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Women’s March4Justice through a feminist policy lens

by | Mar 14, 2021 | Commentary, Feature

So much has happened over the last month to crystallize this cause and there are many sombre threads this assembly of protesters weave together.

It is worth remembering that just such political moments have their own importance as responses to injustice. Although much of the talk recently has been of the limits or capacities of legal processes in regulating the investigation of alleged crimes, the power of assembly has its own substantial voice.

In Tame’s orbit, a stark choice presented itself – either be with the enablers, or speak out.

What is political? First, perhaps, the vivid posing of choices, the creation of sides that we may be forced to take. When I heard Grace Tame, speaking at the National Press Club, she burned so brightly the room was electric. In Tame’s orbit, a stark choice presented itself – either be with the enablers, or speak out.

Her story exposes a specific evil done to her. But it also shows how complicity and silence frame scenes of irresponsible power, even if they do not directly constitute it.  The teacher who raped Tame would have known having sex with a minor, a school pupil, was a crime. ‘Getting away with it’, however, fed this man’s belief in his own licence, even entitlement, with regard to the sexual use of a child. That he was able to rape with such impunity over an extended period of time, was because other teachers turned a blind eye.

The sense of licence a rapist enjoys is linked to some brutal social facts. Very few rapes that are named as such and brought to police are successfully prosecuted. Very few of the rapes that occur are brought to police.

To fail to acknowledge this backdrop in speaking of such crimes is to become part of the problem. Acting as though one woman’s report of rape is unreliable, in this context, amounts to gaslighting a whole class of cases.

Such gathering of evidence and building of a voice has long been feminist work.

No wonder, then, that in the present moment, a powerful anger stirs and rises. It inspires further political action: the naming of systemic failings, and a collecting together of the people injured as a class. Such gathering of evidence and building of a voice has long been feminist work. If we go back to say, 1988, systems of policing, law and support services were only beginning to try to do better. To the extent that they did so, it was in response to feminist activism.

If systemic failings remain large, it is in part because law has thus far proven inadequate to shifting the balance of power when it comes to rape. Indeed, the standard of criminal proof structures a space where women are still actively discredited simply by virtue of making claims to justice. Rape, as the crime that in so many cases can only definitively be proven where the body is damaged, or recently dead, or where DNA in semen or blood smears it, effectively engineers a particular space in which the sense of license takes hold. It proves resilient to the reach of law and thus effective criminalisation.

We know that a man who rapes still has a very reasonable expectation that he will not be punished for it, even in the unlikely event that the rape is reported. The shame of being raped is his first cover. But his second cover is a system that supports the primacy of his right to be judged as an individual who might be falsely accused.

The system of criminal law does not adequately consider how its standard of proof thereby creates a form of license. It does not count the cost in powerlessness, silence and suffering

The system of criminal law does not adequately consider how its standard of proof thereby creates a form of license. It does not count the cost in powerlessness, silence and suffering that sense of license imposes. The sad facts of rape without legal consequence tell us that systemic impunity, not just the presumption of innocence, can persist – indeed, that these terms ironically overlap and co-exist.

So what is needed of the political, in addressing a system that fails in this way? Perhaps recognising a historic moment when the brokenness must be admitted: a threshold of perception, a turning point when enough is enough. When a woman, dearly loved by many, speaks up from among the silent dead to accuse the highest officer of law in the land with  a sexual crime, the question of what she might tell us about the actual functioning of law’s system is potent. It electrifies the women that system has lulled with its broken promises of justice.

On Monday we will see how a rage is building that is capable of bringing thousands upon thousands into the streets. Women of my generation are reminded that a world we wanted to be past, still reaps the benefits of silence and inaction. Young women demand for themselves a better future.

Politics, not just law, is at stake at such moments, and in proper and responsible ways. It is not only a matter now of what particular individuals have done wrong, but of what political leaders have done right – what have they done in the midst of so many complaints, so many stories, to shift the balance of power between the sexes? What have they done to make the rule of law meaningful, not just as due process but as equal right of protection, regardless of class, race or gender privilege?

The Romans spoke of Fortuna redux, meaning ‘one who brings another safely home’. The March4Justice, I hope, will walk in this spirit. It is a manifestation of women’s collective judgment on political silences and biases whose impact they have too long endured. It will be a gathering in great sadness, wearing black, and bringing home the dead and disappeared.

Fiona Jenkins is convenor of the ANU Gender Institute and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the ANU.

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