Contributions to Australia by women from diverse cultures

Speech by Professor Alice Tay, President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, FECCA National Conference, 22 November 1998


I have been asked to speak today about the contributions made to Australia by women from diverse cultures. A topic difficult for its breadth, depth and complexity - like our cultures and identities themselves. Made more difficult by the variety of women's experiences and the way we choose to define 'contribution.'

I take the word 'contribution' to embrace all the forms of women's activity in all the spheres of public and private life. This to me is more than a contributions, it permeates and constitutes the fabric of Australian society in all its diversity, strength and promise.

It is difficult, even presumptuous, to speak for the experiences of thousands of women.

The purpose of talking about 'women from diverse cultures' today is to emphasise the important roles played by women from immigrant, refugee and indigenous communities. Women who are often perceived as being outside the 'mainstream' and whose voices are too seldom heard in the broad public debates which shape our shared future.

Immigration is a central fact of Australia's history - it is how most of us got to be here. The traditional owners of this land are part of equally diverse indigenous cultures which have existed in Australia for tens of thousands of years. They too came from somewhere..

Diversity has been the source of our energy, innovation and survival. It has helped Australia to define itself, it has raised our self-awareness and made it easier for us to judge what to build on and what to change. It is our reality. As the FECCA Chairperson, Randolph Alwis once said, this "diversity is here to stay with or without Government is a fact of Australian life."

Each wave of arrivals has given Australia new ambitions, new skills, new energy. And, of course, new cultures, new ways of living, new ideas. Australia has been made stronger, richer, in every sense, more outward looking. Theses are the lasting contributions to our shared life. These are the strengths in our diversity.

There have been few attempts to disentangle the specific experiences and contributions of women from diverse cultures. Yet theses are the experiences of almost one third of Australian women.

I'll approach this topic in three parts. First to discuss cultural diversity in relation to women's identities and experiences within Australian society. Second to show the many ways in which women from diverse cultures contribute to that society through the home, family, community leadership, and public life. And third to acknowledge some particular aspects of such contributions.

1. Culture, Diversity, Women and Identity

Support for cultural diversity is based on the ideal of a pluralist society where everyone is able to express and share their differences while maintaining access to economic and social equality. While multicultural societies have existed throughout history, pressure for recognition of culturally diverse groups is on the rise, along with the anxiety over the cultural effects of globalization. I was born and brought up partly in Singapore. One of the best known descriptions of Singapore is a "racial melting pot," a multiracial society, as it was called. People have now mobilised to lobby for cultural diversity. More specifically, for the representation or presence of minorities in culturally diverse societies in all spheres of life - political, economic, social.

There is far more to our notion of diversity than the fact that it can be used as a resource for globalising businesses. The bedrock of cultural diversity should be built from the affirmation of diversity in our public culture; participatory democracy; social cohesion; and what Mary Kalantzis has called "a State of Civic Pluralism." That is, a genuinely pluralistic society arising from the presence of indigenous and non-indigenous ethnic groups. We have developed ways of making diversity a great strength, yet we still struggling to understand the true nature of our multicultural society.

Culture can be seen as the outward manifestation of a complex of the values and traditions, institutions and processes, of a particular society. Multiculturalism in this sense is the harmonious existence, mutual recognition, appreciation and exchange of cultures within a broader society. But multiculturalism is also to be found when one person combines more than one society's traditions and values within them. All people who have experiences and absorbed different societies are, within themselves, multicultural. All who speak more than one tongue, even more so.

Within multicultural society Non English Speaking Background women are often presented as constituting one single group rather than many groups of women with a great deal of diversity and difference amongst them. Differences are not merely cosmetic or superficial. There is a clear need to challenge this artificial cultural unity of women's experience. Just as Anglo-Australian women cannot be defined as a uniform homogenous group, Non English Speaking Background women also do not constitute such a group. I may be flattered to be though to be a Japanese Australian, but I am proud to be a Chinese Australian. See the difference? Alliances and divisions of class, religion, sexuality, history, ideological differences etcetera are ever present, significant and interesting. 'Gender,' 'race' and 'class' are not static categories or fixed factors, but rather dynamic social processes in which everyone is located - they give rise to interactions between different parts of the self, different paths of choice and different forms of oppression.

Identity is not a static concept. As we grapple with the issue of identity as expressed in religion, nationalism, racism, ethnicity and gender, it can be difficult to unravel the many strands, even within oneself. Each of us has multiple identities within us. Identity does not stem only from being women. It comes from ethnicity, from politics, from religion, from family. It is important to allow for these multiple experiences of our identity because it enables us to challenge the stereotypes of who we are as immigrant, refugee or indigenous women.

Ethnicity is important both as a value and a political matter, and for practical reasons. Thus, many of us have engaged in action which focus on ethnicity or gender at the time because it was necessary to assert our rights and raise issues relating to specific aspects of ourselves.

We have sometimes needed to speak from a position of common experience and so we organised as ethnic communities, for example, around the need for interpreters, language classes and ethno-specific services. This required forgetting for a time our gender, political and other differences in the interest of winning specific rights through united action.

There are many shared aspects of the migration and indigenous experience that women have drawn on for unity and solidarity. The forced uprooting from familiar patterns of everyday life; the deep sense of loss; and the struggle to recover continuity and control. Indigenous, immigrant and refugee women are commonly marginalised through their lack of economic power and direct or indirect discriminations operating in every sphere of their lives.

When we talk about ourselves as indigenous, aboriginal, ethnic, non English speaking background, immigrant or refugee women we sometimes give an impression that we are so many homogenous groups. This is sometimes a deliberate way of avoiding seeing differences as needing some institutional or perceptual structures to help different groups live better. Structural responses to our other needs have been largely absent because society seems unable to cope with our differences. It is easier to lump us together and not have to deal with the complexities of who we really are.

Put simply we need to acknowledge, confront meaningfully, respect and represent women's difference, not deny or minimise it.

2. Women's "contributions"

It takes courage to leave one's home and travel half way around the world to be stranger in another land while you earn your place. A courage the earliest settler women personified. In this process, most migrant women end up with the task of maintaining the family's traditional values, culture and language. Women often work overtime to make ends meet, to maintain and boost the family spirit, to look after sick children, to cope with new conditions. And of course, they forget their own needs. Migrant women are forced to take on multiple roles of supporter, nurse, counsellor. They manage budgets that are inadequate to raise children and manage to keep people together in times of war and of other conflicts.

Many of the women in Australia were forcibly driven from their homes but hoped to retain, in their place of refuge, the essentials of the culture and lifestyles that were theirs at home.

But the experience of being migrants, and sometimes refugees, forced them to examine their lives and to adopt both social and economic roles which would have been rejected at home. This remaking of self was often a traumatic experience that was complicated by the necessity of adjustment in their relationships with husbands, sons, brothers.

In this sense, migrant women are seen as 'adjusting better,' needing less outside help. Migrant men as 'adjusting worse,' feeling a sense of lost status or 'class.' Women also have to do without the moral and other support of parents, grandparents and extended family.

In spite of this, and because of this, women have been the leaders who have held families and communities together in times of crisis. Women are usually the leaders at the local community level. In Australian Non-Government Organisations there are skilled women fighting for the most important issues faced by their communities. And yet, as power moves up the ladder from the local community to national and international policy making, women's voices and women themselves, tend to disappear. This is true also of migrant women in other countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and so on.

From this point, indigenous, immigrant and refugee women's experiences are marked by silences, absences, exclusion from the 'mainstream' of resources. Hard work takes a terrible toll on women: they age early, they become hard and hardened; they knowingly neglect the little luxuries of life, the enjoyment of music, art, literature. They grit their teeth and get on with the work. They maintain silence because they have no time to spend talking.

A Chinese saying, often attributed to Mao, says that women as half of the world's population, hold up the whole of the sky. I often think it explains why women become so compressed as they grow older!

The neglect of these issues makes it clear that women's expertise and experience must be brought to the agenda if we are to see change for the better in the 21st century. By representing our realities we create possibilities for making our very marginality itself the centre for change.

Women's issues, perspectives and experiences were, and still often are, left out of major national public policy deliberations. But is we don't want to be simply an added on dimension, we must also bring in all those whose voices are not heard. There is a pressing need for action if all Australian women are to be treated justly and receive the services to which they have a right.

For many women, a lack of English language training can mean important democratic rights are curtailed, such as access and equity to many services, things that 'mainstream' women take for granted. This is an isolation that mainstream women's services still vastly underestimate.

Immigrant and refugee women's priorities often relate to their most basic daily experiences of the world which include being over represented in poorly paid, dangerous or menial work; high unemployment levels, high rates of occupational injury, under representation in workplace committees; being disproportionately affected by workplace restructuring and being in an extremely vulnerable position in workplace negotiations/enterprise bargaining.

But to see women solely as the oppressed victims is a blatant distortion: a distortion that denies our histories and cultures and greatly underrates our ongoing contributions to economic, social and cultural life. We must not ignore the ways in which non-English speaking background and indigenous women have organised and struggled on their own behalf. There is a need to explore the consciousness, lines of communication and levels of organisation within women's society which will enable us to get past the image of woman as victim.

Women continue to draw from the strength of their own and their shared experiences and use this strength to address the priority issues that shape their lives.

3. Particular examples of contributions of women from diverse cultures

Indigenous, immigrant and refugee women have been remarkable in their determination to keep alive the stories of pain and survival; to survive and support their families' survival in the face of such outrageous acts against them. They are redefining Australian history.

In particular, indigenous women have been extraordinary in their determination to bring Australia to an awareness and acceptance of its responsibility about its past actions. They have impacted on the psyche of the nation. Indigenous and immigrant women have learnt to use their marginality in an extraordinarily powerful way. They have seen it as a site of radical possibility. To convert a disadvantage into an advantage, a tool.

At an organisational level there are several peak bodies of women that have given voice and weight to the issues confronting women from diverse cultures. For example the FECCA Women's Network, the Immigrant Women's Speakout, Women's Reconciliation Network, Australian National Council of Refugee Women and of course the Association of Non English Speaking Background Women (ANESBWA).

As a case in point of the marginalisation of women's voices, this Association is no longer supported by specific funding. It is thought that immigrant and refuges women's issues should be taken up by the generalist peak ethnic advocacy organisation. But it been a source of major conflict for many years that this organisation is predominantly run by men. I am sure that the men in this organisation - as in other organisations - are here with the best intent to assist the women! And there have of late been some changes, but it remains a critical issue that women have equal representation in decision making ranks and have significant input into policy making.

It is important that these women speak for themselves. There is a Russian saying: The shirt is closest to the back. How women are represented and by whom has been a major problem. It has lead to low prioritisation of their issues, leaving women searching for a voice and the resources to make that voice heard. So-called minority women have argued from various positions that they are tired of being spoken for and repeatedly being represented as victims who are incapable of taking responsibility for their own liberation or happiness.

It should be remembered that the very notion of cultural diversity is clearly linked to the issue of human rights, such as the right to liberty and equality. Still, today, real equality does not exist for many indigenous, immigrant and refugee women in Australia. However, international human rights declarations and conventions continue to provide aspirational goals for many women from diverse cultures and from all corners of the earth.

Indigenous, immigrant and refugees women have also played a key role in the development and operation of their rights movement in Australia over the last three decades. They have marched to support their rights, established organisations, organised meetings, developed the indigenous and ethnic voluntary sector policies, provided direct services, written the submissions, serviced the committees, raised the funds and so much more.

But women are still absent from the upper echelons of many key decision making bodies in Australia. There are still barriers that manage to exclude migrant, indigenous and refugee women from fully participating at these levels. We are not merely seeking 'mainstream-plus' representation of indigenous, migrant and refugee women. We are seeking true equality, equal life choices, equal freedoms. These goals require a new way of thinking.

This is not to say that women from diverse cultures have failed to overcome the barriers of structural inequality. Several women have made significant inroads into the very heart of these structures. High profile, brilliant and tireless women like Vivi Koutsounadis OAM, Dorothy Buckland-Fuller MBE, Nadia Lozzi-Cuthbertson OAM and the new generation of young women such as the current Young Australian of the Year, Tan Le. Women whose leadership and achievement have broken through barriers, demanded that women's concerns be put on the agenda, and helped us muster the momentum for change.


Whether they were economic migrants, refugees or indigenous, many women were forced to leave their original homes by circumstances beyond their control. The remaking and refashioning of identity is not an attempt to live in the past. It is an attempt to construct meaningful identities in the context of life in alien and often, but not always, oppressive conditions. Many have seized the opportunities offered to improve their own circumstances and those of their children.

There is still much to be fully appreciated and uncovered in the complex and subtle shades, meanings and perceptions with which immigrant, refugee and indigenous women view the world.

We have the opportunity to draw strength from these vast, often disparate sources. To write new scripts that attest to our histories, strength, resilience, endurance, vision, commitment, imagination, survival, successes, cultures, languages and the many other positive differences that are part of the experience of immigrant, indigenous and refugee women.

For those who have gone before us, those who were strong enough to resist imposed identities, and who managed in the face of considerable odds to accommodate new lifestyles, the boundaries they have crossed provided us with hope and inspiration for the future.

Last updated 1 December 2001