Ginette Ball reports from Sunday’s All About Women event.
“We in the West have a lot to celebrate but there is still so much work to be done.” These poignant words encapsulated Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s message in her talk last Sunday, April 7, at the Sydney Opera House’s feminist event, All About Women.
She began her speech by reminding the audience how far women have come over the last millennium. She named a few successes we have secured in the West, such as the right for all girls to have an education, all women to choose their own career path, and for women to be able to hold power in parliament, but, she said with melancholy conviction, there is still more to be done.
Women around the world do not enjoy these rights. Women are still being beaten by their husbands and girls are still suffering the agonising, and sometimes fatal effects of female mutilation and being forced into marriage, all of which are condoned and supported by their communities and their religious laws. Ali also wanted to convey the reality that these issues are not just confined to the East, they exist too in the West. She beseeched us to not be bystanders and to ensure we question individuals when signs indicate that injustice is being enacted. For example, she says, to question when “fifteen year old Fatima does return to school”. She argued that not only should we make sure that individuals are made accountable for their actions by being questioned, we also have a duty to challenge our leaders and to call for in depth investigations to stamp out the abuse. She reasoned that instead of rejoicing in our Prime Minister’s political repartee, we should be demanding that politicians work together in weeding out and sentencing real misogynists in this country.
Sarah Macdonald, who chaired the lecture, spoke up on this point, arguing that our government is doing a lot in the fight against the abuse of girls and women in this country. She stated that Australia has a good record of charging and sentencing men for perpetrating female mutilation and we have institutions in place to follow up and inquire when a young girl suddenly disappears from school.
Ali’s response was that there was still more to be done. This seemed to be confirmed at question time when a woman who had fled Iran after her mother was killed, spoke of the pain she experienced every day due to the fact that this democratic nation was not doing enough. She argued for trade sanctions and for the embassy to be closed in Canberra. Ali shrugged and concurred that this is what she had been talking about, except she did not agree with the closure of the embassy as she felt that it was important to keep the lines of communication open so that a dialogue, however frustrating, could continue.
Multiculturalism was the next topic to feature in her speech. This part of the speech was quite confronting and controversial. Ali maintained that multiculturalism worked against feminism. It enabled injustices against women to occur under the guise that they couldn’t be touched due to their cultural ties. She felt that these injustices should be attacked, not defended – that they were still active attempts at suppressing women. This notion resonated with me, but also challenged everything I had learnt at university in Women’s Studies in the early 90’s, about not imposing my white, Western views upon women in the East. They are women too and they have their own voice. One woman asked her the question which eruditely summed up my thoughts, ‘How can one point out a cultural injustice without being seen to be racist?” Ali’s response was to nod and acknowledge the quandary, without really giving an answer.
Macdonald challenged Ali’s view, asserting that in the past, women had intervened and been told that they would fight their own battles and that they didn’t need to be saved, that they would deal with their issues their way. Ali responded by pointing out that the second-wave feminists would have intervened so why should we turn a blind eye now. I believe that her message was that feminists need to continue to fight for the freedom of women, regardless of their race, religion or culture. Her grandmother and mother were in support of her being mutilated. Her voice was silenced. Ali is now free, but she continues to speak out because she feels as though many are still not free and she must continue to fight for those who may not be able to fight for themselves.
Ginette Ball is a high school teacher, mother of two and Field Reporter for WonderWomen.
Ginette can be contacted at: ginnytauber[at]yahoo[dot]com[dot]au