Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Image: Women's March Toronto via: Now Magazine

Image: Women’s March Toronto via: Now Magazine

Those of us who support women’s reproductive rights watched with horror this month as the clock was suddenly turned back on women’s access to health care. Several days into Donald Trump’s presidency the ‘Global Gag Rule’ was reinstated, a signature on a dotted line on a document in the US, which in effect prevents non US-based organisations and health care workers in a range of different countries around the world from providing information to women about abortion services.

There is now a real concern that the health of women will be seriously compromised due to this limitation on their access to information, knowledge and services. Indeed, any barrier placed in the way of women knowing more about their bodies, rights and health takes us right back to a time when knowledge was feared and women’s empowerment was seen as a sign of witchcraft.

Fortunately, there are other signs that we are not still living in those days with respect to women’s rights: on 21 January, 673 Women’s Marches took place in a world-wide protest involving an estimated 4.78 million people. The marches in our own cities of Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney all shared in the collective call to restore our minds and reproductive parts back to the present day.

The marches were inclusive and intersectional; they united around a common goal of creating a society in which all women, without exception, are free to live their lives in safe and healthy environments. Perhaps, as always, Angela Davis most eloquently summed up the meaning of the marches when she said that the women’s marches represented the promise of feminism.

The ticking clock, so often associated with a woman’s reproductive system, takes on a new meaning in the context of the times we live in. There are forces pushing the political clock on women’s reproductive rights backwards, whether it be through new legislation, by limiting resources and funding to women’s health, or by progressively shifting responsibility for women’s health care from the community to the individual. Now, more than ever, let’s hold on to the fact that women’s reproductive health is, literally, what keeps the world ticking over. It needs to be valued.

Six things you need to know about intersectionality

Image/@Julie_Oberin on Twitter

Image/@Julie_Oberin on Twitter

Last week (19-21 September) the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) and Our Watch held ‘Prevalent and Preventable’, an international conference on violence against women. The conference provided an important opportunity for service workers, community advocates, policy makers, researchers, government, non-government and other professionals from around Australia, New Zealand, the Asia Pacific, Europe and beyond to come together to discuss ways to prevent violence against women and children.

The conference focused on four key thematic streams: preventing violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women; putting intersectionality into practice; preventing violence against women in settings with limited services and infrastructure, including rural regional and remote communities in Australia and the Pacific; and focusing on children and young people as agents of change.

As convenors of the intersectionality stream, one of our only disappointments was that we were unable to attend the other streams. But insofar as the conference explicitly aimed to ‘focus on the hard questions’, the intersectionality stream certainly delivered. We learned so much, we loved the discussion and after some rest and some reflection, we want to share six things that we took away about intersectionality over an amazing three days. (You can jump on twitter to learn more #PPVAW2016)

1. It’s about Aboriginal Sovereignty

You might be thinking “what is relationship between intersectionality and Aboriginal sovereignty?” Regardless of the ways in which we are racialised, and regardless of our own individual and family migration histories, one of the strongest messages of the conference was the need to address the fundamental fact that we are settlers on Aboriginal land. An intersectional approach must acknowledge Australia’s colonial history in order to ethically and usefully discuss other forms of discrimination in Australia. It requires us to understand Aboriginal issues as intertwined with struggles against racism, poverty, police violence, war and occupation, violence against women and environmental justice, rather than treating the concerns of Aboriginal people as one issue among many others. By doing so, we can ensure that taking an intersectional approach does not subordinate or compartmentalise the Aboriginal struggle.

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2. It’s not a new idea

The concept of intersectionality came out of a legal framework that was based on black women’s lived experiences. The term was originally developed by US feminist legal scholar Kimberley Crenshaw (1989) who was looking for a way to talk about the discrimination that women faced both for their race as well as their sex.

Today it is a whole area of research and scholarship but it is important to acknowledge that as an idea, ‘intersectionality’ only articulates what black, Indigenous and migrant women have known and have been saying for a long time: you can’t tease out identities as separate categories because everything is connected. Thinkers such as Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Irene Watson, Aileen Moreton Robinson and Audre Lorde (to name just a few) have been talking about similar concepts for a very long time.

Ultimately, understanding women’s unique experiences and recognising when those experiences are not being adequately supported, is more important than the word itself. Listening to women is key.

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3. It’s not just about identities…

Discussing identity is an important part of an intersectional approach but we also need to think about how identity relates to structures and systems. Sometimes identity is what we identify with, but it can also be about what we are identified as. For example, identifying some groups as “vulnerable” can hide the fact that they are made vulnerable. So, when we talk about immigrant and refugee health, we need to look beyond the individual to the systems and structures that these identities exist within; which means talking about immigration policy, incarceration, labour rights and access to healthcare as well as individual experiences of discrimination. It’s something we do at MCWH and it’s something we’ll keep doing.

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4. It’s going to take time and energy

A common phrase that was uttered throughout the conference was the idea that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to intersectionality. Because of this, we need to factor in the time, energy and flexibility that will be required in order to work out the best approach for each and every context. It can’t be overlayed as an afterthought, it must be there, as an approach, in the planning stages of any undertaking. Intersectional practice requires us to take the time to work out what is working and more importantly, what isn’t, and why! We need to think about who we are including as well as who we are not and why.

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5. Get ready for some hard conversations

Self-reflexivity is a big part of the work and this will involve hard conversations that will require us to look into our own privileges and biases and note how they play out in our work. To expect the work to be easy would be to misunderstand what intersectionality is. The ability to make mistakes, to learn from them and to sit with uncomfortability are all skills that we can learn as we go.

 

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6. Yes it’s an approach BUT…

Calling it an approach can make it sound like an option and for many people in positions of power and privilege – it is. What we really need to ask ourselves, if we are considering this work, is what is at stake if we choose not to adopt this approach in our work?

Celebrating the Party Spoilers

Untitled (Sergey Sus/flickr)

Sergey Sus untitled

Whether it’s the end-of-year work parties, the start-of-summer BBQs or family get-togethers, for many of us December is a time of intense socialising. That’s why December is also a particularly dangerous month for becoming ‘the party spoiler’.

We have all been there: standing around at a party, overhearing someone telling a sexist joke or a racist joke or a sexist and racist joke, and thinking, I really need to say something but then I’m going to be labelled “the party spoiler” or “the troublemaker” or “the one who can’t take a joke”.

Each of us will have a different level of comfort about speaking up. Some of us wouldn’t hesitate. But it is not always an easy thing to take the plunge and “spoil the party”, particularly if the “offender” is someone you want or need to get along well with: your uncle, your neighbours or your partner’s new boss. Power relationships still exist at parties and many of us can be intimidated to disagree with work colleagues in positions of power, or with relatives who may be our elders. As immigrant and refugee women, choosing to speak out in these situations can make us feel like we’re creating more distance between ourselves and the person whose opinions we find offensive. And it’s a party, after all, we should just let it go, shouldn’t we?

There is no right or wrong way to handle these situations and everyone is different. But at this time of festivity and joy, we’d like to celebrate all the party spoilers out there. Thank you for speaking out, thank you for taking the lead in reducing racism and sexism in our world, and thank you for taking risks on our behalf.

We wish you well this December. Because it’s your party too, and you don’t need an unchallenged sexist or racist joke or opinion spoiling it for you. And if you look around there will probably be someone else at the party, standing not very far away, maybe even next to you, whose great time was getting spoiled too. And to them, you just saved the party.

Somewhere over the rainbow

My rainbow is finally complete! (Daniela Goulart/flickr)

My rainbow is finally complete! (Daniela Goulart/flickr)

 

The LGBTIQ rainbow symbolically covers all diversity within its arches. It is an open, bright and positively welcoming flag that many of us, who stand somewhere within its colours, are proud to fly. But what of women and trans people from the LGBTIQ rainbow who are also from a migrant and refugee community? How do we experience the colours and diversity within? To what extent are our intersectional experiences of gender, sexuality and ethnic diversity understood within our LGBTIQ and migrant/refugee communities?

Diversity is the key of course – we all experience and feel belonging in our own ways. But some experiences of LGBTIQ people from migrant and refugee communities have been documented and vividly express a spectrum of identity and shared experience. Three words stand out: invisibility, visibility, contradiction.

To start with invisibility: imagine not being recognised within your identified community as ‘one of us’. This happens in both the LGBTI and migrant communities. We live in a very visual world which relies heavily on symbolism and stereotypes and if you don’t quite fit the look expected of you, you can literally be overlooked. And let’s not underestimate the impact of racism in the LGBTI community, and transphobia and homophobia in migrant/refugee communities, in the creation of invisibility. If I don’t respect you I can pretend not to see you, or only see the things that fit. So do you change your look, or do you change the way your community sees you?

Visibility is the second key word. Uniqueness is a wonderful thing, but being the only one of an identity in your community – the only Muslim lesbian, the only trans Chilean, the only young, working class, Sri Lankan, bisexual woman in the village – certainly makes you visible, extrovert or not. So do you keep some of your identities to yourself, strategically and depending on the context, or do you let it all just be, wherever you are, whatever the risks?

Contradiction sums it up. Belonging to community holds contradictory experiences, which are often intensified by the intersections of structural disadvantage. This is precisely because, even within those intersections and overlaps of communities, we are asked to choose one identity at a time. As Audre Lorde, writer and poet, lesbian and daughter of Caribbean immigrants, has put it:

There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself – whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. – because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else. But once you do that, then you’ve lost because then you become acquired or bought by that particular essence of yourself, and you’ve denied yourself all of the energy that it takes to keep all those others in jail. Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.

Belonging is a wonderful thing. Belonging generates wellbeing, it preserves and maintains mental health, and brings fun, joy and shared experience into our lives. It generates the harmony that Lorde talks about and makes the contradictions meaningful and important. In the face of contradiction, it is belonging across communities that is needed to bring life to the rainbow.

MCWH is currently looking for a part-time Health Promotion and Research Project Officer to conduct a newly funded project that promotes the health and wellbeing of same-sex attracted women from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Click here for more information.

Nothing but blue skies

Kate-Ter-Haar-Nothing-But-Blue-Skies-Do-I-See

Nothing But Blue Skies Do I See. Kate Ter Haar (2011) flickr.

 

Feminists are amazingly diverse. There is such a wide range of approaches to the question of what causes women’s oppression, and what to do about it. But if there is anything that binds feminists across time, space and ideology, it has to be that they are good at having ‘vision’. Feminists, like all social justice advocates, have a wonderful capacity to imagine a different world.

Simone de Beauvoir imagined a world in which women were fully recognised as acting, experiencing subjects, rather than merely objects of the patriarchal ‘eternal feminine’ myth. In the radical feminism camp, Shulamith Firestone imagined a world in which women lived free of the burden of reproduction and the regressive limitations of the traditional nuclear family. For liberal feminists, from the sassy suffragettes to our very own Women’s Electoral Lobby, the new world was one in which women, through the mechanisms of the state, were equal actors in the public sphere.

Here at MCWH, our favourite world to live in would be the one imagined by the intersectional feminists, from the materialist to the post-colonial, who made us all think a little differently again about gender. Specifically, they helped us to think more broadly about the ways that sexism as a system of women’s oppression intersects with other forms, such as racism, capitalism, ageism, and ableism.

Feminists such as Angela Davis, with her landmark 1981 book, ‘Women, Race and Class’, alerted us to the role of racism and eugenics, hand in hand with sexism, in holding back women’s reproductive rights. Aileen Moreton-Robinson has articulated the impact on Indigenous women’s lives of gendered oppression in the context of colonisation in Australia. Helen Meekosha has written of the impact of colonialism and capitalism, thinking through the ways that these systems intersect with gender oppression to cause disability in the global South. These are the many ways that we have been reminded that it is not only sexism that contributes to women’s oppression.

Such feminist thinkers, from bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua, to Kimberly Crenshaw, Chandra Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak, have expanded the vision from one in which women are equal to men, to one in which inequality and oppression on any basis ceases to exist. An intersectional approach gives us a vision of gender equality that does not simply even up the circumstances of women and men within each class, race or culture, leaving the rifts between classes and races intact. Rather, it imagines a world without structural inequality itself.

That’s a difficult world for us to picture now, an almost unfathomable change in what we know and what some of us experience, but look how far we’ve already come. We need to keep the blue skies of intersectional feminism firmly in our sights, and make sure we take the time to appreciate its variation, its subtleties and its colour.

Understanding the complexity of gender issues

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I will be more conscious of my own position/role before speaking and engaging. – workshop participant

Last week MCWH partnered with Diaspora Action Australia (formally known as the Humanitarian Crisis Hub) for the second year in a row to facilitate a gender workshop for 10 of DAA’s staff and volunteers. It was an evening of exchanging thoughts, ideas and concepts about gender issues, as they arise in both national and global contexts. Participants were introduced to different ways of thinking about gender and asked to reflect on the impact of gender norms and racial biases in their everyday lives.

Concepts such as ‘intersectionality’ were new to some members of the group, with one participant observing: “I will no longer be simplistic in my assumptions.” For others, the training was a way of deepening their understanding and expanding on their professional practice. As an attendee later reflected: “I was reminded of how amazingly complex these issues are.”

In order to ground these complexities in reality, the settlement stories of real immigrant and refugee women were shared and discussed with participants. What those stories illustrated, and what the group discovered through the workshop, was how interlaced and multifaceted gender issues can be. By seeking out a deeper understanding of oppression and working towards continual self-reflection on the mechanisms which hold it in place, staff and volunteers at DAA are even better placed to effectively empower women and their communities.

If you think your organisation could benefit from an MCWH gender workshop, why not contact us here.