On opposite sides of the world, women and not-enough-male allies are rightfully and righteously angry about the failures of state actors to act – at all or enough – around women being raped and murdered.
The facts of the UK case is relatively straightforward. On March 2nd a young white woman, Sarah Everard, was kidnapped while walking home in south London. Days later a serving officer in the Metropolitan police force was arrested. Ms Everard’s body was found, and the man has been charged with her murder. A planned march and vigil was forbidden, under COVID restrictions. A small vigil happened, with the Metropolitan police spectacularly mishandling the situation – photos of a young woman pinned to the ground going viral.
And this is against a backdrop of a draconian piece of anti-protest legislation put forward by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. The leader of the Met is a woman Cressida Dick, who came to prominence when she was gold command on a 2005 operation in which Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead. The Met has refused to apologise for its policing of the Everard vigil on Clapham Common.
The Australian situation is a little more complicated. Last year the state broadcaster, the ABC, ran an investigation into the behaviour of two ministers on its Four Corners programme. The second of these was the Attorney General, Christian Porter (who has now launched a defamation case against the ABC and a journalist.) By the time that that was broadcast, a woman (I knew her when we were at university over 30 years ago), had committed suicide. In early 2020 she had made allegations that Porter had raped her in January 1988. In June she withdrew the complaint and killed herself. Porter strenuously denies the allegation, and after leave intends to return to work, amidst problems of conflict of interest as the chief law officer.
This is against a backdrop of more recent allegations. A Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins has said that she was raped by a work colleague in the offices of the Defence Minister, in Canberra’s Parliament House.
The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, is widely perceived to be fundamentally mishandling the cases, having not read the dossier about the 1988 allegations and implying that protesters should be grateful that they had not been shot.
The Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is also on leave. As was widely reported, she called Brittany Higgins a “lying cow,” and has reached an out-of-court settlement and issued an apology. The New South Wales police chief even suggested a “consent app”. After mockery and outrage, he admitted it was a terrible idea.
In both countries women have expressed enormous anger, both online and on the streets. There is a feeling of “Thirty years after I was taught about male violence, nothing has changed for my daughters” we do not feel safe,” “that could have been me” and “Why is there no justice?” This should be seen against a backdrop of a recent drop in reporting of sexual assault and rape (this is distinct from a drop in actual incidents – the fear being many people have given up on the justice system altogether, given very low conviction rates).
The state responses in both cases have been predictably appalling and myopic. In the UK, there is a proposal (which is unlikely to go forward), for undercover police officers in bars.
The details of the various cases have been pored over by the media, endlessly looking for salacious detail, engaging in character assassination and missing the point, again. It is too easy to miss the structural wood for the individual trees, or to claim “nothing has changed in the last thirty years.”
The wood and the trees – Neoliberalism + colonialism
For women, many things have changed for the worse. Forty years of neoliberalism have had two important consequences that need to be understood if we are to map a path beyond the unacceptable status quo.
First and foremost, women have been on the sharp end of neoliberal policies, especially around “austerity” over the last ten years. As Diane Perrons writes in her new book, “while austerity policies have devastating effects on people’s lives, their gendered dynamics are particularly conspicuous: budget cuts have been overwhelmingly aimed at services used by women.” There has been a feminisation of poverty in both the UK and Australia.
Secondly, the state’s capacity to act, to redistribute wealth and to ensure a tolerable existence for those who live within its borders (both citizens and non-citizens) has been progressively hollowed out. Rather than propose real policies that might – over time – lessen the impact of patriarchy and other ills, ministers are proposing bizarre techno-fixes to structural problems. As suggested almost fifty years ago (during the end of the post-War Keynesian boom), the state faces a legitimation crisis in which “an institution or organization does not have the administrative capabilities to maintain or establish structures effective in achieving their end goals.”
Empire and imperial thinking are also structuring the state and social responses to violence against women. The UK (or rather England) has seen a resurgence in crude nationalism. The cult of Churchill is a significant symptom of this in the British context. A similar recrudescence of flag waving and jingoism has had a longer history in Australia (these things are hard to measure, of course – but this study is suggestive) Australian jingoism was dented last year by revelations that elite Australian soldiers had performed executions and torture of unarmed Afghani civilians.).
Having been raised in both countries, and having lived in both, I would hazard the opinion -with the proviso that I am obviously never on the receiving end – that the Australian variant of misogyny is more blatant and contains even more hatred as well as contempt, compared to the UK variant. White Australian feminists have been grappling with Australia’s history as a penal colony, and its legacy of settler colonialism/exterminism.
What is to be done (by men)?
Especially for cis-gendered, white, able-bodied, middle-class, university educated men such as myself, it is vital to listen to and learn from people who experience misogyny, racism and state violence, and who are not only thinking about how to respond, but clearly stating what must be done. Especially in Austraia (but also in the UK) we must not forget indigenous women when marching for justice. We should never imply that the state is a benevolent or neutral arbiter.
As indigenous scholar-activist Hannah McGlade notes, ‘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 could usefully amplify such voices.
The responses of course must be collective, sustained and have the capacity to engage in nuanced ways with state and corporate responses. The movement-building and creation of new common sense is not easy.)
I want to close though, on a more personal – even individual – note
I know (from personal experience) that men “of goodwill” are nervous to speak up (1). On the one hand, there is the fear that some women will accuse you of “centring yourself”, trying to insert yourself into prime position. On the other hand, those who support the status quo will sneer “white knight” and impugn your motives or “masculinity” (as if dominance and lack of empathy are signs of a real man).
The discomfort of this possibility is trivial compared to the fear women face every day. The behaviour – of our brothers, friends, colleagues and yes, even ourselves – that we walk past is the behaviour we accept. We need to do the following three things.
Firstly, learn how to respond in supportive ways to women who tell them they have been subjected to sexual violence (this is tricky, and I have failed at this in the past). Some resources are here., here, and here.
Secondly, men need to speak out against patriarchal and white supremacist framings in the media, including (missing white woman syndrome) . Fortunately, dedicated writers have done the leg work for us. The same can be said about domestic violence.
Thirdly, while accepting structural change is needed and will only come after prolonged effort, if at all, right now, today and tomorrow, men need to learn to challenge patriarchal behaviours, and have difficult conversations with those closest to them, in ways that have some chance of having an impact.
(1) Upon reading this someone (a woman) whose work I respect and have learnt an awful lot fromDMed the following, which I think is worth sharing
“the point of well-meaning men concerned about speaking up. Women can very well recognise allies – if someone calls you out probably there is a reason behind it? Solidarity is also decided by how one speaks up and learning is always tough! When we offer to be allies, then there is a hell lot of re-schooling that is hard, which men should* learn to take without thinking of whether this is embarrassing.”