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You don’t have to go far to do good: In conversation with Julia Gillard

Lina AbiRafeh

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by feminist pioneer and former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. She is now the Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, where I am a member of the Advisory Council. She is also known for delivering her famous misogyny speech — a lesson in how to fight back, because we all should be offended by sexism.

The full conversation can be found here. Below are some highlights.

Now you’ve described yourself as born into conflict and always comfortable with chaos. Can you tell us about the early years that enabled you to say that and how they set you on the path for the work you do today?

Being born a woman already means facing a certain amount of conflict, realizing at a certain age that the world views you as less than, as second class. So for me that is already a type of conflict. Also, I am Lebanese and Palestinian so I have two war zones behind me. And I was raised between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so I’m all sorts of hyphens and complications, which means I really had to figure out who I was and what I stood for. For me, being a woman, being a fighter, feeling very strongly about social justice before I could even put a label on it — Feminism was my country. That’s where my loyalty is. And that’s really how it all started.

Now you’ve dedicated your career to ending gender-based violence. How did you first get involved with this work?

It takes a while to understand that this is something ingrained in all of us as women and girls, we’re constantly told to be careful and to watch what we do, where we go, who we interact with, what we’re wearing. From an early age the message is that we’re unsafe, and that safety is our responsibility. And so you feel this burden, the idea that your freedom, your mobility, your voice, your choice are constricted. Your opportunities are limited because the world views you in a certain way, and you are constantly at risk.

That message comes across very clearly to young girls, and certainly came across to me. I was 14 years old, in high school, and I signed up for a class called Comparative Women’s History. The class wasn’t about women’s history as much as the history of violence against women, from the foetus to the funeral, and everything in between. And in every single country, including here in the US, everywhere, all the time, in every place and space.

For me it was overwhelming. I had never heard anything like that. I could not imagine the magnitude of intimate partner violence, or how we used to break our ribs to fit into corsets, body image and mutilations fueled by patriarchy, female genital mutilation, bride burning, acid burning, rape as a weapon of war, all forms of violence.

I was furious. It was that anger that got me going. I realized then that nothing is possible for us, as women, as long as this continues, as long as I feel that restriction on my freedom and my possibilities, as long as I have to constantly worry about my safety and feel like I’m always at risk, how can I ever achieve anything in my life? So that became the starting point for me. Fix that first and then let’s talk about all the other stuff. And we’re still fighting the same thing.

Sounds like you didn’t imagine back then that the pathway was going to be this long, if it was fix that first, that sort of implies you thought we’d get this done?

I was 14 and angry — but also hopeful. This new knowledge was as devastating as it was fueling. And now, I’m old, and I’m still screaming until I lose my voice. But I look at younger women, and I wonder what world we are leaving for them? Every day there are new cases, new incidents at the micro and the macro level. I have a niece who is 8. How do I look her in the eye and say, “I tried to make things better for you. But I’m sorry, I failed.”

What more can women do who are listening to this podcast? Using their social media presence is good, and amplifies the messages, but are there practical things people can do?

There are always organizations to support. I write a blog every week and try to point people towards concrete action.

It’s one thing for us to not be aware, although I think that there’s no longer an excuse for that. We’re hyper aware of what is happening in the world. Then once you are aware, you should be angry — or you’re asleep. It’s impossible to not care about these things as they go on around us — and happen to us. It’s impossible to say, well, that’s just other women, or that’s over there. Not me, not here, not now. No, we all are responsible. It is here and it is now. Every single time I write about any country, I say here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should care, here’s why we should be angry, and here’s what we can do about that anger. I like tangible action and want to promote credible organizations. They need our support.

We know that one in three women worldwide experience gender-based violence. As someone who’s advocated for women’s rights globally, how do you persuade people who think it’s someone else’s problem?

Look at intimate partner violence, the most common form worldwide, affecting so many more women than we know. Women are mostly silent about it because what incentive is there to speak out unless you’re going to be protected, with access to security, with the possibility for justice. Too often, everywhere, women don’t have those things. Intimate partner violence is a silent pandemic.

Look at sexual harassment. Certainly the #MeToo movement made some great strides in exposing the magnitude of the problem. And everybody with connectivity, with certain resources, was paying attention. Everybody was MeToo-ing, everybody has a story. When you stop and listen to that, it was overwhelming. Every woman I know a story. I certainly have a story.

When we have those conversations, we realize the painful ordinariness of this. Look at how we talk to our girls about where and how they move in the world — on the street, with keys in their hands, and so on. Whatever types of restrictions we place on the freedoms and mobilities and choices of women and girls. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence — and we have all internalized it.

Look at young women when they’re out saying “come with me to the bathroom” or “call me when you get home” or “be careful” or “don’t talk to him” or “keep your eye on your drink all the time.” It’s exhausting having to live with all of that fear. For me that is already a crime. Women know this, they know how common it is. And we all have accepted this as part of what it means to be a woman. I say no, that is not the way to live. That is not the way any of us should live.

Our right is to be free, and to have respect, and dignity, and equal share of space and resources and opportunities — but we don’t. We live very small. When people start to see those things and talk to each other, then it becomes a different conversation. We talk about things like the increase in sexual violence and intimate partner violence in the aftermath of an emergency. The emergency is right here! Hurricane Katrina was right here in our backyard. COVID is a great example. The assumption that “stay home” means “stay safe” was naive. Home is not safe for far too many women. I get chills just telling you about it — and I talk about it every day. It is just so unbearably common.

Lina, you’ve got an incredible energy, how do you keep your spirits up? Decades into this work, I can feel the power of that energy, even as we work on Zoom. How do you keep doing it?

Oh, it’s the anger. It’s the feeling that things should have been better by now. This constant shock I have every morning waking up to these stories, as if it’s happening all over again. And the weird thing is, it’s gotten harder for me, not easier, in terms of my level of frustration, and fury, and sorrow. I look at girls and I think we should have done better for you. Not that the onus was all on me or on us to fix everything, but the idea that the world shouldn’t be like this. And it’s that sense of injustice that I can never swallow. And that’s how I keep going.

But now I’ve morphed, I do it in different ways. I used to be in the field in the thick of it, in an emergency. Now, in the last couple of years, I do this from New York. A little bit of distance for self preservation. Still, I will scream until I lose my voice. I do it now, through advising, and blogging, and speaking, and just howling into the void. And if one person listens, that’s already good.

Who are the women who have inspired you along the way?

I was raised by feminists, even though they wouldn’t label themselves that way. My late grandmother on the Palestinian side fought for an education, managed to go to college, and today her 1938 diploma hangs on my wall. She is a reminder of what women who push boundaries can do. I was raised with that story and that legacy of strength. My parents reinforced those messages of financial independence and didn’t let me play with dolls “because I could do much more,” my mother would say.

But there are so many women who inspire me all the time. Young women, women whose names we don’t know, who are out on the streets, or in their classrooms or in their homes, pushing those boundaries. They are more clear about what is not acceptable about the lives that they want and about the rights that they have.

In your fabulous TED talk, you talk about this expression, ‘start where you stand.’ Can you tell us the story of how you came across that phrase and what it means to you?

Oh, that was such a powerful moment. I was deployed to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015 to work on sexual violence prevention and response, trying to provide support and relief and recovery and looking at the systems and services to get women to safety. That was actually my last emergency.

I was walking to the UN office where I was stationed at five o’clock in the morning, and came across this graffiti. And that’s what it said: Start where you stand. And I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to say my whole life, but could not have put it better than this spray painted piece of wisdom.

Because people ask me all the time what they can do. They say “I want to do something, but I don’t want to go to Afghanistan or Chad or places you went.” I tell them that they don’t have to, because, unfortunate for us, this problem is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

If you look at the space you occupy — your home, or your school, or the street or the market, or your office or public office — whatever space you have, whatever platform you have, you can take that space and make it feminist.

There are opportunities for work and there are violations of rights everywhere. So by Start where you stand, what I thought my graffiti artist was trying to tell me was that we don’t have to go far to do good. The need is so overwhelming that it is all around us. And if we all took responsibility for our little spaces, then maybe that effort is contagious. Maybe we will see some change in our lifetime.

You don’t have to go far to do good. I love it.

Virginia Woolf says, As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country, as a woman, my country is the world. The wonderful Lina says…

For me, being a woman is the most important aspect of my identity. Feminism is my country, and no loyalty supersedes this. This is the most important role I have, the most important space I occupy, it is what I love, what I believe in. It is what I hope by now I am good at. And it is my duty to do it. If I can do one good thing for one young woman or make one tiny dent, then I have done something. And that for me is enough.

Full article available here and Podcast available through Spotify or Apple.

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