Monday, February 1, 2016

My Invasion Day articles

This was a pretty big week for me article-wise, undoubtedly because Australia Day produces much fodder. People are starting to get more interested in Indigenous views on this day, and so I found there was an endless string of requests. I therefore had three articles go live which meant some long after-hours stints once I got home from the office, and I thought I would publish them up here.
The first was this one published on the NITV website. Basically I argue that changing the date of Australia Day is not the answer, negotiating a long overdue treaty is: Changing the date won’t fix ‘Australia Day’
The second was an article I got together quickly, after I got home from work and before I headed out for Friday drinks because I thought it was important to explore solidarity: How to show solidarity with Indigenous Australians this Invasion Day 
Finally, this piece went live Friday evening. I was incensed by the coverage of the Invasion Day rallies and how I felt the mainstream media set out to diminish the importance of these as well as the shifting social perceptions. It's available here: Downsizing numbers can't silence Indigenous protests
Thanks folks. As said, I got a lot more requests and had to turn stuff down. I encourage folks to continue amplifying Indigenous opinion on this day in 2017. Until then. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Aboriginal women in 2015

The clock has chimed 12 times, the calendar has flipped over and suddenly we find ourselves in a brand new year. 2015 was, to put it bluntly, a challenge and I don't feel I am alone in stating I was ready to see the back of it. But it was a significant year in many respects for Aboriginal women and I just want to take the time to recognise some of these moments.

We have had some wonderful women smashing the moulds this year. Worora woman Vinka Barunga is on track to becoming the first Aboriginal doctor in Derby and was featured in this SBS news piece. Millie Telford was named the 2015 Young Conservationist of the Year and went from strength to strength as the CEO of Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Coalition. Amongst so much more, she has done integral work highlighting the specific impacts felt by Indigenous communities due to climate change. I wanted to note the numerous young women who I saw front and centre at the rallies against the Forced Closures of Aboriginal communities who spoke strongly and had to deal with tools like this on occasion yet did not lose heart. Noongar school girl Danikka Calyon not only was commended at the WA Youth Awards for her tireless work empowering young people in a number of arenas but also attended the UN General Assembly and addressed them on the plight of Aboriginal people. There are so many more young women doing extraordinary things, and this is but a small handful.

In NSW, the Grandmothers Against Removals successfully lobbied the NSW government to change their policies regarding at risk Aboriginal children so that elders are consulted and opportunities for children to remain with family and community are properly explored. This prompted similar organising amongst Martu elders in WA and Grandmothers Against Removals is now pretty much a national network. In Mount Isa, women elders devised a mentorship programme for young mothers called "At Nanna's Knee" to assist in the development of parenting skills in culturally-appropriate ways. Aunty Jenny Munro, the spokesperson for the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy was recently shortlisted as one of Daily Life's "Woman of the Year" candidates for her staunch sovereignty activism. Again, there have been so many other women elders who should be recognised.

It was a year not without its trials for Aboriginal women though. Aboriginal women experiencing violence were used as an excuse to shutdown WA communities from a government which continually fails to protect these women anyway and properly fund services to assist. Aboriginal women on welfare were referred to as "cash cows" who were perpetually impregnated. It's fair to say that with much of the year having Tony Abbott as both the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and the Minister for Women, we didn't have much hope. But the continual scape-goating, the lack of consultation and the continual talking for by white men who really need to learn to listen for a change showed this country still considers the voices and experiences of Aboriginal women to be of little worth, and solutions lie in paternalism rather than empowerment and collaboration. This continues to be a nation's shame.

Finally, it has been an incredibly sad year. An estimated 17 Aboriginal women were noted within the Counting Dead Women and the Man Murders Woman tallies, therefore making up over 20% of the overall list despite being 3% of the population. The coronial inquiry into the death in custody of 22yo Ms Dhu (which will continue in March) heard that police "may have been negligent" in their duty of care. Meanwhile the Aboriginal women prison population increased 150% since 2009 proving the WA govt continues to learn nothing. In NT, the death of 20yo Ms Mardigan who suffered from Lupus was also linked to the lack of due care by authorities and systems who could have done so much more. It was a year of loss of so many of our women and with so much of it being preventable, it tells an horrific tale.

As stated earlier in this post, there are so many of our women worthy of acknowledgement, and I urge people to take the time to note these women in the comment section below. As we move into 2016, I wish everyone all the best. Here's to strong, proud Aboriginal women and the contributions they continue to make, often unsung. Here's to less carnage. And here's to a more positive future. Thanks finally to all those who have read my stuff in 2015. I really appreciate it. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Seven Years

This is a post that has been a long time coming. Seven years in fact. Well, roughly seven years and one week. As of about a week ago, give or take a couple of days, I have been "officially single" for seven years. Seven years and I haven't even brought a cake or downed a cider to mark it yet.

What's more, this is not the first seven year stretch of singledom I have achieved in my life. I managed to remain single from 18-25 as well. It's actually fair to say that I do singledom exceptionally well, because both stretches tended to include a period of growth and personal achievement; this stretch even more so than the last one. And I've added some kickarse travel in there for good measure. Yet there have also been a number of challenges. And that's why I am writing this post.

My mother often expresses to me nowadays that she worries I get lonely. She's not the only one; friends have also expressed this to me. So much about what society believes makes one a successful adult seems to revolve around being in a relationship. People truly do seem to believe that if you don't have a settled relationship, you are going to be unhappy, unfulfilled and you risk growing old alone with no one to take care of you. Yet my standard response when hit with this is that I never felt more alone than when I was in my last full time relationship. I felt completely isolated at times, and while this was a symptom of something much more concerning which I will cover in a bit, it has been a very rare occasion since I have felt even remotely like that in the past seven years. I know so many people, particularly women (though definitely some men too) who can relate to this sentiment.

It took me nearly seven years to write about what I had actually left back then. When I started this blog, while I had definitely rebuilt and my life was on a great path, I still was not at a place where I could write about that topic. I alluded to it though several times. First was when I wrote about an ectopic pregnancy in this post which eventually got turned into a book chapter in Mothers and Others. Quite soon after this, I wrote a post about body shame and weight loss in which I included this line as another hint: "I was re-imagining my life as a single person and learning how to focus on myself for the first time in years, this was an outlet for me and gaining some affirmation at that time propelled me forward in other ways". There are many more hints contained within the pages of this blog. Yet the reality is, it took me until this year; until I was dangerously close to feeling like nothing again despite so much rebuilding; until I was also writing and speaking a lot on violence against women; that I actually stated plainly, both in writing and speech, that I had left a DV scenario, and that it wasn't the first time I had done so. 

As years go by, I may even discuss this more. But it took for me to feel like I was hitting a downward spiral again to write it, and the act of writing it meant that I didn't have to own it any more. There was release in naming it. It stopped consuming me. I admit also that for me, it felt contradictory to be speaking out about violence against women in a political sense when I wasn't in a personal sense. The personal is political, as feminists in earlier years stated so often. The fact that society continually expects women to not speak out, to hold it all together, to simply continue carrying on as if nothing happened is a huge part of the problem. 

We are always expected to shoulder our trauma. Indeed, this was rammed home to me only on Saturday when bystanders of an Intimate Partner Violence incident in Rye seemed concerned about the male perpetrator's mental well-being. They did not express the same concern for the mental well-being of his ex-partner and her co-worker who had been held hostage for several hours. They weren't concerned that she might have left him with good reason, only that he had been damaged by the split. His trauma was real and his actions socially understandable, her trauma was invisible or unimportant. Her responsibility was towards him and his healing. Like I also said in my keynote address with regards to Samson and Delilah.

We can't keep doing this. Men do suffer in this society. Their rates of mental health issues, self-harm and suicide are testament to this. Which is why I feel it would be of great benefit to men if we were to actually stop expecting women to simply carry on and started looking at the harms we perpetuate in society by normalising this erasure. The trope of the "brooding male" gets fetishised in films endlessly, and always there's a woman who comes along to draw him out of his broodiness. Yet what in society has made him this way? What has she been through in her life of gendered disparity and why is this not important to the story? These are two halves of the same dilemma and one cannot be answered without the other being acknowledged.

But back to this "seven years" business. Have I actually craved a relationship in that time? To be honest, I have mainly avoided them willingly and perhaps I have built up more than a few walls over the years. My sense of self-preservation is undoubtedly strong. Only once did I feel those walls shifting slightly, but this was misplaced and clearly not valued or recognised. Though this was hard particularly added to the revisiting of trauma and the writing I was doing at the time, I did start to look at how I could swim rather than sink and I got there in the end.

Feeling like I'm worthless is never a place I want to be again. There's also nothing more confusing than achieving greater recognition and a growing profile while still grappling with these experiences of nothingness. As if imposter syndrome was not enough of an issue already!

Yet despite this apparently horrific singledom, I have had relationships of incredible worth. A huge part of my healing came from immense platonic love and trust demonstrated by wonderful people. Having trust shown in me, particularly after a long period of being treated with unfounded and illogical mistrust as a default, helped me redevelop trust for others. I have a fantastic and vibrant circle of friends - women and men. There have been many late nights, many long discussions, many ruminations and the like which I have valued so much. There had to be some rebuilding of friendships which suffered as unfortunately seems to be common during such isolating situations, but I am glad to have been given another chance. And no, not that it's anyone's business, but I have been no nun in that time either, and that in itself has been a healing experience. In short, if singledom is supposed to equate to loneliness, I am clearly going about it all wrong.

In addition, while I spend a lot of time by myself, it's a healthy solitude, not an enforced one by means of control. It's productive, it's downtime, it's travel, it's whatever the hell I make it. I have seen some incredibly healthy relationships at work in my time, so I am not denying that these exist. The fact though, that we continue to believe people, particularly women, are not complete unless they are in them is wrong. Why can't we value women on their own merit and not constantly in relation to what they mean to everyone else? The issue is not with women proudly walking alone in the world, it's with the world continually telling them that it is not their place to do so and their destiny is to care for others.

So who knows what the next seven years will bring? I couldn't have predicted the last seven, but I know it has been a hell of a journey and it has brought with it a comfort in my own skin that I certainly did not have before. And that in itself is worth a cake and a gigantic pint of cider, don't you think?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

She is Someone

It has been incredibly heartening of late to note the amount of Aboriginal social media groups posting up stuff about violence against women in our community. We need to do a lot more, granted. The fact though that I have seen a vast range of social media spaces make a choice to talk about an issue which affects our communities at horrific rates, particularly in the face of how the government, the police force and the mainstream society tends to use that information against us, is important. But while we're talking about it more and more, I do wish to address how we speak about it and, in particular, how we speak about Aboriginal women.

You see, a lot of the time when I have observed statements being made, the comments fall into that old trope when speaking about women: "she's someone's mother", "she's someone's wife", "she's someone's sister", "she's someone's daughter", and so forth. And I understand why people continually frame Aboriginal women (and indeed, other women) this way. They wish to try and make cases more relatable so people, when witnessing abuse or actions which excuse or allow for abuse, are more likely to take action. Yet by doing this, we continually end up framing our women by our relevance to other people, and this in itself is a problem. It means that we need to be viewed as relevant to others in order for them to see our worth and take action. It means that as individual, autonomous people who should have status, liberty and the ability to take up our rightful space in society like everyone else, we are denied this right.

And it's even more weighted than that. Sure, all of us are indeed born "someone's daughter", but this does not always remain the case. Sometimes our parents die. Sometimes our parents cannot care for us. Sometimes the government decides our parents, by virtue of their race, are unsuitable and then takes us away for the purpose of our mainstream assimilation. Culturally and politically, we are mostly always "someone's sister". Except some of us are still finding our ways home and connecting with families denied to us for generations. Definitely not all of us are mothers, though culturally some of us fill that role without giving birth and some of us who have given birth can't fill that role for whatever reason. Therefore always describing us as our relevance to other people not only erases our own identities and importance as individuals, but it might not actually be accurate or a description of our role which we are comfortable with.

To put it this way: Aboriginal men are also significantly more likely to be victims of violence than other men in this country. Yet when raising awareness of these victims, we don't refer to him in terms of his relevance to everyone else. He's not possibly "someone's dad", "someone's son", "someone's brother", "someone's husband". He is simply someone.

Unless it's the mainstream referring to the case, then he is rarely someone. And she is rarely someone. Aboriginal people are rarely anyone when referred to by the mainstream. We have our culture erased, our autonomy erased, our humanity erased, continually. And for this reason more than any other, in the face of continuing colonisation, I feel it is even more important to ensure that we are recognising our own importance and autonomy, and elevating each other. 

So how do we grapple with this then, as a people for whom our connection to each other is crucial to our cultures and lands? I think it's about knowing we all have importance, we all play various roles in our communities and in broader society, and we are all survivors: the current links to the longest continuing cultures in the entire world. It's about recognising the role that we all play in this survival and continuation -  women, men and children - and recognising the complexity of that role, in the face of our ongoing struggles for autonomy and self-determination against colonisation. We need to therefore ensure we are recognising the rights of all of us to this self-determination because if we don't, the struggle will never succeed. But finally though, and perhaps more bluntly, when it's framed as always about her relationship to you, then it is always about you and not her and her need to not be harmed, to not be dehumanised and to live a free life. Her right to this safety and respect in the first place is much more urgent than your right to not have your family torn apart at her loss down the track. 

She is someone. She is crucial. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

How to argue against your established position

Last night I had the incredible privilege of appearing in a debate at the Women's Health West annual general meeting as part of their post-meeting festivities. I was joined on the stage by Kon Karapanagiotidis and Karen Jackson (director of the Moondani Balluk Academic Unit at Vic Uni and wonderful Indigenous union rep!), who had the positive side, and my team mate on the negative side Tasneem Chopra. Our topic was that "Feminists need to unite against racism".

Well naturally, considering what I spend my life writing about, I had no idea how I was going to tackle this one! However, I gave it a go, and ended up having a bit of fun arguing seemingly against my established position. In light of this, and due to the curiosity of others, I am posting a copy of my speech below. It should be read with the humour with which it was intended. Enjoy!

My fellow comrades, dissidents, trouble-makers and parliament house shakers, as second speaker for the negative, I am here round off the argument of why feminists do not need to unite against racism. I hope to provide some clear thoughts as to why I feel this is unnecessary, why I feel it is untimely and what it is I think the feminist movement needs to focus on instead.

To begin with though, as it stands right now, the feminist movement is not even united on its own goal yet. Granted, the feminist movement has the broader banner of overcoming discrimination based upon gender suffered by more than half the population, but that’s where the similarities end. You have the liberal feminists fighting within the system which they don’t necessarily feel is inherently corrupt. Indeed, they argue that recognition and more access to the system is how women are going to gain equality. You have the radical feminists stating that the key system which oppresses us all is the rule of the patriarchy which plays out in every system existing and therefore it is integral to completely dismantle all forms of male rule and start again. You have the Marxist feminists locating the feminist struggle within the class system and battling away to dismantle that whilst also ensuring that men are not the only beneficiaries come the revolution. You have the anarchist feminists stating that rulers always emerge whether within capitalist or communist systems and therefore anything which is not a liberated system ensuring women have complete autonomy is a waste of time. You have the pop star feminists stating that women already run the world, and that swinging naked on a wrecking ball is a statement.

And paradoxically, therein lies the benefit. For while the feminist movement remains a space of contestation, it remains a space of vibrancy and discussion where it can be challenged by alternate theories. An autonomous feminist movement, while presenting a more united front, would lose this nuance and would therefore be less likely to be able to react adequately in times of change.

This is what concerns me about the idea that feminists must unite against racism. It makes the assumption that the experiences of people oppressed by race are homogenous. That there is an oppositional stand that feminists can take to remove it from their space. While racially marginalised groups share the fact that they are oppressed by virtue of their race in a society which preferences members of the dominant culture, again this is where the similarities end. Racism exists because a culture dominates and therefore anyone who doesn’t fit into that dominant culture is marginalised. It doesn’t exist because racially marginalised groups are similar. Therefore to suggest feminism must unite against racism firstly assumes that feminists are mainly members of the dominant culture and secondly that what they need to unite against is racism rather than their own experiences of privilege as members of the dominant culture.

Skin colour is often a site where racism comes into play. Yet not all racially-marginalised groups are black or brown or red or yellow. Indeed, there are Indigenous groups who are white yet who experience racism by virtue of their indigeneity. Even within the groups that are traditionally “of colour”, you have individuals who are not physically visible yet who fight to be proud of their identity in a world which tells them they shouldn’t be. Additionally, not all experiences of people identified as black or brown are the same, depending on where they come from and what their unique experiences with the dominant culture are. Aboriginal people don’t have the exact same experiences as Torres Strait Islander people despite both being labelled “Indigenous Australians”. Immigrant populations trying to make new lives here while dealing with racist policies and xenophobic populations don’t have the same experiences as Original Peoples who have been displaced from their lands. The intersection of religion and race plays out in interesting ways in Australia now. The same group of racially-marginalised people will be treated differently by the dominant culture depending on whether they are Muslims or not. Meanwhile “Muslim” itself has become a racialised category in the Australian dialogue by simple fact that it is seen as a religion practiced by people of colour in a way Christianity is not, regardless of how inaccurate this statement is.

The answer here is that these experiences cannot, and should not, be unified in a feminist space. They should be allowed to be expressed within a feminist space but feminists should never expect one scenario to unite against. The fact that experiences of racism are nuanced; that Aboriginal feminists fight different battles to Asian feminists, who are fighting different battles to African feminists; is incredibly important and gives unique insights into how structures of oppression operate. And for things to change for the better, for the systems of oppression to be dismantled and for feminists to ultimately be victorious in overthrowing the patriarchy, they need to understand this. They need to understand that experiences of the patriarchy are not universal, though they are always gendered. And to go back to my initial point about the various streams within the feminist movement, I feel that there is the capacity for feminism to engage with nuance. It already does internally.

Finally though, the most important reason why feminists do not need to unite against racism: mortgages. I’m 37 and I don’t have one yet. You see, as a grumpy feminist who lives alone, is Aboriginal and who spends a lot of time telling feminist gatherings they need to be more cognisant of race, I occasionally get paid to do so. The sooner feminists completely get it and unite fully against racism, the sooner my gigs dry up. As a woman, I am already facing a gendered pay gap in this country of nearly 19% so am on the back foot here to begin with. I also have not made it to Berlin yet, which is my dream destination for hanging with artists and drinking coffee. So feminists uniting against racism diminishes my capacity to reach financial maturity even as I remain immature in other ways, and denies me the free autonomous movement to other parts of the world. And that’s not very feminist now, is it?

Thank you! 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Keynote speech from "Putting Gender on the Agenda" - Alice Springs, 27/10/15

This is a copy of the keynote speech I gave to the Putting Gender on the Agenda conference in Alice Springs this week - an extraordinary first gathering of women; majority Aboriginal; to discuss violence against women in a culturally-appropriate and safe space, free from the scapegoating of the media and govt. This conference was a collaboration between Tangentyere Council, Our Watch and the Alice Springs Women's Shelter. I am publishing my speech on my blog (with ref links where possible) by request from a number of attendees. 

Before I begin today, I would like to take the rare opportunity to acknowledge my ancestors on my traditional homelands. I say rare for although I visit Alice Springs on a regular basis, it’s mainly to see family and have a break from the non-stop bustle which is Melbourne. I additionally travel a lot around this country working and speak on a number of different nations. So it is truly an honour to have the opportunity to speak here, as a proud Arrernte woman, who has ties with this landscape going back several millennia. I’d like to pay respects to my family, to my elders and acknowledge any other elders who are present today. Thank you for having me along today.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Celeste Liddle. My grandparents were Emily and Harold Liddle and my father is Allan Liddle. He married my mother Lindal Tuttleby, a non-Indigenous, working class Collingwood supporter from Melbourne, after they met through mum’s brother Curly, or Leon, Tuttleby who used to play cricket up here with my dad and lived in Alice himself for over 40 years. Hopefully for the people in the room I’m related to but haven’t met yet, that helps place me! I am also the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator, mainly for Daily Life and the Guardian, as well as many speaking gigs across the country. With both my roles, I fell into them. I started working in the union movement because for many years I was working as an Indigenous student support officer at Melbourne University, and while I was at this incredibly white, incredibly privileged and incredibly masculine institution, I realised the Indigenous staff were fighting the same battles the students were so I became involved in the union branch committee. After kicking up a fuss on the picket lines a few times, the NTEU National Office recognised I was a bit of a troublemaker and so asked me to apply for this job. Similarly, I fell into writing and commentary. Three years ago, I started my blog “Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist” and thought utterly no one would read it. Not six weeks later, the editor of Daily Life read a piece on it, asked to republish it. Since then I have pretty much continuously been writing on Indigenous issues, women’s issues, workplace issues, and various combinations of the three.

I say all this to place myself. One of the key topics I write about is violence against women, and I come at this topic from various angles. I come at it as a women’s activist, as an Indigenous activist, as a workers’ activist and as a survivor myself. Why I feel these angles are important, I hope to explain today. It will be a bit of bad news, I’m afraid, though I hope it contributes to the broadening of the discussion around violence against Aboriginal woman and a positive outlook for the future.

Since the beginning of the year, as a way of highlighting the impacts of gendered violence on society, two feminist lobby groups have been keeping count of the victims in order to bring it to the attention of the public. One of these – Destroy the Joint – focuses on all victims of violence against women and while male perpetrators are the vast majority of the count, they include women who are killed by other women arguing that “lateral violence” is a symptom of being a part of a patriarchal society where women enact violence upon each other as a way of gaining power. The other count, run by radical feminist group Real for Women, focuses only on female victims of male violence to highlight specifically the very gendered nature of these crimes. As of today, the tally on Destroy the Joint sits at 75 while the Real for Women tally sits at 67, though I expect that to be 68 due to another death recorded. To take the Destroy the Joint tally as the basis though, this means that thus far this year, we have lost 3 women every fortnight to violence against women. And these are only the ones which make the media and police reports.

My reason for highlighting this is as follows: though I found the tallies by Destroy the Joint and Real for Women incredibly helpful in painting the overall picture and giving the casualties recognition, by about April I had noticed the disproportionate number of Aboriginal women on these lists. The goal of neither of these other counts was to delve into race politics as they were focussed solely on gender, and so with that, drawing on their information, I started the “Counting Dead Aboriginal Women” post on my own blog. Additionally, I am only too aware that our women are too often treated as if they are invisible and also, due to cultural protocol, are not always named in accordance with community wishes, so I wanted to ensure these women had visibility. It has been a heart-wrenching journey.

Just last week, I added the names of two more of our sisters to this list which has brought the official total to 13 Aboriginal women this year, though there are an additional two women whose cultural identities I am still awaiting confirmation of. Therefore, as it stands at this point of the year, Aboriginal women are making up between 17 and 20% of the recorded victims of violence against women this year. We are 3% of the total population of women in this country yet we are represented at a rate nearly 7 times what a population parity rate would be. Sadly, back in April when I started this count, I realised that at the current rate women in this country were dying, Aboriginal women had already achieved population parity rates for the rest of the year and therefore, the outlook was devastating.

So why are Aboriginal women so over-represented amongst the statistics? Time and time again, I hear the reasons given, yet they simply do not tell the full story. I hear that violence is a part of our culture and is therefore seen as reasonable. I am told that addiction and alcohol consumption are the causes. I am told that poverty is the main contributor. I am told isolation and remoteness lead to higher rates. And I am not for one second denying that these things do contribute to the higher rates of violence experienced by our women. Yet they don’t tell the full story. Indeed, only a couple of weeks ago, Miranda Devine, in what was possibly one of the most offensive articles I have read in recent time, pointed her finger at nearly all these factors then blamed “unsuitable women who breed with feckless men” for violence against women. Considering she also identified the heightened rates impoverished Aboriginal women experience violence I was left wondering if she felt we were the most “unsuitable” of all women.

But she was wrong. Why do I say that? Because while poverty, substance abuse, isolation and so forth may all contribute to the heightened rates of violence against women experienced in some communities, white women who are the most financially-privileged in this country are not free from violence. Indeed, only a couple of days before her article came out, a report came out highlighting this very fact. A pilot project running in Sydney’s affluent Eastern suburbs had over 1200 women referred to it since it started at the beginning of the year. Of the 8 women per day referred by police to this service, 2 women were thought to be in immediate risk of being killed. Further to this, only last week the murder of former model and wealthy socialite Maureen Boyce was recorded in the statistics and she is not the only wealthy woman residing in a major city in that list. There does not seem to be a place in this country where domestic and family violence is not afflicting the community and costing the lives of women.

The sad truth of it is that if we were, tomorrow, to solve the issues of poverty, addiction, cultural acceptance, racism and access to services in remote areas, the best we could hope for, as Aboriginal women, would be that the rates of violence experienced by our women reach parity rates. While we’re a country which not only ignores issues of gender but actually celebrates them, we’re not going to solve this. And I say this as an Aboriginal woman who lives in the city, who is financially independent, who is not an alcoholic or addicted to ice, who is highly educated yet who still managed to be a survivor of domestic violence. My life, despite all this comparative privilege, has not been violence-free. 

In my work in the trade union movement, I have found this to be the case amongst privileged, highly educated white women as well. In a report released by the Domestic Violence Clearinghouse a couple of years ago entitled “Family Violence is a Workplace issue” – where a good deal of the respondents were unionised women working in tertiary education – it was reported that 2/3 of women experiencing domestic violence are in paid employment. This was the trigger for the NTEU, and other unions, to develop mandatory domestic violence clauses in workplace collective agreements, so working women who are victims of domestic violence have leave to seek assistance, are not penalised or at risk of losing their jobs if they do so, can request support mechanisms such as private emails and change in phone number to alleviate perpetrator harassment, and can continue to have the means to provide for themselves and their families rather than losing everything and ending up homeless as happens far too often. Women may not take up these entitlements straight away for a number of reasons, but knowing they are there offers a peace of mind which did not exist before.

I agree that we need to address the poverty in our communities. We need to address issues of substance abuse and education. Services which people in the city can simply take for granted are the very things many Northern Territory communities are crying out for and all too often, if funding for these things is given by the government it’s conditional and revolves around Aboriginal women giving up whatever small rights they have. The Intervention was one such example. The threat of forced community closures in Western Australia is another looming example. While I know all too well that some Aboriginal women did indeed support the intervention and felt the BasicsCard was a good thing, it completely troubles me that women, who were already impoverished and in some cases experiencing abuse, had what little autonomy they had taken away from them by the government and were left with no real avenue for recourse. The idea that abused women can be empowered by being disempowered by the state just does not compute with me, and while it may have empowered some women individually, statistics indicate that rates of domestic violence actually rose under the introduction of income management. Australia-wide, we also know Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence (1), we are at least three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, we are 70 times more likely to be hospitalised for domestic violence brain injury. Simply put, less power is, in my opinion, the last thing most Aboriginal women need.

But I have gotten off track here. I want to return to the notion that we need to stop ignoring gender as the key contributor to violence against women. And I say this with complete respect to our men who are significantly more likely to be victims of violence than white men, who also experience racism, poverty, addiction and isolation. Yet time and time again, in Australian society both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, we see the celebration of gendered violence. We see football players accused of rape and off-field violence being allowed to continue to play. We see men squaring off against each other out the front of nightclubs because one of them looked at the other’s girlfriend and winked and clearly they do this because they feel they own us. We hear about warriors, about thugs, about fighters. We live in a country which while it actively ignores Indigenous history, it also mainly erases women’s stories from the books as well. Masculinity and patriarchy is actively celebrated in Australia, yet it causes harm time and time again to both men and women.

If there is one thing I have heard over and over again though in community circles it’s that we need to help our men because they’re suffering, meanwhile women are expected, against all odds to carry on and support everyone else. When brother Warwick Thornton made that film “Samson and Delilah”, it just encapsulated so much of what I had seen time and time again when it comes to the perceived role of Aboriginal women. Delilah was not only the victim of payback when her grandmother passed away, but she became homeless, started sniffing petrol, was sexually and physically assaulted, was hit by a car and broke her leg, yet despite going through all that, it was her who dragged Samson back out bush, got him off the petrol and nursed him back to a healthy life. All he’d done was sniff too much petrol under a bridge yet he was the one who was seen as needing the healing, as having the bigger problems.

I know it’s just a film, but my point is this: I think a lot of Aboriginal women are starting to turn around and say “who is taking care of us?” Just this weekend, I had the privilege of introducing “Black Panther Woman” – a documentary film about Murri woman Marlene Cummins – to the Girls on Film Festival in Melbourne. And she was pretty much saying enough. In the film, she spoke about how Aboriginal women in the Australia Black Panther movement in the 1970s endured physical and sexual violence by their male partners and other men in the movement without speaking up in order to present a united front against racism. These women felt that they did not have the freedom to speak up against these attacks by because as they were representative of such a marginalised racial group, dividing it by gender just simply was not an option. The impact on these women lasted decades to the point of where Marlene was shown trying to kick her gambling addiction 40 years later. Her bravery in telling her story on screen, particularly when people involved were still alive, was inspiring.

I think, beyond political movements, so many of our women feel this way. That we are so racially and socially marginalised that we have a responsibility to take care of everyone else and keep it all together. But as the stories and the statistics keep on stating, who is taking care of us? Who is taking care of us while we make up 20% of the dead women this year? And this is where I am at. As well as looking at the factors which exacerbate violence against women in our communities, we also need to examine gender and how toxic notions of masculinity make this something society just accepts. We need to take apart both traditional and coloniser notions of ownership of women, of roles of women and see how these contribute to the subjugation of women and; combined with racial oppression; why Aboriginal women in particular are seen as being socially expendable.

Aboriginal women are strong. They are survivors who have borne the brunt not only of all policies of colonisation enacted upon our people in this country, but also the ripple effects and transgenerational trauma for several decades. We have done so under extraordinary adversity yet we are still standing and we are still carrying on. And we are still amazing.

Thank you so much for allowing me this space and I hope that you all have a fantastic and enlightening couple of days. I look forward to hearing from you all.

(1) Note, "38 times" is taken as an average on the recorded statistics, which have differed from 34-45 times more likely. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Reflections on violence

I feel like I've spent a good portion of my life trying to escape violence. There has been a lot of scaffolding erected and rebuilding in my life and without a doubt some impenetrable walls have been built as well. Yet each time I seem to find some peace, it's fleeting. I found some peace living on campus at La Trobe Uni until a pair of brothers decided to viciously bash each other just outside my door. Until a friend decided to grab a gun and go on a rampage on campus. I moved and got some peace for a time. Until I was repeatedly stood over, shoved and dehumanised. Until I heard excuses again and again. Until I had flashbacks from events earlier in life which had been long buried. Until I left with bruising.

And I defended myself, because that's what any of us actually do in many active and passive forms. Whether it's physically defending ourselves or putting in place mental defence mechanisms so you can continue on in your life. And I rebuilt. Oh, how I have rebuilt. I look on what I have achieved and I think it's pretty fucking marvellous for a person who has been told or treated like she is nothing for much of her life. As a failure, as expendable. I know what that feels like all too well and I empathise with others who are being reduced in such ways.

So when I'm sitting on a tram going into work and I am dissolving in a public place, I know it's all getting too much. I know that hearing the bloke a few doors down tear shreds out of his partner and assault her the previous night has gotten to me. I know that seeing a man yelling at his crying partner who is apologising repeatedly to him on the street on Tuesday night has gotten to me. I know that seeing a bloke last week yelling abuse then repeatedly punching the door of a bus because he didn't press the bell to stop yet somehow this is the bus driver's fault has gotten to me. I know that seeing a bloke verbally abuse two women in a shop two weeks ago in the foulest way because he was clearly too self-important to just listen to them has gotten to me. I know that being racially and sexually vilified on a tram, as well as physically threatened, because I told a drunk bloke not to kick two men he referred to as "fucking fags" three weeks ago has gotten to me. I know that I am feeling completely worthless again, and that everywhere I look, people believe they have the right to make others feel the same. And it feels like I'm right back in that place before I rebuild again.

So why do they do it? Is it a maintenance of their power that they feel entitled to wield over others? Is it their own issues or insecurities which they enact on others? Is it actually fun to dehumanise people? I know what I think, and I express it so often, but right now I just want it to stop. I don't want to see it. I don't want to experience it. I want people to recognise that they are dealing with real people here who have autonomy and integrity. I don't believe it is simply "human nature" to cause pain to others, in fact I think that's just an excuse people use to avoid being better and to turn a blind eye to those doing the same. There was 68 dead women this year; at least 11 Aboriginal; yet everywhere I look, things seem to be getting worse rather than better. It can't continue.

I know I'm not nothing. I do have worth. I know that I am in a slump and if my life has taught me anything, it's that I'm pretty good at rebuilding. I also know that I'm far from perfect and have caused pain to others on occasion. So I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm just wanting people to understand the humanity of others and treat them as such. They're not disposable, they're not inferior and they're not yours to control. That's about it. As mentioned, I am taking a bit of a break to regroup at the moment, but I will return.