Beyond the Father’s Shadow, a film by Saba Vasefi, was launched at NSW Parliament House on 26 August 2015.
Saba Vasefi is a human rights activist, feminist, poet, filmmaker and Asylum Seeker Centre Ambassador. She vividly remembers the day she first arrived in Australia seeking asylum, after being expelled from her academic position at Shahid Beheshti University for campaigning against capital punishment in Iran:
Five years ago, I arrived in Australia carrying only a red suitcase in one hand and my little girl in the other. I felt my hopes and dreams had been taken from me and I was left with little choice but to go into exile. But, before doing so, I had to relinquish all my possessions to my ex-husband so he would agree to give me full custody of my daughter. Divorce can be difficult for all women but in Iran it can be extremely debilitating and gruelling.
I fled the persecution, marginalisation, misogyny and corruption in Iran and sought asylum in Australia. When I arrived, other than the things I grasped in each hand, my only asset was my passion for human rights and art. And that was something I knew no one could take from me.
Five years on, that passion for human rights and the arts has taken Vasefi far and seen her achieve much. She has studied documentary filmmaking at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and on August 26, well-known author and UNICEF Ambassador Tara Moss launched Vasefi’s documentary, Beyond the Father’s Shadow, to a sold out audience at NSW Parliament House. The film, praised by Moss for being powerful, relevant and timely, portrays the struggles behind politician Edith Cowan’s rise to power. Vasefi uses poetic imagery to depict how Cowan’s traumatic childhood motivated her to become a social worker and then the first female parliamentarian of Australia.
In her speech on the night, Vasefi explained that she was drawn to exploring the life of Cowan because —
… I wanted to find a story that resonated with my own narrative. After spending years campaigning against capital punishment in Iran, I hoped I might find Australian women dedicated to the same cause. Edith Cowan was seven when her mother died and fifteen when her father shot and killed his second wife. He was subsequently hanged for the crime…
Cowan championed women’s rights in parliament, pushing through legislation which allowed women to be involved in the legal profession. She succeeded in improving women’s rights in general and the rights of mothers in particular. And she was one of the first to promote sex education in schools. Edith Cowan gave voice to the long suppressed anger, grievances and hopes of the incipient feminist movement.
Many people wonder why I am interested in Cowan and ask me why I made Beyond the Father’s Shadow. I think it is helpful to consider the theoretical construct presented by Halifu Osumare, known as ‘connective marginality’. According to her definition, marginalised groups connect in a manner that cuts through linguistic, cultural and geographical borders. I felt I understood Edith’s pain, sorrow and her fight against political policies which neglected her rights as a woman. I connected to her feelings of isolation and loneliness as a woman in a world that doesn’t trust female voices.
Making the film also brought back memories of teaching art therapy classes for underprivileged children in Iran ten years ago. Arriving in Australia, I felt vulnerable in a new country and culture, and experienced setbacks that I never anticipated after leaving Iran. I became paralysed as a result of domestic violence in Sydney, and I too used art to overcome grief and trauma. Like the children I worked with, I found my inner strength.
A number of distinguished female speakers (who helped Vasefi launch the film and participate in a panel discussion on misogyny and politics) highlighted the fact that women’s voices are often still not heard or trusted. Tara Moss gave a darkly humorous speech on Australia’s ‘meritocracy’, bemoaning the fact that while statistics show women are achieving outstanding results in education, politics and the workforce, they are rarely promoted into senior positions or given the same opportunities as men — the excuse being that they do not exhibit adequate ‘merit’. As Moss archly observed, ‘merit’ seems to be a strangely specific quality, manifesting predominantly in white males.
Dr Mehreen Faruqi, who hosted the film launch, is one of a minority of women (and people of colour) who have managed to display enough of the selective quality of ‘merit’ to be voted in as a Member of the NSW Legislative Council. She recounted stories of her childhood in Pakistan, a country which has one of the worst gender equality gaps in the world, and attributed her own confidence and drive to succeed to the influence of a feminist aunt. She warned the audience that the equal rights women enjoy in Australia have been hard won by women like Cowan and, as our current government works to rewind the supports and freedoms necessary for true equality, that they must be vigilantly defended.
This sense that we are, as a country, moving backwards rather than forwards in our treatment of women, was a common refrain among the speakers at the film launch. Senator Sarah Hanson Young spoke passionately about the plight of marginalised women such as refugees, paying tribute to the character of those she had visited in detention, saying, ‘We have no idea of the strength it takes to move your family and leave your homeland to go to another country’. She reminded the audience that such women choose to resettle in Australia because they believe it is a free country that treats women well; often, however, traumatic experiences such as sexual violence in detention make a mockery of this belief.
Although we are ostensibly a land of equality, vulnerable refugee and immigrant women experience a different kind of marginalisation in Australia than they did in their homeland. Van Badham, outspoken columnist for The Guardian, spoke powerfully about the way economic inequality contributes to the disenfranchisement of immigrants to this country. She argued convincingly that over the past twenty years there has been a systematic transferral of wealth from the poor to the rich, with the wealthiest 1% of Australians now owning 60% of the country’s assets, while the major social institutions which were in place to support people in need have either been privatised or simply shut down. She pointed out that if your work and security are always under threat you are not a democratically enabled person, and that fear of lack can lead people to scapegoat the minorities who live among them. In relation to asylum seekers, Badham claimed that the current government are using the age-old political strategy of blaming ‘them’ for economic inequality, thereby inciting unfounded fear and hatred. She praised Cowan, who worked to organise education, childcare and healthcare for women, and in doing so established the mechanisms which enable real economic and political equality.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the launch of Beyond the Father’s Shadow was the panel discussion hosted by historian Dr Wendy Michaels. Here the panellists had the opportunity to express their personal responses to the film, as well as to share some experiences from their own lives. Linda Burney, Deputy Leader of the NSW Opposition, pointed out that, just as in Cowan’s day, contemporary politics is a tough and patriarchal business, and revealed that it is still challenging, as a woman, to bring your own way of working into such a male dominated environment. She confessed that when sitting in Parliament she often feels like ‘breaking out and gasping for air’, as Cowan was depicted doing in the film. Dr Michael’s (who narrated and appeared in the documentary) pointed out that Cowan never wanted women to ‘take over’; rather, she advocated that they work alongside men, believing that only through working together would change be possible. Senator Lee Rhiannon (who also appeared in the film) fondly recounted her own childhood growing up in Australia in the 50’s and 60’s, crediting her practical father — who always encouraged her to learn new skills — with being a huge influence in her life. She fondly recalled how his favourite response to any problem was ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’
Besides the impact and importance of the documentary itself, the most outstanding aspect of the launch of Beyond the Father’s Shadow was, in the end, not just what was shared, but the atmosphere in which this sharing took place. Panellists, presenters and audience members alike were united in their acceptance, compassion and support for one-another, and for the cause of women’s well-being in general. As Vasefi explained when asked about her reasons for choosing film as a vehicle for social change:
In the twenty-first century male politicians still make decisions that affect women’s bodies, sexual preferences, marriage and employment. We need more feminists in politics, and consciousness-raising through artistic expression is a form of political action which can be used to elicit discussion about sexism.
Or as Dr Mahreen Faruqi simply proclaimed: ‘Women do belong in the house —Parliament House!’
An excerpt from Beyond the Fathers Shadow (from Adam Lynch’s website http://www.adamlynchcine.com/
– Michele Seminara
Michele Seminara is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of on-line creative arts journal Verity La. Her first collection of poetry, Engraft, will be published by Island Press in early 2016.