PG Blog

How far can we go on gender equality efforts at student level? My first NOWSA experience.

3 Aug 17

The Network of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) has just celebrated her 30th year anniversary in the 2017 annual conference which was held in ANU –the same place where the first NOWSA conference was held in 1987. My first impression when I heard ‘NOWSA’ was a conference that would contribute something to the conversation over gender equality in the context of women’ students in Australia. NOWSA Conference was a 5-day conference which consist of keynote speech, a dozen of workshops (caucus and pro-caucus) and panel discussions, as well as other activities such as art classes, movie, and counselling.

Before going further, I have to be honest with you that I am not an expert on the field of feminism nor on women issues. The 2017 NOWSA conference was my first women/feminism conference in my life. I was excited, thrilled, and nervous at the same time. I was keen to learn about feminism as an idea and practice, but also nervous that I could not ‘behave’ or ‘talk’ as the community expected (‘common rules or norms’ which not quite common for me), and dozen of collective grievance officers made me even more nervous.

At the first day of the conference on 16th of July, all participants were refreshed, in my case I was introduced, by the panel discussions on Practicing Intersectionality Feminism. For whom I was  still trying to familiarize with the concept. Intersectionality is a way to understand a exclusive condition that every woman has a bundle of identities that make us a unique individual. This package of identities can’t be untangled, because it’s intertwined and interrelated with each other. Introduced in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is used to explain how oppressions that women face is influenced by the multi-layered facet of women’ identities. For instance, discriminative practice that someone face, is related to her identities as a woman from her cultural, socio-economic, religion (and other possible) backgrounds. I found intersectionality as a useful and handy concept to understand discrimination and other kind of oppressions that women face in daily life.

The second day was my favourite because of the two insightful panels held at the Parliament House; the Representation of Women in the Media and Women in the Male Dominated Fields. The first session at the Parliament House was the panel discussion on how women, most of the time, are being represented unfairly in the media. The speakers came from different professional backgrounds; mainstream media, private sector, and academic. The three panellists discussed how they view and critiqued the unjust representation of women in the media from different perspectives, and how they try to deal with it. The second panel that afternoon was no less exciting, the four ladies’ speakers were sharing their personal stories; how to strive in male dominated fields in STEM, criminal justice, and business. Each of them own very strong characters of what I consider as a feminist; stand for what they believe is right and support other women as solidarity.

The third and fourth day of the conference were packaged into Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) related topics. The Universities Australia and the Human Right Commission conducted a survey on SASH, and the result will be launched by August 1. Related to this topic, I attended the workshop on how to broaden and strengthen the advocacy on the SASH issue, including the upcoming SASH survey’ result and the existing ‘Respect.Now.Always’ campaign. During the discussion at that workshop, one identified common problem on the Respect.Now.Always campaign was how to increase universities’ involvement to be more effective in advocating this issue. SASH remains a major issue in Australia, and very close to women students’ life. Thus, after the SASH survey is released on August 1, several students’ peak bodies will work together and support the universities to advocate this issues.

Finally, as my first impression of NOWSA was related to gender equality context, I viewed that Women Students Network is a good start but we need a more sustainable and continuous movement. I recognised that the underlying problems of gender inequality are complex and interrelated with other problems. To make it even more difficult, gender inequality also can be transmitted to the next generations, as Amartya Sen said, ‘the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage’ or when we are in a disadvantage positions, we’re more likely to transfer that conditions to our kids and later grand-kids. In most cases, women issue can’t be separated to political, socio-economic, cultural, and the like.

Gender equality, like other wicked problems, becomes so complicated and sometimes make us frustrated even before we try to do something. This thought and my experience at NOWSA brought me to an attempt to answer my first question: Does NOWSA bring something to promote gender equality at the end? The answer is yes absolutely. At a certain extent, all kind of positive activities such as discussing, sharing, and networking are contributing to gender equality in a sense of strengthen knowledge, capacities and women’ solidarity. However, what NOWSA does is still insufficient, even in the context of women students’ empowerment. I understand that no one-stop solution for solving this issue and NOWSA never meant to solve the problem by herself. Thus, NOWSA, as the women’ student network, ought to be the leader in promoting women student’ empowerment by continuing build women’ network, solidarity, and capacity building. On the top of it, in the long run, I do wish that NOWSA can be one effective means to promote genuine gender equality through her capacities as the leader of women student’ network in Australia.


Naimah Talib

a mum, an international student who studies public policy at ANU, a Muslim, coming from developing country (Indonesia), omnivore, loves Haruki Murakami and enjoys Michael Bublé.