Authentic Storytelling has the Power to initiate Progress by Promoting the Personal is Political

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For many people in Australia, celebrating International Women’s Day in 2021 was bittersweet, especially in the atmosphere created by revelations of how toxic and abusive our Federal Parliament is as a workplace for women.

The ACTU acknowledged the 110th Anniversary of IWD by publishing a report on the challenges facing working women in 2021. The report’s key points are not easy reading: “At the turn of the 20th century, Australia was considered one of the most progressive nations for women in the world. In 1902 we became the second country to win some women the right to vote (it took until 1962 for First Nations women to win the same right) and the first to allow women to stand for parliament.” And yet today, ‘Australia ranks just 44th in the world for gender pay equity. In 2006 we ranked 15th.’

For someone like me, who joined Women’s Liberation in 1971 during my first year at university and who is a longterm member of the Union of Australian Women, I feel it is indeed another example of Groundhog Day, and I can’t believe we are not only still fighting for equal pay, but in some instances, we have lost ground as far as equity and respect is concerned.

I’ve owned the following badges since the 70s and 80s and have marched for equality every year on IWD and at other protests, including the one against Trump where many of us wore homemade Pussy Hats. The article underneath those pictures is from The Age newspaper in the 90s and asks the perennial question – in the struggle for equality, how much has really changed?

Impact of Covid-19 On Women

The ACTU Report reveals that women bore the brunt of losses from the catastrophic changes to society due to the pandemic.

• Women over-represented in insecure and low paid jobs
• Women dominated the frontline care, and the caring responsibilities at home
• JobKeeper rules unfairly excluded women workers
• Over 300,000 women emptied their superannuation accounts to cope during Covid, putting them at greater risk of poverty in retirement.

from Facebook

The reasons why feminism seems to be making little headway in changing deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes in a culture that prides itself in championing the ‘fair go’ will no doubt continue to be the subject of essays, books, blogs, podcasts, documentaries and film, not to mention the plethora of talk shows and infotainment passing as news we see on television and online, but here is another old cutting from my scrapbook. The date 1999!

From The Age, 1999

2021, we have some high profile female journalists – some even host their own radio or television shows – but it is still men who actually control the boardrooms, the directorships and CEO positions, and who own the newspapers, television stations, and big tech giants of the Internet.

(I can hear people asking: What about Ita Buttrose? However, considering the LNP Federal Governments have cut the ABC’s funding since 2013, and the organisation’s loss of staff and resources, I think we can discount any perceived advantage Ita’s appointment holds.)

And so the struggle continues!

The first photo is from the 2019 IWD rally, the middle photo of IWD in the 70s (the arrow points to me) appeared in the 2018 City of Melbourne exhibition, We Protest, and the last photo is the cover of a book published in January 2000, detailing the history and incredible achievements of the UAW.

Choose to Challenge – Kingston Woman of the Year Award 2021

On Friday, March 5, I attended the City of Kingston’s IWD celebration. This was the third year of 24 women being recognised for their achievements and contributions to the community, with one awarded the title of Woman of the Year 2021. This year too, they added a new category of Lifetime Achievement Award.

The stories of the final nominees, all proven leaders in their field can be read online. They inspire others and make a difference through exceptional professional or personal achievements in the following categories:

  • Courageous Commitment: Women who are dedicated to making a difference to the health, well-being, safety, and/or sustainability of our community through advocacy, campaigning, fundraising, and/or thought-leadership
  • Excelling in Arts and Sport: Women using their sporting and/or creative talents to represent, motivate and inspire our community.
  • Inspiring Innovation: Women who are leaders in Business, Economics, Politics, and/or an Entrepreneur.
  • Success in STEM: Women excelling in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

The Mayor, Cr Steve Staikos, acknowledged the barriers that continue to perpetuate gender inequality which is a key cause of family violence and violence against women. “Kingston Council is committed to working towards the vision of creating safe, equal and respectful relationships in our community where family violence and gender inequality are not tolerated.”

The Council, working with Youth Services, launched the Young Women’s Mentoring Program last year hoping to help inspire future generations of young women to achieve their full potential with many of the nominees from past years, and hopefully this year, mentoring young people. By acknowledging their achievements the Council helps encourage positive contributions, encourages women to keep sharing stories, and encourages us to keep lifting each other up.

An award winner from last year, Tara Graves winner was MC. Tara emphasised the importance of support from others and having a sense of community. The mentoring program so important to inspire and help young people and an opportunity for nominees to share their skills and give back. It encourages women to take part and show leadership at Council events, just as Tara is emceeing and it helps emerging leaders, bringing out the best in all participants. Tara hoped, “the nominees this year will participate because their stories inspire and challenge us to make a positive difference in the community.”

A short video of the established Young Women’s mentoring Program heard from some of last year’s nominees and also the young people who joined the program. Messages from mentors included:

  • The importance of listening
  • the joy and importance of sharing skills
  • encouraging the seeking of help for mental as well as physical health
  • encouraging teenagers to grow into womanhood feeling positive.

Teenagers shared what they got from the program:

Importance of checking-in on a regular basis with those who you love and love you,

  • important to communicate
  • realising they are not alone or on their own,
  • a sense of optimism
  • it’s okay to be interested in multiple things and passionate about more than one thing
  • you don’t have to be always focused on one aim,
  • the value in learning from different life experiences and that it’s okay to be different.

Tell Your Truth – Speak Out – Own Your Story, Design Your Destiny

The keynote speaker was Mariam Issa, an inspired coach, storyteller, and author of A Resilient Life, co-founder of the non-profit organisation RAW – Resilient Aspiring Women – a multi-cultural program to encourage diversity and encouraging women to achieve while healing from personal, physical, mental or emotional trauma and life’s tribulations. RAW supports women’s resilience through intercultural dialogue and exchange facilitated by storytelling, cooking and gardening.

Mariam, originally from Somalia, said her African ancestry believes there is no death. We live in continuous life, and represent all the elders in our DNA. She meditates, and one day she saw a cross, and even although she is not Christian but Muslim, this visualisation she understood to mean the following:

At the top of the vertical line is the storyteller, and at the bottom is the listener. On the extreme left of the horizontal line are our ancestors and past experience, and on the extreme right of the horizontal line is youth and the future.

She asked us to visualise this cross and the description and to add a bubble above the cross and each world we live in is in that bubble. Everyday it is important to realise we are all the bubble amid many bubbles. The story doesn’t belong to any one group – not the past, or future. The story is now and the segment of time we share.

Cultures who don’t share stories die. Mariam is a storyteller and cultures in the past used storytellers to share stories of the past in oral histories, settle disputes, celebrate special times, share knowledge. Mariam considers oral history similar to how we use technology today to process and pass on information.

Language and Rhythm are powerful tools.

Stories give us insights. Mariam considers her life is a safari and she uses stories as a platform to transform experiences through questions. We should use opportunities to be inquisitive, engage, and be inspired and connected. Resilient and inclusive communities bring together diversity and amazing stories.

Humanity is at a crossroads with the world changing rapidly.

2020 – revealed our inability to predict the future and the power of focused presence. Imagination is a lens to create a new reality of equity and equality that must be built into the system and we must challenge the systemic oppression of women.

Mariam’s mother was a weaver of mats and she told her daughter, it was important to change the pattern and your mat because life changes and we must adapt. We must change all the time. Don’t spend too much time looking at past mistakes or worrying too much about the future.

  • Claiming your rights is claiming your story. People meet the women within when you are faced with adversity and speak up or act.

Mariam was a Somalian refugee and like all refugees from a different culture, arriving in a new country, everything they knew about themselves was questioned. Her culture deflated and it was difficult to retain her cultural identity, especially after 9/11. Fortunately, she kept a journal and reflecting on this she saw a pattern of phases common to many refugees.

Phase 1: Victimhood: They were living in Brighton with feelings of powerlessness and despair. Separated from birth country and culture and extended family, she gave birth to her fifth child shortly after arriving from her war-torn country and a refugee camp in Kenya. She went into post natal depression. It was a dark period of settlement. She struggled but continued to hang on to the dream many refugees have, that one day they can return to their own country and be happy.

9/11 had happened and the media hype and many politicians rhetoric was anti-Islamic. She lived in fear and sent her children to an Islamic school, across Melbourne, expensive to attend and travel to, even when she knew the standard of education and the curriculum at Brighton public schools was better.

Phase 2: Anger: She took her four-year old daughter, her youngest child to kindergarten. Although excited to be part of all kindergarten entailed, her daughter asked, ‘Do they not want me because I am African?” Mariam realised what the fear and victimhood was doing and got angry wanting to change the situation. 

The angry phase was better – she made better decisions. She put her children in local schools, she stayed in Brighton and decided to settle in Australia, not always dreaming of ‘going home’. She made a choice to adapt to the community. Her ancestors were courageous nomadic people, they knew how to adapt and she would too.

Choosing to Challenge

It is hard to move forward, she believes you navigate adversity not ‘come through it’. You must challenge yourself – as her mother advised, ‘change the mat’. Mariam’s passion is to unlock the contributions of others and her daughter now joins her as a storyteller and was speaking at a school in Sunshine.

Mariam told the story of the day she decided to change.

On a winter’s day, she sat in front of their only heater clutching a coffee to get warm. Looking out of the window, a vision appeared that remains with her – it gave her inspiration on that winter’s morning. A young woman in lycra went by, holding a dog on a leash in one hand and pushing a baby’s pram with the other. And she wore perfect make-up.

Mariam wondered at this woman’s motivation and fortitude – it reminded her of women she had observed in Kenya who got up at 3.00 am, put a child in a sling and a basket on their head and walked more than half a mile to market. The vision started a curiosity about that woman in lycra, and others who lived in Brighton. 

(There was a murmured giggle from the audience at this point in the story – many of us I am sure recalling ‘Karen from Brighton’ and the fuss during the 2020 Lockdowns!)

Mariam started work as a cleaner in Brighton, cleaning homes of the women in lycra, and then worked in aged care. Cleaning the big mansions she met many ‘lycra’ women and was introduced to the coffee culture. She also met plenty of old people abandoned to loneliness in aged care.

Women are at the forefront of culture everywhere but lifestyle did not necessarily bring happiness, nor does isolation. She believes in bridging gaps. Life is happening to us all the time, we must participate and create a life bridging gaps within the community. Working towards goals of inclusiveness and similar goals she created her own business.

She discovered food the best social catalyst and established her own business cooking East African food called Cooking with Mariam, and was even on TV with well-known Australian basketball player, Andrew Gaze.

Then she became an author – writing her book about resilience, and now she has founded RAW (spells war in reverse) believing resilience springs from women. The more women thrive, the more communities thrive.

We Are the System

Choose to change, ponder the stories of other, find the courage to challenge any system oppressing you. Be curious, ask questions. Take the power you have within. Mariam asked Tara what she thought was possible in this space of uncertainty as we recover from the global pandemic. Tara answered: The future is female. Women must be empowered, must be taken more seriously in the workforce and in places where decisions are made.

Mariam is a woman of faith and finds that most faiths regardless of religious persuasion share many similar beliefs. She ended her speech with the following:

  1. Accept worthiness comes from your existence. You exist therefore are worthy.
  2. We are all one – I am because you are. There is no you or me. Accept the fullness of who you are.
  3. Whatever seed you put in and how you nurture that seed is what you plant. The law of cause and effect.
  4. Law of presence – we suffer because of past or future fears but we must focus on now.
  5. A need to promote and create a safe space so the vulnerable can reach out.

The program also included two uplifting, energetic and joyous dance performances. The first from Indigenous Outreach projects and the second from Tribal African drum and dance ensemble by Melbourne Djembe group. Both encouraged audience participation which emphasised we were indeed there to celebrate and not dwell on all that needs to be done.

There will be time enough to harness our Angry Phase!

IWD Rally Melbourne 2018

The Future

As an artist, I never wanted to be fettered by gender nor recognised or defined as a female poet, musician or singer. They don’t do that with men – nobody says Picasso, the male artist. Curators call me up and say, “We want your work to be in a show about women artists,” and I’m like, why? For Christ’s sake, do we have to attach a gender onto everything?

Patti Smith, writer and musician