No, Jacinda Ardern won’t save us so stop the feminist fangirling

By Amy Gray

“I just think she’s so inspiring…holding her baby with her like that, I just think it’s going to change things” – this was how a friend recently described her admiration for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

It’s easy to see why Ardern has attracted so much praise given she bucks the political standard: she’s not a man for a start, speaks with passion instead of talking points, appeals to progressive leftists and had a baby in office. She has achieved a hell of a lot in her career and cuts through the artifice of modern politics, giving it an acceptable, youthful face.

These are all reasons to feel excited but will New Zealand’s Prime Minister be the savior of feminism? I’m doubtful and the constant fangirling for Ardern gives me pause because so much of it feels superficial and unconsidered. While there is ample reason for feminist excitement, enthusiasm for Ardern requires some analysis to break through our own prejudices and desires.

A politician with a baby on the hip, while novel, is not the game changer people claim. The first political leader to give birth while in office was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, which often gets lost in the discussion. That a white person’s accomplishments are celebrated while a pioneering person of colour’s is forgotten is so common it’s clichéd, this is a particular issue within feminism.

Even then, the use of babies in politics is a trope that is often messily applied. Plenty of babies are wheeled out for kisses on the campaign trail or posed for promotional photos. But it’s not always evenly received. While Ardern has received praise for holding her child and answering media questions, plenty of other politicians who’ve done the same have been accused of using their children as deflectors (Andrew Bartlett comes to mind here).

The shock and delight of a political leader status as a new mother doesn’t mean we should herald it as a game changer – it means we need to unpack what we think mothers are capable of in the face of continuing discrimination and professional penalty. Think about it: a woman never escapes the label of mother, whereas father is very rarely applied to men, especially when it comes to public or political life. Women are defined as being mothers, men are defined by what they do.

Motherhood is not just about the ability to create a child – it’s about the work that goes into raising that child or children as well as all the other work mothers do. It’s almost a shadow realm or doing two full time jobs at once.

Plus, that mothering work literally lasts a lifetime and not just the photogenic first few years of baby and toddlerhood, a fact many seem to forget and which shows just how little critical thought is given to motherhood. While it’s agreed the early years of childrearing is physically intensive and immediate, our community still doesn’t discuss the unique, and often unsupported, complexity of raising older children and teenagers.

So yes, it’s novel and different that Jacinda Ardern has a baby and that New Zealand’s first family generated so much praise while appearing at the UN. But if you think a woman dealing with a baby and work at once is going to change the world, you haven’t been paying attention to the world, the state of motherhood or your politics.

Much of this is the twin impulses of celebrity and easy saviours. Feminism (and everything else) has a need to “stan” any person with mildly agreeable politics or sassy soundbites, elevating them to golden goddess standards without any burden of actual work or achievement. Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, Kim Kardashian, Hilary Clinton, Julia Gillard, even Julie Bishop at one point – all of these people have been celebrated for their feminism with little to no unpacking of what form that feminism takes.

You may have noticed some of these people are no longer considered feminist champions given persistent mistakes. Once installed as a feminist celebrity, we keep lauding them as the one who will “change things” and be the answer to everything.

But of course this cannot be sustained. Some of the women mentioned have been car crashes of calamity, others contradictory, some merely forgotten in pursuit of the new inspiration while others use it as a marketing campaign. Some people will unpack their feminist credentials, which can help balance the adulation. However, there comes a point in almost every celebrity cycle based on simplistic personas where they lose their easy adulation. Suddenly, they are figures of outrage, falling out of favour from a height they may have never sought and decried for not maintaining a perfection they never claimed.

When we categorise women into invisible, cancelled or worshipped as feminist icons, we are denying ourselves and the elevated women of nuance and complexity. No woman emerges from the clamshell in a state of perfection, her actions and history unblemished with failure.

Instead, we are placing yet another burden on women they must perform perfectly to achieve acceptance. Not only that, but we deny them the benefit of failure; where they can devote themselves to meaningful improvement for themselves and others.

Our problem is that we keep looking for someone else to save the world. We think they can do it, it will be quick and we’ll be here on the sidelines retweeting it all. It’s understandable, the constant fatigue of living and fighting leads many to want that superhero to fix everything for us.

But that’s not how it happens. Change comes from work – dismantling the systems around us and our internal politics. It’s hard work, often unseen and unacknowledged, takes forever and there are days where you feel like you’re not making much progress at all.

The Jacinda Arderns, Justin Trudeaus and all the other photogenic progressives previously adored and memed won’t save the world. The world has to save the world. That means us. That means you.

When my friend told me how Ardern’s motherhood was going to change things, I disagreed. Yes, it’s novel that a woman political leader has given birth but that isn’t the change to mark. Instead of seeing a younger woman make it through the political ranks childless and able to give birth after taking office, show me the older woman – show me the woman who has dealt with the deals and machinations of politics, fought off sexism and discrimination to take office and has a teenager on the side, and a partner who was there to give long term equal labour in the home. And then? Let’s celebrate her while she gets on with the fraught work of being a complex person doing a complex job.

That’s what I call change.



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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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    Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part Two

    Sex Workers Juno Mac/SWARM


    By Gala Vanting

    This is the second in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.


    We’ve talked the theory - now let’s talk the how to be an ally to sex workers.

    Being an ally to sex workers isn’t different from allyship to any other marginalised group, other than in its relative lack of social acceptability.


    I’ll walk you through some of the actions you can take to start or expand your acts of allyship to sex workers, but bring your intersectional awareness for the ride too.


    Being an ally to sex workers requires nuanced understanding of the ways in which other aspects of identity and experience intersect with sex working experience. Sex work is not a universal experience so my understanding is limited by my experience of my own work and of my colleagues’ stories. This guide is not comprehensive; consider if your starter pack.



    It’s always the first port of call. The tricky thing about self-educating about sex work is learning to distinguish between resources that have been created by or in constructive, consensual collaboration with sex workers, and those which have been developed with a religious, moral or abolitionist agenda.


    As always, media literacy is key. Here are some indicators that what you’re learning from isn’t produced from an allied perspective:

    • it describes sex workers as victims or positions sex work as exploitation
    • it uses a term other than ‘sex work’ or ‘sex workers’, which is the preferred terminology of the sex worker rights movement
    • it suggests that abolishing sex work is the best way to ‘solve the problem’ of sex work, or that leaving sex work is the best choice for all sex workers
    • it advocates for legislation other than full decriminalisation of sex work
    • it theorises the sex worker’s body as being inherently different from other labouring bodies in other fields of work


    My suggestion is that you prioritise work produced by sex workers themselves. There are lots of fantastic resource guides penned by sex work peer organisations, and even more pieces of memoir and journalism writing from first-person sex worker perspectives. We’ve been working hard at telling our own stories, and more and more media outlets are helping us to carve out the space to do so.


    Here’s a quick reading list:


    Seek out a diversity of voices, including sex workers of colour, trans sex workers, migrant sex workers, and workers from a variety of working modes (independent workers, porn performers and cam workers, street-based sex workers, parlour workers, dancers, etc).


    Your mantra is this: ‘Listen to sex workers.’ What they have to say might not always be agreeable to you, nor may it paint a glowing picture of the industry which means you will have to deal with discomfort and cognitive dissonance as part of being an ally. What’s important is that you are hearing it from their mouths, and viewing the complexity of their lived experience.



    Accountability is perhaps one of the hardest things to cultivate but it’s what’s going to save you from your whorephobia.


    Your self-education probably helped you to seek and destroy some of it. What did that change look like? How has sex work stigma played out in your worldview? Have you ever said anything to a friend, family member, or colleague about sex work or sex workers that might have made it impossible for them to come out to you as one? Have you ever laughed at a dead hooker joke? Passed judgement on sex workers portrayed in the media? Been surprised when you saw one be articulate, intelligent, or proud of their work?


    Whatever has changed about your knowledge set only sees the light of allyship when it’s shared or spoken aloud. When you hear or see whorephobia or sex work stigma, name it. If you have the chance to unpack it, even better. When you see an opportunity to share what you’ve learned with other people, have the hard conversations where you are able. Online or in your life.


    This is where I am really reaching out to feminists. Feminist spaces contain some of the most potent, paternalistic, unchecked and fervent sex work stigma I’ve witnessed. If you have a voice in influencing or organising other feminists, don’t ignore sex work issues. Don’t hope that you can avoid controversy by omission. Get on the front foot and actively seek opportunities to align yourself with sex worker movements. If there are no sex worker voices in your intersectional feminist project or event, it’s not feminist.


    Read, watch or listen to at least one piece of writing or media by a sex worker every month. If you got something out of it, share it with some real reflection on what you took away from it. Other people in your network will look for meaning in something they know is meaningful to you. This creates a network effect.


    Advocate – as Ally or Accomplice

    We are beginning to see some critical dialogue about the utility of allyship. The question as to whether one is an ally or an accomplice is part of that. Perhaps the difference lies in your proximity to the person or people to whom you’re directing your energy. An ally stands off to the side, waving the flag and cheering on the person in struggle. An accomplice stands with them in meaningful action and solidarity. Listen here to a conversation between DeRay and Brené Brown that elaborates on this.


    Having an ally is a good feeling. Having an accomplice is what gets things done.


    Keep an eye on what’s happening for us, so that you can act. Curate your newsfeed to contain:

    • your local sex work peer organisation(s)
    • individual sex workers, including sex workers of colour, male sex workers, and trans sex workers
    • journalists who cover sex work


    This will give you a better sense of what’s happening for us in real time, and therefore where we are in need of tangible support.


    The most practical ways to advocate for us, which cost only your time and energy, are:

    • When we mobilise, physically or digitally, come and stand with us. Allow yourself to be seen in protest of violations of our labour and human rights.
    • When governments (local, state, or federal) are tabling legislative or policy change or conducting an inquiry, get involved by writing or calling with your concerns and recommendations. Your local peer advocacy organisation will have instructions for you. Signal-boost their calls for support and encourage more people to get involved; show that the community is invested in the lives of sex workers.
    • When we lose a colleague or someone in our movement, share in our grief. Speak their names. Don’t let the loss of our lives stay under the radar.
    • Encourage your organisation – or one whose services you access – to engage a sex worker community educator to conduct training to empower them to effectively include sex workers in their service provision.
    • If you see sex worker voices missing from things like arts, culture or politics festivals, public panels, academic courses or conferences, public health campaigns, make contact with the organiser and suggest that they involve us. Make a concerted effort to see us integrated into these spaces, and help programmers start to adopt an interest in complicating conversations about or including sex workers.


    In all of this: ask sex workers how you can help. Our struggle is layered and we strategise for the situation. Criminalisation and stigma means that we have a LOT of safety and privacy issues that must be considered by those moving with us. Be flexible and informed by us.

    Money, meet mouth.

    If money is a resource you can use in your allyship, give some to:

    • your local sex work peer organisation
    • any of the suggestions here
    • ongoing sex worker fundraisers like this one
    • individual artists, writers, or activists who centre sex workers in their work

    Get it wrong well.

    You. Will. Get. It. Wrong. Sometimes.


    It’s ok. Check it out, do what you can to correct yourself, and then keep going.


    Allyship means always learning. If you believe that no one can tell you anything you don’t know about a marginalised group you’re not a part of, your wokeness badge is suspended. I’m a sex worker, and even I am still learning how to be a good ally to sex workers. If I ever think I’ve “got it”, I’m firing myself from my activist career.


    The shame spiral that happens when you get it wrong – regardless of how well-meaning you feel, how many sex workers you’re friends with on Facebook, or how good your allyship record is – needs to be contained by you and your support system. Not by frantically DMing the only sex worker you know, and asking them for hefty emotional labour in the form of education, ego-soothing, or a public vouch for your credibility. (NB: If you support me on Patreon, I will field one of these per quarter.)


    We are particularly ill-equipped in our culture to deal with shame. Over the last few months, I had multiple conversations with folks asking me why sex workers get so upset when allies don’t get it right, or why we’re so damned difficult to engage. In every case, I gently tried to flip it back to where there might be some shame in there – whether it’s because of lack of knowledge, less-than-finessed  approach, or just for missing the mark a bit. It’s hard and frustrating when you do or say something that doesn’t 100% reflect your intended allyship.


    The complexity of sex work stigma and the ways in which it’s tangled up with things like racism, classism, criminality and policing, and respectability politics makes it tricky to get it right every time. Sex workers need allies who can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, integrate their learning, and keep moving.


    Last month, WIRE - the Victorian Women’s Information and Referral Exchange, issued an apology to sex workers about their service provision to sex workers and the underlying stigma that informed it. They admitted that they’d gotten it wrong, and that they needed to do better. It’s a great start, but will need to be followed by some pragmatic strategy for adjusting their approach. A month earlier, WAVAW, a Vancouver rape crisis centre, published what they call an ‘Accountability Letter’. They are currently auditing their service provision with this in mind, and have employed a survey inviting people – especially those with lived experience of sex work – to weigh in on the crisis response needs of sex workers who are seeking sexual assault services. This is exemplary.

    It’s also perhaps illustrative of the difference between an ally and an accomplice.


    What are you doing, and who is it for?

    In my studies with Betty Martin, who I like to call the fairy godmother of consent, one of the most-repeated processes in her practices involves asking, from moment to moment: what are you doing, and who is it for? Your answer tells you a lot where you are now and how to proceed.


    Your allyship takes meaning when it is active (what are you doing?) and when is for us (who is it for?). When it is a genuine interest in improving the quality of our everyday lives. When it goes beyond titillation or tourism, when it’s not just for fashion or another enamel pin to wear on the lapel of your SJW jacket, when it divests itself of any impulse to rescue us or speak for us, and when it gives something up.


    Subscribe to our Newsletter

    Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

    Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on and

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      India & #MeToo

      Content warning: this transcript includes descriptions of sexual violence. 

      By Deepanjana Pal  


      I acknowledge that I meet you on the land of the Kulin nations and that sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, and acknowledge the pivotal role the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to play within the Australian community.

      There’s beauty and power in those simple sentences. It’s a statement that recognises how insidiously abusive recorded history can be as well as the importance of culture and storytelling when it comes to disrupting norms. Following in the footsteps of this everyday resistance, I’d like to take you back in time and tell you the story of a woman who I would like to believe would be an elder if Indian feminists were a tribe.

      It’s September 1992, evening, in a village in Rajasthan and a woman named Bhanwari Devi is being gang-raped. She had been working in the small field she and her husband own when five men, armed with sticks, attacked her husband. Then, two of the men held Bhanwari down while two others raped her.

      Bhanwari knows her rapists and the men know her. Four months ago, Bhanwari had earned their wrath when she reported one of them for arranging a marriage for his nine-month old daughter. He’s a powerful man in the village; Bhanwari is a woman, poor and a Dalit, among the lowest castes in the Hindu social pyramid. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Bhanwari also worked as a grassroot level social worker for the Rajasthan state government, her protest against the child marriage would have been inconsequential. But she had the government’s ears because of her job and officials paid a visit to the family that had tried to marry the infant off.

      Since then, Bhanwari and her family had become persona non grata in the village. She had to go to the next village to get water, to grind her grain. The village stopped buying the pottery Bhanwari and her husband sold to supplement their income. Her children were bullied in school. Finally, there was the rape.

      After the men leave, Bhanwari, bleeding but not broken, gets up and walks to a police station with her husband to file a complaint. The police refuse. They tell her she has to submit evidence – the blood and semen-stained skirt she’s wearing. It’s a tactic to keep her from registering a complaint. It doesn’t work. Bhanwari gives them her skirt and her husband unravels his turban so that she can wrap it around her waist as a makeshift skirt. Then the injured couple walk home.

      What they didn’t know was that even with the skirt in their possession, the police hadn’t filed a formal complaint. That would happen days later, after women’s groups put pressure on the police.

      This was just the beginning. At every level and at every stage, from police station to hospital to the courts, Bhanwari Devi faced harassment and resistance. Medical examiners would refuse to conduct the necessary tests, magistrates avoided her, and even when people grudgingly cooperated, they did their best to ensure her evidence wouldn’t hold up in court. Everyone knew what she’d been through and no one wanted to acknowledge it.

      Meanwhile, other women who worked as grass root level workers in Bhanwari’s area reported they were being threatened by village councils. “They are circling us like a pack of wolves,” said Kailash Bai, another grassroot level worker. The fact that these women weren’t being allowed to do their jobs gave a couple of women’s groups an idea. A public interest litigation was filed against the Rajasthan government, in the Supreme Court of India, for failing to protect the fundamental rights of their employee, Bhanwari. The petitioners argued that Bhanwari had been raped as a consequence of doing her job — the state employed her to inform authorities of violations like child marriages so that they could stop them – and given the prevailing gender bias, an employer must take steps to ensure a secure working environment specifically for its women employees.

      Around the same time, the case Bhanwari had filed against her rapists lurched its way forward. In 1995, three years after Bhanwari had been raped, a lower court acquitted the men who had raped her. The lawyer for the accused said that the judgement was “bold and courageous” and that his clients are “still scared that she will start another campaign against them,” referring to the media reports supporting Bhanwari that were largely a result of women’s rights groups campaigning for justice.

      An appeal was filed against the verdict. “Since the day I was raped. I have lost all my options,” Bhanwari told India Today. “The only way ahead is to fight.”

      Two years later, in 1997, Bhanwari got the only victory that she has known so far in her fight for justice. In response to the petition that had been filed by the women’s groups against the Rajasthan government, the Supreme Court of India delivered the Vishakha Judgement, which defined sexual harassment in the workplace and laid down the processes that an employer must have in place to ensure complaints can be filed and dealt with swiftly. The Vishakha Judgement was to be treated like a law until actual legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace was passed, said the court. That, incidentally, would happen in 2013. For the intervening 20-plus years, all we had was Vishakha and even in 2018, Bhanwari continues to wait for a final verdict in the case she filed against her rapists, who are out on bail (one died a few years ago, of old age).

      Yet whatever systems of redressal we have for survivors of sexual harassment in India are because of Bhanwari and the Vishakha verdict. The guidelines it offered are the bedrock of every committee or cell instituted to tackle complaints of sexual harassment, be it in colleges or offices. Without Bhanwari, there would be no Vishakha Judgement and without Vishakha, there would be no due process as far as sexual harassment in a workplace goes.

      Whenever topics like sexual abuse or violence against women come up in India, everyone stresses the importance of bringing the guilty to book, of trusting the systems that have been put in place by institutions. If there isn’t an official record of the crime and how it was tackled by authorities, then it’s very hard to shut up the naysayers who claim feminists are just women corrupted by the West, banging on about imaginary offenses. The systems may be flawed, but they do formally acknowledge the fundamental rights of women, and that has only happened because of the concerted and determined efforts of feminists and legal activists in most cases.

      And there are times when due process works, which suggests that rather than the law and the processes, it’s the people enforcing these that are the problem or potentially, the solution. When they act responsibly, like Ambedkar University Delhi did, the system seems to work. In March this year, Lawrence Liang, the dean of Ambedkar University’s law school, was found guilty of sexual harassment. Even though the allegations were from the past and no one had complained at the university, the committee ran a probe and recommended that Liang be barred from occupying any administrative position for two years.

      When the institutional response is callous, on the other hand, as in the case of the Asian College of Journalism, the system seems broken. Responding to allegations of harassment against Sadanand Menon, a respected cultural critic who teaches at the ACJ, the college’s official statement effectively said it wasn’t going to do anything because “unproven allegations … are not within its jurisdiction to investigate or enquire into.” Never mind the minor detail that the whole point of an investigation is to find proof that either verifies or proves allegations to be false. If it’s “proven”, it’s not an allegation; it’s a charge. The college, acting almost like Menon’s mouthpiece, also informed us that Menon has voluntarily decided not to teach at ACJ this year and is considering taking legal action against “those who have published false and defamatory allegations against him.” There was no explanation as to why the college believed Menon over those who had accused him.

      I mention Sadanand Menon and Lawrence Liang specifically because both these names were in The List, a crowd-sourced document on sexual harassment in Indian academia, compiled by Raya Sarkar who is of Indian origin, presently lives in America and identifies as a Dalit feminist. The List is perhaps the loudest shout of #MeToo we’ve heard in India in recent times. Ambedkar University decided to investigate the claims and ended up finding Liang guilty; the ACJ chose to ignore the claims and side with Menon instead.

      Raya’s list is one of those incidents that galvanised consciences across India. The last time this had happened was in a much larger scale, in 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in Delhi was gang-raped on a bus. The crime itself was brutal, but depressingly common. What was extraordinary was the response it evoked. We hadn’t seen such an outpouring of passion and anger in decades, and certainly not for a rape victim ever. This was the start of the third wave of Indian feminism and it marked the beginning of women’s rights becoming a topic of popular, national conversation. While the victim battled for her life, thousands, mostly women but also some men, took to the streets. They were mourning the young woman who was fiercely holding on just long enough to give the police the details they needed to file a complaint and apprehend the accused. Women gathered to protest the fact that unsafety was the norm for them in Delhi and that the solutions given to them — come home before sundown, don’t look male strangers in the eye, dress conservatively – were useless. Those that came out as protestors after the 2012 gang-rape were effectively saying “Me too” before the phrase reached India as a hashtag. The government of the time panicked at the sight of the swelling crowds, the placards and the slogans. Police attacked protestors, water-cannons were aimed at them, tear-gas was thrown at them. But the crowds dispersed only to reconnect, and they demanded something more than platitudes.

      What we got as a result was the report of the Justice Verma Committee, which would form the basis of a major amendment to Indian criminal law in 2013. The definition of rape was expanded to include non-consensual oral sex as well as the insertion of any object or body part into the victim’s vagina, urethra or anus. Fast-track courts were to be set up for rape cases. Stalking, voyeurism, unwanted sexual advances and touch were now to be seen as sexual assaults rather than actions “outraging the modesty of a woman”, which was how the Indian Penal Code previously described it. Whether this reminds you of a Barbara Cartland heroine or the cartoon character Modesty Blaise probably depends on your reading. Neither are particularly representative, sadly.

      Most importantly, the amended laws kickstarted a conversation about consent, and this would leave enormous ripples among men and women in India. The question of what constitutes duress and how to know whether consent is freely-given continues to be a much-debated topic. Ever since the Justice Verma Committee report recommended that there be an improved standard of consent, a large group of men have complained that this leaves them vulnerable. What if a woman pretends she’s consenting and then later reveals she wasn’t? How’s a guy to know? It’s alarming that so many men think their performances of romance encourage women to at best fake it and at worst, feel victimised, but that’s toxic masculinity for you. Another topic for another day. For women, there’s a more serious and problematic grey area here. Especially when there’s a fear of being attacked or revenge porn, women tend to sugarcoat rejections rather than be blunt, for their own safety. In a court of law, however, the documentary evidence — quoted emails or messages, for instance — suggests the women are agreeable. How do you separate the genuine fear from the genuine affirmative consent?

      For instance, in 2015, an Indian theatre director and storyteller, a man, was accused of sexually assaulting an American scholar in India. A lower court found him guilty, and this was the first instance of non-consensual oral sex being seen as a crime in India. The accused filed an appeal and the High Court would overturn this verdict, saying that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove lack of consent. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court, which delivered a judgement that deserves to be framed in the Mansplaining Hall of Fame because it informed us that “a feeble no may even mean yes”. Their words, not mine.

      Feeble nos and other ambiguous manifestations of consent would show up when Raya’s list went viral, and those accused in it tried to clear their names by pointing out that their victims hadn’t complained to them. The immediate trigger for the list was Huffington Post taking down American academic C. Christine Fair’s essay in October 2017, in which she named and shamed a number of people in American academia. Raya, herself a survivor of sexual violence and someone who has first-hand experience of not being believed when she spoke up, decided to compile The List as an act of solidarity and warning. She knew there were whisper networks that cautioned students off certain professors, but what if you didn’t know the right people? Why shouldn’t everyone be aware of these reputations?

      So on October 23rd, 2017, Raya wrote a Facebook post in which she said she was compiling a list of sexual harassers in academia. “If anyone knows of academics who have sexually harassed/ were sexually predatory to them or have seen it first-hand, PM me and I’ll add them to the list,” she said. It was, as Raya freely admits, an impulsive gesture that didn’t anticipate virality.

      The response her Facebook post received was overwhelming. “I was taken aback that so many women reached out to me with their experiences,” she told me. “I did not expect them to trust me with sensitive information that was required from them. But they did – not only did they share their testimonies but sent me copies/ screenshots of emails, text messages, got their friends and witnesses to vouch for their narrative.” There was a process of verification that Raya put in place instinctively and this has been conveniently ignored by those who have subsequently attacked her and The List.

      A day after Raya posted the list of alleged sexual harassers, some of Indian feminism’s most respected names went on a warpath. Against The List and Raya.

      Kavita Krishnan, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said that Raya had bypassed the process of justice, as though a Facebook post was a Supreme Court verdict. Raya was called a vigilante by some, she was accused by others of being everything from gullible to a master manipulator.

      Nivedita Menon, whose book Seeing Like A Feminist deserves to be included in syllabi all across India because it’s brilliant , published a statement on behalf of 14 extremely well-respected figures in Indian feminism. They dismissed Raya’s list as “the initiative on Facebook”, denying it the right to be considered even a footnote in what Menon claimed as their “long struggle to make visible sexual harassment at the workplace”. There’s no doubt that these 14 people have done incredible work for women’s rights in India, but that they would claim ownership of the movement in a way that excludes other women was disappointing. “It worries us that anybody can be named anonymously,” read the statement, ignoring the fact that Raya did have an informal process of verifying claims in place. The statement also said the undersigned were “committed to due process, which is fair and just”. No mention of the fact that students rarely press charges because they’re often intimidated and fear for how their grades will be affected by such a move. No mention of how barely a handful of educational institutions in the entire country have active cells for complaints against sexual harassment. The statement concluded with this: “We appeal to those who are behind this initiative to withdraw it, and if they wish to pursue complaints, to follow due process, and to be assured that they will be supported by the larger feminist community in their fight for justice.”

      It’s worth pointing out that months later, when due process found Lawrence Liang guilty, there was a terse one-line statement on the same website, which would go on to carry a long post by Nivedita Menon, who would attack The List again, instead of offering the support she’d promised in that first response.

      But that was later. Soon after Raya published her post, a South Asian blogger and journalist in America named Inji Pennu copied the names on Raya’s post on to a Google document and started adding to it. Meanwhile, the opposition to The List grew louder and fiercer. Some of the men on it demanded to be told who had “nominated” them, which didn’t do much to make the complainants feel their academic careers were safe, but did underscore the point that anonymity was problematic in terms of getting redressal for both survivors and those falsely-accused. Male academics, even those who were not on the list, started writing to students and colleagues, to establish their innocence. It seemed as though every other day, there was a Facebook status update in which a male academic felt the need to point out that he believes in sexual freedom and has been misunderstood.

      The nervous flapping among academics and the updates on the Harvey Weinstein investigation gave rise to hopes that women would come forward and name abusers in the Indian film industry, particularly Bollywood (which is the Hindi film industry in India). Not one person did.

      Does that mean Indian film industries are squeaky clean and shiny in the absence of gender bias? Of course not. They’re pits of exploitation, prejudice and cover-ups, which is why all we get are rumours and no one dares talk about it on record.

      If this sounds cowardly, then consider this. In February 2017, about eight months before the Weinstein exposés were published, an actress was kidnapped in Kerala. She was in her car, going home after a shoot, when another car hit hers. Her driver got out to have the customary shouting match with the other car’s driver and while this was happening, the men in the other car got into the actress’ car and drove off. For two hours, she was held hostage, sexually assaulted and filmed.

      She filed a complaint and the police investigations revealed that the plot had been hatched by one of the biggest heroes of the Kerala film industry and a man with whom this actress has done many films. His name is Dileep and he says he’s innocent while the police say they have testimonies, eye witness accounts and call records to back their claim. He was arrested and is currently out on bail. Even though the media backed the actress and the police have enough evidence to file a chargesheet, it was Dileep who had most of the industry’s sympathy. Not the actress.

      Meanwhile in Bollywood, which is considered more progressive and open than most other film industries in India, Ekta Kapoor, the most powerful person in Indian television and one of the more influential film producers in Bollywood, said this when asked about sexual harassment in the Indian film industry: “Well, I think there are Harvey Weinsteins in Bollywood, but there is  probably an equal number of Harvey Weinsteins on the other side of the story, but people do not want to talk about that part. Yes, there are people in power like producers who use their power to take advantage of people, but at the same time, there are people on the other side, like an actor or others who need the job, who would also use their sexuality to get things done. Therefore, I believe that predators should not be put in a box based on power. It is not always true that the person who does not have power is the victim.”

      You could make a strong argument that Ekta Kapoor doesn’t really know the meaning of words “victim” and “predator”, but that isn’t really what we should take away from her statement. When I mentioned this comment of hers to some film industry professionals, a few explained to me that Ekta was trying to say that sexual harassment should be considered a gender-neutral territory, but poor dear, she didn’t have the right words. Here’s the thing: sexual harassment should absolutely be a gender-neutral crime ideally because it has nothing to do with desire and everything to do with abuse of power. However, we don’t have a gender-equal society anywhere in the world, so it would be idiotic to turn a blind eye to the central power imbalance while arguing that sexual harassment is about power. Also, when your first response to sexual harassment is to indulge in a spot of victim-blaming, my only response is my resting bitch face.

      What Ekta Kapoor’s statement actually indicates is how normal and accepted harassment and sexism are in the Hindi film industry. Sexuality, as she terms it, will get people jobs rather than their work experience or an audition. “Who did she sleep with to get that role?” or “He’s got the part because he’s the producer’s bitch” aren’t even considered offensive. They’re just statements of fact. Off the record, assistant directors and crew will talk about directors and producers who bring actresses into projects because they’re in a relationship or hope to be in one with the actress in question. Rumours abound about actors who demand “girls” be sent to them after a day’s shoot is done. On sets, no one bats an eyelid at offensive remarks, ranging from “Stop behaving like you’re on your period” to throwaway sleazy comments that women are supposed to ignore. That’s her test as a professional. The fact that the man in this equation isn’t behaving professionally, who cares?

      From the people I’ve spoken to on the subject of sexual harassment, here’s what it boils down to in Bollywood: “No one talks about it because everyone does it.” “You talk about it and you’ll never get a call from a casting agent again. There are hundreds waiting anyway. They’re just looking for reasons to drop you.” “You give one specific name, and you’ll be identified. Then everyone will say, ‘She’s a slut. She slept with him and didn’t get the role so she’s framing him.’” “It’s not worth complaining about because it’s not going to change. They’re too powerful.”

      So in terms of victories, results and concrete change, there’s very little to show for #MeToo in India so far, except for that solitary guilty verdict against Lawrence Liang. Within weeks of The List being published, Raya left Facebook, exhausted by the attacks in her inbox, and Inji took down the document. This was taken as proof of The List being false and not as an indication of the kind of threats and intimidation they’d faced. (Raya’s original Facebook post is, however, still up.) The divide within feminists remains, with the older, more-established lot unwilling to engage in any kind of dialogue and the younger, furious at being dismissed in this manner. The film industries in India have kept calm and carried on. The closest to concrete change could be the way multinational companies in India have stressed the need to have systems in place against sexual harassment and communicated to their staff that such charges will not be taken lightly. Whether this is a threat to the complainant or the accused, depends on the company’s individual culture.

      As a disruption, on the other hand, #MeToo is a phenomenal success. The 2012 gang-rape brought everyone together. #MeToo in India isn’t doing that, but it is laying bare the power structures and inequalities that we’ve tried to paper over for years. In the lack of concrete results and resolutions, in the stubborn silences, we see the tight grip in which the pieces are held in place by those who wield power and influence. There’s also a new collective being formed, steadily and subtly by everywomen who resist in everyday ways, particularly on the internet. As long as you don’t keep quiet when you see sexism, you’re a heroine. After centuries of being forced into docility and poise, this is like a call to anarchy.

      At one point, soon after #MeToo started going viral as a hashtag, Indian women on Facebook swamped the site with stories of their sexual harassment on the streets, in family functions, at work. It came as a shock to many men that practically every woman they knew had faced sexually offensive behaviour and violence of some sort from a man — and usually, more than once in their lives. It didn’t matter how rich or poor a woman was, how old she was or where she lived, there were situations in which she was vulnerable and someone took advantage of her. And that someone was invariably a man. Statistics became words and turned real, and it was, for many men, a rattling experience. Because if every woman in India has experienced sexism at least once, then every man in India has dismissed sexism and been sexist, at least once.

      Since October 2017, one thing that we’ve seen more and more of is women taking to social media to talk about traumatic experiences, particularly those of sexual assault. It’s almost like they’re processing in public. It seems odd to do this on platforms associated with trolling, but what these survivors have found on the internet are allies and a sisterhood. For many, this is more valuable and therapeutic than due process.

      Take, for instance, the story of K, who last month took to Instagram to recount a horrific Tinder date from 2015. She alleged she’d been held captive, raped and photographed against her will by a man she met on a Tinder date. He was fine until they went to his place. The reason she couldn’t leave after the first warning bells rang is that it was late at night and therefore unsafe for her to get out and grab a cab. Her choice was between the possibility of sexual violence at her date’s house and the possibility of sexual violence in public transport (on the premise she got a cab in the first place). Then at one point, her phone was out of battery, her date was alternating between tender and threatening, and she was counting the seconds till daybreak. The whole experience was recounted in a string of 15-30 second videos that made up K’s Insta story. She recounted what happened without any drama or high-strung emotion. Her story went viral and, unsurprisingly, reached the man in question.

      He started his own Instagram story, protesting innocence and showing messages K had sent him and photos of hers which he argued established her claims as false. She said she was being nice to him because she didn’t want him to put the photographs he had of her online. A flame war followed between the two. Ultimately, both of them took their stories down and no one has gone for the legal route. Quite clearly, it’s far less important than getting the words of their stories out.

      More recently, a young woman in Mumbai was in an autorickshaw when she realised the driver was masturbating. At one point, he turned his vehicle into a dark alley and pulled out his penis. The woman ran out. She got the number of the autorickshaw’s license plate and then, once home, she wrote posts on Twitter and Facebook, telling her readers what had happened, but that she had no intention of going to the police because they don’t take such complaints seriously. This time, though, the Mumbai Police did take her tweets seriously. They convinced her to file a formal complaint and within 24 hours of her doing so, they caught the driver. The woman wrote a gushing post, thanking the Mumbai Police. Someone sent me screenshots of the posts with a sarcastic one-liner: “Now that they got this guy, bet all pervy rick drivers are shaking in their pants.”

      I actually wouldn’t be surprised if at least the pervy rick drivers in that neighbourhood think twice before trying that stunt with a young woman in their vehicle. That’s the impact that law enforcement can have when it’s done right. The point, though, isn’t the arrest, but the fact that this woman spoke up — and that’s got everything to do with #MeToo. The norm is to keep quiet, feel awkward or even shame and to get out of that situation as soon as possible, and say nothing to anyone. #MeToo has disrupted this and made it cool to speak up. For a vast number of Indian women and girls, the audience that the hashtag guarantees has given them the confidence to speak up, without fear of being silenced. That’s an enormous gain when you consider how much stigma has traditionally been attached to being a victim who would almost always be told that they’d asked for it so they shouldn’t blame the perpetrator.

      The conversations that we’re having have also turned the spotlight on a massive problem in the system as it stands in India: the onus of bringing about change is upon the person who simply cannot be expected to carry that cross, the victim. It’s the victim who must report the crime, suffer the social stigma, relive the trauma repeatedly in court hearing after court hearing; the victim has to wait, the victim has to appeal, the victim has to push, the victim has to resist, the victim has to come forward and change the way people think. It can’t work like this. The heavy lifting must be done by allies, those who aren’t personally vulnerable but can campaign on behalf of victims. And the only way to gather allies is through conversations, like the ones #MeToo has amplified.

      We’ve never had as many conversations about women’s rights as we have had since 2012 and later #MeToo became rallying points. There are those who will argue that these Twitter threads and Facebook confessions and Instagram outpourings are frustrating in their hollowness – a story trends, everyone clucks for a day or two, and then it’s forgotten or replaced by a new point of outrage. They’re right. There’s an informality to all this that is unnerving because nothing’s on record and everything is a story.

      Yet in this very same informality is a strength – stories travel, from mouth to mouth, ear to ear, chipping away at old conventions by slyly raising questions in a listener’s mind. They’re not contained in archives, but they tend to linger in memory. If we’re going to change the way people think, it’ll be through the stories we tell and the ones we make sure are heard.

      The one thing that the blade-like lines of the #MeToo hashtag have done is cut through the silences surrounding women and minorities in India. We’re done being quiet, and that is movement enough. For now.

      Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

      Deepanjana Pal is an author and journalist. Her most recent book is Hush A Bye Baby, a feminist thriller set in Mumbai, India. As a critic, she has written extensively on culture and gender for the past decade. She works with The Hindustan Times and is also part of the selection committee of Mumbai Film Festival. She tweets via @dpanjana


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        Can men be feminists?

        Amy Gray

        Who gets to call themselves a feminist? It’s a question that despite its simplicity wrenches open questions of gender, power and participation and forces us to consider our motives.

        It’s also something that provokes a lot of emotions that we should consider, something I realised after a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event when I was asked if I was actually sexist for declaring men can’t be called feminists.

        Before we dig into the answer, let’s look at the motivations that lie underneath.

        Political ideologies and activism live and die with community; that sense of belonging to can be achieved through work and resistance. This community is defined by that work – those who do the work, those who take on the work and those who are liberated by the work. Often the more successful the activist community, the more attractive and vital it appears to others, encouraging them to take on the work.

        However, this can sometimes mean people believe there is an exchange for helping an activist campaign or political ideology. Surround yourself with the community, do any amount of work (or not) and, in return, you will be recognised as a member of that community.

        The more popular it becomes, the more power there is in associating with the ideology. Tell someone you identify with a particular political ideology or activist campaign and it acts as a personality type – something people tap into the minute they buy a “this is what a feminist looks like” tshirt and eagerly wait someone to comment on it.

        Normally, this is why I reject whether men can be called feminists. Where is their work? Is it more than a tshirt and not being aggressively sexist? I once met a man who said “I’m a feminist” and extended his hand out for a fist bump – I asked him “what do you do to help women?” only to watch his fist fall.

        I had done something incredibly rude: I had asked a man to prove his membership credentials before I would accept his title. But is it that rude when we consider how the most basic moves – such as not being actively sexist – elevate a man above the concentrated specialist work women do?

        It also goes to an even more primal question when it comes to a question of equality – how much skin to men have in the game to earn the feminist title? Men suffer under Patriarchy, sure, but is it at the same level as women? Will men, like women, lose jobs, friendships, money or legal protection based on their gender? Will they face as much social repercussions as women for stating their beliefs? Or will they be celebrated for rudimentary steps, like the empty joyous applause that happens whenever a man is announced as a White Ribbon Ambassador?

        This equation becomes even more crucial when you consider how the trans and gender non-binary communities can and are explicitly feminist. They have active, often painful, experience of how the Patriarchy seeks to control and constrict. They live with the vulnerability and resistance of that. Again, it’s at a higher level and at greater stakes than faced by other men. Even then, making space for transfeminists has been negatively fraught, which makes working on that a far higher priority than handing a slogan-friendly t-shirt and title to some other man.

        I do know men who do the work, who actively research and reflect on the inequality on display. Men like Dr Michael Salter who research and discuss gender and violence. Would I call him a feminist? No. Instead, I refer to him by the work he does and the authority he has accrued: a wonderful academic who specialises in gender and violence. There’s a difference – what he does is recognised, rather than divvying up a term that he hasn’t applied to himself. It’s the work that brings actual community recognition and a seat at the table, not the demand to be at the table.

        The question isn’t whether men can be called feminists; it’s why they want to be called feminists. If we’re going to make this exchange, we need to question what we’re getting in return.

        Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

        Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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          Feminist Allyship to Sex Workers: Part One

          By Gala Vanting

          This is the first in a two part series on sex work, feminism and activism.

          Australian sex workers breathed a collective sigh of relief a few years ago when Sheila Jeffreys picked up her bottomless carpetbag of whorephobic rhetoric and let it whoosh her off to the UK, Mary Poppins-style. Finally, we could redirect some of our valuable activist energy away from picketing her appearances and towards building our own body of theory, action and resources that extended beyond her denials that we could even exist.

          Cue: Julie Bindel, the latest craze in SWERFdom, who’s making her way through Australia promoting her latest book to ‘abolish the sex work myth’. The impossible mythological beasts of which she speaks, actual sex workers, are responding in a variety of ways, from street party protest to engaging directly to counterpoint her position that the best way for the work we do to be safer for us is for it to continue to be criminalised. Never mind that the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and every HIV organisation ever recommends decriminalisation as the appropriate framework for the promotion of sex worker health and human rights (but what do they know anyway – they probably don’t even have journalism degrees).

          It’s times like these that I get to thinking about feminist allyship to sex workers. Whilst I’m aware that #notallfeminists are anti-sex work, there’s a pretty gaping chasm between ‘not being against’ and being an ally. Being an ally means speaking her name when we hear of another woman assaulted, raped, killed – even if she is a sex worker. Being an ally means intervening in the stigma that continues to cost sex workers their lives, day jobs, custody of their children, personal relationships, fundamental human rights, and many other mod cons.

          For many sex workers, sex work is just work; it’s not that complicated. I understand that it can be pretty tricky for those who are ‘not against’ us to intellectually, politically, and personally integrate all of the questions that sex work brings up in feminist dialogues. As a feminist and a sex worker, I’m here to help.

          Let’s start with the basics: bodily autonomy. As feminists, we believe that individual women’s bodies belong to individual women. Not to men, not to the State, not to advertising, not to any institution of oppression. Throughout the history of the movement, we’ve had to reckon with the ways in which some bodies end up being more equal than others in the campaign for that autonomy. How is it that we believe in a woman’s right to execute supreme decision-making power over her own corporeal form, unless that woman is also a sex worker? How does a sex worker’s body move outside of our acceptable range of bodies that can be self-determined?

          Oh, by patriarchal capitalism, you say.

          So glad you mentioned it. I’ve got some unfortunate news for anyone currently participating in a capitalist economy: you are a victim of exploitation. It’s the name of the game. Especially if you happen to be a woman. I’m always tickled by the argument that the labour of sex work is always already especially exploitative. After having sampled the labour conditions at Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, in childcare and film production, and as a freelance writer, I can confirm that the labour conditions of my sex work are the most conducive to my wellbeing. The only other thing I’d ask for is, say, the same industrial rights as any other member of the Australian labour force. You know, mod cons.

          ‘But look at all of your privileges!’ you say. ‘You are the 1%.’

          My set of privileges allows me to do things like have this side hustle that is writing about my experience. It also allows me to access the tools required to work independently as a sex worker, giving me control over the clients I see, the rates I charge, the health and safety practices I employ, and the hours I work. There are many, many sex workers who don’t hold these privileges. Who work under poor management, pay out at least half of their earnings to licensing fees, agencies, or pimps, are advertised with terminology that degrades their humanity, are medically surveilled, and have less power to negotiate safer sex practices, rates, or working hours. Because their work is, with only two exceptions, fully or partially criminalised the world over, they cannot access the right to safe working conditions, fair pay, non-discrimination, and the right to organise or to take industrial action. Because doing their work makes them criminals, they are not empowered to ask for better conditions.

          Have a look back over the issues I’ve named. What do they have in common? They are labour issues. They are not gender issues. Neither, of course, exist in a vacuum. But the insistence that this set of labour issues is better addressed by ‘rescuing’ sex workers from their profession, the rhetorical collapsing of sex work and sex trafficking, the positioning of the sex working body as abject, laughable, diseased, duped by the patriarchy; as an object for the consumption of both men and fellow feminists, as the worksite of a ‘radical feminist’ agenda that has its roots in the denial of multi-dimensional and intersectional experiences of female and feminist bodies: that is where feminism fails sex workers. That is where feminist allyship is absolutely necessary for our very survival.

          Julie, Sheila and their comrades-toting-carpetbags believe that their work IS allyship. That they’re only looking out for us feeble prostitutes. That ending rape culture requires putting sex workers out of work. That we all want the same thing: women’s liberation, and that they’re in a far better position than we are to lead the way there. All of this without even talking to us or learning what we experience or think about our work. The bags of tricks is bottomless, and it isn’t afraid to bottom out – if you can’t attack the argument, attack the woman making it (or here).

          We need our own allyship toolkit, which you can use to help women retain their personal autonomy and rights. I’ll take you through the steps next month, with the facts and examples you need to be a feminist ally.

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          Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

          Gala Vanting is a sex worker, writer, educator and activist living and working on stolen Gadigal land. She aims to create compassionate, intelligent, and justice-driven dialogue about sexuality and sexual cultures with an intersectional queer feminist approach. More of her work can be found on and

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            5 things we can learn from Dr Constance Stone, Queen Victoria Hospital founder

            Dr Constance StoneDr Constance Stone

            by Amy Gray

            As we threw open the doors for Melbourne Open House on the weekend, we took the opportunity to throw open the history books and learn more about this building’s amazing history and how feminism can truly build something magnificent.

            And it all starts with one amazing woman: Constance Stone.

            In the 1890s, there was no vote for women, limited job options, less education and success in life depended on which man you married. That was the world Constance lived in and defied.

            Along with her husband, Constance wanted to study medicine. Back then, Melbourne University wouldn’t admit women into their medicine course. So she took herself to Pennsylvania and Toronto and came back with a dream to create a hospital staffed with women to help all women in Melbourne.  Constance was certain that specialist and empathetic care from women doctors for women patients was crucial – to provide women with compassionate care.

            When Constance came back to Melbourne and became the first woman registered with the Medical Board of Victoria, she immediately reached out to other women doctors and formed the Victorian Medical Women’s Society (VMWS). This professional association became the headquarters to band women together, plan their own career development and help women in the community, and has since become the longest running women’s medical association in the world.

            Together, the VMWS immediately set up practice in a hall at the Welsh Church where Dr Constance Stone’s husband was pastor. The women doctor’s faith that women needed their services was proven when 2000 women came for treatment in the first three months. Many of the women patients were unable to pay for treatment, so it was provided free of charge.

            Still committed to her vision of hospital for woman, run by women, Dr Stone and the VMWS created the Queen’s Shilling Wall, where all Victorian women were asked to donate a shilling to fund construction of a hospital. The fund helped them build the Queen Victoria Hospital in Mint Place a year later, before they moved to the much larger site where QVWC is located today.

            Dr Constance Stone’s story gives us lessons that still ring true today:

            1. Before expecting work from others, work on yourself
              Constance knew that to build her dream of a women’s hospital, she needed to get educated and experienced. Which is exactly what she did.
            2. Go around when you can’t go through
              There are always going to be barriers – in Dr Constance Stone’s case, rampant sexism preventing women from participating in public life and receiving adequate care. She didn’t have time to wait for Melbourne University to start admitting women students, so she went around them and got her education overseas. This is where you weigh up your priorities to decide your best action – in Stone’s case getting Melbourne women access to medical help was greater than getting women into Melbourne Uni, even if the two were connected.
            3. Use your privilege to help others
              Despite the limitations of the day, Dr Constance Stone leveraged the privilege available to her – an understanding and relatively wealthy partner – to get the education and experience she needed so she could help others.
            4. Build it yourself if society won’t
              Dr Constance Stone dreamed of a hospital run by women when women were not even permitted to study medicine, let alone run a hospital. Her dreams transcended the narrow discrimination surrounding her and wanted more than society would even give. So with a group of other educated and committed women, Dr Stone built exactly what society wasn’t going to give – and in the short amount of time she had, she watched it prosper.
            5. Act individually and collectively 
              The history of the Queen Victoria Hospital shows just what can happen when people act individually (like getting an education) and collectively (opening clinics or donating to build a hospital). This was shown again in the 1980s when women in Victoria campaigned to save part of the Queen Victoria Memorial Hospital from demolition to become today’s QVWC.

            Dr Stone and others never wavered from their vision of helping women. This can be seen in their coat of arms we found in the QVWC archives: Pro Feminis, A Feminis (For Women, By Women). Today’s definition of womanhood is more inclusive than it was previously, but the commitment to serve and help all women is something that we should all work towards.

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            Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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              Dr Cathy Kezelman – The Blue Knot Foundation

              Queen Victoria Women

              Dr Cathy Kezelman

              by Nicole Smith

              Tragedy struck Dr. Cathy Kezelman almost twenty years ago when her niece Angie died in a car accident. Working as a General Practitioner in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, Cathy thought she had a comprehensive understanding of grief.

              However this untimely death triggered previously buried memories and emotions to surface in her conscious mind, “I started having panic attacks and sank into a deep depression.  After two decades, I had to leave medicine, because I wasn’t functioning. At the time I thought I was going mad; my medical training didn’t help.”

              A survivor of childhood emotional and sexual abuse, Cathy began experiencing flashbacks where she was reliving fragments of what had happened to her. She had no concept of time and would re-live the sensations and the fear without any understanding of what was happening to her.

              Cathy became very unwell; virtually bed-bound and experiencing suicidal ideation. Married with four children, she retreated into herself and everyone else ceased to exist.  She became detached from reality and suffered crowding of thoughts, describing like a marketplace in her head. She believes dissociation has been sensationalised in the media, but at the core it is an amazing defence mechanism to prevent the psyche from becoming overwhelmed.

              Cathy’s road to recovery began when she started therapy and writing a book, published as Innocence Revisited: A Tale in Parts in 2010. During her period of recovery Cathy began reading every book she could find in the library around psychology and trauma. This research led to her involvement in Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA). Although the organisation was fledgling at the time, it provided a place for survivors to belong: “You can often feel like an absolute alien, so it was invaluable to learn that although I was terrified, I wasn’t mad. Indeed the way I’d survived made total sense in the context of the trauma.”


              Volunteering for close to a decade until the organisation could afford to support paid roles, Cathy held leadership roles within ASCA for the past twelve years, becoming the org’s president in February 2012.

              ASCA was eventually renamed The Blue Knot foundation to be more inclusive for those who have experienced trauma and to symbolise the intricacies of childhood trauma. And the blue? It’s a calming colour symbolising the opportunity for recovery, which was important to Cathy – “We wanted to embody more than just surviving – it’s about recovery and resilience.”

              The Blue Knot Foundation supports the 1 in 4 Australian survivors of childhood trauma with information and resources, like their helpline. Cathy says “we have found there is a lack of specific understanding from generic helplines, despite their best intentions. One phone call with the right person who understood, changed my life.”

              Since early 2013, a Royal Commission has been held into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The investigation has looked into why the system has failed to protect children in public, private and non-government organisations from abuse. As part of this enquiry over 7,000 victims of institutionalised sexual abuse have told their story to a commissioner, victims who Cathy notes “need to be acknowledged for their strength and resilience in surviving”.


              In 2015 The Royal Commission’s consultation report, recommending a redress scheme for victims, totally $4.37 billion. These funds would go toward improving psychological and counselling services for survivors and financial compensation for survivors. If requested, survivors would also receive a response from the institution responsible

              The Commonwealth Redress Scheme is an ‘opt-in’ proposal for all states and territories, and non-government organisations and charities will be later invited to join the scheme. The Federal Government pledged $33.4 million in the 2017 – 2018 budget to establishing the scheme, which will last approximately a decade from 1st July  2018.

              Cathy says the establishment of a Royal Commission, and in turn more conversation around family violence and sexual abuse, has encouraged more survivors of abuse to come out of the shadows to courageously share their experiences.

              “The Royal Commission has changed the landscape not just in this country but globally. However the positive legacy needs to grow and flourish; we need to see ongoing changes to legislation, to improving survivor support, justice, and child safe organisations.”

              “The Commonwealth Government is certainly showing leadership with the scheme but it’s a work in progress, not the be-all and end-all. In fact, the stories the Commission has heard in the private sessions are the tip of the iceberg”, she says.

              Educating the wider community about the reality of abuse is one of the most important determinants of positive outcomes for survivors: “All humans should be traumaiinformed; the media tends to sensationalise abuse and focus on worst cases, which can cause shame and silence victims. Therefore, it is critically important to educate people about the long-term impact of abuse, how to talk to people who disclose their experience of abuse, and how to access pathways to support”.

              Training around the impact of abuse needs to be improved within the legal and justice sector, and the medical community, particularly for General Practitioners. In addition, the Government needs to invest more in training for those working directly with survivors. Often this trauma is inflated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so it is critical that survivors are made to feel safe, and are assisted to regulate their anxiety and emotions. Access to appropriate services is essential because people can recover from this disabling condition.

              On Australia Day 2015 Dr Cathy Kezelman was awarded a Member of the Order (AM) of Australia for her services to mental health. While she is deeply honoured by the recognition, for Cathy the key driver is recognition of the cause, “the AM helps me open doors and be listened to. My aim is to keep the issue of childhood trauma on the national agenda.”

              If you are a survivor of childhood trauma or abuse, please reach out. Contact the Blue Knot Helpline on 1300 657 380 or visit Knot Day is  October 29 2018.

              This article was republished from Nicole Smith’s website Blank Pages & Empty Spaces website.


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              Nicole Smith

              Nicole Smith is a Melbourne-based writer who dreams of talking to interesting people and working on her laptop in hipster cafes. A recipient of a Write-ability Fellowship from Writers Victoria, she hopes to shift society’s focus to people doing good for her community.

              You can follow her Facebook page or website for more information.

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                Feminism’s Rituals

                We have to plant the seeds or tomorrow’s harvest will never come.


                By Amy Gray

                History is crowded with forgotten rituals. When times were unpredictable, communities would conduct elaborate affairs to bring a good harvest. These were big events and everyone would turn up, knowing they would all benefit.

                On the surface, we don’t have a place for many rituals today. Crops are engineered to never fail, and science continues to cast light on the shadows but the need for rituals remain.

                The recent “Reclaim the Park” in honour of Eurydice Dixon and 29 other women killed this year was an example of a purification ritual. People came to a place tarnished by a horrific crime and paid their respects, feeling warmth and community among strangers. It’s an important ritual that transforms a site that has shocked the community, reminding it of our vulnerability, to one of strength and positivity.

                But, as Jenna Price asked in a recent editorial for the Age, these are rituals for the statistical anomalies – fatal violence against women is rarely from strangers on isolated streets but by people they know in isolated homes. Those women get no vigils, there is no congregation to light candles for them.

                Even then, what comes after the ritual? Today’s white feminist practice can often place huge importance and social worth on a personal performance rather than a community one – a case of “I went to the vigil” instead that it happened – a one way broadcast simulcast across social media rather than a collaboration.

                It’s a collaboration that is needed as both Ruby Hamad and Nayuka Gorrie have noted that these flashpoints are often racially biased towards white women, while women victims of colour are ignored by the commentariat.

                As Hamad also said on Twitter, those same commentators may unwittingly seek to leverage these tragedies and focus for professional and political gain, no matter what side of the political spectrum they may lie. It takes on a literal turn when you see Turnbull and Shorten lit by the vigil’s candlelight; able to say they were there but unable to show what they do to protect women.

                These rituals are impressive but they don’t cover the many women continually killed by men, men who are often protected by political inaction, or the garbled use of funds that will bankroll a new domestic violence initiative but not welfare or safe housing. It’s a moving vigil but about as politically potent as a depressed woman hanging up a “Good Vibes Only” poster.

                Here’s the thing about those old rituals: the farmers may have prayed for good harvests but they still planted the fields. Not only that, they focused on the entire crop, rather than one rare plant. They still did the work of tending grounds and using the knowledge they had because they knew the ritual was only one part of a long process.

                This does not mean women should be saddled with more unpaid labour to prove some measure – men are more obligated to challenge the systems and abusers who surround them, some of whom also attended vigils. But it does mean making gender equality a measurable path that spans more than news cycles and social media trends.

                Yassmin Abdel-Magied often finds a way to balance visibility and action, marshalling action and momentum via social media. When the long campaign to repeal Noura Hussein’s death sentence was successful, Yassmin noted “Never let anyone tell you that an action is too small and that it won’t make a difference”. Even still, she took the time to ask others to support SEEMA Centre which worked on the ground to support Hussein. There’s a ritual, but it is backed with meaningful work and support.

                This is the early morning hard graft, of making women’s safety a political priority, one that has agency and freedom at its core. Far too often our knee jerk response to protecting women is to restricting rights rather than expanding space and liberty. If one tragic park can fill with 10,000 people, imagine if that turned into sustained political campaigning? What if 10,000 people demanded increased funding for actual services to protect women? Like the farmers, putting in a season or two of sustained work, imagine what we could grow.

                There are many doing the hard work of planting crops for tomorrow’s women. But we can’t let them labour alone. It’s time to do more than appear

                We have to plant the seeds or tomorrow’s harvest will never come.


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                Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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                  What Ireland’s repeal means for Australia

                  MASER's Repeal Artwork, DublinBy Louise Omer

                  Over the weekend, I witnessed Dublin in the midst of revolution. A revolution where grins of solidarity were shared between strangers wearing Yes badges or where you could see the tense hope of Mar canvassing at Dublin Connolly station twenty-seven years after campaigning for an illegal condom machine at a university. The moment when Ilaina cheered gregariously, a Malaysian woman fighting for the visibility of migrant women, rang out. The moment we all literally felt the electricity of triumph at Dublin Castle as people poured and kept pouring into the cobblestone courtyard, the roaring crowd celebrating the activists and politicians onstage – almost all of whom were women.

                  It’s hard to describe the rage and hope and relief, the sense of power toppling, of a new world unfurling. Instead, here are the facts.

                  On May 25, Ireland voted Yes in an historic referendum to legalise abortion. The vote was to repeal the eighth amendment, a 1983 addition to the Irish constitution that gave “the unborn” “equal right to life as the mother”.

                  As many advocates for women’s rights know, outlawing reproductive healthcare doesn’t stop women seeking abortions, but instead makes them harder to access. It increases the suffering of women in crisis.

                  Each day, 12 women travel from Ireland to England to seek reproductive healthcare; at least 170,216 women and girls have done so between 1980 and 2016. A further number order abortion pills to take at home without medical supervision, under risk of breaking the law. This carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment under 2013′s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act.

                  But on Saturday May 25, the country staged a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, with 66.4% voting Yes. The 2:1 victory was a surprise to the entire country – even prominent Yes activists on the day of the referendum feared it mightn’t pass.

                  In a country emerging from the stronghold of Catholic values, testimonies of women’s experience have been tantamount in changing the hearts and minds of voters. The story of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist who died in 2012 from septicaemia after she was denied an abortion, galvanised the movement, and her image has come to represent the pain of Irish women.

                  Similarly, Not at Home is an art project that published the testimonies of women travelling to England. The group Terminations for Medical Reasons campaigned hard to make the lived experiences of women who had a termination in a case of foetal abnormality heard. On Twitter, in newspapers, and in conversations across the country, the taboo was broken as women bravely revealed their stories, provoking emotional responses, and educating about the personal impact of the abhorrent laws.

                  The punishment of female sexuality is the historical context of the referendum. Throughout the 20th century “fallen women” who became pregnant out of marriage were pushed into Mother Baby Homes or Magdalene Laundries. These state-sponsored institutions were run by the Church, with incredible evidence of slave-like conditions, starvation and abuse.

                  Young women I know told me a No vote would have signified that Ireland doesn’t care about women (well – stronger language may have been used). They spoke about leaving the country, or if they were expats, about never coming home.

                  The evening the results were announced, the streets of Dublin were jubilant. Repeal t-shirts were everywhere and pubs were packed; a group of women decorated their car with colourful “YES”s and drove up and down Dame St, shouting from a megaphone and beeping at pedestrians who whooped in return. Locals were not celebrating, as conservative Catholics claimed, because they wanted to “kill babies”; but because it illustrates a shift in the Irish attitude towards women. By successfully fighting for bodily autonomy, women in Ireland have claimed their freedom.

                  The day after the victory, I spoke to Kathy D’Arcy, editor of the anthology Autonomy and Chair of the Cork Together for Yes campaign. “I felt in my heart that the country hated me,” she said. “A lot of women felt that. But we woke up this morning and we realised this country belongs to us.”

                  She was in her office, already sending emails to politicians. Legislation, for terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, is hoped to be passed within six months. That’s not fast enough, D’Arcy says. It’s important to remember that women are leaving the country on planes this morning to access abortions.

                  This has similarities to Australian reproductive healthcare. In January the last clinic in Tasmania to provide terminations closed, forcing women to travel to access abortions. Michelle Thompson, chief executive of Marie Stopes, told the Guardian this year that 10-12 Tasmanian women are visiting the Melbourne clinic every month. This is only five years since abortion was decriminalised.

                  As well as being an incredibly stressful experience, travelling to access an abortion is expensive. There is the cost of the surgical procedure itself, add up flights, accommodation, and time off work; this is an economic issue.

                  Australian laws are different in each state. In Queensland and NSW, abortion remains illegal – unless a woman’s mental or physical health is threatened. Seeking a solution, many women order the abortion pill and take it without medical supervision. This situation puts the health of many at risk.

                  As we’ve seen in Ireland, campaigning for abortion is not about the ethical legitimacy of the procedure; we know that women will seek the reproductive healthcare they need, whether it’s legal or not. Instead, the provision of safe and easy access to abortion is about prioritising the medical care of women. And Australia needs to keep fighting.


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                  Louise Omer, photographed by Bri Hammond
                  Louise Omer writes on feminism, religion and books, with work published in The Guardian, The Australian, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. In 2017 she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship recipient and shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. She is currently working on her first book, Holy Woman

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                    The life-changing magic of actually listening to women

                    By Amy Gray

                    The past 12 months has taught us that stories can change the world. #MeToo has sustained itself into an ongoing movement through the power of personal stories, traumatic testimonies and calculated action.

                    When you listen to what women have to say, it is truly extraordinary.

                    Yet, when it comes to publishing, we still aren’t listening to women, let alone printing their stories. For an industry overwhelmingly staffed with them, it is still men in positions of power and higher salaries.

                    This has a flow-on effect to what gets published…and guess which way it goes? More men will submit or pitch their manuscripts, more men will get signed up or commissioned, more men will get reviewed by the media, which will lead to greater promotion budgets, stock levels, then sales and, finally, literature prizes.

                    Taking it further, most publishing professionals across the US, UK and Australia are white, generally heterosexual and cisgendered. It has exactly the sort of impact you’d expect: we are left with bookstores stocked with the same characters written by the same writers all coming to the same conclusion.

                    Sunili Govinnage discovered the impact of this when she spent 2014 reading nonwhite writers: it was bloody hard to access recommended, reviewed or rewarded literature in the usual sources in mainstream press or even online bookseller lists.

                    For women writers of colour, this is further complicated by the racial bias they face. Not only are they published less, but they are often forced to perform their race within their work for a readers the industry assume are white, forcing them into dual roles of artists and translators.

                    As Nayuka Gorrie wrote in a speech for ACMI’s screening of James Baldwin doco “I Am Not Your Negro?”, this often translates into forcing writers of colour to perform their trauma to entice a white audience to believe white supremacy exists, despite a bounty of daily evidence doing the same.

                    The art of trauma – whether highlighting white supremacy or misogyny – is the literary cul-de-sac where women writers reign. The dominance is a combination of trauma memoirs’ popularity with readers and editors, plus…it’s easy to cover your trauma when you’re a woman living under a white supremacist patriarchy.

                    There’s something decidedly uneasy about this. Women’s stories are being fenced into pens with restrictions on what they can discuss for a marketplace already conditioned to dismiss women’s work as niche novelty. Whether fiction or memoir, we want trauma, a performance of womanhood and race.

                    Even if these works are amazing and informative, it places a standard or stereotype on writers which is impossible to escape and limits their ability to tell stories. It can even hamper careers, with writers defined by their trauma rather than their talent.

                    Perhaps it comes back to whether we actively read broadly and entertain the radical notion that white male writers are not the default in either expression or experience. It’s rare for a male writer to be tokenised – his issues are considered universal, his interpretation rational rather than emotional. White male writers are given an access-all-areas pass – their work is considered universal and will be sold to all audiences.

                    The rest of us are not so lucky. Neither are readers, who are missing out on a universe of stories through this restriction

                    If there is power in a story, there must be power in a reader. Because if sharing your story is a radical act, seeking out those story tellers to listen is just as radical.

                    Join 2018 Stella Prize winner Alexis Wright and artist, writer and researcher Evelyn Araluen for a special conversation about the process of recording and crafting history that is both intimate and national. June 12 – QVWC – Waitlist available here.


                    Subscribe to our Newsletter

                    Stay in touch with us and we will stay in touch with you. Subscribe today and receive our monthly newsletter.

                    Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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