Putting the Mana in Mana Wahine

Image: Trinity Thomson-Browne

Image: Trinity Thomson-Browne

Trinity sending a message to every wahine putting the mana in mana wahine. You. Are. Powerful.

Last trimester, I had the immense joy—and yes, though a uni project, I do mean that honestly—of researching and exploring a topic that intrigued me; mana wahine. I think the main reason it intrigued me was because I didn’t really understand what it was before I started this project. By the end of it though, I knew this was a kaupapa I’d be learning more about every day. Multifacted, powerful and so incredibly liberating, e hoa mā let me bring you into the world of mana wahine.

The first thing to know is that wahine and mana wahine was never subject to any form of oppression seen in western society pre-contact; which is pretty incredible. The background behind why this was has a lot to do with an extremely pervasive ideology in the western world—the supposed inferiority of women to men—being absent from pre-colonial Māori society. Bold, fierce, honoured by tāne and represented equally in story and legend, gender relations is a kaupapa Māori have had on lock for far longer than Pākehā; that’s important to remember. If you’re a wahine Māori, you have access to a narrative which inherently, has always placed you in equal stead with tāne Māori. Your whakapapa means you never have to be a passive receiver of the gender bias nonsense constantly plaguing Pākehādom.

Our beliefs and mythology grew, nurtured and cultivated kōrero that consistently reinforced wahine and tāne as equal counterparts who together formed the many whakapapa links rooting each generation in both the past and present day. As a collective culture, our tūpuna understood that tāne and wahine made up the collective whole — the responsibility to uphold the value of each person’s place within that space fell to everyone. Our tūpuna wahine were so awesome. Papatūānuku became the tūpuna tuturu for all Māori when she helped her son Tāne Mahuta breathe life into dust; Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga acquired fire from his kuia Mahuika; the jawbone of his other kuia, Murirangawhenua, was what he fished up Te Ika a Maui (the north island) with. And Maui’s last endeavour lost him his life when he failed to attain immortality from Hine-nui-te-pō. In all of these pūrakau, tāne did the mahi, but wahine determined its success.

Our mana as wahine wasn’t just protected and enhanced through pūrakau either. Our tūpuna were so smart; they knew when it was best to divide or unify. The fact that they saw wahine and tāne as stronger together than they did separated went right down to the language itself—‘ia’ meansing he and she; ‘tāna/tōna’ meaning his and hers; and most names (like Kahurangi or Manaia) were appropriate for tāne or wāhine. In whakataukī, one of the pinnacles of Māori whakaaro and expression, old sayings honoured us and our whare tangata. “He wahine, he whenua, e ngaro ai te tangata" which among other translations, means without the nourishment wahine give (the whenua referring to both Papatūānuku nourishing us and the placenta nourishing our pēpī), humanity would be lost.

With pūrakau and a reo that honoured the mana of wahine, the organisation of pre-colonial Māori society through iwi, hapū whānau was no different. Wāhine were held as independent agents — they had their own autonomy, were never seen as property to tāne, nor as merely vehicles through which a male’s bloodline was furthered. When wāhine married, they kept their own family names and their children had the ability to align with the kin of either or both parents. The kākahu wāhine wore were similar to men, and both conception and child-bearing were positive, normalised stages of life. Alongside this, the protection of a woman’s mana if they were violated through sexual or physical assault is potentially the most stark difference between Māoridom and Pākehādom. While responsibility fell to the collective if an assault of any kind was perpetrated against wāhine, more often than not, a culture of blame, nonsense justisfication, guilt, rejection and fear has been the hallmark of assault cases in the western world.

Having traced the whakapapa anchoring and upholding mana wahine in pre-colonial Māori society, this now gives rise to three important questions; What is mana? What is wahine? And what is mana wahine? Before we can unpack this concept as a whole, it is essential to understand the individual words that represent it. Starting first with mana, in my research this word took the primary definitions of ‘inherent value and power.’ For wahine, two etymologies were combined. Leonie Pihama (2001:265) conceptualised wahine from two root words, wā and hine — ‘wā’ meaning both time and space, ‘hine’ being the female essence. Together as wāhine, the term “designates a certain time and space for Māori women”, though perhaps this is better worded as “a space that Māori women live in and move through.” Dunlop (2016) on the other hand, translated wahine from three root words, wā, hi and ne. ‘Wā’ denoting time and space, ‘hi’ meaning to align, draw, catch and raise up, and ‘ne’ meaning knowledge. Together as wāhine, she translates this as “the holders of knowledge.”

Reconnecting back with our pūrākau, Dunlop’s definition aligns with the positions wāhine like Papatūānuku, Mahuika, Murirangawhenua and others held as holders, keepers and stewards of knowledge. Amalgamating the definitions of mana and wahine, mana wahine became: ‘a powerful space that women, the holders of knowledge, live in and move through.’ Of all the emotions I could’ve gotten when I was writing this for my assignment, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that my culture is a safehaven from the warped gender battle constantly raging on in Te Ao Pākehā; and relief that I’m validated as powerful and a kaitiaki matauranga in my own culture’s eyes.

When I asked three of my friends for their thoughts on mana wahine, two had similar strands of thought, one had slightly different views, and you what? That is okay—in a language where multiple meanings are weaved within single words, there is never just one definition. Unpacking mana wahine in a language that demands such stringent singularity of thought was the hardest challenge of this research project, but it helped me understand something I’d felt for ages, but had never been able to put my finger on. While Māori is a language of single words with many meanings, English is a language of many words with single meanings. Have you ever noticed that when people talk about success, or dreams, or heck even being Māori, there are always ‘right’ ways and ‘wrong’ ways—that there are ‘ways’ fullstop and each one has its own box and borders it shares with other words and their meanings. Have you ever noticed how different English speaking countries have organised space and people is compared to Māori? How just like the language, space is divided and borders shared, with each person inhabiting their own lot.

Whereas Māori, just like the language, is inherently plural and so space is shared between many with little to no borders separating them. Reconnecting back with our kōrero earlier, our tīpuna knew when it was best to divide or unify; they understood that space, like gender, was stronger as one. Over the years, Pākehādom and its love to separating anything and everything has made its way into so Māori spaces, to the point where we look at each other now and do exactly what English does— Pākehā Māori, white Māori, urban Māori, plastic Māori, oreo, right Māori, wrong Māori, not Māori enough, aha atu—āue taukuri e what has happened to us? We cannot forget our roots. Our language is designed to unify us because we will always be weaker when we whakaiti each other and segregate ourselves to different ‘factions’ of Māoritanga. We need to challenge our kaumātua, mātua and peers who have the ability to reconnect the isolated to do just that. Our rangatahi need us; there are so many young Māori hurting right now and we’re becoming disconnected to the point where it’s mainstream media filling us in on it. But irrespective of the hardship we see today, it’s never too late to create change, and as wāhine, it’s in our whakapapa.

Bringing this whakaaro back towards mana wahine, when I look at our tīpuna and our pūrākau, at Papa, Mahuika, Murirangawhenua and Hine-nui-te-pō—the OG mana wahine—they all determined the course of change Te Ao Tawhito propelled us toward. They all made a difference. If mana wahine is anything, it is change waiting to happen; eyes that see change before it’s visible, breath that inhales tomorrow’s air in today’s circumstance, hands that embrace today’s pain with tomorrow’s solution. It’s about speaking up, changing the norm, realising that Ngāi Māori is stronger with us and weaker without us, and leaving this world in a better place than we found it. E hoa mā, each and every one of us are born to put the mana in mana wahine.

E mihi ana,


If you want some further reading on the kaupapa, anei he kai:

  • Dunlop, Māni 2016. Please, call me wahine. The Wireless. http://thewireless.co.nz/articles/pleasecall-me-wahine

  • Mikaere, Annabel L. 1994. Māori women: Caught in the contradictions of a colonised Reality. Waikato Law Review 2. http://www.waikato.ac.nz/law/research/waikato_law_review/ volume_2_199 4/7

  • Pihama, Leonie 2001. Tīhei mauri ora: Honouring our voices. Mana Wahine as a kaupapa Māori theoretical framework. Unpublished PhD Thesis. Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland.

  • Simmonds, Naomi 2011. Mana wahine: decolonising politics. Women’s Studies Journal 25(2): 11-25.

  • Winitana, Mei 2014. Māori women as transformers of their own identity: An exploration of selected identity markers for Māori women at home in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and in Australia. Unpublished PhD thesis, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, Whakatāne, New Zealand

This piece was also published in Salient 2017