Dianne Otto

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Jennifer Brough (JB): Hi Dianne! Tell me about what you are up to.

Dianne Otto (DO): It is a work in progress. I officially retired at the end of 2016 from my position at Melbourne Law School, where I held the Francine V. McNiff Chair in Human Rights Law. I now have an honorary appointment as a Professorial Fellow. I enjoy my new position with fewer formal responsibilities. I am less tied to time-tables and to the increasingly corporate university sector, I am still doing some teaching, supervision and academic writing and am more available to have coffee with students and attend conferences. I share more pleasures with my partner Joan and with friends, as well as spending more meditative hours in my garden and walking our dog Cello.

However, I also now have fewer distractions from the horrors of our increasingly dystopian world—spreading militarism, surveillance, bigotry, misogyny and authoritarianism; rising numbers of desperate asylum seekers and people living in poverty; and a threatened natural environment. Perhaps most distressing, I see liberatory languages and ideas—drawn from feminist, post-colonial and queer struggles—used to further neo-imperial, authoritarian and militarist agendas. I ask myself nearly every day what is my role, without coming up with a satisfactory answer.

JB: You worked in community development before entering legal academia. What prompted your interest in becoming an academic?

DO: I had no idea I would end up being an academic. I worked as a community worker and activist from 1975-1989, helping to establish the first women’s refuge in Adelaide while I was a student, and going on to be the first paid worker at the feminist women’s refuge in Melbourne in 1975.

I identified as a socialist-feminist, although now I realise I was influenced by many different feminist strands, particularly what came to be known as sex-positive feminism. I learned about grassroots social change from these early experiences, which I took into my later work as a youth worker, where my mantra was that we had to understand and address disadvantage in terms of ‘class, race and gender’. For many of my youth work colleagues at the time, the most controversial component was gender. It was not long before resourceful young lesbians, struggling with hostility and poverty, found their way to me. I could have added ‘sexuality’ to my mantra, but was afraid it would negatively affect some of my other work relationships and perhaps threaten the underground information network that connected me with these young women. Perhaps I was most afraid of the stigma that would attach to me.

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From 1984-1988, I was coordinator of the Youth Accommodation Coalition of Victoria, an umbrella resource, advocacy and lobby group for community-based youth housing groups across the state. This placed me at the centre of governmental policy-making processes at both the state and federal levels. The timing coincided with a period during which governments were moving from treating government-funded community groups as a valuable resource to mere deliverers of government services. Neoliberalism was on the rise and governments were interested in performance indicators and efficiency measures, rather than social change. I found myself increasingly frustrated as the community sector gains during the preceding years—the valuing of community self-determination and individual empowerment—were stripped away.

I had to find a different way to tackle the issues of inequality and injustice, so I decided to embark on a law degree. I did not have a clear idea about how this would help, but I hoped this would become clear as I went along. I started in 1990 when I was 38, and was both excited and horrified by what I learned. Thankfully, there were other feminist students; I may not have survived without their support. We had conversations reflecting on our experiences of legal education, the effects on our bodies, on our sense of ourselves, and on how we understood power. We encouraged each other to use feminist legal theory and to challenge lecturers on their sexist assumptions and omissions. We were lucky that there were several feminist faculty members whose presence was reassuring and validating.

After completing my law degree I was at a loss as to what to do next. I worked for Amnesty International Australia for a year, which was rewarding but did not provide opportunities to use my new legal knowledge. It was one of my feminist law school friends who suggested I apply for an academic position at Melbourne Law School, which is how I came to be an academic.

JB: What are some challenges you've faced during your career?

DO: To start with, my biggest challenge was self-confidence in such a highly competitive and elitist environment. This was compounded by my determination to teach law in a critical and grounded way, drawing from my experiences working with homeless young people and women fleeing domestic violence. I wanted to encourage my students to believe that law could be used to promote progressive social change, despite being steeped in hierarchical white-anglo tradition and conservative-liberal values. It took me some years to figure out how to do this in ways that worked for students, and to realise that my own struggle to engage critically with law would never end because the pull to legal orthodoxy and respectability was relentless—embedded in institutional demands such as promotions criteria, student expectations, interactions with colleagues, academic publishing protocols and students’ employment aspirations.

As time went by, my connections with like-minded scholars and activists in Australia and around the world expanded, and I came to feel a part of a larger community, which continues to play a big part in building my confidence while challenging my thinking. I have also been inspired by many students who have managed to maintain their social justice aspirations despite the desensitising effects of their legal education. As neo-liberalism has fostered a global market in legal education, the opportunities for critical engagement in the teaching and learning of law have dramatically diminished. We urgently need to find better ways to resist these developments.

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JB: To echo a question you raised in your article ‘A Sign of Weakness?’ is it possible to formally include women in the peacemaking process without re-emphasising gender binaries?

DO: This is a fundamental conundrum for feminists involved with law: how to address women’s gendered disadvantages and exclusions without re-inscribing them in the process of seeking legal redress. The women’s peace movement is just one example. The male/female binary has long been analytically relied upon to legitimise and naturalise the war/peace binary, feminising both peace and peacemaking. The result is, as feminist anti-war activists were repeatedly told by government officials across Europe during World War I, that making the first move towards peace negotiations would be ‘a sign of weakness’ that would place peacemakers at a disadvantage when settling the terms of peace. So, if anti-war feminists also feminise peace-making by asserting women’s (naturally or socially conditioned) propensity for peace and, on this basis, promote women’s equal participation in peacemaking and peacebuilding, the male/female binary that underpins militarism and women’s inequality is reaffirmed, and armed conflict remains a core demonstration of manhood.

One way to resolve this conundrum is to refuse this binary thinking and the naturalisation/normalisation that it sustains. Feminists have largely founded their struggles for change on the understanding that gender is a social (or performative) category including our understanding of gendered body parts and functions.

I think this means the feminist project is to de-feminise peace by promoting it as a multi-gendered aspiration, as desired by all genders, including men, women, intersex, transgendered, fluidly gendered and other gender identities. This means a deeper questioning of who is currently involved in peacemaking than challenging the absence of women, and understanding that it is crucial to reject the harmful stereotypes of men, as well as women and other genders, that are produced and normalised by gender dualism. I think this will strengthen feminist efforts to promote peace, rather than weaken them as some feminists fear, but it requires a major rethinking of feminist theory and strategy.

JB: Despite the necessity of women’s involvement at all levels of peacemaking process outlined in CEDAW, little appears to have changed. For instance, the Council of Foreign Relations found women made up 2% of mediators, 5% of witness and signatories, and 8% of negotiators in major peace processes from 1990-2017. How can we ensure more women, including women of colour, non-binary women, and other underrepresented groups, are at the table?

DO: Invoking CEDAW obligations provides one legal basis for insisting on women’s substantively equal involvement at all levels of peacemaking, including the adoption of temporary special measures (affirmative action) to achieve this, as the vast majority of states, though not the US, have ratified CEDAW. CEDAW requires states parties to counter harmful stereotypes of both men and women, which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes. This surely demands rejecting the typecasting of men as naturally violent and women as inherently peaceful. However, CEDAW is limited by its understanding of sex/gender as a duality and its asymmetrical focus on women as always being the disadvantaged gender group and men as setting the standard for equality. Paradoxically, rather than working against militarisation, CEDAW promotes the equal participation of women, like men, in the military, and instead of condemning all forms of armed, conflict-related violence; it condemns only violence against women.

As I said, feminists need to rethink entirely who should be centrally involved in peacemaking as well as in conflict prevention, which is surely the primary feminist goal. As your question acknowledges, the category of women includes the whole range of human diversities. So, I do not think that the presence of women will, by itself, make a difference. It depends which women are sitting at the table, whether they constitute a critical mass and what commitments and experiences they bring with them. What is most important is that the people at the table do not see negotiating peace or preventing conflict as a sign of weakness. This needs a paradigm shift that de-glorifies militarism and the possession of weapons, and instead promotes general disarmament, embraces the many (non-violent) possibilities for gender expression and commits to an equitable global redistribution of resources, also known as positive peace.

Change is seldom predictable, but I like to think of efforts towards these ambitious goals as creating footholds that can be strengthened in the future. The challenge is to keep feminist aims for positive peace at the forefront of our thinking, and remember that increasing the number of women in peacemaking is not the ultimate goal, but may be a means towards realising a more emancipatory world order.

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JB: In a similar vein, how can the UN and similar institutions integrate gender, queerness and post-colonial thought into peacemaking approaches?

DO: Aiming for integration, as we have learned through bitter experience, always risks institutional co-option. Neo-liberalism has proved to be especially adept at selectively integrating feminist ideas into institutional identities, policies and programs. The World Bank, for example, promotes women’s equality as a means to increase economic productivity. The Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda has enabled it to claim a broader mandate for intervention to stop sexual violence, shifting the focus from ending armed conflict to making it safer for women. We have also seen the advocacy of LGBTIQ rights misused to promote Islamophobia and justify or draw attention away from the use of force (pinkwashing). Postcolonial thought has been distorted to justify authoritarian regimes and protection from international criticism. So, I prefer the idea of creating footholds in international law and institutions, which can be built upon, rather than integration.

JB: What keeps you motivated?

DO: Something must be done to change the conditions that are experienced by the majority of the world’s population including poverty, armed conflict, exploitation, homelessness, statelessness, military occupation, family and community violence, human rights violations, environmental destruction, preventable illnesses and the list goes on. What is the alternative?

JB: What advice can you offer for those looking to bridge the divide between academia and transformative praxis with respect to law and gender equality?

DO: In my teaching, I try to promote ‘critical practise’ by introducing students to the idea, and discussing the difficulties involved as we make our way through the subject materials. Where possible, I invite a guest practitioner to talk about their experience of imbuing their legal work with transformative aspirations in law reform efforts, litigation strategies, community-based legal services, activism and so on. There are plenty of examples, and they all require taking calculated risks. I urge students to think of their legal education as teaching them how to take such risks.

In my research, my approach is to work closely with the issues that feminist activists are encountering hoping that my academic research will have practical application. Thus, I have written critically about the role of NGOs in international law, the various feminist strategies in human rights law to have women be treated as fully human, the engagement of feminist anti-war activists with the Security Council, and what people’s tribunals tell us about the limits of law and the importance of collective responsibility.

JB: Tell me more about your current projects, especially your new book, and what you are working towards.

DO: My last big project, while I was still a full-time academic, culminated in an edited collection: Queering International Law: Possibilities, Alliances, Complicities, Risks (Routledge 2018). The idea for this collection had been gathering momentum for at least a decade. I wanted to show that ‘queering’ international law was both a scholarly and an activist project, inspired by a hope for change that was far more ambitious than LGBTIQ normative inclusion, as important as that is. Currently, I am interested in addressing the problem that the notion of gender identity has formally come to mean transgendered people, which risks ‘re-biologising’ the gender identities of male and female. I argue that we need to understand that everyone has a socially constituted gender identity, linking back to some of the concerns I expressed earlier about CEDAW. I am also planning to write about the increasing hostility toward feminism from orthodox religious groups and conservative populist movements and how this is impacting on the work of human rights activists, treaty bodies and international institutions. Eventually, I would like to write about my life in law.


Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough