This year’s FIFA men’s World Cup has cast a media spotlight on Qatar’s human rights record. The tournament also offered an opportunity to draw attention to the current protests in Iran surrounding the mistreatment of women.
Qatar’s imbalance in rights and treatment of women in particular has been called out. Discrimination against women has long been enshrined in Qatari law, including unclear rules on male guardianship. This means Qatari women face inequities and lack of access to basic freedoms.
Although Iran was not a host country, the World Cup has been an opportunity for people to protest the treatment of women in Iran following the death in custody of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. Iranian footballer Amir Reza Nasr Azadani was this month sentenced to death for joining in protests against the country’s clerical establishment.
Host nations of large sports events are often called out by the international public for their track record on human rights. If they fall short of human rights expectations they are increasingly accused of “sportswashing” – enhancing their reputation by leveraging the goodwill associated with sport.
While Australia is unlikely to be accused of sportswashing to the same extent as nations like Qatar, should we be? As we prepare to co-host (with New Zealand) the 2023 FIFA women’s World Cup, will the world bring focus to Australia’s treatment of women?
Sport events revealing human rights injustices
In 2017, amid mounting criticism of its decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar, FIFA, the international governing body of football, adopted a Human Rights Policy with the aim of encouraging member countries to respect and protect all human rights. However, FIFA stands accused of failing to adhere to its own human rights commitments.
This includes FIFA praising Russia for hosting a successful tournament in 2018, despite the country doing little to hold that nation to account for abuses of foreign workers, repression of LGBTQIA+ people and its persecution of Ukraine.
Is Australia levelling the playing field for women?
It’s important to note that unlike Qatar and Iran, Australia doesn’t have constitutional or legally formalised repression of women or sexual minorities. However, women (especially First Nations women) in Australia still navigate deeply entrenched inequities and disadvantage for a range of reasons.
This is why in the lead-up to Australia co-hosting the Women’s World Cup, the nation needs to look at its own gender inequities. For example, Australia is currently ranked 43rd in the world by the World Economic Forum for gender equality. In contrast, our 2023 Women’s World Cup hosting partners New Zealand ranks fourth.
One woman a week dies in Australia as a consequence of intimate partner violence. One in two Australian women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. It’s been estimated violence against women costs the Australian economy $21.7 billion a year. Migrant, refugee and First Nations women are at greater risk.
Australia’s lack of progress is also reflected in Australian men having been found to hold some of the most sexist and misogynistic views in the world. This research found more men in Australia believe “it’s a woman’s obligation to have sex with her boyfriend or husband even if she doesn’t feel like it” than men in any of the 30 countries surveyed.
Inequity against women is also present in workplaces. Despite legislative and other apparent protections, inequities against women are weaved into the very fabric of our nation. From the private domain, workplaces to the law and public office, masculine (typically white) privilege is retained.
At the current rate of progress, it will take more than 200 years for Australian women to achieve pay equity with men.
First Nations women disproportionately affected by inequity in Australia
Through Australia’s Legacy ‘23 plan to increase diversity in professional sport, there is an opportunity for First Nations women and gender-diverse people to participate in football. While a great sporting opportunity, how will this materially or culturally benefit these First Nations people in the long term?
First Nations peoples’ public participation in sport is not enough, as academics Toni Bruce and Emma Wensing have found in their research. They analysed the reception to Cathy Freeman’s success at the Sydney Olympics, and found that widepsread media coverage of Freeman’s achievements did nothing to change the country’s racial attitudes towards Aboriginal people.
While widespread media coverage of participation in sport is certainly a great opportunity for some First Nations people in Australia, it could be considered a form of sportswashing, where media use sport and sporting achievements to distract from bigger issues. For example, in 2016–17, Indigenous women in Australia reported three times as many incidents of sexual violence and accounted for one in three family violence hospitalisations, and were more likely to be killed due to assault.
Moving the goalposts
Australia has voluntarily entered into human rights treaty commitments including the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
As it stands, we aren’t doing enough to honour this commitment. Uplifting women will have positive cultural and economic effects that benefit all Australians, we’re on the same team after all. To build women’s strengths Australia could start by investing in meaningful amounts of paid parental leave. First Nations people must also be valued and empowered to address inequities affecting them.
Perhaps some rules of the game need changing? Or maybe the goalposts need to be shifted altogether. Calling foul on workplace harassment, eliminating the gender pay gap, reducing violence against Indigenous women and enabling women to progress are rights Australia has sworn to practice and protect.
This would be a win for everyone.