Raising black women’s voices
In the past year, the impact Me Too has had on the lives of Indigenous women has been subject to sparse debate – beyond Meanjin’s controversial decision to strike out its Turrbal language masthead in favour of “#MeToo” for a special edition, seemingly without reference to any Indigenous women. The awareness raised about the harms of sexual violence towards women by the movement has, of course, been invaluable, but its dominant public image has been one of non-Indigenous women. Largely of white women. Originally, this was a movement started by an African-American woman, Tarana Burke, whose work – more than a decade ago – established that this was overwhelmingly a violation of black girls and their human rights.
Burke was following in the footsteps of women freedom fighters, including Rosa Parks, whose investigation into the 1944 rape of Recy Taylor in Alabama resulted in the Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn propelled Martin Luther King, Jr to prominence. Slavery in the United States had permitted the widespread sexual violation and atrocity of African-American women and girls, and the civil rights movement was very much precipitated by endemic rape of black women.
In Australia, and worldwide, rape and sexual violence perpetrated against indigenous women was a key tool of colonisation, as was the perpetration of racist beliefs and stereotypes that were deeply abusive of indigenous women. As historians Heather Goodall and Jackie Huggins described, “The processes of colonisation across the continent began violently with invasion, massacre and rape, and continue to be violent since that time. Sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and children by white men was a well-known outcome of such invasion and indeed was often a weapon of war.”
Today, indigenous women still face far higher levels of sexual violence and abuse than their non-indigenous counterparts. According to UN Women, one in every three indigenous women and girls across the world will be a victim of rape in her lifetime. Numerous government inquiries in Australia, including the “Little Children are Sacred” report in the Northern Territory, have confirmed that Indigenous women and girls have also experienced high levels of gender violence, including sexual violence, at the hands of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous men. While the Commonwealth enacted an intervention in the Northern Territory, later condemned by the United Nations as racial discrimination, it failed to properly implement key recommendations of the “Little Children” inquiry. As such, there is no evidence that sexual assault of women has declined in the Northern Territory. The voices of Indigenous women who speak out against sexual violence continue to be marginalised by governments, including by white women, who believe it is their “right” to make decisions for Indigenous women and families.
But the issue of violence against indigenous women is increasingly being recognised as a serious human rights issue facing indigenous people, due largely to the activism of indigenous women around the world and within institutions, such as the United Nations. This is distinct from the Me Too movement, as we understand it today. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council put violence against indigenous women firmly on its agenda with panel discussions by indigenous women, including Josephine Cashman and myself from Australia, along with the special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. That year, the Human Rights Council’s work also included a historic resolution on violence against women titled, “Accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women: preventing and responding to violence against women and girls, including indigenous women and girls”. Supported by Australia, the resolution acknowledges the severity of sexual violence experienced by indigenous women, and the multiple and intersecting forms of such violence that cannot be separated from the wider context of discrimination and exclusion that indigenous people still experience. Governments have a duty of due diligence to protect indigenous women from this violence through all appropriate means – legal and political – to ensure justice, healthcare and support services are provided.
During the 2016 Human Rights Council meeting, the Canadian government announced the start of its National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the result of more than a decade of activism by indigenous Canadian women to address both the sexual violence against them and the lives of thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women. Canada’s inquiry will look at responses to missing and murdered indigenous women and their families, which have been criticised as discriminatory and a form of state violence against indigenous women.
The evidence raised by the case of Lynette Daley’s murder in 2011 makes clear that state violence against Indigenous women remains an issue here in Australia as well. Lynette was raped by two non-Indigenous men and left to die with horrific injuries, but the New South Wales Director of Public Prosecutions twice declined to prosecute the men responsible for her violent death. Following critical media commentary and protests, charges were finally laid, in June 2016, with those responsible convicted in December 2017. Writing on the Lynette Daley case for The Monthly, Professor Marcia Langton raised the pertinent question: “Is our legal system tolerating and even encouraging the femicide of Indigenous women?”
Working with both Curtin and Macquarie universities, Professor Suvendrini Perera and Professor Joseph Pugliese lead the “Deathscapes” project. Their research seeks to map the custodial deaths across Australia – working with partners in the US and Britain to document their respective cases – with the goal of ultimately ending deaths in custody. The project shows that the legal system is both tolerating and encouraging Indigenous femicide. Of course, there are many spaces and contexts in which Indigenous women die outside the formal custody of the state – on the streets, on the open road, in their own homes or at the edges of communities. In these spaces, the settler state’s violence is enacted through diverse practices, which still render Indigenous women’s lives unsafe and produce their deaths. Violence, including sexual violence, against Indigenous women in these disparate places is not accidental or random, but rather a systematic outcome of the logic of settler colonialism.
While the settler state distorts the rape of black women and silences women’s accounts of harm, Indigenous women have not been silent. Black women know the Australian state was built on such violence and that the instruments of law, the police and courts, can never really be trusted to protect black women’s bodies. We know that the Australian legal system’s tolerance of sexual violence towards Indigenous women is deeply seated in Australian history. We refuse to be silent, instead giving voice to those who cannot speak, including the many Indigenous women being incarcerated – the fastest-growing segment of Australia’s prison population. Often at great personal risk, black women have long been telling their own stories through autobiography, music, film and poetry.
Roberta Sykes, in her book Snake Dreaming, gave her personal account of being raped as a young woman by white men – an act so clearly based both on her gender and racial identity. Sykes’s powerful account was echoed years later in the work of filmmaker Rachel Perkins, as she and Marlene Cummins told the truth about sexual violence in the Black Power movement in their documentary Black Panther Woman. Lani Brennan broke the silence in her book, Lani’s Story, which documented how the NSW prosecutor refused to prosecute an extremely violent rape against her for at least three years. During the trial, she was regarded as having fabricated and incited the rape, notwithstanding the evidence including the serious injuries she suffered.
This year, as a member of the Yirra Yaakin Indigenous Perth-based playwrights’ group, I decided to work on a short play script about sexual violence and its impact on and meaning for Indigenous women and girls. Ngaarnk was a personal story based on lived experience – the personal stories Me Too has shown can be powerfully transformative to public sentiment. In the Noongar language, “ngaarnk” means both mother and sun, invoking the Noongar cultural and traditional respect for the role of women as mothers and the need to throw light onto this insidious abuse of women. The work highlighted the dual experience of Indigenous women – the racism and sexism, which results in widespread sexual abuse and violence, through both the mission-assimilationist history and the Aboriginal rights movement.
Read during NAIDOC Week, Ngaarnk was an act of truth-telling that took place in the community and rejected shame and stigma that typically surrounds the victims of sexual violence. Importantly, it sought to reflect our understanding as Indigenous people – we heal not in isolation from each other but in connection to and with each other. Breaking the silence surrounding rape is a necessary act of decolonisation and healing. Denouncing sexual violence as a violation of human rights is critical to our very survival as First Nations people.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Breaking the silence". Subscribe here.