Sexism and gender inequality are very apparent in Australian politics. It's a tough enough road for women forging a career in parliament, but it's an even tougher road for women of colour (WOC), and the past week's events have solidified this.
Lawyer and community worker Tu Le had been seeking Labor pre-selection for the electorate of Fowler in Sydney's southwest, however, was sidelined by the political party's decision to parachute Senator Kristina Keneally into the safe seat.
It was a tough pill to swallow for Le, retiring MP Chris Hayes (who had backed Le to be his successor) and locals, who questioned Keneally's ability to represent one of Sydney's most multicultural electorates with the lack of lived experience and understanding of local issues that Le has.
As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Le had grown up and lived in Fowler. The most common ancestries among the residents of Fowler are Vietnamese (16.3%) and Chinese (11.2%). Keneally lives over 50 kilometres away on the Northern Beaches, where the residents' ancestries are primarily English (29.2%), Australian (22.3%) and Irish (9.2%).
For Le, putting her hand up for pre-selection took a lot of gumption. "As a young woman of colour, it was one of the most challenging things I have ever done in my life," she wrote on Facebook. "Will I be good enough? Will people support me? Will I survive the political and personal attacks? Will my identity be used against me?"
Sadly, Labor parachuting Keneally into her place only proves that Le's fears were justified. It also highlights the need for a greater conversation examining the challenges WOC such as Le face once they enter the political arena, and how Australia can benefit from a greater representation of culturally diverse females in politics.
Australian Politics Is A White Boys' Club
According to Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, who became Australia's first Muslim woman to be a member of an Australian parliament in 2013, our political system is steeped in patriarchy and racism that go hand-in-hand to oppress women of colour.
"Of course, politics in Australia is a white boys’ club," Senator Faruqi told Refinery29 Australia. She said that what happened to Le is devastating though not surprising because it's "a system that is designed for white men."
"The intersecting layers of sexism and racism keep the doors into the corridors of power tightly shut to us, and when we somehow push through them against all odds, we face the many barriers of being outsiders to an entrenched system."
Through her own experiences, Faruqi has learned that Australian politics is a "lonely place for a woman of colour."
"The triple whammy of being a Muslim, migrant woman of colour who wants to shake up the system means constantly pushing back on the toxicity thrown at me and its grinding effect," she revealed.
"You don’t benefit from white privilege like the other women in politics. The combination of the two visceral forces of racism and sexism multiply the challenges that WOC face many times over."
Like Faruqi, fellow Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe is all too familiar with the white male-dominated landscape in Aussie politics.
"We’re often sidelined, in the way that Le has been," Senator Thorpe told Refinery29 Australia, explaining that "when women of colour speak out, the backlash is far greater."
The Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman is the first Aboriginal senator from Victoria, and said that politics is a particularly challenging environment for First Nations women fighting for issues that the system has historically been against or even created in the first place.
"There is so much white fragility in parliament because we’re working with other politicians who have no idea and think that they can come to you for sympathy because they don’t get it," she said.
"The load a Blak woman carries is far greater because we’re dealing with deaths in custody, child removal, suicide. These are our families. These are our people. Every day, we’re fighting to protect our families, communities, country, culture, water and sky."
Faruqi said "the professional similarity of people" in Aussie politics has prevented more WOC from entering the field. Currently, parliament is dominated by an elite group of people with "well-established connections and a well-worn path of student politics, unions and political staffers."
"It's very difficult for someone different to break through these ranks, but that is exactly what is needed," she said.
Charishma Kaliyanda, who has been a Labor councillor in Liverpool (a suburb within the Fowler electorate) since 2016, agreed. Kaliyanda was born in India and migrated to Australia with her family in the early 90s, and said the "biggest challenge people of colour face in politics is lack of institutional knowledge and access."
"We often don’t have generations of family members who have been members of a political party that can enable us to access information, networks and opportunities," she explained.
"This can be compounded for women of colour who may also encounter challenges from within their communities. Women often don’t occupy leadership positions within their cultural or religious organisations, and may have to deal with ideals and stereotypes around how they should behave and what is and isn’t appropriate."
Why Do We Need More WOC In Australian Politics?
According to Senator Thorpe, the "privileged little bubble" within politics needs to be dismantled, "and the way we do this is by getting more women into power, especially more women of colour."
The need for intersectional, female-led politics is essential because Australia is a vastly multicultural country. Nearly half (49%) of Australians were either born overseas or one or both parents were born overseas, according to most recently available Census data, yet our parliament doesn't reflect that. What this means is that people aren't making informed decisions on policies affecting our diverse population.
"Unless people who are affected by political decisions are at the table making these decisions, their perspectives and views will fall to the wayside," said Senator Faruqi.
"That’s pretty clear in the way asylum seekers are demonised, how Islamophobia and racism are rising and how migrant workers and international students were left out of COVID support payments. No one can represent our lived experiences better than us, and these must become part of the political narrative otherwise the white, powerful and privileged MPs will keep making decisions for people like themselves while screwing over others in society."
Kaliyanda offered another insight, emphasising WOC are often already so embedded in important community-led projects and political causes and this will benefit all of us.
"Every time I work with a community organisation, cultural group or grassroots body, there are a number of women of colour behind the scenes who are sorting out logistics and organising people," she said. "Women in general are rooted in their communities and have a way of multiplying the impact of an initiative.
"Having more women of colour in politics will help ensure that these talents, skills and capabilities are harnessed to improve the decisions being made for us."
How Do We Enable More WOC To Join Politics?
With the breadth of challenges faced by the WOC already in politics, what incentive is there for upcoming candidates from diverse backgrounds to put their hands up?
Kaliyanda said it's understandable that many young WOC feel deterred from pursuing a political career. "So many women of colour saw the treatment of Julia Gillard and others, and it’s easy to see why people would opt out putting themselves through something like that," she said.
Melbourne high school student Harleen Singh can still recall the day Gillard became Australia's first (and only) female Prime Minister in 2010.
"I still remember that day," said the 16-year-old Indian Australian. "It was a memorable moment for me because I'd never seen a woman in a position of politics being represented on TV, especially in Australian politics. It was always old men."
Since then her interest in social issues and a potential career in politics has blossomed, however, a cloud of doubt still remains. Struggling to see anyone like her in politics and hearing what happened to Le has been disheartening.
"I could ask a white man [where he sees himself] represented in parliament and he could name like 50 different old white guys," said Singh. "And if you ask me, I could think of like two people on top of my head.
"I think that's a really big problem because not a lot of young women of colour have seen women of colour put forward in positions of power. Without seeing that representation and that empowerment, they are not going to strive to go into [political] careers."
Greek-Australian activist Margaret Thanos, who like Singh is part of the 2021 cohort of the Youth Activist Series (YAS) – a 12-month leadership program run by Plan International Australia – said that addressing some of the structural issues of white elitism in politics that Faruqi mentioned will help open the doors for WOC. And young women from lower socio-economic backgrounds who don't have family links to politics should be provided with the opportunity to forge a road to political success.
"We need extremely clear pathways. We need to be going into schools that have more diverse populations and talking to students about how they can get involved," she said.
"Opportunities like youth parliament, debating or other young political organisations need to be accessible to those who live far away, who don't have a car or who might not have consistent access to the internet. We need to ensure we get away from a city-centric view of politics."
I could ask a white man [where he sees himself] represented in parliament and he could name like 50 different old white guys
Senator Thorpe circled back to Le's situation when asked what Australia could do to encourage more WOC to join politics.
"By honouring the pre-selection process," she said. "When an incumbent and a community have made it clear who their preferred candidate is, the party needs to honour that. People need to acknowledge their privilege and make space for women of colour, particularly First Nations women."
Faruqi's too hopes that white allies will stop paying lip service to diversity, singing the praises of multiculturalism and saying how they will fight for us. But she recognises that not everyone will make way, and WOC need to believe in one another, step up and take charge.
"Sadly," she said, "no one is going to roll out a red carpet for us just yet. We must roll up our sleeves, support each other and start replacing the old guard."
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.