Left debate: Organising women against sexist violence

Socialist Alliance member Margarita Windisch addresses the 2012 Melbourne Reclaim the Night rally. Transcript HERE.

See also "Why socialists need feminism". For more discussion of feminism, click HERE.

December 9, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- An article that appeared on the website of the magazine of the Socialist Alternative organisation on November 22, 2012, has sparked an interesting debate across the Australian left on merits of socialists organising against violence against women.

Below are three responses to the article: the first by a Socialist Alliance member and an organiser of the Reclaim the Night march in Fremantle in Western Australia (which includes the full text of the Socialist Alternative article); the second is an interview with a Melbourne Reclaim the Night organiser and Socialist Alliance member Margarita Windisch, conducted by the New Zealand Workers' Party; and the third by Kim Bullimore, a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is in the process of merging with Socialist Alternative.

Responding to Socialist Alternative’s attacks on Reclaim the Night

By Kamala Emanuel

Below is a critique of a November 22 article by Louise O’Shea published in the magazine of the Socialist Alternative organisation in Australia. I’ve quoted her article in full in regular text, with my comments in italics.

I’m confining most of my comments here to refuting the attacks in this article on Reclaim the Night in Fremantle, 2012. Although that particular action is not specifically mentioned, it is included in the author’s blanket assessment. Much of what I write could equally be said of Reclaim the Night in other Australian cities held in October, and other years – but since they’re all organised independently and may raise different demands, when it comes to specifics it’s this year’s march and organising group for the Fremantle action that I’m familiar with.

I’d also like to point to the letter the Fremantle Reclaim the Night organising group sent to Socialist Alternative, to invite their participation and refute some of the misconceptions we thought they held about the event. I am a member of Socialist Alliance in Western Australia who has had a long-term involvement in the women’s rights movement and was on the organising committee of Reclaim the Night 2012 in Fremantle.

* * *

Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right

By Louise O’Shea

The horrible rape and murder of Brunswick woman Jill Meagher has been successfully used by the media and authorities to promote a right wing political agenda.

No surprise there, that’s what they do.

Widespread public sympathy has been manipulated in a way that reinforces right-wing prejudices, obscures class divisions and encourages identification with authority and the state.

Yes, but that’s not all that has happened. Reality is complicated and contradictory. Analysis is for teasing out these contradictions, looking for their dynamics, to inform political action to strengthen progressive developments.

The associated mobilisations have likewise not been a positive development, despite what many on the left have argued.

They have been a very positive development, and have paved the way for the emergence of feminist organising against women’s oppression.

I’d like to point out here that while it is reasonable to include Reclaim the Night as an “associated mobilisation”, Reclaim the Night has a much longer history, and that larger mobilisations often occur in the wake of more well publicised acts of violence against women, for the obvious reason that this affects women. Also, that this year’s Reclaim the Night marches were not only in response to Jill Meagher’s death, but also to:

* the misogynist attacks on Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard by radio shock-jock Alan Jones and federal leader of the opposition Tony Abbott, and Gillard’s response (despite its limitations and her hypocrisy);

* pushing single parents off the pension and onto unemployment payments (which will mean some women choose not to leave abusive relationships);

* the rape culture initiation ceremony/parties at the University of Western Australia (more relevant in WA, as there has been on-campus organising around it, though rape culture is everywhere);

* a recent Four Corners current affairs TV program episode exposing the murders of three women who had taken out apprehended violence orders (AVOs) and had gone to police for protection. The fact that one of the women was Aboriginal and was laughed off by the police says a lot.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the scale of the hysteria in and of itself made a clear statement about whose lives matter in Australia, and whose do not. The fact that Jill Meagher was an educated, white, “attractive” woman with a good job and nice-looking husband was undeniably a huge factor in the media’s eagerness to generate sympathy and interest in her fate. No equivalent treatment is extended to the thousands of people who have been killed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the numerous refugees deported by the government to their deaths or to the over 300 workers who die at work every year in Australia. No effort is made to humanise the Aboriginal people killed in police custody, nor those who die premature deaths due to inadequate health and social services. The subtext is clearly that these murders – committed by bosses, police and governments – are somehow legitimate or tolerable, while others are not.

Apart from the use of the word “hysteria”, I completely endorse this point. Also, let’s not overlook the fact that while the murders that the mainstream ignore are not legitimate or tolerable, neither was Jill Meagher’s.

Indeed just five days before the murder of Jill Meagher, the Northern Territory coroner released a report on the death of Aboriginal man Mr Briscoe in Alice Springs. His killing shared many similarities with that of Jill Meagher. Both victims were snatched off the street at night after they’d been drinking. Both were deprived of their liberty by strangers and assaulted, ultimately resulting in their deaths. Of both there was chilling CCTV footage of the last moments of their lives. Both left behind devastated families struggling to come to terms with the circumstances of their deaths. The only difference was that Mr Briscoe was Aboriginal and his murder was carried out by police, so his death was not considered a tragedy by the mainstream media, and to this day no charges have been laid against his killers. There was hardly any media hysteria surrounding his case, nor any Herald Sun exclusives with his grieving relatives. No mass marches expressing anger and grief at his murder took place, nor were Facebook groups created to express condolences or to help bring his killers to justice on the scale of those relating to Jill Meagher.

Important to compare and entirely valid in a critique of racism in Australia, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because the necessary response to Mr Briscoe’s death didn’t take place, it shouldn’t happen in the case of Jill Meagher.

In the Jill Meagher case there was also nothing like the victim blaming that has accompanied other comparable cases.

I’m not going to get into an auction about who is oppressed more. There was certainly an at least implied blaming of Jill – for being out drinking, for refusing an offer of a colleague to walk her home. And because there is systematic blaming of women who are raped, so that even if they weren’t all trotted out in regards to Jill Meagher, we were coming together to oppose them all – that something we do or wear or say or drink somehow exculpates a rapist. So Reclaim the Night was about Jill Meagher – but mostly it was about all women and our assertion of our right to live without rape and other violence.

The coroner investigating the circumstances of Mr Briscoe’s death, for example, included in his official recommendations that the government take “all available, reasonable measures to reduce the supply of excess alcohol from take away outlets”. In other words, Mr Briscoe’s drunken state was partly to blame for his death.

See http://rollbacktheintervention.wordpress.com/deaths-in-custody/#briscoefactsheet, which points this out, while criticising the coroner for shifting the emphasis to alcohol, rather than prosecution of those responsible for Mr Briscoe’s death.

Worse still, the Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory organised a meeting of “stakeholders” shortly thereafter to discuss the “problem” of alcohol in the community, clearly indicating that the government sees Aboriginal people drinking as the issue, not police brutality and racism. When Mr Briscoe’s distraught family protested out the front of the meeting,

See the article in Tracker in which Patricia Morton-Thomas, Mr Briscoe’s aunt condemns the use of her nephew’s death to push the Country Liberal Party government’s plan for mandatory rehabilitation of alcoholics. She says the planned centres will be “concentration camps for black drinkers”. She also blames the CLP for what she calls the alcohol crisis, pointing out that in the 1980s the CLP government resisted calls from Aboriginal organisations for limits to the number of liquor licences granted in the NT. It’s not racist to point out that dispossession can lead to alcohol abuse. It’s racist to continue the dispossession, and to remove Aboriginal community control of community affairs.

there was not 30,000 people (or the Alice Springs equivalent) there to support them.

But there were protests around the country to mark his death in custody and call for prosecution of the police responsible. Agreed, they should have been bigger – but the Aboriginal community and their non-Aboriginal supporters – many of them part of the organised left – did respond. It’s quite right to point out that there was nothing like the same attempt to generate sympathy and a mass response on the part of the mainstream media, political establishment and police.

There were no outraged editorials in the mainstream media about the government’s actions. None of those who were so agitated about victim blaming in the case of Jill Meagher even bothered to mention this officially sanctioned case of victim blaming.

“None of those who were so agitated” – is this a put-down for those who critique and organise to counter the blaming of women who are violated? Does blaming women for being raped not trouble you? Do you not include yourself as one of “those who were so agitated about victim blaming in the case of Jill Meagher”? Why not?

It’s a pretty big call to claim that none have mentioned it. Even if that’s the case, it is not the case that none of those who have responded to Jill Meagher’s death and the accompanying victim-blaming had anything to say about who was to blame for Mr Briscoe’s death and to support calls for the responsible police to be charged – see http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51470.

A similar example was that of the official reaction to attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009. Following several deadly or near-deadly attacks, Victoria Police inspector Scott Mahony suggested that Indian students should “not openly [be] displaying signs of wealth with iPods and [mobile] phones, and not talking loudly in their native language”. Deputy Commissioner Walshe likewise responded by suggesting Indian students were targets because they were by nature quiet and passive people, who travelled late at night, often alone and who carried expensive gadgets. Again, no concerns on the scale raised for Jill Meagher were expressed in relation to this unashamed victim blaming by the authorities. And the police response to the demonstrations by Indian students was totally different to their response to the Jill Meagher marches. The police brutally attacked and broke up the Indian students’ protest...

Important issues, an important part of a critique of racism in Australia. But not a valid reason to attack women organising against our oppression as women.

...whereas they helped organise and supported the Jill Meagher marches.

Fremantle Reclaim the Night organisers, with three weeks to organise the event, arranged a meeting with the local municipal council and police. The police didn’t attend, but council representatives undertook to communicate with the police. The police didn’t provide any traffic management in spite of knowing in advance that the event was happening and they were extremely confrontational when the 400+ rally marched on the road rather than attempting to stay on the narrow restaurant-filled pavement. I don’t call that police helping to organise Reclaim the Night (not, I grant you, a Jill Meagher march – broader, political and, contrary to O’Shea’s assessment, a positive development).

Ultimately, Jill Meagher is a sympathetic victim, and someone who white, middle-class liberals identify with, while Indian students and Aboriginal people are not. It is the responsibility of the left to challenge this appalling racist bias, not encourage or apologise for it.

Agreed the left must challenge racism in Australia. It is the responsibility of the left to be the tribune of the people – all of them, even white, “attractive” women with “good-looking” husbands. And to analyse the origin of violence against women, which is both a manifestation of women’s oppression and one of the means by which it is perpetuated. It is the responsibility of the left to seek the unity in struggle of all those fighting for justice – be they fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty, wage exploitation, the destruction of a liveable environment, ability discrimination or something else (and I’m not pretending this list is exhaustive). It is the responsibility of the left to oppose all reactionary attempts to pit us and our just struggles against each other, to imply some kind of hierarchy of oppressions exist, or to deny the existence of the oppressions that do. It is the responsibility of the left to look for every instance in which people are impelled to struggle for their rights, and to support those struggles. It is the responsibility of the left to champion women’s liberation, not to raise the furphy that for women to do so is to risk the manipulation of our just cause by right wingers. To do that, and therefore abstain from this fight, is the best way to ensure that right wingers have the most influence.

Are white, middle-class liberals the only ones who can identify with Jill Meagher? Emphatically, no! Does it make you a middle-class liberal to organise against the victim-blaming that took place in the wake of Meagher’s death, and which is rolled out time after time to make out that somehow women are responsible for the violence that is perpetrated against us? Women are oppressed as women – as a condition of our unpaid work in the home and super-exploited labour in the workforce, our status is lower than that of men’s, and our power is structurally less. In the public domain, we’re still overwhelmingly defined by our sexual and reproductive roles, and access to our bodies is still portrayed as men’s right – often, subtly, but disturbingly often, very blatantly. It is not only not surprising that women (and many men) want to stand up against that – but a very welcome development.

The second reactionary aspect of the hysteria around the Jill Meagher case was the endless lauding of the classless “community” and the enthusiasm for its coming together to unite against violence and for peace. There is nothing progressive about the “community” coming together when it is not based on an experience of shared exploitation and oppression.

Reclaim the Night does represent a coming together on the basis of shared oppression. It’s called women’s oppression, violence against women is one of its many manifestations, and we’re fighting it.

Rather, it serves to paper over the class divisions in society in exactly the same way Julia Gillard laying a wreath at the war memorial on Anzac Day or cricket fans chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” does.

Hang on, what? Marching in a Reclaim the Night march is like chanting “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! oi, oi, oi”??? No, no, and no. Marching to demand that the capitalist state adequately fund women’s refuges, speaking out against rape culture and explaining its roots, calling for consent education: you really think this can be equated to reactionary nationalism?

The promotion of the idea that there are values common to all of us, whether we’re train drivers, shop owners or mining magnates, is always reactionary, regardless of whether that sentiment is mobilised to attack unions, support wars or express disapproval of violent crime.

Our response to Jill Meagher’s abduction, rape and death can’t be lumped together with attacking trade unions and supporting wars. Attacking unions and supporting imperialist wars are reactionary and we oppose them. Opposing violence against women, in all its manifestations, is something completely different. To fail to see this distinction is no small mistake, but a glaring hole in politics that purports to be anti-capitalist. The struggle for women’s liberation is a struggle against capitalism – even if immediate reforms that we’ve won through struggle haven’t yet resulted in socialist revolution. Even if our struggle for liberation were not objectively anti-capitalist, women wouldn’t need to apologise for fighting for our liberation with whatever allies and using whatever tactics are necessary. It so happens that attacking trade unions and supporting imperialist wars is contrary to our interests as women: but mobilising to stop violence against women, that’s essential.

(As an aside, let me point you to a study of 70 countries over 40 years, showing it is independent feminist organising against violence against women – and not the presence of women in parliament, or left-wing governments in power – that has had the greatest impact on reducing violence against women: http://www.cambridge.org/home/press_releases/display/item7122236/?site_locale=it_IT.)

I agree with your criticisms of nationalism and racism, and of the way they are used to undermine working-class solidarity. But it is a crude caricature to suggest that therefore words like “community” can’t legitimately be used to promote participation in progressive campaigns, or that if you don’t see the words “working class” it must be pro-capitalist. It’s not just what something calls itself, but what forces are mobilised and on what basis, that matters most. If you’re going to be consistent, you would try running the same line attacking “community” support for equal marriage rights... which would be just as counterproductive.

Reclaim the Night Fremantle was supported by several trade unions. Not only did several unions make donations, but they mobilised their members and had a visible presence with their banners – something I’ve never seen at a Reclaim the Night before. Many unions recognise that violence against women is a working-class issue.

A contingent of workin-class women who staff the Warrawee Women’s Refuge participated. They are fighting to keep the refuge open and in public hands with decent funding. Their trade union, the Australian Services Union, has won domestic violence clauses in a number of major enterprise bargaining agreements. These clauses will in practice save women's lives. The Maritime Union of Australia, also present at RTN, also recently won the inclusion of domestic violence leave in an enterprise bargaining agreement. This comes from a recognition of the turmoil dealing with an abusive relationship can cause and the disruption it can pose to employment. This wouldn’t have happened without active organising, recognising its importance and fighting for it.

Such sentiment can only serve to undercut class consciousness, which is exactly why the mainstream media, police, local politicians and businesses got behind the “community” hype, as well as the Peace March and Reclaim the Night (see below).

The class collaboration was expressed most explicitly by Victorian ABC presenter John Faine, in his radio address about the murder. He talked about the grief of the “Local Radio family” and the “ABC extended family” in the aftermath, and various managers and bosses at the ABC made similar statements. The implication of all this is that the workplace is a place of belonging for people, whether admin assistants or bosses, where everyone looks out for one another, cares about one another, and where the magnanimous people in charge see all who work there as their beloved children. The idea that management actually only cares about making its “children” work harder for less does not figure in this picture, nor does the idea that workers should unite to take action against their benevolent employing parents.

It should go without saying that socialists and leftists are not for social peace or unity amongst the amorphous, classless “community” or within corporate “families”. We are not for encouraging any identification with the powers that be. We are for class struggle, and conflict between workers and bosses. Only through struggle can society be changed for the better and workers’ lives made safer and more fulfilling, including those of women. People uniting is therefore only real and progressive if it is based on shared material interests of exploitation, a shared experience of society and joint struggle to change it. Otherwise, “unity” within the “community” can only be a means by which the exploited and oppressed are encouraged to identify with their rulers.

As above, women do share an experience of oppression and super-exploitation. Interestingly, this year’s Reclaim the Night in Fremantle chose to invite men’s participation in the march, recognising that men have an important role to play in combating violence against women (and although I don’t remember if it was discussed explicitly, I’d add, as allies in the struggle for women’s liberation more generally).

An essential part of generating this class collaborationist community sentiment is the scapegoating of minorities or the marginalised in order to have some target towards which disaffection can be channelled. As we all know, this commonly involves the stoking of hostility towards refugees, migrants, Aboriginal people, the unemployed and other oppressed groups, but hostility towards violent criminals serves exactly the same purpose. Individuals prone to anti-social violence may be reprehensible, but they are not what make society unpleasant, unsafe and unfair. Attention on any such minority or group of individuals, and any spread of the belief that they represent a serious threat to the general population, can only benefit those in power, as it undermines consciousness of the fact that it is the rich and powerful that are the main threat and that a struggle is needed to challenge their power.

This comes up repeatedly, so let’s deal with it here. “Individuals prone to anti-social violence”, “violent criminals”, “minority or group of individuals” – in this section of the article, as elsewhere, the systematic nature of violence against women is ignored, and the target of our mobilising is made out to be something it was not. This is not just faulty analysis, but also dishonest. Instead of the liberal interpretation that Jill Meagher’s death was just a random act by a deranged individual – and that we should all be afraid of random strangers, seek police protection and be glad of more CCTV cameras – left-wing feminists argued that violence against women is systematic and structural, and can only be challenged by fighting the sexism of our society, confronting the rape myths, etc. In the case of Socialist Alliance, we argued explicitly for raising the social and economic status of women (for example equal pay), alongside direct measures to tackle anti-women violence (like consent education and funding women’s refuges). Do you or don’t you agree that violence against women is a manifestation of women’s oppression that women should organise to oppose?

It is also a thoroughly distorted view of reality. Workers are much more likely to be injured or killed at work than they are to be the victims of violent crime perpetrated by a stranger on the street. For the middle class readership of The Age it may well be the case that the closest they will ever come to violence is by being randomly murdered, but this is not generally the case for workers. Although you would not know it from the mainstream media, over 300 workers die at work every year in Australia, and many thousands more are seriously injured. Funnily enough, there is not a plethora of Facebook pages calling for the public hanging of bosses who provide unsafe workplaces.

Again, from a correct critique (this time of workplace deaths) comes an incorrect conclusion: it’s implied that we should instead organise against this, or that condemning one means ignoring the other.

It is similarly not women who are most at risk of being attacked on the street, as the hype around this case would suggest. Men die or are injured in random street violence far more frequently than women are or do. The murder rate for adult men is about double that of women, and they are more than twice as likely as women to be killed by a stranger. Women are far, far more likely to be attacked or killed by people they know, are related to or are in relationships with, and this most commonly occurs in the home (86 per cent of murders and 93 per cent of sexual assaults).

True, and something we pointed out at Reclaim the Night – to push back against the hype and assert the right to be safe everywhere. So should we or shouldn’t we demand consent education, oppose rape culture and demand full funding for women’s refuges (which were the key issues raised at Fremantle Reclaim the Night)? Are we better off or worse off to organise around these issues?

This is not to say that violent crimes against women on the street are not appalling, but it is important to recognise that the deliberate distortion of the reality of crime ...

And not just “crime”.

... serves an ideological and political purpose. It both undermines class consciousness about who the real threat in society to workers’ wellbeing is, and it helps paint anti-crime hysteria as a concern about women’s rights and safety. In so doing, it gives a social justice veneer to the reactionary law and order agenda of those in power, while doing nothing to combat the violence that women are most likely to experience.

No question, defenders of the status quo paint concern about women’s rights and safety as the rationale for their law-and-order push. Like the lie that invading Afghanistan was for the good of Afghan women. But it doesn’t follow that all those who organise and mobilise for women’s rights and safety are therefore supporters of a reactionary agenda. This will only happen if all those who don’t support a reactionary agenda don’t mobilise for women’s rights and safety.

Every manner of right wing scum bag has for this reason attempted to associate themselves with the issue. Melbourne Lord Mayor (and former Victorian Liberal Party leader) Robert Doyle wasted no time getting a special safety mail-out done in an effort to connect with a layer of people not usually predisposed towards him in his mayoral re-election campaign. The Victoria Police repaired their somewhat tarnished reputation, especially with inner city types after Occupy, by solving the crime quickly, backing the Peace March and Reclaim the Night, and basking in the accolades they have received for making an arrest so quickly (including from lefty celebrities like Catherine Deveny). And in a dramatic vandalism policy back flip, both Robert Doyle and Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu have gone out of their way to defend the graffiti tribute to Jill Meagher in Brunswick.

So you want to vacate this whole arena of struggle to them?

The hype about murderers and crime undermines class consciousness in another less explicit way. Focusing on random, violent crime carried out by individuals tends to foster feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and makes people suspicious of other ordinary people rather than of the real purveyors of violence in society.

Calling it random, violent crime tends to undermine consciousness of the gendered basis of violence against women.

This runs directly counter to the sense of power, unity and solidarity between workers that class consciousness generates and that socialists want to sharpen. Feelings of atomisation and that we are all just individuals subject to forces beyond our control is one of the key ideological buttresses of capitalism and a sentiment that only demobilises the working class. This atomisation pushes workers to cast around for a force that can offer some protection against these individual threats, which almost always ends up being the state, especially in a period of a low level of class struggle like today.

A good antidote to atomisation and isolation is the unity and solidarity that comes from mobilising together on the basis of demands that will undermine our oppression. That’s what we did.

In part because there is currently no organised mass working class force that can realistically prevent random anti-social behaviour, ...

Anyone want to build a mass women’s liberation movement to fight violence against women? I do. You’re not saying we wait for it to exist before taking part in it? That we refuse this moment when people are thinking about it and are prepared to rally and consider the structural causes of violence against women – and instead castigate them because they care because the media went into a frenzy because Jill was white?

... concern about violence leads virtually inevitably to greater identification with authority.

Only if there’s no alternative pole of attraction. Maybe it’s small, but it has to start somewhere.

Under capitalism the state is after all the force in society best equipped to control the behaviour of individuals. It devotes much time and effort to this end. The sentiment that “these people must be stopped” or “murderers should be made to pay”, which is borne from a sense of powerlessness in the face of horrible crimes, can only in reality be actioned by the state (or via extra-judicial assassinations by law and order vigilantes which is even less desirable). Ultimately then, concern about street crime leads more or less explicitly to support for the state having greater power and control over people’s lives – which can never be in the interests of workers.

This is reaching a point of dogma. The mobilisations around political demands, pointing the finger at the systemic, structural causes of violence against women disprove this thesis. It’s narrow-minded rigid thinking of the kind that sticks to a position despite all the evidence, to assert that caring about violence against women (I won’t go along with the article’s attempts to reduce it to genderless “street crime”) inevitably leads to support for a reactionary agenda.

For the reasons above, interest in and mobilisations around street crime, especially that directed against white women and children, will always ...

Always? no exceptions? regardless of sruggle?

... tend to lead in a pro-state, pro-authority direction. This was explicit at the mobilisations organised in response to Jill Meagher’s murder. The Peace March, which attracted tens of thousands of people, was supported and praised by the police. The organisers of the subsequent Reclaim the Night march thanked the police and Sydney Road traders for their support. According to the organisers, the police "supported the rally straight off the bat and helped with various things throughout the organisation period" and were congratulated by many attendees afterwards. The mainstream media likewise both helped build and afterwards revelled in the marches, gushing over the plucky community taking a stand against crime and displaying their human empathy (as if anyone thinks it's a good thing that people are murdered). Candidates in the local council elections jumped at their chance to associate themselves with the anti-crime feeling, promising everything from more CCTV cameras to more security officers. Premier Ted Baillieu immediately committed $3 million to CCTV installation. And as mentioned earlier, other reactionary figures including Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle were eager to associate themselves with the phenomenon. In this context, the specific demands, or lack thereof, adopted by the organising committee of the marches were a mere formality of no consequence to this prevailing dynamic.

Here’s the acknowledgement that the marches didn’t conform to the schema of inevitably falling prey to reactionary dynamics.

Reclaim the Night Fremantle was explicit in its rejection of calls for more CCTV cameras, featuring a local municipal councilor speaking about town planning measures that can help make public space safer for women (including measures like planning for no high front fences – to open living space to public space). It also featured opposition to the planned legislation to regulate/criminalise sex work – definitely not part of a law and order push. And it featured a speaker against mandatory detention of refugees and the double-abuse of violated women that this entails. In the end, the invited Aboriginal speaker was unable to attend, but it was planned to include opposition to the Northern Territory Intervention.

According to a participant in Reclaim the Night Melbourne, Socialist Alliance member Margarita Windisch, the “collective was completely united on this issue and strongly opposed more CCTV cameras and increased policing of streets. The politics of the march were very radical -- condemning the lack of police response to women’s complaints and the gender bias inherent in the judicial system. Speakers addressed the fact that most women experience gender-based violence at the hands of somebody they know, often intimately. Speakers also discussed the role of the family -- a key unit of class society where little boys and girls learn that women are the second sex. The march demanded an increase in funding for shelters, sexual assault services and anti-violence programs in schools. I also condemned the federal government’s cuts to the sole parent’s pension, which will put women at increased risk of violence. (See the full interview here.)”

The demands raised by rally organisers, participants and speakers are a mere formality? Of no consequence? This rally ran against the tide the article describes, and showed why it’s better for the left to participate than to abstain, so why not honestly acknowledge your mistake at having abstained and welcome the development of feminist networks that have come out of it?

It could not have been otherwise. Moral panics about crime or violence between individuals, in particular the need to protect white women and children from harm, are almost always used by governments to promote reactionary ideas and to justify attacks on people’s rights. The most obvious recent example has been the media campaign about sexual abuse within Aboriginal communities, which culminated in the Little Children are Sacred report and laid the basis for the Northern Territory Intervention. Begun by the ABC's airing of the racist rantings of a middle class liberal lawyer “sick of defending Aboriginal men”, this became the pretence for launching an all-out assault on Aboriginal land rights, self-management of communities and welfare. Concern about sexual abuse became a cover for the further dispossession of one of the most oppressed groups in Australian society.

Part of the critique of the Northern Territort intervention is that it doesn’t implement important elements of the Little Children are Sacred report. The report didn’t call for police and military intervention into Aboriginal communities and the confiscation of land. It has been misused and this is rightly opposed. But no-one should use the existence of pretended concern about sexual abuse to stop the campaigns that can do something about it.

Similarly, the obsessive coverage of a series of gang rapes by Lebanese men against white women in Sydney in 2000 was used as a vehicle for the racist Carr Labor government to stoke anti-Lebanese and anti-Muslim feeling in NSW. Right wing columnist Miranda Devine characterised the rapes as hate crimes against white people. This resulted in the nine men involved, three of whom were under 18 and one intellectually disabled, being sentenced to more than 240 years in jail between them (on average these sentences are in excess of those for murder in NSW). The racist Cronulla riot in 2005, in which Lebanese people became the target of vicious attacks by racist white thugs, was the logical consequence of this government led ...


... anti-crime campaign.

All true, but none of it justification for denying the seriousness of rape. It is better is to stand in solidarity with Middle-Eastern women confronting rape culture and fighting racism, while fighting all manifestations of rape culture in “Anglo” society too -- opposing the shock jocks who offensively refer to “their” women and “our” women: we’re no one’s women, we’re each our own person, and none of us should be raped. See Racism wont fight rape from Green Left Weekly in 2001.

In this context, the idea that the attention to the Jill Meagher murder and the resulting revival of interest in Reclaim the Night was a positive development or an opportunity for the left was and is sorely mistaken.

No. See above.

The authorities identified a moral panic campaign they could get behind and that they could use to drum up support for the ruling institutions in society and stoke a sense of unity and identity not based on class.

So is there anything reactionary about uniting against shared oppression on the basis of race, ethnicity or language grouping? How about shared oppression on the basis of sexuality or gender diversity? Should people not come together and fight against discrimination they face on the basis of disability? You know what, it’s a good idea to come together and fight our oppression as women.

The issue is therefore not one of differences over strategies for fighting women’s oppression. The attention dedicated to this case ...

by the establishment media, police and capitalist politicians

... had about as much to do with fighting women’s oppression as the invasion of Afghanistan did. Socialist Alternative's central criticism of the Jill Meagher phenomenon and mobilisations around it was that they were a vehicle through which the rich and powerful could push an agenda, and which it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change, so inherent is the right wing logic of the issue.

The logic of standing up against violence against women is not inherently right wing. The forces of the left should seek to unite with all those who want to stop this violence, and who don’t trust capitalist politicians, media and police to do it for us – and to demand the immediate and structural changes that will remove the basis for that violence. Actually, a lot of us did – and so much the better for our chances to make change, for having done so.

Rather than apologise for or give left cover to reactionary agendas, socialists need to win people to a worldview that puts working-class interests and struggle at the centre.

Rather than abstaining from the struggle for an end to violence against women, socialists need to work with all who are ready to take part in multifaceted campaigns against victim-blaming, against the pervasive rape culture, for services to support women who experience domestic and other violence, and for a broad range of measures to raise the status of women.

At times this means exposing how the ruling class uses different forms of oppression in order to divide and rule the working class and head off opposition.

At times this means recognising that some socialists have made mistakes in abstaining from or opposing attempts by women to organise, with false claims that it is divisive. Rather, it is women’s oppression – not our opposition to it – that is divisive.

Phoney concern about women’s oppression has been instrumental in giving various policies of the ruling class legitimacy over the last decade or more. In addition to helping win support for the invasion of Afghanistan, some feminists have contributed to anti-Muslim racism by advocating a ban on Islamic dress, have refused to support the rights of fly-in-fly-out mining workers on the basis that they can be sexist and have opposed defending Julian Assange against the US government because he has been accused of rape. The mindset that much of the left has, that any attention to “women’s issues” must by definition be a good thing, is wholly inappropriate for the times.

The mindset this article betrays, that any attention to women’s issues (no inverted commas needed – there really are such things as women’s issues, women’s rights, women’s oppression and a struggle for women’s liberation) is divisive to the working-class movement, is wholly inappropriate and has been for a long time. The Stalinised communist parties criticised the women’s movement as middle-class, divisive, etc., etc. In the end, they demonstrated their irrelevance and women got on with fighting for thier rights – with, it must be said, many socialist comrades who, like Friedrich Engels, recognised the importance of the struggle for women’s liberation to the struggle for working-class emancipation. Just because a good thing is used to justify a bad thing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the good thing. It’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s not do that.

Also, it can easily be ascertained that feminism is broad, and that there are left and right currents within it – the same with pretty much all social movements that spring to mind. So it makes no sense to give up on defence of women’s rights because of the racist, anti-Muslim or pro-imperialist actions of right-wing feminists or right wingers pretending to “protect” women.

It leads towards apologising for the system, not fighting it. Only by approaching issues from the point of view of the working class, ...

Which includes women, women who will benefit from the end to being defined in terms of reproduction and sex, from an end to super-exploitation in the workforce, from challenging rape culture.

... the force that can unite and fight for all of the exploited and oppressed against those in power, can you be a consistent opponent of the system.

Why are you counterposing the struggle for women’s rights against the struggle for working-class emancipation? They are so totally linked, although not identical. And if they weren’t, women would still inevitably fight for their rights. People do that.

Reclaim the Night: Interview with Margarita Windisch

Margarita Windisch (left) at Melbourne's Reclaim the Night rally, October 21. Photo: Sarah Hathway.

November 24, 2012 -- The Spark -- Joel Cosgrove conducted this interview after the recent Reclaim The Night march in Melbourne.

* * *

Reclaim the Night seems to have been an important event throughout Australia this year, what is reclaim the night and what has driven people to get involved?

Reclaim the Night originated in the US, with the first march held in 1973 in San Francisco. Reclaim the Night (RTN) was initially about reclaiming public space for women and protesting sexual violence against women. Over time many organising collectives broadened out the demands to reflect the many forms of violence women experience, of which the majority still occur in the home.

RTN used to be dominated by a more separatist feminist perspective, which essentially blames individual men for women’s oppression. This has changed somewhat to a more inclusive perspective that looks at systemic causes, allowing a broader participation, including men.

RTN mobilisations have always played a critical part in the women’s movement by keeping the issue of gender-based violence in the public eye. With the ebb of the second wave of feminism in the 1990s we also saw a drop in RTN attendance, as with other feminist activities around the country.

Numbers however started to grow again over the last few years, indicating a renewed interest in feminist ideas and activity. Feminist speakers have been attracting sell-out crowds at writers' festivals, and feminist collectives are springing up on university campuses.

We also have to give credit to the excellent equal pay campaign waged by the Australian Services Union over three years, for bringing gender-based wage discrimination into public consciousness. The campaign demonstrated that gender was a key contributing factor for the massive pay gap for the social and community services workers in the non-profit sector.

The global "Slutwalk" phenomena, which started in Toronto in 2011, is another example of reinvigorated feminist action [that] protests [against] rape and victim blaming. In Melbourne, these protests attracted around 1000 people in 2011 and 2012.

RTN 2012 was big across Australia, and in Melbourne exceptionally large, with estimates ranging from 5000-8000, making it the biggest ever in Melbourne.

The brutal rape and murder of 29-year-old Jill Meagher ... a couple of months ago ... in the trendy and hip Melbourne suburb of Brunswick traumatised an entire community and broke the silence and complacency around violence against women. Many women not only identified with Jill and started to publicly discuss their own experiences of threats and harassment, and lack of police support around their complaints. A local resident organised a "peace march" via a Facebook event after Jill’s body was found and a stunning 30,000 people turned up.

A small group of local women took the initiative and called for a Reclaim the Night (RTN) rally along busy Sydney Road, the place Jill Meagher disappeared from. The group had three weeks to organise the protest.

The rally was diverse and included many families. There was a high percentage of young people and at least one in four people at the rally were men. Men had been invited to participate but were asked to march in the mixed section behind women, who led the march. The vibe was fantastic and many of us wondered about "where to from here".

You spoke at the Melbourne RTN [video at top of this post], what is your history in regards to women’s liberation/feminism?

My passion for women’s rights and justice started early in my life. I got involved with the women’s liberation movement in 1992 and helped organise International Women’s Day (IWD). The IWD collective exposed me to a range of feminist theories and perspectives, of which Marxist feminism made the most sense to me. I come from a working-class background and was married to a great guy at the time. I didn’t see all men as my enemy nor did I believe that more women in power would solve our problem; by then we had already experienced Margaret Thatcher and the likes. A structural analysis that looked at class society as the key culprit for our second-class citizen status and suggested a revolutionary way out of our oppression was what struck a chord with me.

I joined the Democratic Socialist Party, which had been very active in the women’s movement and had wonderful comrades involved in the 1992 IWD collective. [Later] the DSP merged into the Socialist Alliance, which like the DSP, is heavily involved in women’s rights campaigns. In my time as a socialist activist I was involved in and helped organise conferences, rallies and various campaigns including pro-choice, anti-violence and equal pay.

I have also worked as an abortion counsellor and still work on a casual basis for a sexual assault service. I can support individual women and men to help them deal with the abuse and heal from it but that doesn’t address the gender oppression inherent in our system.

Doing this work re-emphasises to me that unless we fight for structural change and a socialist future, individual women will continue to bear the brunt of a brutal gender-biased class system with their freedom, happiness and their very own lives.

Do you think any more permanent structures/movement will develop out of RTN 2012?

A group called Melbourne Feminist Action, inspired by the increased interest in feminist activity and the massive RTN 2012, called a meeting and a whopping 120 people turned up. This new group doesn’t want to be simply a discussion group but wants to organise actions around women’s rights issues. So the first action will be a pro-choice rally on November 24, 2012, outside an abortion clinic in Melbourne, which is consistently picketed by religious anti-choice fanatics and there are plans to start preparing for a big International Women’s Day in 2013

How did you end up speaking at the rally?

I was asked to speak because I work for a sexual assault service and because of my long standing work in the women’s movement.

There seems to be a big debate about the way to deal with this issue, the march has been accused of marching for CCTV cameras, what were the demands coming from the various sections of the march?

The rumours, spread by some on the left, were completely false. Of course the corporate media and our right-wing politicians were trying to shape the public discourse on this issue away from prevention to a "surveillance" and "law and order" agenda. The collective was completely united on this issue and strongly opposed more CCTV cameras and increased policing of the streets. The politics of the march were very radical -- condemning the lack of police response to women’s complaints and the gender bias inherent in our judicial system.

Speakers addressed the fact that most women experience gender-based violence at the hands of somebody they know, often intimately. Speakers also discussed the role of the family -- a key unit of class society where little boys and girls learn that women are the second sex. The march demanded an increase of funding for domestic violence shelters, sexual assault services and anti-violence programs for schools. I also condemned the federal Labor government’s cuts to the sole parent’s pension, which will put women at increased risk of violence.

Some socialists put forward that what looks like the women’s movement from the 1970s in the 21st century is compromised and a “bourgeois tool”, what are your thoughts on this?

Every movement is imbued with liberal ideology, the dominant ideology in capitalist societies, and the women’s movement is no exception. That’s why it is important for socialists to be involved. Our task is to inject a radical class analysis that develops consciousness beyond the limitations of our current system and fight’s for a society that is liberating for all humanity.

Gender oppression is the oldest and most entrenched oppression, hence difficult to fight. It is deeply woven into the fabric of our society and affects all relationships, including sexually intimate ones. Building a strong women’s movement that is independent of bourgeois parties is critical in the fight for socialism. By demanding an end to women’s oppressions in all its many manifestations, the movement directly challenges capitalist relations of production and reproduction. Imagine if suddenly women were to charge professional wages for all the work they do currently for free to bring up the new generation of workers, caring for the elderly and sick and running the household?  The whole capitalist economy would collapse.

Some people on the left have a very narrow interpretation of how to win women’s liberation. Their perspective implies that all we need is a revolution and that will sort it out. History has already demonstrated that a change in economic relations alone is insufficient in addressing women’s oppression. This requires the complete transformation of all social relations, including social relations in the private sphere. The family is a critical economic unit for class society where unequal gender relations are reproduced. This needs to be challenged.

Working-class men as a whole don’t benefit from women’s oppression, it increases their exploitation. The complexities however lie in the fact that individual working-class men are privileged under the current system – for example, most housework is still done by women, even when both partners work full time. Women still take the bulk of responsibilities for child rearing and studies have found that it is overwhelmingly daughters, not sons, who care for their infirm elderly parents. In other words, individual men benefit from gender oppression.

And the question is this: Why should women wait for the revolution to deliver our liberation? We need to create our own. And to do so, we want to win as many battles on the gender front as possible, even under capitalism. It does make life easier and more enjoyable, which surely is the point! Some wins, such as the legalisation of abortion save lives -- literally. Experience has also shown that any victory can be snatched away again under our brutal class system.

This again highlights that women’s liberation needs a radical transformation of society, which allows all humans to fulfil their potential and where the concept of gender in itself has become redundant. And by changing society and social relations we transform ourselves, a critical element in human liberation. I call it revolutionary socialism.

What role for socialists in the fight against sexist violence?

By Kim Bullimore

December 4, 2012 -- Direct Action -- On September 21, ABC employee Jill Meagher was abducted as she walked home along Sydney Road in Melbourne after a night out with friends. Meagher was brutally raped and murdered, and her body was dumped in a shallow grave. In response to the abduction, rape and murder, more than 30,000 people marched on Sydney Road on October 1 as part of a loosely organised “peace march”. Three weeks later, on October 20, in a separately organised event, more than 7000 women and men joined a Sydney Road Reclaim the Night march, which called for an end to all violence against women and sought to counter victim blaming and the reactionary calls by politicians, the police and the media to undermine civil liberties in the wake of Meagher’s death.

In recent weeks, a debate has emerged around how socialists and the left should have reacted to these mobilisations. In an article published in Socialist Alternative magazine on November 22, Louise O’Shea examined the political, media and community responses. As a member of the collective that organised the Sydney Road Reclaim the Night march and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is currently in a merger process with Socialist Alternative, I have both agreements and disagreements with the arguments in O’Shea’s article.

O’Shea noted the ruling-class hypocrisy and opportunism in relation to Jill Meagher’s rape and murder. O’Shea went on to argue that socialists need to oppose such reactionary agendas and win people to a world view that puts working class interests and struggle at the centre. On both of these points, I am in total agreement.

I also agree with O’Shea’s arguments as to why this case received such extensive media coverage, when violence against refugees, workers, Aboriginal Australians and others receives very little coverage. As Helen Jarvis noted in an article published in Direct Action on October 12, the bourgeois media’s coverage of Meagher was in stark contrast to the attention given to other victims of violence, including other women who were similarly raped and murdered. Of course I agree with O’Shea that it is a responsibility of socialists to argue against such blatant racism and sexism.

Oppression under capitalism

However, O’Shea’s article seems to regard campaigning against some specific forms of violence and oppression as inherently more important than campaigning against other forms. She also argues that organising against sexist violence, especially street violence, is necessarily and nearly always right wing. But while it is true that it is harder for working-class women to escape the effects of women’s oppression and that the ruling class and their media were thoroughly hypocritical and opportunistic in relation to Meagher’s death, this does not change the reality that violence against women, whether random acts of street violence or violence committed by a person known to the woman or violence in a class context, is part of the systemic oppression that women as a sex experience under capitalism.

As with racist violence against people of colour, sexist violence against women is maintained by capitalism but crosses class lines. This means that women within capitalist society, regardless of their class, can and do experience sexist violence and oppression as a sex.

Capitalism cannot survive by only oppressing and exploiting workers in the workplace. It needs and preserves as much as it can of oppressions and conflicts inherited from previous class societies, and it tries to create new ones when it sees the possibility. In different socio-political circumstances, these various oppressions have changing importance for the capitalists. In some circumstances, capitalists will argue in favour of women’s rights if, for example, it aids their exploitation of a neo-colonial country. In other circumstances, capitalists will defend “national traditions” that objectively oppress women if the dictatorship of that country assists the imperialist agenda of the ruling class.

Marxists have an equally firm determination to eliminate all of the oppressions of capitalism. We don't consider any of these oppressions as inherently more important than others. And because these oppressions all serve the interests of the capitalists, every struggle against oppression is objectively an ally of every other such struggle. A central task for socialists is to spread an understanding of this objective reality.

This is not a new attitude for the Marxist movement. V.I. Lenin in 1902, writing about how to develop a socialist consciousness in the working-class in What Is To Be Done? argued: “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected ...”. Lenin continued: “The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population” (emphasis in original).

Ruling-class agenda

O’Shea’s article goes astray when it argues that organising against sexist violence is inherently reactionary, class collaborationist and undermining of class consciousness because the ruling class attempts to use such campaigns to advance class-collaborationist ideas. The ruling class does this with just about every progressive struggle. For example, when forced to increase the social wage through improved social welfare measures, the capitalist media invariably present this as an example of class peace or the importance of relying on “labour’s friends” in parliament. The capitalists try to do the same with the movements for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, civil rights, refugee rights and many national liberation movements, including the Palestine solidarity movement.

Moreover, O’Shea’s argument ignores the historical fact that the fight against the oppression of women as a sex has often been the basis for the progressive mobilisation of masses of both women and men. To cite just one notable example, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 began with resistance to an attack by tsarist police on an International Women’s Day demonstration.

Developing class-consciousness

There is no one single path, or superior path, to revolutionary consciousness. People can and do enter the path because of any of capitalism’s oppressions and exploitations, which includes violence against women.

Of course we understand that a consciousness of oppression as a woman is only a beginning, not a full consciousness — just as it is possible for workers to radicalise around job issues and gain a “trade union consciousness” but go no further. It is only through participation in struggles that this limited consciousness develops into full class consciousness. This is why it is important for socialists not to abstain from such mobilisations and movements but to take part in them and seek to win leadership, arguing for demands and actions that will advance the struggle, while also seeking to win the most advanced sections to socialism.

The public reaction to the abduction, rape and murder of Jill Meagher, while primarily a manifestation of a liberal humanitarian sentiment and solidarity with the victim, was also a protest against the sexism, misogyny and sexual violence that are inescapable in capitalist society. As O’Shea notes, this response was for most participants not class based, but that is more or less equally true in Australia of support for refugees or opposition to war. Today, as in 1902, a central task of socialists is to help the working class learn “to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse” because that is the only way in which the working class can become conscious of its historic role of overthrowing capitalism.

If socialists were to abstain from campaigns opposing sexist violence against women because of the liberal illusions that exist within such campaigns, we would do the working class a disservice by ceding ground to the ruling class and its conscious or unconscious agents. The importance of taking socialist ideas into such campaigns can be seen in relation to the two mass mobilisations around Meagher’s death. O’Shea’s article conflates these two mobilisations, but there were substantial political differences between them.

Reclaim the Night marches

While the amorphous “peace march”, which mobilised 30,000 people, failed to challenge attempts by the police and ruling class to push their agenda for more police powers and CCTV, the collective that organised the October 20 Reclaim the Night march, which involved both non-socialists and socialists (including members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party), argued against such measures. As Jessica Lenehan and Jasmine Curcio noted in an article published in Direct Action on October 23, the Reclaim the Night collective opposed an increase in police powers and any erosion of civil liberties. Instead, the collective and march “called for an end to violence against women, support for survivors, an end to victim blaming and adequate funding for crisis services”. In addition, speakers at the march addressed broader issues including Islamophobia, Indigenous rights and anti-imperialist struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other Reclaim the Night events around Australia also not only challenged sexist violence (whether on the street or in the home) but also sought to address broader issues that challenged the agenda of the ruling class. The Perth Reclaim the Night march (held in Fremantle) campaigned against the de-funding of Warrawee, Australia's first purpose-built women’s refuge. The marches in Fremantle and Sydney publicly defended refugees and Indigenous rights.

The Fremantle Reclaim the Night collective sought and obtained endorsements from several unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which both made substantial donations, the Australian Services Union, which placed an ad in two local papers to encourage attendance, and the National Tertiary Education Union. The support of these unions, each of which mobilised its members for the rally, indicates that they recognise that violence against women is not only a “women’s issue”, but an issue for both working-class women and men.

Far from giving “left cover” to a ruling-class agenda, socialist intervention in the Reclaim the Night marches helped to partially disrupt what the ruling class hoped to make of the public reaction to Meagher’s rape and murder.

O’Shea is too pessimistic when she writes that “it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change” the reactionary character that the ruling class sought to give to the mobilisations. While I don’t want to exaggerate the effect that a small socialist group can have in the present political situation, socialist intervention in a movement like this, created by revulsion at one of the objective effects of capitalism, can help to spur the further radicalisation of some of the participants, who otherwise would hear no voices but those of liberals and conservatives. This is a central reason that it is necessary to be part of a revolutionary socialist organisation today, even when its numbers are small.