Watching over 200 women stream into NSW Parliament last Thurs- day morning for an International Women’s Day breakfast, I wondered if any records were being broken. The usual demograph- ic imbalance of those halls was certainly altered, if only for a few hours. But the setting seemed slightly too ostentatious for a forum on intersectional feminism: being served field mushrooms, tiny quiches and microherbs by waiters in slick black tie while listening to speakers critique white imperialism in government policy felt somewhat incongruous. Thankfully, it did not detract from the incredibly passionate and empowering speakers, Amy McQuire and Lydia Shelly.
Lydia, a Muslim woman, lawyer and co-founder of the Islamophobia Register, replaced Mariam Veiszadeh who was originally scheduled to speak. Lydia explained that Mariam had recently had her personal details published online by a neo-Nazi group, and could not attend the event due to safety concerns. In the deeply felt absence of Mariam, Lydia pointed to the absurdity of the government denying the existence of Islamophobia—the so-called ‘imaginary backlash’. She interrogated the need for minority groups to receive protection from discrimination in a context where Muslim women are frequently subjected to violence and death threats. At the same time as Muslim women are being used as a ‘political football’, Lydia explained, white feminism victimizes and silences these women by sidelining their voices and ignoring their needs.
Amy McQuire, Darumbul writer for New Matilda and former editor of Tracker magazine, also spoke on the politics of inclusion in contemporary feminist discourse. Despite the enduring strength and revolutionary work of Indigenous feminists, these voices are consistently derided and delegated to the sidelines. Amy interrogated the complex interface between sexism and racism, as well as Aboriginal and white settler cultures. She spoke of the need she felt to qualify her identification as a black feminist and a woman dedicated to fighting for Aboriginal culture within a movement that often demonizes black men with the ostensible aim of ‘saving’ black women. She gave the example of white feminists championing Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech while failing to recognise that she facilitated the removal of Aboriginal children, fracturing Aboriginal culture and families. The Intervention is ‘ripping the heart out of these communities’, in Amy’s words, and mainstream feminism is complicit.
Together, the speeches were a testament to the strength and achievements of earlier feminists, but also a damning evaluation of the state of contemporary feminism from the standpoint of an Indigenous woman and a Muslim woman. I have learnt that one of the most effective actions as a white feminist is simply to sit and listen to women with different lived experiences, and to interrogate my own role in the continuing oppression of Aboriginal folk, women of colour and various other groups of women with intersecting identities. As Lydia said, ‘there can be no monopoly on freedom or liberation or feminism’. As long as femi- nism has the arrogance to dictate to other women what is best for them, or to claim the ability to ‘liberate’ women in other parts of the world, it is erasing the experiences of these women in much the same way as patriarchal culture.
Events like the IWD Breakfast are crucial in centring the experiences of women typically delegated to the margins of mainstream feminist discourse. It is the primary task of feminism to prioritize and respond to these voices.