The fuss over women's speaking rights on marae is dominating headlines, but the issue is far from clear-cut.

Debate among Maori reveals a range of views on what should be the correct kawa, or protocol, for both Waitangi Day and the general issue of women's speaking rights.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is awaiting a clear signal on how Ngapuhi elders will deal with welcoming a woman leader while facing anger from Maori women such as Titewhai Harawira about having one rule for the Prime Minister and another for them.


But the grounds are already shifting. Ngapuhi have already indicated an adjustment to their kawa which they hope will enable Helen Clark to speak and will stave off protest.

The nub of the debate is that Maori believe the marae atea, the open courtyard in front of the meeting house, is the domain of Tu, the god of war, where bad feelings, arguments or nasty comments can be aired during the powhiri, or welcome.

Some tribes believe women must be protected from this behaviour and do not allow women to whaikorero (make speeches) there for fear they would be cursed.

Women do have a key ceremonial role in calling visitors on to a marae for the powhiri, but it is what happens next - and where a woman leader fits into the equation - that is under debate.

For after the karanga is answered, usually by kuia past childbearing age with the power to negate any evil influences or makutu (curses) coming with the visitors or harboured by the tangata whenua, women are expected to take a back seat.

Men sit in the front row of the marae courtyard and make the speeches.

It is only after the formality of the powhiri that discussion moves into the meeting house, where women are routinely able to speak.

Pita Paraone, joint organiser of the Waitangi Day commemorations, said Ngapuhi elders who met last Saturday decided that the powhiri would take place inside the meeting house and that Helen Clark could address the gathering after speeches from the hosts and the visitors.


Two issues - as yet unresolved - arise from this change in protocol.

Mr Paraone said one was that there seemed to be differing views on when the tapu on the visitors was lifted.

"The other issue was that if you were going to change the protocol to accommodate the Prime Minister at that time, why hasn't it been extended to Maori women."

Titewhai Harawira, who reduced Helen Clark to tears in 1998, says she will again disrupt the ceremony if the Prime Minister is allowed to speak ahead of Maori women before the tapu is lifted.

Dr Ranginui Walker, former head of the Maori studies department at Auckland University, says the controversy over Helen Clark's right to speak at Waitangi is nonsense as women can speak inside the meeting house once the formality of the powhiri is over.

But he says the wider debate is not a waste of time as cultures are dynamic.

He likens the powhiri to the rituals of a church. But he says rituals like those governing the welcoming ceremony can change over time.

"Everyone understands that it's only a priest or a bishop who says the rituals of Mass and it's not every layman who's entitled to do that."

Dr Walker says any person wishing to speak on a marae atea should be properly schooled in the intricacies of whaikorero.

However, the rules are loosening and it is becoming common to see younger men rather than elders.

He recalls rare instances dating back decades where respected women Whaia McClutchie and Mihi Kotukutuku spoke on the marae.

"It is rare. If they've got the guts to do it, they just do it."

Generally, tribes such as Ngati Porou on the East Coast and Mataatua from the Bay of Plenty are the most liberal about women's speaking rights, he says, with Te Arawa the most conservative, followed by Tainui.

Both tribes are adamant that women do not speak on marae.

But Dr Walker says rules apply to men as well as women, with their rights to speak often depending on their standing in the tribe.

And even in those areas where women can claim that right through descent, they can still be asked, by the people of a marae, not to speak.

When women, who would not normally claim the right to speak, are accorded that honour by the marae, they will - most often - go to the porch of the whare and speak there.

Even the Maori Queen speaks from the porch.

Maori lawyer and journalist Moana Sinclair, who recalls being ordered to sit down several times when she rose to speak on a marae, says change is definitely needed.

The protocol forbidding women to speak is a product of colonisation and urbanisation, she says.

"I've seen Whaia McClutchie struggle when she was alive [to] get up on a marae. They cut her down, and she was known as the woman who got up and spoke.

"It's just not common sense in today's world when you consider [we have] two women Prime Ministers already."

Act MP Donna Awatere Huata, who is Te Arawa on her mother's side and Ngati Porou through her father, said her situation had been made extremely difficult because of the differing protocols of the two tribes.

Te Arawa prohibits women from speaking on marae, but Ngati Porou does not.

A mother of five daughters and two sons, Donna Awatere Huata says the protocol is a reflection of the fact that women are not valued, and she wants better for her children.

"Women can go to the moon but they can't get up and speak on some marae. No, no, no, no. Get real."

The man at the centre of the Waitangi row, Mr Paraone, says the organising committee will be very disappointed if Helen Clark chooses not to go to Waitangi.

"The sad part about it is that it's overtaking the actual significance of the day, which is to celebrate our nationhood."