So, women are a slighted gender in the Maori world, are we?

The hoopla over the unfairness of women being seated behind men on a marae brought home yet again the chasm that exists between Maori and Pakeha.

Like the bros watching sports, yelling and fuming over the injustice of it all, this Maori girl was bellowing at the television set, throwing down newspapers and ranting last week that the world be set right.

Unashamedly, I'm rooting for the underdogs - those forced to survive in an arena where the rules keep changing.

That position was reinforced by a group of my mates, Maori women who gathered around my table outraged by reported opinions, mainly from the Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright.

What Dame Silvia fails to grasp is that the frontline is the firing line. What many see as sexism is, in fact, a shield.

The marae is the one place where talk can be open, brutally honest and sometimes hurtful. Don't expect to sit there and be bowed to and don't complain about manners and behaviour.

If you can't handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen - or in the kitchen as the case may be.

For many tribes it's simple: the woman is the bearer of generations and must be protected at all costs. Better that a man falls, than a woman who holds the future of an entire tribe. That's not discrimination.

The insult for my mates lay, once again, in being told how to act and live by someone looking in.

We want something? We make it happen. "Call it manipulative, but at the end of the day Maori women have absolute power if you want to call it that," says one mate.

"With one wink, one shrug of the shoulders we can stop a speech immediately.

"You don't need to hear me. You don't need to know where I'm sitting. That's the difference between us and Pakeha. I don't need to hear the sound of my own voice. I don't need to be in the front row. One expression speaks volumes. One raised eyebrow from us tells our men they won't be eating tonight. Don't tell me I don't have power!"

Get the picture?

Neither did I as a young, know-everything-but-really-nothing Maori girl determined to change the status of Maori women. I questioned, retaliated, challenged until the late Tuhoe elder, Tom Winitana, answered with a patient smile.

"Okay dear," he obliged. "Another man will stand aside and let you walk through the door. But what's on the other side? I walk through in front of you to ensure there is safety, that there is nothing that can hurt you.

"So who is the real gentleman? The man who steps aside or the man who will place your well-being first?"

Damned if I didn't feel special.

Send the woman first and what? She dies? "Didn't anyone watch Mission Impossible?" cackle my girls. Go through the door first and you are history. Even in Hollywood they know the basics.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager watching a traditional welcome on the marae. To be honest, I should have been helping in the kitchens (where more men than women were doing dishes) but the Tipene College boys were arriving.

It was the first time I can remember noticing female elders sitting behind the men muttering, poking and prodding.

It was so obvious I was distracted from my other obsession (the boys) and watched in fascination as a Maori female elder stood up and begin singing over the speech of a male elder. He hadn't made the grade. His time was up. Once the singing began, it was all over. Sit down.

"Our men know that if they don't shut up now, they're going to sleep on the floor," confesses one mate.

"Ever heard of pillow talk? By the time I'm finished my man will get up in the morning and say 'Right, this is how it should be'. If he doesn't, he'll have crying kids, no food and no sleep. His existence the next day depends on how he performed the day before."

The girls nod in unison.

Trade that to get up on the marae and go blah, blah, blah? No way. I don't need to be in the front row. I've got more important things to do. Honey, we actually rule.

For the record, my girls are a television producer, a government policy analyst, a proud housewife, a business consultant and a can't-decider.

All this talk about Maori women being oppressed? Enough. Must go. The household needs dinner.

* Maramena Roderick, a Wellington journalist, is a former Herald reporter and Europe correspondent for TVNZ.