Women students build feminist movement

August 14, 2014

NOWSA, or the Network of Women Students Australia, holds a conference every year dedicated to women’s activism. More than 160 students from across Australia gathered last month for its national conference in Perth, making it the biggest NOWSA conference in many years.

The weeklong event from July 14 to 18 took place at Edith Cowan University. It featured a range of workshops and speakers, who focused on issues relating to racism, trans rights and sex worker rights.

Building an inclusive feminist movement is a very important but challenging task. The theme of the conference was “intersectionality”, highlighting the ways in which different forms of oppression cross-cut in life experience.

Intersectionality addresses the historic bias of the feminist movement towards white, heterosexual, cisgender women’s experiences. Issues faced by Muslim women, Aboriginal women, trans women and sex workers in Australia were proudly placed front and centre of the conference program.

Sarah Ross from the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) gave a compelling speech on the mistreatment of refugee women in detention. Ross described the daily humiliation women refugees face, such as needing to stand in line to repeatedly ask for new sanitary pads. Mothers are also denied additional nappies for babies suffering diarrhoea.

Aboriginal activists described the everyday racism they face, from employment denial to harassment in shopping centres based on racial profiling by staff. Women of colour of various nationalities spoke about being discouraged from speaking their first languages in public because it meant they were “not fitting in with society”.

Rebecca Hopkins, from People for Sex Workers Rights WA, addressed a packed out audience about the negative effects of criminalisation, legalisation and the so-called Swedish model.

Hopkins said “the voices of sex workers must be front and centre in any discussion of sex work”, but non-sex worker feminists had an important role to play as allies in the struggle to achieve decriminalisation.

After strong panel presentations, further discussion and direction for the conference was carried out through a caucus model. For the most part, delegates caucused in separate spaces created for women who experience a specific form of oppression. Some of these focused on racism, trans women, queer women and women with disabilities. However, tying these distinct discussions of oppression into a broader campaign fighting for women’s rights was largely overlooked.

Farida Iqbal presented a session on the federal budget on behalf of the Socialist Alliance. This forum focused on how the rights of women, particularly working-class women, are under attack by funding cuts to essential services and employment opportunities.

Iqbal said feminists needed to organise a fightback against the federal budget focused on women’s rights. Questions of feminist mobilisations as part of the campaign against the budget will no doubt feature at next year’s NOWSA conference, to be held in Tasmania.

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