Conversations on Feminism: Domestic Violence Against Aboriginal Women in Australia

by Latoya Peterson

Megan over at Jezebel provided a provocative conversation topic in her post “Aussie Feminist Germaine Greer Argues That Domestic Violence Against Aboriginal Women Is Understandable.”

She writes:

Despite Kevin Rudd’s official apology to the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders for their treatment at the hands of the Australian government, his government continues to support and fund the previous government’s Northern Territory Intervention, which puts troops on the streets of Aboriginal towns (among other seemingly repressive measures) to combat the well-documented widespread epidemic of domestic and child abuse. That said, feminist Germaine Greer’s response to it is nearly as shocking. She suggests that domestic violence is an understandable outlet of rage against oppression and thus argues that we shouldn’t ask them to stop. What?!

When I first saw this story, I thought she was joking, but she’s not. In trying to argue that rage, substance abuse and violence is a result of the oppression of the Aboriginal people, most people would be hard pressed to say that she’s wrong. Addiction begets addicts, violence begets violence, and crushing and hopeless poverty and societal isolation does nothing to help. But that does not mean that no one should try.

Megan then goes on to outline the current situation with aboriginal women in Australia, and explains that the military intervention is a clumsy solution which does not attack the root causes of the problem, like poverty or systemic racism.

Then, she notes:

If one accepts the premise that Aboriginal men are — consciously or subconsciously — expressing their rage over their position in Australian society on the bodies of Aboriginal women and children, one must also recognize that it is the wrong outlet. But domestic violence (as we learned yesterday) also stems from sexism, from an attempt to assert power over another person and from the failure to understand that it’s completely wrong. That, even as Ted Bunch noted, more “brown and black men” are punished for it than white men is not a reason to refrain from punishing the former, but a reason to increase the equity in the system for the victims of the latter. And the last thing a feminist ought to be doing is advancing the idea that domestic violence is an understandable reaction to racial oppression and can thus be dealt with, if it still exists, when racial oppression is gone.

Megan’s post sparked a fascinating discussion in the comments section where many Jezebels argued different parts of the issue. Some Jezebels read Greer’s response as condoning or excusing the violence against aboriginal women. They noted that this kind of reasoning has also been used to excuse violence against women in communities of color – that the men have been so oppressed by racism, that they are not responsible for their behavior toward the women in their own communities.

Other Jezebels argued that that wasn’t what Greer was saying at all; Greer’s comments were taken out of context and she was arguing to diagnose the root cause of the behavior, not excuse what was happening.

Commenter Queen of Doorbells posts this link with a video of Germaine Greer fleshing out more of her thoughts.

Main premise from Greer:

“If what you are trying to do is explain an extraordinary galaxy of self-destructive behavior… if you’re saying well, here is someone who lost…absolutely everything that makes life make sense to him, we can’t be surprised that he is involved in self-destructive behaviors which extend to the people who love him best. That’s got nothing to do with excusing it. It’s got to do with understanding it. The only way we are going to make any headway…is if we address the actual cause of the self-destructive emotion, and try to understand it, and draw it into the public domain.

Somebody has to tell us where it hurts. Someone who is about to put a noose around his neck and hang himself from the branch of a tree has got to say to us “I’m doing this because! Because the world you’ve given me to live in is, for me, unbearable.”

And I am transfixed with black rage. Because I don’t think people commit suicide out of grief. I think they commit suicide [as] an act of profound hostility. [...]

Even in this case, I am not trying to talk away or excuse destructive behavior, whether it’s within an Aboriginal context or without. What I’m trying to say is if we don’t understand it, we won’t deal with it. And everything we do – taking away alcohol (we’ve done that a thousand times before), intervening, knocking down land rights, riding roughshod over people – will fail. And it doesn’t matter how much money we throw at the problem, and how much rhetoric, we will fail because we haven’t dealt with the poison at the foot of the tree.”

I highly encourage you all to watch the video from 37:30 on as it highlights the discussion surrounding the project and the issues with implementation.

Julie Bishop, another panelist (and representative of the government), points out what she perceives to be a flaw in Greer’s argument – since all of these issues have roots in historical wrongs, and we can’t re-write history, what does she reasonably expect to have happen? She posits that Greer’s theory also fails because it does not provide an action to be taken now.

This is where I would like to begin the discussion, readers.

Bishop reports that the problem is that action needs to be taken to protect these women and children who are suffering under current conditions. And she is correct – something needs to happen. However, as Jessica Yee beautifully pointed out in her post a few weeks back, government intervention does not always work to alievate the problem, and can actually make things worse.

So, how do we work toward a viable solution?


(Image pulled from the Jezebel website.)