Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Can feminists wear taffeta?

A letter to Wendy Squires in response to her article.

Dear Wendy,

I thought it was a joke: a columnist’s reverie of sequinned decoration and shimmering spangles. 

When you said you believed women (and men) need finery, elegance and an outing with “our decorous inner selves”, I smiled.  I read to the end in anticipation of a reassuring punch line.

But, astonishingly, you were serious – even when you said “young women want to dress up; they want to have princess moments,” you were serious.

I know this because our exchange on Twitter left no doubt.  If I wasn’t convinced by “it’s called an opinion; we’re all allowed one”, I was when you tweeted “I don’t want to engage with you any further; you women given feminism a bad name”.

So I have contemplated, with great remorse, the ways I bring feminism into disrepute.

My nails aren’t painted?  I don’t like the races?  I avoid high-heels?  I rarely, consciously, opt for “ladylike”?  That I don’t tell my daughter that it “feels good to look good”?  That I don’t take her to the ballet in a flouncy skirt wearing pearls?

I guess I give feminism a bad name because I questioned your intent, and whether your writing advances women.

Sorry.  I mean that.

I am sorry for imposing on your writing a purpose it did not have.  You are right: it is nice to look nice.  Millions of women agree.  And why not say it.  I shouldn’t have denied your right of expression.

But I was disappointed.  I wanted you to interrogate the fantasy of feminine, floral niceties.  I wanted you to tell the seven year old with glittery shoes that there is more to life than taffeta.

That is the message I try to impart to my ten year old, the girls I have taught, and myself.

Throughout history and most cultures, women are allowed to, if not expected to, dress nicely: nothing too short, too low, too masculine, too rough, too tight, or too radical.

No one will stop me and other strong minded women from turning up to a party, or a race day, in a frilly floral frock.  I probably would find that I enjoyed it.

But plenty of people have tried to stop women from undertaking other ventures – like running companies, becoming a government minister, serving as a pope.

I don’t want to give feminism a bad name – and I don’t think I do.  But I do want to question why girls are still expected to have dreams of looking nice.

I have dreams for my daughter: that she will never experience violence or discrimination on the basis of her gender; that she will be able to follow her passions without being dismissed or disrespected because she is female; and that she won’t feel the need to go to the races or dress in high-heels if she doesn’t wish to.

Feminism is about choice: women being able to make choices regardless of gender.  Wendy, I am glad you and other women have the choice to dress in finery and enjoy the races.  No one will ever prevent you from exercising this choice.

Many women do not have the choices they deserve. But you undoubtedly know that and that was not the focus of your writing.

You are lucky enough to have a column in a major news-outlet.  Most women do not.  I was hoping you would use your position to help give more women more choices – then we can all celebrate by enjoying a day at the races, if we wish.

With best regards,


Monique, 10

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

CHOGM - a chance to free 43 Tamils

The best by-product of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo this month would be the release of 43 Tamil refugees indefinitely detained in Australia. 

To continue to detain the Tamils, despite heavy criticism from the UNHCR, is a show of diplomatic weakness by Australia.

It demonstrates a willingness to put external demands from a Commonwealth colleague below standards of rule of law, human rights and freedom from arbitrary detention.

Australian diplomats should walk into discussions in Sri Lanka with a deal to release the refugee detainees into community detention, or on conditional visas, in exchange for assurances that incentives for Tamils to continue to leave Sri Lanka (such as threats of violence) will be addressed.

The 43 Tamil refugees have been detained for an average of four years because they are believed to have some level of engagement with the pro-separatist Tamil movement in Sri Lanka.

Some are believed to have been members of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and may have trained with the militant organization.

They continue to be held in detention because it is believed that they are ideologically supportive of the Tamil struggle for independence and that their links with the Tigers make them likely to act in ways that are “prejudicial to Australia’s national security”.

Successive Australian governments have been reluctant to set aside security recommendations from ASIO that the men (and two women) pose a risk to national security – despite a number of High Court challenges.

Whatever the individual circumstances of the refugees, the fact they have been found to be refugees is inconsistent with a finding that they are criminally active or prospective criminals: they would be excluded from being refugees if this were the case.

A number of reports and experts have contemplated ways in which the refugees could be released from detention with conditions that ensure any lingering security risks are mitigated.

The most obvious risk to Sri Lanka (not necessarily Australia) is that the Tamils will band together to lobby and act for independence of Tamil homelands in Sri Lanka. 

Many Tamils in Australia are already active in the political movement for self-determination.  Over the past decade, none of the activities in Australia to protest or speak out for Tamil self-determination or freedom have caused security issues in Australia.

Government leaders in Sri Lanka speak openly of their fear expatriate Tamils will stir up sympathy for Tamil self-determination.  They see Canada’s refusal to join CHOGM as an example of Tamil refugees acting against the interests of a reconciled Sri Lanka.

But for the nation of Sri Lanka to expect Australia to assess Tamils with links to the Tamil Tigers (however weak) as security risks to Australia, and therefore maintained in expensive and damaging indefinite detention, is extraordinary.

For Australia to continue to comply with this expectation is even more extraordinary.

The Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon should have known better than to call a provocative media conference on foreign soil.  But the sensitive reaction by the Sri Lankan government, in confiscating her passport and temporarily detaining her, does vindicate the point made: that speaking out in Sri Lanka is punished.

This should also highlight to Australia that Tamils speaking out in Sri Lanka, in ways that our Liberal government should celebrate as expressions of free speech, are harshly condemned.

The libertarian values of the current Abbott government should not support the indefinite detention of Tamils who may or may not have once spoken out in favour of a particular political view.

The assumption that the refugees are dangerous, or pose security risks to Australia is nonsense – if only they were given opportunities in a court of law to prove it.

If the Prime Minister does not raise this issue with Sri Lanka during CHOGM, he is once again showing himself to be weak in the face of diplomatic challenges.

For Australia, a prosperous, secure and free country, to keep 43 broken Tamil men and women in indefinite detention to appease the Sri Lankan government, is a sign of serious diplomatic weakness.

Prime Minister Abbott needs to stand up for the freedoms his party espouses.