Sex and race politics and the conflicted intersection between the two if you’re an Aboriginal woman. This is a debate we never had in Australia, but it has raged for decades in the United States.
Remember the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Judge? A black woman accused him of sexual harassment, black women divided, with many supporting Thomas over their sister. Remember O.J.Simpson’s trial for the murder of his white wife? Most black women supported him.
The Geoff Clark allegations and Pat O’Shane’s extraordinary response marks the beginning of the debate here, and not before time.
How difficult it must be to be an Aboriginal woman. Which comes first – loyalty to your race, or your gender? If you are oppressed by your own culture, do you suborn the injustice of your treatment to the betterment of the race you belong to, even if that betterment perpetuates discrimination against you?
This dreadful dilemma goes to the heart of the controversy over Pat O’Shane.
Today, I received an email from an Aboriginal woman and lawyer who used to work for ATSIC. She fears repercussions if she uses her real name, and has chosen the nom de plume Rhonda Dixon.
I have just read your excellent article “Rape and racism”. Thanks for speaking up on these matters. As an Aboriginal woman I feel very cheated by our so-called leaders, and in particular the high profile Aboriginal women who travel the circuit (or circus) speaking about community and sexual violence who continue to remain silent about the misogyny extant within organisations such as ATSIC.
For some of these Aboriginal women it is a matter of survival that they remain silent, but for others it is most likely that they have made a conscious decision to remain silent purely out of self-interest and career mobility.
Unfortunately it seems to be the case that Aboriginal women in ATSIC manage like men or at least play the same machiavellian games as their male counterparts.
Sadly, in our community there is often resounding silence whenever the sexual predatory behaviour of some of our Aboriginal leaders is questioned. Personally I found it sickening whilst working in ATSIC to be hit upon by men in the organisation. In my working life the only men that have made sexual advances towards me in the workplace have all been Aboriginal men with high profile ATSIC positions.
This is telling of the structure and culture of the organisation. Again thanks for having the fortitude to write that piece, as it really needed to be told.
Pat O’Shane’s decision to reject the testimony of three Aboriginal women and to back the Aboriginal man they accuse of rape is consistent with her long term approach to the conflict between gender and racial identity.
Twenty five years ago, O’Shane wrote a piece in Refractory Girl called “Is there any relevance in the women’s movement for Aboriginal women?”
She argued that since the colonisation of Australia, Aboriginal women often occupied positions of dominance in the family and leadership in Aboriginal communities, and that because “Aboriginal men have lost both their status and self respect” their status was rock bottom.
“Is this the price that we, as women, want to pay for our (seemingly) greater status? The enslavement of men! What has happened and is happening is that Aboriginal women are being held to ransom. What white society does is strip the Aboriginal man of any human dignity and then appears to elevate the role of Aboriginal women – in white society.
“It is often said by Aboriginal women that racism is the greatest problem facing them in this society. I must add my voice to theirs. The discussion as to the apparently higher status of Aboriginal women vis-a-vis white society is part of the whole question of how racism is practiced.
“The problem of racism is one that all women in the women’s movement must start to come to terms with. There is no doubt in my mind that racism is expressed by women in the movement.
“It appears to me that, whereas for the majority of women involved in the women’s movement, sexism is what the fight is all about, for Aboriginal women – when they look at all the medical, housing, education, employment and legal statistics – it becomes very clear that our major fight is against racism.”
It could be that O’Shane’s view that the publication of the claims against Clark were racist overrides any sympathy she might have for the three Aboriginal women involved.
The Clark story and the O’Shane reaction have triggered polarised responses from readers. Today, Bill Hartley, Graham Daniell, Fiona Ferrari and Martin Williams have their say.
Disclosure: Bill is a former AMWU Media and Publicity Officer, Victorian ALP State Secretary and ALP National Executive member. He clashed with Bob Hawke over the Palestinian issue, and was expelled from the ALP in the late 80s. He is a contributor to community radio station 3CR in Melbourne. This is a letter he wrote to The Age which was not published.
May I quote the guidance clause from the journalists’ code of ethics, as developed by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) and adopted by the Guild’s membership?
“Basic values often need interpretation, and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.”
In my view, the Editor of The Age should reprint the full code of ethics so the public can by journalistic criteria judge the performance of the paper and my colleagues in the Guild (I have been an MEAA member since 1958) in the case of Geoffrey Clark and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).
I have The Age or Sunday Age thrown over my fence every morning while cable provides a world television view via channels like CNN. It’s been one hell of a week for media junkies. For hours on hours CNN voyeuristically glued its cameras onto every sordid detail of the Indiana killing of Timothy McVeigh.
For some sub-editor to headline (columnist) Terry Lane’s self-congratulatory indulgence “The Geoff Clark story was simply great journalism” was truly beyond the pale.
The Age – which clearly has a problem – reminds me of the regular signature line used by the once popular cartoon characters, Katzenjammer Kids: “They brought it on themselves”.
I have to disagree with you over this one. This is about whether any person, no matter who they are, can make a statement of belief without being shouted down on the basis of nothing more than political correctness.
Pat O’Shane has committed the Cardinal Sin as far as feminists go – she has defended a man against unsubstantiated claims by women.
If she had said that in her opinion, men often abuse women, what criticism would she have received? Would there have been calls for her removal or banning her from hearing rape charges? If not, why is there a difference?
MARGO: Entrenched gender bias against women and in favour of women in the legal system is in the process of being broken down. We’re talking about the group in a weaker position, structurally and often formally, in terms of a lack of power, the lack of a voice, and the lack of money. That is the difference. If, as I said yesterday, she had effectively accused Clark of rape by saying “most rapists lie about what they’ve done”, she would be equally guilty of prejudging the issue. But she would not be feeding into the fears of many women that it’s no use reporting rape because the victim invariably loses.
I was shocked at Pat O’Shane’s diatribe on Lateline last week. I always thought she was a feminist. I remember seeing her about 10 years ago at a Reclaim the Night march in Sydney arguing passionately for the need for separate community-based legal services for indigenous women because women were not being adequately served by the generalist Aboriginal legal services.
O’Shane is just way off the mark – I can’t believe she can be so cruel to those women who have come forward with their stories.
On the decision to publish, Fairfax got it right. Women who have been raped do not get justice under our legal system-most are deterred from reporting to the police and very few proceed to court due to the prospect of a ‘second rape’ by prosecutors and the low conviction rate of those accused of rape.
That means the media must sometimes fill the gap so women can get some justice. I commend the editors of the Age and the journalist who wrote the story. It was courageous but they did the right thing.
Disclosure: White, male, Capricorn. Other categories available on request
“The case against O’Shane,” you state, “is open and shut.” What case? The case for her sacking, or for something else? You don’t seem to be willing to say as much though you imply it with words like “This prejudgment is intolerable behaviour for any self-respecting lawyer, let alone a magistrate.” Could you clarify?
(MARGO: I don’t think she should be sacked. I believe she has betrayed a core judicial principle by prejudging the truth of the allegations. Her legal credibility, in my view, is in tatters. However, the bedrock principle of judicial independence is more important. Sacking should be eschewed except in extreme circumstances such as the commission of a criminal offence, persistent failure to pay tax or failure to do the job.)
O’Shane has set herself up for a fall in the most bemusing manner, yet I find it impossible to believe that she consciously attempted to fall on her sword. She may have just thrown caution to the wind and decided to have a spray over the decided opportunism of the media on these issues. Maybe it took ill-considered words from someone inside the judiciary to ram home the point.
If the case against Clark is so strong and so convincing then why debilitate any legal resolution for everybody concerned with an extra-legal investigation at the hands of Fairfax? Why was new evidence not referred to the police again and left with them until the police could provide a conclusive decision on the prosecutablility of the case? At least there could have been a prospect for a fair trial. All of this wouldn’t be because the sexiness and freshness of the story was under threat, would it?
This is a colour-blind issue in theory, but O’Shane no doubt sensed a colour problem in its execution – and she has a point – and flew off the handle. And unlike dinosaur male judges who 30 years ago (as well as very recently) opined in such a way and on a regular basis and, crucially, whose judgments reflected such bias, O’Shane’s words come from a completely different corner and from an entirely different motivation.
Besides, any truth in her assessment of women in her courtroom has not been challenged and certainly not in your comments. She said “a lot” of women make up stories, but you paraphrase her as saying “commonplace”. Did O’Shane say or imply – indeed, does she believe – that “a woman’s version of events should be doubted as a matter of course”? For God’s sake! You state and seem to seriously believe that O’Shane is consciously and deliberately attempting “to take us back to the days before women won respect for their rights on being raped.”
O’Shane may have been desperately clumsy in her delivery, but do you seriously accuse her of a
philosophical and professional bias against women and black women in particular? I’d like to see you two have that conversation. After using words like these, I feel you are almost morally obliged to secure a personal interview with her to thrash this one out. She is entitled to a right of reply in this forum, and who knows, after she gets sacked or resigns you may just have the opportunity to find out where she was coming from.
Noone, but noone, has referred to her judicial record. Surely such discrimination against women, and particularly black women would stick out like a sore thumb if she was genuinely malevolent (femalevolent?). Do you seriously think that black women across Australia can now identify their ultimate enemy in the judicial system as Pat O’Shane?
How about speaking to some black women and getting their opinions on the matter. I’m interested not just in a “feminist” opinion; I’m also interested in the opinions of the same black women O’Shane is alleged to have sold out, the same women who a large chunk of white Australian feminists have ignored or taken for granted for decades – and there are black female academics who will tell you this in no uncertain terms.
By the way, you say, “Sure, a few women fabricate rape, about the same proportion as allegations on non-sexual matters.” What research are you citing here?
If Clark has dug his own grave, then so be it. If he did these things, then prove it and punish him. I just find it really interesting that although O’Shane may have contributed to her own downfall with politically and professionally ill-chosen words, there are a whole bunch of people – I think the self-appellation of some of these people is “feminist” – whose fight for gender justice is going to be sullied by their enthusiastic attacks and for not realising that there might be times when, for people like Pat O’Shane, it hurts more to be an Aborigine than to be a woman.
The beauty of all of this is that the assimilationists among us, the right wing, the Haslucks, the Howards, the Herrons, the Ruddocks and their ilk, can sit back and chortle with barely concealed delight as some in the left and some “feminists” manipulate or otherwise fail to look beyond a literal reading of the words O’Shane used, and do what dirty work they can to defend their own ideological territory.
Your critique of O’Shane is almost largely valid and I think passionately sincere, yet there is something very important missing here.
Funnily enough, after all the debate and hand-wringing and accusations, which part of the community is going to suffer most from the grubbiness of the attempted destruction of two of the most important Aboriginal figureheads and power brokers and from the effective damage to black participation in the upper establishment? Aborigines, of both sexes.