Women of SSPS

International Women’s Day (IWD) seeks to celebrate women’s achievements, as well as act as a catalyst for change when it comes to gender equality. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. We caught up with five female researchers from the School of Social and Political Sciences to find out what ‘progress’ means to them in their respective fields.

Professor Sujatha Fernandes

Department of Sociology and Social Policy and Department of Political Economy

Professor Sujatha Fernandes

Professor Sujatha Fernandes combines social theory and political economy with an in-depth and engaged ethnography of global social movements. She specializes in themes of neoliberalism, state theory, global black culture, storytelling, and migrant labor, with an area focus on the Americas.

Your research focuses on global social movements - what effect do you see movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp having on gender equality and social progress?

We live in a moment when women are seen to be breaking glass ceilings and smashing gender stereotypes. But the reality is that women in western nations still suffer sexual discrimination that confines them within narrow sex roles, subjects them to high rates of rape and sexual violence on campuses, workplaces, and in their families, as well as lower rates of pay and advancement in the workforce than males. When we turn to the global south, we see that women often bear the brunt of war and international conflict, as well as policies of globalization that shrink resources and force women to migrate in search of work. Movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp are welcome and much needed in this moment when sexism and racism are more openly acceptable with the rise of masculinist, white supremacist governments like Trump in the US. They show how deeply entrenched these things are and how much work lies ahead of us.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would have told my younger self that life never works out how you plan it. You have to be open to all of your expectations and all of your plans being upended and new and different things happening that you never would have expected. I am a planner by nature, so that probably wouldn’t have stopped me, but you have to be open and receptive to what life might throw in your path.

International Women’s Day was first marked over 100 years ago. Why do you think the day is still relevant?

When I was a student in Sydney, I was part of a committee that used to plan large protest events every year on International Women’s Day. Then when I lived in Cuba, on March 8, everyone would congratulate me for being a woman and I would get flowers. I found it very bizarre. I think we need to celebrate women's struggles and resilience in the face of unrelenting patriarchy, but I also think we need to keep protesting. International Women’s Day is more relevant than ever today because we live in a world where gender inequality still exists and affects all of our lives as women.

Dr Sonja van Wichelen

Department of Sociology and Social Policy

Dr Sonja van Wichelen

Dr Sonja van Wichelen’s research projects broadly engage with the body, law, and science in the age of globalization and the effects that changes in these areas have on our understanding of citizenship.

What are the issues that are specific to women when it comes to biopolitics?

Gender, sexuality and reproduction are core issues in research on biopolitics and therefore affect women’s health, agency, and positions in society. In fact, Michel Foucault, the architect of the term “biopolitics” saw these issues as a central governing technology of modern society. What I find exceptionally useful in theories of biopolitics is their emphasis on life as embodied rather than on categories of identity (such as man or woman). The examination of bodies and embodiment bring to light all kinds of components (biological, social, scientific, ontological) that we would miss when focusing merely on women or women’s wellbeing. My current research on “biolegality” (the coming together of biotechnology and law) illustrates this well. Take for instance the impact of reproductive technologies on legal conceptions around motherhood. In law, the mother is always certain (mater semper certa est). But recent reproductive technologies that are intervening in genetic and gestational processes change these foundational legal premises. I’m fascinated to learn about what these changes might mean for our understanding of gendered bodies.

This year’s IWD theme is #PressforProgress – what type of progress would you like to see for women in academia?

I guess the core question is always what we exactly define as progress. While I’m not against progress (I’m all for equal opportunities and rights), I am wary of progressivist narratives in neoliberal contexts. It is not unusual for women’s emancipation to be touted by institutions while basic work conditions are being hollowed out at the same time. I am often disheartened (as I think many academics are at the moment) by the changes that universities have to go through to remain competitive in the global ranking system. Rather than pressing for some form of “progress” that is narrowly defined by women’s emancipation, I would like to see more of us imagine and press a different kind of university than the one imagined for us by managers and global technocrats.

Who inspires you and why?

This would have to be the social anthropologist Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern from the University of Cambridge. Her work has been tremendously inspiring. She juxtaposes diverse (socially constructed) realities and shows how they are both different and mutually dependent at the same time. By doing this, she is able to take apart all known presumptions about nature and culture, kinship and law, gender and society. Her articles read like intellectual puzzles, always engaging with foundational questions in culture and ontology. Professor Strathern also inspires me as an institutional actor. She never fails to reflect critically on her important institutional roles in the UK and wrote astute essays on audit cultures, ethics, and accountability in the academy. I think we all could use our intellectual tools more to analyze what’s going on in the university today.

Patricia Garcia AO

Honorary Associate, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies

Patricia Garcia, AO

Patricia Garcia has over 20 years’ experience working in conflict zones including Afghanistan, Sudan, Bosnia, and Burma. In 2016 she received the Queen's Birthday Honours Award of Officer in the General (AO), for distinguished service to international relations, particularly through humanitarian aid. Patricia currently works for the UN Association of Australia.

During your time managing and coordinated humanitarian relief assistance in conflict zones what important roles have you seen women play in peace-building?

I learned from my experience working with women in conflict situations that they play a critical and vital role in conflict resolution and peace-building. When women participate in formal peace processes, they bring a diversity of perspectives to the discussion about what a peaceful society should look like. For example, women consider the social, cultural and environmental threats that are determining factors of conflict, while men are often focused solely on ending the war. There are women-led peace-building initiatives that involve resourcing of local women’s grassroots networks, amplifying the voices of women peacemakers and mediators by sharing advice and giving support, attending conferences and developing partnerships with other women’s networks and organisations, and creating joint activities between network members and their partners locally and internationally. Unfortunately, women’s meaningful participation remains low and we must press for stronger commitment to increase meaningful participation of women in all phases of the peace process. Including women increases the chances of peace.

What does #PressforProgress mean to you? And how do we achieve that?

We must continue to promote and advance the empowerment of women and girls to narrow the gaps, bridge the divides and unite people to tackle inequality, injustice and protect our planet. Having worked in the field of peace and international development for over 20 years, I believe we can achieve this by giving primacy to conflict prevention, sustainable development and human rights that supports the work of diverse women and their organisations, creating vibrant spaces and ensuring women’s leadership and their voices are heard in this space. We must bring attention to the experiences of local women working for peace and human rights and make women count not just count women. We continue to spend trillions of dollars on war and pennies on peace. We must move the money from war to gender equality and peace. One F -35 plane has the same budget as the entire global women’s movement.

What’s been the most challenging part of your career?

I have witnessed widespread violence and systematic violation of women’s rights in conflict situations from female genital mutilation, mass rape, and gender-based violence. Humanitarian workers are also the target of attacks and in need of protection. What I have learned from this experience has transformed my life. I suffered from post-traumatic stress, as a result of working with victims and survivors of war crimes and gender-based violence. I was confronted by armed soldiers in Sudan following a military coup, and in Afghanistan one of my work colleagues was brutally murdered whilst on a routine project visit. It is difficult to forget these incidents and other acts of violence that were inflicted on the many vulnerable and marginalised people I worked with. Yet these refugees had more courage, resilience and survival skills than any other people I have met. The friendship, kindness and gratitude they showed me is incredibly humbling and I feel privileged to have a career as a humanitarian worker.

With today’s armed conflicts we often don’t know who the enemy is. We face a changing humanitarian landscape where the speed, scale and disruptions of crises have increased. We are dealing with different actors, new technologies as well as geopolitical and economic shifts. I believe it is important to prepare the next generation of humanitarian workers by sharing my field experiences and putting greater emphasis on self- care strategies and dealing with trauma.

Dr Aim Sinpeng

Department of Government and International Relations

Dr Aim Sinpeng

Dr Aim Sinpeng's research interests centre on the relationships between digital media, political participation and political regimes in Southeast Asia. She is particularly interested in the role of social media in shaping state-society relations and inducing political and social change.

Do you see social media as a positive driver for global conversation around women’s issues?

Yes absolutely. The power of ‘the crowd’ behind each campaign, organised or spontaneous, gives the courage for many women to share and empathise with one another on women issues. Take the #MeToo campaign, which took off in the US via largely Twitter and Instagram, not only went viral in a number of countries but also made it to China, which use different platforms than most of us and whose Internet censorship environment is high. Even there, a student published her sexual harassment experiences online, which was read by more than 3 million people and eventually led to the firing of a university professor who was the subject of her allegation. Social media activism, regardless of platforms and Internet environment, can transcend borders, languages and cultures to push for change.

What has been your career highlight, is there a moment you’re most proud of?

I'm most proud of the Excellence in Teaching Award I have received from the FASS in 2017. To me this honor marks not only appreciation from my students but also colleagues. It encourages me to want to be an even better educator. I’m also incredibly proud to be speaking with a select group of extremely talented women at this year’s University of Sydney Emerging Female Leaders event.

We finally have a female Dr Who, if you could cast a female James Bond who would it be and why?

We might as well throw out another rule that a Bond has to be British. I'd love to see Zoe Saldana as a female Bond! Zoe Saldana often portrays feisty alien role (ie Avatar, Guardian of Galaxy, the Avengers) which actually masks her skin colour and heritage. It doesn't matter what her background is or if she even speaks a human language, we're drawn to her for her pure acting skills. I love that about her.

Dr Yasmine Musharbash

Department of Anthropology

Dr Yasmine Musharbash

Dr Yasmine Musharbash has spent 24 years conducting participant observation-based fieldwork with Warlpiri people in Alice Springs. Her research takes place in the bush and a number of settlements on topics ranging from sociality, everyday life, domestic space, continuity and change, boredom, youth and inter-generational relations, and fear.

You’ve spent years working with Indigenous communities in Central Australia. In your experience, what does #PressforProgress mean for Indigenous women? how do we do that?

Gender parity has a different meaning where there are comparatively few senior men (due to early death) and up to 50% of the men aged 20-40 are in gaol at any one time. Here, women shoulder responsibilities of care; most of it unrecognised and unpaid. They look after children, the sick, the elderly, the community, and their country. They do this by providing shelter, food, and emotional sanctuary and palliative care. They hunt, tell stories and organise games. They burn the country when it needs burning, sing the country, and they dance it, and try to pass on all this and more, or, to learn it.

All of this happens while they attend countless meetings: speaking up in court for their children, at the women’s centre, the mediation meeting, the youth programme meeting, and at meetings organised by territory and state bureaucrats who come to Yuendumu demanding their attendance (always required, hardly ever listened to).

Pressing for progress in this context would involve pressing for Indigenous rights and fair decolonisation. Autonomy, constitutional recognition of past wrongs, the maintenance of basic human rights, appreciation rather than condemnation by the mainstream all would go a long way in achieving this.

Who inspires you and why?

The Warlpiri women I lived and worked with during my PhD fieldwork 1998-2001. There is a moment that has always stuck with me, which happened during a 3-day hunting trip. We were digging deep into the hard sand with crowbars looking for bush yams in the hot sun all day long (you have no idea what hard work that is until you do it), then, in the afternoons, we’d meet around the fires, whiling away the cooking time with cards and jokes. After a big yam feast, and as the fires died down and the stars came out, the women started singing Dreaming songs. I remember lying on my swag, utterly exhausted, drifting into sleep in a cocoon of singing voices, smoke, and stars, and thinking, “Wow! Who would have ever thought I’d go camping with a bunch of old ladies, have this much fun, and be the first one out!”. These older women were so strong, so confident, so knowledgeable, so caring.

What’s been the most challenging moment in your career?

I love research, writing, teaching and, mostly, I love my career. I have been very lucky in receiving funding, freeing me from other responsibilities. But when I am doing my “normal” job the combined workload of doing all three, with an added load of administration and other governance responsibilities, can be extremely overwhelming. During these times, the stress cancels out the joy I usually get out of my work. I’ve taught myself to stick to a semblance of work hours, to recognise signs of exhaustion, and to slow down. As well as saying “no” to invitations when I am too busy, and not worrying about my “output” in numerical terms, so that ‘the system’ doesn’t streamline me into competitiveness.