As reported in The Australian November 30,2018
Like most traditional cultures around the world, Warlpiri culture is deeply patriarchal; men are superior to women and more privileged, and the collective quashes the rights of the individual. These principles, thousands of years old, come together to oppress women now. If I misbehaved as a young girl, some well-intentioned family member might threaten me with forced marriage to a much older “promised husband”. I would obey out of terror.
Aboriginal children are rarely punished physically but are controlled psychologically. I recall when I was a little girl my female kin playing cards at Yuendumu. A Japangardi, one of my potential husbands, walked past. The women pretended he was coming to take me away. They teased me and huddled around, pretending to protect me from his clutches. He played along, pretending to grab for me. I was terrified. Everyone burst into laughter. Japangardi signalled it was all a joke and handed me a $20 note to compensate for the terror he caused me.
Girls are trained to be submissive from birth and their fear is laughed at. My mother was expected to join her middle-aged promised husband as his second wife at 13. She would have gone to her big sister’s household as her co-wife. Mum rebelled. Her father and promised husband relented and told her she could finish school first. They were good and thoughtful men who knew the law but also knew when not to enforce it and that the world was changing. Others of my mother’s age weren’t so lucky and were beaten senseless for daring to rebel.
My parents were determined I would be able to choose my husband. There are still some not granted that right. In customary law, a man is entitled to have sex with his promised wife without her consent. This has been used in court to defend men who had violently and sexually assaulted their teenaged promised wives. In 2002 a 50-year-old Aboriginal man faced court over the abduction and rape of his 15-year-old promised wife. He had already killed one wife. Despite this, his new wife’s family had promised her to him. She was held against her will at his outstation and repeatedly raped. When she attempted to leave with relatives, he fired his shotgun to scare them off. His lawyers argued he was acting within the parameters of his law and fulfilling obligations to the victim’s family.
This was true. The initial charge of rape was reduced. He received 24 hours’ imprisonment for unlawful intercourse with a minor and 14 days’ imprisonment for the firearm offences. When the details were published in a national paper there was outrage and a successful appeal.
I know of many other cases like that: stories of rape, domestic violence and murder; stories belonging to women in my family and many other Aboriginal families. Stories that never reach the ears of the wider public. My close family regularly contributes to the hideous statistics relating to family violence. My Aboriginal sisters, aunts, mothers, nieces and daughters live this crisis every day. There is not a woman in my family who has not experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse at some time in her life. And none of the perpetrators were white. One of my aunts had her childhood violently stolen from her at the age of 14. Her promised husband, a much older man, held her captive. She was bound with rope “like a kangaroo”, as it was described to me, and repeatedly raped. No one reported the incident. Everyone went about their lives as if nothing had happened. My aunt — one of the most loving, caring and, as I’ve come to learn, resilient women I know — lived on in silence. She lost the ability to bear children. She was left to deal with her scarred womb and tormented psyche while her perpetrator lived on to die as an elder and law man, revered by both the Aboriginal and the wider community.
I was told of another relative who had also been promised to a much older man who, again, had been convicted of killing his first wife. She was terrified she’d suffer the same fate. Her female relatives tried to protect her. I was told her promised husband and other male relatives took her out bush with the connivance of her own father who had also caused the death of his wife. No one has seen her since. That was more than 30 years ago when I was a baby. No complaint was made to the police. These are the kinds of women’s stories I’ve grown up with, told to me in whispers by aunts, grandmothers, mothers. They were also warnings of what can happen when a girl breaks the law.
As an Aboriginal woman I have grown up knowing never to travel on certain roads during “business” time for fear of accidentally coming across a men’s ceremonial party. Like all Aboriginal women, I am at risk of being killed as punishment for making such a simple mistake. This was, and still is, the rule for Aboriginal women in central Australia.
In January 2009 a police car drove on to a ceremonial ground in a remote community. They were pursuing a man who had assaulted his wife. There was a female police officer in the car. That evening the ABC news reported that white police had shown no respect for Aboriginal law. The fact they were pursuing a man who had perpetrated violence against his wife wasn’t mentioned.
Interviewed for the evening news, the late Mr Bookie, former chairman of the Central Land Council, said: “It’s against our law for people like that, breaking the law, they shouldn’t be there. Aboriginal ladies, they’re not allowed to go anywhere near that. If they had been caught — a woman, Aboriginal lady, got caught — she would be killed. Simple as that!” He knew the law and he told the truth.
There was great anger in June this year when Victoria Police issued a statement cautioning women to have “situational awareness” and be “mindful of their surroundings” after the terrible rape and murder of a young Melbourne woman in a Carlton park at night. Aboriginal women in remote Australia must be acutely aware of their situation and surroundings all the time during Aboriginal men’s ceremony. They are taught this from birth. This is the way it is and has always been.
A few years ago I was contacted by a female family member who told me that because of feuding between her family and her in-laws she was wrongly accused of insulting a man in a culturally sensitive way relating to sacred men’s business. As a result she and her daughter were told they had to strip naked publicly in their community to be humiliated. Women know insulting a man with reference to men’s sacred ceremony can result in severe punishment. An accusation is usually believed and supported by the accuser’s female kin. Denial is useless.
A son-in-law can do whatever he likes and his mother-in-law will blame her daughter. In traditional communities in the Northern Territory, the patriarchal and kin-based society is so deeply embedded it’s common for female relatives of even violent offenders to support them against the victim. The obligation to male kin is so strong it can be crippling.
Premature death and life-threatening illness are blamed on sorcery. Misfortune falling on a family can be blamed on the misbehaviour of women who have attracted the attention of sorcerers. They may be blamed for the death of their children or husbands. Mothers and widows in mourning are sometimes badly beaten after attracting blame. They usually accept punishment because they share the belief system that imposes the penalty. As long as the belief that women can be blamed for the bad behaviour of men, or for accidents and illness, exists in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal people, we will never progress in the fight against physical and sexual violence against women. It is heartbreaking but true.
Ironically, in my experience many of those most horrified by the idea of Aboriginal people questioning the old ways or adapting to the new are people who fully embrace modernity themselves. They are often well-educated and employed, fluent and articulate in English. They live safely in suburbs, have access to the media and the world’s best health services. They don’t die young and they stay out of prison. They have their own culture, don’t live by our customary law, perhaps don’t know what it is. To me, it’s never clear what it is they’re so keen for us to hold on to. Or why we should.
In a small-scale society without prisons and without material wealth, incarceration or fining weren’t available as penalties for law-breaking. Physical punishments such as wounding by spear, beatings or death were the only ones available. Once the punishment had been carried out, conflict could be resolved and everyone could carry on with life. With no defence services or police, everybody, male and female, was trained to fight to defend themselves and their families when called upon. Communities haven’t fully shed these ancient practices.
But they don’t work in a complex, modern society, especially one suffering from high levels of alcohol and drug abuse; a world where we have all of these old traditions plus internet connection to the world, pornography and poker machines — new things that can kill, none of which existed when our culture and laws were formed.
This is the point at which traditional culture and the modern world collide to tear each other apart. My peaceful childhood days in the bush were a stark contrast to town, where members of my family lived in town camps. There, alcohol-fuelled violence took a stranglehold on their lives. I watched as my uncles, whom I loved dearly — men who loved their families — became addicted to grog because they no longer knew where they stood in society. I’ve witnessed alcohol-fuelled rage from men and women towards each other and inflicted on themselves. The principles of traditional and modern economies also clash.
Traditionally we couldn’t preserve or transport food in a harsh climate. Food had to be consumed immediately and shared with those present; and it could be demanded. That was the only way we could survive. But the only things my ancestors possessed that could be shared were food, water and firewood. The principle of demand-share cannot coexist with money, with the need to save, invest and budget. It cannot coexist with addiction. Now, in the cash economy, demand-share and immediate consumption applied to money, clothing, vehicles and houses cause poverty. You can’t say no to kin. They have unrestricted access to your income and all of your assets under the old rules. Some kin will be addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling.
The addicted are allowed, under the rules of traditional culture, to demand their kin fund their addiction. It is the single biggest barrier to beneficial participation in the modern economy. If you are obliged to give, with no questions asked, you can’t budget, you can’t save, you can’t invest. It strips away your incentive to work. I have had to live with this and cope with it all of my life. Sharing reinforces kin relationships and the status of the sharer.
Men have higher status than women and are less obliged than women to share. This system further subjugates women. To avoid the pain of saying no, my mother insists her white husband won’t let her share. My father is happy to take on this role and use the “male privilege” given him by his wife’s culture to protect his Aboriginal loved ones from poverty.
These problematic attitudes and practices I’ve described did not arrive on the Australian continent with white people in 1788. They are millennia old and fundamentally rooted in a deeply patriarchal culture.
James Massing is a senior minister in the Sarawak state government in Malaysia. His people are the indigenous Iban. His great-grandfather was a headhunter. He has a simple message for other indigenous peoples: “If you don’t adapt, you die.” He knows the traditional culture of his people and speaks their language. He has a PhD in anthropology from the Australian National University. He no longer hunts human heads. He has kept the best of the old ways, and taken the best of what the world has to offer now, to lead his people out of poverty and marginalisation. He knows how his people must adapt to survive.
Recently I was helping my 33-year-old niece to cope with end-stage renal failure and her 11-year-old daughter to attend to an ongoing battle with rheumatic fever; we have the highest rates in the world. Their mother and grandmother, my sister-in-law, is in her 40s. She walks with a limp and has permanent damage to her sight and hearing resulting from assaults by Aboriginal male partners and a Warlpiri man who bashed her in the head with a rock because she had no grog or cigarettes to give him. Not long before that I helped ambulance and police officers to place the body of my aunt in a body bag. She had died of a massive heart attack following a drinking binge. She was one of my favourites. Not long before that I identified the body of my young cousin killed in a car crash caused by alcohol abuse. None of these, my female loved ones, had the English skills, confidence or competence to deal with the wider world effectively when crises hit. They all spoke their traditional languages. They were all traditional owners under the Land Rights Act. They knew their Jukurrpa and could name the sacred sites in their country. The old rules of traditional culture simply do not give them, the most marginalised of our communities, the tools they need to deal with contemporary problems and challenges; challenges that the old ones, elders past, couldn’t have imagined.
Massing is correct. We need to adapt to survive and we can do it our way. I have spoken of the need for cultural reform. I have called on Aboriginal people to question long-held beliefs, to challenge that which contributes to violence in our culture and to hold ourselves to account for the part our culture and attitudes play in our communities’ problems. Just as European women have challenged the treatment of women in their cultures to bring about change, I am doing the same in mine.
My message is too much for many people to hear. When I or others relate stories like the ones I’ve told here, we attract labels like “coconut” and “sell out”, and obscene, misogynist, violent abuse. If white people do so, of course, the label is “racist”, “assimilationist” and “white supremacist”. Truth can be threatening and offensive. Truth can be too much for some. Aboriginal women and children are Australian citizens and they must be able to make the same choices as other citizens. Aboriginal activists campaigned for decades for my people to have the full rights of citizens. Now we have them. We also won the responsibilities of citizenship. They can’t be separated. If Australian citizens are in danger of abuse and neglect, they deserve to be protected, not on the basis of their culture but on the basis of their human rights. We cannot sacrifice their lives on the altar of culture.
Thirty per cent of us in the Northern Territory are of indigenous descent. We are determined to hold on to the best of traditional values. We need to let go of the ones that no longer work. My kinsmen, who suffer through these crises, haven’t been taught the best of Western, indeed world, culture to help them cope with the problems whitefellas have brought to us. Many haven’t even been taught to speak, read or write the national language. Our traditional culture simply doesn’t provide all the tools they need for a modern world.
The West has progressed so far because constructive criticism is embraced. Progress cannot be made if long-held beliefs cannot be challenged or if we cannot be honest. My people are intelligent, pragmatic and resilient. We’re not delicate or weak but clever, funny and strong, like our language. And just as our language has adapted to a new world, I have faith our culture can be adapted and improved. And it will still be our culture.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is a Warlpiri-Celtic woman from central Australia. She is a fierce campaigner for the rights of Aboriginal women and children against family violence, an elected member on Alice Springs Town Council and a cross-cultural educator. This is an edited extract from the December issue of Meanjin, out on Monday.