Interviewed by: Emily-Schofield Cox
Marryum Kahloon is at the forefront of the modern feminist battle. I knew her as the hard-working and well-spoken head girl of my high school in North Queensland, but the world now knows Ms Kahloon as the highly intelligent 21 year old Australian delegate at the G(irls)20 summit and a keen fighter for gender equality in Australia and the wider international community.
I’m glad that the world has the chance to know her this way, because there is an intangible quality of unstoppable potential to her that even I, as a pimple-faced, highly self-involved young adolescent, could sense.
She has become an icon for the fight for gender equality in Australia, and a point of reference and inspiration for young women everywhere to demand better of themselves and of the world around them. I personally find her extremely inspiring because she won’t take no for an answer in gender equality and human rights, but she is also kind, approachable and fights for everyone around her; she’s the epitome of a relatable 21st century feminist. I was recently able to catch up with Marryum and get her take on the important issues she fights for.
You recently were the Australian delegate for the October 5&6 G(irls)20 Summit in Turkey. The goal of the Summit was to produce a communique with a focus on bringing 100 million women into the labour force by 2025. Do you think this is an achievable goal, and are you happy with the end product of the Summit?
This is 100% an achievable goal. The rates of female labour force participation as they currently stand are unsatisfactory and there are so many easy ways to facilitate not only entry but also retention of women in the workplace. Our communique outlines the mechanisms we think can be implemented to combat this issue. I am very proud of this document in that, while there are some very high level ideas, we have been able to suggest some simple but concrete changes that could have a real impact on female labour force participation in both the developing and the developed world.
Something as simple as including a breast pumping room in office buildings can help women re-enter the workforce more comfortably following pregnancy. Corporate initiative can be supplemented with policy changes such as requiring gender representation to be a significant factor when governments evaluate tender bids for large scale public projects.
In the presence of other strong female up-and-coming cultural leaders at the summit, do you now feel secure in the future of the fight for gender equality?
I think there is a growing awareness that gender equality is not just important from a philosophical standpoint but also from a pragmatic one. The G20’s decision last year to set a concrete goal for female labour force participation is indicative of this. The G20 recognized that unless you have more women in the workplace, achieving global economic growth is difficult. Listening to successful female executives, entrepreneurs and activists also made me secure in my belief that while there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality, the momentum and support is there.
How would you advise young girls and women who want to eliminate the wage gap and see more women in powerful positions in the workplace to make a difference locally and globally?
I would say go for it. Ask for equality. Unless you do, it is unlikely that you will receive it. For example, in salary negotiations women are likely to ask for less than their male counterparts and, naturally, they will then earn less . Ask for more! You are worth it. Women also sometimes doubt their own abilities and try and play down their successes. Don’t. If you are working hard and succeeding, embrace it and do not be shy. Further cease opportunities for progression and do not take the back seat if you could be taking the lead. I would also emphasize how important it is for women to support other women.
How did your roles as a UNICEF Young Ambassador in 2013 and a Parliamentary Girl Delegate with Plan Australia in 2014 shape your current views and means of getting them across?
I feel very fortunate to have worked with both these organisations who do such great work advocating for the rights of children. From these roles I have learnt about effective communication, the power of story telling and also the need to be strategic and clear about what it is you are trying to achieve. Most valuable though, has been meeting other people who are also passionate about the same things as me. Talking to them and learning from their experiences is such an enriching experience and whenever I am feeling demotivated I can always find inspiration through them.
Within Australia, you have said that there can be a culture of complacency that “widens the gap between women and men” — how do you think this complacency should be targeted?
I think education and exposure are key to overcoming complacency. Australia, until about this year, did not proactively acknowledge the problem of violence against women. So much so that many of the programs assisting women were defunded. However, the surge in advocacy by women affected by domestic violence and increased media coverage has really changed the national narrative around the problem. I think we are coming to a realization that this is not confined to a few isolated incidents but is part of a wider cultural problem, at the root of which is gender equality. The same realization is happening, albeit more slowly, in the workplace. It is only if you acknowledge that a problem exists that you can then take steps to remedy it. For example, why in the ASX200, of 400 CEOs and Chairs, are there only 23 females in these positions? Why, until recently, were only two women in Australia’s Federal Cabinet? I refuse to accept that there were no women qualified for these roles. Even if you accept that there weren’t women qualified for these roles, why is that? If their male colleagues are qualified then the female employees must be getting ‘left behind’ or excluded somewhere in the development pipeline.
You have also lived in Pakistan and South Africa, which are cultures in which gender inequality is more pronounced and sees a potentially dangerous environment for women. The need for the intersectional feminism is evident in today’s society. How can we in Australia help women everywhere? And on a simpler level, how can we help educate people to understand that just because it doesn’t happen to us, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to other women?
The fact that intersectional feminism is no longer an esoteric term used in humanities textbooks is a great sign. It is so important to have a nuanced approach and avoid excluding women from the movement. For example, as a Muslim woman I am dismayed when I hear from feminists who want to ban the wearing of the hijab because they see it as a tool of male oppression. There are many women, women I know personally, who wear the hijab because they want to; depriving them of the autonomy to choose is for me the antithesis of feminism.
Overcoming the notion of ‘it doesn’t happen to me so it doesn’t happen’ is difficult. In my (limited) experience I think this is why it is so important to share experiences in whatever form you can. Narratives are powerful and effective at eliciting empathy. Narratives also help in creating linkages, for example you may realise that while the discrimination you have faced is not as severe as another, the underlying theme of injustice or inclusion based on gender is shared. As a nation, I think Australia’s focus should be twofold: 1. Increasing the number of educated women in the region; 2. Breaking down legal barriers that prevent these women from obtaining formal employment. I think in this way, women are given the tools they need to be independent and self sufficient within their own societies.
Feminism has become somewhat of a ‘dirty word’ that many high profile figures in politics and the entertainment industry have attempted to shy away from. Do you think this word, and the concept of equality attached with it, can be reclaimed?
I have always been puzzled by the idea of women who do not or cannot identify themselves as feminists. For me, being a feminist is equivalent to saying you believe in gender equality. I don’t think women are better than men. In fact, I abhor that anyone’s opportunities can be curtailed because of their chromosomes. Feminism is not a dirty word. It is a word that men and women are coming to embrace and I think as long there is an emphasis on equality, it is not going away any time soon.
What is next for you in the fight for gender equality, and in life?
I’m not sure yet to be honest. I have just graduated from University and I am looking forward to forging a career in either the public or private sphere that tackles issues related to gender equality head on.