All About Women 2015: who’s still excluded from the conversation?

All About Women 2015 was a day filled with engaging speakers, interesting ideas and feminist collegiality. The speakers presented on a range of issues – from personal stories about harnessing creativity, to political discussions about why time is a feminist issue.

Despite the breadth of topics being discussed, a common theme became apparent throughout the day. While women’s voices were echoing in every theatre, studio and corridor of the Opera House, many of the speakers wanted to talk about the multiplicity of ways women are still silenced in Australia.

How violence silences Australian women

A recurring narrative during the day’s discussions was the power that violence and harassment yield in silencing Australian women. Rosie Batty, the 2015 Australian of the Year whose experience of domestic violence has captured the hearts and minds of Australia, spoke about the challenges for victims in speaking up about violence. As a means of unpacking common victim-blaming comments like, “she should just tell someone” or “she should just leave,” Rosie asked the audience to reflect on a question: “What would happen if she left?” She then launched into a list of considerations for the audience, including:

  • Would her family and friends believe her? [probably not]
  • Would law enforcement be able to protect her? [In some cases, provided they believe her in the first place]
  • Would she have somewhere safe to live in the long-term? [no – women’s refuges are overcrowded and underfunded]
  • Would she be safer after leaving? [no – the six months after leaving a violent relationship are when women are most at risk]

Through posing and answering these questions, Rosie highlighted the power that domestic violence holds in keeping victims silent, and the complex challenges associated with speaking up.

Anita Sarkeesian, a Canadian American media critic and blogger who was at the centre of the Gamergate controversy, spoke about the power of online harassment in silencing women. She gave examples of the abusive messages and death threats she receives on a daily basis, and discussed how law enforcement fails to protect victims of online harassment. Anita then outlined the range of ways that she tries to monitor and police her language so as to avoid further harassment, including turning down invitations to speak in interviews, not speaking spontaneously in public, sitting in secluded areas of cafes and restaurants, and re-reading her tweets over and over to ensure that her words cannot be misconstrued or twisted against her. In addition to carefully monitoring what she does say, she also talked about what she can’t say: she can’t say “I’m angry” or “I’m exhausted,” because to speak publically about her emotions feels like she’s conceding defeat to the perpetrators of violence. Anita’s experience speaks to a larger challenge facing victims: that speaking up about violence sometimes feels like admitting defeat.

The third perspective on the power of violence in silencing women came from Alex Shehadie, the Director of the review secretariat for the Review into the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. Among a range of topics discussed on the ‘Women Warriors’ panel, Alex recounted stories of visiting defence bases and having a number of women come to speak to her privately about negative experiences they’d had. The experiences of these women ranged from exclusion to sexual harassment or assault, and the common narrative was that they felt they couldn’t speak up for fear that their career would be ruined. While Alex emphasised that these cases were certainly the minority, they serve as further examples of the ways in which Australian women are silenced by violence.

How racism silences Australian women

Randa Abdel-Fattah, a writer and lawyer of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage, described institutional racism in Australia and the impact it has on silencing Muslim women. Randa started her speech by saying that Australians are good at recognising obvious racism, like racist rants on public transport or the range of racist messages she receives on social media (“Go home, Satan. You are not welcome in this country,” or “Australia for the Australians. Your evil views are hate-filled. You’re an evil woman.”) However, she argued, Australians are not as cognisant of the (seemingly) more subtle, institutional racism that Muslim Australians are subjected to. Randa then told a story about an experience she had on Q&A, and discussed how the state can condone racism.

Randa featured on a Q&A panel in September 2014, where the discussion revolved significantly around the recent terror raids and terrorism law reform in Australia. During the program, she drew attention to the timing of the terrorist raids, given they took place a week ahead of the government’s security legislation being introduced into parliament: a view that had been expressed by many male, non-Muslim journalists prior to the program. The following week, she received an email newsletter from her local MP, who called her views “anti-Western and anti-Australian conspiracy theories” and when categorising her political affiliation, instead of listing her with the other panellists as “Coalition,” “Labor,” or “Greens,” listed her (and another female Muslim panellist) as “Muslim.” This experience, she argued, is an example of the institutional nature of islamophobia in Australia, and is indicative of the way the voices of Muslim women are excluded from the Australian political conversation.

How Australian women silence each other

One of the most interesting perspectives on the idea of Australian women being silenced came from Mia Freedman, the founder, publisher and editorial director of Freedman started her speech by describing an experience she had following an appearance on Q&A. Brooke Magnanti, a scientist, blogger, writer and former sex worker, was also on the panel, and spoke at length about her experience as a sex worker. In response to Magnanti’s comments, Mia interjected that “no girl grows up wanting to be a sex worker.” Following this comment, Mia was party to personal abuse, allegations that she was condoning violence against women and claims that she was homophobic. According to Mia, her dissenters were not interested in engaging in a meaningful discussion with her, or listening to the explanations she provided for her comments.

Mia then went on to make some observations about the ramifications of these attacks within Mamamia. She talked about how of the 85 young women she employs, almost none are willing to volunteer to write content about women’s issues or feminism. She said that these young writers were not afraid of being shouted down by men’s rights activists or misogynistic trolls on the internet, but by other feminists. They were scared of writing women’s articles and engaging in feminist discourse for fear that they would be personally attacked publically, as Mia was. Regardless of the appropriateness of Mia’s comment, the idea that some feminist journalists are silencing younger women from engaging in feminist discourse (whether intentionally or not), is a worrying one.

So, while All About Women was an endorsement of the power and importance of women’s voices, it also highlighted the challenges that lie ahead in empowering Australian women. By focussing on the barriers that continue to silence Australian women, the speakers called on the audience (and each other) to bring these women’s voices out of the silence and into the conversation.