Sydney seige, ‘terrorism’ and violence against women

I was disappointed reading the coverage of the Sydney siege this morning on stuff.co.nz where information about the killer glosses over his acts of sexual abuse and involvement in his wife’s murder. It seems to be a concerning trend that past offences against women seem to become invisible in the wake of high profile cases of tragedies, even though this is extremely relevant to this situation. I have written elsewhere about Ariel Castro who kidnapped, raped and tortured three women for a number of years had a history of violence towards his wife and children and the alleged grooming and sexual abuse of other children. Similarly, in NZ Liam Reed who was convicted of the murder of one woman and the rape and attempted murder of another was previously charged with raping his former girlfriend but had not been convicted of those offences.

It is part of neoliberalism and islamphobia that we come to see these acts of violence as ‘random’ and related more closely with his faith than his actual use of past violence, blatant disregard for life and hatred of women. And indeed this situation is random as it involves people unknown to this man, but it is not random in the sense that given his past behaviour his actions make sense in light of his propensity for violence and sexual violence:

The gunman behind the Sydney cafe siege was facing up to 50 sexual offence charges, according to court documents
The documents allege that Man Haron Monis painted the breasts of women and raped them in his ‘spiritual healing’ sessions
The sessions are alleged to have taken place over 13 years at locations around Sydney
Documents also allege that he threatened to shoot the mother of his two sons around two years before her brutal murder
Monis was on bail and due to face court in February

So instead of a discussion about the extremely high rates of sexual and domestic violence in Australia and the failure of the legal system to act in the interests of women’s and the wider community’s safety by releasing a man who is being charged with accessory to murder and 50 counts of sexual assault and rape what comes to the fore is discussions of terrorism. Rather than a critique of the unwillingness of our societies to address the problem of violence against women, and how if the judicial system took VAW seriously then this man may have never been allowed out on bail I am reading a news article about New Zealand, where this incident is being used to justify the new anti-terrorist legislation which allows the security intelligence service to use warrantless surveillance for 24 hours on citizens and gives them the ability to cancel passports for up to three years.

This legislation highlights that the state can act in highly coordinated and targeted (if unethical) ways to intervene in and control the lives of citizens when they choose to prioritise it. (We can see this most visibly in the Northern Territory Intervention when the Australian government literally suspended the rights of indigenous Australians, see my other post critiquing this).

I do not mean to undermine the importance of this incident and its tragic outcome but rather to highlight that this incident, as well as all the other acts of domestic violence which kills on average one woman a week in Australia are all equally important and worthy of discussion, intervention and prevention.

Love and violence prevention

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bell hooks’ work has been a major influence in my own feminist politics but also in my research more generally. Today I am writing about the ways her work on loving ethic can be utilised for sexual violence prevention interventions.

I will provide an overview of hooks’ work on love primarily from the following three books “All about love new visions, Men Masculinity and Love and Feminism is for everybody”. However, this being a big part of her scholarship I have drawn from other texts as well.

For me hook’s work lends itself very readily to feminist discussions of rape prevention and I am interested in three aspects of her work on love which highlight this link:

Her contention that we need to work from a shared understanding of love and work to practice this in all of our relationships, not only romantic.

Her work addresses the complications of love for individuals who have witnessed and/or experienced abuse and provides a space to consider how we draw a boundary between love and abuse which she considers mutually exclusive. She argues that “the myth that love and domination can coexist is one of the biggest lies told to us by patriarchy”.

Her work speaks directly to the reimagining of patriarchal and hegemonic constructions of masculinity, a piece of work that is fundamental to sexual violence prevention. Effective rape prevention engages men not as potential perpetrators but as allies in eliminating gendered violence, approaching men within a framework of love gives us the opportunity to draw on what many men already do in their relationships and working towards harnessing love, empathy and compassion in order to behave safely in public and private.  

Love has long been a foundational principle in anti-violence work, and is a key principle in many faith based schools of thought and in many indigenous communities. I am thinking quickly here of Martin Luther King’s speech on loving one’s enemies “hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”, of practicing loving kindness during meditation and of the principles of tika, pono and aroha in Te Ao Maori. These understandings of love are not equivalent, but rather I am using them to show that love may be a way for different groups to find shared meaning, in a way that speaking of gender, sex and sexuality (sometimes) cannot do. Indeed hooks reminds us that “all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic”.

The study of love in feminism and also queer studies has been influential in many ways. Romantic love as a social institution and a form of social control as described by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics, ‘love of the self regardless’ as described by Alice Walker and the complexities surrounding love, sex and sexuality outlined in Lynne Segal’s Straight Sex, are a small selection of a large field of theoretical work on love.

bell hooks’ conception of love argues that love acts to transform relationships of domination. Her theory of presupposes that everyone has the right to live freely and to live well. According to hooks love is a practice, love is not instinctual we choose to love but in patriarchal culture, romantic love is tied to notions of possession and submission. The idea of love catches you unawares, you fall into it and it renders you powerless. Luce Irigary speaks also of the way love is framed in language in I love to you, “I love to you means I maintain a relationship of indirection to you. I do not subjugate or consume you. I respect you (as irreducible).”

Because there is no school to teach us how to love, we do not work from a shared definition or understanding of what it means to love. And thus hooks provides us with a definition of love, care, commitment, knowledge, integrity and the will to cooperate.

Part of her work involves speaking of her own childhood abuse at the hands of her father and mother and also witnessing abuse between them, and the way she grappled with understanding what love was when she never felt as though she experienced it. I think her work on love is significant to discussions of preventing the revictimisation of people who experience abuse, as well as preventing before it happens, as witnessing abuse is a risk factor both in perpetration and victimisation. To have a clear understanding of what love is and is not, is to me a fruitful space for thinking and talking about violence prevention. An example of this is work done in Australia in a project called ‘Spreading the Love’ where one woman said:

“For us it’s almost like lump (love + hump) is the same as what anyone else would call love but because I guess my experiences have lent themselves to people saying that they love me and then doing stuff to me that I don’t want them to do then it’s kinda like twisted inside my head. So it’s almost like the creation of the word ‘lump’ gives me a way of expressing that without associating it with something that I don’t want to experience”. So love is a concept that can be used as a basis to understand one another and the way we wish to be treated, working together we can create shared meanings of love but also the behaviour we expect from others.

Finally, hooks argues that feminism has offered amazing critiques of patriarchy but few insightful ideas about alternative masculinity which, I would argue is something that is actually a primary focus of violence prevention. She argues that men are brainwashed to consider violence against women as part of male privilege and this stops them from seeing the damage that is done both to others and to themselves. She states:

“men who win on patriarchal terms lose in their substantive quality of life. They choose patriarchal manhood over loving connection, first forgoing self-love and then the love they could give and receive that would connect them to others”

Utilising her work on love, helps us to provide an alternative to violence. We can encourage people to practice new positive behaviour as Baker (2013) argues “True prevention moves beyond stopping violence to promoting healthy behaviour. This requires positive and specific words to describe what we want to do”. To make love a verb, an act of doing, is to re-frame our behaviour and actions and orient them towards more equitable and respectful relationships.