Standing on the Commencement Column in front of Parliament House, I looked out towards a sea of people on Federation Mall. Dressed in black, they had gathered to protest against the recent wave of sexual assault allegations and toxic sexist culture that permeates the building that was behind me, and to call for action against gender inequality and sexual assault more broadly. The rage and frustration was palpable, and it was evident that "enough is enough".
Brittany Higgins - whose rape allegations sparked this nationwide movement - made a surprise appearance at Canberra's March 4 Justice, and delivered a powerful speech widely reported by the media. Yet many issues raised by other speakers have received less coverage.
The rally officially commenced with a rendition of Helen Reddy's I Am Woman by First Nations singer Monica Moore, soon joined by many in the crowd. Some were dancing or singing, but many looked on with tear-filled eyes, revealing the pain and suffering that survivors and their loved ones experience, shamed into silence. But this was a day of reckoning and, as one placard put it, "We will not stay silent so you can stay comfortable".
The collective rage and grief that had been slowly building in women around Australia for generations has exploded into what Brazen Hussy Biff Ward calls "the great uprising". In her heartfelt and moving speech, Ward noted that the seeds of feminist anger were sown in the 1970s and have "led to what feels like a tidal wave of rage sweeping the land."
"I'm sure you came here because you're angry", she cried, to which the crowd responded, "We are angry!"
Rage is a response to injustice. It can "light fires and ignite change" but it can also burn and destroy. Ward told us that, through compassion and hope, we can harness our rage. This echoed sentiments expressed earlier at the same event by Dr Tjanara Goreng Goreng, a Wakka Wakka Wulli Wulli woman of the Djawan Djambe Nation, who spoke of "dadirri", an Aboriginal meditative practice that involves deep listening, silent awareness and contemplation.
Arguing for the need to deeply listen and respect our First Nations sovereign peoples, Dr Goreng Goreng cited 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann, who believes that "the spirit of dadirri will blossom and grow, not just within ourselves, but also within our whole nation".
Much of this collective rage was directed at political and legal institutions that have failed survivors of sexual harassment and assault. In her Welcome to Country, Ngunnawal Elder Aunty Violet Sheridan drew attention to the institutional sexism in Parliament House, demanding an inquiry into the allegation against Christian Porter, which he denies, while former ABC journalist Virginia Haussegger remarked on the reluctance to change among those in positions of political power.
It is important to remember that these institutions do not exist in a vacuum but reflect and reinforce power dynamics inherent within our society. To overwhelming cheers from the crowd, sexual assault survivor and activist Saxon Mullins asked the men in attendance where they thought these perpetrators had been "hiding". "They are your friends!" she said. We cannot create tangible and lasting institutional change on our own; as Mullins reminded us, men also need to think about their behaviours, excuses and sexist jokes that have "helped create a toxic culture of misogyny, transphobia and racism that has allowed [perpetrators] to thrive".
Listening to these speeches, it was clear that these institutions still privilege "men who're drunk on power", as ACTU secretary Sally McManus so eloquently phrased it, while throwing survivors under the bus.
Aminata Conteh-Biger, CEO, author and activist, posed a powerful question to the crowd: "[If] the Australian Prime Minister and politicians do not believe a white woman, then what hope is there for black women?" This theme was also touched on by Madhumitha Janagaraja, president of the ANU Students' Association (ANUSA), who recognised that these institutions "were not designed to protect us and nor have they intended to" - they are "built off the suffering and invisible labour of generations of women [and especially] Indigenous women, women of colour, trans women and disabled women".
The message was clear: going forward, we must rebuild these broken institutions to ensure that all survivors are protected and supported, not just the privileged few.
The system is failing survivors - and has been for decades - yet only gains national attention when the privileged suffer. Speaking from personal experience, Mullins suggested that we, particularly those with privilege, need to "reflect on what stories are being amplified and which ones we're not hearing". Janagaraja and Conteh-Biger both identify how women of colour, particularly black, Indigenous, trans and disabled women, are more likely to be survivors, yet are less supported due to the intersections of racism, misogyny and ableism.
One of the final speeches of the march, from ANU's women's officer Avan Daruwalla and education officer Maddie Chia, directly raised the topic of intersectional feminism. Announcing that they stood "with those who have historically and consistently been silenced and neglected", they reminded those gathered that "[this movement] won't survive without all women and non-binary people".
The collective anger has only grown in the days since the march, as yet more incidents demonstrating a sexist culture in Parliament have surfaced. For the march, and resulting movements, to have any meaningful impact, it needs to adopt an intersectional approach that centres First Nations women's issues, voices and stories while amplifying the voices of other marginalised women, non-binary and gender-diverse people who are often silenced in these discussions. We need to deeply listen to one another, harness our rage and turn it into action.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.