close

Analysis

The appeal to nature fallacy and a growing distrust of the authority of science

no thumb

Our society seems to be losing its trust with scientific knowledge. This degeneration is present in the market, media, and online, particularly regarding the health industry.

Why is this? There seems to be a large gap between the preconceived ideas ingrained in our society and scientific truths. Perhaps the most visible example of this is the abuse of the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, and the positive and negative connotations that they are packaged with. The word ‘natural’ is plastered all over product labels by marketers, and clearly, they are onto something. The extensive use of the word ‘natural’ must be to address a large consumer demand for goods that are ‘natural’, or made with ‘natural’ ingredients. It appears that Australian consumers hold a strong preconceived view about the world: mother nature and natural products are inherently good, or at least superior to their human-made counterparts. However, this statement is not consistent with our scientific knowledge, or with reality for that matter.

The scientific method is impartial. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that there has been a lot of damage caused by errors in scientific analysis and thinking  – the temporary approval of thalidomide, asbestos, and nuclear waste just to name a few. But these are mainly failings of technology, and of political administration. Scientists may discover a powerful chemical; however, it is up to society to insist that it is safe to use. Failings to do so seem to have led many to believe that all science and technology is suspect, and that all natural things are good.

Indeed, there are many undesirable however perfectly natural events that we ask the scientific community to alleviate us of, such as mental struggle or genetic diseases. Conversely, there are many unnatural interventions in our lives that are blatantly ignored by pseudo-scientists who, like us all, find them convenient, such as cars and phones. It makes little sense that these pseudo-scientists are picking on the industries of food and agriculture.

In its simplest form, the appeal to nature fallacy follows that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is bad. Its application to the food and agriculture industry presents a fundamental misunderstanding of how practices such as artificial selection work. As far as we know, it does not matter if new organisms are made in a laboratory, as opposed to farmers using selective breeding. The joining of two genes in a laboratory is merely an extension of what farmers have been practicing for millennia; it is plain common sense. If the ends are the same, that the consumers can access decent quality produce, then there is no rational debate to be had. It is the means by which ‘unnatural’ food comes about that makes some consumers uneasy, and their unease is emotionally driven, not rational.

Those preferring ‘natural’ remedies or products, such as food, are not a trivial part of the consumer population. A quick walk through your local supermarket will show that many consumers are on the lookout for goods marketed as natural, especially ones that promise vague, mystical powers such as an ‘energy boost’, a ‘detox’ or a ‘cleanse’.

The search for ‘natural’ goods and services can be seen in the realm of medicine too. This branches off into categories such as ‘natural medicine’, ‘naturopathy’, ‘homeopathy’ or ‘alternative medicine’. If these treatments actually worked so well, then they probably would not be regarded as ‘alternative’, rather they would be widespread.

It is important to note that this article could have focused on many different pseudo-scientific trends. Chemophobia, childbirth without available medical assistance, raw foodism, spiritual therapy, anti-vax, organics products, and climate denialism are all part of a network of folk beliefs. All of these practices tend to rely on poorly interpreted science to support themselves.

Humans are inclined to be attracted to emotional stories. Our intuitions tend to tell us to clutch onto anecdotes and emotionally driven arguments rather than rational ones. This part of our psychology is prevalent all throughout our culture. Just look at our advertising, or the political success of Trump.

The main problem comes about when the general public start to disregard the authority of science. When this happens, our culture of evidence-based theory is at risk of being challenged by an emotional herd. Ultimately, that’s when unjustified and unscientific thinking begins to pose a threat to the greater good of the public.

 

read more

Spirit of the Mountain Stream: Saving the Spotted Tree Frog

Picture2

 

Stepping foot into the rainforest of Victoria’s Central Highlands is an experience so heightened I’m left wondering if the scene before me is by mere happenstance or is indeed the product of careful orchestration. I can’t turn without feeling the delicate fronds of ferns caressing my skin, or hearing the exquisite birdsongs fall against my ears as refreshing as waterfalls.

The large Myrtle Beech trees sway delicately in the breeze as I amble after Gretel, who leaves me in familiar pursuit. Distracted by the magic of the forest, I don’t realise how far we’ve wandered until Gretel suddenly exclaims, “Over here!”

STREAMING WITH LIFE: The spotted tree frog is found exclusively in rocky habitats along mountain streams of Victoria and New South Wales

I turn to see a clearing and blue sky. A rocky mountain stream cuts through the landscape like a bolt of lightning. It is here we hope to find what we’re looking for: the elusive spotted tree frog. According to Gretel, a herpetologist at Zoos Victoria, this is one of only 17 streams in Australia where this species can still be found. With that in mind, we set about foraging amongst the loose rocky banks and streamside vegetation. Soon, the sky turns to a dusky purple littered with glimmering of stars, and the whispering of leaves is replaced by chirruping crickets.

“I’ve found one!” I hear Gretel yell.

As I approach, I catch a glimpse of a webbed foot between Gretel’s fingertips. She gently passes the frog to me and I crouch beside the riverbank, unfurling my fingers one by one. What I see before me is an unassuming olive-grey creature covered in numerous raised ‘warts’. As I turn the frog over in my hands, I notice its underside is pale, and its rear and back legs are flushed with pastel orange. Its toes and fingers are distinctly flattened, and the toes are fully webbed. Its head is relatively broad and a pair of huge amber eyes stare back at me with curiosity.

GOING, GOING, GONE… The Spotted Tree Frog (Litoria spenceri) has suffered population decline over the past 20 years due to disease, exotic species, and other manmade disturbances

“Is this a male or a female?” I ask.

Gretel as she rummages through her backpack and brings out a tape measure, notepad and pen. She asks me to place the frog on its stomach, and carefully measures its length.

“61 millimetres,” she notes. “That’s about as large as they get. It must be a female.”

I take one last look at the frog, giving her an affectionate stroke before releasing her back into the stream.

About twenty minutes later, with the help of Gretel’s flashlight, we come upon two more frogs nestled among some loose stones. But even before Gretel warns me, I can tell these two are different. They appear malnourished, and their hind legs are postured abnormally. When Gretel leans over to capture one, it barely has the energy to attempt an escape.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.

“Chytridiomycosis,” she replies, taking a scraping of the poor creature’s skin.

I look at her inquisitively.

“It’s a fungus that’s recently been found in the skin of some Australian frog species,” she begins, a note of remorse in her voice. “We don’t really know the impact these infections are having on this species’ population yet. It could cause the population to decline, or it could be a symptom of some other environmental stress. All we know for sure is that before the population crash in 1996, several dead and infected individuals were found.”

“Is anything being done about it?”

Gretel captures the other frog, its half-closed eyes glisten in the moonlight.

“Well the Department of Environment and Heritage revised their Threat Abatement Plan in 2016 to help research and combat these infections,” she replies, “but at the moment it’s hard to see light at the end of the tunnel. There are so many other factors threatening this species.”

“Such as?”

“Timber harvesting, gold dredging, recreational activities, weed invasion, introduced species, herbicides, just to name a few.”

I can tell by the tone of her voice that she’s rattled off this list before.

“And how exactly do these disturbances affect them?” I ask as we head back to Gretel’s Land Rover.

“They change the habitats in or around the streams, which potentially affect the survival of eggs or tadpoles. And of course, introduced fish like Rainbow Trout and Brown Trout prey upon them heavily in the summer months when the larvae grow into tadpoles.”

We walk the rest of the way in silence. The same earthy smell and marriage of sounds which had enchanted me on the trek inward now seemed to jolt me; I had discovered the yolk of unforgiving cruelty that lay beneath its beautiful façade.  

“It’s not all bad, you know,” Gretel says as she slumps into the driver’s seat of the car, preparing for our journey home.

While Gretel drives, she explains to me that the spotted tree frog is listed as an endangered and threatened species under numerous acts in Victoria and New South Wales. It is also considered critically endangered by The International Union for Conservation of Nature. Accordingly, preparations for recovery plans are underway in Victoria and NSW. A National Recovery Team has been established to oversee and direct research of the species, and surveys of the populations and their habitats are being conducted. Conservation has also been promoted through media releases and educational materials for other interest groups.

INTO THE WILD: Zoos Victoria is committed to securing a future for this species by conducting research on wild populations and building a genetically diverse captive population.

But perhaps the most hope-inspiring of Gretel’s tales is that of the captive breeding program coordinated by Zoos Victoria, where frogs are bred at Healesville Sanctuary before their reintroduction into the wild. By establishing this captive population, Zoos Victoria, in partnership with the government and stakeholders, has made it their mission to ensure the survival of the spotted tree frog (and all Victorian terrestrial vertebrate species) for at least another five years. So far, the program has proven successful, with a record number of captive eggs and tadpoles produced during 2011/2012 breeding season.  And our visit today contributes to Gretel’s regular assessment of the reintroduced individuals and monitoring of the population, a critical part of this program’s ongoing evaluation of the species’ conservation status.

As we re-enter the city, I sit in the Land Rover, sip my soda and watch the pedestrians pass by. It would be all too easy, I thought, for the plight of a little frog to fall upon deaf ears. After all, the tales of centuries past have told of many animals succumbing to a shroud of deepening indifference. For a moment, I ponder as to why this humble creature has touched my heart. Gretel’s knowledge enabled me to understand its biology, its ecology, and its general way of life, and the quiet moments we spent observing these frogs allowed me to see its true nature, an animal of high intelligence, charisma and grace. Both of these experiences offered lessons for those willing to hear them, and beauty for those willing to see it.  

Driving through the streets, we pass a derelict house with an old street sign nailed to a tree by the gate. Gretel slows the car. “Look,” she says, pointing to the sign. A narrow beam of moonlight pierces through the clouds and illuminates the first word, HOPE.

read more

Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace: Is it all Doom and Gloom?

Artificial intelligence (Julia Thouas)

 

We have all heard the hysteria surrounding the rise of artificial intelligence and its links to the rapid growth in automation throughout industries worldwide. ‘Officeless’ companies, ‘robo-technology’ and ‘automation apocalypse’ are the new buzzwords, designed to increase panic and characterise the future as bleak and humanless. However, let’s look past these umbrella concepts and try and analyse how this rise in artificial intelligence can help or hinder us into the future.

We all know what is happening to the manufacturing industry in Australia. Thriving car manufacturers have permanently closed their doors and jobs have been lost due to the inability of companies to reconcile the costs of human labour with the efficiency and relative cheap nature of technology and robotics. Does this trend, however, foreshadow a new wave in robotics sweeping through all industries in the world?

The answer is that it most certainly does. Tasks that used to take place with pen and paper and hours of copying, transcribing or simply writing have been made redundant by computer systems that can fill in data, understand and transcribe speech and send information to the other side of the world in moments.  Statistics reveal that 47% of all current employment opportunities globally will be occupied by machines within the next two decades. It seems like a scary proposition for us students who still sit exams with paper and ink, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be.

These concerns are not sudden, nor are they rare. In the 1930’s such a crisis was faced in the Great Depression when John Maynard Keynes postulated his ‘technological unemployment’ theory. In general, automation affects employment in two opposing ways:

  1. Negatively – by directly displacing workers from tasks they were previously performing (displacement effect)
  2. Positively – by increasing the demand for labour in other industries or jobs that arise due to automation (productivity effect)

If technology really did create mass unemployment and destroyed jobs, there would be no work for anyone, anywhere. We are in the middle of a multi-decade technological boom that is unparalleled in history. From touch screen smartphones, literally controlled by artificial intelligence, to the redundancy of paper in legal contracts, or even the massive reduction of human customs officers at our airports, the world is changing every hour of every day. In the German region of Bavaria unemployment stands at 2.6%, which is an historic all time low in a region largely considered to be one of the most “technified” in the world.

One of our newest global enterprises – Amazon – offers an example of this phenomena. Over the last three years Amazon has steadily increased the number of robots working in its warehouses from 1,400 to 45,000. Over the same period, the rate at which it hires workers hasn’t changed – jobs have not been lost.

A handful of modern studies, specifically within the University of Chicago Press, has noted that there is often a positive correlation between new technology and increased employment – in manufacturing firms, and specifically in firms that adopted computers. Whether or not you believe this to be true, historically this trend is accurate. When William Lee invented a ‘knitting machine’, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have been scared for the hundreds of workers who would lose jobs. Fast forward a hundred years and more people than ever were taking part in a booming textiles industry thanks to these types of technological advancements. A scary initial proposition blossomed into an economic powerhouse that created more jobs than could have been imagined.

Economist Daniel Lacalle essentially offers this simplistic formula on why saving money on reducing human labour can benefit employment:

  1. It lowers prices, which makes products more appealing and creates an increased demand that may lead to the need for more workers.
  2. It will either generate more profit or pay higher wages. That may lead to increased investment or increased consumption, which can also lead to more production, and thus, more employment.

However, there are a few caveats to this optimistic analysis. Every big revolution comes with a cost. As these technological advancements continue, there is no sure answer to the potential minimisation of wages corresponding to the decreased needs for specialised skills. Of course, if you do not believe in the tipping point where humans will no longer be needed to advance technology, you may as well give into overwhelming despair and nihilism, but the fact is – there is more promise with this rise of technology than ever.

The Economist has reported, in conjunction with McKinsey Global Institute, that 25 years ago one third of all current jobs in the United States had not yet been invented. We may be training to design new motor engines, focus on agricultural laws or analysing economic algorithms today, but tomorrow, we may all be knee deep in uncovering new industries and technologies that will be invented by this rise in artificial intelligence.  100 years ago, no one could have imagined the scope of the computer and smartphone industry today. The same can be said with aviation, the motor industry or even the Internet.

The simple fact is that this change is scary. We are uncovering new areas of industry and yes, what we hope is for the short-term reduction of some jobs. But let’s rely on history to safely assume that even if a job our degrees may find us suitable for becomes redundant – new opportunities will make themselves known.

I choose to be an optimist about where we are in this world, because this change needs to be embraced, because even if the worst happens and we become redundant as a species, we will be left behind anyway.

read more

A Lesson From History: The Dougong

d2

No one can give you the key to being a great engineer; not your university, not your lecturers, no one. However, your learning environment can point to the locks that you might want to crack open.

Recently, a short video released by Channel 4 (UK), demonstrated the structural genius of Chinese Architecture, that enabled the Forbidden City in China to withstand more than 200 earthquakes over 600 years. As expected, the video went viral attracting more than 24 million views. As neither the video nor the comment section went beyond the “wow” factor, I turned to the Monash library database for answers and found Klaus Zwerger’s, Wood and wood joints.

For anyone who has ever been to China (or seen pictures of China), the most interesting and dominating part of a timber constructed building is its magnificent roof. On closer inspection, you may wonder how the structure is able to support such a heavy roof. The same question was pondered by Chinese architects and carpenters hundreds of years ago. Their solution was an ingenious set of complex brackets called the dougong.

The reasoning that went behind the dougong is that short beams (horizontal supports intended to evenly distribute load) rest on other transverse tie beams (to increase the stiffness of the structure), which extend out of the wall. These structures then transfer the weight of the projecting eaves into the column (pillar) underneath.

The dougong grew in sophistication, as it became widely used in large temples and imperial buildings.

To better distribute the load, wooden blocks (dou) placed at the outer ends of the projecting beams bear short beams (gong) that are perpendicular to the projecting beams. More wooden brackets with interlocking gaps, can be added to widen the weight-bearing surface to ensure a better distribution of load. These systems can then either hold roofs by supporting the eaves, purlin or a floor above (for multi-storied buildings) by carrying the cantilevered floor (fixed support at one end; like a diving board).

Since we’ve found what holds the huge roofs in their places, let’s now take a step back and look at the entire structure.

In the video, a group of researchers examine the characteristics of the Forbidden City, by building a smaller model of the Forbidden City scaled by a factor of 1:5. One of the most attention-grabbing aspects of the model were its disproportionately tall columns.

Since these free-standing pillars can contain a lot of vibrational force and shear force, they are vital to the structure’s survival. A paper titled, Planar rocking response and stability analysis of an array of free-standing columns capped with a freely supported rigid beam, by Nicos Markis and Michalis. F. Vassiliou, contends that an array of free-standing columns (pillars) capped with a rigid beam can sustain a high magnitude of ‘rocking motion’, without overturning. In fact, the study claims the stability of the rocking frame increases with respect to the heaviness of the freely supported cap beam even though the centre of gravity of the beam shifts.

Additionally, wood which was used to build the structure is characterised by an acceptable elastic modulus (toughness) around 11-14 GPa and is a widely chosen material owing to its light-weight.

Free-standing wooden columns, attached to effective load-distributing structures (like the duogong) could possibly be the answer to sustainable construction in Earthquake prone areas.

By the end of World War II, all human knowledge took a whopping 25 years to double. Now it takes a measly 13 months. In the quest to discover, new and exciting things, we often forget to look back.

Sometimes, a scientific glance at our past and our heritage could possibly inspire us to solve real-life engineering problems of the 21st century.

read more

Australian Archaeology: the sleeping giant

Archaeology (Nathan Kaseng Um)

 

New findings in Australian Archaeology, what it means, and why it is important

A recently published article from the University of Queensland, titled ‘Human occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 years ago’, provides crucial evidence for early human colonisation of Australia. Although research is still being conducted at the site of Madjedbebe, Kakadu National Park, the redating of the evidence lead by Dr Chris Clarkson suggests the colonisation of Australia predates preconceived theories by 18,000 years. Therefore, this new data questions the migration of humans out of Africa, and ultimately, what it means to be an Australian.

While Madjedbebe was excavated nearly 30 years ago, the data was widely disputed. Dr Clarkson and his colleagues returned to the site utilising new methodologies and nuanced technology to analyse the artefacts. To avoid contamination of the artefacts and to find a conclusive approximate date, not only were several dating techniques used but additionally, the vast archaeological team conducted multiple tests in separate laboratories. Although it is complicated to date these artefacts accurately, the average confidence ratios of 95% in conjunction with the meticulous methodology legitimises the dating of the bottom sedimentary layer at around 65,000 years old. Due to rising sea levels and Australia losing two-thirds of its land mass over the thousands of years, there is an large possibility that earlier sites have been lost, thus why the dates coming out of this excavation are pivotal in understanding the human journey.

In an interview with the ABC, Professor Hiscock of the University of Sydney contends that the artefacts found at the site undoubtedly display how quickly the First Australians were able to adapt to the new landscape and environment, indicating a high level of sophistication. From the moment of occupation, they created artwork and invented new technologies such as the ground-edge axes, which Hiscock states is older than anywhere yet found in the world. In Europe, this type of axe is seen by many as a precursor to the advanced modern human, yet in Australia where it appears thousands of years earlier, interpretations of the evidence still hold onto colonial perceptions of the indigenous population. However, when the First Australians left Africa is still unknown.

In conjunction with this, Australia Day and its implications have recently been more controversial than ever. Celebrating the day of Australia being ‘discovered’ in 1788 completely disregards a history that spans 65,000 years, a past we are still attempting to decipher. In the classic Australian song, Down Under by Men at Work, they present Australian culture as defined by beer and vegemite sandwiches, essentially colonial implementations. Dr Clarkson however recently argued that: “[the site] suggests there is a very, very deep continuity and connection between the people living in Kakadu today and probably those living there 65,000 years ago.” There is still a plethora of human behaviour that is not only incredibly rich in the past but is still proliferated in the present.

The latest genetic evidence implies humans migrated out of Africa around 72,000 years ago. Dr Westaway, a paleoanthropologist, argues that this new evidence in Australia only gives Homo Sapiens several thousand years to colonise Australia, thus raising issues with the current genetic analysis. It seems our understanding of the dispersal of the modern human and its origin is most likely flawed. The most stringent information from this discovery, aside from the incredible cultural implications, is that there is much more to discover. The impressive archaeological site of Madjedbebe is a symbol of the gaps in our knowledge regarding human origins on a global scale.

For the average Australian, these recent discoveries are an ever-developing narrative. It is a history still waiting to be uncovered. For an Australian archaeologist, it provides a glimpse into an undoubtedly large chasm of knowledge stored within the earth we stand on. On a global scale, it is a site that alters perspectives of the dispersion of Homo Sapiens out of Africa, but also displays how different groups of humans were coexisting. Madjebebe redefines archaeology within the Australian context, and furthermore, demonstrates it is imperative for Australians to understand Australia’s historical significance on a global scale.

read more

Recycling Our Fears

29656422104_eabdb25811_b

 

“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.”   

read more

‘When a girl is born even the eaves cry’: A focus on the struggles of Macedonian women

When-a-Girl-is-Born-(Jessica-MacGregor)


The Macedonian struggle for self-determination, independence and human rights has in essence encompassed the struggles of women. From the Balkan wars (1912-13), to the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) and throughout the 21st century, ethnic Macedonian women have been oppressed and deprived of their human rights. This, from a feminist perspective, has to an extent been as a result of the patriarchy, where traditional cultural and religious norms have always associated woman primarily as the housewife and caregivers. Hence accentuating the underlying biases of society’s expectations. However, in the context of the Balkans and Macedonia, this is not as black and white as first may seem. Researchers such as Milenko S. Filipovik have highlighted that women at times have engaged in atypical male professions, such as the village chief, village attendant or clerk. Nonetheless, broader social and political concerns have highlighted the effects of the struggle which Macedonian women have experienced.

I would like to firstly note that this article is not sufficient enough to explore the full struggles and hardships of those women, nor give them the justice they deserve. The aim of this article is to simply bring ones attention to the forms of oppression experienced by women in Macedonia, which serves as a microcosm to the broader feminist perspectives held across the globe.

As previously mentioned, the traditional views of Macedonian woman have associated her with a primary role as housewife and caregiver. Hence, in a patriarchy, women are considered as having private and submissive roles, while also being expected to abide by certain societal norms associated with morality and purity. By constraining these women to expected standards, the patriarchy is therefore seen as a systemic form of oppression. As controversies remain around this societal structure, Filipovik has again highlighted that Macedonian culture has not always corresponded with patriarchal daily life. Women have previously in villages held important roles typically associated with men, and even in modern days gender rights and obligations in community and family are not always in opposition. However, within the Macedonian culture, and indeed with many cultures, there still remain certain traditional expectations and gender expectations that are upheld.

During the Balkan Wars, the petition towards a “free Macedonia” (Slobodna Makedonija) evidently saw the brutal struggle for its attainment, where brother fought against brother, as neighbouring Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians strived for predominance over the Balkans. The effect of this upon the women left behind is undoubtedly devastating, as the man was considered  the head of the household, and was important in regards to work and bringing food to the table. Macedonian women during the war would work in the village, take care of the house, and fend for their children, all without the assistance of their partners which was critical during this time period. Petre M. Andreesvki illustrates the struggles of Macedonian women in his book Pirey, exploring the tribulations of Velika. This character’s experiences ultimately represent the day-to-day hardships endured by women, as Velika awaits her husband’s return from the front. In the meantime, she persists through the death of her five children, and once her husband does finally return from the war, he is no longer the man she knew, but rather an abusive alcoholic. Andreesvki further highlights the violence endured by women, with vivid descriptions of cases of physical attack, rape and domestic violence: ‘You’re cursed if you’re born a women,’ (p. 271).

When thinking about the struggles of Macedonian women, it is hard to deny the effects of the Greek Civil War. The general oppression of Macedonians living in Greece, which is still prevalent today, had bearing effects on women that ultimately harshened their situation. My baba (grandmother) and her two older sisters, along with their mother, were a part of Decata Begalci (the “Refugee Children”) who were forced against their will out of their home, never to return. Unlike many others who were separated from their families and sent to other countries, they were lucky enough to stay together when fleeing to the Republic of Macedonia. As my baba’s father had been taken as a prisoner of war, my great-grandmother would go house to house in towns and villages, asking for bread, or even crumbs, just to feed her three daughters. As I recall parts of my baba’s story, she explained to me that sometimes people would be kind enough to give them some food and water. However on other occasions, her mother would be lucky enough not to have dogs unleashed on her, be chased away or scolded. If anything, amidst all the pain and suffering that was, and may still remain, this only emphasises the strength of those mothers and women being exposed to such brutal circumstances. As this is just one side to one mother’s story, there are without a doubt thousands of other women who have experienced great struggles during the exodus of Aegean Macedonia, not to mention other tales of women’s perseverance under oppression since time immemorial.

With this in mind, it is important to reflect on feminist movements such as the Antifascist Women’s Front of Macedonia, considered as being closely affiliated with the National Liberation Front during the Greek Civil War. This movement was the first women’s organisation founded by women in Macedonia. Its importance was that it combined women’s struggles with the need for an independent state and human rights. Moreover, the Deklaracija za osnovnite prava na graganinot na Demokratska Makedonija (Declaration of the Basic Rights of the Citizen of Democratic Macedonia), supported and approved of this movement and its goals. (See Professor Vera Veskovic-Vangeli in ‘Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms for more). This exemplifies the important role, which female activists play in advocating for equal rights and freedoms.

The Macedonians have evidently endured great struggles for freedom and liberation. These occurrences highlight the disproportionate suffering experienced by ethnic Macedonian women, further demonstrating universal systemic forms of oppression and inequalities that exist in society. Although, societal structures as such, do not always necessarily constrain the woman, she is exposed to the realities of remaining patriarchal attitudes; nevertheless ‘she persisted.’ This has in essence been encapsulated by the old Macedonian saying “koga zensko se rajga i streata plache” (when a girl is born even the eaves cry).

Bibliography

Ашталковска, Ана. (2005) “Патријархатот е виновен за сé.”
http://www.iea.pmf.ukim.edu.mk/EAZ/EAZ_05/EAZ_2004_PDF/Ashtalkoska_A.na_EAZ_2005_ang..pdf

Corrin, C. (1992). Superwomen and the double burden: women’s experience of change in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Scarlet Press.

De Haan, F., Daskalova, K., & Loutfi, A. (2006). Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms in Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe: 19th and 20th Centuries. Central European University Press.

Jakimovska, I. (2017). ‘If you are a girl, stay at home’–an ethnographic examination of female social engagement from the rural 19th century to contemporary political protests in Macedonia. Filozofija i društvo, 28(1), 41-50.

Hlavac, J., & Friedman, V. A. (2015). On Macedonian matters: from the partition and annexation of Macedonia in 1913 to the present: a collection of essays on language, culture and history. München: Otto Sagner.

 

read more

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 of leftist Twitter, J.K. Rowling let out a series of tweets decrying the sexism of supposed progressive men. Writing that ‘[f]emaleness is not a design flaw. If your immediate response to a woman who displeases you is to call her a synonym for her vulva, or compare her to a prostitute, then drop the pretence and own it – you’re not a liberal.’ She, obviously, makes a valid point here. Yet, Rowling’s defence of May followed an unmitigated rejection of Labour’s progressive candidate, Jeremy Corbyn.

In September 2016, Rowling tweeted that she despaired Corbyn as a leader, due to him being unelectable. Now, bemoaning progressive idealism in the face of a rising right is hardly new. It certainly hurt Bernie Sanders chances of being appointed as the Democratic presidential nominee in the 2016 US federal election, and then backfired on them with candidate Hillary Clinton’s election chances due to her centrist ties which could not match Trump’s evocation for change and greatness. What should be gleaned from Trump’s election is that centrism faces electability issues and where the right is offering to fight for their supporters, the left needs invigoration, or at least inspiration. Yet, for many proponents to call out the left as veering into the middle of the road, and denouncing their failure to fight for the progressive ideals so many of their voters hold is to let the right win. Critiques of centrism masquerading as progressivism are essential in holding politicians accountable. Clinton’s vacuous echoes of “I’m a progressive who gets things done” is a haunting epitaph on not only the election itself, but the state that the Democratic Party was left in following the maelstrom they were engulfed in.

Rowling’s dismay of Corbyn, some might argue, is due to his policies which would have significantly threatened her tax threshold. Whether that was the impetus for her public disavowal of the Labour leader is hard to say, yet her appeals for a likely more moderate leader shows someone whose political leanings are more antiright than proleft. Whilst Rowling continues to infantilise Trump through jocular tweets carving a foothold as the ultimate cool liberal billionaire, she failed to call out centrist Emmanuel Macron for the threat he posed to a leftist boycott harming En Marche’s prospects against the right’s Marine Le Pen in the recent French elections. Rowling, who is being used here as a placeholder for much of the milquetoast left, should be aware of the dangers in colluding with the right by speaking out against a progressive left. Critiquing leftism in the favour of moderates is an evocation for continued class warfare as centrist leaders merely wish to dim the right’s fire, rather than extinguish it.

Whilst Macron can put himself in good stead by lowering France’s unemployment rates; stripping workers of their rights and their wage guarantors is hardly a considerate, or measured, response that the left want to combat the rise of the right with. So, when the socially woke keyboard warriors spread their resist hashtag, this should be extended within their own circles. Rowling was willing to call out problems with the liberals she identifies with, and similarly that same spotlight should be turned on herself. Her liberal peers need to resist a gravitational pull and inertia towards the left’s centrist envelopment. The fight for progress is not merely against the right, but also of a leftist malaise that is willing to take a pittance of progressivism against the threat of the right’s power.

The left are not simply fighting the right, but also need to acknowledge a moderate infection whose wound weeps and spreads with ideological totality within non-conservative parties. Where neo-cons are quick to laugh at Trump’s failings and scoff at Sanders’ popularity, they fail to acknowledge any responsibility within their own political shortcomings. Clinton was quick to denounce sexism and Russia’s involvement in Trump’s success without recognising that the polls had declared Sanders as the safest bet in beating Trump at an election before her appointment as nominee. Her political platform was tenuous and the Democrats mishandling of their political offering is proving more than just a blight on their past. Nancy Pelosi, following the election, appallingly stated: “I don’t think people want a new direction.” This, in spite of the election of a man who was a complete political outsider beating a Clinton.

Whilst the toxicity of Trump’s movement might prove significantly more galling to many than the prospect of centrist triumvirate Trudeau, Macron, and Merkel, the latter’s politics merely aim to re-centre ideological leanings that have shifted either too far left, or too far right. The platform of equality and resistance that many of these radical centrists push is merely a repackaging of old ideas, infused with a neoliberal spin. Equality as an exercise in distraction, recommitting old ideology that has begun to pull at the seams of voter tolerance. Justin Trudeau has wielded inclusivity in the hopes of obscuring his frightening carbon emissions and his country’s weapons export. Yet, leaders of a far-right movement like Trump, and Taro Aso in Japan, create a revisionist history of politics for many. President George W Bush, following Trump’s inauguration made some unfavourable comments surrounding the President which media proponents hailed him for. Despite the historically disastrous tenure Bush led, any critique of the commander-in-chief is seemingly good enough despite such sentiment merely pedalling basic decency. Similarly, Republican Senator John McCain was hailed for sinking the ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare and likewise Attorney-General George Brandis was praised for condemning Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt in the Senate.

Furthermore, in the lead up to Trump’s appointment, and more recently following the Charlottesville attack, President Obama’s wrongdoings are glossed over with sublime glee by many. Obama’s tweet that stated ‘[n]o one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,’ which had an accompanying picture of the former President greeting a racially diverse range of children became the most liked tweet of all time. Yet, where was the love for the civilians of colour (including children) in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan? The ones his administration led drone strikes against. The hypocrisy of such a tweet is glaring in the aftermath of his presidency. The continual reproach of Trump as an infection within American governance is perhaps more logical considering his relative transparency, yet the concealment of problematic elements of predecessors proves troubling revisionism that further thwarts a leftist movement that is so desperately needed.

Yet, perhaps this confrontation of political harm is necessary. Hillary Clinton, at a rally in Nevada on the 25th August, 2016 noted this transparency stating “I know that some people still want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. They hope that he will eventually reinvent himself…but here’s the hard truth, there is no other Donald Trump. This is it.” Her words were ominous, and have indeed proven true. There was no other Donald Trump. He is the bigot that he was continuously criticised as. Yet, half of Trump’s platform was reliant upon an understanding that he would resurge the right, and on maintaining the white supremacy that has characterised US history by harkening America’s greatness. Moreover, Clinton’s words could have granted her some introspection, or at least given more of her supporters pause. Many were looking to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt, knowing that at least she wasn’t Trump. Others were hoping that Sanders’ ascendancy would push Clinton’s reinvention, veering away from centrist ties. Yet, there was no other Clinton. In Trump’s continued destruction of political office as he fumbles to obfuscate any political evils that those before him were more apt at doing so, the reality, and danger, of the American polity is at least better exposed.

Who is more combative then: Trump in his calls to make America great again, or Clinton and Obama’s retort that America is already great? Obama’s response typifies the message of these centrist radicals. The type that Rowling can get behind; rather than true revolution they wish to subject society back to a moderate position. A position that has manifested a divide between a fascist right and the call for a socialist left. Yet, the question that remains is: when will the left fight for their people?

In Australia, the Labor Party has proved wanting on many instances. With an upcoming, non-binding postal vote on same-sex marriage for the Australian public the two major parties have left many unimpressed. Yet, where Labor, and Bill Shorten, are now able to lap up the sweet tears of voters who are infuriated at the colossal waste of money being doled out for the Prime Minister’s self-serving agenda, they only need to look back when Labor was in power to see that anger should also be forwarded to Shorten et al. This sudden push for same-sex marriage with almost cataclysmic force is opportunistic progressivism. Historically, Australia’s fear is not one of intolerance evident from the continued mistreatment of First Nation people and asylum seekers but rather, as so much of the country’s insecurity has been conceived, due to its distance from the rest of the world. Playing into the idea of backwardness which has long plagued Australian national identity. New Zealand, a country that is so often pitched as playing second fiddle to Australia, has seen both the right for (white) females to vote and for same-sex couples to marry before their neighbouring country.

Surely it is transparent that the ALP is trying to save face and hope that voters don’t pay too much attention to their major backflip on marriage equality. Shorten’s sanctimonious address to Parliament looked to wedge himself in good favour with citizens who are fed up with political misrepresentation and, despite the fact that his party has directly contributed to this narrative today, aimed to place Labor on the right side of history. Addressing LGBTI people, Shorten finally mustered some passion for the queer community on his party’s behalf avowing:

I give you this promise, we stand with you. When you don’t feel like you have a voice we will speak up for you. When you feel attacked we will defend you. When we hear prejudice and discrimination we will not cross the roads and pretend it is not happening we will call it out.

Yet, where was this fiery gusto by Labor when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard failed to support same-sex marriage? Her excuse of critiquing the institution of marriage left wanting and proved transparent. Rather, she paid favour to the conservative union faction whose support she was reliant upon. Labor can see their own opportunities for election by finally throwing themselves in support of a community who have been there for them with very little to show for it. In the manner that Rudd tried to wrangle support in a last-ditch attempt in 2013, and miraculously once Gillard left The Lodge, she was suddenly woken to the virtues of marriage equality. Too long have the LGBTI contingent been sidelined by progressive parties on the account that at least we aren’t them. Yet when do the crumbs these parties want to throw the community no longer suffice? In the face of criticism that the rhetoric an open debate on people’s right to marry will prove too disarming, it could similarly be levelled that what is more dangerous is the misconception for young queer people that their government representatives care more about them than the popular vote. Labor’s refusal to unequivocally support same-sex marriage when they had the chance should not be considered a non-issue for the impetus of what is merely a glorified hundred-million dollar survey.

Yet in their recent elections, Austria saw the two embodying ideologies fighting it out: the green candidate and the far-right opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer respectively. In Austria’s case, the left proffered a political candidate willing to stand up for their contingency, and reaped the political gains. The narrow defeat of Corbyn and (non-)defeat of Sanders should not dispel the possibilities the left should be offering, but rather invoke a stronger front that is needed to fight a rising, and resistant, right in the face of centrist hindrance.

 

read more

What’s up with Our Government: A Constitutional Crisis Q&A

S 44 (Maria Chamakala)

 

As someone who follows the happenings of government almost religiously, I’ve pretty much read all there is to know about the dual citizenship drama that has our government on the precipice of a full-scale collapse. But I was watching question time the other day at uni (sad, I know) and a friend who was there had absolutely no clue what was going on. I don’t blame them, the amount of scandals and crises this government has been through already makes it hard to keep up, and easy to lose interest.

 

However, seeing as it’s shaping up to be the biggest constitutional crisis this country has seen since the Whitlam dismissal of 1975, it probably can’t hurt for everyone to get a decent understanding of the mess the government is finding itself in. So, here’s a bunch of questions my friend had about the whole thing, with some (hopefully) easily understood answers.

 

What exactly is this crisis?

Essentially, this all began on July 14 when WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam resigned from parliament due to holding dual citizenship. Since then, many more MPs and senators have been found to be dual citizens, including fellow Greens Senator Larissa Waters, SA Nick Xenophon Team Senator Nick Xenophon, Queensland Nationals Senator Matt Canavan, Queensland National Senator Fiona Nash and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Only the two Greens Senators voluntarily resigned, so the other five dual citizens have had their cases referred to the High Court, which will deliver a judgment on all of them in October.

 

Why does it matter if MPs and Senators have dual citizenship?

Basically, because the constitution – that fancy document that rules how government in Australia works – says that they can’t. Section 44(i) of the Constitution states that;

“Any person who is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.”

This means that any Senator or MP that is found to have dual citizenship was legally ineligible to run for parliament at the time of their election, and as a result, cannot remain as an MP or Senator.

 

Does it make a difference what country they have dual citizenship with?

No. Any foreign power not covered by the Australian Constitution (all the states and territories of Australia) is covered under this rule. So, if an MP is a dual citizen of Syria or a dual citizen of the United Kingdom, they’re both equally ineligible to run for parliament.

 

What if the MPs/Senators didn’t know they were dual citizens?

This is where things get a little bit muddy. The High Court of Australia – which rules on all constitutional matters – has made an exception to s 44(i), stating that it does not apply if the candidate for Parliament has taken reasonable steps to renounce their dual citizenship. This is to ensure that someone isn’t simply unable to run for parliament just because a foreign power won’t let them renounce their citizenship.

Several of the MPs and Senators in question have used this exemption as a reason why they should not be ruled ineligible. Matt Canavan claims his mother registered him for Italian citizenship without his knowledge. Barnaby Joyce’s New Zealand citizenship was automatically given to him through his father’s New Zealand citizenship without his knowledge. Their defence relies on the interpretation of ‘taking reasonable steps to renounce’ as including being ignorant of the dual citizenship in the first place. That is where things are uncertain, and we’ll have to wait until the High Court rules to know what will happen. It should be mentioned that constitutional scholar George Williams is doubtful that politicians will be ruled eligible only because they were ignorant of breaching s 44(i): “I am not so convinced that this argument will win the day. The normal rule is that ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

 

What will happen if they’re ruled ineligible by the High Court?

That depends on if they’re a Senator or an MP. If they’re a Senator, it’s a pretty simple matter. Since Senators are almost always elected based on their party, their position will simply be filled by someone else from their party, and the makeup of the Senate won’t change.

In the case of Barnaby Joyce, his ineligibility would result in a by-election in his seat. Whilst he’s likely to be returned in parliament following an election, Barnaby Joyce’s seat of New England has been relatively contested in recent years, with independent Tony Windsor winning the seat in 2010. If he were to make a comeback, things would get very interesting.

Currently the LNP coalition currently has a one seat majority in the House of Representatives. Were Joyce to lose his seat, the Coalition would have to form minority government with one of the independent MPs. With all the current independents recently rescinding their guarantee of supply and confidence for the Government, this is by no means guaranteed. Whilst at this point we’re inundated with speculation, it means that this dual citizenship fiasco could potentially result in a fresh election if the Coalition can’t form minority government. But that’s highly unlikely at this point.

Our country is one of the most multicultural in the world. What’s the point of keeping this rule if it results in a significant portion of the population being ineligible to run for parliament?

This is something that has been debated a fair bit recently. With so much of our population born overseas, and even more having migrant parents, there’s definitely millions of people who may or may not have dual citizenship. Furthermore, the idea of s 44(i) being a preventative measure against foreign influence is decreasingly valid with automatic dual citizenship so commonplace. However, any changes to s 44(i) must be passed by a referendum requiring a majority of votes in a majority of states, which isn’t exactly a minor feat. This is considered to be unlikely in the short term. One option being considered is an audit of every parliamentarians citizenship, to avoid future surprises, as well as to end the constant accusations being hurled that certain MPs and Senators are ineligible to sit in parliament.

read more

Kim Jong or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Kim Jong (Felicity Kaye)

 

In a recent article in The Guardian, 94-year-old war veteran Harry Leslie Smith delivered a stark assessment of the current political climate. ‘I did not hear the thundering approach of war [in 1939], but as an old man I hear it now for my grandchildren’s generation. I hope I am wrong. But I am petrified for them.’ He recalls how in the August of that year, he laughed at the fascist monsters beyond his reach, not knowing that the days he had lived in blissful ignorance were numbered.

But are we really being faced with the impending march of war? It is easy to see how this could eventuate. The U.S. administration has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” and it has returned threats in kind. Turnbull has even chimed in, quick to sign up our soldiers to a hypothetical war under the ANZUS treaty despite it only requiring consultation. It seems the dominos are all lined up, and all that is needed to start ‘Korean War 2.0’ is a misstep on either side. However, the geo-strategic reality makes this a far less likely prospect for three key reasons.

Firstly, the People’s Republic of China has an interest in the continuation of the North Korean state. There are of course explanations linked to the fact that the two states are ideologically aligned in some sense to notions of ‘authoritarian socialism.’ However, the real reasons as to why a North Korean collapse is impermissible are far more strategic than ideological. A collapse as the result of a war that the U.S. is guaranteed to win (notwithstanding the human toll) would lead to a massive refugee influx. Due to the heavily militarised border with the Republic of Korea, the flow of refugees would naturally head north over the Chinese border into Jilin and Liaoning Provinces. That would be unacceptable for the Chinese Communist Party. Furthermore, the collapse of North Korea would bring U.S. forces to China’s doorstep, no longer acting as the effective buffer between the two states militaries.

Secondly, it is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would be the first to strike the U.S, despite his rhetoric. There are some who argue that he is not a rational actor, and therefore cannot be taken to fear the possibility of annihilation. But looking just at his actions over the last few months this proposition is challenged. Kim made the grand threat that he was making preparations for a mid-August ICBM strike off the coast of Guam. Did this happen? No. It did not occur because China intervened, stating that the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which in Article II requires China to defend North Korea in the event of attack, would not be adhered to if North Korea dealt the first blow. This statement ultimately resulted in a back-step from Kim, with the Korean Central News Agency stating that he would wait and see what the ‘foolish Yankees’ did. This makes it clear that Kim can be controlled, and to some extent that he realises that without the Chinese security guarantee, he is far more vulnerable and an attack would be suicidal.

Finally, war is unlikely because, despite what the Korean propaganda might suggest, the United States is not hell bent on dismantling the North Korean state. The U.S. has an interest, as it has since the discovery of the uranium enrichment facility Yongbyon in 1985, in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I’d even go as far to say that if North Korea was not a rogue nuclear weapons state, it would not pose a threat to U.S. territory and would therefore be a security threat localised to the Korean Peninsula. Compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the U.S.’s core aim, and if that was achieved then the threat would only be to South Korea. It is ironic that North Korea sees nuclear weapons as a mechanism of survival against U.S ‘aggression’, while the very existence of nuclear weapons is part of what drives that aggression. If Kim gave up this ambition, the Chinese security guarantee would be enough of an assurance for the State’s survival and the U.S. would inevitably back off sanctions and rhetoric. Regardless of this, the situation that exists on the peninsula could hardly be likened to the climate of Europe in 1939.

I respect Smith’s fears. Although I consider war as unlikely, the media has a tendency to play up the war of words between the U.S. administration and the Kim regime. This in turn makes people more fearful than they ought to be, and the threat becomes aggrandised to a point where ordinary Australian’s become alarmed. This should not be the case, and I foresee the status-quo of the 1953 armistice continuing while the war of words rages on. Unlike Smith, I do not hear the coming march of war. It’s true I may be wrong. But if I am, this article will be the least of my worries.

read more

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.

read more

Women Working in STEM

Women of STEM (Felicity Kaye)

We spoke to three Monash University students and alumni — Pippa, Ghina and Michelle — about their experience as a woman working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

What did you study and where do you work?

Michelle: I studied a Bachelor of Science (Honours), majoring in Genetics and I am a research assistant at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.

Pippa: I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Environmental Engineering, and I am an Environmental Officer at Fulton Hogan, a tier one construction company, working on the M80 Upgrade.

Ghina: I’m in my third year of studying Software Engineering. I’m currently working as an R&D consultant at KPMG, to basically help companies better classify their IT projects.

What kickstarted your interest in STEM?

Michelle: I distinctly remember dreaming of becoming a scientist in primary school, beginning as a curiosity of wanting to understand the world, eventually turning into an interest in biology and genetics.

Pip: I love challenges and being out of my comfort zone so I think having a career which was less popular for women (in Engineering) was exciting for me rather than daunting.

Ghina: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where the “doctor, lawyer or engineer” mentality is still quite strong, so a non-STEM field was just never going to sit well with my parents. And when was time for me to choose my VCE subjects and I chose IT simply because the teacher was known to be very forgiving. Turns out I was good at it, so I thought, “If it’s good enough for Gates and Zuckerberg, it’s good enough for me”.

Did you have any role models in the field?

Michelle: As a geneticist, I also greatly admire Rosalind Franklin and her crucial contribution to solving the structure of DNA.

Pip: I didn’t really have many female role models in the STEM field. In fact, when I was in year 11 there was only myself and another girl that studied physics in the whole year level of 400 people!

Ghina: Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. Some may say that I should find myself a female role model, but I stand firmly behind the idea of not discriminating between genders in any way, even this. He’s leading a global change and people don’t talk about it about enough.

What would be your dream job?

Michelle: A researcher and professor with work that lets me travel all around the world.

Pip: What I am passionate about is engineering in developing communities. I would love to travel and learn about other cultures and communities whilst creating innovative design solutions to challenges that are present: sanitation, access to electricity and more.

Ghina: I think I’m most likely going to follow my father’s footsteps and get into IT-related business. I’ve had the chance to explore the field of technology and see how fascinating it is, so I think I would really like to bring more aspects of it to the general public to enjoy and benefit from as well.

What do you think of the perception that STEM is still a ‘man’s field’?

Michelle: I agree with such a perception, as for example, the general perception of what a scientist looks like is that of a middle-aged man in a white lab coat. The lack of representation can be discouraging for women wanting to work or advance in the STEM fields. However, there are increasingly more initiatives in place to encourage and acknowledge women in STEM.

Pip: I think the stereotype of STEM being a men’s field is no longer a completely true representation of reality. But I have found working on site in the construction world to be a slightly male dominated environment. Most of the labourers are male but there are quite a few females in the project team working as engineers.

Ghina: It’s usually the outsiders who always feel the need to remark on me being a girl in IT: “is it difficult? Do you get treated bad? Do the guys snatch up the jobs first?”. If we just stop promoting that image, we might see a lot more girls joining STEM fields without being scared of how they might get treated.

Have you ever felt discouraged or treated differently for your gender at your work or in your studies?

Michelle: Whilst I have not been personally subjected to such discrimination, I have, in recent years, become very aware of such biases in the STEM fields, through stories of upsetting experiences from peers and the media. So there exists a fear that such experiences will happen, which can sometimes in itself be discouraging.

Pip: I can’t recall ever being discouraged to pursue a career in engineering. In fact, many people promote how it’s a great time to be an upcoming female engineer because there are so many new opportunities opening up for us at the moment.

Ghina: I have been offered jobs before simply because I’m a female in the field. There is so much pressure on employers to have more STEM females, but it should be on parents and schools. Girls are not entering STEM fields because they’re presented to them as boring and not rewarding enough, not because they wouldn’t be able to find jobs. The industry is ready for them now, a lot more than it was a decade ago, but they’re still not coming.

What would you say to encourage students interested in STEM?

Michelle: Best to get a feel for what working in your STEM field of interest will be like. Talk to people working in that field, and get as much experience as you can, for example through volunteering, educational programs.

Pip: If I speak to engineering specifically, I would encourage students to study and work in the engineering field as it teaches you to think outside of the box and to problem solve which is not only valuable in your career but throughout life. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

Ghina: This is going to be cheesy, but seriously, just do it. And if you don’t like it, it’s fine, you don’t have to stick to it. And if you do have to stick to STEM fields, then that’s also fine, because they’re incredibly broad and inclusive and there’s something within them for everyone.

read more