Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011

Crisis, Agency and Change:
The Tenth International Women in Asia Conference

Hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific,
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia,
29 September – 1 October 2010

Kumiko Kawashima

(Liaison Officer, Organising Committee)

The tenth anniversary of the 2010 international Women in Asia conference turned out to be one of the largest ever held since its inauguration in 1981. About 150 attendees—women and a handful of men—gathered at the ANU's Hedley Bull Building over three days, to showcase cutting-edge research and other activities, and to network with likeminded people. The delegates included a good mix of scholars, activists, artists and NGO workers, while the geographic spread of organisations they represented was equally impressive. Many of them travelled from interstate (all but the Northern Territory were represented) while a high number of attendees came from abroad (China, Macau, South Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, the US and elsewhere).

Figure 1. Dr Tamara Jacka welcoming delegates to the Tenth International WIA conference.
Photographer, Darren Boyd.

The event was opened by Professor Mandy Thomas, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research and Graduate Studies) with her warm welcome, while Professor Kathy Robinson, the President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA), marked the occasion by reflecting on the evolution of the ASAA's Women's Forum and the Women in Asia conference series.

Organised around the theme of Crisis, Agency and Change, over 100 presentations stimulated lively discussions across disciplines and regions of interest. A wide range of topics included feminist research methodology, women's role in the economy, participation in politics, sports, arts and activism, representation in literature and popular culture, gender and health, domestic violence, human trafficking, migrant women, and much more. Regions concerned encompassed East Asia (Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Taiwan), Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Indonesia, East Timor, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Burma) and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka). Transnationalism in the Asian region was also a notable area of investigation.

Figure 2. Poetry reading session. Photographer, Darren Boyd.

Sponsored panels added to the variety of issues discussed. Oxfam supported a panel on the gendered politics of displacement and dislocation in South Asia, and AusAID funded a panel on post-conflict peace building. The Japan-Foundation contributed to two panels on women's voices through poetic expression, as well as a poetry reading session. In addition to the excellent panel presentations, Professor Susan Napier from Tufts University gave a fascinating and visually entertaining keynote speech titled The Girl in the Cardboard Box: Dolls, Sex and Gender Identity in Contemporary Japan, while another keynote speaker Professor Feng Yuan from Shantou University inspired the audience with a talk entitled Turning Stress to Strength: Disadvantaged Women Coping with Crisis and Working for Change, which discussed Chinese women's activists' responses to the difficulties for women of recent economic and environmental crises.

Not only functioning as a place to network and debate, the conference venue was also a vibrant exhibition space for textile, ceramic and photographic arts created by women artists in Asia. Furthermore, stalls from Asia Book Room, a local specialist outlet promoting a variety of books on Asia, and Intersections, a peer-reviewed online journal located at the ANU, displayed leading titles in the field to promote exciting new works. The presence of postgraduate students and early career researchers in the crowd was particularly prominent—a promising sign that the younger generation is continuing the endeavours of seasoned feminist scholars.

The conference was wrapped up at a meeting chaired by Professor Lenore Lyons, President of the Women's Forum. Professor Lyons brought the attention of the attendees to the Women in Asia Series published by Routledge, and encouraged scholars to participate. Three conference participants also received a round of applause for their upcoming books in the Series. The atmosphere became even more joyous when Professor Margaret Jolly, Australian Laureate Fellow and a long-term supporter of the Women's Forum, announced the upcoming establishment of the Gender Institute at the ANU. This was welcome news, given the diminishing presence of gender studies in universities around Australia.

Feedback from the delegates was overwhelmingly positive and highlighted the appreciation for the diversity inherent in the design of the conference. In particular, the art exhibitions, poetry readings and a screening of the documentary film Autumn Gem about China's first feminist, Qiu Jin (followed by a Q & A with the directors Rae Chang and Adam Tow) were identified as some of the highlights.

Lessons for the future conference were also learnt from suggestions for improvement. The starting time of 8.30am was harsh for most, especially for those from interstate and abroad whose body clocks were yet to be adjusted; the placement of the keynote sessions before morning tea was questioned; a clear display of the abstract list and the keynote session details at the venue would have been helpful; the invitation-only policy for the postgraduate workshop, exclusive to the recipients of the postgraduate subsidy, caused disappointment among student attendees, who sought a more inclusive process in the future; technological issues arising from room allocation caused avoidable problems and undue stress to several presenters for whom use of visual materials was vital. With these lessons in mind, the next Women in Asia Conference is currently seeking organisers. Interested parties are encouraged to contact the Women's Forum for more information.

Thank you again to all the attendees for actively participating in this important conference on women in Asia. Collectively, the conference papers and presentations continued the feminist tradition of tackling issues of gender inequality and oppression, as well as exploring a new vision for women in Asia. This is all the more important as the twenty-first century has already been dubbed the Asian Century, and women make a crucial contribution to this region's dynamic political, economic, social and cultural formations.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 1 March 2011 1509