Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ululating at the graduation ceremony

My little sister has just been awarded her PhD. At the graduation ceremony, most of the audience seemed glued to their smartphones. To my right, young women scrolled through clothes on eBay; in front of me, others updated their Facebook profiles and visited the websites of modelling agencies. I sighed, and settled in for the long haul.

But then, a few rows down, I saw some little kids in pretty polyester dresses and down-at-heel shoes. Grandma kept close watch as they played, gazed round the hall, and peered at the brightly-robed academics sitting on stage. Finally, mum’s name was called, Grandma nudged, and they cheered and clapped. Dad took photos of the stage, where mum stood beaming with her degree, and I was reminded of the powerful effects parental education has on children’s lives. I became a little teary.

The ceremony rolled on. Women in headscarves, men in traditional dress, girls in miniskirts, were all awarded their degrees one by one. An African man’s name was called, and the row behind me erupted. Women ululated, hooting and calling and cheering, while he beamed on stage. A few minutes later, another African was awarded his degree. In front of me, a curvy woman in skin-tight red sequins leapt up and began dancing. Her hips swung in slow, erotic circles; her arms reached out in joy; and her upturned face radiated delight as she swayed.

As an elegant woman of Middle Eastern descent received her degree, all the Facebooking, eBaying, tweeting young people around me looked up from their smartphones to whistle and cheer; her fan club was out in force. A Malay woman in a headscarf received her PhD; an ornate embroidered dress peeked out from under the academic gown. The proceedings rolled on, and children and adults pointed and cheered and took photos. It could have been a citizenship ceremony at Coburg Town Hall, only the people in the ceremony all wore matching gowns.

My sister was third last. For over a decade she has studied issues surrounding forced migration, resettlement, and asylum seeking. She has sought to understand the mechanisms which facilitate the settlement of Iraqi families in Shepparton and Dinka kids in Sunbury; she has interviewed Iranians and Afghanis and Kurds about their experiences in detention. She has investigated the alternatives to immigration detention offered by best practice countries, and has been invited to speak with policy-makers around the world. Her work has been used by the UN and, thanks to her presentations and reports, several countries have released children from detention. Who knows what the ripple effects of her work will be.

I am so, so proud of her. When her name was called, I glanced at the audience. Many may have hailed from groups she has worked with and advocated for, but because her work is in the background, at the invisible but crucial level of policy, and because it is anathema to this country’s current government, nobody knows her name. She walked on stage, and I wanted the whole audience to leap up, whoop, ululate, gyrate, whistle, and take her picture.

Instead, her husband, her father and I sat, grinning like loonies, and politely clapped.

This post, then, is my ululation, my swinging my hips in a tight red dress in ecstatic public celebration. Whoo-hoo! Well done, Rah!

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