Culture

Six Important Lessons From The Incredible Minds At All About Women 2018

"There is so much possibility to be had if change includes everyone.”

In the words of The Guilty Feminist, “it can be hard getting out of bed, especially when your duvet is the patriarchy.” However, leaving the sweet, sweet warmth of your sheets on a Sunday morning (particularly a post-Mardi Gras Sunday) is made all the more possible when you know that the patriarchy will feel a little less monolithic as a result of you getting up, donning a jumpsuit and making your way to the Sydney Opera House.

In its sixth year (and first to be curated by Edwina Throsby), All About Women festival widened its focus, highlighting the importance of intersectional feminism as it explored disability, transgender and First Nations politics. It should be noted, though, that often times these more local panels would clash with the international line-up, leaving me with a mean case of FOMO and zero time to hoover a delicious, gluten-soaked snack.

Throughout the day, discussions also covered the #MeToo movement, American politics, as well as how to record a podcast and make your own gin. Speakers included Oprah-famous author Barbara Kingsolver, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke (over Skype), human rights campaigner Wai Wai Nu, ‘Spinster’ author Kate Bolick, social activist Manal al-Sharif, official coin-er of the term ‘Third Wave Feminism’ Rebecca Walker, as well as humourist/quote machine Fran Lebowitz.

So in the spirit of hard truths laced in humour to let the feminist medicine go down, enjoy these truth nuggets gleaned from your pals at All About Women.


#1. Never Take Your Rights For Granted — Manal al-Sharif

Saudi social activist Manal al-Sharif shot to fame in 2011 when she posted a video of herself driving.

Though not technically illegal, it is a huge cultural taboo, often resulting in harassment, car confiscation and imprisonment. After al-Sharif’s video was posted to YouTube and Facebook, she was arrested (and eventually released on bail). The reason? ‘Driving while female’.

In her talk and subsequent chat with journalist Fauziah Ibrahim, al-Sharif spoke about the Women2Drive campaign and “how that taboo would be lifted”, how social media has and continues to assist activists, as well as the draconian nature of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.

“We must ask for nothing short of full equality for women,” she said. “Driving is only the first step to ending other unjust laws that treat Saudi women as minors and as not trustworthy to determine their own destiny.”

When asked about what Australian women can do for Saudi women, al-Sharif gave the most quietly devastating mic drop, “Simple. If the question is posed out of a feeling of ‘Oh my God, these poor oppressed women’, then my answer is — ‘Thank you, nothing. You’ve got a way to go yourself.’

“But if the question comes out of a genuine interest in our struggle as your sisters in this world, then you can help by never taking your rights for granted. Practice them. Use your voice for the voiceless, the helpless, the most vulnerable women in your society. There are hundreds of them around you. You don’t need to look for women overseas to help.”

#2. No One Should Be Treated Like ‘Exhibit A’ — Katharine Annear

During the Disability and Intersectionality panel, disability advocates Samantha Connor, Katharine Annear and Kath Duncan — chaired by social commentator Van Badham — covered everything from making zines and using social media to “be more powerful than we have been before” to hierarchies and historical inequalities within both feminism and ‘Club Crip’.

Academic Katharine Annear, in particular, had me fiercely scribbling into my notepad with choice insights about the National Disability Insurance Scheme (“It’s all very well to get a brand-new wheelchair, but you need somewhere to go, a community”) and being repeatedly asked to cannibalise her own experience (“Don’t ask me to tell my personal story. I’m not an autistic lecturer. I’m a lecturer who studies disability. I’m not here to be Exhibit A.”)

“It’s the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Samantha Connor later added, “We’re not expected to be at the pub or have a job or be in a relationship. The community isn’t a tourist destination [for us]. We are in it.”

#3. Shame Is A Terrible Motivator — Jordan Raskopoulos

While the Concert Hall lay stage to a panel on Trump, the Studio provided an intimate setting to discuss transgender and genderqueer experience, thanks to the Trans Like Me panel with UK musician CN Lester, ABC broadcaster Eddie Ayres and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos.

Each speaker had six to eight minutes to speak before a more general discussion. While Lester debunked the idea that the transgender experience is “a bit of a trendy fashion” with historical precedent, Ayres described his own journey and why he had put off transitioning for so long — “I chose love over self-love… [Coming out as trans is] like a truth elixir for relationships.”

Meanwhile, Raskopoulos discussed feminism’s transphobic blind spots and how “all children suffer under patriarchy”, including young males or socialised males who, in a neat paraphrasing of Mister Rogers, learn that “their feelings are not mentionable and therefore they learn that they’re not manageable.”

But the real ding-ding-ding moment of this panel for me was when she discussed using privilege to inspire action rather than wallow in guilt.

“We so often use shame as a motivator and I think it’s a terrible way to motivate people. When speaking about privilege, we often attach the concept of privilege to a feeling of guilt and shame. I really want to press that if you have a privilege you should feel responsible about that. It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s about realising what you have that other people don’t and deciding whether that’s fair or not.

“And if you decide that it’s not fair, then be responsible for making sure that other people have that or be responsible for dismantling the structures that are in place to give you that advantage.”

#4. The Patriarchy Isn’t Even Serving Men — Rebecca Walker

Activist and author Rebecca Walker began her talk about Beauty as Resistance by describing her first impression of beauty — a lyrical retelling of being given lemon and honey tea in an earthenware mug by her mother when she was a sick child. What flowed from this was a re-evaluation of what we value as beautiful and how we can change the channel on beauty standards.

“The war against women and the war against true, life-sustaining beauty are inextricably connected… What better way to weaken and demoralise, what better way to oppress and depress.”

This sentiment underlined why my favourite moment was when Walker went off-script to ask how many of us in the audience felt beautiful. A rather bleak smattering of hands was raised from the front rows to the seats in the gallery — “Oh, come on now. You’re breaking my heart.”

When questioned, an attractive blonde woman offered that maybe it’s “because we focus on the negatives”, that it’s easy to concentrate on the things that aren’t attractive, “like cellulite or wrinkles or freckles.”

Walker then returned to her script before interrupting herself again to talk to the attractive blonde — “I have to go back to you because it’s very striking to me… Your female type — the blonde and thin — you would be considered in so many different environments the ideal standard of beauty and yet you feel not beautiful.

“This is the schism, that this system of qualifying beauty is so arbitrary and so debilitating that even the people it is meant to serve are not served by it. That is some toxic shit! And even white men aren’t happy, right? You’ve got men and boys who are forced to become men in such a constricted, almost sadistic way, where they can’t express emotion, where they can’t express creativity, they’re expected to become soldiers, to become workaholics, to be supporters.

“All these things that diminish and narrow the spectrum of their humanity. You really begin to see that if this is patriarchy and it’s not even serving men, then what is going on?”

*cue 100 minds being blown simultaneously*

#5. “We Can Use Our Solidarity To Make Something New” — Nakkiah Lui

If the festival eventually releases the Suffragettes to Social Media panel on YouTube, you must watch it on the immediate. It’ll make you feel all of things and be thankful for the women who came before us and those leading us into the future and no I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING.

Barbara Caine, Anne Summers, Rebecca Walker and Nakkiah Lui each represented a different wave of feminism, from first to fourth. And while each speaker was incredibly eloquent and managed to highlight the rights we’ve gained and lost, the triumphs and failings of each movement, the night really belonged to the creative powerhouse that is Nakkiah Lui.

“This may shock you, but I’m not a rich, white, cis, hetero man,” she said. “And I don’t want to be. And I don’t want to have what they have. I don’t want to be a part of what they created. I want to be part of creating a world that dismantles the values that this patriarchy has defined.”

“We can only dismantle archaic systems and power structures through changing conversations… When we talk about women, we need to question what women we are referring to. We aren’t referring to all women. We’re referring to white women because that’s the closest to the status quo.”

“Our feminism isn’t limited to the rights of women — the same supremacy that devalues women is the same supremacy that devalues so many lives around this world. Just from my perspective as an Aboriginal woman — yes, we have many more female politicians in power, but my grandmother was forced into Aboriginal housing in Western Sydney where she eventually fell through a floor and died because the Housing Commission wouldn’t fix it. And that was less than 10 years ago.

“Look, the reason I say this is not to make you feel bad. The reason I say this is because we can use our solidarity to create something new… We have multitudes of histories, but with that comes the potential for solidarity because our differences can be our similarities.”

#6. Give Less Fucks — Fran Lebowitz

I’m going to put it out there — this event felt like it belonged to a completely different festival. Especially after going the Suffragettes and Social Media panel.

First up, it was chaired by a dude (which is neither here nor there, but when you’ve gone to six events back-to-back that are led by women it does kind of clang). Then a lot of their chat seemed to centre around things like David Letterman’s beard, how there are too many dogs in New York and why she doesn’t use a mobile.

On any other day, I think I would have been completely charmed by her contrarian bluntness and worship of the golden god that is Humour, but after spending the day hearing from survivors of sexual harassment, domestic abuse, female circumcision, bigotry and transphobia — it kind of felt like, ‘Meh.’

Yet even though I can’t say I drew much feminist courage from her, I was buoyed by her deadpan wit and her unshakeable sense of self, particularly in reference to other people’s opinions — “I don’t think about other people that much. I know you don’t believe me, but I don’t care.”

Touché, Lebowitz. Touché.

About All Women?

So what to make of this year’s All About Women? While undoubtedly there could have been schedule tweaks and there is always, always more need for inclusion of LGBTIQ, First Nations, women of faith and colour — the festival does feel like it’s increasingly telling more varied local and international stories.

In the words of my MVP of the day Nakkiah Lui — “There is no true success, no true victories if they don’t include all women, if they don’t include our most vulnerable… Our feminism isn’t just about the equality or empowerment of women. Our feminism should be about how we change and define a new type of equality and empower the people and the community around us.

“There is so much possibility to be had if change includes everyone.”

Amen.

Photos by Prudence Upton and Yaya Stempler, via Sydney Opera House

Grace De Morgan is a freelance writer, playwright and performer. She has written for ATYP, Good News Week, The Roast, Seizure and the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her on Instagram @wineinaonesie or read more of her work at gracedemorgan.com.