Australian High School Introduces A Groundbreaking Feminist Curriculum Called ‘Fightback’

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Not too long ago we conducted an interview with British filmmaker Leslee Udwin about her powerful and gut-wrenching documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ based around the horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012, by the hands of 6 men who didn’t think it was appropriate that she should be going to the movies with a male friend who wasn’t her father, husband or any family member.

In the film as well as our interview Leslee points out how the uneducated rapists who she interviewed in jail, as well as the highly educated lawyers simply don’t believe the gang rape was wrong in any way because of their patriarchal and dangerous sexist mindset. One of the interesting projects she has begun working on since filming the documentary is a global Human Rights education curriculum which she is taking around the world to convince international governments to make it mandatory to teach equality and human rights alongside the compulsory reading and writing subjects.

It is such a simple yet profound idea, because as she pointed out, with numerous scientific studies showing that most children form their world views and perspectives by the age of 7, it only makes sense to teach them empathy, kindness equality and the like. It is one of those ideas that when you ponder it long enough, you start to wonder what kind of effect a global mandatory human rights curriculum would have on issues such as racism, classism, violence, gender inequality and the like.

While we are hoping Leslee and her team can make this happen, in the meantime we are seeing similar ideas come to fruition around the world. In Australia, Fitzroy High School in Victoria launched a club called the ‘Feminist Collective’ in 2014 after a group of students and a teacher wanted to capitalize on some of the conversations they were having about sexism and the unfair representation of women in the media as well as in the literature they were studying.

One of the goals of the after-school club was to come up with a class curriculum with the hope to make this as part of their formal school studies as an elective subject. They launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised over $12,000 AUD despite initially only asking for $3000. The funds went toward creating resources for the class and the feminist curriculum titled ‘Fightback’ is set to launch at the end of November!

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The course has been aligned with the Victorian state educational curriculum and is on offer to both male and female students. The subject includes 30 lessons on topics such as systemic sexism, the objectification of women, and the link between gender inequality and violence against women. It is very rare to find a high school course that allows students to discuss and share thoughts about the patriarchy, the wage gap, female representation in sport, deconstruct myths about feminists in society, and the sexist ways women in the media and entertainment are portrayed compared to men.

But it is something that is incredibly needed in order to ensure both women and men grow up without insecurities and aren’t held back because of their gender.

“We’re trying to get young men and women to think a bit more critically about the sorts of sexist behaviors they might either engage in or see on a daily basis. And on a teaching level, I wanted to create free, accessible curriculum for teachers who might want to talk about these issues but don’t know how or where to start,” said teacher Briony O’Keeffe (pictured above, right) who spearheaded the feminist collective club and now the curriculum.

The girls in the club initially joined because they found it to be a safe space to vent about certain experiences such as the presence of eating disorders in many teens, the fact that the majority of their required reading books were about or written by white men and the sexist images of girls that were circulating on Facebook.

Briony O’Keeffe says the new course comes at a crucial time when there is an increased focused on domestic violence in the country. After taking the Prime Minister position due to a leadership spill not too long ago, Malcolm Turnbull launched a $100 million campaign to tackle and prevent domestic violence on all levels, from grass roots and community initiatives right up to corporate and authoritarian bodies.

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A recent National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey showed that younger men, particularly those aged between 16-25, are more likely to hold attitudes that support violence.

While the number of girls outweigh the number of boys taking the Fightback class at Fitzroy High, teacher Briony is hopeful that will change over time. She is also planning on showcasing the new curriculum to other high schools in the state to try and implement this type of subject elsewhere. And she is not shy about hiding the fact that these studies can be confrontational and challenging to some.

“It’s like when you understand that you’re privileged because you’re a white person – you didn’t choose it, there’s nothing you can do about it, but you have [privilege] nonetheless – and it’s a confronting thing to know how [you] are supposed to feel about it?” she says.

For many of the girls who are taking the class and who were already involved in the feminist collective club previously, the issue of sexism was hot topic for them and it became a great way for them to discuss this with others.

“Some of the smartest people I know are women, but it doesn’t change the fact that they think they’re not good enough, and feel they can’t share that intelligence with the world because they might be laughed at,” said 16 year old Stella Bridie to The Age, who added that she was sick of being called “bossy” and “bitchy” because of her assertive and forthright nature amongst her peers.

A positive sign that this feminist curriculum is well-received is the number of people contacting Briony and Fitzroy High about how they can get their hands on the resources. They are also being supported by the Australian Education Union.

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“We’ve had parents contacting us in support, students from around Australia asking how they can start their own feminist collective and even people from overseas have expressed interest in the resource. We’ve all been blown away by the response; it’s been so positive and so overwhelming,” said Briony in an interview with the monthly AEU Victoria News publication.

Many of the positive responses to this class make us wonder how this hasn’t been available for students before! It is being heralded as Australia’s first ever feminist curriculum but Briony and her students don’t want it to stay that way, they hope it will have a ripple effect across the nation’s education systems.

“Sexism starts when you’re young and if you target it early people will grow up with a better approach to gender issues,” said year 9 student Nia Standford.

We are thrilled to see this topic being taught in schools as it will enable students to think about what they are experiencing in the world and have a place to discuss it with peers. We hope to see many more students and schools around Australia, and around the world, take a stand for gender equality.

If you are not attending Fitzroy High School and can’t take the Fightback elective, you can still follow the Feminist Collective group on Facebook. Watch some of the students talking about the need for more feminist curriculum in high schools:

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