We are all stardust. The iron in our blood, calcium in our bones, carbon in our cells and oxygen in our lungs is all formed by nuclear fusion at the heart of stars, dispersed and scattered into the galaxy. This interstellar dust makes up our earth and finds its way into our bodies: we are in essence made up from dying stars. Every element in the periodic table aside from hydrogen is stardust. Although most of the atoms that make up our bodies are hydrogen, stardust atoms are heavier, meaning that 93% of our body mass is actually stardust. Stardust reminds us that we are intergenerational: our bodies carry materials that are as old as the universe. It reminds us that we are impermanent: our bodies rebuild themselves over and over throughout our lifetime. And it connects us to something bigger than ourselves."
Dr. Zahra Stardust is a socio-legal scholar whose work is concerned with intersections between criminal law, sexuality and justice. She lives on the Gadigal land of the Eora nation and has worked in policy and research capacities for academic institutions, NGOs, community organisations, corporate law firms and United Nations bodies in Australia and internationally.
Zahra’s most recent work is published in New Feminist Literary Studies (Cambridge University Press), Orienting Feminisms (Palgrave MacMillan) and Queer Sex Work(Routledge Series on Crime and Society), with articles in Porn Studies, the Journal ofSexual Health and the World Journal of AIDS. Her research interests include queer theories, feminisms, peer methodologies and critical legal studies.
As an Arts/Law student at the University of Sydney, Zahra interned with UN Women monitoring gendered discrimination in Australia and with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in Eritrea on sexual and reproductive health programming. She volunteered with Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre writing submissions for victim’s compensation for sexual assault and family violence, with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service assisting draft letters for Ministerial intervention, and with Amnesty International Australia co-founding the Freedom Writers human rights writing award.
In her final years of law school Zahra was a research assistant in the law faculties at the University of Sydney and University of Technology. She worked on an international comparative refugee law research project examining construction of LGBTIQ identities in asylum determination and on a project exploring reproductive rights, sex discrimination and gender inequities in health. Over three years she worked as a paralegal, summer clerk and law graduate at Allens Linklaters in litigation and dispute resolution and was seconded to work with the Kimberley Land Council in Broome as part of the Aurora Native Title Program. She assisted on pro bono projects to recover Indigenous people’s stolen wages and with the Homeless Persons Legal Service, a project of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, before leaving legal practice to pursue policy, advocacy and research roles. In her spare time Zahra volunteered with Animal Liberation, conducting research and speaking at High Schools about animal exploitation in food, clothing, companionship, experimentation and entertainment.
Following her work in the commercial law sector, Zahra completed a Master of Arts in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, working as a casual academic in undergraduate subjects on sexuality, gender, identity and violence. Her thesis was based on her experience working in the adult industry and examined feminist practice within erotic labour using qualitative interviews and auto-ethnography. During this time, she became the first ever political candidate for the Australian Sex Party, running for the House of Representatives in 2009, NSW Senate in 2010 and Lord Mayor of Sydney in 2012 as an out sex worker, advocating for civil liberties including the decriminalisation of abortion, comprehensive sex education, drug law reform and the extension of medically supervised injecting centres.
Keen to continue this advocacy, Zahra went on to work as the Policy Officer, International Spokesperson and Researcher for Australia’s peak national sex worker organisation, Scarlet Alliance, conducting wide community consultations, giving evidence at parliamentary hearings and writing submissions to government inquiries. This work combined her interests in law reform, human rights, harm reduction and public health, working to reduce stigma, discrimination and criminalisation among marginalised communities. She worked in partnership with Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW on a project to develop national quantitative indicator to measure sex work stigma in Australia, which will be used to assess progress on targets to reduce stigma and discrimination in implementing Australia’s National HIV and STI Strategies.
Zahra went on to undertake a PhD at the University of New South Wales examining the emergence of queer, feminist and DIY pornographies in Australia as a socio-political movement and their regulation through criminal and classification laws. Jointly supervised by the School of Arts and Media and the Faculty of Law, the project explored the democratization of pornography, criminalization of queer intimacies, platform governance and the compromised law reform. As part of this research Zahra appeared on panels across Canada, Netherlands, Germany and Australia, speaking with sex workers about stigmatised labour, women in film, community building, obscenity law, capitalism and sexual representation, and delivering live demonstration sex education workshops. She studied overseas as part of a Summer Institute on Sexuality, Culture and Society at the University of Amsterdam in addition to a Summer Doctoral Program at the University of Oxford Internet Institute, and in 2018 joined the Editorial Board of international journal Porn Studies.
During her candidacy Zahra completed a Teaching Fellowship at UNSW, guest lecturing in criminology, social research and public policy, assisting in curriculum mapping and course design, and assisting on an international animal law reform project to maximise animal welfare outcomes in the School of Social Sciences. She joined the LGBTI Sub-Committee of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and the Board of the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, advocating for law reform in support of safe school programs, gender recognition and vilification protections. She commenced a role as the Policy Advisor (and later Manager of Policy Strategy and Research) for ACON, formerly the AIDS Council of NSW and the largest LGBTIQ community health organisation in Australia. This peer-led advocacy, strategy and policy work involved supporting decision-makers to understand the needs of LGBTIQ people, particularly in relation to HIV and sexual health, mental health and wellbeing, alcohol and other drug use, domestic and family violence and anti-bullying. In 2018 Zahra was invited to be involved in the UNSW Facing Equality initiative, a portrait series to display a broader range of role models and thought leaders from diverse backgrounds across the university.
Zahra currently works on her podcast Thinking Justice, which brings together voices of organisers, academics and critical thinkers challenging us to imagine and create alternative futures. She is a Mentor with the Women’s Justice Network, formerly the Women In Prison Advocacy Network, supporting women recently released from prison with social reintegration. She is invested in collaborative work – both academic and artistic – that is committed to human rights, transformative justice and social change. She is particularly interested in prison abolition, animal liberation, climate action, safe migration and food security, and hopes for a world where we work collectively to build a sustainable planet and vibrant communities with access to rights, pathways for participation and avenues for justice.