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Emily Tyrrell reflects on International Women’s Day and the reality that a woman in 2021 Australia must face.
Each year, International Women’s Day selects a theme to reflect the milieu. This year, they’ve picked ‘choose to challenge’, their rationale being that a ‘challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change’. This statement doesn’t sit well with me.
Even though I am aware of the importance of IWD and the difficulty of capturing the essence of a movement, this statement is problematic. The last few weeks have been a convulsion of headlines that have gurgled up from history of rape, hatred and abuse tolerated by our institutions and the powerful people within them. I say ‘tolerated’ because the revelations of misogyny in our Governments, our schools and our workplaces should come as no surprise. Nor should the fact that we have no choice in whether it is spoken about or not.
In a world in which one in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; and where speaking up about such assault makes you a ‘lying cow’, I don’t feel like I have a choice but to speak. I have to speak and challenge these norms if I want to live in a world that doesn’t undermine, distrust and discard myself, my sister and my mother. There is no choice; this is a matter of necessity.
In this article, I will step through three concepts that we must rethink if we want women to be equal. These concepts are justice, leadership and community; and they’ve been central to the arguments thrown around in the last few weeks. It’s clear that we are at a tipping point, and whilst we can choose whether we fall or fly, there’s no doubt that we are being forced over the edge.
The first concept I’ll freefall into is justice. Justice has been at the centre of discussions around the allegations made against Christian Porter, the Federal Attorney General. He denies that he raped a fellow team member at the 1988 Worlds Debating Championships, and claims that justice has been stripped from him because of a ‘trial by media’ after the allegations were made public. Such an argument is belied by the belief that the court, the police and the adversarial system have a monopoly over justice.
This characterisation misunderstands two critical points. For one, it overlooks how victims of sexual assault approach the court already disadvantaged. Not only does the burden of proof and the ambiguities in the law of consent favour the accused, but biases present in juries and judges alike often find against women alleging sexual assault .
If we add to this the cost of coming to court and the fear of relieving the trauma of an assault, we can see that women are already heavily disadvantaged in this space – they are not at all ‘equal’ in the eyes of the law. So, the claim that we are on the precipice of descending into anarchy because Porter has not been treated fairly ignores the poor state that the law is already in.
On the other hand, even if you believe we live in an idyllic world that lives and dies with the rule of law, we must acknowledge that the Court is not the only provider of justice in a democracy. The Fourth Estate, or the public sphere, is a forum where media institutions and individuals alike can scrutinise the law, the Government, businesses and workplaces outside of their institutional bounds. This allows for entry of alternative voices and perspectives where they would otherwise be silenced by the contexts they exist in. For example, Brittany Higgins raised the instance of sexual assault in her workplace, and was provided with inadequate advice and action by both her boss at the time, and the office she was moved to. She turned to the media to tell her story and create pressure for a review into the workplace culture in Parliament. In turn, the public have responded through their own social media platforms and the plethora of journalistic responses.
Now, whilst our Fourth Estate regularly acts more like a pub test, this most recent outcry has resembled a brawl more akin to the drunken scenes in Wake in Fright. It’s been violent and it’s been angry, but most of all, it’s been telling. We expect more of our politicians then a cover up, opportunism or a flat-out denial, and the ability to express such a disappointment is a form of justice in and of itself. To deny it is to deny the scrutiny essential to a system that’s supposed to represent all people. We need to think of justice as a multivocal concept if it is ever to be attainable for women.
The second concept is that of leadership. This one falls close to home for me. At the same time that I could hear Gillard proclaiming that we should not tolerate misogyny now or ever, I was living through domestic violence. Now, I was not old enough to connect what Gillard was saying to the vitriol that I was experiencing, but I could recognise a strong, empowered and angry woman standing up for herself. I learnt from her. I continue to learn from the brilliant women that I am surrounded by.
Every single woman that wrote about their experiences of sexual assault in high school is a leader. They are women my age writing about the violence they lived through at my sister’s age. They know there are sixteen – seventeen year olds listening, and that they need the knowledge and solidarity to report abuse, and in turn, prevent it from happening. At this College, we must acknowledge the sexism that this sandstone has protected. We have an obligation to use our privilege to decry any remaining discrimination and abuse, and we must promote the many smart, empathetic and resilient women amongst us to positions of leadership and power.
On the other hand, what on earth are young boys learning from a Prime Minister who refuses to properly acknowledge and take action on the sexism plaguing his parliament? What are they learning from shock jocks who are telling them that what is under attack is the grand old Western Tradition, rather than a system that treats women as objects thrown around in a game of political football? Do they see the ways in which the colour of their skin, their back pocket and their sex and gender put them on a pedestal if no one else acknowledges it?
I have no choice but to speak up on this issue because I know other women are listening – and god, if a book nerd like me is worried about their influence, I do not understand how our elected leaders cannot be worried about theirs. Leadership must be about admitting where you are wrong, and understanding the needs of the audience who are listening to you. Gillard understood that when she made the Misogyny Speech. We practice it when we demand our stories be listened to, and we, in turn, listen with kindness, scrutiny and compassion.
Lastly, I want to talk about community. I was first made aware of the High School based petition from a male student that I tutor. As he packed his laptop away, he tentatively told me about the petition that named and shamed boys at his school. I admit, I was worried where he was going with it all.
And then, as if sensing my hesitancy, he said that he was sorry. He was sorry that the legal system was so awful, he was sorry that victims had to re–traumatise themselves to tell their stories. He was sorry that institutions weren’t taking responsibility. He thought, at the very least, this was something we needed to talk about. This was not something that could be left unsaid.
This seventeen year old acknowledged that by his very belonging to a gender, a race, a socio-economic status and a school, he had an obligation to engage in the conversation in a meaningful way. That’s what community is. It is a meaningful and constructive admission of our faults and our commitment to caring about one another.
I see one side of the debate whirling around Australia ready to adopt – and in fact, already practicing – these new understandings of justice, leadership and community. I see the other side clinging to tired catchphrases and hollow gestures. The choice they are making is misled.
Women don’t have a choice. We’re fighting for our lives. When those are the stakes, you’re wrong to think that change is a choice. It’s happening, and it’s happening now.
 For more discussion on these points, see Mason, G & Monaghan, J 2019, ‘Autonomy and responsibility in sexual assault law in NSW: The “lazarus” cases’ Current Issues in Criminal Justice, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 24–39 and Cossins, A 2020, Closing the Justice Gap for Adult and Child Sexual Assault: Rethinking the Adversarial Trial, Palgrave Macmillan UK, London.