The women’s liberation movement from 1965 to 1975 was a powerful time to be a woman. These gutsy women had had enough; there wasn’t a word for sexism yet, but oh boy, was there going to be. Biff Ward, author, activist and feminist, was right in the thick of this political dance. Her passion for fighting against the Vietnam War soon merged with the Women Against Rape In War Collective, which sought to fight against the silence surrounding rape as a tactic of war. For Biff, this visceral symbiosis of the issues she cared about most knew no limits, only to nudge us (forcefully) towards gender equality.
Rape is officially recognised as a war crime thanks to the efforts of women like Biff 52 years ago. However, the fight against rape as a weapon of war is far from over.
Women in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Syria and Ethiopia’s and South Sudan still face a surge of sexual violence within conflict zones.
It’s an issue Biff is still passionate about, even more so now, as we all watch on in horror for the women of Ukraine.
Elaine: How did you get involved in the women’s liberation movement?
Biff: Well, what happened to me was that there was this big anti-war conference in the long weekend in January, Australia day weekend. The Sunday afternoon had been put aside for women’s liberation, and I went to this meeting really angry and thought what this rubbish talking about women? The war is what matters we have to stop the war so, I went there object.
In this meeting, they had five women speaking for 10 minutes each about why they were in women’s liberation. The third one, I had never met her, she talked about growing up in the northern beaches of Sydney, and all her childhood she was surfing with the boys, thinking she was as good as the boys; always thought she was as good as the men. Then she read Frantz Fannon Black Skin White Masks, and she realised that’s what she was doing; she was a woman but trying to be as good as a man. And when she said that, I felt like I had been hit in my stomach with a sledgehammer. That’s what I had always done, and that means that being a woman is not worthwhile. I was so shocked; I was converted in an instant.
Elaine: What issues did the women’s liberation movement discuss?
Biff: You have to understand that in 1970, the word sexism didn’t exist. There was absolutely no language, no discussion about gender things. So, we were starting from scratch, trying to understand what is this thing that we are starting to have feelings about.
It was bit by bit. Housework was the first thing we realised; we were expected to work, and do the shopping, all the cooking and all the housework. We did everything! That was a big thing we talked about, childcare, and a lot about the body. I ended up in the hospital from a backyard abortion. There were never any shortages about things to talk about then.
Elaine: How did the Women Against Rape in War movement come about?
Biff: What happened in Canberra was these women who had been involved in the rape crisis centres just went, I didn’t know they were doing it, but they just did it, and they just went to Anzac day and tried to march up to the War Memorial. But when they went down the bottom and tried to join in and they all got arrested, and so we all flared up at that. It was sort of like our natural antipathy to war, and this issue that we started to look at with rape just came together. We had no question about it. I mean, everyone knows women get raped in war; it’s a part of how you subdue the other men on the other side is by raping their women. It’s about ownership, a man’s ownership over the female body
Elaine: Why do you think it bothered people so much? Women marching for women who had been raped in war?
Biff: Because this is their day, it’s about their heroism, their sacrifice and the mates who had died. And understand that, that’s special to them and we were saying, well this is special to us. This is about women; women are a part of the war and we want to honour it. But they were extremely offended. And I understand; they thought they were being accused of rape or potential rapist. And it’s true, some of them were. Somewhere in that period when women got a lot of publicity, women started to write to us, with stories of being raped in World War II Often by Australian soldiers, and it wasn’t spoken about.
Elaine: What were the main goals of your protest?
Biff: It was absolutely breaking the silence. My big things have always been anti-war and sexual violence. So, when they both came together, I was like yes! I was very passionate about it.
Elaine: Were you arrested the following year that you tried to protest?
Biff: After that first lot of arrested the following year, there was a Federal law that sought to control who could march on Anzac Day, to stop the women marching. And that was fantastic because what that did was activate all the civil libertarians, the people who believed in injustice. Even if they didn’t think we should have done what we did, they were outraged that we weren’t allowed to do it. Our numbers swelled. It became a big civil liberty battle. And we gathered in Reid, and we had some speeches, I spoke.
We marched for half a block, and eventually, we came to a wall of police across the road. And we were singing, a song that goes, we are singing, singing, singing for our lives. And a lot of the police were crying; they had tears running down their cheeks. And we kept singing, face to face with them. We were all just mass arrested; those who weren’t arrested, actually kept marching up and laid a wreath, it happened in cities across Australia.
Elaine: Women are still getting raped in war; despite the progress made in international laws, women are still facing a surge of violence within conflict zones, and the response is largely underfunded. Why do you think that military expenditures are prioritised over protection programs for victims of sexual assault and gender-based violence?
Biff: I don’t even think they are in the same zone; they are entirely separate. I have just written a book about the Vietnam War, signed off yesterday (9th March) The reason we have so much war, and it’s the reason the Ukraine war is happening actually is because of the military-industrial complex, that has to make war go on existing. Half of the military industry is buying machines to kill people, and it has to go on existing in its own logic; well it can’t just suddenly stop and say well, we want peace.
Elaine: There isn’t a gender crimes regime within these conflict zones that can target these crimes, which means the perpetrators can essentially get away with it. How does that make you feel as a feminist?
Biff: (long sigh) It’s the main issue I believe in! The body how women’s bodies are talked about and looked at and used and abused.
Elaine: Women in conflict zones and even here in Australia feel a lot of fear, isolation and shame when reporting these crimes. How can we make women in these conflict zones feel seen by the justice system to come forward?
Biff: That’s a huge question, and you know the history of the women’s movement that I’ve been involved with has been criticised a lot for being white and middle-classed, and that’s true it was. But I also think a lot of revolutions start that way; the people with the most power have got the space and the means to be activists. Because they are not going to lose their whole lives by being activists. So, these 52 years that I’ve been in women’s liberation, I just trust women everywhere that when have a glimmering of sexism when you can see it because when you can see it, it’s really like scales coming off your eyes. I mean, we saw it everywhere, dinner parties, on the street, at work. We suddenly saw it and thought my god! Once women have that, I really trust women in their own spaces to own what they need to do. For rich, white people like us, we need to provide everything they need, and what they ask for, but I don’t think we need to go and tell them what they need to it.
Elaine: Denis Mukwege Doctor and Nobel Peace prize laureate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo has stated in the 2021 United Nations press conference that “we are still far away from being able to draw a red line against the use of sexual violence in war and conflict.” Do you fear for the women in Ukraine?
Biff: I fear for women everywhere! All the time! And war just makes it worse and worse. It just amps it up by 1000% because of this masculine notion that men own women, that when men rape women, that upsets their men. That comes into play in a way that isn’t always happening here, in a none war society. But you know, young women, just living their life going to civic at night, rape is always there at the back of your mind—that fear of men, that fear of toxic masculinities.
Elaine: Is the military being educated on this?
Biff: Yes, they are very slowly. I worked for 20 years as a change agent, and I know that change is very slow. Because you can change rules, that’s the stick, but you have to change attitudes; that’s the carrot. Rape has been against the law, forever, but it doesn’t stop it happening.
Elaine: The women against rape in war collective definitely broke the silence against rape as a weapon of war, but do you think that there is still more that we can do?
Of course, there is always more that we can do. At the beginning of women’s liberation, we used to say that no women are liberated until all women are. Because as long as women can be raped or paid less, it’s not ok. Back in the beginning, that was really interesting because this whole women’s liberation was a new idea, and within a couple of years, Uncles, people in your family would say, aren’t you liberated yet? And you know it was hard to explain to them, this is an international revolution, this is bigger than you could possibly imagine.
Elaine: What can we do to protect women in currently in conflict zones?
Biff: I was crying watching the news last night, the Polish women who brought all their prams to the train station for Ukrainian women. It’s amazing all the ways women can support other women, even without words. Spreading the feminist message, using the word sexism when it’s relevant, joining an organisation that is sending aid to wherever you want to send it.
Original photos by Elaine Obran