Pacific Connections: Women and the Peace Movement in Aotearoa.

Katie Boanas (Dewes) Talks to Zohl de Ishtar1

[From Feminist Voices : Women's Studies Texts for Aotearoa/New Zealand, edited by Rosemary Du Plessis with Phillida Bunkle et al. 1992]

Katie, you've been involved in some high-level peace and justice issues, but let's start at the beginning. How did you get involved in the peace movement?

I became involved about 16 years ago while teaching music at Epsom Girls' Grammar. One School Certificate examination piece was called Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Penderecki. It could not be understood without some knowledge of the victims of Hiroshima. I didn't know who they were. I was 22, and had never heard of the effects of nuclear bombs. So I began a journey of finding out what nuclear weapons were all about.

At the same time, parallel to that, my partner John was training for the ministry at St John's Theological College in Auckland. One of the teaching staff, Rev. Dr George Armstrong, John, and a few others established the Peace Squadron, and it was run from our homes. This group took on the military might of the United States Navy by using small peace boats to try and blockade the entrance of the harbour to any nuclear- powered or armed warships. 2Their dreams and visions (many of which became mine) were to take non-violent direct actions, acting out what George described as 'public liturgies'.

Were there only men involved, or were women involved at this stage?

The peace squadron was 95 per cent male, because it was the men who owned and skippered the boats. Although some women were crew members, it was a very patriarchal group. My role was to answer the phone, to make the cups of tea, and to do some of the secretarial work. At that point I wasn't totally committed to this sort of radical, non-violent, direct action.

I came from a conservative family, and I was a bit scared about losing my school teaching job. I was even hauled in by the headmistress and asked if my husband would get a respectable job. However, being involved with George and his wife Jocelyn (who was teaching with me) and watching their commitment to peace and justice issues, challenged and changed me.

I remember the day we went up on Bastion Point with a Maori priest, and some of us had a communion service there. We walked down from the service in the early morning to bless the water. Having shared that spiritual experience together, we did our action as a peace squadron. We knew what we were doing. We were 'little' people going out to say, 'We don't want these weapons of mass destruction in our harbour.'

What really inspired me was people like George, who were taking risks, who were prepared to lose their jobs by challenging the status quo and to be 'David against Goliath'. They were predominantly men in that group, but I was also working alongside a lot of my women heroines in the peace movement: women like Kath Knight, Muriel Morrison, and Mary Woodward. These and other women in the New Zealand Foundation for Peace Studies had for years and years been trying to change attitudes by developing peace education. 3They had an incredible herstory which is rarely told, because it isn't dramatic stuff - out in front of nuclear warships.

They were the women who had kept WILPF (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) alive, and helped collect over 42,000 signatures in support of a League of Nations Disarmament Conference in 1932. Mary and Elsie Locke had run Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) for ten years during the 1960s when they had small children. They collected 80,000 signatures for a petition called No Bombs South of the Line (the Southern Hemisphere). These women had done an enormous amount of work with very little recognition. They were some of the women I was (and still am) privileged to work alongside. But it was a very Pakeha movement that I was involved in.

How did you become committed to the Maori struggle?

That came later, after John and I had had some time at Bradford University in Britain, studying Peace Studies during 1977. There we were, with all these European academics who we thought had all the answers. However, they didn't know about our peace squadron, about nuclear testing and its effects on Pacific people, nor the Fri's voyage to Mururoa. We were having to tell them about Pacific issues from our perspective at the other end of the world.

At that point I hadn't worked with many Maori people in Auckland, although I had met women from the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement, like Hilda Lini from Vanuatu. The challenges from Maori came at the beginning of the first peace movement workshops in Wellington in 1980.

A group of eight Maori women (including Hilda Halkyard-Harawira) had come from Auckland, and boy, were they strong! They challenged us right at our roots! Here we were worried about what was happening to our land and our kids and that a nuclear bomb could go off. Real Pakeha concerns . . . about our kids and their future. But we were not asking about who owned the land we were so worried about. We'd never really been challenged, as a peace movement, about 'Treaty of Waitangi issues. These women stood up and gave a pretty strong gut reaction about 'You Whites and your concerns . . . but we've been facing annihilation ever since you got here!'

Like most of the other Pakeha there, I was pretty defensive, saying, 'If the bomb goes off, it doesn't matter about your land issues . . . we're all going to go together, aren't we?"

I had left my first child at home, for the first time, and come away to this conference. There was Hilda, having left her two children at home and pregnant with her third. She and the other Maori women spoke from their guts, and they moved me - deep within. The whole conference had to go round in the circle and say whether we were committed to the Treaty of Waitangi, land rights, and self-determination for Maori people.

That experience was quite emotional. It changed my life completely. I became committed to independence struggles within Aotearoa and the Pacific. My whole analysis of the nuclear bomb and the nuclear threat changed too. I could see what Hilda was saying; that the bomb was just another form of colonialism and oppression, and that we must work at creating a just society in our own land at the same time as we tried to save the rest of the world.

One of my first reactions was guilt that I hadn't really come to terms with my own Pakeha history in this country. I hadn't listened to or really heard Maori stories. It challenged me to look at my ancestors - at who I was, where I was, where I came from, and whose land I was living on. It was overwhelming at first, but I didn't get hung up on the guilt for long. There was a lot of anger from those women, but it was positive anger, and it forced me to confront a lot of stuff within myself. I am forever grateful to them for having the guts to share with such honesty and depth of feeling.

I didn't realize how hard it was for them to speak out. I thought that we were the ones being hurt. Now I have some idea of what that hurt is like, because from then on, I've challenged the white male system and 'spilled my guts' on occasions.

What are some of the challenges that you've actually faced? You've come a long way from someone you described as serving the men cups of tea.

For all of us in the peace movement, we have to look at the question, 'What is peace?' How do we find peace within ourselves"' How do we find peace within our relationships - within our intimate relationships? I had three babies in less than four years. I was deeply committed to the peace movement and to creating a future for my children. Yet I had an unequal partnership with my husband in terms of sharing resources, power, and childcare. Over the next few years, I had to face some pretty fundamental questioning about my marriage so that I could continue to do the work that I felt, from my gut, I had a responsibility to do, and that I loved doing.

But how do you do that work when you are juggling three pre-schoolers and there is no money for childcare? How can you leave your babies when you are breast-feeding, and go to a conference, when you're the primary care giver? Few conference organizers would pay for childcare, and they would not put tip with screaming babies, or breast-feeding while on a speaking panel, so, as a young mother, you were immediately excluded from even being asked to go to any conferences or to speak on behalf of the movement. Organizers make that decision for you before you get on the selection list. I've seen that happen. 'She can't come, she's got a baby'. Have they ever thought of asking her if she can come, and facilitating that process?

What effect has your work had on your children?

I'd like them to answer that. They are strong young women who have watched their mother working hard for the survival of the planet. They've been to many meetings. They are pretty clear about saying, 'Hey Mum, you need to spend more time with us. Stop talking on the phone – we need you.' However, they feel they are part of a movement working for peace and justice. They feel they have had an effect in creating a more peaceful world.

There is a dilemma for our daughters. They know their parents are trying to make the world safer for them, but they also want us to be there for them all the time. The thing I've had to learn is to listen to them, and to involve them in decision making about my work.

When I was asked to go to the United Nations for five weeks, Lucy had just started school. I told the girls I couldn't go unless I felt supported and released by them. We talked about it a lot, and finally they all said I must go, because they knew I was trying to make the world a safer place for them and for all children. What we need to learn as we strive for a peaceful world globally is the importance of having peaceful relationships within our families and community.

You've learned a lot from your children?

Heaps. My kids have probably been my greatest teachers, and it's their honesty, their dreams, and their visions that I love. Recently, some women peace studies students did a project where they asked the girls what their dreams and visions were. Lucy (six), when asked what a peaceful and sustainable future meant for her, replied:

"I usually dream of happy things, everything's calm and everything that kills you is not around New Zealand or the world, like swords and people in the army…If I could make the world anything I wanted I'd break down the bombs and stuff without making a sound and make it not hurt anybody, just make flags come out."

It's an amazing vision from a six-year-old, but she's grown up in a home where these issues are discussed openly, and where peace activists visit from all around the world. She has listened to the struggles of women from Belau, and the Philippines, and she has sat on marae and listened to Maori women and men. When you talk about the costs of my lifetime commitment to peace issues, my children have also gained immeasurably. While these gains are intangible, they are the treasures that they are growing up with. And it's the children that are the future.

They have hope. My kids have hope - it's worth the cost, because the legacy I'm leaving them is hope, that little people, doing little things together, can actually change things.

Is it this hope that keeps you involved?

Yes, but also I feel an incredible responsibility to people from around the world, who are struggling to change the suicidal direction that we are travelling in, and who are prepared to risk their lives for it. For the women of the Pacific, in particular, there is no choice. There is a sense of urgency. They don't have the luxury of time or money to write books, attend university or participate in international conferences. They are the people who inspire me, they are the people who give me hope, they are the people who have the guts to share honestly about where they're at. As more people share from art honest heart, gut-level others will be empowered to change and to challenge the system.

The challenge for me as a grass roots woman activist has been to try and take the disempowering jargon of the arms race and nuclear weaponry, and reinterpret it so that it is accessible to many. One of my roles has been to encourage people to take one step at a time, to look at achievable goals, and to feel they can overcome their despair about the state of the world by empowering them to take action.4 It doesn't matter how small that action is - it might be visiting or writing a letter to your Member of Parliament, putting a nuclear-free sticker on your gate, talking with your friends about your concerns, or reading Peacelink.

It's important to let yourself have dreams and visions about what you would like this world to become, think about how we can change it, hold onto those visions and work from where you're at.

That's very much what you've done. You've come in, you've got particular skills and you're using them in a particular, and sometimes in a unique way. What has given you the strength to work within very male-dominated structures - often as a woman on your own?

As part of my journey, I've rediscovered and reclaimed my 'women's reality'.5 Part of my discovery, has been finding an incredible wealth of' women's stories, particularly from within Aotearoa. 6 I have read about Te Puea, Nganeko Minhinnick, Mira Szaszy, Elsie Locke, Kate Sheppard, and many others. They give me strength. I know I'm not working in a vacuum, but building on the work that women have always done. The connections aren't just within this country. I have read your Pacific Women Speak (Women Working for an Independent and Nuclear Free Pacific 1985) and heard you talk of women's experiences at Greenham Common.7

Other women have shared their stories of Pine Gap and other Women's Peace Camps. I feel connected with this whole family of women, and that connection isn't bound up in nation states. We bleed together, we cry together, and many of us have had children.

You were the only woman on the Government Delegation to the United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in 1988. What were some of your experiences?

Looking around the General Assembly, it was obvious that only about 10 per cent of the representatives were women, and only two of those women from 150 countries addressed the Assembly. At the non- governmental meetings, although over 60 per cent of us were women, less than 30 per cent of us gave the speeches. Our NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) delegation comprised five women and one man. The man expected to give the speech on behalf of our delegation. However, the women challenged that, and in the end a woman presented it.

Although New Zealand has taken a leading role internationally by allowing NGO advisers on Government Delegations, we still have a long way to go before we have equal representation by women, let alone any representation by Maori. There would not have been any women on our delegation if I had not challenged the Minister of Foreign Affairs during a PACDAC (Public Advisory Committee on Disarmament and Arms Control) meeting about taking an all-male, Pakeha delegation to talk about peace issues. Was he forgetting, or just not noticing that women made up two thirds of the peace movement in this country? When asked by the Minister if I would go, I refused initially until there could be a process of consultation with the peace movement. I am accountable to the peace movement, and I could not have stood up and spoken in the UN without their endorsement.

I also refused to go unless money was found for Maori people to go. The outcome of that meeting with the Advisory Committee was that money from the Rainbow Warrior Trust fund was allocated to three women from Te Whanau a Matariki in Dunedin, so they could go as independent NGOS. They were able to put Pacific issues on a very Eurocentric UN agenda. This was vital, because very few Pacific Island nations can afford to be represented there. It is the usual practice for White Western Pacific rim nations to speak 'on behalf of' Pacific people, in the same way as men have assumed they could speak on behalf of women.

Even before I decided to go, I had to be clear that I was not going to play the 'male game'. If academic papers were expected from the NGOs then the male NGO could do them in consultation with me. So much of what I do is intuitive. I went to the UN because there were stories I wanted to tell. I intended to network and make connections between people. I wanted to speak from my heart and not feel bad about it. I knew there would be compromises. I would need to conform to the standard of dress expected at the UN, and I would need to bite my tongue at times. These were things I had already come to accept when lobbying Members of Parliament.

I had also learned from my experience on PACDAC to seek out support, from women and men. So in New York the New Zealand NGO women became a great source of strength. I also sought out other women from Sweden, Canada, Australia, and Nicaragua. Some of us worked closely on a paper about the need for more women to be represented at all levels of the United Nations system. These women came and gave support by sitting and nodding affirmingly during the open sessions, and waiting outside patiently during the 'closed' deliberations. Any statements I gave were written co-operatively by these women.

During the meetings of the delegation, when I was the only woman, I sought out male allies. By building up trust and good personal relationships with them, I was able to suggest new ways of thinking, to ask them to put certain issues onto the agenda, and to 'own' them in meetings. It was less threatening to discuss ideas and alterations to the Minister's speech over coffee making and when we were 'off duty'. This way we were able to put the illegality of nuclear weapons, the naval arms race, Pacific testing issues, and the role of NCOs into the Minister's speech.

In seeking out male allies, I had to overcome my prejudices as a peace movement person, and acknowledge that the people in the bureaucracy were also human beings. They are part of the system, and it's not easy for them to change. I am, in a sense, outside of that system. I have a power and a freedom to challenge it. I am the lucky one. So, working from compassion, how do we work together to find new ways? How do you confront the French Ambassador or diplomat whose arrogance makes you sick, and who says that French testing in the Pacific is totally safe?

I found a way of challenging one of those men. I connected with him as a mother of three daughters, to him as a father of three daughters. I brought a photo of my girls and gave it to him, I asked him to give it to his girls, and to tell them that I care about them and their survival. But that I also care passionately for the people of the Pacific so affected by nuclear testing. I gave him a copy of Pacific Women Speak and asked him to read it with his family and to share it with his colleagues. My challenge to him was that he feel the stories of Pacific women who were giving birth to jelly babies and retarded children, and to see whether his conscience could still say that nuclear testing was safe.

During the Special Session on Disarmament the French exploded two nuclear bombs at Mururoa. I was outraged, and went to talk to the French diplomat. I challenged him again about his country's actions. I wept with frustration at his answers, and left him feeling rather shaken. After this exchange we succeeded in getting some movement by the French about the importance of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. Our delegation had been trying for weeks to achieve this. When they heard about my exchange with the diplomat, and the concessions from the French, our Ambassador suggested I join the diplomatic service! My response was to point out the power of NGOs who are able to speak from the heart, in what would be perceived as a most 'undiplomatic' way. Therefore, what was needed was more NGO representation on government delegations.

Aotearoa has been in the forefront of doing this - building up trust and showing the rest of the world that the peace movement call work alongside the official representatives of our government. That isn't easy for women who are angry, and for non- governmental peace movement people who are angry. It also isn't easy for the men who are in positions of power within the government to learn to share that power.

Whose responsibility is it to take on those systems?

As a Pakeha I have a responsibility to challenge the Pakeha systems. Maori women like Hilda should not have to carry the pain of continuing to challenge our systems. As Pakeha women we have special roles, linking between Maori groups and Pakeha institutions. I'm only just beginning to discover what my responsibility is as a partner under the Treaty of Waitangi, what biculturalism means, how we work in partnership together, alongside each other. I am learning to consult with Maori leaders in the community.

If I am asked to be on a delegation, a government committee, or write a submission, then I have to ask if the tangata whenua are represented. Have they been given the resources to make sure their voices are heard? Have they even been asked? As a Pakeha with power, I have a responsibility to help type submissions, to raise funds for airfares, and so on. If I'm challenging men to share power and resources with women, then I must learn to share mine.

All this may seem like tokenism, and a small step, but it is a start. It is breaking down this mentality. It's not going to happen overnight. So when Annie, who's seven, asks me if l'm going to work on these issues until I die, then I have to answer honestly that I'm committed for life. We are not going to get rid of nuclear bombs and the frigates until the mentality changes. We have a responsibility as women to challenge that.

Is there room within the very male structures for women to find new ways?

I think there is. Women need to claim their right as 51 per cent of the world's population to be in decision-making roles, and to accept that our Women's reality is quite different from the predominantly male reality. We have a right to tell the decision makers that frigates and nuclear weapons don't make us feel secure. These men are accountable to us - the people. We have a responsibility to offer independent, well-researched ideas and material for consideration by our representatives in power and they have a responsibility to respond to it.

Do you feel that you get the support that you need from the women's community? You must feel very alone at times?

At home, on a day-to-day basis, a group of local women give me support by sharing childcare and computers, visiting MPs and writing letters. However, sometimes I do feel very alone, especially when I'm the only woman at meetings with defence and foreign affairs officials. When I was at the UN, I took photos of my women friends, warning them before I left that I might need their energy. We joked about it. I said, 'I'm going to call on you sometimes when I need you, and I want your spiritual energy with me'. So when I had to speak on behalf of our government on the need for women to be represented equally in the United Nations, I was shaking like a little leaf. I sat quietly before I spoke and 'called up' those women, and they were there. It sounds strange, but it happens for me. They give me strength.

So you work from a spiritual base?

It's hard to put it into a category, but at the very base of what I do is the intense love that I feel for all life and the people of the planet. This definitely has a spiritual component. I believe in a Creator Being and follow many of the Christian teachings.

Yet much of the motivation for my work has come from anger. I've felt an angry reaction to start with, and I'm learning to move through that anger to a place of compassion. Anger is an important energy, but we need to find ways of using it positively. It's important to ask yourself whether you are driven from a negative energy, or moved by love. Too often anger is used to have power over people, rather than sharing power with others.8

I have a lot to learn. But I do know that ordinary people can do ordinary things, and collectively they can affect change. I never dreamed we would have a bipartisan nuclear-free policy within fifteen years of my beginning this work. I encourage people wherever I go to hold on to their dreams and visions, to keep putting themselves tell years down the track, imagining what we could achieve. We have many positive achievements to build on. We need to start with ourselves, acknowledging the power within each of us.

The best way I've seen it articulated is in a poem by one of the 1990 women Peace Studies students, Jane Wright (1990). The poem expresses the power, the collective power we have when we acknowledge our common vulnerability, and the need for all of us to be prepared to take risks for the sake of our common survival.

And I can only start with myself.
Know I am responsible.
In my aggression.
My selfishness, my prejudice, my ideals, my nationalism, which divides me from others.
I am responsible for every war every death every dollar spent on violent conflict.
For me, the challenge is to feel.
To feel the pain of the Earth.
To feel the pain of raped peoples.
To feel the pain of the emptiness of my life.
I heard a woman say 'We cannot numb our pain at the degradation of life without numbing our joy at its abundance. '
I start to understand where the passion and thirst for life I hear in a Maori woman's voice comes from.
Crying I start to feel it in myself. Only then am I stirred, driven to act.
Startng with myself I can learn to let my ragged edges show to those I love.
I have felt incredible strength in showing weakness.
New space to stand together, fight together, cry together, be together, live.
Learning what I feared, difference, is rich and alive.
With each person binding open wounds there is a pin drawn out of the gaping folds of the Earth.
If a nation at war with others with itself were to stand true, weak unmasked and vulnerable what possibility, what courage.
What risk.

It reminds me of what Hilda said about her experience of people crying together at the 1980 Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific conference. That was her turning point - her commitment for life. The Conference report summed it up beautifully:

"One of the delegates said, after the conference, 'I am a man and in my country, men do not cry. But here I cried, sand we all cried together'. It is the hope of the conference participants that those tears have washed away scars that in the past have separated the dual aspects of the Pacific movement so that we can move forward in unity."

For me, my hopes and dreams are pinned on the healing that comes from people learning to cry, and to being honest together. There's healing going on in this country. There is a lot of pain, but there is healing, as we struggle to find a new relationship between men and women, Maori and Pakeha, learning to walk equally, sharing the power. Now it must happen everywhere - even within the United Nations. It's got to be vastly different from what it is now.

I want to give the last word to Jessie, my 11-year-old who, when she was asked what she thought her vision was for a peaceful world, replied:

"It would be men and women equal, no racism, sharing responsibility in the world. Everyone would get on, or if they didn't like each other they would still be polite. Everyone would get a fair chance, no matter who they were and no one would be homeless."

My dream is that she will hold onto her visions, and that she'll have some achievable goals, building on the work that Hilda, and I, and many other people are doing everywhere. That is my hope for the future.


1 Zohl de Ishtar, an Irish-Australian lesbian, has been active in the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific movement since 1982. She lived at the (Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp during 1982-8 and initiated the British network Women Working for a Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific'. She is the editor of Daughters of the Pacific, a collection of women's stories from the region. She met Katie at the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Conference in Sydney in 1989.
2 Newnham (1986).
3 Brock-Utne (1989).
4 Macy (1983).
5 Schaef (1985).
6 Hanly (1986).
7 Jones (ed) (1983).
8 Macy (1983), Lerner (1985).