- Sophie Cunningham, ‘A Long. Long Way to Go—Why We Still Need Feminism’, address given at the Melbourne Writers Festival, 29 August 2011.
- Cited by Kiran Grewal in ‘The “Young Muslim Man” in Australian public discourse’, Transforming Cultures eJournal, vol. 2, no. 1 (2007).
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent Somali-Dutch critic of Islam, features in Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. She was elected to the Netherland’s House of Representatives in 2003 and is now a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, committed to improving ‘American freedom and democratic capitalism—limited government, private enterprise, individual liberty and responsibility.’ If her speaking appearance in Perth is anything to go by, Hirsi Ali has a large following. The crowd was overflowing at the rear of the private-school hall where Canon Frank Sheehan defended religion and Hirsi Ali criticised it. She was beautiful, poised, articulate—and immensely popular with the audience. Hirsi Ali proudly confesses she is ‘bedazzled by the Enlightenment’ and believes passionately in ‘reason’. She upbraids her audience for our excessive tolerance as we sleepwalk into social discord by giving comfort to Muslims. Muslims oppose homosexuality; they support the enslavement of black people, the domination of women by men, the imposition of sharia and jihad. Muslims owe their first allegiance to their faith, not their country of residence. Only when Islam has its Reformation, its separation of mosque and state, will it cease to be a danger to democracy and liberty.
I find the crowd’s enthusiastic applause for Hirsi Ali and her message unsettling. Yet I am rendered stutteringly inadequate when I attempt to communicate my discomfort to friends. My anxiety is that Islamophobia and racism give as much energy to the audience’s applause as does its commitment to gender equity. When I share my qualms with a dear friend, her horrified and hurt reply is, ‘But I’m not a racist.’ Of course she is not. I don’t disagree with much of what Hirsi Ali says, but I think her audience does not make the separation between Muslims and Islam, or between extremist practices and moderate believers. The media give little attention, for example, to Muslim feminists who wear headscarves. As a result most Australians think it is impossible to be a feminist in a headscarf. President Bush justified the invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds of ‘gender equality’. Yet only a minuscule percentage of US and Australian aid is directed towards organisations that protect women from violence or seek to arm them with literacy and vocational skills.
In her second memoir, Nomad, Hirsi Ali argues that ‘All human beings are equal, but all cultures and religions are not … It is part of Muslim culture to oppress women and part of all tribal cultures to institutionalize patronage, nepotism, and corruption. The culture of the Western Enlightenment is better.’ Therefore Muslims should not only give up stoning women or repudiating homosexuals but, if they insist on being religious, should become Christians. Like those who would outlaw the burqa in Australia, Hirsi Ali seems unaware of the contradiction her position poses for liberalism: that of being intolerant in the name of tolerance, a dilemma finely parsed by Charles Taylor in Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (1994). She judges all ‘tribal cultures’ by the values she ascribes to the Western Enlightenment: freedom of speech, equal rights and access to self-development. She does so without realising that this denies certain speech acts and ‘self-development’ to members of those so-called tribal cultures, including the right to practise Islam, which she sees as antithetical to the separation of church and state.
The enthusiastic championing of ‘Third World’ women’s rights by conservative commentators has led to the suggestion that ‘We are all feminists now (except the feminists)’, as Monica Dux and Zora Simic put it in The Great Feminist Denial (2008). To be troubled by Hirsi Ali’s position is to oppose gender equality. As a feminist, I should be delighted that ‘we are all feminists now’, but, like Dux and Simic, I am concerned that the focus of attention is to liberate Muslim women from their headscarves and their religion. I would like to see conservatives voice even half as much support for the gender equality of non-Muslim Australian women, who are also yet to achieve gender equality.
When part-time and casual work is taken into consideration, it is estimated that the average twenty-five year old man will earn $2.4 million over the next forty years, more than one and a half times the prospective earnings of the average woman. Although Australia has a female Prime Minister and Governor-General, men still dominate the houses of parliament, religious and judicial hierarchies and the trading floors that produced the global financial crisis. Feminists love to trot out these statistics—I almost wrote ‘tired old statistics’. They are old, and they are well-worn. Few are shocked into action by such data, which no longer buttresses our belief that something must and can be done. Why is that?
Some people offer the ‘pipeline theory’: it’s only a matter of time before women match men in the CEO and billionaire stakes. But it will be a long time coming, given there are only fifteen women among Australia’s 200 richest people. And there is evidence of retreat. Women’s average earnings compared with men’s are now at their lowest for twenty-five years.
Many people in our ‘post-feminist’, ‘individualist’ society claim that women are not found in equal numbers among CEOs and politicians because women don’t want those kinds of jobs. It’s a matter of personal desire, not structural barriers. Interestingly, this argument is not applied to male disadvantage. Boys are thought to lose out in schools because of prejudice either in the curriculum or on the part of teachers, not boys’ lack of interest in learning. Men lose out in divorce battles because of discriminatory legislation and judges, not because of men’s lack of participation in child-rearing. Males, it is claimed, experience lesser outcomes due to unequal treatment or structural inequality. By contrast, females experience lesser outcomes due to a failure of individual application, different interests (for example, child-rearing rather than CEO-ing) or ineradicable psychological or biological differences (strength, aggression, brain function). As a result, feminists are crying ‘victim’ where the men’s movement is not. Females are told to change their behaviour if they want to succeed, but male behaviour is not seen to be a contributing factor to ‘men’s disadvantage’.
Despite the fact that gender inequality persists in Australia and has even widened since governments ceased paying the issue much attention, it can also be claimed that gender matters less than it did sixty years ago. When women’s liberationists took to the streets in the late 1960s, many believed that if women were released from ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (i.e. won reproductive freedom, the acceptance of lesbianism and access to education and employment so marriage was a choice), they could determine their own futures. Today, in the wake of some of these victories, it can be argued that class and race divide people more than gender. Aboriginal women and men share similar limited access to health care, housing and paid work, even if Aboriginal women are more likely to suffer family violence, just as non-Aboriginal women are.
While women on average are paid less and harassed more, in other respects men are worse off than women. Men are more likely to commit suicide, to die from accidents at work, to be killed (although much more often by other men than by women). Men do not live as long (although women will be poorer, given female superannuation payouts are one-third of men’s). Reprising such data, men’s groups claim that fathers lose out in divorce settlement and custody disputes and that boys lose out in the feminised environment of schools.
So the average female still gets paid less and is less likely to achieve a position of power in our society than the average male. However, a scattering of women are now found in boardrooms and houses of parliament. A minority of men and a handful of women—for example those among Australia’s 200 richest—are better off than almost everybody else. Many things have improved for Australian women: in particular, rates of completion of secondary and tertiary education, equality before the law and the recognition that domestic violence and marital rape are no longer male prerogatives. Comprehending and accepting the stubborn persistence of gender inequality, despite living in a society that appears to support and applaud gender equality, is difficult.
Many of us understand gender as a contradictory mixture of difference and sameness. We often speak in a shorthand of dichotomous gender difference: ‘Oh men, they can only see what’s in front of their noses’; ‘Women have no sense of direction.’ Most of us enjoy reproducing gender difference. We take unconscious pleasure as we dress for our sex, choose occupations that are ‘traditional’ for our gender and imagine future lives that are deeply gender-differentiated.
However, while we cherish gender differences in our everyday interactions, our legal and political framework largely understands equity and fairness in terms of sameness. Most people untrained in the niceties of the distinctions between equity, equality and egalitarianism agree with this understanding. Little wonder that we find it hard to negotiate these complexities.
Where the legal definition of sexism focuses on unfair different treatment based on gender, many people now think of ‘sexism’ as commenting on gender difference in any way. Examples come from my Australian Research Council funded project involving 1000 young people and 200 of their parents. One parent criticised a ‘sexist’ teacher who reprimanded the ‘boys’ in her class compared with the ‘girls’. The parent argued that the teacher should have compared ‘some students who are behaving badly’ with others who are not. We have reached a situation in which even to comment on gender appears to be sexist. In an interview with Aviva and her daughter Andrea, Aviva ticks off the areas of women’s inequality—professions dominated by men, mothers taking time out for childcare and so on—as Andrea’s resistance to this bleak description is gradually worn down. Aviva concludes, ‘I don’t think it’s equal at all’, and Andrea replies, ‘You’re not meant to say that.’
‘You’re not meant to say’ things that draw attention to gender difference because this challenges the mantra of gender equality. This represses from conversation—and therefore analysis— structural inequalities expressing gender, race or income divergences. As Catherine MacKinnon notes, as well as our focus on sameness or difference, we must also address the relationship of subordination, power or inequality between the sexes. My respondents were similarly reluctant to identify classes in society, claiming that everyone was ‘equally’ important and should be treated ‘equally’, rather than some people being ‘better’ than others. Of course, I agree with this assertion of equal human worth. But my respondents reproduced the very evaluation they sought to avoid. Income inequality—which respondents could hardly fail to notice—was explained in individualist terms, generally as a product of effort. As a result ‘poor’ people ‘deserve’ their lot because they do not work as hard, by default making rich people ‘better’. There is no real space for income inequality based on unequal access to private schooling, parental wealth, family connections and so on—except by making all these things a product of individual struggle.
The refusal to notice gender is a public and a private obsession—the upshot being tolerance of intolerance. Refusal to think about gender has resulted in a series of howlers committed by the Federal Government: only one woman brilliant enough to be among the brains on the steering committee who produced then prime minister Rudd’s 2020 vision (Cate Blanchett); a response to the global financial crisis that did not address areas of women’s employment (for example, in childcare and teaching) in its focus on blue collar building trades; an initial refusal to support the Fair Work Australia pay case for community workers, mostly women, due to fears concerning the budget deficit; the failure of our first female Prime Minister to identify the portfolio of women’s affairs (and Indigenous health). The Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, also ‘forgot’ women. Prompted, both remedied the oversight.
Sophie Cunningham’s assessment is more bleak. She claims Australia has become ‘a culture in which women are bullied into invisibility’, a climate actively cultivated by Australia’s leaders, as well as against them.1 This includes the treatment of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, domesticated and lampooned in the ABC television series At Home with Julia and derided by Kevin Rudd, her former foreign affairs minister, as ‘a bogan’. There appears to be sexist bias in the relentless attacks on Christine Nixon, Australia’s first female chief commissioner, escalating to fever pitch over her conduct on Black Saturday in February 2009.
Toril Moi was surprised to discover so much ‘violent hostility’ towards Simone de Beauvoir, concluding, ‘I realised just how difficult it is for a woman to be taken seriously as an intellectual, even in the late twentieth century.’ This is still true, in Australia at least, in the twenty-first century. In March 2010, to celebrate forty years since the publication of The Female Eunuch, the Monthly’s then editor, Ben Naparstek, commissioned Louis Nowra to write the cover story. Described by Anwyn Crawford in Overland as ‘his despicable Monthly essay’, Nowra’s descriptions of Greer’s ‘uninspired’, ‘meaningless’, ‘dreary’, ‘repetitive’, ‘dull and graceless prose’ leave readers wondering why The Female Eunuch had such a huge impact on so many Australian women. There is nothing wrong with asking a bloke what he makes of Greer. But that particular bloke was at a loss to explain Greer’s sustained popularity/notoriety.
How can feminists intervene in this environment of hegemonic liberal intolerance? First, we must continue to advocate structural literacy, becoming aware of the patterned inequalities that produce men’s advantage, capitalists’ advantage and non-Indigenous people’s advantage. Gender still matters in Australia—for non-Muslim women as well as Muslim women. Being male or female still makes a difference in our society, even if former battle cries that related a social status (sex, class and ethnicity/race) to a political position (feminism, unionism and Indigenous rights) have lost their salience. ‘Sisterhood is powerful’, ‘In union is strength’ and even ‘White Australia has a black history’ have been displaced by slogans of condemnation: ‘feminists are man-hating whingers’, ‘Union thugs only feather their own nests’, ‘Aborigines should get over it’. When white, middle-class Australian women complain about our lot, we are told to stop whining and think of the downtrodden women of Afghanistan. Such was the parental refrain in the 1950s when I complained about my mushy grey vegetables: ‘Think of the starving millions in India; they would be grateful to have what you’ve got.’ Such is the conservative support for Hirsi Ali as the ‘real’ feminist, safely focusing on gender oppression elsewhere by contrast with liberated Western women.
Feminists have long argued that gender structures or gender relations must be changed, rather than just women or men considered in isolation. Thus men must be part of the gender conversation, part of a dialogue premised on respect for other opinions, for rational argument and for the data. This conversation would be signalled by establishing offices of gender relations to replace the present Offices of Women’s Policy. An office of gender relations focuses on the relations between women and men rather than seeking to improve women’s status as though there were no men in society. Men must be encouraged and allowed to take on more childcare if more women are to take on running our nation. If we are going to perform our individuality ahead of our gender, masculinity and femininity must cease to be opposites pinned invariably to bodies marked in irreconcilable gender difference.
An office of gender relations would tap into the widespread support for humanism I found among my respondents, their belief in our common humanity and the equal worth of individuals whatever our gender. At the same time, the office would identify those situations where we must notice gender disadvantage—whether male or female—because it is about subordination. The office would explore the complicated intersections of class, ethnicity and race with gender, so that more and appropriate resources can be focused on those men and women who are most disadvantaged. The office must be staffed by those with the education and expertise to sustain and support informed discussion of gender relations. This kind of conversation is becoming more possible. In April 2011 it was revealed that the Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Act is to be renamed the Workplace Gender Equality Act. The objectives of the Act will be recast to acknowledge pay equity and the caring responsibilities of women and men as central to gender equality.
Another intervention is what we might call ‘throwing with choice’. As feminist writer Emily Maguire puts it in Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity (2008), ‘our culture is individualistic’ and ‘Nobody wants to be seen as a whinger, blaming her problems on society or the government or “the system”.’ If choice and autonomy are the inevitable grounds of politics in the neoliberal framework, feminists need to explore how we can stitch an understanding of structural impediments into the discourse of choice. One approach is to point out that some choices are easier to make than others—self-defining as a feminist being one of the hard ones! Liberalism’s advocacy of procedural choice produces quite limited results if no consideration is given to structures, resources, the desires and needs of others framing and constraining that choice.
Within the hegemonic liberal discourse, we can name and reject ‘sexist stereotyping’ as we discover the innumerable ways in which society still demands gender difference and punishes those who fail to express it: difference not only from the opposite gender but also from our ‘individual’ ‘choices’. In eschewing stereotyping as the enemy of their free choice, women can reveal its role in imposing structural constraints, at least at the level of discourse. Why does the widespread reluctance to notice gender inequality not apply to women marked as culturally different from mainstream Australian women? Not only Hirsi Ali, but also Australian politicians such as Bronwyn Bishop want to liberate Australian Muslim women from their veils, arguing for this in the name of gender equality. But such a desire challenges another ground for claiming equality: religious expression, as well as individual choice. Individualism means that Muslim women should be able to choose the headscarf without inviting racist harassment, just as Anglo-Australian women should be allowed to choose the bikini without inviting sexual harassment.
As the headscarf example also suggests, we can expose the limits of our tolerance: the point at which we become intolerant. We can do this via ‘world travelling’, which makes our own familiar customs ‘barbaric’ in the light of practices we condemn elsewhere. Indian women are burned in kitchen fires because these are the mundane weapons to hand, just as hand guns are the everyday weapons in the United States. Breast implants for teenagers or labiaplasty to make the vulva conform with air-brushed pornographic images ‘healed to a single crease’ are accepted as expressions of choice. How different are these ultimately from female genital mutilation in Africa? Only one-quarter of our politicians are female (even if one of them is Prime Minister), but the majority of the Rwandan parliament is female.
When we compare the media treatment of Anglo-Australians with those marked as ‘other’, we find that conservative commentators appear uninterested in eliminating rape by professional footballers or domestic violence in Anglo-Australian homes, or the unequal distribution of housework, income and wealth, compared with their condemnation of violence committed against women by Lebanese Muslim men or Aboriginal men. In fact, Janet Albrechtsen contrasted what she called the ‘merely misogynistic’ alleged footballer gang rapes with the ‘racism’ of the Muslims who engaged in the Lebanese gang rapes. Alan Jones amazingly said ‘We don’t have Anglo-Saxon kids out there raping women in Western Sydney.’2 These commentators excused—expressed tolerance for—the ‘understandable’ ‘high spirits’ of ‘our’ Aussie footballers, yet they were intolerant of rapes committed by ‘them’ against ‘our’ women.
These ideas—structural literacy, throwing with choice and world-travelling—are concepts or approaches that I can communicate to most of my women’s studies class across a whole semester. They are difficult ideas to explain, even to people of goodwill and intelligence, in a conversation over dinner, or even in a single essay or lecture, as I have discovered in talking to groups about the work of the Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan. Because gender inequality in Australia is no longer prescribed in law, because male ownership and control of women’s bodies in Australia is no longer supported by custom, we find it so much easier to see gender discrimination elsewhere. Australian women are so much better off today and the disadvantages we face are much more subtle and complex than in the past. It is easier to follow Hirsi Ali’s gaze and focus our attention on the admittedly terrible suffering of many women elsewhere in the world. As a result we fail to see that liberal tolerance within a neoliberal framework of individual choice will only get us so far—this far.
The research on which this essay is based was supported by two grants from the Australian Research Council. Thanks to the young people and their parents who participated in my research. Thanks also to the following for feedback in the long gestation of this essay: Eleanor Ramsay, Rod Taylor, Sarah Leighton and Alison Mackinnon.
© Chilla Bulbeck