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We will not sit down or stand to the side

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice


There are moments in history where the forces of what has come before and the energy of the present reconfigure the social and political landscape. In Australia and around the globe, reckoning with misogyny and the interrelated issues of systemic racism and patriarchal destruction has been centuries in the making.

On Tuesday, on International Women’s Day, a new play by Victoria Midwinter Pitt will be published. I’m With Her is a collection of real-life stories, using words spoken by prominent Australian women and telling universal stories of resilience and resistance in the age of #MeToo. As the play states through the poignant lines of environmental scientist Marion Blackwell, “time’s got nothing to do with growth … time doesn’t do the work”. It is women, of all backgrounds, throughout history, who do the work – who keep families together, communities functioning and economies circulating. It is women’s work that makes growth happen.

The stories throughout I’m With Her show how living as women and girls, and having dreams that do not fit gender norms, are themselves acts of resistance against dominant sexist systems and behaviours.

Change happens, misogyny is called out and confronted over and again because of women’s voices and actions.

This play reminds all women how much power we have in being ourselves. But to be who we are, without trepidation, in a world that condemns so much of our diverse womanhood is often the hardest thing to do.

This theme of resistance and finding strength in identity reminds me of the women who raised me. My grandmother, a Bunuba woman, was born at the turn of last century in the central Kimberley. In the aftermath of a brutal colonial onslaught, she never relinquished her Bunuba knowledge and ways of living on our traditional Country.

I was brought up across two worlds – the Western and Bunuba. My grandmother’s and mother’s determination meant our knowledge, stretching back to a time immemorial, survived. Because of them I could navigate a Western reality while also remaining strong in my Bunuba womanhood. I will be eternally grateful for these women who stood on the precipice of the frontier, marched forward into a new world, and brought our society, culture, and ways of being with them – all the while nursing children, healing the sick, governing societies and ensuring everyone was fed.

Our First Nations women and cultures live on. And now in this contemporary moment, it’s the voices of women such as Marcia Langton, heard throughout I’m With Her, which represent our incredible living heritage of First Nations matriarchal leadership and knowledges. As Marcia’s character states in the play: “Other women can learn a lot from Aboriginal women.”

As the first woman to become the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, I was determined to help change the narrative. I launched the Wiyi Yani U Thangani project, meaning Women’s Voices in Bunuba. In 2018, my team and I travelled to more than 100 urban and remote communities to elevate the diverse lives and work of our First Nations women and girls.

The resulting report provides a road map for achieving First Nations gender justice, and next year we will host the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls’ national summit – a historic gathering of more than 200 First Nations women and girl delegates. It will be a space to redefine the national agenda for realising the rights and responding to the strengths of First Nations women and girls.

I’m With Her makes it clear the society we have a right to, that treats women and girls with respect, calls out and proactively eradicates all forms of discrimination, honours women’s knowledges and creates structures informed by them, is yet to exist.

I feel the impatience of the characters in the play, and all the women I’ve spoken to throughout Wiyi Yani U Thangani feel it too: we will not sit down or stand to the side until we are responded to and the world around us begins to shake and shift. We must not wait for this society to arrive because it is within our actions, every day, that we bring the world we want into being.

The publication of I’m With Her comes as the public hears the tide of women’s voices once again, propelled by frustration, fury, love and determination. #MeToo has had a full-throttle resurgence here and these dreams, of all our women, feel that much more real each day.

Published in The Australian
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Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice