Friday, March 7, 2014

Aboriginal Feminism – So what does this entail?

This piece was originally commissioned, but it turned out to not be suitable as a more personal take was wanted. I've decided to post this here, and will release the other one once it has been published elsewhere.

For a very long time, Aboriginal women have been active in the feminist movement and Aboriginal feminists have been central in the Indigenous movement. We have a long and proud history of strong women who speak their minds and who remain staunch in the face of disparity. Yet as Aboriginal feminists, the struggles we face are unique. Not only are we negotiating the hotbed of race politics in this country and how that permeates throughout the women’s movement, but we face gender politics from both the mainstream Australian community also within the black community. It is for these reasons that I feel Aboriginal feminism is, at this point growing, and a new generation of activists are engaging and tackling issues effecting black women today.

Due to the process of colonisation, what effects white women generally effects black women, however due to the intersection of race, black women face unique battles as well. Back when the women's movement was fighting to access to safe and effective contraception and legal abortion in this country, Aboriginal women were additionally fighting for the right to keep their children in the face of the legislation that led to the Stolen Generations. White women were fighting for economic independence separate from men (eg: so they were not forced to be married to have security) and the right to equal pay while black women were also fighting to be paid for their labour in the first place.

Whilst the fights of mainstream feminism have never been completely contrary to the fights of black feminism in this country due to the processes of colonisation, they have, at times, not been inclusive enough to allow for the additional levels of oppression black women face. We occasionally get accused of being divisive when we do bring up incidences of intersecting oppression. Our real battles sometimes remain unrecognised whilst a focus on feminist matters that would be considered quite secondary to a lot of black women rages forth. Sometimes, matters we would consider not particularly important in the black feminist movement can be the ones we get questioned on the most. One such example I can think of are the constant questions we get about women playing the didgeridoo. It is considered culturally inappropriate for women to play this instrument which is commonly interpreted by mainstream feminism as sexist. However, black women don't tend interpret it this way, rather it is seen as “men's business” and therefore a respected part of culture. If black women indeed do consider this sexist, then when it comes to the grand scale of what black women are facing, such as having their agency removed by policies within the NT Intervention, or the much higher rates of intimate partner violence experienced, or achieving twice the number of academic accolades yet only getting a smidgen of the recognition; all whilst facing racism; whether or not we can play the didgeridoo does not even rate as an issue. If it were an issue, it would be an issue for black women to challenge. White women challenging this would not only come across as an act of imperialism, it would also severely diminish our right as black women to enact change within our own communities.

Similarly, within black movements, our women encounter the patriarchy. Black men, and women, are not immune to reinforcing the patriarchy due to the fact that we are both fighting for racial equality although sometimes this very argument gets played. Additionally, whilst we fight with our brothers against racism, some do accuse us of being divisive and not focussing on the “real issues” when we bring up issues of sexism experienced internally. This is because our men face oppression too and highlighting that oppression can exist at a number of levels can be seen as downplaying their experiences of oppression. I have been told that the patriarchy is not a matter of concern within black communities because it's considered a product of the colonisers, yet this is not actually the case. Black women are seen as strong-willed and able, yet from both black and white perspectives we are supposed to be nurturers and supporters at the same time. We commonly hear statements like “our women are the backbone of our communities” (in other words, the part that gives the community strength, structure and holds it all together in the background) regardless of whether we wish to be the backbone or not.

We additionally face the same issues as other women with regards to how we're valued within the broader society. Our physical features are considered extremely important yet we are subjected to oppressive western notions of beauty and are additionally judged on our skin tones. Despite our celebrated strength, we are also supposed to be submissive and hyper-feminine. Our achievements are often considered lesser on the basis of womanhood and additionally “concessional” on the basis of Indigeneity. Sometimes we are freer from these oppressive forces within the black communities due to the need, as a small population, to be more tolerant and band together in the fight against racism, but this is not always the case. In short, simple recognition of women's issues in the context of race politics can sometimes be a real battle.

In the process of decolonisation and the fight for overall equality, Aboriginal feminism is essential. Due to the intersecting forms of oppression, black women are often at the coalface of the battles and therefore can provide in-depth experience and solutions for the future. There is a lot to share and learn from Aboriginal feminism, and indeed, I feel that both the black movement and the women's movement are stronger for having some passionate and dedicated black women working with them and challenging the systems.


  1. "recognition of women's issues in the context of race politics can sometimes be a real battle" - that's the nitty gritty for sure, and thank you for this really interesting discussion, Celeste. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all joined forces against oppression and for human rights - white women like me, black women like you, and no gender divide either. Come the day!

  2. Another great and informative article and a great one to read on International Women's Day

  3. Great piece again, Celeste. One example from a couple of decades back I remember was young Aboriginal women on missions being frowned on for seeking contraceptives (a seemingly straightforward feminist issue), but at the same time in some instances being forced to undergo chemical or physical sterilisation against their wishes as teenagers because of "improper" behaviour. Strong feminists, regardless of race, saw the absurdity of this, but not many outside black communities really took the issue on at the time.

  4. My observations of the rise of behaviours from the latest cohort recruits of preferred so called black “leaders” emergent within the past fifteen years reinforce white patriarchy. In particular black men recruited to positions of prominent voices as the speakers of their assimilated truths espousing a ‘new’ discourse for welfare and economic reform shamelessly are silent on inclusion of black women's voices. Sadly it seems these recruits have lost themselves in the bigger picture. Just for once I would like to read, hear, and or view evidence of these men speaking a truth that locates black women on equal footing to find ways to change social conditions. I pick on these men because they are the one's wilfully in the frame at this point in time. But there are others who are not, yet have the same or similar behaviours.