In my work as a human rights campaigner, I research many horrific cases – including unimaginable acts of violence against women. And when I leave the office each day, and attempt to wipe the images from my mind’s eye for the sake of my sanity, I find that I never can.
I can’t forget, even temporarily, because I can’t say that gendered violence only happens overseas. I know that being female is a “fatal flaw” in any country, including our own. In Australia, one woman is killed by her partner every week, making this the most likely cause of death for a woman. Every house that I drive past on my way home haunts me, every one of them potentially hiding horrific secrets behind its curb appeal.
My work can never stay at work, because it’s all around me, every day. And gendered violence doesn’t just happen to strangers in houses on my drive home – it happens to people that I know very well, friends and family members alike. And now I’m asking you and every other Australian – why is this happening inside our homes?
I believe that it isn’t just countries overseas that face the threat of extremism – western societies birth dangerous individuals too. Not long ago, western societies also systemically controlled women, preventing them from earning their own money and buying their own property, ensuring that women were dependent on their fathers, then husbands, then sons.
Human beings are stubborn, and it takes several generations to purge a society of old ideologies. And as there are many people alive today whose grandparents lived through the old system of controlling women, we have to understand that we are still a long way off from a being a misogyny-free society. Indeed, the traces of the old system are everywhere: children’s toy stores that divide boys and girls into workers and homemakers; pornography and other media which tell males that females are only valuable when they are a source of pleasure; and parents who teach girls to be submissive and boys to be dominant.
If we are still sending the message that women are submissive homemakers who are only valuable when they’re a source of pleasure, and that men are dominant workers who derive pleasure from women, are we really surprised that some men take advantage of this imbalance of power? We know that power brings out the cruel side of human beings, so why do we continue to support a social dynamic in which one group is given power over the other?
“Our society’s misogyny and ‘look the other way’ culture runs so deep that even after dangerous men are discovered,
they can face no consequences and find their next victim.”
Disgracefully, misogyny has also survived in humour. In Australia, it is socially acceptable to make a sexist joke in front of an audience large or small, and both men and women will laugh – intentionally or unintentionally showing support for that ideology. This is to our own detriment, as sexist humour is as destructive as racist humour. Both reinforce the ideology that a particular group of people is inferior to another, and both reinforce the environment in which extremism and violence against that group can thrive.
While the average heterosexual male will laugh at a sexist joke but will still love his female partner, and would never hurt her or any other woman, these “everyday” men need to understand that they’re contributing to a culture that enables the men who want to hurt someone but need to know they won’t lose their friends if the word gets out. They need to know that deep down in western society, the undercurrents of misogyny are still flowing.
At the beginning of this piece I said that I have friends and family members who have been victims of gendered violence. Now I will add that I have also cut off friends when I learned that they were perpetrators. If you haven’t been in this situation yet, you are probably imagining an angry mob kicking down the perpetrator’s door once he was discovered. That’s certainly what I expected to take place. But sadly, I was the only one protesting “This isn’t right”, and I was surrounded by silence.
That’s right. Our society’s misogyny and “look the other way” culture runs so deep that even after dangerous men are discovered, they can face no consequences and find their next victim.
So after a sleepless night haunted by the faces of those overseas and near to me, the faces of their perpetrators, and of the societies that stand and watch in silence, I get up and drive back to work, where I try to find a solution.
I know the solution lies in a cultural shift, but shifting human beings is a slow and disappointing process. Australian society is every society — we love our rape jokes and pornography more than dignity for women. We want to save embarrassment by “staying out of it” rather than standing up to perpetrators. Until we give up these outdated ways, our mothers, sisters and daughters will continue to pay the price.
Sarah George is a human rights campaigner based in Perth. She has worked on a range of issues including homelessness, asylum seeker rights and modern slavery.
Feature Image: Andreas Wieser/Flickr