Our bodies as battlegrounds

It has been a while since the ‘motherland’ has actually been invoked widely in Australian discourse. I don’t expect it will be making a comeback – there are so many other ways to describe our cultural pride and our connection to Australia. It harks back to more overtly nationalist times, and nowadays ‘homeland’, ‘home’ or ‘country’ have replaced it.

But that doesn’t mean the sentiment hasn’t resonated, even when the semantics haven’t. You see, women, of all colours and creed, have our autonomy co-opted as vehicles for the fights of men.

And the battlegrounds? Our bodies.

We are used to represent the motherland, where our ‘honour’ is in need of protecting, our very bodies politicised, and we have no choice but to be slung around in ensuing debate. See the recent vote to decriminalise abortion in NSW (and forget for a second that it is actually still criminal in the state lest you may not be able to read on). 25 members of the NSW Legislative Council (upper house) voted against the decriminalisation bill – 21 of them were men. Outdated rhetoric is used to justify this sort of anachronism, forcing women’s personal choices out into the public sphere, confirming that women’s bodies represent the ‘motherland’ as they are ‘fought’ for, spoken for, represented yet simultaneously unheard.

The pro-life opposition to the bill disseminated the claim that abortion encourages women to carry pregnancies to term and then terminate without medical compulsion or consultation. Here the female body was characterised as a reproductive vehicle rather than an autonomous, complex being, as if devoid of nuance, reason and emotion. The fundamentally intimate nature of pregnancy and abortion was disregarded, and so the fight for control of the female body continues to rage on.

When we consider that the motherland is usually fought for in the name of national interest, it becomes obvious that women’s bodies tend to arouse ‘national’, public and passionate interest. But this ‘national interest’ often extends beyond what we see in these overtly archaic political debates. The ‘protection’ of Women of Colour from their own communities, for instance, often results in paternalism, and the homogenising of these communities of colour.

Take the controversy surrounding the ‘burqa’ and the niqab – a hot-button issue that is reignited whenever some politician wants a glib debate in the name of showmanship. In 2014, ex-prime minister Tony Abbott’s attempt to compel women who wear the niqab to sit in a glass enclosure – reserved usually for children and schools – to watch parliamentary proceedings sent all sides into a battle over ‘women’s liberation’. Yet this was just a banal attempt to champion for women’s voices while relegating them to an enclosure, literally divorcing them from the very political debate they were trying to engage in.

Amidst outcry, Abbott’s proposal was quashed quickly, by members of his own party, but it revealed yet another attempt to politicise women’s bodies. Only a tiny percentage of women actually wear the niqab or burqa in Australia, and determining how their personhood should be performed only shuts them out of public discourse, which is exactly what ostensible ‘champions’ are fighting against.

Invoking a feminist cause in their name is actually of no benefit to cultural progression; it silences women and demonises their men as their ‘oppressors’, rendering them helpless in a battle for their ‘honour’. Men of Colour are marked as dangerous ‘others’, whose ‘culture’ stifles the women in their community. This rhetoric tends to homogenise the community of colour, and frames a woman as a woman first, or ethnic first, both separate battlegrounds that the white saviour must conquer.

This just reinforces the insidious ‘foreign man’ trope. The trauma of the men that Women of Colour are surrounded by becomes their trauma too. The struggle becomes a community burden. See, for instance, how Islamophobic attacks are often directed at women as they go about their day on public transport, on the street and in shopping centres. These outbursts are often attributed to the Islamphobe’s fear of the ‘radicalised Muslims’; yet up until now this phenomenon has engulfed young men more than women, particularly in the Australian context.

‘Championing’ for women’s rights also often frames white manhood as contrary to inherently sexist ‘foreign’ men and cultures, with a duty to protect all women – both ‘ours’ and ‘their’ niqab-wearing ones. It means that these ‘non-Australians’ and their cultures have ‘their’ gender inequality and violence against women collectivised. This phenomenon is rejected, however, by ‘champions’ that refuse to consider the ‘epidemic’ of violence against women as country-wide, regardless of ethnicity or religion, a point eloquently made by Former Australian of the Year and campaigner, Rosie Batty.

Gender inequality, and gendered violence in particular, indiscriminately pervade all cultures and classes, and if women’s bodies were more than just a site for political expedience, attitudes and policy would better reflect that. Rather, our ‘champions’ tend to problematise certain cultures, and racialise certain behaviours to best serve their agenda. Meanwhile, domestic violence and women’s services are cut, ‘respectful relationships’ classes are deemed ‘leftist’ propaganda, and casual rape and domestic violence jokes are still commonplace at every echelon in society.

When women’s bodies are used to champion a cause that outwardly reflects feminism, without any regard for the women themselves, we are stripped of our personhood. The body becomes a political plaything when feminism is co-opted and distorted by those who seek to continually conquer, with women’s bodies as their weapons of choice. Unfortunately, when the battle is over and the debate moves on, the ‘motherland’ that was fought for serves as a reminder that it will only ever be seen, used and invoked for convenience but never heard in times of need. It is left ravaged.

Image: Zairo Alzate

Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies.  She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.

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