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The arrival of Pākehā in Aotearoa came with Western ideals of women and their bodies. Ataria Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) examines how that shaped her understanding of her body and how she decolonised those perceptions.
I got my first period at 11 years old. I was embarrassed, disgusted even, at the blood. At the same time, I used to wear multiple bras to flatten my chest so that my growing breasts would disappear.
Now in my 30s, I wonder why I had such an extreme response to what is normal and natural.
If I ever have a daughter, I’d never want her to feel the same way I did. That there was something wrong with her body. Something wrong with growing into being a woman. I’d like her to feel her menstruation as something to be celebrated, a precious taonga.
In my late 20s, I came across Dr Ngahuia Murphy’s work on the menstrual practices of pre-colonial Māori.
She wrote: “I maintain that menstrual blood represents power, not pollution, and discourses of pollution seek to progress a colonialist patriarchal agenda that cuts across the politics of tino rangatatiratanga.”
It lit a fire in my belly. I cried reading her words and realised that perhaps my thoughts about myself and my body were incorrect. Maybe they were from something I did not know of, yet here they were, affecting my body image and self-esteem.
Māori cultural practices and ways of living were recorded in the late 1800s and early 1900s by ethnographers. They were migrants from their European homeland or first-generation Pākehā.
Europe at the time left much to be desired in terms of women’s rights. The ethnographers came from a culture and religion where this oppression of women was standard and brought this into their writings.
To give context, the last witch burnings in Europe occurred in 1750 when Captain Cook was alive. The first women’s voting rights were in 1893, right here in Aotearoa.
Many of us may be familiar with the negative imagery used to describe Hine-nui-te-Pō in some well-known Māui narratives, particularly her reproductive organs. Some even used imagery to make her into a ‘monster’. When we talk about her body that way (and an atua at that!), I can’t help but think of my own.
Since then, not just Dr Murphy but Dr Aroha Yates-Smith, Ani Mikaere and other wāhine Māori researchers have shone a light on a legacy of negative kōrero about the atua wāhine and Māori women.
The two are interconnected with many atua wāhine, representing different aspects of being a Māori woman.
Murphy writes that what we say about menstrual blood reflects the esteem in which we hold women.
“How menstrual blood is regarded in a society is highly symbolic of the regard for women in general in that society.”
The body of Papatūānuku, known as the whenua, means both the land and the placenta of women in hapūtanga. This is similar to the whare tangata, the house of humanity, the womb and the uterus.
The atua wāhine reminds us of the many beautiful narratives for Māori women to connect to.
The love between Papatūānuku and Ranginui, the formation of Hine-ahu-one and the birth of her daughter, the first woman Hine-Tītama. The fearsome tīpuna kuia of Māui, Mahuika and Murirangawhenua. These are only the most well-known. There are many more and perhaps specific iwi and hapū stories to be shared and celebrated.
It’s hard to say what pre-colonial Māori women’s relationship with their bodies would’ve been like.
I can’t even begin to imagine it as someone who had been well brainwashed growing up hating their body.
On the other hand, I think it is fair to say that many things have happened over the last 200 years that have affected the way some Māori women see themselves. But the good news is that many are changing this narrative for themselves and their tamariki mokopuna.
Suppose you want to know the thoughts of Māori women on menstruation and the atua wāhine (instead of, you know, hearing from hundred-year-old European men).
In that case, Dr Murphy’s two books: Te Awa Atua and Waiwhero, share menstruation traditions and practises for Māori women.
Dr Aroha Yates-Smith asserts the mana of the atua wāhine in her work on the feminine in Māori spirituality. She argues that the atua wāhine share complementary roles with their male counterparts in Māori cosmology which provides balance.
Ani Mikaere recounts a history of colonisation and the unbalancing of Māori societal roles and its effects on Māori women in The Balance Destroyed. In it, she also shares kōrero and pūrākau affirming the status of Māori women.
Whiti Hereaka reframes the traditional story Hatupatu and the Bird Woman from the perspective of the ‘monster’ herself, giving a voice to Kurangaituku to share her side of the story.
My Master’s thesis considers the characteristics of the atua wāhine through interviews with Māori women on their personal experiences with them.
Atua Wāhine is a collection of writings by Māori women sharing their own perspectives, thoughts and feelings on the atua wāhine through poetry, essay and short story.
Twenty years later, I don’t feel the same about myself or my menstruation.
I’ve learnt that the whare tangata and menstruation are taonga that ensure the continuation of the whānau, hapū and iwi.
I’ve learnt that I’m a descendant of Hine-ahu-one and Hinetītama. I’ve learnt that narratives affirming the importance of Māori women can be found throughout the stories of our atua.
For this, I must thank the tireless mahi of all the women I’ve mentioned and more.
We're uprooting damaging thinking and reclaiming traditional practices.
If I raise a daughter, I'm hopeful about the world she will live in as a Māori woman.
Like Ani Mikaere says, “the optimist in me hopes that the messages in The Balance Destroyed will be well and truly irrelevant before my grandchildren start producing the next generation”.
Ataria Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) was born in Te Whanganui-a-Tara; she now lives in Hikurangi, Te Tai Tokerau. Ataria has a Master of Arts in Māori Studies and spent a year researching mana wahine and atua wāhine. Her first novel Hine and the Tohunga Portal by Huia Publishers, was a finalist in the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards for Youth and Children.
Illustration by Twyla Bell
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