Tag Archives: feminist

“I am not my hair“: one woman’s journey to loving her ‘fro

By Hiba

I’ve had a complicated relationship with my hair since I was 8 years old. That’s the age when I was erroneously called ‘spring onion’ by my classmates because short, frizzy strands of my thick North African hair would escape from the tight braid my mother put it in and would stand vertically like little springs. The bullying made me self-conscious of my appearance and begin to resent my natural hair, but more importantly that was the first time that I had a concept of ‘difference’ and that I was not like everyone else in my almost entirely Caucasian public Primary School. To stop the name-calling I tried to cut off the rebellious frizzy hairs, which was my first act of trying to change my body to fit other’s expectations of what I ‘should’ look like.

Only a few years later mother changed my hair colour with a gradual lightening product. I was confused as to why she did so and didn’t like pretending to be something that I wasn’t and how the lighter brown hair clashed with my tan skin, but my mother wouldn’t hear any of it. In her mind fairer and more Caucasian-looking was better, a concept remnant of her own upbringing in post-colonial North Africa where skin, hair and eye colour still corresponded to class and social status.

At age 13 I finally convinced my mother to let me cut my hair short. Up until that point my mother had never let me cut my hair, so it was long and grew past my hips and was a nightmare to maintain coupled with its thickness and frizziness. I convinced her on such practical grounds, but for me it was a symbol of finally taking some control over my own body and making a decision for myself about how I ‘should’ appear.

Over the next decade I subjected my hair to every hair product and device you can imagine to make my hair look more Caucasian: chemical relaxers, flat irons, curlers, serums, mousses, sprays, gels, waxes, braiding, thinning, extensions… if you can name it then I had tried it. I spent thousands of dollars and hours upon hours of my time and my mother’s time trying to change my hair into something different. I tried to rationalise and  justify it to myself on the grounds that it would be easier to manage if it were straighter, that it would look more professional or employable, that others would see it as more attractive, and so on. All the while I knew deep down that there was something amiss and that I wasn’t happy with the lengthy daily process of burning, stretching and moulding my hair.

In 2012 I took the plunge and stopped chemically relaxing my hair, cut off the remains of the straightened hair and left a curly, frizzy ‘afro‘. The main reason I did so was the simple fact that I could no longer afford both the money and time that went into chemical and physical hair-straightening process. I was also curious to see how my natural hair, unseen since I was a pre-teen, would look like. Neither of these reasons were particularly serious or heavy, but that decision would nonetheless still have a significant impact on my self-perception.

Considering how often I had changed my hair in the previous decade, I didn’t expect a change in the way that people would treat me after I went natural. However, I began to be subjected to ‘micro-aggressions’ in conversations where people would mean to compliment me on my “exotic” hairstyle, which as an occasional comment was fine, but would happen so frequently that by the end of a day I would feel ‘othered’ and constantly singled out as different and an outsider who didn’t belong. More damaging was my parents’ reaction to my new hairstyle which was of disapproval and shame, believing my hair to look “too African” and “ugly”, in denial of their cultural background and the lingering effects of colonialism on their self-hatred. Even more serious was that my personal space was frequently violated by complete strangers on the street, in shopping centres or at social events who would without asking for consent pat my head, run their fingers through my hair, or hug or embrace me while also touching my hair. In the first few weeks after changing my hair I felt dehumanised and reduced to an alien object on public display for Caucasian people’s amusement and whose consent was irrelevant.

That was the first time that I began to reflect on my relationship with my hair over my lifetime, how I had felt about it over the years, how people’s treatment of me changed with it, and how both I and others defined me by it. I began to see my hair as a site of resistance, where over the years I had fought myself, my mother and wider society for control over my body and on how I ‘should’ look. I began to understand why it was a site of such controversy, why hundreds of years of European colonialism has shaped what we deem as ‘beautiful’ and how that concept has never included my natural state. I questioned why my body was seen as a ‘public space’ that complete strangers had the right to comment on or touch without consent, and how that was compounded by the dehumanising way that this society views women’s bodies, people of colour, and fat people – all three of which were true of me. I began to realise that the very act of wearing my hair in its natural state was a political statement and a physical representation on my body of a “f*** you” message to a society that had warped my self-perception for most of my life. Most importantly, I accepted that I am not my hair and that I could define myself beyond just physical appearance and that how I wore my hair had nothing to do with how good a person I was or my potential as a human being.

It’s like, you don’t even care how disgusting I find you, you’re #sahbrave

Why hello, most backhanded of all backhanded compliments, it’s so nice to see you again. I’ve been hearing you for years, from lots of different people, nearly all women.

I hadn’t heard it for a while, until I was sitting in a bar with a group of young women, most of whom would identify themselves as being feminist, and then it hit me smack bang in the middle of the conversation.

First, “Well you wouldn’t think it was a good idea would you, you’re not very attractive”

To which I responded, “That’s pretty rude”

“Well, I mean, OBVIOUSLY I was JOKING

Followed by (from a different attendee) “I mean, obviously she’s joking, I think it’s great you don’t wear make up every day. It’s so brave”

And there we go. Again. They don’t really mean any harm by it I suppose. But what they’re really saying is ‘hey there, look at you out there, not conforming to what I expect of you and not even caring that I find you disgusting’

How. Fucking. Brave.

The thing about ‘you’re so brave’ is that it’s often a comment that comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it hits you like a ton of bricks. I remember going out to dinner with a family member once thinking I looked pretty nice. I went to the bathroom and after I came back I was treated to, “Wow, look at that dress you’re wearing, it’s so brave of you to show of your curves like that. You’re so voluptuous. I wish I was as confidant as you”

As a young woman who wasn’t really that comfortable with the idea of being called the evil fat a million times while I ate my pasta it really stuck with me. What hit me the most is that I knew they didn’t really mean it, because they would never believe that you could ever be anything other than skinny to be beautiful, attractive or desirable.

That is the crux of the problem. Because of the way that our society is structured we know that the only way to really be attractive is to be stick thin and big boobed and white and blond and able bodied all at the same time. Anyone who doesn’t fit that particular ideal (or at least most of it) isn’t really enough.

As much as I loathe to write a piece about how terrible it is the way women tear each other down (because, lord knows, there’s enough of those around) the idea that you’re just so brave to be willing to exist outside of the ideal comes mostly from women. I just don’t really understand why people find the need to say it.

Is there another way that it should be? Should people who aren’t skinny, or aren’t able bodied or aren’t ‘attractive’ in the traditional sense hide away? Or wear giant clothing that hides any semblance of a shape? Is it that women shouldn’t be out in the world being so open about being fat, or ugly or old or (dis) abled?

So, if any of you who think we’re just so brave are reading this, think about it the next time you go to say it. Because we know what you really mean.

I’d love to hear your opinions, especially on twitter, hash tag what you’ve been told with #sahbrave. Tag @nuswomens for your voice to be heard!  


My Feminist Action Network went to Slut Walk! and all I got was this lousy feeling of discomfort

Written by the Zoe Bush,

When attending the SlutWalk rally on Sunday, FAN was deeply inspired by the bravery of women who shared their stories of sexual assault and agitated for their own liberation from the awful ideas that exist in rape culture. The criticisms in the following blog are in no way directed at the courageous organisers who committed a lot of time and energy to the event, but are rather offered as constructive commentary on how FAN believes we can better serve our mutual goals of liberation for all women.

It is not hard to see the appeal in SlutWalks – in an age where feminist activism often appears dead, women taking to the streets and demanding that enough is enough is exciting and empowering.

The fundamental message behind SlutWalks is also an absolutely essential one – that responsibility for sexual assault always falls on the perpetrator, and that how a person looks or acts NEVER explains or excuses sexual violence. The recent decision by a Manitoba judge to not sentence a rapist to jail time because his victim wore high heels, a tube top and was generally “inviting.”, reveals that this message is one that we still need to fight for (still!).

However, many members of FAN had serious concerns about how SlutWalks goes about making this demand, particularly surrounding the attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’. But we decided to go – who were we to criticize SlutWalks without even attending the event and seeing for ourselves?

Initially hopeful, we arrived at the event hoping to be pleasantly surprised. However, what we found was an event saturated in post-feminist ideas of individual choice that only confirmed our initial criticisms and hesitations in supporting the event.

Not it’s time for me to stop alluding to all these ‘criticisms’ and actually explain.

By endorsing the word ‘slut’ as an empowering and liberating thing for women, SlutWalks facilitates neo-liberal, postfeminist discourses of ‘liberated’ women as  those wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. It buys into the commodification of women’s sexuality under capitalism, and simply repackages sexist imagery and actions in ‘empowering’ clothes, under the post-feminist façade of choice. It’s time we debunked these neo-liberal ideas of ‘anything-goes-so-long-as-we-call-it-a-choice’, and remember the role that choice plays in feminism.

Choice has been, and continues to be, essential to the feminist movement – it is thanks to feminists pushing for women’s right to choose that I am now able to vote, have a much greater deal of reproductive freedom and can go to university. However the idea of choice that I have to thank for these rights is a different one to that which is used in endorsing practices that have worked to sexually objectify women for decades as suddenly empowering because women ‘chose’ to participate in them. This re-appropriation of choice is done in an un-feminist way – in this discourse, choice is solely about individuals and is removed from any larger context. Not only does this understanding of ‘choice’ fail to address the structural oppression that prevents women from making free choices, this rhetoric is also dangerously easy to manipulate in order to actually limit choices for women.

One person’s freedom to make ‘choices’ may represent his or her feelings of personal empowerment in his or her own life, but in no way does this liberate anyone but that person and, in fact, his or her ‘choice’ may exist at the expense of another woman’s oppression. It is necessary to consider just who gets to ‘choose’ that being a ‘slut’ is suddenly a positive thing, who gets to ‘choose’ to play around with the idea of sexual objectification? These ‘choices’ are only available to those who feel safe enough and privileged enough to ‘play’ with these ideas. As expressed by the BlackWomen’s Blueprint:

As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves “slut” without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.  We don’t have the privilege to play on destructive representations burned in our collective minds, on our bodies and souls for generations. [1]

Therefore these ‘choices’ are much more available to those women who already experience privilege.

This criticism of neo-liberal and post-feminist ideas of ‘choice’ is very relevant to SlutWalks. While the ‘choice’ by an individual woman to embrace the word ‘slut’ may be empowering for her in her own life, not only do I fail to see how this ‘choice’ liberates and empowers others, but the danger this poses to other women appears obvious. I’m afraid that I cannot see how embracing the word ‘slut’ presents a challenge to sexist imagery and discourse around women and female sexuality. Further to this, creating a space where it is not only acceptable, but progressive (!) for men to call women sluts seems like a very dangerous thing to do.

Let me use an example.

As the march progressed throughout the city and Northbridge, we were met with many jeers of ‘sluts!’, or ‘Good on ya, you sluts!’ from male passerby, laughing and thinking this whole fiasco was fantastic. Now I don’t know whether I was the only woman in the entire march who felt it, but when those words were tossed at us, it hurt. I did not feel liberated, and I definitely did not feel empowered. Yet in response to these jeers, one of the organisers would always respond with ‘Why, thank you!’.

I think this reveals the problem with Slutwalks. The word slut has been used to police, shame, guilt, objectify and hurt women. It is not our word. It has been a tool of violence against women. The danger is this – when a small group of predominantly white women decide that suddenly the word slut is a positive thing that they want to reclaim, their individual choices, while possibly evidencing empowerment in their own life, comes at the expense of those who have not been involved in that decision process. This can be seen in the anxiousness and resistance to reclaiming the word slut that has been expressed by women of colour. When that small group of predominantly white women take to the streets and inform the world that suddenly all women wear the badge ‘slut’ with pride, this normalizes the use of the word without changing its meaning for what I would imagine to be a vast majority of women, so that it may be used against them in hurtful ways.

Like every other post-feminist attempt to reclaim the sexual objectification women have been experiencing and fighting against for decades as a suddenly new and liberating sexuality for women, embracing the word ‘slut’ really is ‘drinking the systematic kool-aid’[2]. It degrades women to fuck objects – and who wants to give a fuck object rights? Who believes that fuck objects deserve equal pay? And who thinks that fuck objects should have the power to choose what happens to their own bodies? In only drawing attention to woman as sexual objects and ‘sluts’, Slutwalks fails to give women the full respect they deserve – as human beings with rights, hopes, ambitions and achievements. It seriously undermines women’s struggle to make gains in the workplace, the family, and every other aspect of their lives, and brings us back to square one where we are reduced to sexual objects.

But that’s not all – not only is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’ problematic in how it buys into the dangerous discourses of post-feminism, I would argue that it is in fact nearly impossible. The word ‘slut’ only has meaning in the patriarchal ‘whore’ view of women’s sexuality. It is so saturated with the idea that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning would be one serious uphill battle.

However, SlutWalks does not even attempt to change the problematic view of female sexual energy that the word ‘slut’ produces. At the march on Sunday, one of the placards stated that ‘A slut is a woman who likes sex, NOT someone who deserves to get raped!’. Let’s get something clear – it is not so strange for women to like sex that, when they do, they are different to ‘normal’ women and require their own label. Buying into the portrayal of women’s sexuality as deviant and troublesome is absolutely not the way to go about challenging the misogynist attitudes that perpetuate the risk of sexual violence that women face. To do this, we need to move beyond this redundant and extremely harmful stereotype.

And so slut is not a word we should (or I would even argue, can) reclaim.

As has already been said by many feminists, we already have a word for women who support a woman’s right to bodily integrity, who condemn victim-blaming, and believe that women should be able to express and experience their sexuality without being shamed or guilted, and that word is a feminist.  Feminism is a word and a movement that was created by women, it is ours. It is not sourced in an attempt to shame, guilt, humiliate and hurt women who exist outside the patriarchal capitalist ‘norm’ of women’s sexuality. Slut was never ours – it belongs to misogynists and was produced by the patriarchy.

Feminism is our word and our movement.  It does everything that the attempt to reclaim the word ‘slut’ does and much, much more.  Let’s take to the streets and demand an end to this bullshit idea that how a person looks or acts can explain or excuse sexual violence. But let’s do it in a way that does nor marginalize and oppress other women in that process. Let’s do it in a way that challenges the structural oppression faced by women as a collective. Let’s not drink the kool-aid. Let’s agitate for change without employing the discourses that are part of the problem. And let’s be oh-so-radical and demand nothing less than our full liberation.

This post first appeared on Feminist Action Network’s blog. You can ‘like’ them on Facebook here

An Open Letter to Ladies from the loving butch at the end of the bar

By Alex West,

Let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room:

I am Gay.

So Gay.

As Gay as a handbag full of rainbows.

No really, that gay.

A big, fat, leather boot wearing, liberal, dyke on a bike.

I am ok with that.

My mum is ok with that.

But, there is something I wanted to ask: why are YOU not ok with that?

I ask this question with much love and appreciation for my sisters. But there is something that I have noticed: the queerer I look, the more androgynous my bowtie; the less I am able find acceptance from my feminist sisters in some social contexts. Here is a secret that I desperately want you to know:

My having fancies and lust for those of the lady variety does not make me a misogynist.

I do not don bowties or oxfords to conform to the patriarchy, which has been suggested to me of late. I just appreciate the feeling of a stiff collar and dapper wear. There exists in the lady community a misunderstanding. My gender identity and sexuality are not things that I choose or use to my advantage.

After reading Dee’s blog, I have reflected on some women’s reaction to noticeably queer or butch women. We are perceived as objectifying and preying on women in the same way some men do in seedy bars that play, “I’m sexy and I know it!” while wearing square toed fake leather shoes. This perception exists whether I have acted inappropriately or come on too strong. Like most women, I dislike rejection, and try to use my “gaydar” to ensure that women of the same persuasion receive my attentions. My clothes do not make me a man that touched your arse in the corner of the silent train carriage.

Don’t get me wrong, like women.

I love girls with tattooed décolletage, high heels and lipstick. I like to make you laugh and buy you red wine, open the door, pull out your chair and basically just Mr Darcy the fuck out of you. I do all this not to get into your pants, objectify or trick you; but to show appreciation. And because my mumma raise me to be a gentlewoman.

I love ladies, but I also love myself.

By Alex West.

The loving butch at the end of the bar

Alex is the Tasmanian State Branch President of the National Union of Students. Tasmanian University Union Sexuality Officer and Producer of Edge n Bacon and Tom, Dick and Harriet on Edge Radio. She is also apparently gay and when she was 7 wanted to be Marry Poppins. You can friend the show here

Why don’t you, “find out about these camps yourself instead of listening to rumours freshers have blown out of proportion” A feminist story from the UWA Scandal, 48 hours of hell

Written by members of the Feminist Action Network and The University of Western Australia,

The last 48 hours have been a nightmare.

On Friday, the Feminist Action Network was compelled to issue a press release in response to this article, and this one, and the front page article we knew would run in The Weekend West. So what’s this all about?

Allegations have emerged that

Scratch that. We’re not buying into this ‘allegation’ crap. The media has published horrendous details about what one student has encountered at orientation camp. They based their reports on information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and directly from student statements. You can read some of the details here.

Our media release was met with a barrage of comments criticizing FAN from every available angle and we feel we need to respond. One critic urged us to “find out about these camps yourself instead of listening to rumors freshers have blown out of proportion”. Well, now that you mentioned it, we have interviewed a friend about her experiences at O’Camp in 2010. Our friend verified all of the details the media had published and recalled how she was supervised by male leaders that poured goon on her while she showered. She also told us about the ‘taco game’ in which male students ate tuna from a taco that was placed between a woman’s legs.

Need further proof? The Talk About It Survey, released in 2011, questioned over 1500 women on their perceptions of safety, their experiences of sexual harassment and assault and their experiences of how it was dealt with once it was reported. 67% of respondents said they had an unwanted sexual experience. Only 3% of those respondents had reported it to the university and only 2% had reported it to the police.

Surely, in the face of so much evidence, we can accept that university club culture is fostering unsafe environments for students. Surely we can also accept that, since women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and violence, that female students are particularly at risk. Apparently not. Having moved on from denying the allegations our critics have turned to blaming the victims: “As sordid as these allegations may be, they are between people who are supposedly mature enough to give consent. Their choice to pursue such actions is their own”

OK then. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment here and return to our interview with our friend.

FAN: Did you feel like you could leave the camp?

That would involve asking the people who had been pressuring you to participate in the activities I hadn’t been comfortable with. I didn’t feel comfortable doing that and I know others didn’t either.

FAN: Why didn’t you refuse to participate?

As a fresher I thought maybe this was what University life was like. I didn’t want to not fit in. The circumstances, the environment and the pressure to participate – students were ridiculed if they refused to participate or decided to go home – I didn’t want to make myself vulnerable to attacks. In the circumstances it seemed like the best thing was to just go along with it.

I know there was girl in my group who decided to leave the camp. After she left she was named and shamed and made fun of. She was the butt of all jokes and when we started university everyone knew who she was and that she had “pussied out”.

We are so tempted to respond to the myriad of other criticisms from, “nothing about sexual assault is sexist” to “mad hippie bitches burnin bras” but let’s pick our battles and turn to this one: “Why has FAN chosen to only speak out only after this flimsy West beat-up?”

Glad you asked. FAN has been agitating for O’Camp reform for months. We have strategies. We have shared our concerns with council. We have met with other students well placed to demand reform. However, it is only now, after the story has broken, that we can share these concerns publicly.

And right now, our foremost concern is for the women who have been harassed or assaulted and are having to read the vitriol on our page. The Feminist Action Network is a collective. We can support each other. We can take it on the chin. But the individuals who have had an unwanted sexual experience should not have to read this.

We cannot address what we won’t acknowledge. We can blame the media, we can blame the victims, and we can pass it all off as bullshit. Or we can take a serious look at our campus culture, and at the data available from surveys like Talk About It, and we can try to move forward.

Our own VC has acknowledged that “there is a pattern of behavior here” and FAN wholeheartedly agrees. We are drafting policy documents, motions for council, networking with supporters and just trying to keep our heads above water. And we will not back down until this pattern is undone.

FAN is a feminist group on campus. You can ‘like’ their Facebook here and head over to their website here

Where are all the women? Confessions of a disgruntled (woman) student union president/proud feminist

By Clare Keyes-Liley

Here are some confessions of a proud feminist:

I am in the fourth generation to attend university in my family.

Of these four generations we are all women (my great grandmother was the first woman to study Geology at the University of Queensland in the 1920s, my grandmothers both studied education in the 1950s and my mother studied law in the 1980s).

I am the first of these generations to not complete my degree at the University of Queensland. I chose to go to La Trobe University in Victoria. A big part of my decision to come to La Trobe was because they are one of the few universities that have a Gender Studies major available in Australia.

You’d think an institution that still funds the Gender Studies major would value women in positions of power?

La Trobe has consistently been ranked a top workplace for women. An accolade the University pulls out whenever and wherever possible. Well here are some more confessions of a disgruntled (woman) student union president.

I sit on various decision making committees across the University in my role as president of the La Trobe University Student Union. One of these is considered an advisory board to the Vice Chancellor. There are approximately 16 members on this committee. Have a wild guess how many are women? Five. That includes me. And the president of the LTSU is not always a woman. La Trobe has approximately 60% women enrolled as students. Yet when it comes to the crucial decision making groups in the University, it is still predominately men that make up these bodies.

Do you think that when my great grandmother started at UQ in the 1920s as the only woman in the room she even considered the fact that her great granddaughter would be one of the only women in the room in 2012? Probably bloody not, Enid Noela Harris (whose mother and grandmother were active in the suffrage movement at the turn of the last century) might have thought, “This is it, I’m in! We’ll have majority before you know it!”

I have had many discussions with various members of senior staff around the severe underrepresentation of women at this University (and ultimately in society) and the need to empower and train and create the kind of environment and workplace that celebrates and promotes women. After all, if there were no students there would be no university. And what would happen if 60% of students decided not to contribute financially, socially and academically to an institution that fails to actively promote their own gender within the institution?

I had thought that this was an internal struggle for women at La Trobe, but apparently not. On the 30th of April La Trobe University tweeted: “POWER : Demetriou, Flannery, Weaven and Manne. Which other @latrobe alumni feature? http://tiny.cc/s5dkdw”. The link is to a list of famous La Trobe graduates. I hope you’ll notice that the top four POWERful graduates are all men.

Is anyone else picking up on a little discourse (note sarcasm: FLASHING, SKY WRITING B I G FUCKING DISCOURSE): Silence Women, Celebrate Men.

Hold up.

Silence? We have the majority, why should we be silenced? 60% isn’t a number to be sniffed at. Numbers speak volumes. This is not good enough, the University knows it. The women in my family didn’t work twice hard as their male classmates for half the recognition for me and my peers to be silenced in our education. No woman in the history of the struggle for equality ever did or ever will.

If La Trobe University wants to continue to be considered a grouse place for women to work then perhaps they should stop with the navel gazing and window dressing gender equality initiatives and actually create an institution that celebrates women and the achievements of the women students, women staff members and women graduates. It would be a start anyway

Thanks for reading

Clare Keyes-Liley.


Clare is the president of the La Trobe Student Union in Victoria. You can follow her on twitter at @ltsu_president 

A woman’s right to choose, but actually.

I’ve been called a lot of mean names in my time. Some of them have been really nasty, some of them have been really funny, but they’ve all been meant to serve a purpose. And that purpose was to make me into something less, that’s always the purpose of name calling.

It wasn’t really a name so much as it was a term, that term was pro- abortion. Now, that’s not really something that I care a whole lot about. The first time someone called me that to my face I was fifteen, and representing probably the only public school at a national public speaking competition. I was young and passionate and had a fair shot less tact than I like to think I have now (though there are certainly some who would beg to differ) and I was wearing a series of pro-choice badges.

At fifteen I didn’t really care that much then either, except that I did have to correct him and point out that I wasn’t pro abortion- I was pro choice. This is the same distinction that I make now when I have exactly the same argument that I make six years later, I am not pro abortion, I am pro choice.

This is not to say that I am in any way anti-abortion, I believe unequivocally that, for some women, abortion is the best possible decision that they can make for themselves. This belief, however, does not make me pro abortion, because I know the cost that that choice can have on some women. Not all women, but some, because they feel the decision deeply.

I don’t believe that a child is a child until it can live outside of the body of it’s mother, until it can do that it is simply a collection of cells. However, this is not a view that is shared by all people. For some there is a belief that a baby exists from the moment of conception. Their belief should be respected within the realm of their personal choices. The problem with this belief begins when their position is used as a basis for a change in law.

Abortion must be legal, safe and free if women are to have the right to choose. At the same time there must be opportunities for women, particularly young women, to carry their pregnancies to full term and keep or adopt their child. There must be free access to child care, educational opportunities and real pathways to university for women with children.

Australia is, for the most part, pro choice. 81% of Australian’s in a 2003 study said they believed that a woman should have the right to choose if she wanted to keep a child or not. The country is where I am, believing that all women should have the right to control what they do with their bodies.

We as a movement of feminist’s need to be careful with the line that we run, however, because for as long as we are pro choice we need to be just that. Pro choice means supporting women’s rights to make the choice right for them. This doesn’t mean they make the choice that we would have made for them.

Being pro-choice means lobbying not only for abortion which is legal, safe and free. It means lobbying for more flexible education hours, better and cheaper child care and stable and affordable housing. In states where we have won the battle over a woman’s right to choose, like Victoria, we need to make sure we haven’t forgotten the women we occasionally silence, those who do choose to have their children.

I saw a fantastic picture on a friend’s wall the other day. It said pro women, pro children, pro choice. We need to ensure that we’re including everyone in  our pro choice campaigns, and ensure all women have the right to make the choice that is right for them. 

Damn Girl! Confessions of a feminist lesbian.

“I don’t believe in marriage, it’s a relic of an outdated patriarchal institution”, I said as an obnoxious eight year-old feminist.

I never imagined that some 14 years later, as a 22 year-old lesbian, I’d be regularly speaking in a variety of fora, arguing for the expansion rather than the abolition of marriage.

This is not a post about marriage (though for the record while I’m very pro-marriage equality I still don’t personally believe in it) it’s about how my feminist identity and my sexual orientation intersect and conflict.

For as long as I can remember I’ve identified as a feminist. It’s not something I ever struggled with or questioned. It’s a fundamental part of who I consider myself to be.

My sexual orientation, on the other hand, is something that I questioned for years. To be honest, I still do – sometimes labels don’t really capture the complexity and fluidity of attraction – but by the time I was 17, I’d come to the conclusion that I identified as (mostly) gay.

As a gay woman, I’m attracted to women. I check women out. I make judgments about whether or not I think they are physically attractive. I discuss my opinions about women’s attractiveness with other people.

This is where I start to feel conflicted.

As a feminist, I think that the objectification of women is wrong. I think that there is much more to women than their appearance, and obviously I would never date someone just because they were physically attractive. But I still check women out.

Similarly, burlesque and drag performances by and for women are a significant feature of the lesbian ‘scene’. In these acts, women are frequently wearing minimal clothing, and performing for an audience that is “appreciating” their bodies.

Is there any difference between a room full of women doing this and a room full of men doing it? Arguably, I guess so, because as women we aren’t a part of the institutional power of the patriarchy, but I’m still not that comfortable with it. I’m just not sure that replicating what I, as a feminist, consider to be something that is an oppressive behaviour is in any way advancing the cause of women. Surely something is wrong if women are themselves perpetuating the ‘male gaze’ and objectifying other women?

It’s something I’ve discussed a lot with my lesbian friends, and it’s complicated – if women feel liberated performing in front of other women, who are we to say that they’re participating in the patriarchy? If I’m not comfortable with it, I’m free not to attend, I shouldn’t enforce my perceptions of feminism and appropriate behaviour on other women.

The problem is, women can and do feel objectified by other women. I once had a conversation with a friend about going to a particular Newtown pub’s lesbian night, and she said she didn’t want to go because “walking in there is worse than walking into a room full of seedy old dudes”.

I guess the difference between the two situations is that the woman performing for a room full of same-sex attracted women is consenting to the objectification – I don’t really think you can argue it’s anything other than objectification – while the woman casually walking in to the pub for a drink with a friend isn’t.

But where does that leave me, the same-sex attracted woman sitting at a café on King Street in Newtown watching women walking past and mentally assessing their attractiveness? Women walking down the street can’t consent to be looked at and judged (regardless of what they’re wearing – nothing is an invitation to be objectified). Ultimately I think checking out people of the gender to which you’re attracted is a just a natural instinct.

So maybe it’s all just a question of how you define objectification. Do I check women out? Absolutely. But I also respect them. I believe there is much more to a person than just their appearance – to be honest to me nothing is sexier than intelligence and a good sense of humour – and I don’t think that women exist purely as objects for my sexual satisfaction. I think that’s the important difference. Not between me as a woman checking out other women and men checking out women; but between me (and everyone else who is both attracted to and respects women) and other people. Other women and men who don’t see women as people, as independent individuals with personality and agency over themselves and their sexuality, but as passive recipients of their desire. That’s when a natural behaviour becomes participation in the patriarchy and oppresses women.

** All opinions my own and do not reflect the policy or position of the National Union of Students

Donherra Walmsley is the National President of NUS. You can follow her on twitter at: @NUS_President 

On loving the body you have (as long as it isn’t fat, non white, small breasted, big hipped, not symmetrical, a bitch face, etc.)

I am so unbelievably sick of body image campaigns. Actually, if I see another one I think I might actually die.

No. Srsly. Fuck. Off. Why is it my responsibility to love myself and not the responsibility of society to love me for all of me, not just the way that I look?

My biggest problem is that none of these campaigns even remotely question why it is that women are valued entirely on the way that they look, they just remind us that we’re only really valuable for the way that a (male) gaze sees us.

Don’t get me wrong, body image issues are of a massive concern, particularly to young women. I read some article the other day about how many young girls go on diets, or hate their bodies, and it’s way too many, it’s really wrong. But, it seems like all the youth women’s movement does is talk about body image and – guess what- it’s not the skin you’re in, it’s the patriarchy stupid!

Lets think of an example – Dove ran their beautiful at every size campaign. Showing women that (so long as you’re still traditionally beautiful in the face and that) you can be beautiful at anything from a size 6 all the way up to, oh, size 12 (bigger than that isn’t beautiful see, cellulite sets in) same company that owns Dove owns lynx, who have been doing their part to fuck up young women (and young men’s attitudes to young women) since day one.

At the same time as Dove’s pretending it thinks you’re beautiful –EVEN if you are size 12- lynx is reminding you that you’re only worth objectifying (which to them means you’re only worth the oxygen you breathe) if you’re stick thin with massive fake breasts and covered in mud.

If you ever needed more proof that better body image campaigns are a part of the system that continues to oppress us you only need to look at who’s running them.

It’s not the campaign, it’s the patriarchy. In a lot of ways I feel as though campaigns that tell women to solve the problem of the way they view their bodies ignore the real problem, which is that we live in a patriarchal society which tells women to say not fuck you, but fuck me.

As a movement we need to stop giving into the idea that women are valuable because of how they look and start asking people to question why they care.

And that, is why I will never run a body image campaign.

What do you all think?

A letter from an activist to her pre feminist self

Dear Pre-Feminist Self,

At the moment you’re in a really awkward stage. You’re using foundation that a friend left at your house in a desperate bid to hid your pustules. You’re passionate, about something, but you’re not sure what. You’ve just stopped calling yourself a ‘non-conformist’ and your friends have breathed a sigh of relief that they can stop rolling their eyes quite so hard.

I wish I could tell you that you’ll get less awkward soon. The thing is that you really won’t. You’ll be 21 and you’ll be walking around with ash in your hair and every time you think of something vaguely witty to say you’ll get tongue-tied.

Here’s the beautiful thing:

You’ll be cool with that.

Feminism won’t be a cure all for your problems – but it will teach you how to stand your ground. You will start to understand why things seem so unfair, and you’ll realize what you need to do to fight back. You will realize that you’re more than a number on the scales, more than a uterus, more than a canvas for that horribly mismatched foundation.

And yeah, you’ll get really mad at times. Like when a pharmacist glares at you for buying emergency contraception, or you’re told you’re “too feminine” to be taken seriously, or people discuss your body as if it’s a car that needs work. But you’ll be able to deal with this bullshit so much better because you know that it is bullshit.

So don’t worry. You’re going to find an outlet for your passion. You’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to do a lot. You’re going to meet amazing people. You’re going to like yourself. Maybe not the ash in your hair, but that’s rather secondary in the scheme of things.

In sisterhood.