Feminist work is justice work. As a feminist collective, AWGSA is committed to social justice. But what does it really mean for feminists to be committed to social justice, or to ‘believe in the transformative power of social justice.’ What even is justice?
If you’re like me, you probably agree that feminism is a pursuit for justice. When I think about pursuing and doing justice as a feminist, I often have bell hooks’ (2000, 28) words ‘feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression’ at the front of my mind. At the same time, I’m not always sure what pursuing justice looks like – what do we do to show we believe in the productive potential of justice? What does it mean to work and struggle for justice?
Justice is grounded in relationality and reciprocity
Dr Jessamy Gleeson, Associate Director of Teaching and Learning (IND) at the NIKERI Institute, Deakin University, began our seminar and spoke about justice within First Nations spaces. Gleeson highlighted that systems and relationships focused on justice in First Nations spaces have ‘been around for thousands and thousands of years’. Colonisation continues to be a violent disruption to First Nations ways being and doing, and this extends to ways of practicing and pursuing justice. Against this, Gleeson spoke of justice as ‘relationality’ and ‘reciprocity with social obligations’.
Importantly, relationality and reciprocity are not just between humans, but between people, ancestors and Country (including animals, plants, waterways and skyways). Relationality and reciprocity are not extractive. Gleeson reminded us, across what is now so-called Australia, truth-telling is core to justice. This is detailed in her blog, where she writes powerfully about the importance of Makarrata, resolution after violence and dispute.
We held our first online lunchtime seminar for 2023 on Feminism and Justice to help us think through these sorts of questions. On the 28th of July, we gathered on Zoom for the first AWGSA lunchtime seminar. We were thrilled to host Dr. Jessamy Gleeson, Dr. Bianca Fileborn and Dr. Elise Stephenson, and to learn from them in this discussion. Each speaker addressed what justice meant for them in their work.
Justice is changing structures that enable harm
Reflecting that the question ‘what is justice?’, is one their interviewees had often struggled to answer Dr Bianca Fileborn suggested that there is no single or neat answer (and that perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for one). Dr Bianca Fileborn is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne, and their research focuses on the justice needs of people who have experienced street harassment. Fileborn spoke about how we can achieve justice in response to gender-based violence. In this context justice is seen as an ‘unwieldy,’ changing and evolving concept and practice. Fileborn spoke of the need to promote victim-centred justice through ‘practical responses that are based around survivors’ justice needs.’
This means that we may need to be open to multiple forms of justice. Within that multiplicity, we need to ensure that the justice responses we advocate for, do not (even inadvertently) cause harm to others. Importantly, we need to be willing to work to ‘transform the conditions that enable street harassment in the first place.’
Justice is fixing systems, not women.
Dr Elise Stephenson, Deputy Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at the ANU, spoke about focusing on equality and justice in new organisations and institutions. Elise began by outlining how three core tenants of the Global institute that informs their understanding of justice:
- Justice is about fixing systems, not fixing women.
- Centring intersectionality
- Using evidence to generate impact.
Dr Stephenson pointed out that ‘theory indicates that institutions formed in more gender or socially equal times, should be more gender and socially equal.’ Much of Stephenson’s work is focused on testing if this is true and identifying the points at which interventions can be made to ensure gender justice and climate justice. Stephenson advices that ‘before institutions are old and set in their ways we have a critical juncture to intervene.’ When we have new institutions, new explorations (in space, for example), who decides what happens or who benefits? You can read more of Stephenson’s work addressing these concerns within ‘secret institutions’ in her AWGSA blog.
Justice is big and ‘unwieldy’, but we can work together
Justice is big, and as Fileborn said ‘unwieldy’. Our struggle for justice should be attuned to the voices and experiences of victim-survivors and to members of marginalised communities. As we closed the more formal part of our seminar, Fileborn reminded us to recognise that ‘different structural inequalities’ are interconnected. Stephenson asked us to consider how we can work with a view to being ‘good ancestors.’ In response, Gleeson noted that being ‘good ancestors’ is what First Nations peoples have been doing for over 65 000 years, of caring for community and country. Gleeson reminded us, we need to be responsive to the communities we are working alongside. Feminist justice is intersectional and intergenerational.
When I look at the ‘bigness’ of seeking justice and working for this kind of justice, I think of Sara Ahmed’s work on experiencing, reporting and surviving institutional sexism and racism. Ahmed (2021, 300) argues that survival ‘can require us to be inventive. It can require we chip away at those walls.’
And, I think that for feminists to do justice work we need to keep chipping way. In the struggle to end sexist and racist oppression, we keep chipping. To show we believe in the transformative power of social justice, we stand together and together, we keep chipping.
Resources linked in this blog:
Ahmed, S., 2021. Complaint! Durham and London, Duke University Press, https://www.dukeupress.edu/complaint