An Open Letter to Paul Sheehan


Paul Sheehan, a writer and regular columnist with the Sydney Morning Herald, is about to publish a book about the courts and sexual assault called Girls Like You. Consequently, extracts from the book filled the newspapers last weekend.

As a feminist and, more importantly, a mother of two teenage girls, I read the extracts with interest. I fully intend to buy the book once it is available.

The extract in the weekend paper, ‘Witness for the Persecution’, focussed on the extraordinary Tegan Wagner, a young woman now aged 17, who at 14 was one of the victims of the now infamous Pakistani brothers recently sentenced for gang rape.

As Sheehan points out, Wagner courageously withstood many days of relentless and brutal cross-examination during the trial by defence lawyers for three of the brothers. Even more admirably, she confronted the perpetrators with her refusal to be broken by their abuse, saying, as they were being sentenced, ‘Have fun in prison, boys. I won.’ Then, rather than hide behind a court-imposed blanket of anonymity, she outed herself to the media.

Her refusal to accept shame as a victim of sexual assault either at the hands of her attackers, their lawyers or the media is truly inspirational. And in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to women’s rights, Wagner won the top award at the 2006 Edna Ryan awards: The Grand Stirrer. The Edna Ryan Awards are run by the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and are given to women who have made the greatest contribution to feminism each year.

Yet, in Monday’s column in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sheehan decided to have a go at Western feminists because of what he called their ‘pall of silence‘ in response to the oppression of Muslim women by Muslim men.

There is something distasteful about Sheehan’s stance. His argument is reminiscent of the one often aimed at moderate Muslims: that they don’t make enough noise about the actions of radical Muslims. It is quite bizarre as a feminist, and perhaps it feels the same to moderate Muslims, to be painted as an apologist for some of the people you most despise.

It is also unpleasant to be treated as the member of some homogenous group; as if all feminists or all moderate Muslims feel and think exactly the same things. The self-righteous indignation of a born-again women’s rights activist as Sheehan appears now to be painting himself would be more convincing if it wasn’t used to justify long-held beliefs and, yes, prejudices.

Sheehan is particularly outraged about White girls being raped by Muslim men. Feminists are outraged about all women who have been raped by any kind of men. Indeed, some brave feminists have gone so far as to protest rape that happens routinely in war and pointed out that it is naïve to think only the bad guys — aka enemy combatants — are guilty of it. (There are a number of books about the experience of German women at the hands of Allied soldiers during the fall of Berlin which give convincing lie to that prejudice.)

Indeed, while Sheehan accuses Western feminists of a politically correct silence about female oppression in Islamic countries, I would accuse him of making a politically convenient noise about it. Prior to 9/11, for example, about the only people in the world making any kind of noise about the Taliban in Afghanistan were feminists, both Western and Islamic. They were largely ignored, because until the (mainly) men who control access to the media see a reason to make a noise about it, women’s issues are seen as ‘soft’, and are usually sidelined.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett.

The appalling lives women led under the Taliban only really started to get any attention when George W Bush needed to justify his invasion of Afghanistan. Suddenly, a whole lot of people, who’d never taken a blind bit of notice before, were all over the media decrying the plight of Afghani women.

If Sheehan is so incandescent about the oppression of Muslim women, is he putting any pressure on the Howard Government to routinely accept women from Muslim countries with oppressive laws as legitimate political refugees? Is he suggesting we impose economic and sporting boycotts on such countries as we did against the apartheid regime in South Africa? As a feminist, I would support him all along the line if he did.

Western feminists have never been silent about rape, or women’s right to vote, drive cars, get educated, use contraception, choose abortion, dress as they like, or avoid female circumcision, domestic violence, lousy pay or any of the other common human rights abuses against women.

But, we will not patronise women either, mainly because we have so hated being patronised ourselves. If a woman, of whatever religious background, chooses to dress a certain way or believe certain things like female members of the Sydney Anglican Church who accept their role is never to take ‘headship’ over a man; or Catholic women who accept their lesser role in religion, (and now are refused access to St Peter’s in Rome if not deemed to be dressed modestly enough) so be it. I wouldn’t accept such behaviour myself, but other women are wise enough to make their own decisions.

As a Western feminist, I ardently support Muslim women who bravely and fiercely argue that radical Islam oppresses them. I am a human rights defender with Amnesty, attracted by their campaign for human rights for women, particularly in Third World and Islamic countries.

When I hear of defiant Muslim women, some of whom are mentioned by Sheehan in his column, defending women who are fleeing honour killings, or vicious domestic abuse, I fully support and applaud them. However, I do not feel confident speaking for them particularly when they have such passionate and articulate voices of their own. I am not arrogant enough to feel they need me, or Western feminists like me, to speak on something I know little about. I only feel truly confident speaking about my own culture and my own experience in it.

We can encourage and support, but we should not take over.

The hardest revolution has always been the women’s revolution. When Black people fight for their rights, they fight White people. When Palestinians fight for their land, they fight Israelis. When the poor agitate, they do so against the rich. But when women fight for their human rights, they must fight their fathers, their husbands, their brothers and, worst of all, their sons.

That is why it is important to understand the difficult and slow process that is involved in women from whatever culture first recognising they are oppressed and then deciding to do something about it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.