Monday, July 30, 2012

Why I support marriage equality, but not marriage

In what is possibly going to be one of the most confusing posts I have ever written (not so much the points I'm making, but more the way I go about expressing them...), after years of explaining my rather contradictory thoughts on these two things I have decided to write these thoughts up. The good thing about this is that I know, on this front, I am not the only one who feels contradictory in their stance and so I am in good company here!

I state up front: I 100% support marriage equality. I have been to rallies, signed the petitions and promoted the cause constantly. I remember all too well when the Marriage Act was changed in Australia to specify that marriage is between a "man" and a "woman". I remember when the ACT got its Civil Partnership Bill up only to have it maliciously squashed by the Federal Govt. I remember when the ALP proudly announced that it was FINALLY recognising same-sex relationships for the purposes of Centrelink payments (which if you ask me was just a ploy to stop same-sex couples from being able to claim separate single payments). I found it incredibly hypocritical that the Govt would recognise same-sex relationships for this process, but not for the process of marriage. I do not have any religious ties and therefore my take on same-sex marriage is completely state-based: we have a law that discriminates against an entire section of the community and it needs to be changed. Same-sex couples who wish to formalise their relationship in the state via marriage should have the right to do so, and the sooner that this discriminatory legislation is removed, the better!

Now to throw the contradictory part in: I am anti-marriage. Yep, back when I was a teen-femoranter and changed my title to Ms. (rather than the irksome "Miss") I did so because I had decided that I did not support marriage, and that I would not buy into it. Apart from a couple of weird discussions when I was 16 about marrying in a pair of Stubbie shorts (?), I have not wavered from that stance, and indeed, it has strengthened. I have also made it clear that I would not shift from this stance depending on any future choice of partner. This has not stopped me supporting many of my most wonderful friends in their choice to enter into marriage and if anything I have felt incredibly privileged that they have invited me to be a part of their special day despite listening to me bang on for years with my views! But marriage, as a concept, is something I find deeply problematic on many levels.

To take the obvious level for a feminist first: marriage has been used for millennia as a tool to oppress women and reinforce their second-class status. I have been told by so many that marriage has changed, that people have the ability to make it what they wish, and I do believe that this is the case PROVIDED people have privilege (eg: white, western, middle-class etc). I feel personally that for me to acknowledge the majority local reality whilst ignoring the reality for so many other sisters is just unconscionable. Across the world, many women have no choice and no sense of equality when it comes to marriage. Forced marriage, for example, still occurs across many parts of Asia and Africa and it has gotten to the point where the UK government has just recently criminalised it and introduced tough penalties. Whilst both sexes can be forced into marriage, it is much more likely to be young women, and a third of the cases in the UK involved minors with the youngest recently being a girl of just 5 years old. Forced marriage is also rising in prevalence in Australia.  If it is rising in migrant populations within western countries then it can only be imagined how common it would be in the home countries.

Women's second-class status, their rights of inheritance and the cost of them entering into marriage are directly linked to why there are approximately 200 million girls "missing" across the world. In many parts of the world, baby girls are seen as a burden. Future dowry costs are a part of the reason why firstly, pregnant women are sometimes subjected to sex determination tests and forced abortion, and secondly why girls are killed, abandoned or trafficked at still alarming rates. Because there are deeply ingrained notions that girls are dependant on fathers, and then need to find good marriages in order to be supported (because they are not seen as independent and capable beings) the cost of having a girl is simply too much for impoverished families to bear. It is hard to be okay with a practice that contributes to the death, neglect or trafficking of so many women globally.

Polygamous marriages are still very much part of the majority experience across the world. Now, as much sense that this is going to make, I don't have a problem with "polyamory" and indeed wonder sometimes if it is more practical than monogamy for some people. But I do actually have an issue with polygamy in so far as the dominant form practiced across the world is "polygyny", not polyandry or polygamy of any other form. Whilst it is seen as noble and dignified for a woman to curb her jealousy and accept her husband and his other wives in many of the cultures that practice polygyny, it is unacceptable for a woman to take multiple husbands with the expectation that these husbands will also act noble and dignified. The subsequent wives in polygyny are usually younger to best ensure fertility. In many polygamous communities, this leads to teenage boys being cast out of their homes in fear that they will compete with older, more powerful men for brides. Polygamy (or more accurately, polygyny) was recently covered on Insight, and rather than delve further into some of the opinions on it, I will let people judge for themselves if they wish to view it. I will say that my huge extended family is no doubt partly as a result of historical polygamy, and whilst I would not trade that family for the world, I also have no wish to adhere to that tradition. I don't expect people to just be cool with that statement, but considering all my issues with marriage, that's how I feel.

At this point, I feel a couple of western context questions need to be addressed. I do understand that (in most cases) in Australia, people enter into marriage of their own free will and therefore they question whether patriarchy still plays a part in those marriages. In my political spinster observance, I would have to say "yes". Take for example the tradition* that the wife takes the husband's name and the resultant children do too. The majority of women who enter into marriage in this country adhere to this custom and state it is their choice to do so. However, on observing female friends that did not take their husband's name, I have pretty much come to the conclusion that it is a very socially-enforced "choice". Of my friends who have kept their surnames, all have stated that they have had to correct people on several occasions when it has been assumed that they are Mrs. Such-and-such. This has happened in conversation, via mail, even at a Christening. Of those who did change their name, quite a few have said that it was simply easier, or that it was about forming a family, or so forth, but if that's the case then why is it not just as easy for family-orientated for men to do the same? 

I feel too that even in the most civil of ceremonies, the many religious markers remain (and religion has hardly been neutral territory for women over the years). Most women don't shirk the tradition of being "given away" by their fathers (or a close male relative should their father have passed away or not be in their lives) to their husbands. A lot of women still choose to spend fortunes on a white gown. The engagement ring, a symbol of commitment, is only usually given to the betrothed wife. Marriage and babies are socially-enforced for women from an incredibly young age via stories of princess brides to dolls that poo and wee on command. With all this in mind, I do have to wonder how truly egalitarian an event that is so heavily embedded in the patriarchy can ever be?

So back to the original point. It is my hope, despite all of this (and really, this is actually just a short version as anyone who has ever had this discussion with me knows), that marriage equality is won, and that this becomes a worldwide phenomenon with time. I hope that not only will same-sex couples have the choice to enter into marriage if they so desire, but that through same-sex marriage, some of the inherent gender and sex disparities of marriage and culture are challenged and dissolved leading to a more egalitarian situation for all. I hope that through marriage no longer being "between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others..." the idea that women are tradable commodities ceases to exist and more women are able to live their lives and freely chose their situation. And I hope that all those who enter into marriage have long and wonderful lives together! But I still will not be joining in and walking down the aisle myself. After all, I'm going to be trying to shake all the historical issues still ;) 

* I speak, of course, of the dominant local tradition. In many other cultures, this is not the case
** I also wish to note that it has been pointed out to me by those who know a hell of a lot better than I that freedom to marry whomever you chose, whilst being part of the 1967 referendum fight, was only a small part. I wish to note that here, but not tackle it in detail and rather leave it until later or until someone with more knowledge covers it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Purity Balls and magic rings...

This is the third blogpost that I have started in a week, but the difference is that I am 100% confident that this one will actually be published. Why? Because this one is about the utterly ridiculous idea of the "Purity Ball" and the other posts are more serious and researched. Frankly, I feel like a good, old-fashioned, off-the-cuff rant today.

I heard about Purity Balls quite a while ago, and honestly, the whole idea was so very absurd that part of me hoped it was simply a joke so it got shuffled on to the back of my rantisphere. Then this article came out today and I found myself confronted by this absurd and revoltingly sexist concept again. In a nutshell: a couple of church-affiliated blokes back in the 1990s got a little bit concerned about the increasing infection rate of STIs amongst younger people, so came up with an ingenious idea: they were going to have young women pledge their virginity until marriage and additionally get their Dads on board as guardians of their daughter's chastity. The logic with that was of course if you reaffirm a girl's father as the most important man in her life until she gets signed on over via contract to her husband, she's less likely to be engaging in naughty stuff... To make this concept even remotely attractive to the young women, these blokes decided to dress the entire thing up in formal wear, chuck on some Christian rock, and have some weird presentation ritual for the young women in amongst it all. Wikipedia (source of all reliable information) also mentions that at some of these balls, the young women carry in a giant cross, and take their pledge with their father kneeling next to them under a pair of crossed swords (nope, leaving that one alone...). Why didn't they have these events back in my day?

In addition, thanks to my addiction to old and new Degrassi, I found out about "Purity Rings"; a ring someone who has taken a pledge to maintain their virginity until marriage proudly wears. And in more evidence of my addiction issues with teen drama, I found out about Purity groups through Glee. Yep, there is an entire movement out there reinforcing the benefits of "virginity" by leaking them through our airwaves and into the minds of impressionable youth. I have been told that both boys and girls do take these pledges, but until a heap of Purity Balls for young men start where they are swearing their virginity to their mothers, I'm going to interpret this "chastity chic" movement as one that is mainly targeted at young women.

So what exactly is wrong with a young woman choosing to not have sex? Absolutely nothing, in my opinion, provided that the choice is an actual "choice" and isn't about regulating or controlling her body, or portraying her as impure if she does have sex, or as a potentially evil temptress of men, or an STI-spreader, or putting unfair and unequal responsibility on her compared to the men of the world, or reinforcing the institution of marriage as a "must", etc etc. And these pledges reinforce all these things in my opinion. There is nothing here except for vile sexism, pure and simple.

Let's take the concept of "virginity" to begin with. Anyone else find this whole idea rather problematic? On the surface it seems to state that one is considered a virgin until they have sex, but what exactly is sex? Can a girl lose her virginity if she engages in oral sex? What about if she tries anal sex? Solo sex? Does a woman who only ever sleeps with other women ever lose her virginity? What's more, when a virginity is "lost", what is actually lost? I think, in the main, and whilst occasionally it gets redefined to be more inclusive of same-sex experience, it is pretty socially-reinforced that a girl loses her virginity once her vagina (whoops, there's that word again!) is penetrated by a man's penis. So up until the point where you are penetrated you are "pure", then following that moment you are impure. Madonna/Whore here we come! When it's all sold like that, and becomes an action of a woman submitting purity to a man, it frames the action as dirty, frames any other experience that a woman may have engaged in as secondary, and basically promotes the penis as central to a woman's sexuality. Is virginity then really something that we should be pushing on to young women, or are there better lessons about sex and all it entails to teach?

Next in this entire concept of Purity Balls etc is the idea that a father is the guardian of his daughter's purity, until such a time as she marries in which case her husband is allowed to take that purity. So straight away, a young woman undertaking this ritual is taught that her virtue and her respectability, not to mention her worthiness in the eyes of God, is directly tied to the rule of man. She is also being taught that her virginity can be traded from one man to another. This whole idea just makes me ill. For starters, I love and trust my father but at no point in my entire life have I wanted him to know the details of my sex life. Nor has he been so controlling of my alleged bodily integrity that he would wish to know. Additionally, if I wasn't a sworn political spinster who is not fond of limiting labels, I would most certainly not want some bloke thinking he is the saviour of my virtue because he decided to drag me down the aisle in yet another bizarre ceremony. This whole idea reinforces that a woman, her bodily autonomy and her status is secondary to a man's and I question how it is even allowed in allegedly "civilised society".

So what of a young girl's body? Well firstly, it appears that many of these purity balls are held right around the age when a girl starts her period, and let's not even get me back on that rant again... Secondly, as stated, reinforcing female purity was seen, by two blokes, as a way of stopping the spread of STIs so it's reinforced that it's a girl's fault rather than a boy's if a case of the clap does the rounds. Thirdly, her constructed femininity is reinforced as a desirable state because she's clearly not rocking up to the purity ball in cargo jeans and a singlet top; she's only pure if she is in a white dress. So not only are these girls taught that their sexuality and their virtue is directly tied to the men in their lives, but their bodily sub-ordinance is reinforced in as many ways as possible. And people actually want their daughters to go through this?

This whole concept is frightening, quite revolting, and utterly reeks of the patriarchy. I stand by what I said earlier: there is nothing wrong with a woman choosing not to have sex. But this choice needs to be contingent on her deciding what sex actually is, which values are important to her, and her retaining autonomy over her own body. It certainly does not need to be dictated to her by a coterie of men, some holding swords over her head, as a way of controlling her and her body. The sooner these rituals, "celibacy chic" and anything else are eradicated and proper, woman-focussed and controlled education can begin, the better. Yet according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, purity balls are starting to pop up around Australia... 

EDIT: Couldn't resist adding this to the post

Monday, July 16, 2012

In defence of the radicals

I am writing this note in defence of the radical feminists. They do not need my defence as they are more than capable as strong, committed, usually well-educated women, of defending themselves. But I feel compelled to write not only after a number of snide comments I have read about RadFems and their views, but also after reading an article on how a male academic at James Cook Uni resigned in protest because a radical feminist colleague of his was not disciplined following a confronting blogpost she'd written for RadFem Hub. I am also writing this to reinforce a position I stated in my very first post about where my own understandings and interpretations come from when it comes to both feminist and Indigenous politics. I daresay this will be quite the rant! It will simplify some things for the sake of keeping it rant-length, but I do plan on writing some more on specific points at a later date.

Over the years I have read a lot of feminist opinion, but mostly, it seems to be those that continually unpack social structures and examine where these oppress that have appealed to me the most. In the main these have been the Radical Feminist and the Marxist and Socialist Feminists writings. My reason for this is straightforward: I find synergies between these arguments and the arguments I find most useful when it comes to Indigenous politics. I also think, although I may be showing my own bias here, but we tend to appreciate our radicals more in the Indigenous movement because we see them continually challenging the status quo, decolonising dominant opinions, and getting others to think. Additionally, although I have read a heap and will continue to do so, a lot of my understanding comes from a practical basis: as an Arrernte woman living in hipster Melbourne I have experienced enough to know that slipping into existing power structures may change the circumstances of the individual in a couple of ways, but overall tends to change little with regards to broader society.

Take black experience in the workplace as an example. For at least 20-30 years now there have been equal opportunity policies and employment programmes in existence to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the workforce and in a number of different capacities. These in part have led to what has sometimes been referred to as a "black middle class"; a bunch of Indigenous people have moved out of poverty and are earning enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. Yet despite this, it seems that dealing with direct and structural racism is still an ongoing issue. Also, colleagues having disrespect for your work and specific knowledge continues no matter how high up the chain you are. A survey conducted last year of Indigenous union members working in Higher Education shows that a majority of Indigenous staff were still experiencing racism in the workforce, were fighting hard to get academic respect for Indigenous knowledges they brought to the academy, and were continually thought to have gotten their qualifications on a concessional basis rather than having worked damn hard for them. Indeed some expressed that they had worked twice as hard to get half as far due to lack of recognition of their knowledges and community links. They also felt they continually hit barriers when it came to academic respect and promotion. Additionally, for nearly a century in this country, many Indigenous workers were free or cheap labour (hence why there are "stolen wages" cases being mounted) and so accumulation of wealth for a lot of non-Indigenous families was done off the back of unpaid Indigenous labour, and the accumulation of any independent wealth in Indigenous families is only a recent thing. Sound familiar?

After years of having their work undervalued with pay rates significantly lower than similarly qualified people in other industries, only in May last year did community sector workers win the right to be paid fairly. Why? Because the Australian Services Union was able to prove in FairWork Australia that the work of community service workers had been continually undervalued because it is a female-dominated industry. Despite the years of study and experience that it takes to be, say, a social worker, the rates of pay are significantly lower than they are for someone of similar levels of qualification and experience in a male-dominated industry. Therefore again, we're talking about working twice as hard to get half as far, and an undervaluing of skills and experience because they don't adhere to some dominant understanding of what is valuable. Additionally, domestic labour is argued to be the unpaid labour that women were expected to partake in order to allow men to participate in the workforce, and therefore society has been reliant on it in order to develop. Due to this, women have only recently really been able to accumulate their own independent wealth. Women for years have also had policies and employment programmes in place in many areas to assist them in gaining entry into the workforce, but women still complain about having a hard time climbing corporate ladders, hitting their heads on "glass ceilings" and difficulties achieving work/life balance because women still do the majority of the child-rearing and housekeeping. Whilst it's not as straightforward as a "swap women for black" scenario, the similarities are striking.

The radical argument for both is that workplaces are set up in the image of the majority life experience for white, male workers and so through the various structures that exist in a workplace, this experience is continually preferenced therefore actively prohibiting others from participating fully. Therefore these structures need to be examined and changed so that they are inclusive. As the evidence piled up for me, both through my own experiences in the workplace, and through observing those around me, I came to agree more and more that this was the case and that things weren't as simple and straightforward as someone being able to achieve because they had the opportunity, the drive and the ability to do so.

One of the most appealing things about radical opinion to me is that it is focussed on collective rights.The source of the oppression is the patriarchy and therefore arguments are framed accordingly with "men" being called out. This is done because the movement is committed to the breaking down of the patriarchal systems that oppress women, and building a more egalitarian society, as opposed to merely assimilating within something that is inherently corrupt. I was reading this piece by Julie Bindel the other night and I found it really useful because in it she highlights the many arguments that current mainstream feminists use against the radicals. It's striking to me that when I read those arguments, I could remove "women", insert "black", then remove "men" and insert "white" and directly reflect what a lot of our older Indigenous activists have to say about the direction of black movements nowadays. This is why the push for Sovereignty (reinvigorated through the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy), rather than Native Title, is so important; Sovereignty is not about mob being recognised within existing Australian laws, it's about questioning the right that Australia has to enforce these laws on a Sovereign people who have never ceded that sovereignty, and then building a more egalitarian society. 

Moreover, when my article was published by Daily Life recently, I scanned the comments. It wasn't the predictable couple of comments from people questioning my right to claim sexism and racism in the article or the "we're all Australian" comments that got my goat. No, it was the one or two comments from (allegedly) Indigenous apologists who not only undermined what I had to say, but managed to validate both sexism and racism by essentially stating that both "didn't bother them (to be called "the prettiest Aboriginal I have ever seen"), indeed I saw it as a compliment". Seriously? So it's okay, as a woman, to be reduced down to your looks? So it's okay, as an Aboriginal person, to hear someone make a disparaging comment about everyone else of your racial group? I'm sorry, but apologists bug me. What's so wrong with calling someone out a bad action? Are people's feelings of self-worth so diminished that they actually would see something like this as a compliment? I'm about building esteem through worthwhile means rather than reinforcing a false economy.

But enough about me! The crux of what I am saying is this: the radicals want to change stuff on a big scale. They believe that society, that structures, that laws etc have been built by those who have the power, to reinforce that power, and these need to be challenged and restructured so that society becomes a lot more fairer. This leads to a lot of dualistic terms: men and women; black and white, as way of explanation when discussing the issues. The issue others express with radical thought seems to often come down to this dualism, and how individuals believe that they don't fit within these terms. But this, to me, is where those arguments lose the plot because these terms are not geared around individuals, they are geared around social power struggles. And there are plenty of individuals who recognise these power structures and act against them despite being named as the dominant group. I have seen a lot of white people devote their lives to Indigenous politics, working in collaboration to achieve change. I have a lot of amazing male friends who refuse to buy into social dominance and do everything they can to assist with change. Hell, Julie Bindel mentions that men can make a commitment to not rape or not perpetuate violence, and I know that a group of proud men marched through the streets of Alice Springs a couple of years ago promoting anti-violence. I also personally know a heap of men that have signed the White Ribbon pledge and assist in visibly stating to their brothers that violence against women is wrong by wearing their ribbons. If you're a member of a dominant group, you are not being picked on by radical feminists or by the Indigenous left. You are being handed an opportunity to challenge yourself, assist equality through your actions, and build something better through the messages that you relay on to other members of the dominant group.

The third wave of feminism reckoned itself to be in response to the essentialism that the second wave was prone to. It argued that the dualism was erasive of the varied experiences of different cultural groups, sexualities etc, and also negated people's individual agency. I think this has opened up a space for feminist politics to be discussed in many different ways that did not necessarily exist before. But I also think that this has led to unnecessarily disparaging remarks with regards to the radicals that throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak). I think it is also no coincidence that the women whose views created in the push for greater cultural recognition within the third wave, such as Audre Lorde, were proud radical feminists who saw racism also as a tool of the patriarchy and who felt feminism could be used to fight both provided feminists addressed their own racism. The radicals may say stuff that is unpalatable to some in a post-structural, third wave, queer theory, rauch culture world, but it does not mean that they offer nothing to the debate. In fact, in a country where the government can so completely violate human rights by introducing the most paternalistic of policies on a specific cultural group so that their income, their activities and their education is completely controlled, I think the voices of the radicals are needed in the mix more than ever before.

Oh, and I also think it is rather lame that someone would resign because a workplace did not discipline a feminist colleague who wrote an opinion piece in an independent forum. If that's the opposition, then we have nothing to fear!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The horror of the blob

I read this article today, and it really rang true to me. It also brought back a memory. I was late to viewing the film "Carrie", in fact I think I only saw it about 5 or 6 years ago, although naturally I was incredibly aware of all the pop-culture references that had since permeated society, so it was kind of like I had seen it anyway. I was watching it with my then partner, and that infamous shower scene* at the beginning of the scene led to a rather absurd conversation along the lines of:

Him: It must be horrible having to go through that
Me: Go through what? I've never gone through that...**

This then extended into about a 5 minute discussion on why I felt that the scene rather inaccurately depicted menstruation. I explained that sure, it could be a traumatic experience for those who experienced menarche without knowing what the hell was going on, but that level of panic, that amount of blood, and that amount of cruelty shown by others (don't get me wrong, teenage girls can be cruel, but really?) was all rather over the top (OTT). It just seemed rather inaccurate to me on a number of counts, but to this day I am actually not terribly convinced that said ex believed me when I was saying all this.

But then I found the entire scene rather OTT. On watching it again, it actually seems incredibly ridiculous. First you've got the soft-focus camera panning around the girl's change room where people are at various stages of undress and giggling like hyenas. Of course, the ones who are the most naked (note: they have pubic hair, unlike in Game of Thrones) are the ones frolicking the most and whipping others with their towels. Then the camera zooms over to Carrie, who, lithe little thing that she is, spends a good couple of seconds kneading her breasts, and holding her innocent little face up towards the stream of steamy water as she soaps up. The whole thing plays like some soft porn, schoolboy fantasy scene until HORROR STRIKES. Yep, the big bad period starts running all down Carrie's legs, all over her hand, and she starts screaming. Naturally, because periods turn girls evil or something, the formerly frolicky classmates decide they're going to hurl a heap of pads and tampons at Carrie whilst jeering, until the clearly deaf teacher steps in. Honestly, does it get any more cliché than "sexy time" being ruined by periods?

I am glad that I was well in my 20s before I saw that one, and that being a child of the 80s, I had received most of my insight into menarche from Judy Blume. Although Judy romanticised the event somewhat by having people bake cakes to celebrate it, or having girls excited that they were "becoming women", at least she portrayed it as a rather normal event that shouldn't be feared, and most definitely should not end up with mass murder. I really feel for those young girls who saw "Carrie" before reading Judy. What must they have thought?

In the article, Dr Rosewarne states "The regularity, normalcy and uneventfulness of real life menstruation is rarely portrayed on screen. Instead, it's treated as traumatic, embarrassing, distressing, offensive, comedic or thoroughly catastrophic". I reckon she's on to something, and in my opinion these views have a fair bit to do with who's directing the show (still mainly men), and who the intended audience is. There are many things that our bodies do regularly (sleep, eat, hell even go to the loo) that are regularly portrayed on the television. Although at times, these events may be shown as comedic/embarrassing/traumatic etc, by no means are they portrayed in these ways a majority of the time. Because menstruation is a women-specific function, and because it seems to be understood socially as an affliction, rather than a mere function, it continues to be portrayed in ways that have little to do with the reality.

If you watch TV and if you took the examples as given, you would swear that every time a woman gets near the time of the month, she becomes an absolute raving lunatic who makes life unbearable for everyone around her. I remember an episode of "Roseanne", a show generally celebrated for being a feminist sitcom, where Dan was basically ducking and covering due to the onset of Roseanne's "PMS"*** on the same day as his birthday. Roseanne, of course, is being incredibly random and moody, and Dan is listening to his little inner man voice on what he should and shouldn't be saying and telling the kids to "save themselves". I am certain that there are women out there who do suffer mood swings and irritability (which could actually also be from the pill, not that you're told that) around their period. Hell, there are probably some women who pretend to have PMS so they can get a bit of peace. But despite the fact that it most certainly is not a universal experience, if you took your tips from TV, you would swear it is.

Menstruation continually seems to be portrayed in ways that reinforce the subordination of women. If it weakens a woman by making her insane, embarrassed, in agony and so forth, it "proves" her inability to be as physically and mentally stable as a man. Sure, periods can weaken a woman, and can be agonising, but again, this is not the continual experience for one woman between menarche and menopause, let alone all 3.5 billion or so of us. I think the only time I have seen such symptoms being used in a slightly positive light was in the original Buffy movie, where her cramps warned that vampires were in the vicinity, although considering it was a "warning" of impending doom, I do have to wonder...

And the ads! Let's not forget the ads! Disposable sanitary protection is allowed to be advertised, but usually only if clear or blue liquids are used to show the absorbency of the product. Because blood is wrong. It's unhygienic and irksome, and the fact that it's the exact same stuff that would have been amazing enough to nurture another life if pregnancy had occurred in that cycle is completely irrelevant. In my time I have heard some utterly ridiculous ideas revolving around menstrual blood, but if you ask me, that irksomeness was perpetuated initially to make women feel ashamed of their bodies. It was sold as a monthly reminder by some that women are on the planet to nurture life, and that if they are not nurturing life, then they are failing in their duty and their body is ridding itself of that which had been wasted. As preposterous as this sounds, it's the only reason I can think that something nurturing and life-giving has become to be understood as revolting...

Anyway, if there is one thing this rant is about, it's this: TV is a filthy liar and should not be trusted when it comes to representations of the female reproductive cycle. Through its utter ridiculing of a perfectly natural occurrence for women, it perpetuates myths of female instability, vulnerability and weakness. If you have a young daughter and wish her to have a more balanced idea of what she's in for when she hits menarche, push your TV off a cliff, and buy her a Judy Blume book.  

*Please note, this is a crappy, overdubbed version. But it was the only one that I could find that showed the entire scene due to copyright
** Please also note, I don't remember the conversation word-for-word because firstly, it was a long time ago, and secondly, I've probably repressed... 
*** I couldn't find part 1

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Infamy for a day - Endnote

When I wrote the preceding rant on Miss NAIDOC, I wasn't expecting my ideas to quite end up where they did. I wrote it because as well as being an issue I am passionate about, I was also inspired by a call-out from a wonderful woman who was promoting blogging on NAIDOC and so that opportunity gave me a bit of a kick.When I was contacted by Fairfax and asked if they could run it, I admit to nearly falling off my chair. When I was additionally contacted by ABC radio Darwin and asked for an interview on this issue, I nearly fell off the chair and off the ground as well. It's kind of amazing to me that something I wrote off-the-cuff whilst wearing my comfy clothes was picked up in this way, and I have to say, I am pretty thankful for the opportunity, as whilst what I wrote may have gotten some people thinking about intersectional issues for Indigenous women with regards to "beauty" and "identity", through all the responses I got I have been further inspired and become even more aware. That's a bit of a gift, really.

Some night have noticed that yesterday I changed my reply settings on this blog to "authorise" rather than continuing to allow open posting. Obviously, because of the increased traffic to this page due to my article I got trolled. Dealing with trolls is something I have a bit of experience with as I am not exactly a newbie when it comes to forum moderation. So rather than see inane abusive dribble written by those that have clearly drank away any IQ points they may have had all over my page, I decided to filter these comments first. 

As well as trolls though, I received a few comments that made me really think what the purpose of this page was again, and why I wanted to start it in the first place. If you wrote a comment and I have not published it, what I write next will be the reason why. 

This page is about claiming a space for alternative opinion. I created it, as I mentioned in my first post, because it was highlighted to me that Aboriginal women tend not to identify as feminists. As I know plenty of Aboriginal feminists, I saw this as an opportunity to claim a space for this type of discussion in the blogosphere, and perhaps get others to do the same. The internet provides an opportunity where we can do this, whereas in the past we would have just had to write letters in to the white-male-controlled media and hope we got published. Indeed, as the media is, in the main, controlled by white men, and as public opinion is therefore based still on the writings of white men, I am not even remotely interested in creating yet another space where white men control the opinion. 

I don't, for example, have any desire to haggle over what is allegedly "racist" and what is not. I, as many other people not of the dominant culture, have had a lifetime of experience encountering and dealing with racism, and have also done a lot of work with others who have experienced it. Similarly, I have also had a lifetime of experience when it comes to having racism defined to me by a bunch of people who have not experienced it in any real systematic way. These people disregard our experiences and our right to define when we have experienced racism when they do this, and really, should they have the right to do that here? Through my article, my blog post and my addressing of this notion in the comments, I had already defined how I had experienced racism in an encounter mentioned three times. Additionally, through the many responses to the article, and through a couple of responses on this page, insight had been provided not just from Aboriginal sources, but also from other non-dominant cultural groups, on how they had experienced similar sorts of encounters and had interpreted these encounters as such. If you're going to continue to haggle over these points and be dismissive despite having all of this insight right in front of you then your comments won't be published as you are not really that interested in learning from an alternate source of information. As I stated, I am not interested in creating yet another space where the opinion is controlled by the dominant group, and therefore request that those wishing to haggle these points despite what is written all around them seek other avenues (of which there are many, and indeed, I provided one by publishing my article in a mainstream national publication yesterday) for getting their opinions out there.

Similarly, I am not interested in having men define to women what they should, or shouldn't, experience as "sexism". Yes, women have diverse opinions on what they believe is sexist, and what they encounter and interpret as sexism. I flagged in my first post where I am coming from, but to reiterate: I have found a lot more synergy in the socialist and the radical feminist arguments, and understand sexism, like racism, to be a structural form of oppression. I never deny an individual's agency to make decisions, act on those decisions, and feel empowered by those decisions, but I do question the circumstances under which these individual decisions are made and whether there is an opportunity through the actions of an individual to lead to the greater empowerment of an entire group of people. So I am not interested in creating a space where women are told by men what is sexist and what is not. That's for us, as women, to haggle over bringing our many different perspectives on issues, and for men to absorb so that in a few years time (PFFT!) we won't have to be discussing issues of sexism any more as all will be solved... ;)

I would like to thank everyone (except for the trolls) who took the time to write something following the article and the blog post. That something I wrote generated discussion is incredibly mind-blowing to me, and I am incredibly thankful that so many wanted to engage with the points I raised. If I am honest, I kind of thought I would get more negative responses because I had the propensity to criticise an Indigenous-run event from an Indigenous perspective. This has not been the case, and whilst there might still be some negative feedback to come, people have, on the whole, been more interested in engaging with the points that I raised and discussing those from a number of perspectives. That's a bit of a gift, that is! Oh yeah, and three members of the mob have contacted me expressing their disgust that there are also Aboriginal Debutante Balls running, so who knows what the next post may be on... ;)

Thanks once again, and for those who missed the live publication of my previous rant, the link is here. Look forward to continuing to engage!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Miss NAIDOC" - an annual rant

EDIT: This post was republished on Fairfax's Daily Life and can be viewed here

When I was at Uni for the first time, I remember some bloke telling me on a pub crawl "You're the best-looking Aboriginal woman I've ever met". I'm not too sure, even to this day, whether he thought this unfortunate line might lead to some groping in a booth later on, but I do know what I thought of it. Back then my self-esteem with regards to my outwards appearance still seemed to fling back to year 8 when I was told by some wonderful classmates that I had been voted the ugliest girl in the class, so I did see the absurd compliment part that was intended by this bloke. Trouble was, I also saw the insult. Clearly, he thought Aboriginal women were generally unattractive; a ridiculous and completely offensive assertion. Additionally, as he thought black women sucked, my alleged attractiveness could only be judged in contrast to that, rather than on its own merits. Even back then I never paid much heed to looks so I also admit to being caught off-guard by a comment about them (hence I didn't formulate a good rebut for about a week). Yet by that simple comment he had objectified me AND subjected me to racism, and still today I think about it and wonder what in the hell he was thinking. Needless to say, if he did receive some pub booth love a bit later on, it was not from me.

The thing is, I am not the only Aboriginal woman who has been told this. There was actually a Facebook group called something like "But you're too pretty to be Aboriginal..." (seems to be defunct now) full of women detailing exactly these types of encounters. As women, our looks are already up for grabs with people, from the time we're born, thinking that they have the right to comment on them. Chuck in the "Aboriginal factor", and this imposition becomes significantly heightened with comments also on our "fairness", our "exoticness" or our attractiveness in comparison with other Aboriginal women. There also seems to be some shame attached to "looking Aboriginal" suggested with this imposition. I know that I have been told that I look Mediterranean/Maori/Native American/Spanish/etc like so many other Aboriginal women, and the inference often seems to be "anything other than Aboriginal" is good. In fact, I think that despite me being a hairy-legged, hard-core feminist, I still seem to be rather sensitive when it comes to unwelcome comments on my appearance because I have had to deflect them from all these angles for so many years, and I am sure others can relate. So I am therefore not particularly surprised that some may want to celebrate Indigenous women's youth and beauty as a way of building self-esteem, and hammering these stupid stereotypes when it comes to our looks.

Which leads me to this Miss NAIDOC business. Years ago, my issue was as simple as the fact that they were using the title "Miss" when the male winner was "Mr." and I therefore found this inherently sexist. Why on Earth were we using what should be a redundant title when referring to young women and promoting something that refers to women's inherent "underclass" status? But it seems that Miss NAIDOC has grown as a competition over the years, morphing (or re-morphing) into a full-blown beauty pageant in some regions, and therefore my issues with it have also grown.

In this article referring to the event in the NSW North Coast, it notes that "The girls will be judged on their walk, the way they present themselves and their responses on their application form as to why they should be Miss/Little Miss NAIDOC". Over in Perth, where the competition was resurrected last year after a 15 year gap, it states "The process for all finalists involves a six week training course on everything from the art of the perfect poise to public speaking". Both these competitions are open to girls between 18-30 years old, and indeed this seems to be the case across the country. Additionally, whilst the competitions have an undeniable focus on community, particularly shown here with Rockhampton region entrants requiring endorsement from Indigenous community organisations, this community focus is linked with competitions such as "Miss Photogenic" and there is special attention drawn to how "absolutely stunning" these girls looked like on the night of the NAIDOC Ball. A fashion show, or at least a great big dolling up session for the NAIDOC Ball, seems to be a big part of the programme of Miss NAIDOC across the country.

I know I am a great big spoil-sport etc and so forth, but there are so many things about this don't sit well with me, particularly if we are trying to raise self-esteem in our young women. Firstly, why does it seem that we are raising this esteem on such "colonial" terms? Why are we reiterating the importance of "poise", deportment, and the ability to be photogenic to our young women when these very things not only refer to extremely superficial attributes of women, but they also have a definite basis in colonial class structures that should not be a desirable aspiration for our community? I understand the need to celebrate our youth particularly considering that they represent the majority of our community, but why would we reinforce the notion that attractiveness has an expiry date by setting the upper limit at 30? Is that really, as a community who celebrates its elders and consists of so many proud, strong and beautiful women beyond that age bracket, a notion we wish to adhere to? Aren't there other ways that we could celebrate our dynamic young women that don't revolve around how they walk and look in a frock? 

It also strikes me, however, that many mainstream beauty pageants in this country ceased to run 10-15 years ago (except in the adult industry). This was after years of feminist campaign about the objectification of women. As I mentioned before, I feel that Aboriginal women are already objectified more than the mainstream: for their looks as members of "class women", and for their race. For this reason I have to ask if the reinvigoration of pageants for our young women, in light of the fact that mainstream pageants no longer have a place, is ever going to be a good thing? It seems we are aware of how our women are objectified and are instead reinforcing that objectification through Indigenous pageants rather than giving young people the tools to fight it. As a member of the Indigenous left, it also strikes me that on one hand we resist assimilation when it comes to culture, but on the other hand we are supposed to celebrate it when it comes to colonist notions of "womanhood" and "beauty". I just don't think this makes a whole lot of sense.

I am proud of these young women. I am proud that they are self-determined young black women who are standing up to represent their community. I am proud that they are already engaged in their communities and that they aspire to make change. I understand that they may enter this competition with open eyes and may walk away from the experience completely empowered. I just wish that there were better ways in which these amazing young women could be celebrated in the context of our national week. Perhaps a young Indigenous women's forum during NAIDOC where they can discuss the issues affecting them as a group and walk away empowered by leadership workshops and sisterhood bonds? I don't pretend to have the answer here, but I don't really think that the answer lies in "Miss NAIDOC".