Reality TV is an odd indulgence. How many of us have not sat with interest and awe as we watch people play out some aspect of their lives on film, facing an array of challenges, from the extreme to the banal? Reality TV brings us real life dilemmas from the kitchen or the jungle, and asks us to empathise, identify, judge, or simply laugh along with a shared experience.
In short, we are hearing and watching people tell their stories. Of course, not in their own words, but we allow ourselves to be taken on the emotional ride knowing that the reality is a trick, that the stories are a construction and that there is always a story behind the story. The question of representation, who speaks for whom, in other words, is up for grabs.
And while it may seem like a world away, in MCWH’s work promoting immigrant and refugee women’s wellbeing, this question of representation is at the centre of our practice. People often think they know a lot about us as immigrant and refugee women, our experiences of gendered inequality or our experiences of ‘Australian’ culture, but how real is that knowledge? How often have they listened to women tell their own stories from their own perspectives and in their own words? In reality, immigrant and refugee women rarely have the opportunity, in the public realm, to control the production of their own stories. As a result, the stories that do exist are often distorted because they are viewed through a lens of racist and sexist stereotypes.
We know there is a strong will from community workers and organisations to make a difference to immigrant and refugee women’s health, to promote gender equality and to prevent gendered violence in immigrant and refugee communities. But sometimes these well-meaning attempts to make a difference start with a particular view of reality, that is, that immigrant and refugee women don’t need to speak on their own behalf and that others can validly speak for them. This is a view that inadvertently excludes the very women who are intended to benefit. In effect, immigrant and refugee women get caught in the middle of two groups that are keen to speak on their behalf – immigrant and refugee men, and non-immigrant/refugee women.
Programs that make a real difference to immigrant and refugee women should be conducted in equal partnership with immigrant and refugee women. They start with the question of what women have already done in their communities to promote gender equality or women’s health and build from there. Successful and effective programs ensure immigrant and refugee women are fully resourced to actively lead the planning and decision making of those programs. They are also based on equal partnerships with immigrant and refugee women’s representative organisations, building on existing expertise and what has already been done.
If you are a part of a gender equality or violence prevention program that does not start with the leadership of immigrant and refugee women, you might need to question the gender justice foundations on which the program is based. Immigrant and refugee women need to tell their own stories, in their own way, so they are in control of their own narrative and their own realities. This is the route to transformative change.