of women does not exist in a vacuum: economic and racial privileges cannot be separated from sexual power. [7]

Aotearoa as part of this context was rarely mentioned and never actually written into the course outline. Was our socio-historic context here in Aotearoa to be a natural starting-point for the class? Would we all operate from this context automatically? Of course we would (I thought) since this is where we all live. But have we all accepted and begun to realise what that means in this country, for Maori, for non-Maori? Do feminists in New Zealand accept and struggle for tino rangatiratanga for all Maori - for all Maori women? Is this our starting point in the context of exploring women, law and policy issues in Aotearoa?

The rest of this article in part responds to these queries. These were my theoretical starting points on the spiral of sharing and relating experiences connected to women, law and policy issues. I accepted the theory-practice spiral as a model not only of feminist praxis but also of the evolution of this class. I also accepted that this feminist praxis and this evolution would be grounded in the context of where we women live, where this law and policy-making operates, that is, in Aotearoa. For surely, if it wasn't, weren't we ignoring an essential element of the experience we were attempting to theorise?


From my first draft of this article, I have drawn seven sections which share, explain and explore my isolation in this course. They are in their original raw, angry form. This is a summary of my experience of the ”practice” of the course.

1. Safety

I remember protecting myself while two Maori women lectured about the effects of Pakeha law on Maori women. I remember blocking the white women out, disconnecting from them, fearing the disguised barbs of their conscious and unconscious racism, their colonialism.

2. Affinity

What is it I disguise, hide or contain every day I sit in a room full of white women who do not acknowledge their privileged position and its impact on me and my position in Aotearoa? What affinity can we share with white women who refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for their colonialism? How we can share an affinity with these women who do not see Maori sovereignty as an issue, and who are not fighting Pakeha colonialism, who are not challenging the present political, economic and social norms? What would be such an affinity for me, for Maori women?

3. Identity

What does my identity mean with respect to my affinities to other people or other groups? Does it aid or obstruct those affinities? Does it aid or obstruct realisation of my goal of tino rangatiratanga for Maori and for women? How do I describe myself so as to achieve this goal? Woman? Maori? But I am neither of those identities and I am both. And I am more. I cannot be one or the other. I can only be me. Can you ”see” me? I wonder what it is you do ”see”?

4. Through whose eyes, them re-interpreting my whakaaro?

What about my different world views? Moana Jackson talks about culturally-defined [8] ways of knowing, therefore culturally-specific. Do they accept they listen and watch me in a different world from theirs? Do they think I sit in their world alongside them? How do our worlds touch, intersect, connect? Can they? Do they understand the politics of interpretation? Can they listen and hear the essence of what I speak without putting it into their monocultural perspectives?

5. Space

Whose space is it? Is there any space left for me? Am I entitled to have, let alone demand any space? In making that demand, what do I expect them (the white women) to do, respond? I feel that talk about Maori or other ”culturally-defined” women is wasting their time, is irrelevant to their journeys. There is a contradiction between my feeling irrelevant and feeling singled out/spotlighted, on compulsory exhibit.

6. Expectation that I am an authority on ”the” Maori woman's experience

Being wheeled out, here is our native girl! An exhibit. And a sentence or two is trotted out, mentioning Maori women. For of course not to would be a political no-no. And you write one maybe two paragraphs about us in your paper which your network will publish, buy and use in their writing; while I sit here every day amongst you, invisible it seems.

Of course Maori women can't be generalised, of course we have individual and specific characteristics and personalities. Of course we are who we are because we are Maori and you as Pakeha cannot ever know that, just like we can never know your reality as Pakeha. But we are expected to live, learn, talk, write, walk, think, laugh like you do. We have been forced to adopt your ways of doing all these things. And we have done so, often more successfully than you do. But that doesn't surprise me as I sit in my centre, I can see all of you. I have no investment in your ways, your ideologies, your politics, your systems, your talk. They are meaningless to me. So I am able to critique you, sometimes rationally and sometimes in anger.

And why did we also adopt your ways? Why didn't we continue to develop ours? Did we ever have the choice? Do we have the choice now? Who controls who has voice in Aotearoa? Who makes the political decisions which mean that members of my family believe all Maori were cannibals, are thieves, couldn't organise themselves to set up a kura kaupapa let alone re-assume the positions of leadership and decision-making within our surviving iwi and hapu systems; who believe Maori spirituality is dead, that Christianity is the way?

7. Them talking about me

Hating sitting, listening while we discuss Maori women as though they are some abstract, distant, curious and odd ”other”. You are talking about me. I'm sitting here amongst you. I am real. I don't exist only in your books, your heads, your intellects. You come to Aotearoa and set me up as the '”side-show”, something to be ogled, to be brought out when appropriate, something to satisfy your curiosity, your questions; but only when it suits you. It gets too uncomfortable otherwise. You feel powerless. Yet, I feel powerless every day, bracing myself, waiting for your inevitable self-centred demonstrations of your privilege, your power.

And I wait, listen, trying to gather some reality from your distinct and distant world views. No wonder we have been content to theorise, it gets too hard otherwise, because then you'd have to see me and confront your fears, your racism, your colonialist past and your prevailing colonialist attitudes.


This section attempts to reconcile the ”theory” I accepted in part II with the ”practice” I described in part III. It is also taken from my raw first draft as I wish to convey my hope as well as my anger. The sections are inter-connected, overlapping in reality. But I used headings to organise my whakaaro and for better accessibility.

1. Identity

Of course, without attempting to label myself, I have alliances with and allegiances to particular groups. This is through the common membership of groups that we share. They include ethnicity, iwi, hapu, whanau, geography, gender, sexuality and profession. However, no group or grouping exists in a vacuum, as Awatere discussed. All of those and other commonalities make up how I identify myself and how I identify you. They are a unique combination as I am a unique person. So that every alliance and every allegiance is unique but not distinct. They overlap, inter-weaving, like the analogy of a web. And I sit wherever I choose within that web and sometimes not. The other thing about this web is that it is dynamic, evolving constantly, being added to, changed, never static, never defined, never complete. Therefore it withstands and rejects final definition, labelling, categorisation. So too does Goldfarb's ”theory -practice spiral”. She offers a model of inclusion. One which attempts to:

view concrete situations as containing strong theoretical potentialities. Theory then circles back to guide future behavioural choices which, in turn, test and reshape theory. [9]

Herein lies a theory of feminist praxis which does take account of the evolutionary nature of identity, alliances, allegiances. It is a theory which makes room for differences, which attempts to reflect the experiences of all women, which gives room to the articulation and validation of all our experiences.

2. Relating

In accepting a model of inclusion, we will relate to each other, and to our selves, without the need to defend or justify our position. We shall no longer be polarised, no longer be stuck. For to relate is to build and create relationships. It is about deciding to act. It is therefore activist. It is purposeful. The thing we must explore, though, to be effective, to make a difference, is what that purpose is? Is it social change, power redistribution, tino rangatiratanga, self-determination, autonomy ...? And, is this for all women? For all disempowered groups? For all ”others”?

If so then the point of relating is to realise that purpose. So it involves, as Mari Matsuda wrote, seeing the world through the eyes of the oppressed, [10] changing your standpoint, or at least trying to. The position we want to achieve is one where every woman:

is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. [S]he is not afraid to meet people or to enter into dialogue with them. [S]he does not consider [her]self the proprietor of history or of [wo]men, or the liberator of the oppressed; but [s]he does commit [her]self, within history, to fight at their side. [11]

Perhaps naively, I believed this position was an aspiration shared by my class. I believed it was one which we would and could achieve. Although my experience in this class shattered that belief, I still hope we can. And my commitment to that process is in the writing of this article, to share with you my reality, my experience, my hopes. I don't want your sympathy, nor do I want your understanding even. I do want your honest acceptance of my truth as I have articulated it. And I want action.

3. Difference in context

Let us not forget Awatere's self-evident statement that ”[t]he oppression of women does not exist in a vacuum”. [12] Women, law and policy issues in Aotearoa exist in a social, political and economic framework. Intrinsic to this framework is the historically-determined position of Maori women and non-Maori women. This history must include analyses of the impact of colonialism and the Treaty of Waitangi. It must also include Maori women's persistent claims for self-determination. For this is the difference in Aotearoa. This is what identifies us and distinguishes us from women in America, women in Australia, women anywhere else. This is also what identifies and distinguishes us as Maori women from you non-Maori women.

So how come you still sit in your safe place and expect me to educate you? When are you going to commit yourself to doing the really hard stuff which shows me you are worth educating? So I will know that you are committed to my liberation too. It seems to me that my struggle necessarily takes account of your struggle. I can't ignore patriarchy in my struggle. Yet you can and do ignore the ”colour” of patriarchy, the cultural-specificity of patriarchy. And in so doing you ignore me.


This article is an offering to Maori women who are in similarly isolating and unsafe spaces. It acknowledges that we are here not only because we have chosen to, but because we are intent upon making these places safer and less isolating for Maori women who will walk these paths in the future.

This article is also an offering to my law course of 1994, to feminists in Aotearoa and to all who profess a commitment to the liberation of indigenous peoples from colonialism and women from patriarchy. I decided to leave two parts of the article in their raw, questioning, probing form, to share my experience. I wrote in anger and in sadness. I also wrote with a view towards change. Hence, I offer this to you all to listen to, to take in deeply, to ponder and to act upon. Yes, there are expectations attached to these shared whakaaro. Why would I bother to open my world to you otherwise? However I do not intend to tell you how to act or what to do. I have hinted at this, but those decisions are part of that difficult road we are all walking towards reclamation of our tino rangatiratanga.

This article has also been a cathartic and self-indulgent experience. That I have expressed it in ”academic” forum has been extremely unusual. However in a course like this one, with its model of a ”theory-practice spiral”, space must necessarily be made for or taken by women's experiences. So I have taken that space and I have written this account of my experience of the ”theory” and the ”practice” of being a solitary Maori woman in this course.

The model I envision is one which accepts Maori women's claims for rangatiratanga, one which is committed to their realisation and fulfilment. It is a model of genuinely developing awarenesses based in this commitment and not in fear, where we acknowledge each other’s perspectives, situations and positions, where we continue to challenge them as we each walk our paths of tino rangatiratanga, where I can be safe, free from interrogation, free from your curiosity and probing because your knowledge of me will not just be in your heads, it will be more than academic. It will be synthesised into your world view, your path, as yours has been synthesised into mine. Only then am I willing to talk with you kanohi ki te kanohi.

Glossary of Maori terms



extended kin group, consisting of many whanau


people;descent group, consisting of many hapu

kanohi ki te kanohi

face to face

kura kaupapa

a system of education based in Maori value and belief systems.


my primary hapu, named after our ancestress, Hineamaru


my primary iwi, named after our ancestor, Puhi

te reo

the language

tangata whenua

indigenous peoples

tino rangatiratanga

a term which has been equated with chieftainship and absolute sovereignty.




ideas, thoughts, beliefs




kin group




land, our earth mother - Papatuanuku

[*] Ngatihine, Ngapuhi; BSc Dip Tchg (Auckland); final year LLB (Hons) student, University of Waikato. Note, readers are referred to the glossary of Maori terms at the end of the article.

[1] Awatere, D Maori Sovereignty (1984) 45.

[2] Note, this article is based on an essay submitted for the course. The essay and the article are not intended to be a personal attack on any individual lecturer/s. On the contrary, following the submission of the essay, I met with the course convenor and two other lecturers to discuss the development of the course in an open and constructive way. That I did write this essay is indicative of their genuine concern and awareness of the issues the essay raises. I thank them.

[3] As to the importance attached by authors to the places from which they speak, see Te Awekotuku, "He Tikanga Whakaaro: Research Ethics in the Maori Community" (1991) Manatu Maori 11-15; and Hutchinson, "Inessentially Speaking (Is There Politics After Postmodernism?)" (1991) 89 Mich LR 1549, 1561.

[4] Goldfarb, "A Theory-Practice Spiral: The Ethics of Feminism and Legal Education" (1991) 75 Minn LR 1599, 1646.

[5] Ibid, 1614.

[6] Haraway, D Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991) 195.

[7] Supra note 1, at 42.

[8] The use of the term ”culturally-defined” is an attempt to centralise women of cultures other than western-European without defining them in relation to western-European women, that is, without making them other. It has been taken from Moana Jackson's work in He Whaipaanga Hou (1988).

[9] Supra note 4.

[10] Matsuda, "When the First Quail Calls: Multiple Consciousness as Jurisprudential Method" (1989) 11 Women's Rights L Reporter 7.

[11] Freire, P Pedagogy of the Oppressed (4th ed 1990) 19.

[12] Supra note 1.