You don’t have to go far to do good: In conversation with Julia Gillard

Lina AbiRafeh
14 min readAug 30, 2022

I recently had the honor of being interviewed by feminist pioneer and former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard. She is now the Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, where I am a member of the Advisory Council. She is also known for delivering her famous misogyny speech — a lesson in how to fight back, because we all should be offended by sexism.

The full conversation can be found here. Below are some highlights.

Now you’ve described yourself as born into conflict and always comfortable with chaos. Can you tell us about the early years that enabled you to say that and how they set you on the path for the work you do today?

Being born a woman already means facing a certain amount of conflict, realizing at a certain age that the world views you as less than, as second class. So for me that is already a type of conflict. Also, I am Lebanese and Palestinian so I have two war zones behind me. And I was raised between Saudi Arabia and the United States, so I’m all sorts of hyphens and complications, which means I really had to figure out who I was and what I stood for. For me, being a woman, being a fighter, feeling very strongly about social justice before I could even put a label on it — Feminism was my country. That’s where my loyalty is. And that’s really how it all started.

And when would have been the first moment in your life that you thought to yourself that girls get treated differently to boys?

I think the messages came, firstly, from my parents, carefully curating my experiences as a non-Saudi girl living in Saudi Arabia. They were conscious of the messages they wanted me to absorb. One of the earliest I can recall is around age 7, with my father asking me: “What’s the most important thing for a woman?”

Of course I had no idea. “Financial independence,” he said. He’s right. This was in stark contrast to what I was seeing around me, as a child in Saudi Arabia. At that time I was also learning that women were expected to behave in certain ways, covered up in some spaces, and so on. So there was a lot of contradiction and I didn’t really know how to explain it. I didn’t put a label on it until a few years later when I came to the States, but I do distinctly remember that lesson.

Now you’ve dedicated your career to ending gender-based violence. How did you first get involved with this work?

It takes a while to understand that this is something ingrained in all of us as women and girls, we’re constantly told to be careful and to watch what we do, where we go, who we interact with, what we’re wearing. From an early age the message is that we’re unsafe, and that safety is our responsibility. And so you feel this burden, the idea that your freedom, your mobility, your voice, your choice are constricted. Your opportunities are limited because the world views you in a certain way, and you are constantly at risk.

That message comes across very clearly to young girls, and certainly came across to me. I was 14 years old, in high school, and I signed up for a class called Comparative Women’s History. The class wasn’t about women’s history as much as the history of violence against women, from the foetus to the funeral, and everything in between. And in every single country, including here in the US, everywhere, all the time, in every place and space.

For me it was overwhelming. I had never heard anything like that. I could not imagine the magnitude of intimate partner violence, or how we used to break our ribs to fit into corsets, body image and mutilations fueled by patriarchy, female genital mutilation, bride burning, acid burning, rape as a weapon of war, all forms of violence.

I was furious. It was that anger that got me going. I realized then that nothing is possible for us, as women, as long as this continues, as long as I feel that restriction on my freedom and my possibilities, as long as I have to constantly worry about my safety and feel like I’m always at risk, how can I ever achieve anything in my life? So that became the starting point for me. Fix that first and then let’s talk about all the other stuff. And we’re still fighting the same thing.

Sounds like you didn’t imagine back then that the pathway was going to be this long, if it was fix that first, that sort of implies you thought we’d get this done?

I was 14 and angry — but also hopeful. This new knowledge was as devastating as it was fueling. And now, I’m old, and I’m still screaming until I lose my voice. But I look at younger women, and I wonder what world we are leaving for them? Every day there are new cases, new incidents at the micro and the macro level. I have a niece who is 8. How do I look her in the eye and say, I tried to make things better for you. But I’m sorry, I failed.

How are you seeing the struggle for reproductive freedom in the US now?

We saw it coming, unfortunately. I wish it didn’t take such a dramatic thing to galvanize people into action. But I believe in the power of anger. And now suddenly, it is undeniably in front of us. And people are starting to understand the consequences of that. It is very scary. It doesn’t mean we surrender. But at the same time, what is this going to mean for young women whose reproductive years are ahead of them? Fighting for rights to their own bodies and to make their own choices, how are we still even arguing for this? It feels like a colossal setback. It’s worth saying again that if this was men’s domain to become pregnant and bear children, we’d have a very different dynamic. But here we are, screaming for the same things.

What more can women do who are listening to this podcast? Using their social media presence is good, and amplifies the messages, but are there practical things people can do?

There are always organizations to support. I write a blog every week and try to point people towards concrete action.

It’s one thing for us to not be aware, although I think that there’s no longer an excuse for that. We’re hyper aware of what is happening in the world. Then once you are aware, you should be angry — or you’re asleep. It’s impossible to not care about these things as they go on around us — and happen to us. It’s impossible to say, well, that’s just other women, or that’s over there. Not me, not here, not now. No, we all are responsible. It is here and it is now. Every single time I write about any country, I say here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should care, here’s why we should be angry, and here’s what we can do about that anger. I like tangible action and want to promote credible organizations. They need our support.

We know that one in three women worldwide experience gender-based violence. As someone who’s advocated for women’s rights globally, how do you persuade people who think it’s someone else’s problem?

Look at intimate partner violence, the most common form worldwide, affecting so many more women than we know. Women are mostly silent about it because what incentive is there to speak out unless you’re going to be protected, with access to security, with the possibility for justice. Too often, everywhere, women don’t have those things. Intimate partner violence is a silent pandemic.

Look at sexual harassment. Certainly the #MeToo movement made some great strides in exposing the magnitude of the problem. And everybody with connectivity, with certain resources, was paying attention. Everybody was MeToo-ing, everybody has a story. When you stop and listen to that, it was overwhelming. Every woman I know a story. I certainly have a story.

When we have those conversations, we realize the painful ordinariness of this. Look at how we talk to our girls about where and how they move in the world — on the street, with keys in their hands, and so on. Whatever types of restrictions we place on the freedoms and mobilities and choices of women and girls. Even the fear of violence is a form of violence — and we have all internalized it.

Look at young women when they’re out saying “come with me to the bathroom” or “call me when you get home” or “be careful” or “don’t talk to him” or “keep your eye on your drink all the time.” It’s exhausting having to live with all of that fear. For me that is already a crime. Women know this, they know how common it is. And we all have accepted this as part of what it means to be a woman. I say no, that is not the way to live. That is not the way any of us should live.

Our right is to be free, and to have respect, and dignity, and equal share of space and resources and opportunities — but we don’t. We live very small. When people start to see those things and talk to each other, then it becomes a different conversation. We talk about things like the increase in sexual violence and intimate partner violence in the aftermath of an emergency. The emergency is right here! Hurricane Katrina was right here in our backyard. COVID is a great example. The assumption that “stay home” means “stay safe” was naive. Home is not safe for far too many women. I get chills just telling you about it — and I talk about it every day. It is just so unbearably common.

Lina, you’ve got an incredible energy, how do you keep your spirits up? Decades into this work, I can feel the power of that energy, even as we work on Zoom. How do you keep doing it?

Oh, it’s the anger. It’s the feeling that things should have been better by now. This constant shock I have every morning waking up to these stories, as if it’s happening all over again. And the weird thing is, it’s gotten harder for me, not easier, in terms of my level of frustration, and fury, and sorrow. I look at girls and I think we should have done better for you. Not that the onus was all on me or on us to fix everything, but the idea that the world shouldn’t be like this. And it’s that sense of injustice that I can never swallow. And that’s how I keep going.

But now I’ve morphed, I do it in different ways. I used to be in the field in the thick of it, in an emergency. Now, in the last couple of years, I do this from New York. A little bit of distance for self preservation. Still, I will scream until I lose my voice. I do it now, through advising, and blogging, and speaking, and just howling into the void. And if one person listens, that’s already good.

Who are the women who have inspired you along the way?

I was raised by feminists, even though they wouldn’t label themselves that way. My late grandmother on the Palestinian side fought for an education, managed to go to college, and today her 1938 diploma hangs on my wall. She is a reminder of what women who push boundaries can do. I was raised with that story and that legacy of strength. My parents reinforced those messages of financial independence and didn’t let me play with dolls “because I could do much more,” my mother would say.

But there are so many women who inspire me all the time. Young women, women whose names we don’t know, who are out on the streets, or in their classrooms or in their homes, pushing those boundaries. They are more clear about what is not acceptable about the lives that they want and about the rights that they have.

I’ve had many extraordinary young women who have worked with me. They are amazing. I look at them and see that they are far stronger than I was at that age. I was not as clear in my rights and in my place in the world. I love their strength and conviction. That is the energy I want to see. What I want is to do more for them. I tell them I want to help fuel their fire because they’re the ones who will keep things going, and they’re the ones who are going to fix it. They will finish what we weren’t able to finish. And I want to see it happen in my lifetime. Or someone had better dig me from the grave and let me know when we have finished.

In your fabulous TED talk, you talk about this expression, ‘start where you stand.’ Can you tell us the story of how you came across that phrase and what it means to you?

Oh, that was such a powerful moment. I was deployed to Nepal after the earthquake in 2015 to work on sexual violence prevention and response, trying to provide support and relief and recovery and looking at the systems and services to get women to safety. That was actually my last emergency.

I was walking to the UN office where I was stationed at five o’clock in the morning, and came across this graffiti. And that’s what it said: Start where you stand. And I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been wanting to say my whole life, but could not have put it better than this spray painted piece of wisdom.

Because people ask me all the time what they can do. They say “I want to do something, but I don’t want to go to Afghanistan or Chad or places you went.” I tell them that they don’t have to, because, unfortunate for us, this problem is everywhere, all around us, all the time.

If you look at the space you occupy — your home, or your school, or the street or the market, or your office or public office — whatever space you have, whatever platform you have, you can take that space and make it feminist.

There are opportunities for work and there are violations of rights everywhere. So by Start where you stand, what I thought my graffiti artist was trying to tell me was that we don’t have to go far to do good. The need is so overwhelming that it is all around us. And if we all took responsibility for our little spaces, then maybe that effort is contagious. Maybe we will see some change in our lifetime.

You don’t have to go far to do good. I love it.

I want to put a fact to you. Between 1992 and 2019, women made up only 6% of mediators, 6% of signatories, and 13% of negotiators in major peace processes, despite studies showing that women’s direct participation increases the sustainability and quality of peace. What’s your response to that?

First of all, there is no peace without women. There is no peace without half, or little more than half, of the population. It is simply not possible that peace can be negotiated on our behalf because actually, it never is. Our needs, our rights are never represented unless we are there representing them. That is a fundamental flaw in the way we run peacebuilding operations. And if we are not at that table, then we are not at any table.

It is far too easy for people to say, “come now ladies, this is not your time, we’re talking about bigger things, let’s focus on the national struggle and then we’ll bring in your little feminist issues”. That’s the end of it for us. If we are not there, everywhere, all the time, at every table when every single conversation is happening, then we will never be there. And to assume that a conversation can be had about something that concerns us so fundamentally, that we are a part of, that we are instrumental in delivering, in preserving and protecting and safeguarding, and we are already delivering — for me that it’s not acceptable at all. Yet we still see that everywhere all the time.

At every single level, we’re still arguing for representation of women, we’re still arguing for quotas, we’re still talking about women’s presence and women’s power — and understanding the difference between the two — and we are really nowhere near where we should be. We can hardly get women into office, into leadership, and decision-making, and positions of influence. It is always a fight. And it is always because she is a woman. It is as if we have to do so much more to demonstrate that we are credible — it is exhausting. The way we think about women and women’s leadership needs a radical overhaul. I would love to just erase everything that’s happened in the past, give us full leadership and decision making and then see, and then talk to us about how well we do, then see if you still want to talk about what we’re wearing and what our hair looks like, please.

If you had all of the power in the world, just for a moment, what’s the one thing you would change for women? Sounds like you’ve already got the answer.

Oh, that will be a fascinating experiment. I always say that I use women’s safety as the barometer, the first thing, the starting point — not the endpoint. The reality of living with violence is the biggest impediment to achieving anything else. So the challenge is, even with political rights or access to economic opportunities or education or health or whatever, if we are still unsafe in our bodies and our homes and our lives on the street and at school and everywhere, then we’ll never be able to access those things. We can build all the girls’ schools in the world but if a girl isn’t safe getting to school, well, that’s the end. And that’s very low level stuff in terms of what we’re asking for, that’s a nonnegotiable, a no-brainer, and that’s just the beginning. And then yes, give us the power that we deserve, the power that is long overdue, that has historically been denied to us, and see what happens to the world. And then we can have a conversation about it. We’ve had male lead leadership since the beginning of time, and maybe it’s time for a new era.

I love that conclusion that we should try the experiment, get the data, do the comparison, men’s leadership versus women’s leadership.

Just a few generations, you know, not millenia!

What personally is the worst misogyny you faced in your life?

I will never see myself as a victim, if you will — and I don’t really like to use that word — because we live these stories every day. It’s all of it. All of us. It’s death by 1000 paper cuts, as they say. It is the little things every day that remind you as a woman, that you are worth less, or valued less, or respected less, all of those things and the millions of manifestations in your everyday life that prevent you from living the full rich life that you deserve. And so many women around the world will just live and die without ever knowing what they were truly capable of. To me it’s the collective thwarting of our potential that is just tragic. I felt that in some ways in my life, but nothing compared to others. For me that’s what hurts, the denial of your rich, full, incredible life. The idea that we might never get to experience our full potential because of all the things that have held us back and the weights that drag us down.

Virginia Woolf says, As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country, as a woman, my country is the world. The wonderful Lina says…

For me, being a woman is the most important aspect of my identity. Feminism is my country, and no loyalty supersedes this. This is the most important role I have, the most important space I occupy, it is what I love, what I believe in. It is what I hope by now I am good at. And it is my duty to do it. If I can do one good thing for one young woman or make one tiny dent, then I have done something. And that for me is enough.

Thank you so much for a powerful and incredibly energizing conversation.

Thank you! I can keep going!

Podcast available through Spotify or Apple.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!