In Conversation With . . .
Melinda Tankard Reist, Part I
Wanda Waterman St. Louis
Volume 25 Issue 12 2017-03-24
Melinda Tankard Reist is an Australian feminist writer, activist, and international speaker. Go here to read the Voice review of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, a book of essays edited by Reist. Lately she’s been challenging corporations who objectify women and girls to sell their products. Recently Reist took the time to talk to Wanda Waterman St. Louis about advocacy, awakenings, and awareness.
Advocacy Born of Compassion
Looking around and seeing the reality of women’s lives in so many countries contributed to me becoming an advocate for women and girls. I’ve travelled a lot; I’ve seen the second-class status of women in so many places and the way women are exploited, misused, and oppressed.
I suppose I came to see that much of this oppression and violence began with an attitude and that if we were to make a difference in the lives of women and girls we needed to address the thinking that makes abuse possible. Much of this thinking stems from the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls, so a lot of my work now is focused on addressing this. Also I have three daughters and I see how they’re affected by negative messages from media and popular culture. I have a personal interest in wanting to bring about cultural change for their sakes.
I saw a lot of things I thought were unfair, especially in the way the older women in my life were treated. I witnessed the mistreatment of migrant women by their husbands and other males. I saw an indigenous woman beaten around. But I didn’t really join the dots until many years later. Again, I think it was just looking around and seeing some realities and feeling I should try to do something about them.
My blog, which I’ve only been writing since December, takes a lot of time. I do a lot of travelling and speaking (I have 25 speaking engagements in May alone). A new organization I helped start—Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation—also takes time.
I’m about to start work on a new book on the harms of pornography, and this will demand a fair chunk of time, understandably. I’m not sure where my family fits into all this, but then perhaps I shouldn’t see them as a project!
Travelling overseas in my early twenties (which I’ve done many times since) gave me a global perspective, opened my mind, and engaged me in mind-altering experiences. I was inspired by women who were living in the most atrocious conditions yet who somehow rose above their circumstances to make a life for themselves and for their children.
Meeting Dalit (untouchable) women in India. Handing graduation certificates to girls who, before being offered the gift of education, had spent their days picking rags out of stinking piles of refuse. Visiting a shelter in Hyderabad in India that had three levels, the first for abandoned baby girls (many rescued from rubbish dumps), the second for abandoned pregnant girls, and the third for abandoned. Three layers: discarded babies, teen girls, and elderly women.
Being exposed to good writing and good writers also influenced me. Learning how to put words together, to shape a story, to give space for others to share their experiences. I wanted to use my writing to open up forbidden places, to tell stories that had been silenced or ignored. I felt drawn toward that genre of writing described as “writing as resistance.” I didn’t see myself as a “populist” writer, probably more as unpopulist! Collecting stories for my first book, Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s stories of grief after abortion, was educational, as well as profoundly moving and affecting. It took some time to recover from the depth of grief and loss women shared so intimately with me.
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