In New Zealand, strong women leaders are regularly referred to as wāhine toa. This is not a term used lightly, but rather a title given to women who show exceptional leadership and continue to support those around them even in the face of enormous difficulties. Some might refer to New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, as a wāhine toa, but it can be also used for women within general society who display consistent courage and strength.
In the 15 March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attack, 51 people (47 men and four women) died in two mosques. As fate would have it, the majority of those who were lost were male … and the majority of those left to shoulder the impact, to pick up the pieces and to take charge were female – wives, mothers, daughters, sisters. Leading a family is a challenge on a regular day, but under such circumstances, after such a violent, destructive act, it has unsurprisingly been daunting.
There can be no doubt that the last 20 months have been challenging for New Zealand, for our Muslim community and for these women. Trying to rebuild one’s life is never easy, but to do so while so many others are also suffering has been an enormous test. Yet, these women are doing exactly that. Like birds whose nests have been knocked down, they were distressed, but slowly and surely, they set out to rebuild themselves and those around them. They are each wāhine toa.
Immediately after the attack, New Zealand set up a royal commission of inquiry to look into whether that terrorism could have been prevented and to determine what should be done so that another such event does not occur. Our community, and within it the women, had hoped the commission would put things right by providing answers as well about also offering restorative justice options for the families. Unfortunately, the commission’s report did neither.
On its release this week, it became immediately apparent that the commission’s work had been hindered not only by the restrictive terms of reference, but also by the fact the Muslim community had not been allowed to see, hear or challenge relevant information. As no public hearings had been held, conflicting testimony was unresolved and significant matters left unattended.
While the commissioners found major problems and concerns with the government’s efforts prior to the attack and made 44 solid recommendations that will require an overhaul of ministries and several agencies, the report surprisingly did not conclude the attack was preventable and did not apportion blame.
Of the nearly 800 pages of findings and recommendations, the commission focused on rebuilding the systems and did not offer the government substantive ideas on how to restore our people. In less than three pages of the report, the impacted were told they would have to approach the government themselves. Basically, our families were left to fend for themselves.
At the report’s public release, the heads of the New Zealand police, our Security Intelligence Service and the prime minister apologised on behalf of the government and indicated all recommendations would be adopted. But like the commission, they have thus far avoided discussing what efforts they intend to take to ensure the impacted are restored as best possible to where they were prior to the attack.
By sheer coincidence and Covid-related date changes, the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, the national umbrella organisation for Muslim women, will meet this weekend at its 30th annual conference in Christchurch. Muslim women from around the New Zealand will come together for sisterhood, rejuvenation and spirituality, but also to discuss the matters that are impacting their lives. The commission’s report will be an item discussed as will the whereto from here. We will continue to advocate and to seek solutions to strengthen and uplift our women.
While these women, each a wāhine toa, have shown amazing resilience, like flowers that bloom on charred soil after a fire, they should not have to shoulder this burden on their own. The council will work to support them. We ask that the New Zealand government do the same.
Aliya Danzeisen has led the government engagement for the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand for seven years and has played a key advocacy role in getting support for the Kiwi Muslim community.