Headgear debate or Islamophobia?



The veil, whether it is in the form of a hijab or the more controversial burqa, continues to be highly contested and debated. Initial concerns on whether it is a violation of choice, or free will and freedom of expression, have now predictably been conflated with national security here in Australia.

The full-length garment burqa, which covers the entire body and face, has been banned in several European countries including Austria, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as African nations Chad and Congo-Brazzaville.

The controversial senator of the One Nation political party, Paula Hanson has called the burqa an “evil tool of oppression” and “an extreme national security risk”. She claims the burqa is a political symbol, not a religious one and clearly sees the need for a political solution led by a dominant white majority, not by the Muslim community.

Feminist author Phyllis Chesler suspect, will agree with Hanson on this issue. She wrote: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf) and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.

Clearly she has not visited Australia because there have been no reports to my knowledge of Muslim women not wearing headgear dealing with this kind of backlash.  I am not arguing, however, that there are not cultural and patriarchal pressures to don the veil.” But how is this pressure to submit to cultural pressures and conform to traditional dress confined to Muslim countries?



In the West, young girls – some as young  as six – dress in what I consider provocatively and they are opting to be sexualised at such a young age through encouragement from what they see in the social and mass media and emulating young teenage girls. Young teenagers, in turn, dress scantily, succumbing to peer pressure to look like adults. But are they indeed prepared for the complex world of unwanted attention, dating, sex and relationships? More to the point, do we hear Muslim feminists telling us in Australia how young girls should be dressing?

Autonomy is critical for those who live according to the choices they make . A behaviour is not autonomous if it is driven by peer pressure, or chaotic emotions. Yet it is the Muslim woman wearing a hijab or burka that is denounced for not having agency or autonomy, not the teenager growing up in Western democracies.

Feminist Naomi Wolf has spoken about the dress required of women living in Muslim countries:

“The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.”[5

One only had to visit Morocco to see how Muslim women are exercising freedom and agency. There I witnessed women at beaches with hijabs, enjoying a swim and sunshine and encouraging their young girls to play on the sand. From where I am standing, girls dressed to protect against the sun. Not exposing skin to the sun is sensible dress sense, hardly segregation and rejecting modern values. How is it that women being covered are seen as a sexualised objects  when young girls dressed scantily are viewed as expressing their independence and exercising choice?

In a white dominant culture, minority voices struggle to be heard, and when you factor in growing Islamophobia, how does one encourage diverse Muslim voices to be speak out and not have others speak on their behalf?

Does this reluctance to talk about social issues extend to other issues? While there are a number of strong female Muslim advocates in Australia who have defended their right to wear headgear, this latest white noise is now the political tool to attack multiculturalism.

Feminists and politicians alike should focus their energies on important issues like peace building and civil liberties and stay out of discussions of cultural practices that harms no one.



Opportunistic Outrage

Trump was denounced for calling protestors marching against his presidential win “professional protestors” but dig deeper and you start to understand why he might feel that way.

Given the reports of collusion between American liberal mainstream media and the Clinton campaign, there should come as no surprise the ubiquitous spin being fed on the kind of president Trump would make – when the reality is no one has any idea what the man stands for, let alone being able to accurately predict what kinds of policies and actions he will undertake when he takes the reins on 20th January. This moral outrage which has exploded domestically and internationally over the election outcome is probably not surprising to Donald J Trump and his supporters and given the circumstance, he is handling it with admirable restraint.

A keen observer of US politics, I ask where is the same outrage when Black Male Americans are systematically being shot across the country by the police in what can only be seen as state sanctioned institutionalised racism. Similarly the ongoing controversy with the Dakota Access Pipeline which recently lead to the hospitalisation of 17 protestors, suffering from hypothermia and head injuries after being sprayed with tear gas, mace and rubber bullets and doused by water cannon in below zero temperatures by State troopers.

There has been a lot of reassuring words during the last two terms of the Obama administration but no genuine attempt to reform police brutality or respect the decisions of the Native American Sioux to protect their land. These are fundamental issues both affecting livelihoods and lives of communities of colour in America.

When are Americans going to wake up to the appalling record of civil liberties that has been systematically undermined alongside the Police State that is now America.This is the Obama legacy which is going to be handed to president elect Trump, someone many view as dangerous.

While CIA black sites and the use of torture has been removed under Obama, he has gone further than Bush with targeted assassination. This Administration has developed a targeted killing “playbook,” which asserts the right to assassinate citizens abroad through drone strikes. This covert practice which justifies the killing of any military-age male in a drone strike zone as an enemy combatants (both internationally and in the US) unless they are proven innocent remains essentially unchallenged. Till today the Obama Administration has refused to reveal how many civilians have died from drone attacks. How convenient.

There is more.

President Obama began the the War of Whistleblowers with the revival of the century-old

Espionage Act using the tool to prosecute more than double the number of whistle blows than all prior presidents combined.

Also under this presidency, the country has seen unprecedented deportation of Hispanics, and the transfer of $5.1 billion of Humvees, assault rifles and other military grade equipment by the Defense Logistics Agency to 8,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States. The same equipment being used to crack down on protests organised by Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and other civil society protests.

Then there is the War on Domestic Dissent which continues to include surveillance of peaceful protestors, the criminalisation of journalism and extensive blacklisting of journalists who were not deemed suitably sympathetic of the Obama Administration. In May 2011 Obama signed the renewal of the Patriot Act and signed for the five-year extension of the FISA Amendment Act associated with surveillance of individuals not affiliated to terrorists organisations.

You can be sure Obama’s spin doctors are working tirelessly developing a narrative around the Obama legacy that leaves out his horrific assault on civil liberties. People around the world will look at his legacy with fond reminiscence against a backdrop of daily news of Trump faux pas with his team tirelessly working overtime putting out fires.

What makes me angry is the lack of outrage in United States and internationally. Obama is hugely popular especially overseas and I have to ask my left leaning readers did Obama get a free pass because of the fact that he is black? It is with the same lens that I am happy that Hillary wasn’t elected. Would she, like Obama, get away with murder, if you can excuse the pun. Undoubtedly any attack on Hillary had she been elected would be spun as misogynistic rant by the industry of supporters who must now be drowning their sorrows as they see their careers in the White House take a dramatic turn.

Ultimately it was the millennials who were the kingmakers. Bernie Sanders supporters, they could not bear to vote for Hillary or Trump.They also felt the pressure of the spin that has been building for months that a vote for someone more palatable like the Greens Jill Stein is a vote for Trump. So they stayed at home instead of exercising their democratic right for fear they would be blamed for Trump’s victory. This is the sad state of democracy with the Democratic Party has much to be blamed for.

So despite the doom and gloom out in the twitter sphere I am feeling optimistic because democracy is now at its best as I read about crowds already protesting against the inevitable onslaught of Trumpism and take comfort in the knowledge that this time round the outrage has already started and will undoubtedly continue.


Between 2 worlds

By Russell Irving

Remote Indigenous communities, destitution, sex offender, the intervention, poverty, violence, alcohol, drug abuse, sex offender, the intervention, powerlessness, despair



A ceremony held since the dawning of time

family groups travelling hundreds of miles across potholed tracks in broken down wrecks

Gathering in their hundreds, housed, fed, loved

Sisters and mothers and daughters and grandmothers and aunties preening, sharing, laughing, gossiping

Glistening, proud, muscular sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers painted, gliding and stomping

singing spears quivering

Certain of who they are where they belong

Shaking the earth, calling the ancestors

holding at bay a fractured calling from the west

Night time as dark and silent as our imaginations allow

Night owls, crickets, winds of eternity and loneliness

Kept at bay, placated by clap sticks and ancient voices across ancient lands

biding time,welcoming the dawn

finally a ritualistic cleansing is enacted, a baptisimal rebirth re-affirming all that is eternal

traditional obligations in contemporary lives

beacons for navigating two complex worlds.



Work and Be Ready for Combat




I’ve always wondered from afar how a small, pre-industrialized country with a largely illiterate, peasant population was able to withstand, and ultimately defeat, the enormous military might of America, one of the world’s biggest super powers. We can all agree this is an unlikely outcome for a David vs Goliath contest if there ever was one.  The Vietnamese not only defeated the Americans, but also the French in the 1950s and the Chinese before that.  Truly amazing.

There are few immediate clues for those first time visitors when meeting the quiet, unassuming, diminutive populace.   Only when I visited the Women’s Museum of Hanoi was I able to unpack my questions as the museum did a wonderful job of shining a light on the core traits of the Vietnamese: the collective spirit, energy, resilience and work ethic.

Photographs of  women in the villages, rice paddies and battlefields were best exemplified by the ‘work and be ready for combat’ slogan on a Communist propaganda poster.  A graphic of women working the ancient buffalo drawn plough(s) in the field, smiling and singing, with Kalashnikovs (Russian guns) slung over their shoulders were insightful!

Far from being non religious as often is the general stereotype of communism, the Museum also had a whole level devoted to the religious and spiritual beliefs of the Vietnamese people.   After all animism was a practice long before the political dogma of communism spread to Vietnam.

I learned Mother Goddess may be part of the reason for the strong role that women have always played in society and in times of war. The Mother Goddess is worshiped and the central belief behind the religion is that  women are the centre of the universe, looking after all four regions: heaven, earth, water, mountains and forests.

Unlike other religious beliefs, worshippers find their expected desires and happiness right here in the earthly links to place and all living creatures that surround their lives. By following the Mother Goddess, their spiritual needs are satisfied.

“The Mother Goddess is a spiritual mother.We come to Her whenever we feel sad, we talk and share with Her.  Whenever we face difficulties, we look for Her to find support and protection. The Mother means everything,” is a written display.

Believing that the Mother Goddess always protects and brings good health and good fortune to them, worshippers show their respect, by giving offerings to her.  Service providers demonstrate their pure hearts through honest and reliable business practices.

The Hau Dong  ritual is shown in solemn manners and exquisite etiquette. The ritual is also a performing art, telling the stories of deities in their incarnations.  It sheds a light on the resilience of a populace dedicated and united in a common struggle, which is used to hardship as a result of, through centuries of colonisation, deprivation and hard work. After all there is nothing like having a common enemy for nationalism and patriotism to flourish

Viet Cong volunteer soldiers from the north marched for three months just to reach the front in South Vietnam where they went into battle fully equipped with a bag of rice, rifle, ammunition and grenades.  Every article of war was carried on foot along this same trail by over a million volunteer porters.

A biography of the great Vietnamese General V Nguyen Giap is a reminder of the deeply entrenched  arrogance of western colonial powers toward non-western countries and cultures, an attitude which ultimately led them to greatly underestimate their foe and face the losses they suffered.



Care ethics have roots in Asia

Having just completed my masters in International Research Bioethics through the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia), I was asked to share my insights on how this course would inform my advocacy work as a feminist and a health rights activist.


There is growing interest in the discipline of bioethics both among clinical and social researchers due to pressure by ethicists who want key human rights principles like confidentiality and informed consent included in research protocols to protect the autonomy and safety of patients and research subjects. However it is undoubtedly the HIV and AIDS epidemic, which led to the rolling out of large scale clinical trials in developing countries, that has sparked the emerging ethical debates around the issues of coercion, exploitation and social injustice. International research protocols, including the Helsinki Declaration, the CIOMS and UNAIDS biomedical guidelines, are being continuously challenged and revised accordingly to reflect the prevailing ethical thinking.


Can the principle of justice ever in fact be satisfied in an under-resourced health setting, when only research subjects, not the community, have access to a decent standard of HIV prevention, testing and care? A growing number of ethicists and activists now argue that as HIV prevention trials as opposed to therapeutic have no surrogate markers to measure a clinical endpoint other than HIV seroconversion, these trials are inherently unethical. Ethicists, including some feminist ethicists, would therefore discourage many of these trials are now focused on vaccines, pre-exposure prophylaxis medication and microbicides – from taking place. Womens health groups have defended these trials as they argue that self-reported condom use increased significantly in several microbicides studies, and they serve as an entry point for education and prevention. But obtaining consent is a challenge in some female populations, as women in poorer countries often lack formal education and may not understand the uncertainty that exists within clinical trials.


Medical research takes place within a complex web of power relations, in which subjects- particularly subjects who are economically disadvantaged – are easily exploited because at times they rely on the clinical research to access treatment and care. Often research subjects are not in fact able to consent freely as attractive offers of money are a form of inducement, and they are left little choice but to accept.

Growing evidence of human rights violations has led progressive academics to see the need to arm health activists with knowledge into the ethical, legal and methodological issues that arise in the conduct of health and medical research in developing countries in the Asia Pacific region. Now a graduate, I am tasked with the responsibility to monitor and serve as a watchdog for vulnerable populations like women and girls, drug users and sex workers. Our belief is that before any trial takes place, a process should be set in place to determine that the research subjects are not consenting from desperation, and genuinely understand the potential risks and benefits of the clinical trials.

There is a need to strengthen accountability mechanisms through avenues for community input into decisions around the standard of care and how to manage research-related harms, including social harms. Their voices should be sought and integrated into standards of care decision-making at every stage of the trial design and implementation, including compensation and legal liability in view of unforeseen harm that may arise with newer generation products funded by sponsors of the research. There are power dynamics even within the community, and the voices of women must also be included in the decision making process.

Informed consent process should be prepared in consultation with the community advisory board and piloted within the target community to ensure gender and social sensitivity. Community participation in the form of community advisory boards and the engagement of local community representative in designing educational materials to inform the medical community and population at large can assist.

As watchdogs, we can join research ethics committees in our respective countries and also develop the capacity of communities to understand clinical research, enabling them to more fully engage in decision-making and processes related to such research.


Feminist ethics or care ethics which is rooted in women’s moral experiences has enlarged the traditional concerns of ethics both by raising the visibility of unrecognised ethical issues and introducing fresh perspectives on issues on issues already recognized as having an ethical dimension. It has become the basis for the moral and ethical arguments of the new emerging biomedical debates like surrogacy, reproductive technology, and euthanasia. 


However, care ethics continues to be dominated by western women’s experiences and Asian feminists, I believe, can contribute further to the theoretical body of feminist ethics. Feminist care ethics share a similar notion of the human relationality with the Confusian “ren”. This notion is more relational where ‘self’ is viewed as essentially connected to others. The identification of the relational self as the locus of meaningful and ethical action is oriented toward assessments of inclusivity, responsiveness, sensitivity and interdependence. These values form the basis of women’s human rights and recognising that liberation is not only about changing laws but also challenging the covert male bias of existing ethical frameworks and thus changing economic systems and cultural practices.


Women’s health groups voices are now heard in discourses on the global disparities in health and now finally there appears to at least be the moral plausibility of obligation to reduce the 90:10 gap by means of health aid to address health system strengthening and institutional reform toward developing new funding mechanisms such as the Health Impact Fund. We need new innovative funding mechanism that will minimise competition for funding.


In the face that States have duty to provide care, I for one take comfort in the fact that I now have an additional advocacy tool in the revised biomedical guidance notes and documents to engage pharmaceutical multinationals and public health officials with the ethical imperative to provide health care. I believe that, as feminists, bioethics informs and strengthens our activism.

(This was written back in 2010, when Rathi was studying international research in bioethics).

Happiness is an Illusion

One of the most challenging cross cultural issues for me is the relatively recent Western preoccupation with personal pursuit of happiness. History shows no religions and very few philosophers have ever focused on the pursuit of happiness. In fact, Oliver Burkeman in his book entitled “The Antidote – Happiness for People who can’t stand positive thinking”, argues that the notion of seeking happiness is flawed. Burkeman, a journalist with the Guardian – interviews an unusual collection of thinkers who finally points him to this conclusion.

“That our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure or sadness is what causes us to feel insecure, anxious and unhappy. Let us embrace uncertainty, insecurity and be familiar with failure.”

Buddhism counsels true security lies in the unrestrained embrace of insecurity through the inevitability of change. Hindu ethics offers contentment through the rightful pursuit of balancing the artha (worldly possessions), kama (desires like sexual and intellectual interests), dharma (duty to society)) and finally moksha, to attain spiritual liberation. One cannot be happy through the mere pursuit of worldly possessions or status in society in blind fulfilment of one’s desires, emotions and ambitions. You must feed the mind, body and spirit and ultimately learn to let everything go in preparation for death and liberation.

How differing philosophies on attitudes to happiness play out in society is particularly striking in how one parents. While the western model focuses on allowing a child to pursue “dreams”, a typical Asian parent will advise the child to choose a sensible career path that offers both financially and intellectually security. They do recognise their child may have an inherent talent but they also recognise the path to fame and success is a difficult one – no matter how talented you may be. So in firstly pursuing economic security, you then can take the risk of pursuing one’s dream and if that fails, you can always fall back on your career.This is one of the many aspects of what is coined as Asian sensibility.

Studies confirm that children of parents with higher hopes do better academically than those whose aspire less. So tiger mothers can take comfort in the data. After all, how can a child hope to understand what happiness is, unless it is associated with instant gratification? Even adults struggle with the idea of happiness – as evidenced by the growing phenomenon of mid-life crisis.

Research on happiness indicates people who help others are happier. Paul Hauch, a psychologist argues in his book entitled Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond Self-love, Beyond Self-esteem that positive thinking and focusing on happiness encourages self absorption. He further argues that building self-esteem simply leads to arrogance, conceit and feelings of superiority. This may help explain the millennium generation’s obsession with selfies.

However what worries me about the new generation is the inability of young people to deal with failure. One only has to look at the steep rise in suicide rates for 19-25 year olds which coincidentally is the time when young people are leaving home and transitioning into adulthood in the West. While there are many indications pointing to the adverse impact of social media on young people-and I have also written and argued that  teenage dating has a negative impact on young people’s sense of self and self esteem- leads me to wonder, like others, if in fact constant praise and affirmation, in the belief it boosts self esteem, has the unintended consequence of breeding a generation that is unable to cope with criticism or set backs whether it be in the workplace or personal relationships.

How do they learn to become resilient if they haven’t dealt with adversity ? I do believe we should build self esteem, however new studies show that given a good loving environment, children generally have good self esteem so why not start preparing them for the very challenging life in this competitive capitalist world that is ahead of them.

That way they will fly strong and resilient when they leave the parents’ nest.

Are sexual rights inadvertently undermining empowerment of young girls and boys?

I am very glad not to have had to navigate the pressures of being a teenager with sexual autonomy in this era of digital porn and hypersexualisation of young girls and women in the mainstream . Having been in the sexual and reproductive movement for more than a decade and then a mother of a teenage girl, I have now come to question our practice as feminists advocating for access to information and services in the area of family planning and believe we need to equip young people with more understanding of the emotional risks of entering sexual relations. 

There is general acceptance among sexual and reproductive health rights advocates that young people are sexually active so we have to equip them with resources and family planning tools to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Logical right? 

But is in fact the messaging around sexual rights a double edged sword? On the one hand we want to respect bodily integrity and the right for sexual autonomy, your body, your choices. And that of course means the right to make bad decisions, poor choices! But we don’t yet live in a gender equal society and we know now with the
advent of the internet and its impact on social media and digital pornography that misogyony has flourished. I am not against pornography and am a frequent user myself but when you learn that some 40% of images of digital porn depict graphic violent and degrading scenes of young women, and is increasingly shaping how young men and women understand sexual relations, surely its time sexual rights advocates take a strategic pause and evaluate the impact of our messaging.

Many of us are parents and worried about issues of safety, violence and emotional well being of our young girls and boys .Are they emotionally ready to deal with rejections and break ups at such a young age? Yes, girls and boys have always ha
d an innate interest in one another, but  the stakes are higher when it progresses to sexual relations and that level of engagement invariably comes with emotional attachment. So how do they navigate it all when even we adults struggle in the dating  jungle?

The rise of adolescent mental health problems appear to stem from self esteem being undermined with anxieties from body image to popularity. Understanding sexuality is supposed to be empowering but the pendulum has swung the other way.

Stigma can go both ways, slut shaming as well the pressure that young girls and boys desirability and likeability is tied up to their sexuality which is being dictated by pop culture, mainstream media and yes, digital pornography. We need to understand what are the lived experiences of young girls. Are they really exercising sexual rights or are they in fact being sexualised? Are their experiences in fact empowering and pleasurable or are young girls and boys becoming tools of pleasure or of peers they are trying to please and being objectified by the digital and media world.

I did not become sexually active till I was 19 and very glad I waited and wonder now why kids in this generation feel somehow entitled to be sexually active at such a young age. Sex workers who are seeking to promote their rights to work are not in any way suggesting that it is acceptable for under age girls and boys to enter the sex work trade but yet we, progressives seem perfectly happy to accept that young girls and boys have agency to navigate sexual relations.

Clearly we cannot control access to porn, that genie is out of the bottle. What we can do however is begin the honest conversation about the advantages of delaying sexual relations and that there are downside risks  and there is no pill or intervention that can prevent emotional fallout and waiting until you are older and developed maturity and good coping skills to weather affairs of the heart is to exercise sexual rights.