While I hesitate to give more air time to a woman known best for saying things I find hard not to take personally, the fact that Pauline Hanson is back on our TV screens for another stint, compels me to write this post. I am so tired of hearing – “we are better than this.” Are we? Really? Where were we (the better ones) when I had to explain to my then 10 year old that we were indeed considered “Asian” by most Australians? We were “assimilated” I assured her. We would not “swamp” anyone, I promised. And I was absolutely positive that Aboriginal people did not eat their own babies. The average conversation most people were having with their kids in the 90s, I’m sure.
And now she’s “back.” This woman who presumes to spill her filth at a new group of Australians. I watch my TV screen again as an Aboriginal senator shakes her hand, as Derryn Hinch kisses her cheek, as the Greens walk out. So they must be the better ones. The ones who think it’s wrong to listen to someone spewing ignorant hate. I used to think my country was run by the “better ones.” By and large. Despite overwhelming cruelty towards those who dared to “jump queues” and enter “illegally.” Despite detention, despite death at sea, despite silences around abuse, I believed we were “better than this.”
Not any more.
We don’t seem to make progress towards better-ness. We roll our eyes at people like Hanson while looking furtively around to see if we can whisper, “but she does have a point.” How many people expressed concern that a Muslim woman was set alight for walking down a street wearing traditional attire and how many thought she was asking for it? We become enraged when women are blamed for wearing short skirts but reserve the right to shake our heads at those who cover themselves? And we elect, democratically, without coercion, a woman whose empathy towards the vulnerable can be measured in a thimbleful of sand.
Sure, we are better than this.
A few months ago I was invited by Cafe Dissensus to guest edit a special issue on Female Genital Mutilation in India. A topic close to my heart, for reasons that will become evident when you read the editorial here and the other stories in this issue. The extraordinary transformative power of grief in the shared narratives of over a dozen women from all walks of life and all corners of the world, stunned me. Naturally stories like these cannot be told without a backlash. The Facebook page dedicated to ending the practice of mutilating young girls has been attacked by those who perceive their control is slipping. Men and women whose only recourse seems to be heckling, post daily diatribes against the women who have taken on legal and religious establishments in India in a bid to end this horrendous practice. Australia, U.K, Canada and the U.S.A have legislation that makes this practice punishable by a jail term. India does not. And it is in India where this is clandestinely practiced on girls between the ages of 5 and 7. Worse, women who live overseas take their young girls to be cut during holidays in India. Bringing this out into the open, voicing our opposition loudly and continuing to support those who speak out seem to be the only available options at the moment.
I have been doing a bit of that lately – neglecting the blog, I mean. I’ve been immersed in submissions for two journals I’m currently editing (both, as guest editor). Then I was distracted by the fabulous Perth Writers Festival which coincided with my sister’s soul-warming visit. And finally, I’m pinching myself because I actually have a publisher for the story I’ve been living with for almost ten years; the story that became the novel that I submitted for my PhD. The year so far has been busy!
I find I’m happiest (and saddest) when immersed in the stories of women who triumph against odds. Most of my PhD research was linked to stories of survival and as I edit the special issue on Female Genital Mutilation for Cafe Dissensus, I find myself drawn back into the spirit that enables women to go on, often after everyone else has given up. But I feel angry as well, especially when I see and hear women being heckled or abused for doing what they can in order to circumvent the awful misogyny, that in Australia at least, seems to be just waiting in the wings to swoop.
At the recent Perth Writers Festival, I was privileged to attend a panel discussion with the fabulous Charlotte Wood, author of The Natural Way of Things. When the time came to ask questions of the writers, who included Helen Ellis and Guinevere Glasfurd, a man in the audience stood up and instantly made me ashamed I was breathing the same air as him. This man told Charlotte Wood that most of the characters in her novel were “pathetic” and one of the main characters, Yolande, “was just like a man” and that’s why he liked her. Charlotte Wood maintained her grace and composure but some of the women in the audience that I spoke to afterwards wanted to howl with rage or shout him down. But we didn’t. We behaved like nice girls; ironically Wood had started the discussion by saying that she didn’t write about nice girls.
So why do women play nice when men don’t? Are we taught perfection and niceness instead of bravery and fairness? And why is our silence always construed as weakness? As I transcribe the interviews and read the testimonies of the women who have come forward to speak of female circumcision, I hope this will change. I hope our voices will be louder than the ones that shout us down. I hope we will continue to say uncomfortable things and I hope that my voice doesn’t falter the next time I need to raise it.
It’s been a while since I read Rudyard Kipling – more than forty years, I think. Yet the music of poetry ensures that I can, to this day, recite an entire poem about keeping my head when all about me are losing theirs, without missing a beat. Whether I can fill the unforgiving minute remains to be seen. My relationship with other Kipling poems and stories, notably Gunga Din, is more complicated. It might have something to do with having a preference for R.K Narayan instead of R Kipling when I was younger. Or it may have something to do with the elderly gent who quoted Gunga Din at me in a Perth bookshop a long time ago and expected applause or at the very least, gratitude.
Or again, it might have something to do with my grandfather.
He takes me for a walk every morning before school. I am probably six years old, because he dies the year I turn seven. He wears a top hat and carries a walking stick. There is a fob watch chained to a striped waistcoat. We stop by a bench outside the local park. He sits down. ‘There was a sign here,’ he says, ‘before you were born. It was painted on. It said – no Indians and dogs beyond this point.’ He scratches his goatee and ruffles my hair. ‘They used to call us Gunga Din. We had to call them Sahib. Do they teach you Gunga Din in your school?’ I shake my head. I have no idea why he cries and I wonder who Gunga Din is.
It is much later that I discover the power of the written and spoken word. How and when we are named and un-named. When our names are considered too much trouble to be pronounced correctly, or at all. When our children can’t wait to shed our ethnicity and our language so they won’t stand out, like we do. When we are told our food or clothing or skin is exotic, and we don’t know how to react. Because our understanding of the word exotic has something to do with dancing, and not in a good way. When we read the masters who write the classics, we discover more words that describe people like our grandfather. Words like disorderly and native and mutinous and confused. We learn that civilisation comes at a cost and the price our fathers and mothers had to pay was their freedom. We are told we don’t know what to do with freedom anyway – look at the anarchy, the violence, the chaos in our motherland. At least there was order in the Empire along with roads and railways. And we mustn’t mind the Kiplings and the Forsters and the descriptions of our men as dangerous and lustful and our women as weak and mute. After all, isn’t it ironical that we resist them in their language?
And so we adjust to dreaming in a single language and smiling when English relatives remind us to visit Kipling’s house when we are next in Sussex.