The difference between being required to believe and respecting belief

I’m very happy to respect people’s right to hold cultural beliefs, to behave in a manner that is courteous and respectful, to adopt the behaviour of my hosts when I am at someone else’s place.

However I am not happy to be told that I must engage in particular cultural behaviours for my own safety.

The former asks me as a decent human being to behave in a respectful manner in the presence of someone else’s holy objects, or in their special place; the latter attempts to enforce a particular set of beliefs.

When Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, issued an invitation for regional museum staff to visit and see some of the work being done behind the scenes, it did the latter. Subsequently, it modified its stance to the former. I think the former is acceptable, and more than acceptable: it is desirable. It is something that gives people the space to choose their own way of life, their own set of values, their own beliefs. The latter is dangerous, all the more so when back by the power of the state.

Here’s what Te Papa said in the first instance when inviting regional museum managers and workers to its behind the scenes tour.

Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.

There was no indication that this was an ‘advisory’: it was a straightforward instruction that women who were pregnant or menstruating were not welcome. To read it any other way is an egregious refusal to consider the ordinary use of language, and the history of such phrases. Try these sentences for size:

Black people are welcome to sit at the back of the bus.

Aboriginal people are welcome to come to the back door of the shop to get an icecream.

Women are welcome to purchase a drink in the lounge bar.

Catholics are welcome to apply for jobs elsewhere.

In other words, black people are not allowed on the front of the bus, Aboriginal people are not allowed to enter the icecream parlour, women aren’t allowed to go into the main bar, and Catholics are not allowed to apply for jobs here.

These are not just random things I have made up: each of these sentences resonates with particular episodes of discrimination.

When Te Papa says that women who are pregnant or menstruating are welcome to come back at another time, it looks very much as though it is engaging in discrimination.

Te Papa quickly issued an explanation. It wasn’t discrimination based on gender. All they were trying to do was to keep women safe.

Wellington’s Te Papa says it is advising pregnant or menstruating women against attending one of its tours, which includes sacred Maori objects, “for their own safety.”

She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.

“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”

In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.

At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.

Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.

Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.

There has been a long, long struggle in Western nations and other nations around the world to separate church and state. And there’s good reason for this: the history of Western nations and other nations is rife with the horrors caused by people trying to impose their beliefs on others. These days, we tend to think that the state has no role in imposing belief. Instead, it should try to create the conditions where each person, each group of people, can practise their own beliefs, without interference from others, and without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their beliefs. State institutions should not discriminate against people because of their beliefs, and they should not try to impose beliefs on other people.

By Wednesday, Te Papa had changed its story. By then, it was saying that as a matter of respect for Maori culture, it would be good if this particular tapu could be observed, even by those who did not believe in it. That was when it moved from imposing belief, to asking that belief should be respected. And that is something I have no problems with whatsoever.

More than having no problems with it whatsoever, I think it is a highly desirable thing to do. It is in fact the best way for modern liberal democracies to proceed. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that individual people and groups of people are free to choose their own beliefs, and it creates space for people to respect each others’ chosen ways of life, even if you would not take on that way of life or those beliefs yourself.

I think that it is a much more secure approach. If you rely on your beliefs to be respected because the state has those beliefs too, then you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to the state finding that it no longer holds those beliefs, so it sees no reason to allow believers to continue to follow that particular way of life. I think that something of the sort has been going on with respect to Christianity, which has for many years been the de facto state religion in New Zealand, but its influence is declining. Even so, Christians have no reason to worry that they will not be permitted to practise their faith. No churches have been closed down, Christians have not been banned from exercising freedom of speech, they have not been forbidden to associate with each other. Their right to be Christian has not been affected at all. Of course, Christianity no longer enjoys the power it once had, but that’s a matter of changing social mores, not discrimination by the state.

I think the distinction between requiring people to believe, and respecting people’s right to belief, is very important. It creates the space in which people may choose their own way of life, and it creates the space in which other people may respect that way of life and those beliefs, without participating in them personally. So contrary to some, I think that Te Papa’s choice of words was very important.

Finally, I think today’s editorial in the Herald is a bit bloody rich. On Monday, they contacted me, looking for an Angry White Feminist to condemn Maori customs and beliefs. When I refused to do so, and instead focused on the distinction between imposing beliefs and respecting beliefs, they went with the Angry White Feminist line anyway. But today, suddenly, they are all about respecting beliefs. Whatever.


On a personal note, I’ve found it frustrating to be accused of being an unthinking white liberal feminist who has no idea about Maori culture and beliefs, who denigrates Maori culture, and who has no business telling Maori what to do. It has been frustrating because I have not made negative comments about Maori culture at all. I don’t even want to repeat the words that someone told me I had used to denigrate Maori culture, because not only are they words that I did not use at all, they are nasty words, and I don’t want to put them on my blog. I haven’t been telling Maori what to do: in the very first comments I made on the matter, I made it very clear that I did not think I should be involved in discussing what cultural practices Maori should engage it. I said, “It’s up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies.” In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men. And I made it clear that if I was on a marae, I would follow the customs of that marae. In another place, I’ve said that I’ve got some thoughts about what might be done with respect to working towards much greater respect for Maori as the first people in New Zealand, but that I didn’t want to put them out there, because it’s not my place to charge on in and tell Maori what to do.

I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.

Mind you, I guess that this sense of frustration is all too familiar for many Maori, and probably far worse. I’m fairly confident that talk back radio and comments threads on some of the newspaper sites have been full of nastiness about Maori culture. Perhaps I should have spent some time on those threads myself, trying to knock back some of the nastiness.


23 comments on “The difference between being required to believe and respecting belief

  1. merc says:

    Very well put, no reasonable person could have any issue with what you have written.

  2. I’ve been hella amused for being scolded for getting so excised over thins because I’m a man — therefore, it doesn’t affect me so I should STFU already. First time I’ve ever been attacked for not being privileged enough… 🙂

    Also been pretty offensive getting the polite pseudo-liberal version of being called an Uncle Tom. Poor darling, you’re so colonized by the dominant white supremacist paradigm. Grr…

  3. OTOH, this whole issue had filled enough b.s. bingo cards that I must be due for some serious prizes. 🙂

  4. Katherine says:

    I can see a few ways that the restriction/recommendation might be adhered to without excluding pregnant and menstruating women as much, that wouldn’t require much work. I’m not 100% sure if any of my ideas would be acceptable, as I don’t know much about the culture. But surely the media could have focussed on that angle, rather than on pitting Angry White Feminists (TM) against Maori.

  5. Carol says:

    I think you’ve done extraordinarily well, Deborah, throughout this rather strange episode. Total respect!

  6. Wogglebug says:

    “I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.”


  7. homepaddock says:

    Well reasoned and very reasonable. Thanks.

  8. muerknz says:

    I agree that forcing people to do things that are against their conscience or that they don’t believe in is wrong. OTOH Te Papa is owned by the Crown, and the Crown has a treaty with Maori. I’m not sure how that works out in this case, but it does change the landscape here doesn’t it?

  9. veganmedusa says:

    I was having this argument last night, I only wish I could have put the argument as well as you have.
    And if people have been attacking you, at least you know they can’t figure out how to attack your argument. Small consolation maybe.

  10. violet says:

    I suppose when it’s a sensitive subject it’s really easy to jump on an opinion before they’ve even read it properly. Maybe they’re too used to having people tell them that society is getting too politically correct blah blah blah…

  11. muerknz:

    The Crown also put the royal assent on pieces of legislation banning discrimination in employment, housing and provision of goods and services on the basis of sex (including pregnancy and childbirth), marital status; religious, ethical or political beliefs; rece/ethnicity; or sexual orientation; marital/family status or sexual orientation.

    Perhaps that’s ever so slightly relevant here too?

  12. muerknz says:

    @Craig, it is, but which law gets to trump the othere here. Andew Geddis didn’t think the action of Te Papa was illegal. I’m no lawyer, so I’m seriously without a clue.

  13. blue milk says:

    I think you handled the unweildy beast that is public comment very well and I found this post fascinating. Thank you.

  14. Meg says:

    If I had cookies I would give them to you. Excellently put, thank you for persevering with expressing your point of view. As someone who is heavily pregnant and having to take heed of all sorts of ‘safety’ warnings, this one left me particularly bemused. People already treat you differently when pregnant, look at you as you walk (waddle) down the street and offer you all sorts of comments on your body. The last thing I need is to be asked to believe that something bad could happen to me or my baby if I attend a certain public place because this is what someone else believes. I can be respectful of others perspectives but don’t tell me my safety is at risk if I don’t take them on as my own.

  15. He Uri o Nanakia says:

    Kia ora Deborah,

    Let me first state that I think you have managed to keep your discussion reasonable and directed at the correct parts of the issue. However, I have to take exception to one statement which I have now seen you make twice.

    “In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men.”

    I accept that the point you were trying to make is that you know that it is not your role to attempt to change such a practice but rather that it is the role of the members of that culture to do so. However, what you use is an example of a cultural practice that does not actually exist yet is commonly put forward as an example of the “inherent sexism of Māori culture”.

    Under Māori tikanga, women are not banned from speaking on the marae.

    Exactly what you mean when you say marae is possibly an issue here but I will take it that you mean the wharenui (‘meeting house’) itself or the marae ātea (the area in front of the wharenui where the whai kōrero happens in most areas). The term marae can and often does refer to the whole complex but I’m assuming that you don’t think that women are banned from speaking at all, anywhere on the marae complex.

    On most (but by no means all) marae, women do not perform the whai kōrero (formal speeches) within the ceremony of the pōwhiri (ritual welcome). During a pōwhiri the whai kōrero is done either on the marae ātea or inside the wharenui. When there is no pōwhiri in progress, there is no restriction on who may speak on the marae in these areas. (That is to say, no default restriction, depending on what is happening there may be restrictions on who may speak based on a range of issues such as, specific expertise or professional role.)

    Within the ceremony of the pōwhiri the role that is performed almost exclusively by women is the karanga. This is the call between the tangata whenua (hosts) and the manuhiri (guests). If there is no body who can perform the karanga the pōwhiri cannot go ahead. It is a crucial element of the ritual. In modern times the karanga is usually quite short but it is entirely possible for the karanga to be as long and have as much linguistic content as the whai kōrero. In addition to the karanga, women may interject to show support or disagreement during the whai kōrero of their speaker. They may also cut the speaker off entirely if they wish make a strong statement that they do not support the speech.

    The way these customs are practiced varies from marae to marae.
    Whether of not the customs of the pōwhiri are discriminatory or sexist is a complicated discussion and as you say, one to be had within Māoridom, not ‘about’ Māoridom.

    However, stating that women are prohibited from speaking on the marare is incorrect and I speculate that this statement is likely to have offended and disappointed some people. Misconceptions like this one can make it difficult for some Māori women to engage with what as seen as the Pākehā feminist dialogue.

    As a regular reader of yours was surprised to discover such a gap in your knowledge. I generally find that you are very well informed and certainly well intentioned about issues of intersectionality, privilege, colonisation and all the tricky business that goes with things of that nature.

    ngā mihi
    He Uri o Nanakia

  16. He Uri o Nanakia says:

    Kia ora anō

    something went wrong with the quote in that…

  17. Deborah says:

    Kia ora He Uri o Nanakia

    Thank you very much for your feedback, and for taking the time to explain the customs around speaking on the marae. You are absolutely right that I didn’t understand the nuance with respect to who speaks when and where on the marae. I should have taken the time to find out a bit more before using it as a (wrong) example. I’m very sorry to have done that.

    With respect, and again, my thanks for helping me with this.

  18. […] go around pimping other people’s stuff independent of our Saturday chit-chat threads, but this short essay on the difference between respecting beliefs you don’t share and giving those beliefs force […]

  19. Legal Eagle says:

    Very interesting post, Deborah. Boy the media are so frustrating too!

  20. […] NZ bloggist at In A Strange Land compared the comment in the invitation to similar historic discriminatory comments such as, […]

  21. Adele says:

    Teenaa koe, Deborah

    My apologies for not responding sooner, life got in the way.

    I am not wishing to dwell too much on the actions of Te Papa except to say that their process lacked foresight. What I would like to debate, however, is the sharing of public space between opposing worldviews – joined by a Treaty recognised in principles, if not fact. I use the term worldview to denote a discussion about ideologies moreso than race.

    The two worldviews I speak of are, to the left, Te Ao Taangata Whenua – the worldview indigenous to Aotearoa, and to the right, The Western Tradition, the worldview of the coloniser. Te Ao Taangata Whenua is used here rather than Te Ao Maaori because this term better acknowledges the many peoples indigenous to the whenua – nations of people identified as hapuu, or Iwi. The two worldviews are opposing because their cores values are fundamentally different.

    The differences became officially manifest in two versions of a singular intent towards sharing place and space -Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the indigenous account and The Treaty of Waitangi, its English counterpart. Two versions in open conflict, such that nowadays, emphasis is focussed on spirit rather than substance and on principles rather than terms.

    Developing a principled approach towards sharing place and space is also contentious especially as the worldviews in co-habitation are polar opposing in bed. One connects the spiritual, natural, and human realms via whakapapa. The other has mankind at its summit, holding dominion over the natural world. The hegemonic uplifts democracy as fair and just. The marginalised finds democracy unfair to the minority opinion. Our Gods are seventy plus in number, your God is money.

    Despite being incompatible bed mates, there is a covering agreement to share place and space in partnership. The abusive relationship that currently passes for partnership is a hoohaa. There is an obligation on behalf of the state to actively ensure that taangata whenua (Maaori) have and retain full exclusive and undisturbed possession of not only the language but also the culture. That obligation extends to Government agencies. This argument has nothing to do with separating church from state.

    Te Ao Taangata Whenua is not sexist. Our cosmology overflows with the power of the feminine. In Te Reo, the personal pronouns and possessive personal pronouns are gender neutral – there is no differentiation by gender. The significance of women is also symbolised in the language – whare tangata, the house of humankind, whenua – means both land and afterbirth, and hapuu meaning both pregnancy and large kinship group. We all whakapapa to Papa-tuu-aa-nuku, mother Earth – in other words, our worldview has strong attachments to the matriarch.

    When the western worldview arrived in Aotearoa, it bought along dis-empowered women – mere chattels to their men-folk. It arrived into the world of the savage whose stories spoke of the strength and power of women. The missionaries, in particular, were heaven sent in destroying the heathen and the matriarch. Thus, in the retelling of the stories into written form, mana waahine was rendered impotent.

    Mana waahine, today, continues to rage against the oppressive nature of the western worldview – the patriarch with a holier than thou attitude. Thus mana waahine and feminism are also bedfellows in dispute. Feminism, is fathered by the patriarch, and seeks merely to gain equality with their men-folk. Mana waahine, belongs to the matriarch, and aspires to regain the power and strength that rightfully belongs to her – emanating directly from Atua.

  22. Mindy says:

    This may seem like a silly question, but when I first read the media release from Te Papa I read it as if it were saying that pregnant and menstruating women would be behaving in a culturally offensive manner if they entered the exhibition. I think, from reading comments, that this is not true and the concern is more for the wellbeing of those women as the objects may harbour evil influences related to their past use? If so, their media officer needs some assistance to write more clearly what they mean. It seems that this whole thing could have been avoided.

  23. Deborah says:

    The initial invitation said that pregnant and menstruating women were not welcome, and the day the story broke, the Museum’s spokeswoman said that the rules were in place because the taonga (treasures) could be harmful to the women. It took a couple of days before it became a request to respect Maori tikanga. If it had been worded that way right from the start, I don’t think it would have been an issue.

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