Feminism needs to do more to include women of colour

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Ruby Hamad

As feminism marches on we must not leave women of colour behind, writes Ruby Hamad.

As feminism marches on we must not leave women of colour behind, writes Ruby Hamad. Photo: Gabriel Bucataru

2015 will surely go down as the year Australian feminism crossed firmly and indelibly into the mainstream.

It began in January, when anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty was crowned Australian of the Year, setting the stage for a long-awaited, nationwide conversation on men's violence against women.

Twelve months later, Daily Life columnist Clementine Ford is closing out the year by igniting a mini-revolution. When she contacted the employer of a man who abused her online and made sexist and racist comments on his Facebook page, his termination caused a cascade of abuse against her and saw thousands of women rallying to name and shame their own abusive trolls.

Ruby Hamnad: "As a teenager, I yearned only for freedom and to be 'western', to live and speak like everyone else."

Ruby Hamnad: "As a teenager, I yearned only for freedom and to be 'western', to live and speak like everyone else."

The months in between finally saw the feminist calls for an end to victim-blaming and for men to be held accountable for their crimes against women, repeated by mainstream media players, including The Project and The Weekly with Charlie Pickering.

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Something has shifted in our society. Women are no longer prepared to wear the silence and the shame wrought by men's violent and degrading behaviour. They are speaking up and calling out, and what's more, society is finally listening.

As someone who has been publicly writing about women's issues for half a decade, it is gratifying to see just how thoroughly feminism has saturated our media landscape.

And yet.

And yet, I am a woman but I am also a woman of colour. And despite all the gains feminism and women in general have made over the past few years, I am painfully aware WoC are not as included as they could and should be.

Although the word 'intersectionality' has become ubiquitous, there is still much confusion around what it actually means, and a bizarre resistence to using it.

Sure, it's a clumsy word but it has a simple and powerful definition: intersectionality refers to the way various oppressions overlap, meaning they cannot be examined independently of each other.

A WoC such as myself, then, experiences sexism differently to white women and racism differently to men of colour.

However, our tendency is to treat both these issues uniformly, meaning that WoC get largely overlooked.

To put this another way, while the advancement of feminism in mainstream society potentially has benefits for all women, mainstream feminism must acknowledge that white, middle-class, abled, cis-gendered women do not represent all women.

With that in mind, here's the Facebook page for next year's Women's Leadership Symposium in Sydney.

Women's Leadership Symposium in Sydney.

Women's Leadership Symposium in Sydney. Photo: Facebook

That's 19 women and only one is noticeably a WoC. While it's great that such an event signifies the inroads women are making in business circles, if it is overwhelmingly white women who are leadership material, how does this represent a gain for women of colour?

Short answer: it doesn't.

To get an idea of how racism intersects with sexism, let's look at this recent panel from the Wheeler Centre.

A five-person panel with just one women. Yes, it's great that a panel discussing race and difference exists. Yes, it's vital that all the speakers were PoC. But when only one woman is included, it's a replication of what happens in the mainstream society we are challenging, one in which men's voices are given more weight and more space.

It seems that to be a woman of colour is to be overlooked at every turn. Despite the fact that we are fighting in the trenches both for the advancement of women and for the dismantling of racism, it appears that both of these movements are largely content to advance without us.

To be clear, this is not to condemn the Wheeler Centre or the Women's Leadership Symposium. I am simply pointing out a uniform blind spot; when it comes to issues of racism, the male default means WoC are expected to take a back seat to men. Meanwhile, in feminist circles, the white default sets in and once again WoC are shoved aside.

Of course, this also applies to other marginalised groups of women: disabled women, queer women, trans women. So how do we remedy this?

It's not as simple as having token WoC on a panel or in a prominent role. It's about making an effort to include all women, and consciously rejecting the defaults that white, patriarchal society that installed.

Moving forward, we need to make a deliberate effort to ensure that, for example, when talking about the gender pay gap, we recognise that the gap for WoC is markedly wider. When it comes to violence against women, we should highlight how WoC, particularly Aboriginal women, suffer significantly higher rates of domestic violence, and that trans women (mostly trans WoC) are at greater risk of gendered sexual violence and hate crimes than any other group.

We need to recognise the hypocrisy of a society that launches wars against Muslim-majority countries under the guise of liberating Muslim women, but then polices Muslim women's dress at home, and places their bodies in the frontline of racist attacks against Muslims.

We need to be aware of specific cases, such as that of Miss Dhu, where the intersection of racism and misogyny conspired to cause a young Aboriginal woman's tragic and entirely preventable death, with no repercussions for those responsible.

So yes, let us celebrate the major milestones in women's rights that occurred this year, including the incredible Gillian Triggs winning Daily Life's Woman of the Year (from a wonderfully diverse line-up of finalists).

But please let us not replicate one of the major flaws of mainstream society in assuming that one group can represent all. Women of colour work tirelessly for the benefit of all women. Do not leave us behind as feminism marches on.