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Society

Recycling Our Fears

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“Vienna is a beautiful city,” I said to the taxi driver. My eyes had remained glued out the window since we left the  airport, trying to absorb every fine detail my next destination had to offer.

“Yes, well it was…,” he said, looking out of his thick, round glasses, a sort of impatience overcoming him. His finger tapping on the steering wheel, faster than the indicator blinking through the red. He looked at me and rolled his eyes, “…it was beautiful until they all came. Now, everything is different.”

I knew immediately who he was referring to, because it was something that I had continuously heard from locals as I travelled across Europe. Repeatedly, conversations in taxis turned to monologues of fear; fear of change, of diversity but most of all, the fear of the migrants themselves. But, perhaps what was most striking about this recurring rhetoric was the tone which it encompassed.  I quickly became acquainted with their resonance of annoyance, a seemingly ingrained irritation.  An almost spiteful proclamation that the culture would shift to unrecognisable measures, that the very essence of the given country would diminish. Yet, whilst listening to these agitated cries, what was absent was the recognition, however slight, that these refugees were fleeing persecution, escaping a war that had destroyed their way of life, culture and country. It was as if in they were no longer people, but an idea that was so acutely feared that the very notion of humanity just simply didn’t belong in the prose.  

Between April 2011 and June 2017, the UN Refugee Agency estimated around 983, 876 first-time applicants for asylum in Europe from Syria. The conflict in Syria is no longer between those for or against President Bashar al-Assad, but it has colossally encompassed sectarian overtones, drawing in regional and world powers as well as the rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS). A UN commission of inquiry found that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes and all have contributed to an unprecedented civilian suffering. The murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances of civilians used as a method of war. Whilst urgent attempts by the international community have insisted against indiscriminate use of weapons, the death toll steadily rises. Syria the ancient pearl, a land described as the beginning of civilisation, torn.

Yet, the utter devastation that the Syrian conflict represents is all too easily dismissed in the name of fear. People who have lost their families, homes, way of life, are reduced to numbers numbers that represent the amount a nation has to accommodate, the amount of jobs needed, the amount of money it will cost them. They forget about Jihan, who despite being blind, fled Damascus with her two young sons in a 45-hour treacherous voyage to Greece. Or 67-year-old Ahmed, who lost eight family members at sea when their boat tragically sunk.  They don’t see 21-year old Marwan who refused to join the fighting effort and not long after lost his left arm and right eye through shelling. Or university student Hussein, who was left with no other choice but to follow the road that so many others had taken and pay to be smuggled out of Syria. Electrical engineer Karim, who owned and operated his own business before being forced to flee.  

These thousands of untold stories are only further muffled by politicians stroking the existing fear of migrants and refugees. The danger of cultural diversity becomes a defining narrative for elections in the West and has featured prominently in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of right-wing parties.  Yet the threat to the life of a nation does not come from isolated acts from the fringes. Rather, the evermore imminent danger comes from a government and society that refuses to accept change. Countries that are deeply nostalgic, clinging to a time that cannot be returned to are dangerous. They are dangerous because they are prepared to abandon their own values to maintain the bygone era they so desperately cherish.  They are dangerous because they will recognise refugees as a burden rather than an opportunity. But perhaps most dangerously, they will see numbers before they see humanity in desperation.

I hope that one day, when I’m admiring the wonders of another country, someone will be able to turn to me and say; “thank you, it is a beautiful city. And it only keeps on getting better.”   

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Society

Mired in the Middle

Mired-in-the-Middle-(Brittany-Wetherspoon)
  Following the United Kingdom’s recent snap election, which resulted in Teresa May forming a Conservative minority government, the matriarch
Society

Ancient Greek Women

Women in Ancient Greece (Lin Rahman)

We’re still at a point where many people aren’t comfortable with calling themselves ‘feminists’. I’m not talking about the troglodytes on the internet that call themselves ‘antifeminists’ – the sort that hurl online abuse at women like Clementine Ford for breathing. Instead, there are some more approachable people that nonetheless feel uneasy to associate themselves with the overall feminist movement. I want to suggest here that, to these people that are unsure, a bit of history (ancient and modern) should dispel any doubts about the merits of feminism, and why we need it.

If these non-feminists aren’t feminists, what do they tend to call themselves? Often, humanists, egalitarians, or both. This nominal rejection of feminism isn’t rare; in Britain, a 2016 study conducted by the Fawcett Society found that only 7% of an 8,165-person sample identified as feminist, yet over two thirds (still rather low at 67%) were in favour of a broad gender egalitarianism.

This common tactic rests on two misconceptions: firstly, feminism has an egalitarian objective, and any feminists that assert otherwise are firmly in the minority; secondly, rejecting feminism for ‘egalitarianism’ betrays a fair amount of unfamiliarity with the practical history of that idea. ‘Egalitarianism’ sounds pleasant enough, but it bears remembering that this strain of thought, while a noble ideal in the abstract, historically did little to directly contribute to improving the political, economic and social rights of women in Europe, in comparison to the feminist union movements initiated from the 19th century onwards (although, of course, feminism both then and now has an egalitarian objective). On the whole, movements with a distinctive focus (like feminism) prove to be more historically effective in providing positive social change, rather than indulging in vague and abstract generalities. Due to the unique historical position of women, addressing the matter requires specifically focusing on the topic, which didn’t really kick off in Europe until the 18th century, with the writings of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft – these women were feminists, not just humanists. And even then, feminism only reaped more practical results by forming women’s unions by the late 19th century in countries like Britain, headed by suffragist campaigners like Millicent Garett Fawcett. For centuries upon centuries, pre-modern philosophies and religions in Europe weren’t a decisive call to action. Before the rise of modern feminism, the earlier pretences to equality between men and women were too general and noncommittal.

If a vague humanism is historically ineffective towards improving women’s lives, I see no reason to view it as a competitive replacement to feminism. Being a feminist doesn’t require that you have to be a melodramatic Tumblrite – this ignores the incredibly diverse threads of thought within the movement. To be a feminist just involves recognising a historical and present trend of inequality towards women, and seeking practical and specifically tailored solutions to improve this situation. There’s a considerable divergence of opinions on how to achieve a better situation for women, so feminism certainly doesn’t require anyone to blindly follow extremist minority views. It would be a mistake to take the latter as representative.

If there still remain doubts, some history should serve as a remedy. In order to find a culture without feminism, we’re not exactly short of choices, so we might as well find a particularly fascinating one. The ancient Greeks from Homer to Aristotle provide a case in point, and the results are predictably abysmal for half of their population.

In the 8th-9th century B.C. Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, most women are servants, submissive wives or commodities (usually worth four oxen apiece – coinage was not a thing back then). Although fiction, it’s hard to deny that the roles of everyday women depicted in the poems reflect some of the social realities of Homer’s time. Women with more power in the poems tend to be one step further away from reality, compared to these everyday figures. The goddesses, for example, had considerably more freedom, even taking part in the Trojan War in the Iliad, but ultimately they were still at the behest of the patriarch Zeus (and in any case, the line between gods and humans was very strictly drawn). In the Odyssey there’s a queen that was highly esteemed and routinely settled disputes, but in line with fantasy of this poem, the island that she ruled with her husband – Phaeacia – was very utopian and detached from ordinary life.

As we move towards later ages in 6th-century B.C. Greece, where more texts start to crop up, female writers still remain conspicuously scarce. As Simone de Beauvoir put it trenchantly in The Second Sex, “Greek women didn’t even have the freedom to complain.” We do have a meagre amount of poetry fragments from this age: Sappho, the poet from Lesbos, has left enough to show her hand in writing about love and old age, for example. But mostly the picture is not promising, and jumping ahead another century to 5th-century B.C. Athens doesn’t provide much relief: just look at one of the most famous speeches from the height of Athenian power, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, reproduced by the best historian of antiquity, Thucydides. After a stirring encomium that praises democracy, the rule of law, and freedom, the great Athenian statesman Pericles declared that women, ideally, shouldn’t be worth talking about for any reason whatsoever, good or bad. They should be invisible.

The social history of women in Athens shows that this speech wasn’t exactly out of step with the norms of the time. As Sarah Pomeroy has shown, Athenian women that lived in households that could afford slaves were mostly confined to women’s quarters in the house, only to venture out in public for funerals and festivals. Even by the 1st century B.C., a Roman biographer confirms that this practice still continued in his day, contrasting it with the (slightly) greater freedoms permitted to women in Rome.

Along with children, slaves and foreigners, women weren’t citizens of Athens: they couldn’t take part in the democratic assemblies that were integral to Athenian life. Legally, their property rights were meagre: if a woman’s father died, Athenian law tried to keep the deceased estate on the male side as much as possible – if she had a brother, he would take the estate; and Athenian women couldn’t make contracts dealing with anything more valuable than a bushel of wheat. Not every polis was as bad as Athens in this respect: women in other Greek cities like Delphi and Sparta enjoyed much better legal property rights, and Spartan women famously received education and stringent training, just like the men. Still, from the little we know about Spartan women, this isn’t quite so great as it may appear –Spartan women were not permitted greater freedom for dignity’s sake, but rather to hone their physical strength in order to bear children more efficiently. They existed to populate the city with more soldiers: as Thucydides put it, military honour was always the Spartan’s main priority. Equality in the modern sense was an alien concept to them.

A minority of Greek philosophers did advance ideas that implied equality between men and women, such as Epicurus, but the practical impact of these doctrines were clearly limited. In spite of the intellectual ferment in Athens, the women there remained confined in their quarters; the implicit ideas of equality found in Socrates and Epicurus were not in themselves an adequate stimulus for change, and nor did these thinkers intend to meet these essentially modern feminist objectives. In Plato’s Republic, a 10-book dialogue that illustrates many of his core doctrines, Plato makes his old mentor Socrates discuss the nature of justice – and he embarks on the daunting task by sketching the ideal state. In speculating about who the rulers of this state should be, Socrates says to his interlocutor Glaucon that women could also rule. He thought they had less physical strength than men, but in every other respect they could match men, provided they had the same education. Rather than relying on crude generalisations about women, Socrates points out that women can have different natures: he says, for example, that there are women who are naturally brave or cowardly, or intellectual or not. If virtue applies in the same way for men and women, it’s not too much of a stretch to see an implicit gender egalitarianism at work in Socrates’ thought – it implies that men and women could perfect themselves in the same way. Although this was quite a radical idea for the Greeks at the time – Socrates himself appears aware of the unconventional consequences for educating women just like the men – it’d be misleading to call Socrates a feminist. His conversation with Glaucon, while ground-breaking, is very much a speculative and abstract matter. He didn’t spend his days calling for women to enter the assembly of 500 in Athens: as a Greek in 5th-century B.C. Athens, this sort of talk was unfathomable. Happiness for Greeks consisted in cultivating the virtues, which, as any sour-faced Stoic could point out keenly, could be done in the most squalid and limited conditions imaginable – virtue could be achieved in slavery. So, feminism and modern ethics are very closely bound together – which is precisely why so much of history before then confined the overwhelming majority of women to the domestic sphere.

As the main contrarian in Athens, Plato’s Socrates bore the minority view. The philosopher Aristotle, on the other hand, represented the majority. Across his corpus, Aristotle’s misogyny is really quite extraordinary in its wide-ranging application: it carries into his works on biology, where he considered women as a kind of curiously incomplete form of man; and even the role of females in the generation of offspring is regarded by Aristotle as an inferior one, with only the male contributing to the form and characteristics of the child.  In his book the Politics, Aristotle accepts a natural inequality between men and women, asserting that the husband rules over the wife in the household. Disagreeing with Socrates’ genderless understanding of virtue, Aristotle held that men and women always manifested virtues in different ways (as he put it, courage in men consisted in commanding, women in obeying).

On the whole, both in theory and practice, accepting the domestic subordination of women was the majority view in a culture without any kind of feminist movement. Philosophies that at least approximated some elements of this view, like that of Socrates or Epicurus, were not representative; and even if that were the case, it’s clear that they wouldn’t have borne out the same practical results as a feminist movement. On a wide scale, you can find this implicit egalitarianism in quite a handful of philosophers and theologians in history, but a more fine-grained look at social problems is ultimately what’s needed.

With inequalities towards women still persisting today, the best solution is not to distance away from feminism, but rather to join in – in its general approach to social, economic and political rights for women, nothing else in history has proved quite so effective.

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Society

Tampons: A ‘Luxury’ We’re Still Bleeding For

Tampons artwork

Tampons. A word and item that still seems taboo in today’s society and conversation. We’ve seen politicians get awkward saying the word (I’m looking at you, Joe Hockey) and even when I use to work as a supermarket cashier, males would insist these little cotton superheroes weren’t for their own personal use but for their girlfriend. Uh, I figured you weren’t buying them to stop nosebleeds or to use as Christmas ornaments.

Why are people so afraid of a little absorbent cotton? They haven’t been used whilst sitting on that supermarket shelf; they’re actually quite hygienic. Innocently they sit in a box with fun colours marketing executives thought would be a spell bounding way to empower women, because nothing screams fighting for the sisterhood as much as a cardboard box plagued with flowers and butterflies all over it.

These little cotton wonders, in addition to pads and other feminine hygiene products, aid the management of an involuntary biological process that impacts half the world’s population, menstrual periods. But, these absorbent sensations have become a contentious issue worldwide, and all for the same reason: tax.

Tax gets a bad wrap. In Australia, the Howard Government introduced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) back in 2000 as a true tax reform.  It replaced multitudinous and inefficient State taxes that raised little revenue and produced deadweight loss. The 10% duty applies to most items and services sold or consumed in Australia, however there are some exemptions for items deemed ‘necessary’.

Items such as condoms, lubricants, nicotine patches, incontinence pads and sunscreen are all exempt from GST. Why? Because they are considered to be essentials and aim to prevent illness.

Well, incontinence pads don’t actually prevent urination or excretion do they? No, they don’t prevent it. They are designed to help manage involuntary bladder or bowel control problems.

Sound familiar? Menstrual pads help manage an involuntary bodily secretion and are also made from good ol’ absorbent cotton. Both products increase hygiene, as well as security, and confidence. No one wants to endure the embarrassment caused from leaking biological fluids or have people whispering, wondering what that oddly coloured wet patch is on their clothing or the bus seat.

So why are tampons taxed but incontinence pads not when both are fundamentally similar, if not almost identical? Is this not a direct display of discrimination against an automatic bodily function that only us women must go through? There is no taxed item in Australia exclusively used by men.

Some feminists argue condoms are only for males, however I dissent.  Condoms directly benefit both males and females as both genders decrease their risk in contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and women reduce risk of pregnancy.

So, here’s to the patriarchal society for charging me on a bodily function I had no say in and on the unquestionably essential product that has no equally effective substitute.

Sanitary products have been classified as a luxury by our government and many worldwide. What are we as women meant to use instead? Old newspaper? Yarn? Cleaning blood and ensuring it doesn’t stain is no easy task (pro tip: Use cold water to remove blood stains; warm water will set the stain in). Sanitary products in the present age are the most effective and widely accepted item in managing monthly menstrual flow. We moved away from using rags and washing them in the river for a reason.

I always considered luxuries to be holidays to Europe, basking in the sun while sipping on poolside cocktails, or buying expensive wine – a sure step up from Fruity Lexia.  

I didn’t think a cardboard box packed with 16 cotton tubes epitomizes opulence and grandeur.

Additionally, nicotine patches are also exempt from the 10% levy. Why are they not considered a luxury? Humans are not born with the innate need to smoke tobacco. During development there is no genetic change or increase in hormones within the brain that onsets the requirement of smoking. However, if you are born with a vagina, Mother Nature is going to be sure those hormones kick in and gift you with a red spot on your underwear.

Sure, it was nice when my traditional Greek grandmother gave me $10 for ‘becoming a real woman’ but unfortunately, that isn’t going to cover the blatant lifetime cost of discriminating against my gender.

Let it be known the crux of the issue isn’t primarily an economic one but about principle.  I don’t mind paying tax on different products. Tax is mostly beneficial to society as it goes towards funding health systems, emergency services, our university degrees, and for (now former speaker) Bronwyn Bishop to travel from Melbourne to Geelong via helicopter at the cost of $5227, a journey that is just over an hour’s drive. Power to the sisterhood, Bronwyn.

A common rebuttal to the tampon tax debate is that there are also other items deemed necessary that we still pay GST on such as gas, electricity and baby nappies. Although, last time I checked, none of those items are exclusively used by one gender only.  

Recently, countries such as Canada and France have removed the tax on sanitary products after intense backlash from the public. The Australian government has also received similar criticism. However, in July this year, the federal Senate voted down the proposal to remove the gender-biased GST.

The Greens supported the removal of tax upon sanitary products and proposed applying a GST to imported items below the cost of $1000. Former Greens senator, Larissa Waters showcased how the new proposal would not only offset the loss of tax revenue sanitary products currently bring in, but an extra $300 million over the next three years would be raised too. These monetary figures come from the Parliamentary Budget Office that recently modelled the proposal. As Waters stated fiercely, “Revenue loss is no longer a credible excuse for refusing to axe the sexist tampon tax”.  So, what is holding back politicians now from abolishing the sexist levy?  

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher has stated that the party supports the change, however there isn’t a need to rush into anything. Uh, Katy, GST was introduced in 2000 and the debate has been ongoing since. It’s been seventeen years. I’m not sure we have the same understanding for the word ‘rush’.

Treating periods and the tax upon their products as a non-issue seems to have become routine for the right-wing, male led government of Australia. Shouldn’t the reproductive health and hygiene of 12 million Australian women be important? We shouldn’t be penalised for having a period that we had no choice in wanting or not. Sanitary products are not a ‘luxury’ or a ‘want’ but a need.  Until the government realises the inequality they are placing upon women and girls as young as 10 years old, we need to keep fighting until action is made.

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