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Speech: International Women's Day

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 23 Feb 2021

On 8 March, millions of people across the world will be marking International Women's Day. We will look back and reflect on how far we've come on gender equity. The sobering fact is that we will not see gender parity in our lifetime or our children's lifetime. On current tracking, it will take four to five generations to close the global gender gap. As a woman and as a feminist, that is unpalatable for me. We have fought very hard and we have won battles, many battles. But, when I think of what happens right here in my own workplace, reality hits me in the face. We haven't come very far at all. This week and last week I have been ashamed to work here. I have felt my skin crawl with disgust every time I have walked in here. I know that that is nothing compared to what the survivors of sexual assault must have been feeling. I am sorry that the Australian parliament is hurting and harming women.

Brittany Higgins has said that she was sexually assaulted right here in this building. These are allegations of an abhorrent crime committed against a young woman in a place that is charged with the responsibility of keeping our whole society safe. She has said she felt pressured not to proceed with a formal complaint, for fear of losing her job. Despite the silencing, Brittany Higgins has shown incredible courage by telling her story and bringing what has been done to her out of the shadows and into the light. Challenging the powerful and the privileged is never an easy task. It's even more difficult for survivors. She should not have had to do this. She should've been listened to and believed at the very start. She should've been safe in the first place.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, under whose watch this horrific alleged crime was committed in one of his minister's offices, claims he knew nothing of it till last week. Frankly, this is hard to believe, given what we know now about how it was dealt with at the time. If he didn't know, then he presides over a culture of cover-ups. This is a culture of 'don't ask, don't tell' that he has cultivated. He is the highest authority in this country, and he must take responsibility.

The culture of Parliament House is broken. There is no doubt about that. But let's not sidestep the failures right at the very top of the broken culture: the failure of the Prime Minister and his ministers to support Brittany Higgins, who is still looking for justice two and a half years on, failure by ignoring and deflecting issues of bullying and harassment when they've been raised.

I often wonder if there is a single woman on this planet who has not experienced unwanted sexual advance, be it verbal or physical; subtle or blatant; young or old; white, brown or black; executive, teacher, student, political staffer, journalist or waitress; famous or completely anonymous. As women, no matter who we are, we are targets. Sexism and sexual abuse in the workplace comes in many shapes, from meetings where women are silenced, to uninvited touch and explicitly predatory behaviour and violent sexual crimes. It is part and parcel of the patriarchal order in dominant masculinity we all live with. Women get so used to sexual harassment that they feel they have to accept it or brush it off. There can be no starker example of that than what we have seen here in the last few days: obfuscation, deflection, victim blaming, everything but taking responsibility for actions. That's the oppression of patriarchy, right on display here.

It takes immense courage to speak your truth in a world where the perpetrators have the power and influence, and Brittany Higgins has shown that courage. This is the strength of women and the camaraderie between them that will eventually bring down the patriarchy that runs deep in parliament and our society. We will force you to listen, act and change.


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