Indigenous Women and Feminism
The conference began with an interesting discussion on the relationship between the 'Feminist Movement' and the lives/experiences of Indigenous women. For some indigenous women, the term 'feminism' has been marked with antagonism towards Aboriginal culture(s). Colonial politics are implicated in white (middle class) 'Women's Movement' that sought to liberate Indigenous women from barbaric indigenous men. Such a program was problematic because it came at the expense of a person's Aboriginal heritage or cultural background. Indigenous knowledges did not seem to have a place in these feminist politics. For many of these women, not having access to education or adequate healthcare, were the crucial issues, and one's grounded in their race (particularly the colonial displacement of Indigenous peoples from their native land) rather than their gender necessarily. While 'feminism' has been marked as a term with some suspicion, the Indigenous women on the panel noted that the way forward is one of respectful dialogue. Feminist knowledges, both indigenous and non-indigenous, should be exchanged in forums which respect difference and culture. That is, it is a time for a pedagogy of listening.
Why is feminism relevant?
Discussions then moved to question the relevance and political value of feminism today. Questions that were raised earlier around difference were echoed by each panelist, who articulated a different relationship each had to the F word. Rather than seek to universalise the subject position of 'woman', each speaker noted that feminism (as a theory, politics and way of living) is grounded in their specific social and cultural circumstances, which are not easily divorced. In this way, feminism has become an analytic tool by which people can understand the gendered dimensions of employment, labour, reproduction, migration, sexual ethics and sexual pleasure. Instead of reifying some monolithic 'Feminist' goal or outcome, feminism provides a space for the discussion of differences and how to use gendered/sexed experience as a framework to undermine social oppressions. In this way, feminism is an anchor to mobilise activism and social change both in a public political sense, and in the intimate and personal lives of individuals.
People of Colour Politics
I then had the pleasure/privilege of facilitating a workshop introducing people of colour politics. The primary objective of the workshop was to understand how the feminist movement is diverse and as activists why we need to identify and address discriminations within our own organising and society more broadly. This workshop was a good starting point for people to think about what it means to be a person of colour and the importance of autonomous spaces. It provided a safer space to challenge our prejudices, privileges and the intersection of race, gender, sexuality and sex. What this means is not prioritising common goals over differences when we all have different subject positions on issues. It was encouraging to have people engage in issues around sexuality, sex/gender diverse persons and Indigenous people and the often complex relationship these population groups have to feminism. People had to think about the way racism is not only systemic in public institutions, but also how it prevents certain groups having access to space (or land) and operates at the most intimate and personal aspects of our lives, such as how we define our individual relationships with others.
Transitioning from a workshop dealing with anti-racist issues, into a trans* discussion was particularly engaging. As a cisgendered (a person who's body/anatomy aligns with their prescribed social gender identity) male, learning how to discuss and engage with trans* politics requires rethinking some of the most common assumptions we make about a person- whether they are male or female (within the classic binary model). Moving beyond such a narrow scope on gender, forced me to question how we think about gendered experience as simply bodily experience, when it has psychological, emotional and performative aspects to it. Some people choose to transition if they feel a dissonance between their gender identity and how their body presents their 'sex', while others choose not to (for financial reasons or otherwise). Whether one 'passes' the gender binary by 'successfully' transitioning to a male or female so they appear cisgendered or whether they choose to 'cross' and be non-gender specific are entirely personal and valid ways of living (or not so) with gender.
By problematising the notion of biological experience as making a person 'authentically' male or female, the question of how trans* people relate to feminism is important. Transphobia in some feminist communities has sought to marginalise certain populations who felt that their gender experience (for some who identified as women) was not being included. Whether autonomous spaces should allow for trans* people brought to bear a question on how to define what 'autonomy' means. Is it or should it be self-identified or based on a biological way of being? While trans* people have distinct and different experiences to cisgendered women, should they be excluded from feminist spaces which try to reclaim a space for an 'essential (read: biological) feminine sisterhood'?
Day 2 began with a panel discussing the ever elusive concept of 'power'. One of the most resonating and emotional moments was Elena Jeffrey's discussion on sex worker rights. What has often been stigmatised as a degrading and anti-feminist practice, was shown to be a damaging fallacy for sex workers in Australia. Rather than promoting phobic attitudes to sex work and attempting to police the sexual agency of women, Elena promoted a feminist agenda that could provide sex workers with support rather than social/physical alienation. Policy change is needed to decriminalise certain kinds of sex work (including sex worker association), introduce anti-discrimination legislation, and end mandatory health checks which characterise sex workers as 'high risk' or 'infectious' bodies. Autonomy is a crucial element to this discussion, by allowing sex workers a platform to organise and effect change from a position of experience rather than having 'feminist spokespersons' who are anti-sex work speaking on their behalf.
Discussion also canvassed the importance of human rights and corporate governance in supporting women. Greater accountability and audits of women in leadership, stronger transparency and developing targets is key to promoting gender equity in the workplace. Questions of workplace labour also addressed the problems of sexual harassment, and the ways in which corporate cultures are 'masculinised'. For example, some women find sexual comments or sexualising gazes/flirtations as a 'common' work ethic between men and women. While the workplace itself is a place of sexism, the gendered division of labour in an unpaid/paid context, continues to marginalise women. In a place where the ideal worker is characterised as an individual who is a flexible, always available, works overtime and the ideal woman is defined as a mother who commits to raising children in the home, how do working women fit (if at all) into this framework?
This discussion prompted the question, do we need to move beyond neoliberal questions of economic (personal) progress to further feminism?
Men and Feminism
What inspired this blog and formed the basis of the initial posts, was discussed in this workshop with great enthusiasm. Men occupy a complex relationship to feminism. What was really interesting was having a sub group consisting entirely of women, came to a unanimous consensus that men could identify as feminists. While this discussion will be continued further in other posts, what is at stake when men call themselves 'feminists'? Or is the politics of simply having a label merely a first step?
The final panel centred on the question on the future of feminism. Such a question is complex and demands a lot of attention, suffice to say that it cannot be answered in the space of one panel. What is clear to me, and hopefully to others, is that feminism has a important future. Some excellent points were raised to the processes of developing feminist engagements both politically and in our personal lives.
Feminism is about intersections. Knowing that we are not just a gendered individual, but also that our identities have particular racial, cultural, sexual, class, age, ability and religious dislodges this notion that 'gender' can be isolated as a ground of oppression. Women of colour experience distinctly different things to white middle class women. Each part of our identity is mutually constituted by another. We can experience both race and sexuality simultaneously, for example, when a person refuses to date someone on the basis of their ethnic or cultural identity.
Feminism must work to develop an ethics of listening and respect. Larissa Behrendt argued convincingly that gendered division does not necessarily imply subordination. In Aboriginal communities, the separation of labour between the sexes does not privilege one form of labour over another. It is simply different. In taking this notion of difference further, she suggested that the future of feminism must work to engage with indigenous knowledges. That is, thinking about lived experience/knowledge, valuing reciprocity and effecting cultural change through ongoing conversations.
Differences and intersections are questions of respect and valuing diversity in feminism. The strength of the movement relies on the facilitation of differences in productive dialogues rather than the erasure of minority voices. Sometimes tensions do not detract from politics, sometimes having a debate or disagreeing can strengthen the foundation of a political struggle. In thinking through these questions at a level of social change, feminism must engage politics and activism at the local level, rather than become a rigid institutional structure.