To shrink from identifying Aboriginal culture as a fountainhead of domestic violence is to concede that Aboriginal women are worth less, and deserve less, than other Australian women. Alas, wrapped in a tactful silence, such is the prevailing attitude
Academic commentary website The Conversation performs a useful public service by fact-checking claims made by panellists on the ABC’s QandA program. In June of last year, Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton stated that Aboriginal women experienced far higher rates of domestic and family violence than the broader population of Australian women. The Conversation dutifully checked this claim and found it to be correct, noting that while accurate statistics are hard to come by, there was some evidence to support Langton’s claim that Aboriginal women suffer violence at somewhere between 34- to a staggering 80-times the national figures.
The Conversation fact-checkers went on to tackle the question of ‘Why are Indigenous women more likely to experience domestic and family violence?’ Readers are invited to guess the missing c-word in the explanation provided:
There are various explanations as to why rates of domestic and family violence are more prevalent in Indigenous communities. Many accept that the impact of colonisation, ongoing trauma from the displacement of Indigenous people from their traditional lands and kinship groups, the removal of children from their families, and the ongoing negative relationship between Indigenous people and the criminal justice system have all contributed to heightened levels of violence.
For others, the low expectations that mainstream society has for Indigenous Australians, the high rates of unemployment and poverty, and substance misuse are more likely explanations.
As is often the case, this grab-bag of explanations for Aboriginal violence politely omits any mention of culture. As an aside, it also confuses contributing factors with outcomes: Perpetrators of violence end up in a ‘negative relationship’ with the justice system, and rightly so; to present the consequences of crime as a causal factor in crime is disingenuous, to say the least. Children exposed to endemic and entrenched violence should be removed to a safer environment; it is disturbing that child protection measures are included in this laundry list of factors to explain the violent behaviour of adults.
Fortunately, there are other fact-checkers and truth-speakers who are not so circumspect about drawing the link between Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal violence, such as Bess Price, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Stephanie Jarrett. Rather than re-iterate their excellent work, I would simply like to point out the massive double-standard that almost invariably appears when academics and other thought-leaders talk about violence against women in this country.
While ‘culture’ is mysteriously absent from explanations of Aboriginal domestic and family violence, it is front-and-centre in mainstream explanations of male violence against women. Entrenched ‘patriarchal attitudes’, we are told, are affronted by women’s increased social and economic power (although we women remain horribly oppressed despite our improved status, apparently). This conflict is felt most acutely by a cohort of angry, violent males, whose misogyny is bolstered by a patriarchal culture that continues to tolerate the abuse, degradation and marginalisation of women. In explaining ‘mainstream’ violence against women, the circumstances that most frequently surround such violence — such as lower socio-economic status, inter-generational trauma, and substance abuse — are deemed non-issues, or irrelevant at most. This is because, so the thinking goes, to acknowledge such contributing factors is to excuse the perpetrator from responsibility and culpability, and is tantamount to condoning his violence.
In contrast, Aboriginal violence is explained in terms of external factors that have been visited upon Aboriginal people by the mainstream (with the exception of ‘substance misuse’, although this behaviour is generally attributed to collective Aboriginal oppression rather than individual choice). While whitefella violence is explained as a problem of patriarchy, blackfella violence is explained as a problem of social and economic marginalisation and disadvantage. A violent white male will not be afforded diminished responsibility for being a mere product of his culture, however a violent Aboriginal male is afforded some sympathy as a tragic product of his circumstances.
That is, of course, if the existence of the violent Aboriginal male is even acknowledged at all. While non-Aboriginal women may be described as victims of violence at the hands of a partner or some other man, Aboriginal women are more often described as ‘experiencing’ a violence that just seems to … happen to them, as something akin to weather, or period pain. The perpetrator of this violence is often mysteriously absent from the discussion.
Granted, Aboriginal family violence can follow different patterns than the mainstream; the perpetrators of violence may often be partners or ex-partners, yet relatives – fathers, uncles, siblings — may also play a role. Awkwardly, Aboriginal women may be more likely victims of violence perpetrated by other Aboriginal women, particularly in communities where heavy drinking, feuding clans and all-in brawling are features of everyday life. These differing patterns of Aboriginal violence are problematic for the mainstream narrative of gender-based violence to accommodate, although campaigners are happy to accept the contribution of Aboriginal women to the statistics on injuries, mortality and overall prevalence of family violence in the Australian community.
It is hardly news that The Conversation’s contributors would be loathe to overtly criticise any aspect of Aboriginal culture, and deeply reluctant to associate Aboriginal culture, however loosely, with catastrophic rates of violence in Aboriginal communities. While only the loony fringe continues to insist that violence against women was unheard of in traditional Aboriginal culture, our mainstream commentators and academics remain resistant to the idea that ‘culture’ may in fact be part of the problem.
If organisations devoted to ending violence against women truly care about Aboriginal women, they must be willing to identify and criticise the Aboriginal cultural attitudes and beliefs that condone violence against women, and they must do so to the same extent they criticise such attitudes in the mainstream. In doing so, they would have to acknowledge that some elements of traditional Aboriginal culture are not worth preserving. To shrink from this responsibility is to concede that Aboriginal women are lesser, and deserve less, than other Australian women.
Editor’s note: the thumbnail at the very start of this essay is an image of Marlene Tighe, an Indigenous woman beaten with a hammer by her partner. Her story and call for a cultural shift were reported by the ABC and can be read here