Breaking with tradition

image via eatnorth.com

image via eatnorth.com

This time of the year our minds often turn to tradition. We start to see the overt trappings of a Western Christian tradition and culture all around us, in the snow-capped Christmas trees, the bright red of Santa’s wintery woollens contrasted by his flash of white beard, along with the tinny carols on a repeat loop in shopping centres across Australia.

We might stop a moment to think how odd these traditions are in the heat of an Australian multicultural summer, but generally we go with the flow, take the opportunity to celebrate the end of the year in our own ways, and wish our neighbours well.

But in this WRAP we’d like to take the opportunity of good cheer to reflect for a moment longer on tradition and culture, and how these terms tend to take on a different meaning when we are talking about migrants and refugees in Australia. We’ve noticed that when the terms culture and migrants are used together, in media representations in particular, they are often used to link immigrant and refugee communities with a negative understanding of tradition and culture, as something  unchanging and fixed, which is contrasted against a more ‘modern’ way of thinking and being.

And this is never more the case than when the topic under discussion is gender and cultural norms about women’s roles or women’s rights. Stereotypes of migrant men as holding more traditionally gendered views, and representations of migrant women as more compliant because of their cultural beliefs, circulate prolifically in the Australian press and elsewhere.

The pairing of traditional migrant culture and the oppression of women becomes even more acute in representations of violence against women. One recent article, quoting a Coroner’s finding relating to a domestic murder, described a violent migrant man as having ‘culturally entrenched, patriarchal’ attitudes, and his victim as having ‘cultural factors against her’. It is rare to see violence perpetrated by non-migrant men attributed to ‘cultural factors’. More commonly, the reasons given for Anglo-Australian men’s violence relate to individual pathology. Culture does not enter into the story.

Equally absent in accounts of violence against immigrant and refugee women is a recognition that systems and structures play an important role in facilitating violence against women. A second case reported this month based its defence on the premise that a migrant woman who reported violence by her husband invented the story so that she could secure a visa to stay in Australia. In this case, the legal system is using the immigration visa system, along with stereotypes of migrant women as duplicitous and tricky, to invalidate a woman’s allegation of domestic violence.

Research has shown that factors such as immigration policy, temporary and dependant visa status, along with social isolation and economic insecurity flowing from the settlement process, all play a role in making women more vulnerable to violence. While some aspects of culture and tradition can be harmful to women, this is not limited to migrant cultures. As we know too well, the culture of men’s violence is alive and well in modern day, Christmas-celebrating Australia. While patriarchal attitudes clearly play an important role in the perpetration of violence against all women, we need to balance that knowledge with an understanding of the role of structural and systemic factors.

That means thinking outside of the tradition versus modernity square, to better understand how ‘modern’ systems and structures can harm women as much as ‘culture’ (traditional or otherwise).

To find out more about the intersections of systems and culture, register for our panel event. 

Thinking more broadly about violence

Toni

Women are always teaching us new things, as long as we take the opportunity to listen. And as bell hooks has reminded us, we need to listen closely to the concrete reality of the marginalised in order to imagine a future that is truly visionary.

One thing we have learned over the last few months from listening closely to immigrant and refugee women is that we need to change our thinking on violence. We have learned that what we think we know about violence against immigrant and refugee women is neither broad, nor specific, enough. Women have told us very clearly that we need to broaden our definition of violence, and at the same time, we need to be more specific about the various forms of violence that impact on particular groups of women.

As Toni Morrison showed us in her beautiful novel, Beloved, violence has varied forms, and physical violence is only one of them. The psychological impacts of slavery include the impact of the racial categorisation of African American people, state-based violence in the form of unaddressed and sanctioned racial discrimination, and legislation or policy that institutionalises inequality. When we think about violence against immigrant and refugee women, we need to also think about how our state structures might contribute to their experiences.

Take women on temporary visas for example. Women who are in Australia temporarily on student, working or bridging visas have a specific experience of violence that is created and exacerbated by their temporary and precarious visa status. For temporary migrant women, not only the family home, but also housing and employment, are key settings where gendered violence finds fertile ground.

Women have told us that landlords and housemates, employers and workmates, spouses and family members, have found opportunities to exploit the system and take advantage of women’s limited options when faced with violence.  In these cases, the violence has taken the forms of threats of deportation, eviction or employment termination, combined with an offer to remove the threat in exchange for sex or unpaid work. In other cases, spouses, supported by family and community members, have hidden passports or other documents from women, threatened to harm children or family members overseas, or they have limited women’s opportunities to work, to participate in the community or learn crucial skills such as English language.

If we aim to fully understand violence against women, and incorporate that understanding into a truly visionary future, these specific forms of violence, and a broader definition of violence, need to become incorporated into what we think violence means to women.

WRAP #16: Turning 35, rethinking pink and 60 seconds with Anna Moo

MCWH is turning 35!

That’s right, we’ve been talking to women about their health and their rights for 35 years. You have to agree, it’s impressive.Like many women, we’ve had our ups and downs, a few makeovers, changed our name and our address, but from the very beginning, it’s always been about empowering women by sharing information, supporting women to find their voice on matters of health and wellbeing and building relationships between women within their community so they can make changes for the better, for their families and for themselves.Sadly, there are other things that seem to have stayed the same. 35 years is a long time but many of the issues that were relevant in 1978 are still relevant now – immigrant and refugee women still struggle to access health information, to navigate the health system and to recognise themselves in mainstream representations of what women should be.We are honoured to have been working with and for immigrant and refugee women for so many years, we are proud of where we are now and we are taking a big breath in – not just to blow out the candles, but to get ready for the work still to be done.On that note, this Wednesday 4 December we’ll be marking our birthday officially with the Victorian Minister for Health, the Hon. David Davis, and acclaimed writer Alice Pung, followed by our AGM. You are most warmly invited to come along.

Now without further ado, we’re talking about 1978, rethinking pink and then spending 60 seconds with MCWH board member Anna Moo.

he first MCWH education session conducted in October 1977

The first MCWH education session conducted in October 1977 – only 3 months before the best year of our lives.

 

35 years ago, 35 years later

It’s official: scientists have discovered that there is, indeed, such a thing as the good old days. In fact, University of Canberra researchers have even pinpointed a year: 1978. According to the research, 1978 was the year the world’s quality of life peaked, and it has gradually deteriorated ever since.

Such a provocative conclusion naturally led us to think about the quality of life of immigrant and refugee women in Australia.

If you’re old enough to remember, 1978 was the year that had most people bopping along to the ‘Grease’ soundtrack (‘…you’re the one that I want…oo, oo, oo, honey…the one that I want…’). It was also the year MCWH first opened its doors to immigrant and refugee women. In that year, the newly-established Action for Family Planning (as MCWH was known then) took multilingual family planning information and education to women in Victoria’s factories.

Did AFP reach the peak of cultural responsiveness for immigrant and refugee women? Will there ever be a peak for immigrant and refugee women’s health?

Current evidence suggests that immigrant and refugee women have, and are at a greater risk of suffering, poorer health outcomes than Australian-born women. However research has also shown that they are well-placed to improve their own health through preventative health education. Here are a few other factors we might need to consider before we can say we’re living in the ‘1978’ of immigrant and refugee women’s health:

  1. Contrary to opinion, migrants create jobs by increasing demand for goods and services, yet overseas-born women have a higher unemployment rate (5.1%) than both Australian-born women (4.2%) and Australian-born men (3.4%).
  2. Despite their valuable civic contributions, not all immigrant and refugee women have the same rights as permanent residents and Australian citizens: some cannot vote, while others have to wait for public health and social welfare entitlements, often to the detriment of their health and wellbeing.
  3. Whenever you stay at a hotel, walk into a clean office, or choose the packaged nuts from the grocery aisle, it’s probably an immigrant woman who has laboured to make it possible, often in insecure and low-paid conditions.
  4. During migration and settlement, immigrant and refugee women negotiate upheavals, setbacks and obstacles with perseverance, resourcefulness and organisation. These are skills possessed by the greatest of leaders and should be used and recognised to our advantage.

These are the compass points for the type of work that needs to be done with immigrant and refugee women in order to stem the gradual deterioration. Now, how to bring back the good old days?

Taxi courtesy of pragism on flickr

Rethinking pink

Pink—the colour, not the singer—has been in the spotlight again.

It seems pink has been hijacked  by consumer market forces in that ‘Pink-Ribbon-Barbie-Doll-Disney-Princess’ kind of way, at the expense of feminist action. Instead of tackling issues head on, pink detractors argue, it only reinforces gender stereotypes and dilutes advocacy to the level of awareness-raising.

Take for example, the idea of introducing women-only taxis to Victoria (pink taxis, of course) in response to concerns about women’s safety, which has led some to suggest that the proposed scheme is a ‘mediaeval’ form of segregation that disempowers women to speak out against violence.

Given that colour is loaded with cultural meanings (remember, former Prime Minister Gillard’s comments about women being sidelined by men in blue ties?) it’s difficult to pin point whether the criticism is aimed at ‘pink’ or at ‘women-only’, but it’s safe to say that the relationship between the two is like chewing gum to hair.

However, by focusing on the pink/women-only aspect, we could inadvertently be advocating for a form of mainstreaming that runs counter to many feminist principles. ‘Specialist’ services, whether multicultural, Indigenous, women’s and/or ethno-specific services, serve a need in the community. The provision of gender specific and culturally responsiveness services doesn’t and shouldn’t equate to a form of gender or cultural segregation. In fact, the reverse logic is true: by making available specific services, we are acknowledging that there is no such thing as a level playing field. The Pink Taxi recognises that while men’s violence against women is prevalent in our community, women have the right to travel safely.

Inequity and violence exist and at the same time as we work to change that fact, there is a need for a service response.

Similarly, by providing services such as bilingual health education to women, we are in fact acknowledging immigrant and refugee women’s right to choose, to access appropriate informationand to feel safe on their own terms. The very existence of a multicultural women ‘s health service signals a long-term commitment to also eliminating the barriers underpinning women’s needs and not just serving them.

If people are blind to gender or race, then colour should be viewed as a visual aid. We need to see pink—or the co-opting of any other colour for advocacy purposes for that matter—not as the cure, but as a symptom of what needs to be fixed in our world.

Pink taxis are one option, but what action do you most want to see in the community that would help end violence against women? Listen and learn from women for 16 Days of Activism led by Women’s Health East.

60 seconds with Anna Moo

Anna Moo

Feminist and social justice activist

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I’m reading ‘To Each His Own’, a book set in the South of Italy. The author Leonardo Sciascia uses storytelling as a way to demonstrate and attack the ethos of the insidious mafia culture that prevailed in Sicily in the 1960’s. Sadly that culture still endures today.

If you had a magic wand, what would you use it for?
I would use it to gather all nations to reach a unanimous agreement to resettle all refugees languishing in camps all over the world in countries of their choice.

What talent would you most like to possess?
I would love to be able to draw and create beautiful pictures. I do appreciate visual arts particularly paintings produced in the Renaissance period in Italy.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?
It’s always very difficult for people new to a country to settle. It takes time to adapt and to get to know and understand the new cultural environment. It’s important to make connections, to be informed, to learn the language as quickly as possible and to participate in the community as much as one can. Above all it is critical to establish support systems and networks.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
‘Welcome’. It’s a word that says a lot of things and it’s always said on a positive note, there isn’t any negativity around it.

If you could invite anyone to dinner tonight, who would it be?
It would be a group of friends – strong, opinionated feminist women. Our gatherings are always exciting, challenging and above all totally enjoyable. Issues would be debated at length over a glass of wine or two and a cigarette.

Your most cherished memory?
When I had my children, there’s some sort of magic in having a child. It’s difficult to describe. It stays with you forever.

Is there a favourite cultural tradition that you like to follow?
The Italians are big on family events, my mother held a family lunch every Sunday. Family and friends would be invited and she had no difficulty in preparing a feast. I don’t know how she did it! I can’t possibly follow that, but in honouring the family’s tradition, we do gather for an occasional Sunday family lunch and reminiscence about the feasts of the past!

Do you think Australia is multicultural?
Australia is indeed a multicultural society. While it is true that overall diversity of cultures and ethnicities are tolerated there is still a lack of acceptance by the general population of particular groups. While we have achieved a great deal, there is still an underlying level of racism that operates against groups who may look different due to religion, race or other characteristics.

Finish this sentence: “We need feminism because…”
Women’s equality is still to be achieved.

You can hear Anna chat about her work with immigrant and refugee women here.