For many women of colour, it's hard to tell where the sexism stops and the racism begins.
Dr Amira Aftab

3 Dec 2018 - 11:16 AM  UPDATED 4 Dec 2018 - 4:35 PM


When someone asks me, “Is Australia sexist?” I always find myself taking a deep breath as I prepare to answer. The obvious answer is yes, and the recent survey on sexism in Australia led by myself and my colleague, Professor Catharine Lumby, certainly backs this up. But as a woman from a minority ethnic and religious background answering that question is far from simple.

Yes, Australian women continue to experience sexism in a variety of spaces (public, online, and the workplace amongst others). For women from minority cultural, religious or ethnic backgrounds (women of colour), this sexism and sexual harassment is frequently experienced alongside other inequalities or harassment based on race or religion.

After #MeToo, the long-standing issues of sexual abuse and harassment have certainly been brought to the forefront of public discussions. This is incredibly important in bringing to light issues that have previously been swept into the shadows, shrouded in silence. For too long, women have been taught to just stay quiet. However, even now when we are talking about sexism and sexual harassment broadly, the experiences of women of colour continue to be overlooked.

We know from studies that women of colour experience sexual harassment at higher rates than their peers. They face a “double jeopardy” when faced with harassment – where it is both racial and sexual in nature.

Often combined in a confusing mix where it is hard to tell whether it is more sexism or racism.

For many women, like myself, we are conscious of the fact that we can be the target of sexism, but also discrimination based on our race, religion or culture. Often combined in a confusing mix where it is hard to tell whether it is more sexism or racism.

As a researcher I come across discussions of this all the time, but you don’t have to look at research to know this is an issue. Have a conversation with a woman of colour, and it is likely that she has a story about a moment where she experienced discrimination or harassment that drew on both gender and race (or religion).

My friends and family who wear hijabs tell me about their experiences of harassment in public places. Because they are visibly “other” they are more commonly targeted with comments and remarks that are not only sexist but Islamophobic.

In a recent conversation with a friend, she reminded me that it is not just about these inherently sexist and Islamophobic comments, but that sexual harassment experienced by women of colour often involves being cast as “exotic” or fetishised. In this example, comments from men usually include “you’re so exotic” or “surely you are always wanted by men, you’re so exotic and different!”. Within these sexist remarks, women of colour are positioned as desirable because they are visibly “other”, and are viewed as “unique” and “one-off”.

Sadly, when men are called out for making such statements the reply is usually that we should take it as a compliment. Much like the age-old argument that a wolf-whistle or catcall should be taken as flattery (a sentiment that was reinforced in our survey). 

Many women may not even realise that what they are experiencing can be classed as sexual harassment in the first place

If we look at one site of sexual harassment, the workplace, we can see that a large part of the issue is that many women are not aware of the reporting mechanisms available to them. But an even bigger issue is that many women may not even realise that what they are experiencing can be classed as sexual harassment in the first place. 

Sexist behaviour is not always overt. Particularly when it is in the form of “throwaway” remarks. For one of my friends, a recent experience saw her receive repeated comments from a co-worker. He continuously harassed her with questions about what will happen when her husband takes a second wife (insinuating a number of inappropriate things, and acting as if this is a given because she is a woman of a Muslim background). To the casual observer it may seem harmless, but persistent comments and insults that are gendered is sexual harassment. As in this example, for women of colour these comments often take on a racial element too. 

We can talk about making reporting processes for sexual harassment within workplaces clearer and more accessible, but this does not solve or remove additional barriers faced by women of colour. These can be language barriers or other access issues, but these are often compounded by feelings of isolation within the workplace, particularly when you are targeted for being “other”.  

There is a hesitancy to report harassment for fear of being labelled as “difficult” or “uptight” or not being able to take a joke - terms that are commonly hurled at women when they do speak up. This is usually coupled with the burden being placed on women to prove harassment.  

While Australia has made great strides in terms of gender equality, with legal protections around sexual harassment and discrimination, there is still a long way to go. Implementing formal processes alone will not make a difference, there needs to be a far bigger social and cultural shift. Most importantly, we cannot talk about sexism and the experiences of women, without including the voices of women of colour. 

Dr Amira Aftab is a researcher at the Macquarie University Law School. She is co-author of the ‘Is Australia Sexist?’ report commissioned by SBS and conducted by Macquarie University. You can follow her on Twitter @amiraaftab.

Is Australia Sexist?  premieres on SBS on December 4 at 8.40pm. The show will also be available to stream on SBS On Demand.


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