The limits of ‘sisterhood’: on gendered and racial violence

Catalysed most recently by the tragic death of Eurydice Dixon in June, much has been written and debated about sexism, misogyny and gendered violence in our society. For many, intervention into this discussion has stemmed from a kind of melancholic identification with the victim – a young, cis, straight, able-bodied, white woman with an aspiring career – that sense that ‘it could have been me’. Most evident in the droves of women who came out to hold a light to her name in mourning and in witnessing at the vigil held just days after her passing, this shared embodied pain has been as powerfully nurturing as it has been redemptive. In her name, women across the country expressed their hurt, anger and apprehension at a world in which being a woman was enough cause for hatred and loss.

But when I think about the pain and rage that has mobilised so much action, reflection and discourse in such a short period, I cannot help but feel torn, and I am finding it more and more difficult to not want to shout in all the places that will assuredly echo the loudest: Who is this for? Because as Audre Lorde taught us, ‘there is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word “sisterhood” that does not in fact exist’. And because when I think about gendered violence, so many other names ring in my ears.

Like Delgug, for instance. They are the 800-year-old sacred birthing trees that stand tall at the basin of the Hopkins River near Ararat. Ancestors of the Djab Wurrung people, they have borne 56 generations and embodied and inspired songlines and stories connected to Djab Wurrung dreaming. But they are now at risk of being violently expunged by VicRoads. I think about the aunties, uncles, men, women, children and their pets who have been forced to erect makeshift homes at Delgug’s roots because without them, there is no home – because this is about life and death. And I think about Aunty Sandra Onus, who confided to me her deep sadness and pain that the cultural genocide was ceaseless and that, in her words, ‘they want to erase any trace that we were here’.

Who, again, is this mourning for?

Because when I think about gendered violence, I think about Martha Ojulo, mother of Liep Gony, who should have turned 27 years old this year. I think about the tracks etched on Martha Ojulo’s face from tears that have not stopped for the past seven years. I think about the depth of her sadness when she proclaimed at the protest against Channel 7’s racism a couple of weeks back, ‘They killed my son because he was Black’. And I think about the mothers whose joy upon birthing new life into the world is forever conditioned by fear and anxiety about that same world, one which refuses to contend with black and brown bodies.

Tell me, who is this demonstration for?

Because when I think about gendered violence, I think about Nima and Ashkan and all the LGBTIQ asylum seekers who have been ‘advised’ by our government to hide their gender and sexual identities in order to secure protection for themselves, even as they are left to rot without recourse in offshore detention. And I think about the LGBTIQ refugees onshore who are required to produce sexually explicit (read: pornographic) documentation in tribunals and courts to ‘prove’ the credibility of their asylum applications – because basic human rights, like privacy or dignity, seemingly don’t apply to asylum seekers and refugees.

Again, who is this for?

Because when I think about gendered violence, I think about the construction and co-optation of the trope of the mute, oppressed Muslim woman whose purported salvation inspired unprecedented techno-militaristic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the death tolls are still rising. And I think about one of my best friends, a (visibly identifiable) brown Muslim woman who heads a team at one of the country’s largest corporations, in an industry that is utterly male-dominated, yet who too often finds herself afraid to commute via public transport to work, in broad daylight – let alone at night – because it is so hard to undo the trauma of being subject to racist and Islamophobic violence.

When I think about gendered violence, the list is inexhaustible.

Because gendered violence is necessarily racial violence.

We are not here as women examining sexism and misogyny in a political and social vacuum. As we try to make sense of the kind of world that has been left for us in which being a woman or femme is cause for hatred and loss, we have to realise that such acts are not ‘senseless’, ‘irrational’ or ‘unprecedented’. They are absolutely premeditated, because these kinds of hatred and violence do not spark sporadically in the hearts of ‘deranged individuals’. This kind of hatred is bred by a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal and racist ideological system of domination that requires, enables and empowers violence and discrimination.

So when sexism and misogyny arise out of the same constellation that engenders racism, I have to ask – who are we here for, and who have we left out? I pose these questions not to push a liberal tokenist strategy of ‘inclusion’, but rather to suggest that women and femmes will never be ‘safe’ or ‘equal’ by any measure, as long as treaty and the recognition of First Nations sovereignty is forestalled; as long as this country maintains its brutal onshore and offshore detention regimes; as long as Muslim and African communities are perpetually criminalised and racialised; as long as, as long as, as long as, ad infinitum.

Because these are fundamentally women’s rights issues, reproductive justice issues, feminist issues.

And what this necessarily means, too, is that we cannot talk about the oppression of women without also and concurrently talking about race, sexuality, class and ability, because for those of us who fall into and across the latter groups, forever racialised, demonised and marginalised, the very fabric of our lives is stitched together with violence and hatred – not only under the cover of darkness or in suspect alleyways, but too often at the hands of law enforcement, rapacious corporations, and at all hours of the day.

To be told that what we need more of is increased surveillance – for CCTV and police intervention as a solution – is unacceptable. The suggestion that another solution is better managing the way we dress or gather in public is unacceptable – especially for those of us who reside in the intersecting peripheries: we cannot allow for more surveillance and securitisation of our bodies, communities and spaces because we are already too surveilled, too securitised.

What we do need more of is to reconsider our activism and political discourse – who is this for? Who do we show up for and who have we missed? We need to shift our thinking from a paradigm of individualism in which the reasoning always goes that ‘it’s just a few bad apples’. We need to actually start focusing on the ideological system that enables and emboldens such violence and hatred in the first place.

Because there can be no safety, freedom or equality for any one of us if there is no safety, freedom and equality for all of us.


 Image: Mark Watmough / flickr

Sumaiya Muyeen

Sumaiya Muyeen studies gender and cultural studies at the University of Melbourne. She lives and works in Narrm.

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