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Lakemba and Werribee lessons for the media

  • 30 October 2006

This last week has seen two stories about the treatment of women. One focused on young men who had made a DVD depicting their humiliating abuse of a young woman. The other focused on a Muslim cleric who had said that if women did not dress conservatively, they could provoke rape. The conjunction of these two events raises questions about Australian cultural life, and not simply about the local community at Werribee, west of Melbourne, or the Muslim community in Australia.

The best response is to ask ourselves the questions that parents in Werribee and Sydney's south-west will have been grappling with. In conversation with our children, what would we want to say to them about the way in which they should relate to other people? And what should they keep in mind as they shape their dress and appearance?

I would want to say, first, that they should respect others, and that there is never a valid excuse for showing lack of respect. This means that the way in which women or men dress, speak or look never entitles us to make assumptions about their intentions or desires. Still less does it entitle us to treat them abusively. Nor should these incidentals of dress and appearance be considered a mitigating factor in the guilt of rape and sexual abuse.

To put it concretely, if we pass on the street corner a woman who is scantily clad and heavily made-up, we should treat her with the same courtesy and respect as we would treat an elderly and conservatively dressed woman standing nearby.

I would want to make that statement without qualification, not allowing it to be undercut by this next point. I would want also to say that we communicate something about ourselves by the way in which we stand, sit, dress and behave. People will read our character and dispositions from our external appearance, independently of what we intend to say about ourselves.

In a society like ours where these signs are not strongly coded, I would want my children to be aware of the range of signs that we present, and of the ways in which they may be read. I would particularly wish them, both boys and girls, to be aware of the way in which some styles of dress and appearance will commonly lead others to identify their persons with their sexuality, rather than their sexuality