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Let's Decolonise International Women’s Day

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

“We will prevail because we have proven to the world and to ourselves that we are not ‘fringe elements’ or ‘special interest groups’ or so-called ‘minorities’. Without us, there is no legitimate majority. We are the mainstream.” June Jordan

What do we mean when we say, "let's decolonise International Women's Day? In light of this upcoming day, our writers attended events such as We Are the Mainstream, Mehreen Faruqi's IWD breakfast and All About Women held at the Opera House. All incredibly diverse experiences. We attended these events to see what was the big deal about this day, and what was the discourse that came with it?

We are the Mainstream was an exclusive event that was created by women of colour, for women of colour, only opening the doors for black, indigenous womxn of colour. In Bankstown Arts Centre, we were surrounded by academics, researchers, directors, political activists, teachers, journalists, authors, stylists, artists and businesswomen. We all came together to listen and learn intently from panels of those carefully selected from among us, that invited us to engage in intellectual discussion around feminism by putting ourselves and our experiences at the forefront.

We didn’t realise how much we’d been craving an event like this until it was happening. We didn’t know the importance of safe spaces- we’d always thought of them as a place to escape prejudice and not as a necessary undertaking in ensuring the inclusion of voices like our own, to further our intellectual advancement and properly engage in the process of healing.

We all know intersectionality is the key, but how can we learn to practice it?

Audre Lorde, among the first intersectional feminists, wrote,

“There is no such thing as a single issue - struggle because we do not live single - issue lives.”

We have the power to keep our feminism intersectional and bring alternate perspectives to the table, other than the white, cis, heterosexual one. It is essential that our views are not put to the side, and our existence is validated as mainstream. Now is the time for radical inclusivity.

Our writer Lamisa reflects, “my experience as a woman is inseparable from my identity as a Muslim and as an Australian of South Asian descent.” These nuances in our identity inform one another and they cannot be separated when analysed. In many feminist rooms, the experience of being a woman is isolated from other identifying factors, which is why the issues that spring up from various life experiences are either not addressed or given the weight or level of analysis that they deserve."

This is why safe spaces that encourage proper exploration of these complexities are so necessary for our advancement and for our healing.

The importance of safe spaces in the feminist movement.

For years, women of colour have been sidelined to shallow inclusivity schemes that do not encompass the intersectional feminism we stand for. Even the terms used to categorise us are othering: “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse” for example, or even the term “women of colour” already positions whiteness as the default.

Our writer Palwasha shared her experience at We Are The Mainstream’s event;

“The main takeaway for me was the unexpected opening of new intellectual doors in an event that served as the ultimate safe space. I remember several times on the day, I was either asked a question or to tell of an experience and I answered knowing I had something valuable to say, where I would usually not contribute. I think this newfound bravery in sharing ideas came from being in a room where I knew that what I had to say would be given the same value as everyone else's thoughts, to a different degree than in a room including white people or men.”

An example of the higher-level discussion that a true safe space allows was given by a panelist who created the organisation that champions the voices of Aboriginal women, Tiddas 4 Tiddas. She shared with us why she took issue with identifying as a feminist, revealing that in most feminist rooms she instinctively knows that all women's fights are not equal and that those of "the norm" take centre stage. This does not mean she is not a feminist. You can't cede ground that took so long to get in the first place. "But here, in a safe space", she said, "I can discuss these higher level ideas." For her, the importance of safe spaces was that she could interrogate the feminist movement today without being labelled anti-feminist.

Why white liberal feminism doesn't work for us.

There is a certain whiteness that comes with International Women’s Day, as it seems to never stray too far from western liberal feminism. This kind of feminism is commonly seen as the norm, the feminism that demands equal rights between men and women but it fails to address the underlying structural issues to do with race, class, sexuality and religion that would indicate the necessity of a move toward equity rather than equality. For everyone to benefit equally in a world of equal opportunity, we must be on a level playing field.

Our writer Irisa reflected on seeing Diana Sayed break down the ‘model minority model’ and how it feels to, ‘work harder than any white person in any room to just feel like you’re good enough to be there.’:

“She refused to appease the audience, she spoke truthfully and at some points my gut reaction was ‘oh God’ - even though I completely agreed with her, it felt ‘too aggressive’ for this audience and then I felt guilty for even thinking that. This just shows how we ‘code - switch’, we change the way we speak, what we speak about and how we speak to appease usually a white voice because we see their voice as objective or the middle ground.”

Yesterday, at the IWD event, an audience member asked Pulitzer nominated journalist, Azadeh Moaveni: ‘What can western liberal feminists do to ‘lift’ women out of their oppression?” Her powerful response was that before we try to ‘lift’ women out of their ‘oppression’ we need to address our own intentions: Are you only supporting them when they align with your own values/worldview?

What this simple question brings to light is this essential difference- Do I want to help them because their struggle/needs are as important as mine? Or because I want them to pad my own advancement and the advancement of those who experience the world in the same way that I do?

Decolonising International Women’s Day.

Decolonising is important because it allows us to connect back to our own roots, as we try to unlearn ideals that colonialism has instilled in us.

Irisa shared her experience of hearing Celeste Liddle speak at Mehreen Farqui’s International Women’s Day breakfast:

“Celeste Liddle, an Aboriginal rights activist and journalist, explored how it’s particularly difficult for Aboriginal woman to navigate feminist spaces without first confronting the injustice that is (and continues) to exist as a result of our shared colonial history.”

This is important because it focuses on the experiences of the ‘colonised’ - the First Nations people, for example. The importance of First Nations knowledge as something that is substantial for the present and future, not just something that sits stagnant and dead in the past must not be underestimated. To learn to acknowledge their version of history, and allow real self-determination.

Engaging in these spaces is obviously a political act - but for us, it was also highly personal. The need to decolonise our experiences is necessary for all who do not fit the traditional mould.

Lamisa writes about her experiences at the ‘We Are The Mainstream’ event last weekend.

"Safe spaces provide opportunities to reclaim our experiences as our own. In an increasingly centralised world, we scramble to try and fit in: speaking English and acting Western, adopting that culture until our own voice dissipates into nothingness. For our parents, it has always been Destination: West, and that ideal probably will not change anytime soon. There are benefits to living in the west, but we also have to be mindful about who we are, and where we fit exactly within the so-called mainstream."

We can decolonise spaces that we are in, but the process begins with ourselves.

A final word.

Having an event exclusively for women of colour does not mean exclusion; rather it means the inclusion of our values and experiences and validates them in a space where we feel absolutely safe to share our ideas. It is truly nurturing, and important to know that we are not just scattered amongst the population. We stand high and proud, ready to fight for everyone’s rights, not just our own.

If you are a woman of colour, reach out to others for guidance and mentoring.

If you are not, learn to listen and make room.

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