The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Archive for May, 2010


Posted by Mel Campbell on May 24, 2010

There is currently a MONSTROUS DEBATE brewing in the US surrounding female genital cutting*. The Academy of American Pediatrics is reviewing its policy on paediatric genital surgery in girls, and has caused uproar for mooting the idea of a “ritualistic genital nick”.

The committee aims to address the ethical dilemmas of doctors dealing with East African families who say plainly that if the American doctor does not perform the procedure, they will fly their daughter to Africa to undergo the surgery there, where it is likely to be much more radical, painful and life-endangering.

The committee’s chair, Seattle paediatrician and bioethicist Dr Doug Diekema, says the putative ‘nick’:

“would remove no tissue, would not touch any significant organ but, rather [it] would be a small nick of the clitoral hood which is the equivalent of the male foreskin – nothing that would scar, nothing that would do damage”

The ‘nick’ is being hailed as a major capitulation to politically correct cultural relativism, as a legal step backwards for America (where FGC is totally illegal), and as an undermining of feminists and community activists who have campaigned against the practice.

Two members of US Congress are proposing a bipartisan bill called the Girls Protection Act that would make it illegal to transport a minor outside the United States for the purposes of undergoing FGC. Many European countries, beginning with Norway, already have similar legislation.

FCG is illegal in Australia, but an ABC report from February 2010 suggests that the surgery is being performed illegally as children are sometimes admitted to hospital with post-operative complications.

Zeinab Mohamud, who works at the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital, says that the practice is cultural, not religious. “When something is cultural and the people have been doing it for so long, it’s not easy to either eliminate it or to say, ‘you have got a bad culture’,” she told ABC News.

As a feminist, I find it difficult to articulate a position on this. I am strongly against genital surgery for any reasons but functional ones (for instance, repairing fistulas). I find clitoridectomy and infibulation to be mutilative procedures aimed at destroying women’s sexual pleasure and autonomy, and I do feel uneasy about any move that could be interpreted as officially sanctioning the cutting of otherwise healthy minors who are legally unable to consent.

But at the same time, I find it ironic that there’s such an outcry against a proposed, hypothetical and (it seems to me) minor surgery in a country where it’s becoming increasingly mainstream for women to pierce, bleach and surgically reshape their own genitals. If we’re starting a debate about genitals and feminism, I would be uneasy for it to focus only on ‘primitive’ practices endured only by African and Muslim girls.

* I’m using the term “female genital cutting” or FGC here in order to create a neutral tone. “Female circumcision” has been criticised for understating the invasiveness of clitoridectomy and infibulation, whereas “female genital mutilation” has been criticised for increasing the stigma for patients who’ve had these procedures. See here for more information.


Posted in Faith and Religion, Uncategorized, Women's Health | Tagged: , , , | 10 Comments »

Cherchez La Femme

Posted by Mel Campbell on May 10, 2010

I’m not sure how many of you know about a new feminist salon called Cherchez La Femme, organised by Karen Pickering. I’m writing this as a hearty encouragement for you to go if you’re in Melbourne. It takes place on the first Tuesday of every month, and is a free-form panel chat and group discussion about feminism in pop culture, current affairs and everyday life.

Last Tuesday’s kick-off event featured The Dawn Chorus‘s own Clem Bastow, “arts tsar” Richard Watts and broadcaster Namila Benson in conversation with Karen Pickering. There was no predetermined agenda: audience members submitted written questions and the panellists drew them out of a hat to direct the discussion. The questions also acted as tickets for the door prizes – a book and a CD.

There was no designated audience Q&A time – instead, roving reporter Kate Boston Smith stood in the crowd with a mic to field contributions from the audience at whatever point people decided they wanted to say something. (Oddly for me, I barely said a word – because I was busy thinking.) And it was a massive audience; the room was absolutely packed.

Pleasingly, there were lots of men there too, proving that feminism isn’t just a women’s project. This is a topic dear to my heart, because a lot of the time, in feminist organisations as well as in the media, I see a conflation between feminism and ‘women’s issues’, as if feminism is good for women but is a nuisance or killjoy for men. I was worried that this event was going to be a Womyn’s Room ghetto, but it was really heartening to look around the packed-out room and see men (hot men!) who’d decided that this was a great way to spend their Tuesday night.

Another reason why I love Cherchez La Femme is that, unlike some other panel events involving women, the focus is authentically on feminism. Although some of its participants have public profiles, it’s not a celebrity circus. And while it’s a hilarious and thought-provoking night out, it doesn’t talk about women’s experiences purely to titillate or entertain. It costs $5 to get in and that money is spent on promoting future salons and providing thankyou drinks for participants.

Cherchez La Femme isn’t trivial, either – it’s deeply invested in talking about the things that matter to its panellists and its audiences. Some of the topics mentioned on Tuesday included whether and for whom wearing the burqa is a freely taken choice, why the advertising industry is obsessed with women’s digestive systems, and how to stay professional in workplace scenarios when your boss shakes your male colleague’s hand but kisses you on the cheek.

I just can’t recommend this event enough. Future salons are going to be themed – next month’s event is devoted to that vexed topic in feminism, raunch culture. It’s at 7pm on Tuesday 1 June at the Fox Hotel (a great pub run by women!), which is at 351 Wellington St (corner Alexandra Pde) Collingwood.

Posted in events | Tagged: , , , , | 8 Comments »

Committing cultural femicide

Posted by Nic Heath on May 6, 2010

In The Guardian recently, writer and broadcaster Bidisha expressed her frustration at the continuing gender skew in the arts. Triggered by men outnumbering women in a recent edition of the London Review of Books by 12 to four, Bidisha wrote,

‘We no longer live in an age where female thinkers, writers, philosophers, academics, artists, theorists, activists or politicians are rare. The discrimination is obvious. All you have to do is count.’

Bidisha dubbed this ‘erasure of women from public life’ as ‘cultural femicide’.

If we do as Bidisha says and count, it becomes clear that women are underrepresented in Australian cultural circles as well. The Miles Franklin Award, established in 1954 with a bequest by Miles Franklin, ‘celebrates Australian character and creativity and nurtures the continuing life of literature about Australia’. This year the books of two women, Sonya Hartnett and Deborah Forster, have made the shortlist, with four male writers rounding out the shortlist of six. Since 2000, three of the eleven winners (two books won in 2000) of the Miles Franklin Award have been women.

Last year three women writers were longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, along with seven men. None of the books written by women were selected in the shortlist, leading Crikey blogger Angela Meyer to dub the all-male shortlist a ‘sausage fest’. Literary critic and blogger Kerryn Goldsworthy highlighted the depth of female talent left out of the longlist, including novels as well-crafted and undoubtedly Australian in character as Helen Garner’s The Spare Room and The Lieutenant by Kate Granville.  

Another sausage fest was Triple J’s Hottest 100 of all time, broadcast in 2009, which I’ve written about before. The only female musicans to feature in the list were Kim Deal of the Pixies, Meg White of the White Stripes, D’Arcy Wretzky of the Smashing Pumpkins’ and Zia McCabe from The Dandy Warhols, while two Massive Attack tracks, Tear Drop and Unfinished Symphony featured female vocals.

While the results of a poll of popular music may seem frivolous, as Mel Campbell wrote for The Enthusiast, this result ‘legitimises radio industry strategies that ignore women.’

Consider the film industry. This year Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, and only the fourth to be nominated in 82 years. Females are outnumbered on screen as well – an organisation founded by Geena Davis found that in the 100 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2005 the ratio of male to female characters was three to one, while 87  per cent of narrators were male. 

Another study reported in The Brisbane Times found that female characters are still tied to stereotype in mainstream film: 

‘A review of more than 100 of the most popular, highest-grossing action films featuring heroines in the US between 1991 and 2005 found that almost two-thirds of them still conformed to submissive gender roles.’

Despite this endemic cultural gender skew, I don’t suggest that we succumb to ‘cultural femicide’, or that it can not be overcome. There are positives at every turn worth considering in this discussion. The Orange Prize, awarded to ‘a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English’, is an international focal point of female success in the literary world. This year Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker, has been shortlisted for the award along with six other female writers.

Last week First Love, a film about three teenagers and pro-circuit hopefuls preparing for a surfing competition in Hawaii alongside some of the world’s best young women surfers, screened at ACMI in Melbourne. First Love was made by three women, Fran Derham, Claire Gorman and Clare Plueckhahn, and according to Denham, “It’s not sexualised at all … there’s no sex, no drugs, there’s no rock and roll. It’s just all about girls pursuing their dreams.”


Estelle Tang, writing about the gender skew frequently found in literary magazines for the Kill Your Darlings blog, suggests that women are unlikely to be published more often until those responsible for selection, who have historically favoured male writing, are prepared to interrogate ‘the standards by which the individual pieces are valued’.

Bidisha proposes shunning a path of compromise,

‘It does not matter what sexist men or apolitical women think about this. The solution to discrimination is female solidarity and the deliberate concentration of women’s power.’

I’ll throw it to you – what are your thoughts on how we can increase the number of women getting published, or exhibited, or in film? And importantly, what are your positive stories about women succeeding in their artistic practice?

Posted in art, Film & Television, music | Tagged: , , , , , , | 8 Comments »