Speaking on the marae

In a couple of places, I’ve said that women are banned from speaking on some marae. I was wrong. I’m sorry for having said this.

In a comment on my previous post, He Uri o Nanakia very gently pointed out that I was wrong, and took the time to explain some of the customs around who speaks when and where on marae. I’m very sorry to have been saying something that is wrong, and sorry that I didn’t take the time to get it right before leaping into print.

I’ve copied the comment here.


Under Māori tikanga, women are not banned from speaking on the marae.

Exactly what you mean when you say marae is possibly an issue here but I will take it that you mean the wharenui (‘meeting house’) itself or the marae ātea (the area in front of the wharenui where the whai kōrero happens in most areas). The term marae can and often does refer to the whole complex but I’m assuming that you don’t think that women are banned from speaking at all, anywhere on the marae complex.

On most (but by no means all) marae, women do not perform the whai kōrero (formal speeches) within the ceremony of the pōwhiri (ritual welcome). During a pōwhiri the whai kōrero is done either on the marae ātea or inside the wharenui. When there is no pōwhiri in progress, there is no restriction on who may speak on the marae in these areas. (That is to say, no default restriction, depending on what is happening there may be restrictions on who may speak based on a range of issues such as, specific expertise or professional role.)

Within the ceremony of the pōwhiri the role that is performed almost exclusively by women is the karanga. This is the call between the tangata whenua (hosts) and the manuhiri (guests). If there is no body who can perform the karanga the pōwhiri cannot go ahead. It is a crucial element of the ritual. In modern times the karanga is usually quite short but it is entirely possible for the karanga to be as long and have as much linguistic content as the whai kōrero. In addition to the karanga, women may interject to show support or disagreement during the whai kōrero of their speaker. They may also cut the speaker off entirely if they wish make a strong statement that they do not support the speech.

The way these customs are practiced varies from marae to marae.
Whether of not the customs of the pōwhiri are discriminatory or sexist is a complicated discussion and as you say, one to be had within Māoridom, not ‘about’ Māoridom.

However, stating that women are prohibited from speaking on the marare is incorrect and I speculate that this statement is likely to have offended and disappointed some people. Misconceptions like this one can make it difficult for some Māori women to engage with what as seen as the Pākehā feminist dialogue.


Thank you, He Uri o Nanakia, for your comment, and for the time you took to explain the matter to me.

Me te mihi nui



5 responses to “Speaking on the marae

  1. Hmm I just Googled this and this found this from the Herald reporting Prof Ranganui Walker
    “Some tribes, like the Arawa, absolutely prohibit women from speaking on the marae, says Walker. Others are less rigid. On the East Coast, or in Northland and the Bay of Plenty, if a woman feels strongly enough she can stand up and speak and her own mana will protect her, he says. But generally women do not speak on the marae. Even the Maori Queen speaks from the porch. Walker says in the many years he has spent time on marae around the North Island only once has he seen women speak. “That was at Waitangi some years ago when Whaia McClutchie spoke for the protesters she led on to the marae. The elders were quite discomforted, but they were rescued by Dame Whina Cooper. She’d been sitting to one side and got up and answered her. That restored the balance.” Walker says it does not worry him if women speak on the marae – “I’m a moderate person.” ”

    Down here in the south things are not so rigid ( I think I have seen women speak on the local marae they certainly get their points of view across) but there are obviously different customs in different places
    But I think in general you were correct and Ranganui Walker obviously thought the same way

  2. I think, Raymond, you are confusing the marae with the marae; in no Iwi is it the case that women can’t speak on the marae. That would mean women can’t speak in the wharekai, for example.

    The ambiguity that trips most people up here is that the claim “Women cannot speak on the marae” is being used ambiguously. It can only be reasonably interpreted to be the claim “Women cannot perform the whai kōreo in the pōwhiri.” Women speak on the marae all the time.

    The claim He Uri o Nanakia was debunking is that “Women can’t speak on the marae.” Women can speak on the marae; women do not kōreo in the pōwhiri but they are responsible for the karanga.

  3. Perhaps there is a confusion between the marae (the whole grounds and building complex) and the paepae (the speaking area in front of the wharenui). “Marae” is sometimes used as shorthand for the latter.

    I do recall in 1985, when I was attending Women’s Studies at Victoria University, that the university marae was being established and its formal rules (kawa) and protocols set up. A group of female Maori students approached the Women’s Studies staff and students and sought our assistance in their quest to have the university adopt a neutral kawa, instead of a more localised regional kawa.

    I have vivid and clear memories of the distress and anger of those young Maori women, who told us that female students came in to their department strong and confident after having done well at school, but after three years of hearing the males doing all the speechifying and taking the lead roles on the marae, they knew they had been relegated to second place and had lost their confidence and their leadership qualities, which could take years to regain. Their words, not mine.

    I was bitterly disappointed that my own university should be contemplating using its public funding to disempower women, and I helped organise a feature to be written about it in the Listener magazine to create a forum to facilitate debate on the issue. Another student helped organise a discussion on the topic on Access Radio.

    Our small efforts to help were in vain, however, and the university marae adopted a kawa that once again saw women relegated to a formal ceremonial greeting role. Victoria University acquiesced to this. The chance to establish a neutral kawa had been missed.

    If anything has changed in this respect in the past 25 years I should be glad to hear it.

    I am not Maori (though the next generation of my family/whanau is), and I do regard it in general as an issue that Maori must resolve for themselves. However, I do pay taxes, and as a taxpayer I strongly resent my tax dollar being used to reinforce men’s roles at women’s expense, in any culture, and in any public setting. Government departments, and government educational institutions, must deliver equal opportunity and not be in the business of discrimating on the basis of race or sex.

    Relevant to this is an earlier discussion in New Zealand which saw a woman public servant sacked for wanting to sit in the front row at a welcome for a Maori colleague within a government department. All the women had been told to sit at the back, even though it was a work function on work premises.

    Yet these ancient forms of female subservience have been newly introduced into universities and government offices in the 1980s and 1990s, with the acquiescence, if not encouragement, of successive governments.

    This is a discussion that New Zealand is refusing to have, really. It gets jammed into our overflowing national Too Hard Basket. But breaking down entrenched cultural discrimination against women is where I feel we must next focus our endeavour, and this is as good a place to start as any.

  4. I just spent a few days on a Ngati Porou marae in the East Cape, where women are most definitely welcome to take part on the whai korero (and given the long history of fierce Ngati Porou women, I think the implication is “try and stop me”). I’ve heard of women doing the whai korero on other marae where it’s not traditional, particularly where there wasn’t a male speaker who could do the role justice.

    I very much agree that this is a debate that’s likely to happen with Maoridom, and I can foresee things changing on that front over the next few years.

  5. Any change definitely needs to come from within Maoridom. I’ve studied the poetry of Roma Potiki and she has a great poem which highlights the difficulties of retaining customs and tradition in resistance of cultural colonialism. Because if there’s already been 1-200 years of colonisation, sometimes what you’re fighting to protect has already been distorted by colonisation. Potiki suggests that Maori women have lost power as a result of the misogyny that coursed through the colonising culture and that this is now being protected under the guise of authenticity. It’s a complex and thorny issue – and certainly the fact that many people say women can’t speak on the marae, when they mean korero during a powhiri, muddies the water further.