Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An open letter to Bess Price

Dear MLA Price,

I read with much interest the direct report from the NT Hansard of your speech to the Legislative Assembly as published in the Alice Springs News on the 17/5/13. I was alternatively moved, saddened, angered and perturbed by what you said to the point of where I have felt the need to write this post on my blog. I could, of course, send this to you directly and privately, but by posting it publicly I hope to achieve more than just exchanged notes between two people. I hope, like you would have through making the speech in the first place and then agreeing to the publishing of the Hansard record in a news publication, to raise awareness. I therefore hope that you will recognise that my reasoning for choosing public, rather than private, means of exchange is one that is made with the purest of intentions and with a true dedication to progress.

I am writing to you as an Arrernte woman, as a black feminist, and as a dyed in the wool member of the left. I am also writing to you as someone who lives in Melbourne (although half my life has been spent on the Stuart Highway) and whilst I am definitely not "middle class", I am clearly urban and am an educated professional. I am a committed trade unionist. I identify as being a "critical thinker" rather than a "cultural relativist" (a fact that has led to some conflict with family over the years), and the right to self-determination is of the highest importance to me, in all possible ways. Politically, I am not affiliated to any party at this point in time and whilst I have held memberships to a couple of parties over the years, I find it difficult to adhere to a party line because generally speaking, Indigenous and Feminist politics are what are at my core and my personal beliefs do not always align with a Political party's vision. On the spectrum, I have described myself as "socialist" and "anarchist" but generally speaking, I am radical left. I wanted to put this all upfront because in your speech you have levelled your criticism at the left, and whilst I have first-hand experience of the left not always getting issues related to gender or race correct, I feel that your criticism of the left is somewhat misplaced and erroneous and I hope that I can show you why I feel this is the case. At the end of the day I believe in striving for an egalitarian society and I don't believe the ability to buy into what are essentially corrupt practices of a coloniser society, whether this is "celebrating" Aboriginal women's beauty, or whether this is the ability to exploit people and land to achieve material wealth, is the way forward.

Additionally, in the interest of openness I will state that we have made acquaintance before, although not actually met. We were both on that fateful episode of Insight. I saw you looking at me prior to the show and felt that you may have recognised me through my family, although I could be wrong. My family is known to you regardless, as you are a resident of Alice Springs. You know many members of my family and of course are aware that there are streets, natural features and hostels named after members of my family in the centre. In that forum, I accused you of "social Darwinism" as I felt, very strongly, that your opinions stated within that forum reflected those principles. Additionally, as you do reside in the Alice and are therefore profiteering off the displacement of the Arrernte through murder, removal policies leading to the Stolen Generation, and numerous other practices, I felt that your opinions showed a neglect of the significance of those facts and how they may shape the identity of those around you. That comment barely made it to screen; I was almost inaudible and really only our reactions to it were clear. I don't take that comment back, incidentally, for I still feel it was true. You made it clear in that forum that your claim to Aboriginality is stronger than those of us who are of mixed decent because you are "full blood" and you know language, culture and song, yet you are living on lands of acknowledged "frontier battles" and could not acknowledge that some may not have had that same access to culture because these things occurred on their lands. Culture is not a static entity. It has never been pre-or-post-colonisation, and I believe that shared historical experience is as valid a cultural element as anything else.

Speaking of culture, as stated, I identify as a critical thinker rather than a "cultural relativist". This very fact has made for some rather "interesting" conversations over the years. To give a small example, I have had arguments with people when I have felt those people have idealised gender roles in traditional society. I don't necessarily believe that gender equivalence equals gender equality and whilst indeed we are a culture that celebrates strong women who have authority, there are enough well-known cultural markers (for example, marriage rites) to indicate that "equality" may not be a completely accurate description in most tribal circumstances. Hell, we are the most studied people in the world, or close to, and even those with little knowledge are able to crack open a book and read passages that have been written, including ones from Marcia Langton, detailing patriarchal practices within desert cultures. Also, having set roles in a society based on gender has rarely been consistent with "equality" anywhere in the world. This is one of the many reasons of why I am so for the concept of "self-determination"; we must have the ability to critically examine ALL culture and assert our identity, both as Aboriginal people and as women, in order to move society forward as a strong and healthy unit. I argue that through having to continually defend ourselves in the face of colonisation and gender inequality, individually and structurally, we are currently denied that right of self-determination and are therefore diminished in our ability to re-imagine society, social structures, legal systems etc in ways that are inclusive and owned by us. Long story short: I question and will always do so. I don't believe everything I was told and I certainly will not forgive what are transgressions of basic human rights when arguments of cultural practice are used. It is completely possible to practice culture and respect culture whilst questioning elements of it and pushing for change, in my opinion.

Here's where I get to the nitty-gritty of this open letter: despite my clear left-wing views, I do not stand for the abuse and murder of our women as you assert that the left does. The cases you mention are shocking, and the fact that there may never be justice AND that people stood by and watched it happen sickens me to the core. It reminds me of cases a few years back that reached the mainstream media across the country involving rapes and bashings of girls being hidden or legally glossed under the cultural guise of "promised marriage". This should NEVER have been allowed to happen and the fact that so many stood back; for years in one of the cases; and allowed it to just is incomprehensible. I know that because these cases were so outrageous; due to the age of the victims, the brutality of the crimes, and the amount of people who turned a blind eye to it all; that this is why they made the mainstream media on the East Coast. I also know from my broader knowledge of women's rights that for every one case that does make the media there are countless others that do not; because the crimes go unreported; because the victim is not quite so young; because they were not quite so brutalised by the perpetrator; because the community was not so blatantly aware. Unfortunately the situation does not always seem to get a whole lot better for those Aboriginal women who live in the cities and have a number of support mechanisms at their disposal that they try to call on, as the case of Andrea Pickett shows us. The system, the media, the communities and the ignorance of the greater Australian community continually fail our women. That is why this has never, and will never be a simple left-right divide for me. This is sexism, compounded by racism, and the suffering it causes is unacceptable.

You state in your address that "Dr Jarrett is saying there are elements to our traditional culture that we must change if we are to stop the violence that is destroying us" and that you agree with this summation. I remain a huge proponent of self-determination and I believe that a core part of that is the ability to proudly engage in, and celebrate culture in ways that reinforce one's identity and sense of pride. This includes acknowledging systematic oppression and how this contributes to situations and issues in our communities because it is, most certainly, a factor. I don't believe that this ever means glossing over culture and failing to cast a critical eye upon those practices that need to be examined from a basic human rights perspective. Indeed, I think that to fail to examine all culture would run contrary to the goals of self-determination. What I do find difficult to stomach though are the additional arguments supplied by Jarrett whereby an apparent answer lies in the ability to have a greater ability to share in mainstream Australia and assimilate, to an extent. I state this as one who lives in mainstream Australia and who experiences it every day as an Arrernte woman. Mainstream Australia is not free from sexism and it most certainly is not free from racism, therefore it really cannot guarantee a better life for those that access it.

Whilst you're fighting to stop violence against women on communities, the trade union I work for is currently trying to get domestic violence clauses into collective agreements in universities in acknowledgement of the approximately 1/3 of the women who work in the sector and will experience domestic violence. These clauses will, of course, cover the approximately 700 Aboriginal women (including some who live in remote communities) that work in the sector and who are, it is estimated, twice as likely as their non-Aboriginal colleagues to experience violence. It will also cover the approximately 450 Aboriginal men in the sector who are also significantly more likely to experience violence than their non-Aboriginal colleagues. Domestic violence is considered a workplace issue now because, far from being something that simply happens in the privacy of a home, or publicly in an isolated community, it effects a victim's ability to participate in everyday life, and that includes holding down a job. It makes sense that women who have their own income and who are empowered by being in a supportive environment are more likely to be able to take action and leave a situation of domestic violence than those that are not independent and are not being supported. The left may be going about it in ways that are different to ways you would pursue the issue but they are certainly not ignoring it.

Whilst you're noting that community members stood around and watched a young mother be brutally murdered in a town camp, on the streets of Melbourne since the 1970s women have marched to change deeply embedded social attitudes dictating that women ask to be attacked if they walk around by themselves late at night, if they dress certain ways or if they act in certain ways. It is not as blatant as people watching it happen before their eyes and doing nothing (or even, on occasion, joining in) but through the reinforcement of certain attitudes, society, rather than re-educating itself and changing the message, allows these acts against of violence against women to continue. We saw this play out in Melbourne most recently in the case of Jill Meagher who, whilst she was afforded a great deal of coverage in the media which the women you mention were utterly denied down here, was being questioned as to why she was out late that night, why was she drinking, why had she walked home alone? The media, and many members of society, rarely seemed to ask question of why would a man ever feel he has the right to deny a woman of her civil liberties. Simply put, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of it all, society does not believe that a woman has a right to participate fully within it and not suffer repercussions for her actions. Actions men take for granted are the very same things that bring women into question. If she is attacked it will be her fault. Whether they're standing around watching it, or they are questioning a victim's actions in the media, society, such as it may be, is approving the perpetuation of violence against women and allowing it to continue. Assimilation will not solve it, only shift how it is publicly reacted to and perhaps lessen the tallies a little. Much more radical solutions are needed in my opinion.

You state that “Convictions usually lead to light sentences. I was told by a senior lawyer that no jury in Alice Springs will convict an Aboriginal person for murder if the victim is also Aboriginal and he or she is only stabbed once”. As I've already highlighted through the case of Andrea Pickett, whilst this may well be the case in Alice, being in a more urban setting won't always protect the victim either. On a broader social sense though, as mentioned, women who are victims of violence rarely pursue it through the avenues available to them. This is because the legal system and society continually fails them. Sentences are often a joke, conviction rates are low and women are rarely believed. If they do decide to pursue, for example, a claim of domestic violence or rape through the justice system they can expect that their lives and how they conduct themselves will be placed under a microscope. If they are unlucky enough to be attacked by a public figure, for example a top football player, they will also receive trial by the media and by the general public. A lot of women therefore will never come forward. It is well documented that Aboriginal women are significantly more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence, of sexual violence and of homicide and this of course requires specific programmes targeting communities and then tailor-made in collaboration with those communities based on their specific requirements. Targeting domestic violence against Aboriginal women in Melbourne from Aboriginal perpetrators of course requires a different approach to targeting it in Mutitjulu. All these need measures that are again specific from mainstream approaches. Measures that examine how culture, poverty, history and substance abuse can be contributing factors to the unique ways that violence can manifest within our communities in all their different forms (urban, rural, remote). Here's the thing though: our Aboriginal women in the cities with access to what you deem is a fairer system are still presenting to Aboriginal Health Organisations with injuries, they are still ending up in refuge hostels trying to escape violence and they still cannot guarantee that if they pursue the matter it will be dealt with fairly in a legal system that is dominated by white males and based upon laws from another country. White women cannot be guaranteed that they will be dealt with fairly so what real chance does a black woman have at this point in time?

This is the crux of it all for me: are we actually looking to just lessen the impacts and numbers of victims here or do we wish these issues to be eradicated? We may lessen impacts by drawing on tactics of the left-right divide to suit our own purposes but if you ask me, we need to transgress this. Culture needs to be examined and parts that state that women are of lesser value and
men have little control over their actions need to be tossed out. Parts that state that Aboriginal people are of lesser worth and that their social problems cannot be examined need to also be tossed out. I do not agree, being of the left, with top down approaches such as the ones you praise when you talk of the braveness of Macklin, because I believe that these just end up replacing one form of abuse with another. You cannot empower a community to positively address these serious issues by further disempowering them and removing their agency. This is amplified by the fact that the very powers imposing these measures have not been successful in eradicating similar issues within the mainstream. I am for collaboration and those that wish to take a stand and improve situations being given the tools and the power to do so. You state that “For the left and for many Aboriginal politicians on the national stage, it seemed the only issues worth talking about were the Stolen Generations and Aboriginal deaths in custody”. I'm here to say that this is not the case. I am Arrernte, I am a feminist and I am most definitely of the left and I want better for our women. I personally can name a number of Aboriginal women and men who are also of the left and who want the same. I can additionally name a number of non-Indigenous members of the left who echo this. There are many of us who would stand up and assist in this goal.

But here's the thing: whilst you continue to deny my existence as an Aboriginal woman and the right of myself and my family, as well as many other Aboriginal families to claim our heritage and history, and whilst you continue to deny that my family, and thousands across the country have been subjected to years of government policies and procedures and you assert that we therefore are not “true blackfellas”, we cannot stand side-by-side in your cause. We are rendered unable to share information because you, with your unique experience of remote communities and culture, are blocked to our experiences from elsewhere and how these may be linked. You deny us the ability to speak of violence in these communities in our own ways because you deem us as having no right due to where we live or what other heritage we may have. I don't want this to be the case but feel that after seeing you reported so many times in the media as well as witnessing it first-hand in a TV studio that you are not particularly interested in what I, and what others like me, may have to say on the topic. If this is not the case then I would be very interested in opening a dialogue with you and seeing how a bit of side-by-side activism could contribute to the combating of these issues and making a better world for our women. I believe that you possess a passion for change and a great deal of knowledge that can definitely assist in the goal of eradicating these issues of violence. I look forward to your response should you deem a response appropriate.

With warm regards,

Celeste Liddle