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Indigenous Females Talk 'White Feminist Movement' And If Women of Colour Have Been Excluded Throughout History

First Nations women are speaking up about the impact of colonialism and whether they’ve been misrepresented through the white women’s feminism movement.

While historically feminism is a collection of different ideas around gender activism, the movement has predominantly explored the adversity of women from white society without fully considering the oppression that women of colour have faced throughout history and the disadvantages they still face in society today.

In 1991 critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw examined in the Stanford Law Journal how mainstream feminism can neglect intersectionality, a term that acknowledges race, gender diversity, sexuality and disability.

“Contemporary feminist and antiracist discourses have failed to consider the intersections of racism and patriarchy,” she wrote, when exploring the race and gender dimensions of violence against women of colour.

Some groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have found their issues excluded from the central and mainstream conversations, particularly in relation to domestic violence.

Blak Matriarchies
Blak Matriarchies

In her book Talkin’ Up To The White Woman: Indigenous Women And Feminism, Aboriginal author Aileen Moreton-Robinson analysed the whiteness of feminism in Australia. She suggested that Aboriginal women are often not granted the privilege to speak about domestic violence, and even when they do speak, they are often misunderstood as being angry or aggressive.

In 2018 academic Marcia Langton criticised a government report that claimed domestic violence against Indigenous women and children is caused by colonisation. The report suggested that the impacts of British settlement in Australia over 200 years ago was to blame for the violence nowadays within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Langton said some of the report’s conclusions were the “outcome of white feminists ignoring the voices of Aboriginal women”.

“White feminists largely have a poor understanding of the challenges faced by frontline Aboriginal female workforce with little support from police and courts,” she told The Australian at the time.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, Indigenous women are speaking up about the impact of colonialism on First Nations females, whether they’ve been misrepresented through the white women’s feminism movement, and what they believe needs to change going forward.

HuffPost Australia spoke to two Indigenous women, Paola Bella and Kirli Saunders, who will be part of the Blak Matriarchies panel at Sydney’s All About Women festival on Sunday March 8.

Paola is a proud Koorie, Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, whose PhD research focuses on the impact of colonialism on Aboriginal women’s practices, resistance, healing and activism. Kirli, a proud Gunai woman, with ties to the Yuin, Gundungurra, Gadigal and Biripi people, is a children’s author, poet, emerging playwright and artist.

Kirli Saunders (L) and Paola Bella (R).
Kirli Saunders (L) and Paola Bella (R).

What does it mean to be a feminist?

Paola: Being a feminist to me means being an Aboriginal woman first, a Koorie woman, a Wemba-Wemba & Gundjitmara woman first. My standpoint is informed by who I am and who raised me, my matriarchs. So, being a feminist to me means being a woman, an Aboriginal woman who is from an Aboriginal matriarchy.

Kirli: It means to advocate for the rights of women and those who identify in any way with the divine feminine to ensure that privileges afforded to other gender identities are afforded to us. It means honouring the feminine in all its forms, in all people, and speaking with that force to protect it. To be a feminist is to walk with all the women, and those identifying as woman who have come before us, so that those who follow can stay true to themselves in a world that accepts and celebrates us.

What does Australia need to know about the Blak Matriarchies? Are there any misconceptions about Indigenous women and their roles within communities?

Kirli: I’m just one Bla(c)k matriarch, so I can’t speak for the diverse and delightful other First Nations Women out there, but in my family, women are our leaders, our change makers, our guides and our teachers. Women, are the backbones of our First Nations communities. They propel us all in the right direction, keeping us aligned to our truth.

Paola: The misconceptions are that from the time of invasion, we were powerless and lacking authority as Aboriginal women because white invaders and settlers sought out males to speak with. We were subjugated through violence and sexual violence and erasure of our authority.

In fact, Aboriginal women are frequently the heads of community organisations, and lead political, social, cultural and emotional work of community work including frontline protection/activism.

The other misconceptions are that we are only attractive as an exception, ie the times when we as Aboriginal women are told that we are ‘too pretty to be Aboriginal’ – something that’s been said to me. This directly and historically continues from the early colonial racist and hateful depictions in newspapers and magazines of Aboriginal women as ugly, sluts, drunk, stupid and bad mothers who deserve to have our children taken from us.

In opposition to all of this, we have survived and continue to resist and protest the damages of patriarchy as a tool of colonisation against our very bodies and rights as Aboriginal women. We are powerful, hardworking, beautiful, educated in multiple ways, caring, intelligent, capable and excellent, loving and caring mothers.

Do you agree with the argument that ‘we’re all the same’ has not served women of colour? Are Indigenous women being represented in the media merely through the ‘white feminist movement’?

Kirli: If you asked me this question last week, I’d have had a different answer, but I’ve been reading Stan Grant’s ‘On Identity’ while travelling through Japan. In it, Grant posits that we’re 99.9% the same in regards to DNA, and that it’s the difference the 0.01% that separates us, differences in gender, age, sexuality, race and religion that can distance us from one another. He says that love and freedom are the antidotes for the hate and divide the world sees.

I mentioned earlier that feminism is the advocacy for woman/ femininity in all its forms, to overcome privilege. I think privilege is a social construct that’s been derived out of power seeking within that 0.01%. Privilege is something that separates us, it is based in hate. I think white privilege definitely plays into feminism, but they’re two distinctly different issues.

We [women around the world] share 99.9% of the same DNA, and the battle we’re fighting is in a lot of ways the same.

Paola: This is a big question. I can’t and won’t answer this on behalf of other Aboriginal women. From my point of view, we are not all the same at all, our standpoints as Aboriginal Peoples alone are distinct and diverse, despite all being First Peoples.

Though we might see Aboriginal women being represented slightly more in publications and media about white Australian women, Aboriginal women regularly represent ourselves in our own ways. Representation matters, but so does self-determined, sovereign representation.

There has been a tradition of Aboriginal women’s stories and autobiographies, or ‘herstories,’ since the 1960’s and 1970’s with Oodgeroo of the Noonuccal’s (known as Kath Walker until 1998) book of poetry and Aunty Margaret Tucker’s 1977 autobiography, ‘If Everyone Cared’.

Aboriginal women scholars have for decades researched, written and published their work through universities and independent and commercial publishers. Aboriginal women have always told stories, made art, acted, performed, curated and created ongoing bodies of work to maintain and protect culture.

In my experience, being heard in white women’s spaces can be risky and problematic and needs constant observation, wariness and self-protection. Often, there is no trust or a lack of being listened to or respected especially.

Black Matriarchies will take place on Sunday March 8 at 12:15pm at the Sydney Opera House.

UPDATE: Paola Balla and Aileen Moreton-Robinson are no longer able to travel to Sydney due to health reasons and have withdrawn from the Blak Matriarchies panel. Celeste Liddle and Bibi Barba will now appear at the panel moderated by Rhoda Roberts AO, alongside previously announced speakers Amelia Kunoth-Monks and Kirli Saunders.

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