Theme Ethnic Women
Written by Alexandra Dellios, The University of Melbourne
Since the post-war era, ethnic women have displayed leadership through the formation of organisational networks that have worked to overcome the barriers that have silenced them. In some instances, the ideology of 'multiculturalism' has been good for ethnic women and these networks; in more implicit ways, it has reinforced the boundaries that keep these women out of public power.
When I speak of 'ethnic women', I am employing a definition used loosely in official and academic parlance today- that of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) women, a term that has replaced Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) in recent times. By extension, this excludes Anglo-Celtic women, to whom Australian society has never inscribed an ethnicity. In line with current practice, this entry will, where possible, use the term 'CALD women' in preference to 'ethnic women'. Of course, both are broad and problematic categories. The women they describe are by no means a homogenous group. This entry, in its focus on leadership, aims to speak across and within the numerous (and often conflicting) interests of women from different ethnic backgrounds- many of whom do not share the same needs. In broad terms, newer arrivals from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia require and display types of leadership that are different from the leadership modes exercised by longer-settled post-war women from Eastern and Southern Europe or even Indochina. Some (but not all) generations of the latter have achieved social mobility, whereas many of the former do not 'need' the type of diversity espoused and enshrined in the official policy of multiculturalism. Yet others now turn to it as a means of feeling included in the national narrative.
Across the time-span from the post-war period to the present, CALD women have continued to campaign for structural pluralism, acceptance of cultural diversity, and equal access to welfare and citizenship rights. Many have had to do so within the structures of their respective ethnic communities and within the organisations and welfare lobbies run largely by well-established men in professions and business. This situation has proved restrictive, and therefore not all women have worked within their specific ethnic communities to achieve social and cultural equality. The idea of ethnic 'communities' is in many ways undermined, and perhaps revealed to be merely a dominant construct, if we focus on the women whose networks span ethnic divides. CALD women's networks and organisations transcend ethnic and racial boundaries. Indeed, 'migrant and refugee' women's organisations have been formed and running since the 1970s, mainly as an avenue to share concerns and represent issues common to migrant (not just, for example, German or Baltic) women. These common issues were initially to do with welfare, access and equity. The policy context for these demands has changed significantly since the post-war period. However, this is not to say that the marginalisation of ethnic women's demands has been allayed by the progression of multiculturalism, or that more recent groups do not also face issues of marginalisation and inadequate access to government services.
This entry will focus on women's leadership within the structures of power, be they ethnic community organisations or migrant associations, state or federal politics, or the arts- the last with a focus on the more intangible aspects of expression and recounting stories. Although the historiography has been sketchy, many figures stand out in this history. And, while the focus may rest on the political context and official constraints under which women have operated, I also wish to draw attention to the role of agency and to the women's networks built around issues that broadly affect all women who arrived as immigrants or refugees. I am referring to networks like the Immigrant and Refugee Women of Australia (NIRWA) that avoid the ethnic divides sometimes perpetuated by the funding scheme set up under the official policy of multiculturalism by federal governments. The NIRWA, for example, has many partners and over two hundred affiliations across multicultural and women's organisations in Australia.
In the post-war context, assimilation- a complex policy, rhetoric, and ideology- was directed at the newly arrived refugees and assisted migrants, first from the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe, and then from Southern Europe. To allay public fears over the new migrant presence, politicians, bureaucrats and academics promoted the complete assimilation of immigrants into the 'Australian way of life'. According to official rhetoric, Australia would remain 'white and British' and immigrants would become 'New Australians'. The reality proved far more complicated. Australia experienced almost thirty years of inadequate government policy and institutional ignorance, questioned and amended intermittently, before it was publicly acknowledged that assimilation (and indeed, the ambiguous notion of 'integration') was failing (Tavan, 110; Lack and Templeton, 89). Migrants were not integrating well into Australian society. Inward-looking and isolated from key institutional frameworks, they faced problems associated with inadequate access to welfare services and programs. Surveys conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed that many new arrivals, and indeed longer-term immigrant communities, were living in poverty (Tamis, 48; Henderson, 269-81) and experiencing structural disadvantage that desperately required special services and programs.
By the 1970s, ethnic communities were establishing their own organisations to deal with the lack of service provision. For example, the Italian welfare group, Co.As.It, was formed in 1967, and the Australian Greek Welfare Society followed in 1972. In response to these organisations and their often related demands, a wider body was established in 1979, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA), with separate councils in regions and states around Australia.
The federal government, too, made substantial progress in the area of migrant services and programs (structural pluralism), as well as in cultural pluralism, from the late 1970s (Martin, 1978, 54). Successive governments since the Whitlam administration have been nominally committed to the vision of a 'multicultural' Australia- a term with a 'curious pedigree and a variety of meanings' that promoted, rather than restricted, the expression and maintenance of cultural pluralism (Jakubowicz, 271). The 1973 Grassby Report, titled A Multicultural Society for the Future, is often considered the key turning point in the bi-partisan turn to multiculturalism. The Fraser government later supported and adopted many of its recommendations. The 1978 Galbally Review of post-arrival provision for migrants also promoted the establishment of many key services and programs, including the Telephone Interpreter Service, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Migrant Resource Centres, and the research-orientated Australian Institute for Multicultural Affairs. While these services and programs made the lives of ethnic minorities somewhat easier, the Galbally Review had a particular effect on the practice of multiculturalism and the provision of structural pluralism.
Jakubowicz argues that Galbally's recommendations marked a conservative turn in multicultural ideology designed to limit the welfare claims of the ethnic rights-based strategies of the early 1970s. By this measure, they resulted in a 'second-rate system of welfare' that was responsible for encouraging the proliferation of small agencies in the community with limited resources, pushing them into competitive dependence on limited government funding, rather than ensuring government agencies' responsibility for administering welfare. Jean Martin also argued in 1983 that migrant inequality (under the government's policy of multiculturalism) has been 'reinterpreted as the cultural monopolization of social resources' and thus multiculturalism is able to sidestep 'any consideration of the structure of the economy'.
Issues that concerned CALD women specifically- health care, bilingual services, childcare, and workers' rights- remained an issue. Women often fell back on ethnic community organisations (dominated by men) or the migrant family for support. But many of these issues were matters for the state that required leadership on a different front.
Women in NGOs, 1970s to 2000s
The Australian-Migrant Women's Association was established as early as 1974 in Sydney by Dorothy Buckland-Fuller, and the Migrant Women Workers Project began in the same year. The project's report, released in the following year, was titled 'But I wouldn't want my wife to work here...': A study of Migrant Women in Melbourne Industry. It highlighted the plight of female migrant factory workers: the repetitive and therefore physically damaging nature of their work; the difficulties of finding adequate after-school childcare in order to attend English-language classes; and their lack of support from the union movement. The Australian-Migrant Women's Association, although established by the assimilationist-minded Buckland-Fuller, provided a form of leadership that spoke across ethnic divides and brought women together to discuss issues of common concern. The constraints placed on women by the realities of factory work and family life were particularly alienating and isolating. The rights-based ethnic movements of the 1970s, to some degree, brought women into the public discussion. And some changes were made during this period; from the mid-1970s, the union movement became more attentive to their struggle, and the Commonwealth government attempted to make English-language learning more readily available, albeit in the interests of 'integration' (Jordens, 112).
At first glance, the 1980s seemed a good period for CALD women's leadership. In the previous decade, a new relationship between ethnic or migrant organisations and the political bureaucracy was forming, owing to the aforementioned restructuring. The government's preference for funding the provision of settlement services through separate community organisations may have fostered this relationship. As A.M. Jordens rather optimistically states, government support like the 'Grants-in-Aid [program] helped transform many migrant organisations into structured, competitive and astute lobbyists on behalf of their communities' (Jordens, 247). But the reality was that smaller, less prominent women's groups were left struggling to gain a fair share of the funding, which the government preferred to allot to larger peak organisations like FECCA.
Furthermore, multiculturalism had evolved in the 1980s to become a celebratory and sometimes superficial embrace of ethnic 'culture'. This brand of cultural pluralism often translated to food and folklore (Castles et al., 54). Issues of structural pluralism, defined by the rights-based activism of the 1960s and 1970s, were not a prominent feature of this celebratory multiculturalism. Feminism of the 1980s and multiculturalism, for this reason, did not have a close association. Access and equity continued to concern CALD women in particular, so, during this time, more grassroots women's groups stepped forward to bring to light some of these on-going problems. Individual ethnic community organisations continued to be dominated by men- particularly by older post-war arrivals. Pushed into a dependence on tight family structures and marginalised from mainstream organisations, countless women's organisations sprang up in the 1980s to fill the void. The Australian Vietnamese Women's Welfare Association (AVWWA) was established in Victoria in 1983, with separate state branches opening in the following years. A leading figure in the collective that founded AVWWA was Cam Nguyen and she was still its CEO in 2014. In 1984, the Women's Network was established and, in the following year, the National Italian-Australian Women's Association. The Immigrant Women's Speakout Association of NSW was also established in 1985, and the Association of Non-English Speaking Background Women of Australia (ANESBWA) was first convened by Matina Mottee in 1987. And, in 1989, Multicultural Women's Advocacy Inc. Was founded in the ACT.
These were mostly advocacy groups, formed by women within and across different ethnic communities. Some, such as Speakout, offered their own services to vulnerable women in Sydney's marginalised ethnic communities, like Fairfield, where services for ethnic women suffering domestic abuse and discrimination were lacking. Such women were often doubly silenced by both their ethnicity and gender. The Association of NESB Women of Australia also assisted in matters of access and equity, and encouraged women to make demands on the system. Others, like the Women's Network, aimed to build connections of support across older ethnic communities (Southern European) and newer (Southeast Asian and Central American) communities.
The most interesting facet of these CALD women's organisations was the nature and formation of their networks. Many were interlinked and had a close association with (mainstream) women's and individual ethnic communities, as well as with welfare advocacy groups. Any attempt to render the plight of ethnic minority women visible needed to be associated with both women's and welfare groups. These networks across women's and welfare groups persisted well into the 1990s and continue today. For example, the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Coalition (VIRWC), established in 1997 by Melba Marginson, maintains partnerships with YWCA Victoria, Queen Victoria Women's Centre, and the National Council of Women of Victoria. VIRWC is also closely affiliated with the Network of Immigrant and Refugee Women of Australia Inc. (NIRWA), to be discussed later.
Despite advances in leadership and representation throughout the 1980s and 1990s, issues that faced CALD women in the 1970s were still being discussed at FECCA's 1998 national conference. Alice Tay's speech, 'Contributions to Australia by Women from Diverse Cultures', could have been delivered thirty years earlier:
a lack of English language training can mean important democratic rights are curtailed, such as access and equity to many services, things that "mainstream" women take for granted. This is an isolation that mainstream women's services still vastly underestimate. Immigrant and refugee women's priorities often relate to their most basic daily experiences of the world which include being over represented in poorly paid, dangerous or menial work; high unemployment levels, high rates of occupational injury, under representation in workplace committees; being disproportionately affected by workplace restructuring and being in an extremely vulnerable position in workplace negotiations/enterprise bargaining.
Superficial multiculturalism had let these women down. This was not due to a lack of leadership on the part of CALD women working within their respective communities and at a grassroots level; rather, it was the result of failure of effective follow-through by government services and policy on a state and national level. Furthermore, immigration statistics are often gender-blind and ignore the fact that many migrant women continue to arrive under the family reunion category, and not under the skilled migration category. Not surprisingly, men have constituted the public profile of these ethnic communities and their economic success stories (Ryan). Migrant women from developing countries, on the other hand, remain over-represented in unskilled and manufacturing industries, or in unemployment statistics. They are also more likely to endure exploitative work relationships as outworkers and to suffer from lack of formal recognition of overseas qualifications. Women's organisations from the 1990s thus focused on employment assistance and skills upgrading, with Asian Women at Work (NSW) offering leadership in this field. Other groups, like Working Women's Health, Victoria, have been conducting industry visits since 1978; they assist working CALD women with reproductive and sexual health issues.
In 1998, ANESBWA was defunded by the new Howard government, along with many other ethnic community organisations, and came to rely on volunteer networks. Without financing, however, its advocacy voice became ineffective. A new and revitalised national network was required. With the assistance of the Migrant Women's Lobby Group, Speakout, and the VIRWC, a new national network for immigrant and refugee women was established, based in Adelaide, in 2005. The Network for Immigrant and Refugee Women of Australia (NIRWA) now has over 225 organisations and 20,000 individuals affiliated to it. This co-ordinated and unified advocacy network contributes to the dialogue on migrant women's equality and assists in making community programs and services responsive to migrant women. NIRWA still acts as the lead agency, with AMaRWA (the Australian Migrant and Refugee Women's Alliance, formerly known as the Australian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Alliance (AIRWA) acting as its advocacy body. This has been the case since the framework for ethnic women's community relations with the Commonwealth changed in 2010, with the announcement of the National Women's Alliances. These six funded Alliances (including AMaRWA) work on a consultative basis with the Australian government, and serve as the primary route of communication. Whether this nation-wide forum will act as an enabler or barrier to grassroots empowerment of CALD women remains to be seen, as does the effectiveness of the consultative framework employed by government. In terms of funding allocation to women's advocacy, the Alliances are certainly an improvement on past government initiatives.
Some peak ethnic organisations, still predominantly run by men, now have women holding higher office. Voula Messimeri, for example, was appointed executive director of the Australian Greek Welfare Society in 1989. However, it was not until 2006 that FECCA appointed its first female head, Messimeri, with Beryl Mulder acting as senior deputy chair. Women's marginalisation by men within peak ethnic advocacy organisations, which have deeply embedded networks of influence with state and national governments, exacerbated their invisibility and further underlined the need for women's networks to put pressure on government to consider issues still facing CALD women.
Throughout this time, Speakout and NIRWA continued to run advocacy and reach-out projects well into the 2000s. For example, Speakout funded the NESB Women's Multicultural Access Project (2004-2005), which focused on new and emerging ethnic communities in Auburn, Blacktown, and Parramatta (Sydney). The project assisted women from Liberia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and also from Iraq and Afghanistan, who required assistance in childcare, English-language learning, and technical skills training. One of the main aims of this project, and others like it, remains the empowerment of CALD women, enabling them to establish themselves and have access to available services. Multicultural Women's Advocacy Inc. In the ACT also remains focused on empowerment through its 'Employability Partnership Program: Self-confidence, Self-worth, Skill development'. Clearly, there is still a need for this type of grassroots women's leadership for CALD communities, specifically for newer arrivals.
Women in Politics
The issue of equal representation in government became more prominent in the 1980s and early 1990s. But CALD women found feminism ineffective in making them visible, and multiculturalism left them by the wayside. In terms of national policy-making, CALD women have been invisible. The previous sections highlighted their leadership and activism within non-government organisations and at a community level, but, at a higher federal or state policy level, their voices are absent. Fewer exceptions arise the higher up we climb on the largely monocultural and masculine political ladder. The debate over where women's energies should be directed- to community- based projects or to national boards- still rages. The answer seems to rest in the few national success stories mentioned below, some of whom maintain connections to the grassroots community groups.
Some ethnic women in the early years made it clear that they were acting for women, and allowed themselves to be held up as role models. Franca Arena was the first NESB woman to be elected to an Australian parliament, becoming a member of the NSW Legislative Council for the Labor Party in 1981, after struggling to make her voice heard within or beyond Sydney's patriarchal Italian community. She subsequently founded the Women's Network and the National Italian-Australian Women's Association. Dr Babacan Hurriyet also entered politics with an eye to CALD women's issues. She held many positions in the Queensland government, including positions within Multicultural Affairs and the Women's Policy and Community Outcomes Branch in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. In addition to her research and public policy involvement with multiculturalism, she has sought, through the Women's Sector Development project, to better connect women's organisations across different service areas with the Queensland government. Both Arena and Hurriyet advocated and spoke from personal experience. Arena 'often said that women have been the Cinderellas of the immigration program: there have been few frills for us, and little recognition of our contribution' (Arena, 162); she nonetheless persisted in her advocacy for more government funding to CALD women's organisations. There are numerous other women, such as Voula Messimeri, who have also tried to bridge that gap between women's networks and government (state and federal) policy structures. Focusing government attention on these neglected areas of policy and the possible connections to be fostered with CALD women's organisations has proved difficult. Indeed, rather than depending on individual politicians or political parties, encouraging government policy to consider the issues of CALD women has remained the task of CALD women's advocacy organisations, such as Franca's Women's Network.
Multiculturalism was not always good for CALD women in state and national politics either. Women often remain contained or defined by ethnic categories, their ethnic femininity stereotyped as maternal and nurturing, and their identity as women imprisoned within their static and traditional cultures. This categorisation also disguised the connections and networks they (and ethnic women's networks) have across racialised and gendered boundaries. In another way, multiculturalism as a celebratory rhetoric has worked to silence women's concerns. Again, Arena provides an example:
When I spoke [in parliament] of problems that immigrants still faced in the workplace and in society at large, and of the racism that was still rampant in our community, my colleagues did not like it. Somehow they felt I was being ungrateful, that I should say, like Mr Calabro, how grateful we all were (Arena, 161).
In seeking other ways of redressing their silence, ethnic women have become leaders in the public arts. On one level, women within individual ethnic communities have taken leading roles in wider community projects that exhibit the material culture of which they are the main producers - producers of what has been condescendingly labelled soft or low culture, or 'folklore'. In more recent years, however, mainstream cultural institutions have recognised that refugee and migrant women's stories have been absent from the public stage. Newer arrivals from Afghanistan, Sudan and East Timor have taken this opportunity to deal with their traumatic pasts and migrant journeys by exhibiting their stories and material culture. In this way, they become more than just the providers of emotional stability for their men, who are often placed at the centre of the epic migrant journey in Australian popular culture. As one example of the power of exhibiting material culture, I refer to Melbourne Immigration Museum's From Timor Leste to Australia, which showcased the traditional wares of individual women, as well as their stories of seeking refuge in Australia (http://museumvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/whatson/past-exhibitions/honouring-our-ancestors/from-timor-leste-to-australia/). These women are involved in the act of preserving memories and thus perpetuating and evolving the narratives received by younger generations within the ethnic community. Broader women's organisations have also offered platforms for sharing these stories of trauma and displacement. Again, networks define this leadership; for example, it was the Australian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Alliance (AIRWA) that established the In Her Shoes campaign. In Her Shoes encourages women to tell their stories online, creating a dialogue that aims to improve Australian perception of these women and mitigate their victimisation (http://ice.org.au/project/in-her-shoes-airwa-project/).
In the field of literature, ethnic women have been leaders in what has been somewhat condescendingly dubbed 'multicultural literature'. They have been recounting their stories since the 1980s, when migrant studies became popular in Australian education institutions. These works deal with issues of identity, what it means to be a hyphenated Australian in a multicultural nation, and the pressures of balancing conflicting family (read ethnic) and societal (read Anglo mainstream) expectations of femininity.
For a long time, Rosa R. Cappiello's Oh Lucky Country has defined the ethnic woman's literary output: a seminal work, but cynical and pessimistic, and confined to the experiences of single migrant women in post-war Sydney. In more recent years, other women's voices have emerged in literature and have also achieved success. Names like Melina Marchetta, Alice Pung, Hsu-Ming Teo, Simone Lazaroo, poets Ania Walwicz and Merlinda Bobis, and editor/publisher Helen Nickas are familiar examples. They produce popular prose that examines the contradictions and ambiguities of being an ethnic woman in a sometimes restrictive multicultural Australia. However, these authors also face boundaries to becoming leaders in mainstream Australian literature. Their work is often marketed as exotic or as an example of the migrant journey, rather than as creative writing sharing in universal themes. Consequently, they are bound by their categorisation as migrant or multicultural authors, even if their subject matter does not deal explicitly with the migrant or ethnic minority experience. This is an issue faced by many authors, both men and women, from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Migrant or multicultural literature rests on the periphery of the mainstream; in this case 'multicultural' becomes an almost pejorative term, which can be particularly demeaning for ethnic women whose voices are already silenced. Some, however, have embraced this positioning and see themselves as acting for ethnic communities. Indeed, Alice Pung has become a key literary figure in defining the generational Asian-Australian experience, particularly in compiling her most recent work, an anthology entitled Growing Up Asian in Australia; and Helen Nickas has been encouraging Greek-Australian women's writing since the early 1990s.
While leaders have emerged and voices have been heard, the narrative thrust of public multiculturalism - as culminating in becoming Australian, as cohesion in difference, and as unity in diversity - limits the creative articulation of women's experiences, obscures the difficult task of balancing femininities, and silences the structural obstacles some CALD women still face. These female authors have gone some way to complicating and moving beyond that definition of multiculturalism but, as a public ideology, it continues to constrain the articulation of their identities and the promotion of their writing. Resisting imposed identities and thus rendering CALD women less invisible becomes their task in leadership. In academia, too, leaders have emerged to bring attention to women's issues and the barriers that have yet to be broken. Nathalie Nguyen's seminal research into the women of the Vietnamese diaspora has given voice to their once silenced experiences and memories. Mary Kalantzis, who persisted against the patriarchal constraints of her family and ethnic community, has also been a prominent figure in public discussions of multiculturalism and ethnic identity, and in promoting cultural diversity.
CALD women's voices have faced marginalisation on all fronts. Structurally disadvantaged, racially and sexually stereotyped, and often without a voice within the peak ethnic organisations dominated by men, they have instead formed their own dynamic and inter-ethnic networks. Such networks have sought to bring attention to the access and equity issues that still face some CALD women, and to focus government policy on their concerns. They work with other women's, ethnic, and welfare groups in an attempt to render CALD women more visible. While funding may still be primarily directed to peak ethnic organisations, these women's networks have had an important advocacy and leadership role to play since the 1970s.
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