Masking the reality

Domestic violence is a crime occurring in full view, affecting thousands of people yet it provokes virtually no urgency in response. Suzanne Ingram examines why women's pain falls on deaf ears.

The recent death of my cousin saddened me beyond belief. A beautiful, spirited soul, she simply loved her family. Cousins, our way, blakfulla way, we know are part of your closest lifelong relationships. But there was cruelty in her life, well before it was in her control to even understand it. Petty spites. Perpetuating grudges. Inflicted cruelty: cheap, easy and cowardly.

I hear of the loss of so many ‘spirited’ women like my cousin, described by loved ones as happy-go-lucky, who have lived too much with violence.

I hear of the loss of so many ‘spirited’ women like my cousin, described by loved ones as happy-go-lucky, who have lived too much with violence. To #CloseTheGap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, hospitalisations would have to drop by more than twice the national reduction rate. Even if that was achieved, it would only put Indigenous women on par with other women in a country that is in crisis on the issue. Revisiting these statistics, on the usual go-to calendar events like White Ribbon Day, should not be necessary. Do we need to see in numbers what we are witnessing with our own eyes? We know what violence and abuse looks like. But how to speak to it is another matter.

Yet naming Aboriginal men’s abuse places women in further personal, political and social danger.

The nation is discussing more than ever the rampant abuse of women and children and the destruction it wreaks on our lives and the broader social order. Each week brings the name of another high profile male involved in assault or rape. Yet naming Aboriginal men’s abuse places women in further personal, political and social danger. This is the key critical element confronting Aboriginal women. The political class who set the priority agenda issues for Aboriginal Australia is influenced by those regarded as Aboriginal ‘leaders’. The agenda-setting reflects those issues that people in positions of public trust choose to ignore as much as those they include.

Crafting a national standpoint on sovereignty issues, which we agree is important, while at the same time submerging the extent of Aboriginal men’s violence against Aboriginal women, is an accomplishment of proportion and finesse.

Crafting a national standpoint on sovereignty issues, which we agree is important, while at the same time submerging the extent of Aboriginal men’s violence against Aboriginal women, is an accomplishment of proportion and finesse. At this elite level, no one is denying the violence against Aboriginal women occurs as that would not only be statistically incorrect, it would be politically reckless. And yet we are not seeing the urgency that is demanded and this has required substantive complicity from many quarters. What is seldom acknowledged in this elision is how Aboriginal women who report domestic violence invoke the ire of our own mob - especially women – because the accused are our fathers, our brothers, uncles, sons, friends, colleagues, trusted elders or respected leaders. The assumption that Aboriginal men are ‘pro-women’ because they are presumably ‘anti-racist’ is an absurd leap of logic and misguides solidarity. To use race in the rhetorical purification of misogynistic violence and sexual brutality denies accountability where it is most needed.

To use race in the rhetorical purification of misogynistic violence and sexual brutality denies accountability where it is most needed.
‘he will seize the opportunity to take on the victim status because, in his mind, it separates him from his actions’.

Perps behind skirts - abusers pitting Aboriginal women against each other - is a well-known tactic in our communities. A veteran Aboriginal male worker in violence education told me that, when called to account for their behaviours, men go into defence mode: ‘he will seize the opportunity to take on the victim status because, in his mind, it separates him from his actions’. Justification comes in many forms: minimising the behaviours – ‘he didn't punch her he only slapped her’ - or the circumstances – ‘they were both drinking’ - or the context – ‘their relationship is rocky’. We minimise the woman herself – she is turned into perpetrator, by both men and other women, and, as we know too well, the justice system, indicated by the spiraling incarceration rates of Aboriginal women. Social media commentary is saturated with the male victim narrative. In this logic, Aboriginal men’s abuse is not caused by them, it's whatever it was that caused him to react. Everything is recalibrated to support that view.

For many perpetrators, social justice is their hunting ground and their cover.

The late Agnes Donovan and Veronica Bird, two women who stood by the young woman raped by NSW south coast Aboriginal ‘elder’ and ‘leader’ Dootch Kennedy, spoke about the personal abuse and vile online attacks from his followers. Marlene Cummins was accused of telling a ‘fantasy story’ when she spoke out about her rape by Aboriginal men in Rachel Perkins’ documentary, Black Panther Woman. Perkins herself came in for criticism for making the film. Allowing abusive men to ply the social justice agenda ensures they continue doing what they do incognito, confident that their supporters will rush to veil scrutiny. For many perpetrators, social justice is their hunting ground and their cover.

Sacred family occasions such as deaths and funerals are used as opportunities for vengeance.

The weaponising of Aboriginal women against each other is having deeply traumatising effects and is reaching across generations. Grudges are carried on for years, increasingly vindictive and spiteful. Sacred family occasions such as deaths and funerals are used as opportunities for vengeance. Children used in retribution in adult conflicts. Hospitalisation rates from injury are the tip of the iceberg of health costs of violence. Health for Aboriginal people is moored in our social and emotional wellbeing. The high statistics for ‘lifestyle’ conditions reflect the despair of lives out of balance: everyone is affected.

Aboriginal women in recovery are striving toward wellness.

While this refers to so much trauma and we are constantly trauma-informed, Aboriginal women in recovery are striving toward wellness. Aboriginal women victimised by Aboriginal men’s violence cannot depend on the state to adequately protect or defend them. We live in messy real life not in a courtroom. We have to assess ‘truth’ by what we know as mob, caring for each other according to the values that have sustained us well. Where, why and by whom are those values being re/defined for us? How do we look after victims of violence, taking into account the contexts in which Aboriginal women live? When we can stop justifying abusive men, we can encourage real conversations and hold perpetrators to account regardless of their Aboriginality or their social and political status.