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‘The Great Australian Silence’: Sexual Violence in Australian History

1200px-Millstream_National_Park,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia

Like many settler colonies with evolving frontiers, there has been a continuous undercurrent of sexual violence in Australian history. From the first establishment of European settlements in Australia, forced sexual relations perpetrated by white settlers have remained relatively unspoken about in recollections of the Australian frontier experience, regardless of the victim’s race.

The term ‘the Great Australian Silence’ was first coined in a 1968 lecture delivered by anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner. Stanner utilised the term to address the manner in which certain critical areas of Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, including invasion, dispossession and massacres, had generally been ignored by Australian historians as part of a long-term structural trend, otherwise known as the ‘cult of forgetfulness’.[1]

Although scholarship has evolved over the past two decades to address certain aspects of ‘the Great Australian Silence’, a silence which undeniably excludes or minimises the prevalence of sexual violence perpetrated by white settlers predominantly against Aboriginal women, the scholarship has centred around massacres, genocide and child removal, with no substantial historiography on sexual violence.

Subsequently, it has been historically-set works of fiction that have been most effective in drawing public and academic attention to the relationship between the frontier, frontier violence and sexual violence. This includes the efforts of John Hillcoat and Kim Scott, whose works The Proposition and Benang: From the Heart will be briefly examined in this post, as well as the works of other contemporaries such as Kate Grenville (The Secret River, 2005) and Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002).

Although Scott and Hillcoat investigate these ideas in slightly different contexts, namely sexual violence towards white women in nineteenth-century frontier Queensland in Hillcoat’s The Proposition, and sexual violence towards Aboriginal women in Western Australia from European arrival through to the twentieth century in Scott’s Benang, they both attempt to highlight sexual violence as intrinsic to the frontier experience.

These two texts, when compared, emphasise differing aspects of colonial sexual violence. Hillcoat, in depicting the raped white colonial woman, presents sexual violence as a threat to the ideal of white nationhood; whereas Scott, in showing interracial sexual violence between settlers and Indigenous women, presents sexual violence as necessary for the survival of the white Australian nation.

In The Proposition, sexual violence is a vital and indivisible aspect of the film; indeed, “women’s bodies, or the violation of white women’s bodies to be exact, are called upon as both the motivation and means of resolving the proposition propelling the film”.[2]

The crime that motivates the proposition that drives the film is especially horrific as it involved the rape and murder of pregnant Eliza Hopkins, who embodied the future of the white nation. Furthermore, the place of sexual violence in relation to the frontier is emphasised in the penultimate scene in the Stanley homestead whereupon Martha, wife of Constable Stanley, is the victim of an attempted rape.

In this regard, Hillcoat draws substantial attention of the place of sexual violence against white women on the Australian frontier. In comparing The Proposition and Benang, the role of race is important to note, and here both creators serve to offer a nuanced insight into how sexual violence is presented in the context of colonial Australia based on the race of the violated woman. Rape is deemed a crime in The Proposition, arguably the worst crime that can be committed in such a society, whereas in Benang it is either an unacknowledged, un-criminalised consequence of the wider, also unacknowledged, crime of mass murder, or merely taken as an accepted aspect of colonisation

The sexual violence against Indigenous women in Benang does not serve to drive the plot of the novel; instead, it supplements and further highlights the violence faced by the Nyoongar people under white settlement. Furthermore, Scott highlights how sexual violence is intrinsic to other brutal and silenced aspects of colonialization, namely the eugenicist ideals held by those such as A. O. Neville, which subsequently motivate the mass removal of Indigenous children.

The most predominant occasions of rape are committed by Ern Scat, a Scotsman who legitimises his constant rape of his two Nyoongar wives as part of his eugenicist attempts to “breed out the colour”. For Scott, sexual violence and the expression of colonial hegemonic masculinity are depicted as a necessary part of colonisation, via the likening of the bodies of Aboriginal women to the land they are dispossessed from.

Indeed, Ern’s first experiences with the Aboriginal camps is a memory overwhelmed by sexual violence; as he remembers “the first night. The dirt on his bare knees, and how she turned her head away as her body took his thrusts”. Shifting between Sandy One’s mother being the product of rape, to the intrinsic place of rape after the massacre of Indigenous groups, through to Ern’s exploits, Benang details how sexual violence towards Aboriginal women is a continual and substantial feature of Australian history.

In comparing Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Scott’s Benang, one can see how historically-set texts have been vital in attempting to address the national silence regarding the place of sexual violence in Australian history.

It is worth noting that these examinations of sexual violence are done from the perspective of male creatives, and although they are successful in opening dialogue about ‘the Great Australian Silence’ regarding sexual violence in the history of the Australian frontier, texts by women, particularly Indigenous women, could offer further insights and perspectives into the relationship between sexual violence and Australian history.

Yet undeniably, Hillcoat and Scott both succeed in starting to challenge the silence and unspeakability regarding historical sexual violence in Australia, and thus offer a foundation for further discussion and research from a myriad of different perspectives. Ultimately, both texts work to render sexual violence in Australian history speakable, as it should be.[3]

Zoe Smith is a history and literature student at the Australian National University, with a specialisation in gender history and feminist theory. Having just completed a semester of study with the University of Sheffield History Department, she will be completing her third year of study this year, with full intentions of doing further research into sexual violence on the Australian frontier via an honours thesis and a PhD. You can find Zoe on Twitter @ZoeASmith4

Cover image: View of Millstream-Chichester National Park, Australia. The barren landscape is suggestive of the cultural silence discussed in the blog. Courtesy of Gypsy Denise. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Millstream_National_Park,_Pilbara,_Western_Australia.jpg [Accessed 4 February 2020].

[1] For more information on Stanner and the ‘Great Australian Silence’, see Andrew Gunstone, ‘Reconciliation and “The Great Australian Silence”’ in R. Eccleston, N. Sageman, and F. Gray (eds), The Refereed Proceedings of the 2012 Australian Political Studies Association Conference, (Melbourne, 2012).

[2] Tanya Dalziell, ‘Gunpowder and Gardens: Reading Women in The Proposition’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, 3.1 (2009), 122.

[3] The ideas and research presented in this blog post are featured in and further extended upon in an upcoming article due to be published in March by the Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal. Interested readers will be able to access the article here: http://studentjournals.anu.edu.au/index.php/aurj

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Bringing Nineteenth-Century Women to Life in Present-day Uruguay

800px-Juan_Manuel_Blanes_-_Artigas_en_la_Ciudadela

As a cultural studies scholar, my work on historical novels from Uruguay at first glance seems to stand out from a website titled ‘History Matters’. Whilst many consider historical fiction to be the frivolous sibling to the rigor and precision of historical research, what happens when history cannot provide any answers? What about people who were marginalised for their gender, sexuality, class and/or colour and could not leave traces of their lives? How do we access their past experiences when historically we know very little about them? It is in these recesses of history where, I argue, fiction can play a significant role. In other words, narrative imagination can function as an effective tool for studying and thinking about an inaccessible past.

One of the Uruguayan historical novels that features in my research is titled Untamed Love: The Women of Artigas (Amores cimarrones: Las mujeres de Artigas, 2011, translation mine). Written by Marcia Collazo Ibáñez, who is also a historian by profession, this highly successful novel traces the lives of six women connected to Uruguay’s ultimate national hero, José Artigas (1764-1850).

One of the leaders of the revolutions which began in 1810 against the Spanish Crown in the River Plate of South America, Artigas led and later governed the Banda Oriental region (present-day Uruguay). In 1816 Banda Oriental was gradually invaded by Portuguese forces, and by 1820 Artigas and his armies were forced into exile in Paraguay where he spent the last thirty years of his life.[1] Despite being defeated by the Portuguese, curiously, after Artigas’ death his actions and ideals were exalted to proclaim him the father of the Uruguayan nation, a position he holds until today.

So, what about the women connected to Artigas, one may ask? Although his grandmothers, Ignacia Carrasco (1701-1773) and María Camejo (1714-1772), and his mother Francisca Asnar (1743-1803) are sometimes mentioned in historical works, they are often side-lined to highlight Artigas’s noble and honourable actions. His wife, Rosalía Rafaela Villagrán (1775-1824), furthermore, was portrayed not only as a ‘mad’ woman due to her ill health but also as someone who could not understand his need to fight for self-determination. His other partners, Isabel Sánchez (dates disputed) and Melchora Cuenca (birth date disputed-1870), on the other hand, were deemed inconsequential by male historians who also glossed over the national hero’s possibly promiscuous behaviour.[2]

Published in 2011, when Uruguayans celebrated the bicentenary of Artigas’s heroic actions, Collazo Ibáñez’s novel Untamed Love is divided into six parts with separate sections devoted to each of his grandmothers, his mother and his most significant three partners. In each of these six sections, the novel follows a very interesting pattern, as history and narrative imagination co-exist side by side. After conducting thorough historical research, the author precedes each anecdote about the women’s lives with short quotes by mostly male historians, significant leaders and sometimes Artigas himself. Then she proceeds to describe what might have occurred from the women’s perspectives, sometimes questioning Artigas’s behaviour towards them. Indulging her readers in a counter-history, which is partly imagined, the author, in a rather feminist gesture, writes these women into history.

In the case of Artigas’s official wife, Rosalía Rafaela, although she has been often mentioned in history books, even school textbooks, there are no known archival sources from her hand, i.e. no letters nor a diary. The information we have on her is second-hand: letters her husband or other officials wrote and parish entries. In Untamed Love, on the other hand, Collazo Ibáñez uses a first-person narrative to describe Rosalía’s ‘madness’. The section on Rosalía in the novel begins with her interior monologue as she wakes up in a hospital bed and inadvertently overhears her doctors discussing the reasons for her illness and unfortunate situation. This scene, symbolic of historians talking about Rosalía whilst her response was only silence, counters patriarchal history as the author uses narrative imagination to portray Rosalía’s experience in the hospital.

One might ask, how does this work differ from any other historical novel? Untamed Love is not a mere fictionalisation of the past. That is to say, it does not depict historical types but instead fictionalises the lives of real, often marginalised people. In doing so, it engages with a recent sub-genre that Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographical metafiction’.[3] In fact, as Untamed Love’s author Collazo Ibáñez first attempts to access these women’s lives through history, she points to gaps in historical discourses and utilises fiction to fill them. In this sense, history does matter, but when there are insufficient historical sources available, fiction offers a space to imagine how traditionally marginalised people, like women, lived their lives. That is to say, when history is not enough, fiction steps in.

Karunika Kardak recently completed her PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of St Andrews and is currently an academic tutor at the Department of Spanish there. Her doctoral research focused on literature from the post-dictatorship period in Uruguay and studied issues of national identity and cultural memory in historical fiction. You can find her on Twitter @KKarunika.

Cover image: Portrait of José Gervasio Artigas, circa 1884.

[1] John Street’s Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay serves as a perfect introduction for Anglophone readers to Uruguay’s history and the national hero’s role in it. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[2] See Isidoro de María, Rasgos biográficos de hombres notables de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 3rd edn (Montevideo: Imprenta Artística, de Dornalecha y Reyes, 1889); Luis Bonavita, Sombras heroicas (Montevideo: Impresora L.I.G.U., 1949); and Juan Alberto Gadea, El ambiente hogareño donde nació Artigas (Montevideo: Estado Mayor del Ejército, 1974).

[3] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 114. See Jerome de Groot on historiographical metafiction in The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119–21.

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Locating Women in the history of India’s Emergency (1975-1977)

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Image: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a (female) audience in Delhi, 1 March 1977 (Socialist India, March 5 1977)

More than forty years on from India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), we are beginning to understand the many ways in which women supported, resisted and experienced this critical period in India’s history.

Forty-two years ago today, on 21 March 1977, India’s State of Emergency collapsed. The Janata Party, a coalition of anti-Emergency opposition groups, defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress Government at the polls. Gandhi imposed this Emergency in June 1975, responding to rising opposition and a legal challenge to her position. Government censored the press, arrested opposition party members and activists, suspended elections and undertook controversial socioeconomic programmes, including coercive sterilisation and aggressive slum clearance. This is now a well traversed history. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of scholarship analysing these events. But the role of women in relation to all aspects of the regime has not commanded sufficient attention.

This is particularly striking for several reasons. A female leader who drew heavily on gendered narratives like Bharat Mata (Mother India) presided over this regime, mobilising such imagery to defend the Emergency’s legitimacy. In one instance, Gandhi stated:

We felt that the country had developed a disease and if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure… Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step. But we see it worked (Socialist India 15 November 1975).

In 1975 India participated in the UN’s International Women’s Year (IWY) celebrations and the government’s Committee on the Status of Women in India published its report Towards Equality. One of the Emergency’s most infamous policies, coercive sterilisation in the name of family planning, is an issue that has been at the fore of feminist activism and scholarship. Although the Emergency is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the contemporary women’s movement in India, there has been little attention to women’s activism or experiences during it.

My doctoral research revealed the myriad ways in which women were key to the articulation and implementation of Emergency measures. Depictions of women’s support for the regime were integral to pro-Emergency propaganda. The Congress Party used women dominated photographs to represent support for the regime, even describing the Emergency as akin to the IWY, as ‘yet another significant event for the welfare of women in this country’ because of its imposition of ‘law and order’ (Socialist India 21 August 1976). Contrary to such claims, and despite perceptions of the Emergency’s sterilisation policies as a vasectomy programme, my research revealed the negative implications of these policies for women, particularly the impact of the focus on sterilisation on the Mother and Child Health programme. Women were often at the forefront of families’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency’s many coercive measures. As one man put it, because of the financial pressures authorities placed on his family ‘my wife had to get sterilised.’

Women were not simply victims of the Emergency’s repressive measures, nor symbols utilised by the Congress’s pro-Emergency narratives. Women were active in resistance and organised protests against the Emergency. Underground literature reveals glimpses of this recording how in December 1975, Jayawantiben Mehta, Ahilya Rangnekar and Kamal Desai led groups of women protestors in Mumbai as part of an organised Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Documentation from Maharashtra’s prisons shows that state authorities there arrested over 500 women during this period for such activities. Once in prison, women cultivated lively cultures of resistance, continuing to protest and maintaining connections with the underground resistance movement. Those who escaped arrest, such as teacher and later Janata Party Secretary Pushpa Bhave, continued to organise protests and shelter those participating in underground resistance in their own homes.

The Janata Government that took office in March 1977 had the lowest number of women in parliament. As feminist activist and scholar Dr Ranjana Kumari, who was active in underground activism as a student in Delhi, told me in an interview, ‘there were a lot of women who were very, very active’, but ‘they were all pushed aside post-Emergency… so many of them not even recognised, not even written about, it is sad’. This marginalisation of women in post-Emergency politics has contributed to the absence of their voices and stories from this history. My doctoral research begins to address this gap, but forty-two years on, there is still much work to be done.

Gemma Scott completed an AHRC funded PhD at Keele University in 2018. Her research examines the history of India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), focusing particularly on women’s activism during this period and women’s experiences of Emergency measures. In 2015, she was an AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and in 2016/17 she held a Scouloudi Foundation Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is currently working as Engagement, Partnerships and Impact Development Officer at Keele University.

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