Women & Power: Byron Bay Literary Festival

Misogyny and equality were the two words of the weekend at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival on Australia’s east coast, dominating not only the discussion at a number of formal panels but also in the less formal conversations as people enjoyed the spectacular weather and location.

Although the Festival schedule was locked in months ago, it was all highly topical in view of the recent demise of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the first female to hold the job. Assassination was the word most often used to describe her ousting by the man she had replaced, Kevin Rudd, currently hard at work on the campaign trail in the lead-up to September’s election.

The session on Saturday, Women & Power: the changing relationship, public & private, was based on a recent the edition of The Griffith Review,http://www.griffithreview.com the excellent quarterly publication edited by academic and journalist Julianne Schultz, who also chaired the session.

The message from the speakers, and from many other women who had contributed to The Griffith Review, was unequivocal: The past decades have seen some ‘’fundamental, profoundly important human rights-based law reforms that are the dividend of feminisms’ second wave’’ but the reality is that equality for women is going backwards in most of the important indicators. Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, continues to be rife in society around the world, often the currency of gender power. In our First World society we have learned culturally to “avert our eyes” although we know that it is happening. There is still a large and obvious gap in wage disparity between the genders, power, in politics and business is still predominantly male (in the upcoming election in Australia only a handful of the Labor and Coalition front bench are female despite the fact that 50.16 per cent of the population is female).

The long and sustained attacks on the former Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, largely linked to her gender, seemed to many Australians to go far further than the hurly-burly of politics and her ability as a politician. As Gillard herself said, it wasn’t everything but it wasn’t nothing. It was, the panelists (and what seemed all of the audience, agreed), deep-seated misogyny irrespective of varying views about Gillard’s performance as PM.

According to pioneering feminist, author and journalist, Anne Summers, who has just launched an independent on-line magazine http://annesummers.com.au/2013/07/anne-summers-reports-3/http://, one solution is to get over our aversion to the Q-word. “The system that excludes women has successfully constructed a self-preserving and reinforcing ideology … the misogyny factor,” she wrote in her essay. “The market has failed. Voluntary measures have not proven to be effective. But if it takes fear to force change, let’s keep talking about quotas.”

Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Sudan-born but an Aussie since she was two, was able to give a unique perspective on male-female dynamics at work at her job as a mechanical engineer on the oil rigs. Young, and muslim, wearing the hijab as a personal choice, she told the audience how she had often resorted to humor to fit in whilst inwardly realizing that this to some extent allowed the highly misogynist atmosphere flourish. She said the language which was usually ‘‘extremely racist, sexist and offensive could not just be excused as ‘rig talk’. Nor, it was argued, should the hijacking of language, with words like “rape” which used to be a word of horror, being normalized into everyday language, be excused.

Christine Wallace, a journalist and author with a special interest in economics, had created a new “species’’ to provide dispassionate analysis of the systemic nature of the inequality across virtually every aspect of society from the economy to security, the environment to education and the legal system. She urged women to step up and out of the “ravine in which we all live our lives and see the bigger picture arguing that “without a strategic appreciation of the situation,’ we can’t know whether in net terms we are moving forward or backward, “let alone work out what to do next.”

Overall, there was a call for a holistic strategy to win the war, not just tactics leading to the odd battle here or there, “no matter how good those wins might be.”  All in all, it was a fascinating and animated discussion, one of the best of the Festival. If there was a criticism it was that the average age group represented in the audience would have been 45+ (and that may be being kind). While several women be-moaning how they had hoped for a better legacy others were surprised at their daughter’s uncomplaining compliance to the status quo.

There will be more items from the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival here coming up shortly. The Griffith Review is published by Text Publishing and is available at bookshops and by subscription.



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