Let Women Speak for Themselves

For years, we’ve been tied up in knots, unsure how to protect the rights of women in male-dominated religions and cultures.

In the past weeks, such conflicts have been writ large across the national stage. In Melbourne, traditionally-garbed, western educated Muslim women called for action in the wake of a report by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria showing that some Imams support rape within marriage, domestic violence, polygamy and welfare fraud. Women at the conference where the report was presented expressed hope that making their concerns public would assist Muslim women to access the rights guaranteed to them by Sharia and Australian law.

At the same time, Minister Jenny Macklin had decided to maintain mandatory income management and other controversial aspects of the Northern Territory intervention, despite some Aboriginal men and a number of white-fellas in NSW and NT branches of the ALP labeling it racist and against Aboriginal culture.\ Her reason? Many Aboriginal women like it. Walpiri woman Bes Nungarrayia says that in her community, women and young people support income management because it gives them more control of their money and lives. Data from government-registered community stores suggests that Walpiri women and children are not alone, with more money being spent on fresh food and household essentials, and less on gambling, alcohol and pornography since the policy began.

It would be easy to get confused. Easy to think that for minority women, religious and cultural rights are instruments of oppression, not liberation. Easy to conclude that the protection of minority women and children sometimes requires religious and cultural rights to be put aside.

But the problem isn’t rights. It’s representation.

The Australian community is not monolithic, but a complex jigsaw of religious, ethnic and cultural groups. Years ago we realized that the needs and aspirations of one group need to be articulated by them, not by members of the majority. It is because we understand that Christians shouldn’t speak for Muslims, nor whitefellas for black, that we sought to involve minority representatives in decisions that affect them.

Where we erred-and continue to do so-is in passively accepting whatever representative such communities throw up. The problem is that some representatives aren’t representative at all, because the process that delivered them was undemocratic, non-existent, biased or rigged. One sure sign this is the case is where a community is fifty percent women, yet those who represent them are always male.

Muslim educator Silma Ihram made this point recently when she spoke of the difficulty Muslim women have getting a “platform” within their own communities. Journalist Russell Skelton says Aboriginal culture is dominated by “male thinking” and “powerful [male] figures,” making it poor at ensuring Aboriginal women always sit at the decision-making table.

But if representation is the problem, it is the answer, too.

It is true that women’s rights and religious/cultural rights may sometimes clash, but this is not inevitable. One reason it is happening so often now may be for no other reason than the undemocratic processes by which some minority communities choose representatives, and the inevitable consequence of this: that the decisions these representatives leave the issues and concerns of significant parts of their own community out.

From now on, we need to do things differently. When we ask minority groups what their religion and culture dictates, and what their community needs, we need to ensure the answer comes from both women and men.

Publication history

Let Women Speak for Themselves  The Sunday Sun-Herald