On Saturday and Sunday the Melbourne Feminist Collective held the Feminist Futures Conference in Melbourne. And it was awesome.
I went with both my feminaust hat on and my Young UN Women Melbourne hat on, although I was primarily there to represent the latter. The conference had two panel discussions on the Saturday morning, and three sessions of workshops throughout Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning held two more panels.
Young UN Women Melbourne had signed up to run a workshop in the afternoon on Saturday, and somehow I had managed to nominate myself to be the person who facilitated it. I didn’t fully realise what I’d got myself into until the Friday before and proceded to shit myself (figuratively) for the next 24hours. Really, not the best way to prepare. Our workshop was titled “Feminism and Multiculturalism – who should surrender to whom?”, which was a pretty misleading-made-up-in-ten-minutes-3-months-ago title when really what we wanted to talk about was how feminism and multiculturalism have a lot to learn from each other.
Our guest speakers were Sherene Hassan (of the Islamic Council of Victoria), Dianne Jones (Aboriginal artist) and Dr. Odette Kelada (lecturer at University of Melbourne on Indigenous studies). And they were fabulous! Each woman had a unique and impressive story to tell and views to communicate, and I felt that I learnt a lot from each of them. I’ll discuss my learnings now, not in a ‘she said then she said then I said and she nodded and we were all wonderful’ kind of way, but discussing the themes and ideas that really stuck with me.
First of all, multiculturalism. Such a tricky, thorny subject. I’ll have to deal with the other themes in a different post, apologies dear readers. On one hand, multiculturalism is celebrated in Australia and particularly in Victoria. On the other hand, if all you knew about Australia were our newspaper headlines, then you’d think we all hated asylum seekers.
The main thing I took away from talking about multiculturalism with our panellists was that it’s currently in vogue in Australia, whereas 30 years ago it was unheard of. Also, in implementing multiculturalism we need to avoid ‘freezing’ cultures so that they don’t become a snapshot of, for example, Italy in the 1950s and are immovable, static, cultural bubbles. Sherene voiced the importance of supporting the dynamism and diversity of cultures, and that in the Islamic community it’s crucial to have the ability to contest patriarchal and oppressive interpretations of the Qu’ran if the culture and its community is to thrive and progress in Australia. This is especially important for fighting for gender equality.
However, when we – as Young UN Women Melbourne, talk about multiculturalism we talk about everyone else’s culture. And by that, as Dianne pointed out, the dominant white culture uses multiculturalism to talk about every one else’s culture as if their own is the immutable baseline. And that’s why often we feel uncomfortable, as white women, commenting on other people’s culture. It’s because we aren’t used to having that same level of scrutiny placed over our, mainstream, dominant culture. In fact it is our white privilege to not have to. Looking at the make up of the panel, it was obvious that in organising this workshop we’d done exactly that. We took the workshop as an opportunity to not talk about our culture, which is white and middle class, but to provide a space to explore the other culture’s experiences of multiculturalism. This was based on the unspoke assumption that our culture didn’t have any experience of multiculturalism because we didn’t need to adapt to anything. Rather, it was other cultures who had to fit our mould.
Dianne said that what we should be doing is examining our own white privilege, rather than reinforcing that the Islamic, indigenous, non-white cultures are still peripheral and need government policies. Which is ironic considering how women are problemtised and placed on the periphery, for example: government policies mandate quotas for women rather than caps for male representation. Where are the government policies for examining white privilege? Why isn’t white privilige problematised instead of Islamic cultures and indigenous disadvantage? (and I swear that problematised is a word).
And, more pertinently to this website, how does white, middle class feminism fail other, culturally diverse feminisms? Well, I would argue, from enjoying the same privilege of never needing to examine ourselves as sources of other women’s oppression. As Dianne said when commenting on multiculturalism, ‘there’s nothing wrong with us, it’s you guys that have the problem’.