The complexity of culture



Migrants and refugees are all so different from each other that it can be quite difficult sometimes to find a common experience among us. However, one thing that we often say and hear from the women we work with is that, for each of us, our cultures ground us and support us.

As migrants, we often build a sense of belonging and historical continuity through our links to our cultures or our communities. We belong, not only by sharing culture in the narrow sense of the word, but by sharing everyday experiences, which can include sharing history, routines, political challenges, events, economic hardship and in some cases, life-threatening experiences and recovery.

Migrants’ sense of belonging to our communities and cultures is sometimes juxtaposed with belonging to a nationalised ‘Australian’ identity. We are told we have to choose one or the other, and dual citizenship is increasingly described as a risk to the nation. Yet, given the opportunity, we create and enjoy hybrid identities that bring together all our experiences, and that don’t require a separation of allegiances at all.

Without this opportunity, the cultures and communities we hold dear, and the complex identities we have forged, are too often reduced to stereotypes. Migrant cultures are framed as being more ‘traditional’, particularly when it comes to gender equality, women’s rights and violence against women. This framing goes along with the assumption that migrant men are more violent and patriarchal, and migrant women more compliant and accepting of violations of their rights. Stereotypes like these are sometimes used as cultural excuses for violence against women. They also fail to explain the violence perpetrated against migrant women by Anglo-Australian men.

Culture is not fixed or unchanging, traditional gendered practices are not essentially backward, and ‘modern’ gendered practices are not automatically liberating to women. Without pointing at the ‘cultural’ issues of migrants, there are many modern ‘Australian’ cultural practices, policy and legislation, that require dramatic change for women to achieve gender equality.

Men are changing beings too, including migrant and refugee men, who are well placed to stand alongside and support their migrant and refugee sisters to lead Australia towards greater gender equality. Women’s status is changing and evolving across the world. We need to work together, not by leaving culture behind, but by bringing it along. The more we understand culture as a complex, changing and powerful force in all of our lives, the further we will get.

What’s normal anyway?


Image: Adam Jones//Flickr

Amid all the recent talk about what it means to be Australian, you might have heard that the typical Australian is now a woman, according to the 2016 census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Australia’s “new normal” is a 38-year-old married mother of two who has completed Year 12, lives in a house with three bedrooms and two cars, does five to 14 hours of housework each week, and is the daughter of Australian-born parents with English heritage. The typical immigrant’s country of birth is different depending on where you live in Australia, but she is also a woman.

While those who know stats have assured us that the way they calculate what is typical is not a particularly meaningful way of describing the majority of Australians, it got us thinking about what counts as normal.

At our NETFA conference last month, the issue of what’s normal arose in the context of women’s body image, particularly in relation to women’s genitalia. As Dr Amy Webster explained, the desire to feel ‘normal’ or ‘attractive’ were two of the key reasons women reported they had visited the wonderful online labia library: an important resource which presents a range of photos of women’s unaltered labia and gentialia. Designed by Women’s Health Victoria, the purpose of the labia library is to show women the natural diversity of women’s genitalia, in response to the demands we often feel to conform to Australia’s cultural beliefs and expectations of beauty.

As Sasha Sarago, editor of Ascension lifestyle magazine, noted, clearly the media has a hand in shaping these attitudes. Increased demand for labioplasty and other forms of cosmetic surgery reflect the pressure on women to see unrealistic ideals about our bodies as the ‘norm’ instead of the exception (or fabrication). This cultural pressure is not the only reason a woman might choose to undertake surgery (and we definitely think it’s her right to do so). However, as Dr Odette Kelada pointed out, by internalising these ideals women and men can become desensitised to the influence that culture and media has on our choices.

For many women from cultural backgrounds that are not represented or celebrated in mainstream Australian culture, the ‘norm’ is not only unattainable, but hurtful and harmful. Skin lighteners and hair straighteners take on different meaning for women whose natural beauty is framed as being ‘not normal’. Because of our visible difference to the invisible ‘norm’, some women’s bodies or beauty practices are seen as exotic or oppressed. As a recent case at a Victorian secondary school showed, immigrant women’s ‘non-conformity’ to mainstream beauty ‘norms’ can even be taken as bad behaviour.

What is normal anyway when it comes to gender? In a recent article about intersex people, author Alice Dreger wrote that “People tend to assume that everyone is born simply male or female. But nature shows us otherwise.” As Dreger notes, while each baby is assigned one of two genders at birth, there is much more genital and other sex-development variation that occurs naturally. Male and female standard genitalia are but two points on a varied continuum. By taking natural beauty as the standard, perhaps we can start to move away from some of the rigid gender norms that stop us from appreciating women’s diversity.

60 seconds with Resika KC


Mental health worker and global citizen

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I am enjoying working in community mental health and being able to support people in their recovery. One of the good things about my work is being able to work with people from diverse cultures and different spheres of life. I get to learn many new things everyday about my work and myself which is what I value the most in the sector.

What do you most value in your friends?
I value honesty, support, care and fun in my friendships. I like being there for friends in good and bad times and I value friends who do the same for me.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australia, what would it be? 
To be open and learn about life and culture in Australia, to be confident and willing to share your culture and experiences, and to seek support from friends, family or an external organisation if you feel stuck or alone.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
I think “welcome” is my favourite word in English as it builds a bridges between two people and provides an opportunity to get to know each other and build a connection.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman from an immigrant or refugee background?
I think the biggest challenge for me was to overcome my own assumptions, and what others in my community fed me, about having limited opportunities in Australia- just because you are an immigrant from a different country and culture. However, as I have opened myself to knowing the culture and people better, I have felt that people have accepted me as I am and have valued the knowledge and skills I bring from my background and culture.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant background?
I have challenged a lot of stereotypes in my life whether it be of gender, race or class. This has made me more confident to keep going and I don’t take any opportunities or support for granted due to this experience. I believe that who I am today is because of all the experiences I’ve had being a woman from the CALD community.

What does multiculturalism mean to you?
Multiculturalism is where different cultures, different faces, different perspectives and experiences meet at one place and flourish by learning about each other, valuing the importance of the diversity and respecting each other.

If you could convince the world of one thing, what would it be?
Though people in different parts of world have different values and perspectives, we all are equal and deserve equal opportunities and respect from each other.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would love to remove all the geographical boundaries so that people could travel everywhere freely and not be restricted by belonging to one country or another.

Five things we learnt about preventing FGM/C

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

The third NETFA Forum, Foundations for Change in Melbourne gathered together a group of amazing women to discuss women’s rights, health and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). For those of you who couldn’t make it, we’ve put together a list of five key messages that we took away from the event:

1. It’s about gender equality
FGM/C is a challenging issue to talk about because it varies across cultures, countries and migration contexts. The reasons for practising it are diverse. Despite this, we can see some common underlying factors, in particular gender discrimination and gender stereotypes. Any response or attempt to address FGM/C must focus on these underlying issues. Panellists spoke about how FGM/C is often ‘siloed’ as an ‘African women’s issue’, preventing us from seeing it as an issue of gender inequality. Speakers advocated for working within a human rights framework when doing prevention work – this can highlight the lived, everyday injustices experienced by women affected by FGM/C, including forms of gendered health inequality. When addressing FGM/C, all agreed that having an intersectional understanding of gender equality was critical and acknowledging that racism informs the debate.

2. It’s about strengthening our health systems
Immigrant women and girls affected by FGM/C are often referred to as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, when it is often more accurate to say that they are made vulnerable or have been placed at risk by policies, systems and institutions. Many strategies often point to the need to build the capacity of health professionals with less attention paid to the need to strengthen the health system itself. The forum devoted a lot of time to discussing the structural and social factors that impact on immigrant women’s and girls’ unequal access to sexual and  reproductive health services and how services can better respond to these inequities. A key factor to achieving equity is the work being carried out by bilingual workers. Forum participants highlighted the need to value the skilled and complex work of the bilingual educators in the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) in Victoria. Ultimately, strengthening our health systems will help women and girls exercise more control in, as well as be more informed about, the type of care they receive.

3. It’s not simply a ‘cultural’ issue.
There is now widespread agreement that FGM/C cannot be justified by cultural or religious reasons. However, when FGM/C is compared to female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) such as labiaplasty it is often labelled a ‘cultural’ issue whereas the latter is considered to be a medical one. As a result, FCGS is not nearly as scrutinised. Panellists spoke about the similarities and differences between both procedures, arguing that both involve socialisation and shame relating to women’s bodies. Both become accepted as ‘normal’ in different contexts. To be able to view both practices as such gave us a more nuanced understanding of ‘culture’.  At the same time, it was noted that there are some important differences, with much discussion on how FGCS and comparisons with FGM/C can depoliticise advocacy work being conducted to prevent FGM/C. For children who are subjected to FGM/C there is little to no choice and therefore cannot be viewed in the same way as women choosing to have either procedure later in life. The idea of ‘choice’ here is a complex one. Despite this, there is merit in understanding both practices as not simply or only cultural, but as gendered practices that impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

4. It’s important that women and girls from FGM/C affected communities have an equal voice
‘Nothing about us without us’ was the idea carried on from our last forum with the idea following on that  all work relating to FGM/C prevention should be carried out with the full and direct participation of women and girls from FGM/C affected communities. An effective multisectoral response needs to ensure that affected communities are at the forefront of efforts. The speakers discussed the many ways that law enforcers, educators and advocates can work together with communities to prevent FGM/C. This included creating a space where knowledge can be shared, again strengthening our existing networks.

5. It’s a human rights issue
FGM/C is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of women and girls. Human rights are a precondition for social justice and as a party to both the CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action, Australia has committed itself to being a society that supports equal rights for all women and men. However, in a migration country such as Australia, human rights particularly in relation to FGM/C can be poorly understood. There was much discussion on how we, as workers, can better engage with international human rights standards for more effective advocacy. While acknowledging ‘humanity as the common denominator’, international keynote speaker Amina Mohamed Warsame invited us to understand human rights as ‘a question of opportunities’ and that immigrant women need to be given both the rights and resources to achieve transformational change.

The path towards excellent sexual and reproductive health

Image via

Image via

It’s sometimes said that the best laid plans can often go wrong but more optimistically, a plan is often a map that marks out where we have come from and where it is we need to go. How we travel along the various paths is, more often than not, key to reaching the destination.

The recent release of Victoria’s first ever sexual and reproductive health strategy and priority action plan is an excellent example of just how far we’ve travelled in relation to women’s health. The narrow thinking that it is simply or only about what affects breasts, wombs and vaginas has gradually given way to an understanding that access to sexual and reproductive health services is a fundamental right for all women.

In Australia, ‘all women’ now includes more than 75% of Australians who identified with an ancestry other than Australian. The needs of women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can no longer be seen as marginal. In this context, Victoria’s action plan has recognised that improving access to reproductive choice also includes addressing systemic barriers. In the case of immigrant women, such as international students and other temporary migrants, systemic barriers like visa status can be a critical risk factor when it comes to women’s health.

The issue of international students’ access to pregnancy-related to care is something we’ve been advocating for several years now and the Victorian strategy now has an explicit plan of action: ‘to advocate to the Commonwealth to ensure that international students have access to reproductive health services immediately upon their arrival in Australia through private health insurance.’

This is one good sign of just how far we’ve come. The action plan also provides an outline for supporting women through increased prevention strategies and the implementation of peer support models such as bilingual educators. And as far as best laid plans go, the devil will be in the detail: we now need to ensure that the map provided for us in Victoria will allow us to further travel along the path to excellent sexual and reproductive health for all immigrant and refugee women, in ways that are appropriate, meaningful and respectful.

60 seconds with Shegofa Hazara

Shegofa Hazara

Multilinguist and education advocate

If you had a magic wand, what would you use it for?
If I had a magic wand, I would use it to eliminate poverty, corruption and discrimination so no one is forced to leave their country to seek asylum.

What is your best quality or attribute? 
The ability to speak six different languages has made it very easy for me to communicate with people from different backgrounds. By being able to speak those languages, especially in my role as refugee health nurse, I have been able to break down barriers and open up difficult conversations with people.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australia, what would it be? 
That Australia is a beautiful country with vast opportunities available if we choose to take it. Make the most of the opportunities that are given to you. Especially for women from refugee and immigrant backgrounds who may never have had the opportunity to equal rights and education in their country of birth.

I love one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s quotes – ‘Give me an educated mother, I shall promise you the birth of a civilised, educated nation.’ I could not agree more. An educated mother and her attitudes in an uneducated society can change a whole generation.

This quote has always been my inspiration as it encourages me to be a better parent and person. It also encourages me to provide quality education and positive attitude to  future generations.

For you, what’s the best thing about being a woman from an immigrant refugee/ background? 
Being a role model to other women in the community and breaking the stereotypes.
My past experiences as a woman have taught me to be resilient and strong despite the difficulties you face. Those experiences motivated me to do better and grab the opportunities that are available to me, which were never available before.

Being the first female to finish university from my family with not much guidance is the best thing that has happened to me. 

If you could invite any woman, (dead or living) to dinner, who would it be and why? 
I would love to invite Dr Sima Samar, who is currently in Afghanistan, to dinner. She is a well-known women’s and human rights advocate, activist and a social worker within the national and internal forums in Afghanistan. She has also served as Minister of Women’s Affairs of Afghanistan. She is the first Hazara female from Afghanistan who has helped build schools and hospitals all over Afghanistan. She has been the only female who helped and encouraged Afghan people to continue with their education despite the war.

She is an inspiration to me and motivates me to be a leader, a role model and an advocate for women’s rights. If she has been able to do it in a county where women have no equal rights, then I can certainly do it in a country like Australia.

What does multiculturalism mean to you? 
Multiculturalism for me is a source of strength. Diversity brings with it a vast wealth of knowledge and experiences if we choose to accept it.