Recent furore over allegations of sexual harassment and the subsequent social media explosion of #MeToo has demonstrated just how poorly many women have been treated by men in positions of power. Since the countless stories regarding Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein have emerged, other high-profile men have been named as being habitual perpetrators of the same behaviours.
Sexual harassment can be anything from sexist remarks in a social or workplace situation, unwanted advances and threatening behaviour, and in many instances, leads to sexual assault and sexual violence.
Sadly, this is not a modern-day issue. But what is different in this current era, however, is that we we have social media assisting in the galvanising of survivors to share their stories, and are subsequently more open to naming-and-shaming offenders. But where do Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander women fit into this discussion and how do we as women navigate through it?
The day the #MeToo hashtag began trending, I was jumping on a plane to return home from Canberra. Sitting in my Uber, I felt compelled to write of the long litany of experiences I alone have had of being ‘hunted, haunted, blamed and shamed’ for simply being a woman.
Feelings of self-consciousness at being female, and black, had followed me into adulthood.
As a young child it began, as one of my earliest memories was of men telling me I was a ‘looker’, setting their gaze upon me as not only an object, but as something somehow less. I then remember a time when, at a party, an older man stuck his tongue down my throat. I was 10 years old. This was not an isolated incident, and feelings of self-consciousness at being female, and black, had followed me into adulthood.
As I continued tweeting my experiences, I realised just how many other women were relaying similar stories - and every one of them was cathartic, yet painful. Social media erupted with worldwide stories of shared experiences, and it appeared that women were taking back some of their power.
The impact of such experiences has been severe for many women. I myself have left jobs completely broken after men have asked me to do inappropriate things or made jokes about me which made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I have also been appalled at so-called respected institutions who regularly herald their policies and processes, but failed to follow that process when one was needed.
I have had physical experiences of this harassment also, ones which I feel cannot, and need not, be elaborated upon here. I have entered damaging and traumatic relationships with men because I was essentially conditioned to believe they were normal. I have been put into positions where my femininity and Aboriginality have been conflated and denigrated, and the common denominator in all these instances were not of men, but of power.
I have been put into positions where my femininity and Aboriginality have been conflated and denigrated, and the common denominator in all these instances were not of men, but of power.
A woman of colour created the campaign ‘Me Too’ in 2007. Founder of the US based movement Tarana Burke began her fight after hearing an account ten years earlier of sexual abuse from a 13-year-old girl and being left speechless in her response. Her not-for-profit organisation has worked over time assisting people who have been abused. It is interesting that Burke, the instigator of such a strong and important moment of discourse, had been left unrecognised within this current evolution and movement. But then again, she’s an African American woman, and so regularly as women of colour, we become removed from the conversation. Sadly this does not surprise most.
In an Australian context, this too occurs; a ‘whitewashing’ and erasure of us as strong and empowered Indigenous women. It is far easier to position us as compliant victims to the forces of power. Whilst it is undeniable that there are endemic issues relating to Indigenous women involved in family violence, it is not the only story. Indigenous female academics like, Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Aileen Moreton-Robinson and have spoken of this in connection with the blindness of active agency that we have as women in owning our own future and power. I was reminded of this suggestion of no agency when an Indigenous man pointed out that I will not have any in a University academy. That I will be carried along like driftwood to the demands and processes I work in. I do not believe this however, because I have witnessed the inherent power and agency that Indigenous women have. Any ‘lost agency’, or inability to make change, in fact, goes against what I have seen of Indigenous women’s lived experiences.
For Indigenous women, creating agency within their lives and for the lives of those in their communities can be a process by which different representations can take place. Academic Bronwyn Fredericks positions this by adding that dissenting Aboriginal women’s voices are marginalised and silenced, and the Aboriginal women who raise concerns are positioned as angry or as aggressors.
Power is something we all hold. The women I have known in my life hold immense power, at times without even recognising what it is. Because it doesn’t feel tangible, it can be a hard concept to grasp. In the midst of the many stories we hear of disadvantage or disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, the statistics of violence against all women, we regularly overlook our internal power, and how we can enact and exercise that into tangible spaces. We step in and out of power every day, and black women own this space better than any other people I know.
The Indigenous women I have seen throughout my life have been so varied, but with some similar characteristics. Culturally as a people we love our ‘black humour’, and our ways of being, which I consider have been built over years of oppression and struggle. If we see someone doing something we may not find appropriate, or somehow trying a little too hard, and like the Real Housewives of Narromine on ABC’s Black Comedy we turn to each other and say ‘Bless em’!’
We see someone using their power to perform, or corrupt, and we can look at each other with knowing eyes without speaking. But we do something else also. We hold our stare back at that gaze we receive from others, that look of us being romanticised, fetishised and demonised. And we pursue – through our struggles we fight. We find other ways to get in there when doors are closed on us, we navigate through our vulnerabilities and we challenge those people and institutions that appear to try and dismantle that.
When Indigenous women are being treated as inferior, we display a stance that makes one uncomfortable. The glaring eyes tell a story of oppression, subtle and overt racism, and of feeling constantly reminded that their place is low on the scale. The woman that reacts back to that objectifying gaze is a mix of education and empowerment. Fight, flight or freeze, we are reacting to the situation after years of being frozen in oppression and power, and moved towards a look that says, ‘I know what you are trying to do, and it won’t work on me’.
While stories of continued sexual harassment will continue, we as Indigenous women will sadly be a part of that. However, the activism and mobilisation of black women to own a defiant space will continue. We will work to support each other to change statistics of violence against women, and not stop using our power to eradicate predators in Australian society.
Tess Ryan is Biripi woman from Taree, New South Wales, and Melbourne-based writer and academic. Tess has worked in areas ranging from children and out of home care, people with disabilities and the aged. She has recently completed her PhD, focusing on Indigenous women's leadership in Australia through the University of Canberra, and is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1