First Nations panel inspires feminist conference

Issue 
Photo: Rachel Evans

The annual feminist conference, July 1 to 6, organised by the Network of Women Students of Australia (NOWSA) featured an panel of First Nations' activists who addressed a range issues and answered questions.

Kicking it off, Bridget Cama, a Wiradjuri and Fijian woman, and a previous National Union of Students and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander office bearer talked about rights, feminism and spirituality.

The annual feminist conference, July 1 to 6, organised by the Network of Women Students of Australia (NOWSA) featured an panel of First Nations' activists who addressed a range issues and answered questions.

Kicking it off, Bridget Cama, a Wiradjuri and Fijian woman, and a previous National Union of Students and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander office bearer talked about rights, feminism and spirituality.

Bibi Barba, a Durumal/Woka Woka woman, born in Roma, in south-west Queensland talked about cycles of poverty which meant that only a small percentage of First Nations people ever get to university and return to help the community.

“We have to fight and fight to get the recognition we deserve”, she said, before telling her story. “We came from a matriarchal society: my mum had 7 children and had to work in an Arnotts factory and in catering. My grandmother worked boiling sheets in a dormitory. That is what women had to do to survive and feed us.” Barba said communities needed more economic power if they were going to eradicate poverty.

Wiradjuri and Maori woman, Latoya Rule, a social work student at Flinders University, described how difficult it often is for women trying to see a female doctor. “Medical institutions don't recognise this is a problem, especially for Aboriginal women. We have had such a bad experience with doctors but they still don't listen.

“We have a strong civil rights movement, but we need to continue the fight for legal economic and social change”, she said.

Kaleesha Morris, a Gumbaynggirr woman from the Clarence Valley in northern NSW and a Kulkalgal descendant in the Torres Strait said, “Funding goes into colonisation, not to healing and overcoming trauma. “Our women are set up to fail: we are still trying to keep our children from being stolen. They [the government] spends a billion dollars a year on the surveillance of, and the breaking up, of families.

Morris, who studied arts and law at University of New South Wales is also a volunteer with the SEEDS Network. “Our community programs are being defunded, which leads to increased incarceration. We find we are having to work with mining corporations because our communities are so starved of funds. There is still so much paternalism.”

Ella Cartwright, a Takatāpui Māori from Ngāpuhi and the national gender equity officer for Tertiary Women NZ, spoke about colonisation.

“We lost the majority of our population — 120,000 — to disease and warfare. Then our ancestors signed the Treaty of Waitangi thinking we were signing onto something that secured our sovereignty.

“The Treaty said 'Yes' to the right to sovereignty and 'Yes' to the right for equal representation. Immediately after it was signed, gross breaches happened.” Cartwright summarised this as “rights on paper but not in reality”. Like Indigenous people here, she said, Māori people are more likely to be overrepresented in prison and have longer sentences.

“Britain introduced private property and eradicated our economic base by stealing land. Now Māori people have low health indicators. We suffered abuse from the legal and medical system. We have a real Indigenous resurgence, but major structural barriers disadvantage our women and our men.”

Structural challenges

Responding to a question about the structural challenges facing First Nations women, Morris said: “Traditionally many Indigenous communities were matriarchal societies. We came together to talk about being sovereign women and about how we have lost a lot of people … but also to learn about culture and how colonisation has affected the transfer of knowledge.

Rule commented on the spirituality of Indigenous culture. “I was bought up in a Christian home but emancipated myself with the help of Bob Marley. … Aboriginal people are not atheists: we have a deep connection to nature and land. This is not just a god we believe in — this is the basis of how we live. However, today's elders were bought up on missions that broke many of the connections.”

When asked about feminism, Morris replied saying Indigenous women hesitated joining in because the movement was perceived as being anti-male. She said she didn't think feminism was “doomed” but that “women of color are not at the center of it”.

“I am reading Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class and thinking about Black feminism and the positives of intersectionality”, Rule added.

“But Black women hesitated to embrace [feminism] because of the misconception that it hated men. White feminism doesn't acknowledge race and class. To help the movement grow we need Black people building on equity and combating tokenism. The Black Lives Matter movement is so important. We have so many deaths in custody in this country — including Ms Dhu, Norma Daley and the Bowraville murders.

"We get asked about how to be an ally. Recognise that you are privileged and ask how you can assist. There are tensions in community and it can be toxic sometimes so you have to think about the bigger cause. There will be no victories without allies. It's important to stick with it for the sake of the movements. While it may not be expressed, there is deep gratitude for those who stay with us”, Rule concluded.

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