The WRAP #10 : Ticking all the boxes, justice for women in prison and 60 seconds with Juliana Qian

May has been a month of mind expansion and making friends. The 7th Australian Women’s Health Network Conference was three days of empowering feminist discussion about why, at every level of health service delivery and decision making, gender matters. No really, it matters. We all know it, but hearing and seeing so many smart women around Australia proving that gender matters time and time again through their amazing research and advocacy work has inspired us to say it that little bit louder … gender matters!

So this WRAP we’re talking about cultural diversity in ‘coming out’, calling for equity for women who have been sent ‘inside’ and then spending a glorious 60 seconds with Juliana Qian.

Until next time,
The WRAP Team

Ticking all the boxes

Asian Pride:2011 NYC Pride image courtesy of Jason Pier in DC on flickr

Asian Pride:2011 NYC Pride image courtesy of Jason Pier in DC on flickr

Budi Sudarto, is gay, Asian and proud. And at the 8th National LGBTI Health in Difference conference a few weeks ago we heard him, a peer education coordinator from the Victorian AIDS Council, make the interesting observation that “we live in a society that puts us into a box”. You’d expect that the ‘us’ here is referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) folk, but actually ‘us’ can stand for any number of identities that are too frequently stereotyped, marginalised, or overlooked.

As if being unknowingly shoved into a box isn’t bad enough, it starts feeling really crowded when we have multiple ‘boxed’ identities (try ‘female’, ‘queer’, ‘Chinese-Malaysian’ and ‘Indian-English’ for example). Regardless of whether there are many little boxes or just one very cramped one, the point is that being labelled can be limiting. Budi’s words shed light on what it’s like to live at the intersection of LGBTI identity and a marginalised ethnic/cultural identity. His ‘us’ referred to his racial identity and the marginalisation of non-Anglo-Saxon races experienced not only within Australian society as a whole, but within a minority—the LGBTI community—as well.

There are multiple experiences and issues for LGBTI individuals from an immigrant and refugee background that are never fully addressed or understood within either the LGBTI or multicultural communities. Perhaps because LGBTI immigrants and refugees often tick a lot of the boxes, we don’t really fit into any—and that can be both liberating and isolating. One of the clearest examples of how cultural diversity and sexuality intersect is in “coming out”. While there is often pressure from the LGBTI community to ‘come out’ about your sexuality, it’s a very Western perspective on the process and suggests that your sexuality is the only thing that could define you as ‘different’. For LGBTI immigrants and refugees, who carry so many multiple identities, keeping close family connections and cultural identity can often be vitally important to our sense of self, and our experience of sharing our sexual identity is better expressed as a ‘coming home’ or as (gradually or selectively) ‘inviting people in.’ (Intrigued? Check out MCWH’sSexuality Report.)

In the wider community, including immigrant and refugee communities, being same-sex attracted, transgender, intersex or gender diverse can sometimes mean a lack of support, and it can be even more isolating for LGBTI people in communities who identifysexual diversity as something that’s specific to Western countries. So LGBTI immigrant and refugees gain a lot from being part of both the LGBTI (is it rolling off your tongue yet?) and ethnic communities which can be very close-knit and supportive. But sadly, if you’re from a non-Western background, racial discrimination doesn’t magically disappear in the LGBTI community itself—and it has the added frustration of exoticisation. Likewise, homophobia persists in the wider community, including in immigrant and refugee communities.

We’ve come a long way in recognising diverse gender and sexual identities but are some parts of the rainbow still left behind? As members of diverse minorities, it’s easy to start seeing ourselves in the boxes we’re put in and to stop looking outside them. But, to paraphrase the wonderful Flavia Tamara Dzodan, “Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” So if you find yourself ticking all the boxes, be proud: we can never be exclusively defined as migrants, as Muslims, as heterosexuals, as queer, as mothers, as educated, as middle class, as middle aged, as mentally ill, as overweight, as workers, as women. In the same way, discussions around sexuality and gender should include the diversity of race, religion and cultural beliefs within the community, not just “to be inclusive”, but because our sexuality is inextricably tied to all these things at the same time.

Justice for women in prison

Scales of justice image courtesy of mikecogh on flickr

Scales of justice image courtesy of mikecogh on flickr

“Injustice anywhere,” Martin Luther King famously wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” We tend to think of prison as a great leveller of sorts—a place of uniformity, routine and repetition for all. But there is inequality even behind bars. Actually, given that in Australia, women are the fastest growing population in prisons, there’s increasing inequality in getting behind bars too. Between 1995 and 2002, there was a 58% increase in the imprisonment rate for women in Australia, in contrast to a 15% increase in the rate for men and, as 2012 statistics show, the number of female prisoners has increased at a rate 21 times higher than the number of male prisoners since 2011. Females now make up approximately 7% of Australia’s total prisoner population.

So clearly men are the majority when it comes to incarceration. But the increasing figures for women are staggering.

Now we’re not saying that women can’t or don’t commit crime. We do. We know we do. Of course we do. But the accelerating rates of imprisonment of women might have something to say about the lack of recognition about gender inequality as it plays out in families and homes around Australia.

A recent report revealed around 20 cases where Aboriginal women had been sentenced to jail because they had retreated from claims against their abuser (speaking of appalling inequality make it your business to know how grossly over-represented Aboriginal women are in prisons ). These women, who were jailed for ‘public mischief’ were, in reality, acting out of survival and the promise of a life free from domestic violence. Imagine this: your partner has threatened gross violence against you and your children, but now promises to leave town forever if you retract your evidence of his abuse. What would you do?

This is just one example of how the criminal justice system can be blind to the power imbalances and cultural pressures experienced by women in their day-to-day lives. And once you’re in the system, there is further injustice and inequality.  As ABS statistics show, most women prisoners (73%) are born in Australia. Another 7% of women were born in countries which are mainly English speaking, making 20% of women in prison from a wide range of countries where English is not the first language.

In the case of these women, who have often come from backgrounds of multiple disadvantage, imprisonment brings about specific difficulties, increased experiences of powerlessness, lack of knowledge and access to rights. This is certainly the finding of the 2010 Report on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Women in Victorian prisons put out by the Centre for the Human Rights of Imprisoned People, which identifies racism, language barriers leading to lack of access to literature and education programs, unequal access to faith services and the absence of culturally and linguistically appropriate medical services as some of the inequalities immigrant and refugee women can face.

MCWH has begun to address the lack of culturally appropriate health information in prisons through an eight week education program delivered by our bilingual health educators, which aims to build knowledge about health and rights. For many of the women, the ability to claim their rights, through access to knowledge and education, reinstalls their confidence in themselves and in a system which they felt had previously let them down. Bear this in mind when hearing that prior to incarceration in NSW for example, 39% of female prisoners reported having never accessed a medical centre, 20% had never accessed a GP and 4% had never accessed any health care prior to incarceration.

We need to think about how health, education and other social services are set up to support women in the first place.  It is economic security, access to information and personal wellbeing—not blame—that shapes outcomes.

Building more jails is never the answer.  Instead we need to build our understanding of gender equity, indigenous inequality and cultural diversity if we are to achieve broader, systemic change in our justice system.

60 seconds with Juliana Qian


Shanghainese/Melburnian cultural critic, media maker and poet-provocateur

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
Precognition. But most likely it’d just make me really anxious. Maybe to have an endless appetite with no hunger. Good for banquets AND space travel.

What talent would you most like to possess?
Infallible yet ethical persuasion. Or is that a super-power? I suppose.

Or if you had a magic wand, what would you use it for?
I was going to say decolonisation but actually I think the process is important. The process is pretty essential to everything I really want so maybe I’d just use it as a fashion accessory.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?

Probably what I said in my Overland essay:

“I don’t remember when I was first told that Australia was colonised. I think it’s something I’ve had to learn again and again. That this is not a young country. That this is not a white country and never has been. Knowing that changes things, somehow, or makes sense of things. White Australia is a hoax and a fantasy, nasty, brutish and short-lived. Despite the best efforts of systemic violence and oppression, the ideal of a white Australia has always been tenuous, reliant on spectacular denials and grand erasures, on so much bracketing, so many bureaucratic manoeuvres of borders and boxes.”

Australia is Aboriginal country; don’t let white people lie to you.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
Apropos, because English has such a surfeit of prepositions already but still borrows from French.

What would your last meal be?
A buffet! Because I’m sneaky and greedy.

If you could time travel, where would you go?
To the birth of the universe.

What would you work for instead of money?
Socialism? Haha, I don’t know, most of what I do is unpaid already so I’m not sure it’d be feasible.

If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
Hypeman for MIA or Angel Haze or someone (a hypeman is kind of a backing rapper who makes interjections and gets the crowd enthused). I think that’d be really fun.

Name a book or film that changed your life?
Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. I read it just as a couple of friends and I started our performance troupe, the Ladies of Colour Agency (LOCA), so it’s been a big influence stylistically, politically and emotionally.

What are you reading right now?
Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, the omnibus edition. Comics are like the book version of comfort food for me.

Is there a favourite cultural tradition that you love to follow?
I wasn’t sure how to approach this question because in a way everything is a cultural tradition, from brushing your teeth before breakfast (some people do it after!) to washing your face at night (do you use your hands or a cloth or a sponge?). But I think I have to say my jade. I love wearing my jade bangle on my left wrist. I haven’t taken it off in about five years. Some mornings I get on the crowded escalator at Melbourne Central and I can see someone a few steps up holding the banister, with jade on their left wrist too. It’s supposed to be protective.

And Chinese people carry it across continents, generations, different belief systems. My grandma tried to give me a jade Guan Yin pendant but my mum raised us Catholic, she didn’t want us wearing images of other gods, but she said the bangle was okay. It’s kind of funny. But so many traditions have been lost or changed, through the revolution or migration or just time, it’s nice to have this tangible thing and share it with people all over the world.

Do you think Australia is multicultural?
I think Australia is a lot of fairly contradictory things. There’s still a lot of racism, a lot of pressure to assimilate to this imagined norm, and there’s also a lot of people making space for themselves and their communities (not only ethnic or linguistic communities but all kinds of other cultures, whether that’s Deaf culture or queer culture or whatever else). I’m often unimpressed with mainstream understandings of multiculturalism because it just sounds like white Anglo-Celtic Australians having the power to tolerate or include others for the sake of diversity, a bit of colour and flavour. But I don’t think Australia should be solely defined or assessed by what white people do and think either. So I guess I think Australia is pretty multicultural, often in spite of rather than because of official multiculturalism.