Promoting positive media

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Throughout the history of Australian mass media, migrants have provided sensational opportunities for exciting news. Migrants have played the reliable fall guys, the ones that could be hauled out to boost newspaper circulation, or encourage widespread and divided debate about the troubled state of the nation.

Headlines about migrant thugs and crooks who are getting “shipped” back to their countries make great copy, and fit easily with well-known migrant stereotypes, particularly those of migrant men as aggressive and violent. When it comes to migrant women, the common stereotype that media reaches for is almost the complete opposite. Migrant women are depicted as passive, hyper-oppressed and in need of protection… mostly from migrant men.

Of course, these two corresponding stereotypes of migrant men and women feed into and reinforce the belief that migrant cultures are more traditional and backward. And of course this picture fits neatly into our favourite Australian narratives, including those that celebrate our egalitarian approach to life and our superior level of respect and equality for women.

Once you start to read between the lines, it’s clear that the tabloid kit bag is full of migrant stereotypes. And like all stereotypes, messages that rely on fixed narratives are limiting and ultimately do harm to those who are described in this way. If migrant women are represented as inherently passive and oppressed by their virulently patriarchal cultures, we overlook immigrant and refugee women’s active agency in their lives. Migrant women who identify positively with their cultures and migrant communities are sometimes wrongly represented  as promoting violence against women. None of these stereotypical narratives treat immigrant and refugee women with respect or individuality, nor do they promote immigrant women’s strength and resilience in determining the course of  their own lives.

Let’s create some new narratives and images of migrants and our diverse and valuable cultures and communities. Most importantly, let’s encourage the Australian media to elevate the visibility and voices of immigrant and refugee women as an important strategy to promote gender equality and to prevent violence against women. That would make sensational reading.

The complexity of culture

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/unwomenasiapacific/

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/unwomenasiapacific/

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.

The route to real change

Image via: www.aaww.org

Image via: www.aaww.org

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.