CULTURE: Makanaka Tuwe writes Are We There Yet?

Makanaka Tuwe is a recent masters graduate from Unitec Institute of Technology. Last year she self-published her first book titled Questionable Intimacy – a collection of poems, narrative essays and gentle reminders about womanhood, self-love and self-care. She is a Storyteller, Indigenous researcher & Good vibe generator. In this article she writes about being a womanist and how and why she came to that line of thought and action. She addresses the 125th anniversary of New Zealand granting women the right to vote for the first time ever in the world aka World Suffrage Day; asking if feminism is to be for all women, if we are talking about equality then are we really there yet? She talks about social activist Tarana Burke who originally started the Me Too movement and challenges white women to actively share their platforms rather than just talk about it.


By Makanaka Tuwe

I am not free while any woman is unfree even when her shackles are different from my own – Audre Lorde

Long before I had the language to articulate how I felt, I spoke about the double barrel of being black and woman. When I came across the term intersectionality coined by Professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 in the paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics my feels were summed up. Intersectionality recognises that women experience oppression in varying aspects and degrees of intensity. Things such as race, gender, class, ability, sexual orientation and ethnicity are contributing factors to their oppression.

2018 marks the 125th anniversary of the suffrage movement in New Zealand and it’s a time of reflection and the nationwide question in the media, at exhibitions, events and at feminist clubs and gatherings is are we there yet? Each year when the suffrage anniversary rolls around or Woman’s Day our tone is celebratory, marveling at how advanced and progressive we are for the vote, women in leadership and recently a Prime Minister whose baby father will be staying home to look after their newborn (Ardern is the first elected world leader to ever go on maternity leave). While applause of the past and its significance in history is important, it’s also a great foundation to unpack where we are in terms of other issues like reproductive rights, domestic violence, sex worker rights, legal rights, body image, equal pay, paid parental leave, support for single mothers, race and intersectionality.

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Photo by Shivan Gathum Patel from the book Questionable Intimacy.

As different cultures and perspectives converge the face and realities of what it means to be a woman in New Zealand is changing. Colonisation, globalisation, post-colonialism, displacement are what we have endured and continue to endure as we shape our worlds. And as they are shaped by systems that oppress us systematically, socially, energetically and psychologically. Our worldviews, our cultures, our perspectives and the experiences that inform how we navigate society vary. As such the agenda of the suffrages then and the idea of a suffrage now is changing, or at least I thought.

In 2017 The World Economic Forum calculated that disparities in pay and employment opportunities for men and women will end in 217 years. In New Zealand it is calculated that the gender pay gap is 9.4%, the pay parity between mothers and fathers is 17%; and this isn’t considering our societal conditioning that sees women in full time work at their day jobs and also doing the unpaid domestic and emotional labour for their families. In leadership, only 18% of women are in senior management roles. Add in race, a complexity that has been diluted, dismissed or met with tears; it’s calculated that white women earn between $3 and $6 more per hour than Māori, Pasifika and Asian women; and $1 to $4 more per hour than Māori, Pasifika and Asian men. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that a white man got paid the highest, what I was taken aback by were the disparities between women from different ethnic backgrounds. As an African woman who commonly ticks the MELAA (Middle Eastern, Latin American, African) or Other box, I was surprised that I was part of a demographic that made up the second/third highest paid sitting between an average of $22.00 to $22.54 per hour. I commonly call out white feminism and its complacency to ensure equity and equality but I found myself wondering what I always wonder: what can I do with my privilege awarded to me via an access to education to ensure that when I speak of dismantling systems, I am speaking of all systems not only ones that oppress me.

In the wake of the #metoo movement, I felt raw. Firstly, at the disgusting acts of Harvey Weinstein, men that were being called out in the mainstream and the countless stories we shared amongst ourselves as women before and after the popularity of the movement. Secondly, my hurt was at the erasure of social activist Tarana Burke from the movement she had created almost a decade ago. Her blackness, at the time wasn’t good enough for the Time cover and while she did eventually grace the cover with a feature on the 100 Most Influential People Issue, I filed her initial erasure under things that make me go hmmm. Now I am not detracting from the heinous acts or making this about symbolism and grand public gestures in the form of magazine covers, I am highlighting why at times I’ve been uncomfortable with fully owning the feminist label and instead opted to be identified as a womanist.

At the forefront of the movement was the use of feminist slogans to sell merchandise (can we stop with the pussy hats please, we really need to get over our collective fixation with vaginas), everyone was being welcomed to the feminist club without reading the terms and conditions (sorry not sorry but to label yourself something means to do the work) and white women.

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Photo by Shivan Gathum Patel from the book Questionable Intimacy.

I thought about how feminism and empowerment had become corporate buzzwords. I thought about how on our shores there was a high level of attention on diversity and inclusion. We hear these words. We want to feel them. We want to live them. I thought about how sick I was of the symbolism and tokenism. How even when we speak about women’s rights there is a focus on gender like that is the singular force that governs the lived reality of all women. As if because we are all women we want the same things. As if because we are all women, we are the same.

Recently I facilitated a civic dinner hosted by Auckland Regional Migrant Services Trust (ARMS) about women’s rights, power and femininity surrounded by women from all walks of life. At the dinner table we shared our stories. I come from a place that acknowledges the role that women like Mbuya Nehanda played in the 1896-97 liberation struggle and where a miniskirt march took place in 2014 as women called for agency over their bodies in how they dress and navigate public places. Another woman comes from the East of India that borders Myanmar where mother goddess is worshipped and has high status. Another shares her experiences with the influences of western independence intersecting with tradition whereby she has access to deep tradition without responsibility to it. Another speaks on being mentally trapped in her birth country and that regardless of being raised in New Zealand, she has found it doesn’t matter where she is, she has to abide to her birth country’s cultural standards, norms and expectations. Another mentions that we are at the tipping point and another adds this tipping point is not the reality of all women. Resources may be available but they are barriers to accessing them. Networks may exist but there is a sense of exclusivity.

“I think in New Zealand the women that are really at the forefront (of the movement) are white women and its because they benefited from historical movements where they’ve been the coloniser and the privileged ones. We’ve faced disposition from land, loss of wealth and loss of culture because there’s already an existing gender dichotomy, we’ve kind of lost out to the men in our culture as well. So I think colonisation and disproportionate wealth among people is the foundation and overarching theme. Then from there looking at migrant populations in New Zealand, refugee populations in New Zealand, I think that some of the stuff that’s a barrier to women being empowered is the very basic material wealth. We talk a lot about pay parity in women’s issues but actually its Maori women and men and Pacific women and men that earn less than other people. I think when you are materially deprived and you are struggling to put food on the table, raise your family and keep a roof on your head there’s no room to think about those meter concepts like: I’m I being treated fairly. As a general rule it’s hard to fight for your rights when you are fighting for your basic needs to be met. There’s a lot of historical stuff that’s set up different positions and there’s a lot of modern stuff that’s stopping people from overcoming the barriers. And education as well”.

As I walk around Auckland Museum I see quotes from Donna Awatere echoing a similar message. The influences of western feminism and the lack of intersectionality.

“Feminists have concentrated on the sex oppression part of it and have fixated on the fallacy that it is possible to achieve goals for women without also making changes to white supremacy and capitalism. Without these challenges all that is sought are goals that don’t change the system and which are priorities only for the elite who aren’t as oppressed by these powers as others”.

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Photo by Shivan Gathum Patel from the book Questionable Intimacy.

I think of the mothers that came before me, myself in the present and our daughters and their daughters in the future. I think fuck, our voices, aren’t they hoarse now. Because it was in that moment that I realised that the agenda of the suffrage then and now hadn’t changed as such. Especially as a womanist (feminist of colour). Our mothers had been fighting for space, to be heard and to feel this recognition of intersectionality. In the same way that we are. I would be damned if I’m still talking about intersectionality for another decade, I think but alas Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term in 1989. In 2016 she is still talking about it, giving TED talks and in 2018 unpacking the term. It’s necessary and I know the work never stops but I tire, don’t we tire? The stories are there, the quotes are there, the stats are there. It’s all there. I wondered when we would really start listening and move beyond dialogue into action. I wondered what does that action look like, where does it start.

Seriously how many of us have heard theory-laden white women call out their privilege then do nothing about it or in their daily lives inflict the same hurts and pains they speak so strongly against on women of colour. Theory versus action. Talk versus action. Even as I write this I am conditioned to want to clarify what whiteness is. But there is enough reading material and information about that out there. I want to say that it’s not all white women. But having to even think like that illustrates how we continue to play it safe. How we cushion the comfort of the dominant at the expense of those on the margins. For a while now I have wondered how do we approach and navigate women’s rights in an age of social media, performative feminism and sisterhood. After all, it’s never been more fashionable to call yourself a feminist or to align yourself with the agenda. We are seeing the co-opting and integrating of diversity that at times isn’t contributing to dismantling structural oppression. It’s important that we do as best to move away from self-congratulatory to what we are actually doing.

I think at this moment one of my biggest questions alongside are we there yet is a question I came across in Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, can you be feminist and be wilfully ignorant on racism? We need to stop distancing ourselves from issues that don’t affect us because they are complex. They are complex to comprehend but imagine that being your lived reality. Imagine those being the barriers that you have to navigate daily. And just because those issues don’t exist for you it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Especially as multiculturalism increases in New Zealand. Especially when not every woman is white, middle class, cis-gendered or able bodied. We need to stop labeling these intersections as being divisive otherwise minority voices will continue to become marginalised. We will continue to contribute to a system that silences them.

Until we move beyond recognition of the complexity and diversity of the issues at stake in feminism today we will continue in this dominant, liberal, Western and middle-class model. We will develop solutions like more women on boards, which is great but we know that tends to advantage women who are already privileged. What about those in minimum wage jobs or insecure jobs? What about those whose lived realities involve creatively navigating life as their experiences are plagued with discrimination, prejudice and microaggressions? We now acknowledge or make mention the roles of all women and when we can’t represent them we politely acknowledge their erasure. We celebrate and honour their plight and their contributions. Fantastic. But what about women that are like them today? Who are in the same demographic as them? What are their lived realities today?

In the words of Jay-Z the numbers don’t lie check the scoreboard or in this instant the stats and if you are in a position to do something about them. Listen, include and understand when those in the margins need their own spaces to meet and gather. Some say the key to remember is that when obstacles for those who are most unfairly held back are removed those in the middle benefit too. But that’s pretty individualistic. Just do it. Not because you get awarded cookies for being a nice/great person but because the equality of all matters. Say it with your chest and walk the talk you talk.

Follow Maka on Instagram HERE.

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Cover Photo by Shivan Gathum Patel

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