Community outrage opposing violence against women

By Helen Jarvis — The tragic and unacceptable abduction, rape and murder of young Irish woman and ABC radio staffer Jill Meagher in Melbourne on the night of September 21 has justifiably sparked a public outcry in the social media and also on the streets. All instances of violence against women deserve the outcry that the Jill Meagher case attracted.

Jill Meagher joined her ABC colleagues for Friday night after-work drinks in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, leaving the group shortly after 1am to walk along busy Sydney Rd to her nearby home. Along the way CCTV video cameras recorded her stopping outside a bridal shop and exchanging brief words with a man who approached her. She was not seen again. After some days, the CCTV images and her mobile telephone were used to track the man. Almost a week after her disappearance, he was arrested and charged with her murder and led the police to her body on a country road just north of Melbourne.

Overwhelming response

On news of her disappearance, local residents immediately set up facebook and twitter accounts and pasted posters on local streets calling for action. In an overwhelming response, an estimated 30,000 women, men and children filled Sydney Rd on September 30, marching through Brunswick, mostly in silence but some bearing placards opposing violence against women.

Jill Meagher’s disappearance and murder were front page news, not only because she worked at the ABC but also because she was a young, attractive, vivacious, white, married professional woman.

The contrast with the attention given by the media to many other victims was poignantly expressed by a small family group standing alongside the massive march holding a homemade banner saying “Help us find our daughter”.

Many victims go unnoticed, disbelieved or even blamed for having brought the attack upon themselves for one reason or another — being provocatively dressed, engaged in sex work or otherwise acting contrary to perceived “decent” standards of behaviour, even for acting as Jill Meagher did in going out drinking and walking home alone late at night.

In October 2011 in Melbourne, Karina Bell, a little-known street worker, was murdered, but the story barely rated notice in the press. By contrast, a few days later, there was quite a bit of sensational, salacious detail in the coverage of the murder of Johanna Martin. She was a well-known, flamboyant sex worker who drove an expensive car and lived in an expensive apartment; she was 65 years old, a grandmother and went by the name “Jazzy O”.

Yet the community mobilisation around Jill Meagher’s disappearance was not merely motivated by the same prejudices evident in much of the mainstream media coverage. The man who initiated the September 30 demonstration reportedly did so “in honour of Jill Meagher, against violence and in solidarity with all women”. This, the placards opposing violence against women that were present at the march, and some readers’ letters, e.g., to the Melbourne Age, indicate that many who attended the rally and took other action over Jill Meagher’s death are aware of broader issues of violence against women. The march was not merely about the rights of “respectable” women.

‘It could have been any of us’

“It could have been any of us”, was a constant refrain. And indeed, Jill Meagher’s story is sadly not unique. Women throughout Australia, as in most other countries, are fearful of being attacked. More than one woman a week in Australia dies at the hands of their own partners, relatives or friends, but it is “stranger danger” that haunts us and restricts our movements, particularly at night.

Predictably, some commentators have used the incident to call for more police and more CCTV cameras. A dramatic increase in the number of women wanting to enrol in self-defence classes was reported in the press. While this is an understandable response, and a sensible initiative for some women, violence against women cannot be combated on an individual basis. It requires collective action.

The September 30 march was a positive step towards just such collective action. It helped to renew focus on and debate around all forms of violence against women. Several days after the march, a number of Melbourne women met to plan a Sydney Road “Reclaim the Night” march to be held on Saturday, October 20, as part of reinvigorating the campaign opposing violence against women. This initiative will be able to build on the heightened public sensitivity resulting from the Jill Meagher case.

Another sharp reminder of the pervasiveness of violence against women in our society and the many different ways this is manifested, came in the same week of Jill Meagher’s murder. Sydney radio “shock jock” Alan Jones uttered the latest in a series of vitriolic attacks on Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Gillard has been the butt of sexist ridicule and violent abuse from many commentators, among whom Jones is the master. But he sank to new depths in asserting that Gillard’s father had “died of shame” for having a daughter “who tells lies every time she stood in parliament”. This provoked an outpouring of condemnation and even led to the withdrawal of advertising on his radio program from a number of his sponsors.

Early reports say police described the attack on Jill Meagher as opportunistic and random — but it remains to be seen whether this was indeed the case, or whether the attacker was known to her, and whether he acted alone.

‘Provocation’ myth

Recent research by Monash University criminologist Danielle Tyson, published as the book Sex, Culpability and the Defence of Provocation, shows that even since the Victorian government passed legislation abolishing the “She asked for it” defence in 2005, it has continued to be used in intimate partner murders in Victoria.

In her examination of nine murder trial transcripts and evidence from 100 cases from other jurisdictions, Dr Tyson found that defence lawyers still relied on the idea that murdered women provoked their own killing, and that some judges continued to demonstrate some sympathy for provocation-style defences. In such cases the defendant attempted to blame the murder victim by relying on stereotypical ideas such as the “nagging woman”, the “unfaithful woman” or the woman who impugns his masculinity.

Violence against women is expressed every day in our society — in words and in deeds. Only a radical change in power relations, both inside the family and in society at large, can bring this to an end. Campaigns like Reclaim the Night can help to highlight this issue and motivate women and men to act to wipe out this scourge.

Reclaim the Night Sydney Road: 7pm, Saturday, October 20, 2012. Rally and march will start at the corner of Brunswick Road and Sydney Road. Everyone welcome to attend.

[Helen Jarvis is a long-time activist, and was a founding member of Sydney Women’s Liberation in 1969.]

Direct Action — October 12, 2012