Writer, political commentator and media personality Jamila Rizvi is the proud recipient of the 2020 Victoria Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership, in recognition of her advocacy, amplification, support and sponsorship of women in all facets of her career.
The nation-wide awards are instituted by Women & Leadership Australia, which aims to develop female leaders and support the increased presence of women in business and community leadership roles.
“It’s a really lovely piece of recognition for the work that I have been doing,” said Jamila as she shared her story with Indian Link.
In her columns for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, her podcasts for Nine (Future Women), her interview-based event series Tea With Jam and Clare and in her frequent appearances on radio and television, the 34-year-old has carved a niche for herself as a commentator on women’s affairs.
Both warmth and strength define her work as she addresses issues that women should feel outraged or proud about, issues that they should support more or experience more, and women’s perspectives that all leaders, indeed the community at large, should consider more.
Her Twitter bio says it all: Without Hermione, Harry dies in book one.
On International Women’s Day, we put to her that there have been years of advocacy on the equality of women, and while certain indicators may have seen progress, overall, society seems to be taking its time to respond. Are Australians slow on the uptake of the equality agenda?
“Australia has traditionally been a conservative electorate and we are resistant and wary of change,” observed Jamila. “In that regard the progressive movement can find it hard to forge a place in Australian society.”
At the same time, Jamila allows that Australians are deeply egalitarian, with their belief in a ‘fair go’. “Most people here believe that if you are given opportunities to work hard and you take them, you deserve the same success as anyone else – no matter who you are, what your background, gender or sexual preference is,” she remarked.
“I know this is a contrasting, almost contradictory way of describing the electorate; nonetheless, Australians are complex people. We can hold those two contradictory positions,” she said with a smile.
Another contradiction in recent times is that the term feminism is becoming unpopular, with some women choosing not to identify themselves as ‘feminists’.
“I don’t think there has ever been a point in history where the vast majority of population have embraced that word, and that says something about our community,” said Jamila.
She finds it hard that the world continues to be concerned about a movement that has equality at its core.
“Feminism is about the economic, social and political equality of women with men, not a radical concept at all. We haven’t achieved it yet, while some countries are getting closer than others and some countries are moving backwards from where they were,” she explained.
“For me that movement remains incredibly important and until I genuinely believe that women hold an equal part in the society as men, it’s not a movement that I will give up on,” she concluded with conviction.
In her first book Not Just Lucky Jamila articulated the many challenges women continue to face in the workforce and the societal forces that shape our attitudes at work.
What are the main things that will catalyse the change?
“I always hoped that the election of the first woman Prime Minister would be a catalyst for positive change,” replied Jamila. “At that time, I was hopeful that Julia Gillard’s presence in the top job would normalise women as leaders in the community but sadly the country had the opposite reaction.”
Issues like equitable pay, representation of women in politics and lack of inclusion of diverse perspectives have all been on the equality agenda, but they continue to simmer on the boilerplate. For many ‘regular’ women, the basic issue about safety within their own homes is still a cause for concern. (The story of Hannah Clarke, the Queensland woman who was killed by her husband only days ago, is fresh in our minds.)
“Well, we are talking about domestic violence a bit more,” Jamila mused. “It is no longer a family issue to be worked out within homes. There is a shift happening in that space – unfortunately that shift hasn’t yet helped the number of women who are being hurt and until that starts to happen we haven’t got anywhere.”
She went on, “About equal pay, external factors play a huge role – like childcare, paid parental leave. Those are things that absolutely need to be on the Government’s agenda. They are certainly not on the current Government’s agenda.”
Hope, though, characteristically springs eternal in Jamila’s world. “I do a lot of work with corporates, government and not-for-profit organisations and we talk constantly about recruiting, retaining and promoting more women – including women of colour. Corporate Australia particularly is finally beginning to sit up and take notice. Research has told us definitively that increased gender and cultural diversity makes a better workforce, and people are finally understanding the value of gender diversity,” she said happily.
Jamila worked as a youth political advisor in the Rudd and Gillard Governments and was witness at close quarters to the rise and fall of Julia Gillard. When asked how far Australia is from getting another woman Prime Minister, she was quick to reply.
“I don’t see an Australian woman leading a political party at least for another decade, and it breaks my heart to say that,” said Jamila. “Politics in this country has been incredibly exclusionary. It has been dominated by white men for most of Australia’s modern history. However, things are changing and now there are more powerful women role models right from local councils through to Federal levels.”
The issue, of course, is to inspire more women to take up politics. Jamila encourages everyone, particularly migrant women who may be interested in public office, to have a go, cut their teeth, get involved and volunteer. “I want my Parliament and representatives to look like my community, a melting pot of cultures, religions and people.”
Given her own Islamic background, Jamila was vocal about the vulnerability that Muslims over the world are feeling currently.
“Personally I find it quite heartbreaking when I consider the way that the Australian Muslim community have been made to feel like outsiders over the past 20 years or so,” she revealed. “I have never met a more inclusive and engaging and kind segment of the Australian community as the Australian Muslims. These are truly good people being blamed for the actions of a tiny minority. Kudos to the Muslim community for the fact that despite being the subject of really intense discrimination at times, they continue to be committed Australians, warm neighbours and wonderful friends.”
Keen to learn more about her connection with contemporary India, we asked Jamila about the current spate of religious violence in India, to which she replied diplomatically.
“I won’t pretend to be an expert in this space at all. India has been a country that has been plagued by violence between different religious groups throughout its history. I hope this resolves as quickly as possible and one day we reach a stage where India recognises that this is a country with many different faiths where we can coexist with one another.”
Politics, media, commentary and broadcasting – Jamila has been involved in a variety of communication fields. Which of these wields the most power when it comes to advocating gender parity?
“Television remains the most powerful medium at this point in time,” she replied after some thought. “Of course, it may be a different story five years down the track. Digital is becoming increasingly powerful and younger people are increasingly turning to different mediums for communication, discussion and political discourse but at the moment in Australia, the majority of the population tends to turn to TV. It remains the single fastest way to create waves on a big scale throughout the country.”
“Having said that, one of the powerful things about the Internet has been the democratisation of political and public discussion. The Internet is available to everybody and voices that aren’t heard as often in the mainstream media, like women – particularly women of colour, for example Indian women – the Internet has been an incredible gift for voices that have been kept out of mainstream media.”
Jamila comes from mixed parentage; her father is Indian and mother Australian. Her father was born in Lucknow, UP as the youngest of four children. His family migrated to Australia in 1965 when he was seven years old and settled in Canberra.
“My parents met in Canberra where they still live,” shared Jamila. “I grew up in a typically Aussie household as my dad had spent most of his childhood in Australia and my mum was Australian. Our Indian connections were through our grandparents, cousins and extended family. It’s because of them the link with India became really strong and unsurprisingly was cemented with delicious food.”
Is it true that Jamila’s grandfather decided to study in Australia rather than Yale because Australia had cricket?
“I have heard a few versions of that story,” laughed Jamila. “One is that he decided to migrate here because he liked cricket; the other one is he asked my dad, who was the youngest, where they should go and he apparently said he wanted to go to Australia because he wanted to see a kangaroo. Who knows what the actual truth was!”
Her own marriage is interracial and she finds it an ongoing challenge, especially for her little boy Rafi who has blue eyes and long blonde hair and very fair complexion. She takes pains to make sure that he is culturally aware of where he comes from and what his cultural background is.
“My husband is Australian of German heritage and we travelled to India a couple of years ago for his first visit there,” she revealed. “To me, it was very significant to take him to see my family. We did the same thing the year prior where we visited Germany. To be aware of our roots is an important part of reconciling our own person and also the kind of person we want our little boy to be.”
On the professional front, a third book is now in the pipeline.
She laughed aloud when asked about the progress of her new work Broken Brains, aimed at anyone who has been diagnosed with illness and their loved ones. Apparently a huge amount of work is still to be done as it needed copious research with lots of first hand interviews, and time spent in universities, hospitals and research labs, as well as with psychologists.
“I have finally drawn a line for myself to end the research and start some writing so hopefully there will be some more words soon,” said the feisty Jamila, who is currently waging her own battle with brain tumour.
She has successfully undergone a second round of brain surgery and is ‘feeling the best she has been in the last two and a half years’.
Her candid writing on her own medical issues have won her even more fans. (“I lie on top of a made-up hospital bed in the neurosurgery ward, after giving what felt like a litre of blood to the pathologists. I am not getting under the sheet. I am not putting on a hospital gown. They are acts of acquiescence and I refuse to be sick again. I refuse,” she wrote this year)
The latest award must surely have come as welcome respite.
“It is really nice to be applauded, and incredibly humbling. But this does not change what I am doing or trying to do. I have very clear goals in mind for the next few years around my work in gender equality, mental health and multiculturalism and I will keep going down that path regardless.”