Red carpet for one ‘queue jumper’, the cold shoulder for so many others

Free for the first time in her life from the misogynist strictures of Saudi Arabia, Rahaf al-Qununa wants a new life in Australia.

Free for the first time in her life from the misogynist strictures of Saudi Arabia, Rahaf al-Qununa wants a new life in Australia. Photo: AAP/EPA

Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is undoubtedly a strong and courageous woman. If Australia had granted her resettlement, she would have made a fantastic Australian and helped build the culture, economy and reputation of the country. I would have welcomed her in Australia.

But why is it that Australia seems to have sympathy for an attractive, strong Saudi woman from a wealthy family, coming by plane who, if she were a man from the Middle East on a boat, we would call a ‘queue jumper’? Is there misandry or something else at play in our public debate?

While what follows may seem critical, I am not critical of al-Qunun and I need to be clear about that. I am, however, critical of Australia’s apparent hypocrisy in the way it treats some who seek asylum, while shunning others.

Over the last 20 years I have been active in the pro-refugee movement. I was on the founding board of Australians for Just Refugee Programs 20 years ago. I have also worked for the UN High Commission for Refugees overseas heading up their Early Warning and Emergency Preparedness section in the early 2000s. I know the issues well.

During the Tampa and related events, many in Australia railed against ‘queue jumpers’ and displayed distrust and open hostility to refugees and asylum seekers.

Let’s be clear, there are few well-functioning queues for refugees anywhere in the world. The whole notion of ‘jumping’ dysfunctional queues is a ridiculous furphy and a topic I have written on in the past.

While the Australian mantra of ‘Stop the Boats’ is a foolish slogan, so is ‘let them land’. Location of processing is not the issue, it is the speed of resettlement that is the problem, and Australia should work with its regional partners to create a better and more transparent resettlement ‘queue’ for asylum seekers to join. Only when there is a queue that works can you criticise people for jumping it. I wrote about this when I quit the ALP on precisely this issue.

I understand the issues and complexities of the refugee issue. What I don’t understand is how Australia chooses whom it seems to support and whom we don’t.

We support a woman fleeing her family, but not men fleeing war in order to support their families. Al-Qunun did not go to an embassy or mission in Saudi or in Kuwait to ‘join a queue’ for asylum. She jumped on a plane with the intent of using a tourist visa to gain entry and then claim asylum. If there were queue jumpers, she would be one.

Most on Manus and Nauru, once processed, have been found to be genuine refugees too, but we don’t take them. They are predominantly male. The reason for the gender disparity on those fleeing violence is an understandable one, if you have been to the regions and seen how it works, as I have. Families get together, pool resources select a male to make the arduous journey and then work to bring the family after him.

One sad truth about Manus and Nauru, for every man on those islands who has not been able to resettle, engage in the economy and get a job, there are many women, boys and girls who are suffering still, perhaps horrendously, because those on Nauru and Manus have not been able to get on with their lives and earn income to bring families after them.

The turning of our backs on the men on Nauru harms many women back in Syria and other countries.

I often looked at the gender difference in other issues of public debate. Take Schapelle Corby. It took Australia some time to recognise that the Indonesian court system probably got this right. Headlines of ‘our Schapelle’ and editorial of how the Indonesians could possibly find a ‘beauty school student’ guilty were the norm when she was first arrested.  Yet Australian men held in Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries received nothing like the profile, sympathy or support that Corby received.

I challenge you to name the Australian man still on death row in Vietnam for drug smuggling.

Why? Was it because Australia has a particularly complicate relationship with Indonesia that means we focus there, or is gender at play here? Is it much easier to have sympathy for attractive young women, than it is for bearded men, in the case of drug traffickers or in the case of asylum seekers? If al-Qunun was a male escaping violence, would we have reacted in the same way?

We hear the word misogyny a lot right now. We hear the word in many ways that it should be heard. Pay equality, patriarchy, domestic violence are all issues that we need to see through a gender lens.

But misandry exists too. Hannah Gadsby has been applauded for raising issues of misogyny, but has done so with so much venom and anger that I find it hard to reconcile her message of change when dressed up in hatred.

I really would like to have welcomed al-Qunun to Australia. But I wish we could welcome the men on Nauru and Manus too. They could get jobs, work and bring their families here, so that the silent and unseen women can also escape the violence that they are facing.

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