The book The Whale Rider by Ihimaera depicts the struggle of one young girl, Kahu, as she attempts to surpass social norms and obtain the necessary acceptance to become Chief. The chief of Kahu’s tribe, Koro, will not accept the fact that Kahu, the tribe’s heir, is a girl and seemingly tries to shun her from it. With all this happening Kahu goes behind her back to prove to Koro that she should be chief and gender should not influence whether or not one should be in a position of great power or no position at all. Kahu constantly tries to prove this to the Maori people even though she is not allowed to have the same education as the boys of the tribe. Ihimaera puts a strong emphasis on gender roles in this novel as Koro commands everything that happens throughout the book and people like Kahu, try and stand up to it by getting the education she normally wouldn’t be allowed and finds a way to possibly end this male dominated society she has been brought up in when she in reality should be the leader of the tribe.
Early on in the novel the reader learns how strongly this tribe concentrates on gender specific roles. It is first exemplified at Kahu’s birth. She is born with a brother, who abruptly dies, leaving the heir to their tribe a girl, which due to there history is not allowed and is frowned upon making Kahu’s, what should have been prosperous life very hard and stressful. The reader is notified of this by her grandfathers conversation with, her grandmother: “’A girl,’ Grandfather, Koro Apirana, said, disgusted ‘I will have nothing to do with her. She has broken the male line of descent in our tribe.’ He shoved the telephone at our grandmother, Nanny Flowers, saying, ‘Here. It’s your fault. Your female side was too strong.’ Then he pulled on his boots and stomped out of the house” (13, Ihimaera). From this quote, it is very strongly shown that her grandfather is devastated by what happened, as he needs and wanted a male heir. The gender discrimination and understanding of the people in the tribe, as portrayed here show that they know little of any human’s potential. The grandfather not only reacts to the birth of his granddaughter but also to his wife, Nanny Flowers, showing that he believes he is above everyone as the chief and as a male in this tribe.
As the novel progresses the reader can also see that nothing has changed in Karo’s perception of women. Towards the end of the novel, the whales find their ways onto the beach in proving problematic for the Maori tribe. The only way they can save their people is by having the ‘whale rider’ or the heir to the tribe ride the whales back out to the sea, proving to the whales that the humans are worth saving. Koro once again finds a problem with the fact that the heir is a girl and he does not believe that she will be able to save there tribe, secretly telling Nanny Flowers: “’you keeper Kahu away, e Kui’ Koro Apirana said. ‘She’s of no use to me’” (116). Even when everything is at stake Koro is too stubborn to go against his beliefs and give Kahu, her chance to prove herself that she has the potential to become the chief of the tribe. At the end of the novel Kahu takes her chance to rescue the tribe and saves them and the whale, proving her grandfather wrong, about his views and changing his ideas about gender forever.
This novel is riddled with gender roles and male dominancy as portrayed by Kahu and her interactions with her grandfather, Koro. Kahu does everything to try and prove to her grandfather that she should be the chief of their tribe but not until the end of the novel after he neglected her granddaughter the whole novel by blocking her from getting the tribe’s educating and many other things, does he realize that she is the one to take his tribe forward as she risks her own life for the good of the tribe. With this act of bravery and courage Koro finally realizes that just because you’re a different gender doesn’t stop you from being the person you should be.
Ihimaera, Witi. The Whale Rider. New Zealand.: Harcourt Inc., 1987.