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Rage, Rape and Revolution at Adelaide Writers' Week

Adelaide Festival

Women’s anger – and the potential to harness its power to bring about societal change – was the focus of last night’s topical Zeitgeist series session Rage, Rape and Revolution at Adelaide Writers’ Week.

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“Zeitgeist” means “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time” (according to the Oxford), so Rage, Rape and Revolution was an obvious choice of theme for the first of Adelaide Writers’ Week’s two Zeitgeist Series ticketed events.

This is a time of the #metoo movement, but amazingly, the term was mentioned only once, at the beginning of this session. Sisonke Msimang (who chaired with a natural grace and fierce intelligence) said that although panel members may reference #metoo throughout discussion, they recognised that there were other movements started by women who were not Hollywood actors epitomising a narrow, privileged and ultimately white concept of beauty.

On stage, talking about the first R, was American Soraya Chemaly, a tireless advocate for women’s rights best known through her work on sexual violence and free speech.

At Writers’ Week to promote her book Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Chemaly spoke in a measured yet urgent tone about societal ethics and mores pertaining to girls and anger.

She talked of how, from a very young age, girls are taught to control their anger; if that’s not possible, then they are seen as transgressive. In the US, young black girls are 11 times more likely to be punished at school for acting on their anger – so not only is female rage a no-no in our patriarchal society, but racists hate it, too.

The second R was discussed by Sohaila Abdulali, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, in which she details her 35-year journey of rape, which began with the horrific act and swiftly led to her becoming the first Indian woman to speak out about it in her country. It took the infamous 2012 Delhi fatal gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey to revive Abdulali’s paper on the silencing of rape in India, and the essay went viral.

Last night, Abdulali said of anger that women feel it – of course they do – but often it is put in the wrong place (ie we blame women or our own actions, rather than blaming abusers).

The third and final R was led by Stella-winning author Clare Wright, who replaced Germaine Greer on the panel after the controversial author and academic pulled out of the event in January, citing personal reasons.

“We’re not only angry now; we’ve always been angry,” said Wright, whose recent book is You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World.

She pointed to the suffragettes’ revolution as a potent example: back then, society was afraid that if women had the vote it would masculinise them. The fact that Australia has seen a female prime minister deliver a seminal speech about misogyny in government would “blow their minds today”, but, unfortunately, so would images taken from the internet, especially pornography. Sex education suddenly involves so much more than the mechanics of intercourse.

In closing the session, Msimang stated: “Anger deepens democracy, not just for women but for all of us.”

It was a perfect segue to tonight’s Reframing the Future, part two of the Zeitgeist Series, where the panel consists of Africa Rising Foundation founder (and Nelson Mandela’s grandson) Ndaba Mandela, former leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party Birgitta Jónsdóttir, and leading Aboriginal activist, lawyer and advocate for Australian Constitutional reform Professor Megan Davis.

The Zeitgeist Series is part of Adelaide Writers’ Week. Tonight’s Reframing the Future session, chaired by former Greens leader Scott Ludlam, is at 6.30 at Elder Hall.

Heather Taylor Johnson is an Adelaide poet and novelist.

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