On Monday, in over 40 cities and towns around Australia, tens of thousands of women gathered to express their increasing frustration and discontent toward the continued mistreatment of women in Australian society. The movement was inspired by a recent wave of allegations of sexual assault centered around Australia’s parliament, yet was also related to other current women’s movements worldwide. Women around the glove are seeking to highlight and express their rightful anger that for far too many women the public space, the workplace, and especially the household cannot be considered safe places.
The issue is two-fold. First there is the persistent violence — physical, sexual, domestic, and public — that women continue to face; a perpetual social insecurity that men simply don’t have to contend with, and often fail to find any empathy for. And second there is the institutional response to this violence, where police, courts, and elected representatives simply do not take this insecurity seriously, often compounding, rather than alleviating, the trauma that women experience.
The movements that coalesced into Monday’s protests feel that with allegations of sexual violence taking place inside Parliament House, there is an important symbolism that should drive action on both legal and cultural change. There’s a push to have the parliament recognize that as the institution that sets the country’s laws it needs to have a keen sense of the standards that the society expects. For far too long the bare minimum of basic human security for women is a standard the parliament has failed to deliver.
Unfortunately, these rational and ethical movements for decency and justice consistently come up against a deeply embedded culture of tolerance toward male violence. There is an unconscious assessment that men are naturally violent and that societies simply have to expect and accept a certain amount of male violence. As the state submits itself to this cultural expectation, instead of being prohibited, male violence is simply regulated, often weakly. Laws against violence may exist in an attempted recognition of the problem, but they are rarely enforced due to a cultural tolerance. If this violence reaches the level of murder, then the state feels the need to take it seriously, but anything short of death and the state’s interest starts to wane.
This disinterest from the state can also often manifest itself as suspicion toward women who report physical or sexual abuse. This is especially the case if this abuse is directed at children. Mothers often end up being punished by the state for seeking to protect their children from abusive fathers. Here, and in other forms of domestic violence, the state tends to see the household as a gray zone, where men have a traditional authority that exists in parallel to the state’s. This makes the state reluctant to intervene at best, and at worst actively hostile to women who do not submit themselves to this male authority.
Unfortunately, this behavior is driven by a fear of what the world would look like if women’s experiences were to be believed, and if the state was to take violence against women seriously. The sheer scale of the problem lends itself to a persistent disposition of denialism from the justice system, governments, and civil society. It needs to be acknowledged and fully understood that this denialism is protecting an unacceptably dangerous world for women.
Monday’s protests — and the movements that have propelled them — should be considered a critical cultural moment for Australia. This is a turning point where both civil society and the state finally come to terms with the persistent social scourge of violence against women and seek substantial remedies. Unfortunately, the government is failing to live up to the moment, instead exhibiting its habitual defensiveness, interpreting a movement for greater safety for women as some kind of unfair and exaggerated partisan political attack.
Yet the hope is that Australian men can find a way to step up when the government is failing. While it may be mostly women who are out on the streets highlighting these issues and demanding drastic change, that change can only come through the altering of male behavior. Male violence against women is not a “women’s issue,” it is fundamentally one that men need to confront within themselves. It requires a conscious reshaping of masculinity in order for men to find their individual and collective dignity in love, kindness, caring, and respect, rather than violence, power, and control.