Why these Australian women's rights activists are continuing to fight for equality


A lot has changed since International Women’s Day began more than a century ago – but there’s more to be done. Here, a human rights advocate, an abuse survivor, and a sex worker share their stories.

The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911, with more than a million people across Europe demanding women be given the right to vote and hold public office.

Now, 108 years later, the world is a very different place. We still mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, but instead of the right to vote and hold office, Australian women are demanding an end to gendered violence, a country free from discrimination, and more political representation.

And it’s not just the causes that have changed. Women who speak out against injustice are now faced with internet trolling, accusations of fake news and a social media sphere where the personal and political are often indistinguishable.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, SBS News spoke to just three of the many young women’s rights activists in Australia about why they continue to keep fighting.

Sara Saleh, 31

Sara Saleh is an Australian-Arab poet and human rights advocate, based in Sydney.

Sara Saleh is a poet, writer, GetUp board member and human rights advocate - and as an Arab-Australian Muslim woman, says she has some “mixed feelings” about participating in feminist activism.

“There always seems to be these sort of projections and prejudices imposed on me by virtue of my visibility as a Muslim and Arab woman … by no means is speaking out and taking part an easy thing for a lot of women and a lot of women of colour,” she says.

Saleh is curating a panel on feminism in the Arab world at All About Women festival in Sydney this weekend and says she wants to challenge assumptions about middle eastern women; that they need to be saved, that they aren’t capable of leading or that they aren’t involved in challenging the patriarchy.

She expressed frustration that western feminists only seem to take notice of women in the middle east when “someone is fleeing an abusive family in Saudi Arabia”.

“And rightly so, but really the narrative here is what's important,” she says. “The very one-dimensional narrative that further demonises Arabs and paints this caricature, the stereotype of them as being savage and violent.”

By no means is speaking out and taking part an easy thing for a lot of women and a lot of women of colour.

- Sara Saleh

On combining her work as an activist with her work as a writer, she says the two interact naturally.

“It would be quite irrelevant for me to be writing when I exist in a burning building,” she says.

Despite reporting trolling, physical and emotional abuse, she says “it’s not all doom and gloom” as long as she’s helping to build a movement and resilience within her communities.

“We cannot retreat into binaries when we're talking social media,” she adds. One of its positive effects, she says, is that it allows us a window into the lives of different communities across the world - who are then able to control their own story.

“I think that's really important because what has tended to happen is we are imposing our views, we are filtering or gatekeeping who are the acceptable spokespeople or sources in what fits in our narrative or our world view in a western society,” Saleh says. “What social media has done is really had that democratising effect.”

“It can be really challenging because now we've come to a point where it's like, ‘Oh, they're not just victims or harems, they're actually agents of change that are at the forefront and centre and also the background of a lot of movements for change and progress across different countries say in the Arab world.”

Sara is speaking at All About Women festival on Sunday about feminism in the Arab world.
Sara Saleh.
South Coast Writers Centre

Saleh is currently co-curating a new anthology called Growing Up Arab in Australia, and is calling for submissions. 

“When I talk about International Women's Day and what it means to me I think it's really about going back to what we're doing day to day,” she says.

“We don't stop on days that aren't women's days. We are doing this tirelessly and constantly behind the scenes.”

Caitlin Figueiredo, 23

Australian National University student Caitlin Figueiredo aspires to be Australia's youngest prime minister.

Activist, CEO and law student Caitlin Figueiredo is gunning to be Australia’s youngest prime minister - but in the meantime, she’s keeping busy advocating for the rights of women as a member of three United Nations gender equality task forces, co-founder of Girls Take Parliament and founder and CEO of gender equality organisation Jasiri Australia.

According to her, she is just “trying to do her part to make sure we don’t have to wait 170 years for our rights to be realised”. 

Inspired by her family's journey to Australia as political refugees from Kenya and India, the Canberra resident says she was always reminded that “service to your community, service to your country, and service to the world is what you're here to do”.

After suffering ongoing abuse as a child and almost being killed as a result,  Figueiredo realised at 18 years old that her experience was not unique. At that moment, the idea for Jasiri Australia was born.

“This is happening to hundreds of thousands of women in Australia every single day. It's happening all around the world and we are no closer to decreasing the numbers of women who are still being abused in silence,” she says.

“I realised that if I wanted to make a difference to make sure that no woman ever had to be in the same situation, then I had to do something about it.”

I realised that if I wanted to make a difference to make sure that no woman ever had to be in the same situation, then I had to do something about it.

- Caitlin Figueiredo

Jasiri - which means courageous in Swahili - aims to help women to unlock their potential, through teaching emotional, resilience and self-defence skills.

“Violence against women is not decreasing - rather it is increasing. We are seeing more women being killed. We are seeing more women have violence perpetrated against them at higher rates both in the public and private arenas,” she says.

“That's why I believe having basic skills to defend yourself is important. It [self-defence] is a feminist issue.”

Caitlin founded Jasiri Australia, which teaches self-defense skills to young women.
Caitlin Figueiredo.

The program has recently expanded into the Pacific region, with a focus on getting more women into leadership positions.

Figueiredo, who was listed as one of Australia’s 100 Most Influential Women at just 20-years-old, says the internet is an extremely powerful tool for activists and is valuable for “showing us what good leaders are”, pointing to Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Maya Angelou as her own leadership heroes.

But when it comes to our domestic leadership, she is less than inspired.

“I cannot understand how it's 2019 and we're still trying to desperately see how we can include women in politics at the highest level,” she says, referencing Julie Bishop’s failed Liberal leadership bid.

“'I’ve got about 13 years until, hopefully, I become Australia’s youngest prime minister. But I hope to god we have another woman before me.”

Tilly Lawless, 25

Sydney-based Tilly Lawless has amassed a 30,000 people strong audience through writing about her life as a full-service sex worker.

Sydney-based sex worker Tilly Lawless doesn’t really consider herself an activist, but says she feels a responsibility to use her platform - an Instagram account with 30,000 followers - to combat stigma around sex work and elevate marginalised voices.

“I know that many sex workers are unable to be open and public about their work because of the repercussions they'll face,” she says.

“And I was like, well, I'm in a position to speak about my work in a way that many other sex workers aren't able to. And so I have a responsibility utilise that.”

I'm in a position to speak about my work in a way that many other sex workers aren't able to.

- Tilly Lawless 

She says her Instagram is “first and foremost a diary” - one she started before she started sex work - which means her writings about politics are closely intertwined with her personal life.

“There is the argument that like the personal is political, and just by writing about my day to day as a sex worker, that is in itself a form of activism,” she says. “But I don’t think of my Instagram as a form of activism, it was just organic.”

Where she does try to separate the two spheres is by using the story function to post other activists and political events and her grid for reflections from her life.

While feminism and sex worker rights have previously had a fraught relationship due to some feminists who believe sex work is inherently exploitative, Lawless says this seems to be changing - at least in small ways, like the Women’s March posting a ‘we support sex workers’ image to their social media account recently.

Lawless agrees that sex work developed from a system that objectifies women, but she also believes it’s a way for women to survive in a patriarchal world - one that isn’t going to topple overnight.

“I'm of the pragmatic view that we're not suddenly going to create a utopian world where women are treated the same and are valued in the same way men are,” she says.

“And so whilst we don't have that perfect world, sex work is a way in which so many marginalised women and people exist.”

Tilly hopes to eliminate some of the stigma around sex work.
Tilly Lawless hopes to eliminate some of the stigma around sex work.

Despite this, she says, sex workers have been completely excluded from the feminist narrative.

“To stamp out sex work or completely undermine the autonomy of women within sex work is not helpful and completely dangerous,” she says. “By speaking out it combats the stigma and empowers or enables other sex workers to speak out about their work.”

“But it’s kind of like a catch-22. You want to speak about it because any sex worker voice is valuable but also you're once again a white voice dominating the conversation. So for me it's been really important to ... promote other marginalised voices.”

Sara Saleh is speaking at All About Women festival in Sydney on Sunday, 10 March.

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