Aboriginal women lead fight against violence

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On 6 February, four brave Aboriginal women shared their experiences of being victims of sexual assault and harassment on the ABC's 7:30 Report. These shocking stories and the strength of these women was made even more plain by the fact that the alleged perpetrator of this violence against all four women is the current head of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), Wayne Muir. Muir (pictured) has denied all accusations but, nonetheless, was stood down by the board of directors of VALS in the wake of this report.

Wayne MuirIt is, however, a sad state of affairs when a group of women are forced to go public like this in order to be heard because they have been systemically failed over an extraordinary 30 year period, by their workplaces, by their communities, and by the legal system. On watching the report I couldn't help but feel that the exact same processes which had elevated this alleged perpetrator had silenced these women, and this was a shameful state of affairs.

When the report broke, I saw many Aboriginal women take to social media to share it and register their own shock and outrage. Indeed, many of them challenged others in the Indigenous community, particularly men, to stand up and be counted. It's so important they did this, for how can we ever win the fight against racism and colonisation in this country when Aboriginal women's rights to safety and autonomy are not respected? When our rights must always come secondary to those meant to march alongside us in the struggle?

It struck me that this report had come out mere days after Kerri-Anne Kennerley had demonised Indigenous rights protesters by claiming that none of the protesters had done anything about the rapes and abuse of women and children in the Northern Territory. It was an erroneous and racist comment for many reasons, not least because many of the Aboriginal women who organise these protests every year are survivors themselves or work tirelessly within the family and domestic violence fields.

The suffering of Aboriginal women should never be used as a cheap shot to denigrate the activism we engage in. Yet it continually is; if not from white media commentators who are not even remotely engaged in our movements then from Indigenous conservatives looking to position themselves as authorities within mainstream arenas such as politics.

It stuns me, for example, that Jacinta Price can on one hand draw on the experiences of Marlene Cummins as outlined in Black Panther Woman, yet on the other hand denigrate activists in Indigenous sovereignty movements even though this was precisely the movement Cummins was engaged in. Indeed, continually denigrating Indigenous activists organising on the streets only serves to silence some of our strongest advocates against violence within our communities.

What's more, it makes the arrogant assumption that assimilation into non-Indigenous communities will end the family, domestic and sexual violence that Aboriginal women endure at significantly higher rates.

 

"If mainstream claims were correct then wealthy white women in urban settings would be safe. One woman dead per week states this is not the case."

 

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Putting Gender on the Agenda conference in Alice Springs — hosted by the Alice Springs Women's Shelter and OurWatch in conjunction with grassroots groups such as the Tangentyere Women's Family Safety Group. Not only was it a privilege to hear about initiatives these community-based organisations were taking to combat violence, re-educate and rehabilitate offenders and build the self-esteem of women, but it also reiterated to me some of the struggles we have gaining justice for women.

I will never, for example, forget the time I read that Aboriginal women in Victoria who had sought police assistance while trying to escape violence had ended up locked up themselves — allegedly for their own safety. Recently, Sisters Inside has been raising funds to bail out the hundreds of Aboriginal women — most of whom are mothers and nearly all of whom are survivors of family, domestic and/or sexual violence — currently locked up in the Western Australian prison system to 'work off' fines.

When it comes to rape and sexual harassment, Australian women in general are continuously failed by a system which places the onus on them to 'prove' they were attacked, and we see this play out time and time again in victim blaming narratives. When it comes to Aboriginal women however, society rarely seems to care unless such accusations can be weaponised against entire communities. For further information, see the Northern Territory Intervention. When communities are continually under attack from the authorities (e.g. the escalating rates of child removal), our services are defunded and not many avenues for alternative restorative justice exist, it puts Aboriginal women in an almost impossible situation.

Meanwhile, some perpetrators can freely continue to rise to the top within the white capitalist patriarchal system. In a speech at the Putting Gender on the Agenda conference, I argued that when it comes to the violence Aboriginal women suffer, the mainstream always tends blame the exacerbating factors rather than the root causes. They blame alcohol, remoteness, joblessness, adherence to traditional culture, lack of education and so forth. Rarely do they blame power (e.g. gendered power) and how it's wielded upon Aboriginal women to ensure we remain on the lowest rungs. If mainstream claims were correct then wealthy white women in urban settings would be safe. One woman dead per week states this is not the case.

If the rest of Australia was as brave as those four women who told their stories on national television, and confronted their fears regarding the full extent of what safety, autonomy and equality for Aboriginal women might truly look like — free from racism, sexism and a state which continues to benefit from our oppression — things could actually get better. As the famous quote delivered via Gangulu woman Lilla Watson goes, 'If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.'

 

 

Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU, and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, Aboriginal women, family violence, Kerri-Anne Kennerly

 

 

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Well written, Celeste. The more hidden abusive acts are, the more they multiply. When abuses are routinely exposed, the social ethos changes; other victims become brave enough to tell what has been done to them. The tide will rise up: of public disapprobation against perpetrators and of concern that survivors receive justice. It takes time to change society but, when more and more people persist in insisting on the truth and refuse to be intimidated, improvements will be demanded. There're many good indicators that truth is starting to be more generally valued and prioritised in Australia. Yet, as you say, there's still a way to go. It would also help if, from an early age our children understood Jesus' warning, that: ". . all who use the sword will perish by the sword." In other words, cruel acts that hurt others will boomerang on one's eternity.
Dr Marty Rice | 19 February 2019


'When it comes to Aboriginal women however, society rarely seems to care unless such accusations can be weaponised against entire communities.' Exactly. Thanks Celeste - and Eureka Street to which your contributions are such an asset.
Michele Madigan | 21 February 2019


For those who are sick of talk about sovereignty and who want to help Jacinta Price in her fight against violence, her gofundme is https://www.gofundme.com/6tv0qvk
James Franklin | 21 February 2019


@James - or not. Support the women doing actual work against violence via Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group. They need the funds.
Celeste | 21 February 2019


@ James Franklin The Go Fund me page you refer to is not funding a campaign against violence, but a fund raiser for her election campaign in the seat of Lingiari
Chiara Maqueda | 22 February 2019


Spot on and thank you Celeste for bringing balance to the arguments. Feeling for all abused, for the women and men who came forward . All strength to them and those whom continue to fight this. Prison is not the answer for those fleeing domestic violence. Nor should we reward offenders with promotion. Destructive powerful structures-whether at home, work/ church need to dismantled. This is also a starkly reminder of the ugliness of people/ groups and even politicians who come out with lies/ignorant and racist comments! Worse still are those including our former PM Howard -Mal Brough Govt who in 2007 totally misused a report, The Little Children are Sacred Report, weaponized the situation -lied / grossly misrepresented it, for their own political gains-the introduction of major social welfare in Australia and the dismantling of land rights in the NT. In many areas the Minister in Canberra has ultimate say over land. Our Nation's leaders all need to be held account - more than just at election time. Untold damage of the ongoing 2007 NT Intervention-2012 Stronger [stolen] Futures continues. FNP have less control, poverty has increased in the NT perpetuating lateral violence in all its ugly forms.
Georgina Gartland | 23 February 2019


RE: "Rarely do they blame power (e.g. gendered power) and how it's wielded upon Aboriginal women to ensure we remain on the lowest rungs. If mainstream claims were correct then wealthy white women in urban settings would be safe. One woman dead per week states this is not the case." So true. Thank you Celeste for this excellent article. And Georgina Gartland for your excellent comments. It is shocking to see the Prime Minister shouting his faux concern for Aboriginal women and children in Parliament. The politicisation of this issue is Trumpesque in its horror. The media continue to demonise Aboriginal culture, yet show me anywhere in the so called 'civilised' white world where I as a woman can feel safe. The deeply ingrained misogyny in white culture hides so many layers of institutionalised violence against women and children and white women have for centuries been beaten and raped into submission. Who can forget the witch burning? When Captain Arthur Phillip sailed from England, the death sentence for men in England was hanging. For women, it was burning at the stake. Civilised? Try bringing a powerful white man to court in Australia for sexual abuse charges. Your chances are almost zero. I am mentioning this because I have seen how the imposition of white culture on Aboriginal Australia has been responsible for the disempowerment of Aboriginal women, and helped create a power imbalance in Aboriginal society. I believe this has contributed substantially to what we are now seeing. Penny Campton
Penny Campton | 24 February 2019


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