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Life as a woman

24 Nov

I have a close relative whose long-term partner decided in his fifties that he wanted to live as a woman. The manner in which he went about orchestrating this change caused immense shock and distress, mostly because he upped and went to Thailand and had the surgery without telling anyone, then rang his partner from that country to tell her what he’d done.

Of course she knew his desires, and was struggling to adapt herself to having chosen to live with a man who now wanted to change his sex to female. She didn’t, she said, want to be with a woman, she’d been there, done that and for her, choosing to spend her life with a man was an enormous change. And now look.

I, unhelpfully I see in retrospect, recalled her time as a radical feminist separatist who told me as I continued to give birth to boy babies that all men should be castrated. So when I heard what had happened I said, well. Be careful what you ask for.

When her partner came back from Thailand she ran away and came to stay with me and my husband for a while. None of us had ever before encountered such a situation, but we all knew about deceit, and dissembling, and secrets, and lies, so we could help her with that part.

For mine, I have no difficulties with what people decide to do with their bodies and if someone feels deeply wrong in the skin they’re in of course they have the right to do whatever they need to do about that. I’m talking here about gender reassignment, not women having the human right to breast implants and labiaplasty to make them look like air brushed porn stars as an exercise of feminist autonomy over their bodies. Separate issues. I do wonder, though, how someone who has been born male and lived male for over fifty years in our society, can suddenly know what life is like as a woman.

In this instance, and I’m not going to extrapolate our experience to anyone else, Felicity looks like a man who has had gender reassignment, and so is often treated even worse in this heterosexually dominant culture than are many “natural”-born women.

Now I have an ear worm of Carole King singing you make me feel like a natural woman, whatever the hell that meant, it was an anthem to some bloke though, and I suppose a validation of hetero sex because I haven’t heard any woman singing that to a female lover though it would be a delightful subversion if someone did, but I still wouldn’t know what the “natural” bit meant.

Felicity and I have had some ripper brawls over this life as a woman thing. I’ve told her straight up, you aren’t living life as a woman, you’re living life as a man who’s had gender reassignment surgery. The difficulties you’re  encountering since your surgery aren’t to do with the kind of gender prejudice I’ve had to deal with my entire life, they’re to do with people being unable to cope with gender reassignment. She’s called me a fucking cunt more times than I could ever count. It took me a long time to realise I was angry with her for trying to claim my experience of living on this earth as a woman for herself, when she hasn’t done the hard yards. She is doing hard yards, but they are of a different kind and I want her to own her difficulties, which are significant, and not pinch mine. Whenever we see one another we visibly bristle, and it’s on. And yet I think so much of her for what she’s done, the subversion, the courage, the determination to live as she wants to live.

I should add here that I agree with Judith Butler, gender is a performance of the roles assigned to us at birth, according to our genitals. A performance that is profoundly ingrained.

No matter how much Julie Bishop might want to protest otherwise, life as a woman in this culture still brings with it enormous inherent challenges, for no reason other than our habitation of a female body. It does the same for indigenous people, for no reason other than skin colour.  It does the same for gays and lesbians and polyamorists. This is still the universe of the white heterosexual alpha male, and the males who aspire to that status, and the rest of us are still knocking on its doors begging to be allowed in and equally paid, and not murdered because we have vaginas, and the rest. And, if possible, to be let in on some of our own terms without having to entirely capitulate to the orthodoxy, as I would strongly argue Julie Bishop has. In my life as a woman I don’t want to play the alpha bloke’s games. Which is why I’m a blogger in my nightgown and not Janet Albrechtsen. Ha!

Male violence against women. Call it what it is.

20 Nov

This piece in Daily Life yesterday by Jane Gilmore raises some important questions about how we talk about male violence against women.

One of the most startling revelations is the difficulty and the expense of discovering, in Victoria at least, the gender of the majority of perpetrators of violence. While information about the victims of such violence is publicly released, information about the offenders is not, and Gilmore had to pay $700 and wait nine weeks to obtain this information. What Gilmore eventually discovered about the Victorian statistics is this:

In 2013/14

* 87% of homicides were committed by men.
* 98% of sexual assaults were committed by men.
* 83% of non-sexual assaults were committed by men.
* 90% of robberies were committed by men.
* 92% of abductions were committed by men.

I strongly recommend you read the article for a more comprehensive view of these figures.

I don’t want to start a gender war. But these statistics are irrefutable. I can understand that many men, especially those who are not violent towards women and don’t engage in criminal acts, might feel unfairly attacked and defensive when women raise our voices in protest against male violence. However, I would urge you not to waste your energy feeling unfairly attacked (you aren’t nearly as unfairly attacked as we are) and defensive. Most women don’t think all men are violent. But there’s no escaping the reality that most of the violence in our society that comes to the attention of the authorities is perpetrated by men.

If you can get outraged by the king hit and rush in laws overnight to increase penalties for the very few instances of that particular type of male violence, how do you explain the ongoing refusal to be equally and more outraged by the fact that sixty-eight women have been killed in Australia this year, by men? (from Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women project.)

We have a Minister for Women, though you’d never know it. He’s about as useful as the non-existent Science Minister. His name is Tony Abbott. Tell him you want to hear what he intends to do about all the women dead this year and those yet to die, at the hands of violent men.

DV1

Domestic violence is torture and the UN Convention must be changed

12 Nov

On Monday night, representatives from the Australian government appeared before the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) as part of a current review into Australia’s obligations under its treaty. In their submission, our government argued, “As a matter of international law, domestic violence does not fall within the scope of the Convention … as it is not conduct that is committed by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

In other words, violence against women does not constitute ‘torture’. Clementine Ford, Daily Life

Unfortunately, the Convention against Torture reads as follows:

1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Domestic violence does not constitute torture according to the UN Convention, so the Australian government representatives are correct.

What is tragic is that the Australian government is not arguing for an amendment to the Convention that will include domestic violence in the definition of torture.

Given that the Minister for Women, Tony Abbott, has shown no interest at all in the horrific abuses against women in this country, I doubt there will be any initiatives from Australia along the lines of amending the Convention.

 

Asylum Seekers: what it costs Australian governments to persecute stateless persons

12 Nov

 Asylum Seeker Three

 

The foreigner is the political precondition of the nation state… Costas Douzinas.

Australia, while remaining a signatory to the United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees, long since gave up any pretence of observance of international human rights in favour of a nationalistic observance of state sovereign rights. State sovereignty permits governments the right to exclude persons the state deems unworthy of inclusion.

The power of the state to exclude is perhaps the fundamental state power.

Ideological, racial, economic and political factors are the criteria for deciding who is and is not included in the nation-state. As Hannah Arendt noted, statelessness is not a problem of geographical space, but of political space.

The stateless person has as their only descriptor the fact that they are human. Ironically, this strips them of their right to human rights, rights which are only available to them if they are citizens of a state. It is not enough to be human. One must also belong to a state in order to claim human rights. Arendt suggest that the only fundamental human right is the right to have rights. Asylum seekers who have a legitimate right to arrive by boat in Australia are stripped of the right to have rights once their vessel is intercepted by Australian authorities.

 

Stateless Persons UNHCR

Persons seeking asylum from persecution who attempt to access Australia by boat are singled out for exclusion, and though their method of arrival is perfectly legitimate under the Convention, they are criminalised and detained in off-shore camps. Detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island are all that is offered to de facto stateless persons, that is, refugees unable to claim the human rights afforded by citizenship. Persons detained in these camps are exempted from “normal” laws. The methods of addressing their plight are containment and repatriation, or resettlement in another country, rather than granting asylum and legal integration into the Australian nation.

This action against asylum seekers is justified as being in the “national interest,” an abstract concept in which the mystical “nation”  is prioritised over the interests of singular human beings who are dispossessed non-nationals, and therefore considered rightless.  The state is committed to protecting only legitimate members of the nation, the rights of asylum being in conflict with the rights of the state. There is in Australia no concept of offering sanctuary and refuge to those fleeing persecution who arrive by sea. Their loss of place in the world, their loss of belonging, has the effect of reducing them to physical objects, bereft of human dignity, because without rights one is not a person, one is not an agent in the public realm.

In reaction to this deliberate and systematic dehumanisation, asylum seekers held in detention camps on Manus and Nauru behave as did those held in mainland camps such Woomera and Baxter. They sew up their lips in a symbolic protest against the silencing of their voices. They harm their own bodies. They suffer depression and anxiety, and hopelessness. Their suffer the abjection of those who have ceased to belong to any state.

Asylum Seekers Two SMH photo

 

Sovereignty, like religion, is a constructed knowledge imbued with faux mysticism. The Abbott government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” appeals to this pseudo-mysticism, offering citizens the opportunity to come together in unity, led by a concerned, fatherly government to protect our nation against the breaching of its borders by the unwanted, stateless foreigner. As Douzinas points out, there can be no nation state without the foreigner; one must have someone to protect oneself from in order to maintain the perceived power of sovereignty.

The asylum seeker is equally imbued with mysticism, of the most negative kind as the assumption is peddled that merely due to the fact of her search for asylum she is morally corrupt and corrupting. Her crime is breaching sovereign borders. She is used as a scapegoat to unite citizens and strengthen boundaries, ultimately supporting the ideology of sovereignty.

What we are doing in this country is wrong. The idea that we must treat people horrifically in order to discourage others from attempting sea journeys is morally corrupt. Action the state is legitimised to take against one group can be and will be extrapolated to other groups, when the state deems it in the national interest. When the fate of human lives is secondary to the rights of the state, we are all at risk.

Is it really in the interests of the citizens of this country that so many billions of taxpayer dollars are eaten up in the pursuit and detention of a relatively few people who arrive here by boat, in the pursuit of the maintenance of our sovereign borders? No, it isn’t. It is, however, in the political interests of both major parties. The cost to the taxpayer of pursuing these political interests is obscene, and it is rising, as this graph from The Conversation shows:

 

The Conversation

 

The major parties continue to persecute stateless persons seeking asylum and refuge, solely because of their method of arrival. Australia moves further and further away from the undertakings we made when we signed and later ratified the Refugee Convention. Human beings suffer appallingly in concentration camps, out of sight and out of mind. The matter of the future of stateless persons is a massive global problem, and one that will continue to increase. Australian governments have long thought it is a problem that they can continue to outsource to countries far less capable than are we of providing the possibility of a decent life to those who by no fault of their own, are dispossessed of the lives they once had. This cannot go on. In all conscience, it cannot go on.

All the dead horses

5 Nov

What a vile species we are. Not satisfied with mistreating and murdering one another, we let other species die in our pursuit of entertainment and spectacle.

The overworked term tragic is used to cover all contingencies, the slaughter of civilians, the rape of children, and the  untimely deaths of two magnificent animals, Admire Rakti and Araldo,  after yesterday’s Melbourne Cup. Or as the Guardian reporter puts it, “the race was soured” by these deaths.

What is sour as a barrel of lemons is the sight of animals enslaved for human gratification. I loathe bloody horse racing, and I especially loathe the Melbourne Cup. I was unfortunate enough to be passing a television when a close up of Admire Rakti’s last collapse appeared on the screen. The horse was clearly distressed in his stall, then slowly his poor legs buckled, and I watched, sickened, as he sank to the ground for the last time.  It was fucking awful.

There’s something badly wrong with us. Sadly, this isn’t news, and on the continuum of bloody awful things people do, a dead horse isn’t at the high-end.

You look at the Melbourne Cup spectacle and you think, Christ, these humans, their stupid little “fascinators,” their ugly, ill-fitting clothes, their spine-destroying  heels, red-faced men squeezed into suits and tight cravats, drooling and drunk, all of them screaming at  horses running round in a circle, what the fuck?

All that was missing was Gerry Harvey ranting about how many horses in the Melbourne Cup aren’t Australian anymore, and damn me if we didn’t get that as well.

My friend included me in a sweep. My horse? Unchain my heart. Fucking bloody Jesus, I said. Kill me now.

 

 

 

That’s how the light gets in

28 Oct

My lover and I are eating lunch outdoors. My usual habitat being the coastal sub tropics I’m cold in this southern city in winter, and swathed in a shawl, wool coat and boots. He laughed when he saw the number of garments I needed before I ventured outside.

“One of the most amazing things to me about human beings,” I tell him this day, “is our capacity for forgiveness.”

He looks at me as if I’ve said I believe in God, and says,  “There are people I will never forgive, and I’d still do them harm if I could.”

For a moment I think he’s teasing me.

The topic of forgiveness is of great interest to me, so much interest, in fact, that I wrote a whole chapter of my doctoral thesis on it, an argument for the reclamation of forgiveness from religion, for a secular forgiveness that belongs in the discourse of human rights and has nothing to do with any transcendental exteriority. So I stare at him with my mouth open.

“You don’t know my story,” he says, and gives an account of events many years ago when he was wrongfully treated and as I will never know the other side of the story I can’t make any assessments and it doesn’t really matter because what strikes me with such force is that the man sitting beside me, whom I love, is apparently a long-time nurturer of vengeful desires who has just scoffed at me for thinking humans have the capacity for forgiveness.  It ought to frighten me, that I’ve opened my heart and mind and body to someone who apparently carries resentment and the desire to harm about with him for decades and thinks that normal, and as I suddenly feel cold and my food tastes odd, I suppose it has.

I have no idea how long it’s sensible to give sustenance to deep grudges against someone we feel has done us harm, but from experience I’d say as little time as possible because who wants to live with that kind of darkness and as I argued in the thesis, forgiveness is primarily a release for the victim rather than the perpetrator, not to mention the advantages to society if we manage to refrain from poking out one another’s eyes and making the whole world blind.

The experience of being injured is not a pleasant one. It fundamentally disempowers. The urge to pay back with commensurate harm is strong. In the early post-injury stages people do all kinds of things that they may later regret (or not) but if the initial desire for revenge stays in my life for years, I’m inclined to think the perpetrator has won.

As Derrida points out, the problem with forgiveness is that the word itself is so imbued with religion it’s difficult to think of it without that baggage. Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University wrote a philosophical exploration of forgiveness in which he seeks to provide the concept with a secular context, however, as I argue in my thesis, Griswold creates a framework of requirements for forgiveness that strongly resembles a dogma, a crypto-theology that presupposes an unidentified, unacknowledged authoritative presence that corresponds to a supreme being. In this, Griswold’s exploration mimics religion. Many of his requirements are difficult if not impossible to attain, with ideal, baseline conditions that must be met before entry is granted into the state of forgiveness. In the absence of these requirements, Griswold concludes, forgiveness is impossible, or inadequately if not delusionally partial.

My own concept of forgiveness is grounded in the acknowledgement of a common humanity, of our existence in an unavoidable state of constant vulnerability to one another, a state that defines all sentient beings. In the emergency room of the hospital is a sign that reads “We see the person behind the behaviours” which is, if you think about it, an extremely difficult thing to do when the behaviours feel injurious. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to separate the person behind the behaviours from the behaviours, or if those behaviours constitute personhood, but I think I know what the sign means.

There are in my experience times when the person behind the behaviours is all one can see. I think of my stepfather, a man who almost literally killed me, and through the aftermath of his actions made my life difficult to this day. Over a period of three days, after my mother left him taking their two children with her, he worked on killing himself. I was sixteen, and I witnessed, alone, his first day and his last. What I remember of those three days is my increasing desperation that I could do nothing to help this man, which is quite a burden for a sixteen year old girl. When I saw him in that extreme state I didn’t think of his behaviours. I thought only of the man’s despair, and I knew that he was dying. I grieved him as a human being, without considering his behaviours, and I suspect, with hindsight, that was the beginning of my engagement with forgiveness, one that would take a long time, there was much to forgive, but one that ultimately gave me freedom from the horrors of my past. One does not necessarily forget, that isn’t a requirement for forgiveness. But one remembers without hatred, and the desire for revenge.

Of course, the problem for my lover in refusing to countenance the possibility of forgiveness is that, like everyone else, he needs and will continue to need to be forgiven. None of us is so good as to never inflict injury on another, and some of us inflict serious injury. Our lunches were when we talked and teased one another, and sometimes, if we were sitting side by side, he would suddenly bend his head and kiss my lips, forcefully, as if a surge of desire had coursed through him that wouldn’t be denied expression. This is one of the things I loved about him. That he allowed himself when we were out in public to be overcome by his need to place his mouth on mine, and lost himself entirely in that moment. When, after one such kiss he told me his story of long-held grievance I was alarmed. He didn’t seem to know that there is a crack/ a crack/ in everything / that’s how the light gets in… and I feared for both of us.

However, if forgiveness isn’t an option there’s always the advice given, I think, by Confucius: Like when kicked by a donkey, there are some injuries one should always overlook, when considering their source.

Intimate images: after the love has gone

24 Oct

So, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see, /I said, won’t you let me see/ your naked body?

 

The Victorian Parliament has introduced draft legislation that makes distribution or the threat of distribution of intimate images online without consent a criminal offence. There is, it appears, a burgeoning of “Revenge Porn” sites where aggrieved and bitter ex lovers can post photos taken in happier times of their partner’s private bits, often selfies taken by that partner. Anecdotal evidence has it that perpetrators of revenge porn are mostly male, however, it is not unknown for wives or girlfriends to post sexually explicit photos of their former partner’s new lover online, if they’ve managed to get hold of them.

Common advice as to how to avoid having your lady bits made available to the public gaze without your consent includes never taking or allowing photos of them to be taken in the first place. This is tantamount to advising us to avoid rape by staying inside unless we’re accompanied by bodyguards – the fault lies not with those of us who’ve given lovers intimate images, but with the lovers or their associates who distribute them without our consent. This ought to be self-evident, after all, who is ever advised never to leave home if their house is burgled, but because it involves sex and female bodies, responsibility defaults to women to protect ourselves by crippling our lives.

As a woman who has (for the first time in her life and at an age where one would not expect to do such things) taken intimate photos of herself and given them to a lover, I feel a certain interest in this topic. When my lover first asked for photos I inwardly baulked. I was a long way from my twenties, I had never before even thought of engaging in such an act. The most I had seen of my own bits was when, like many other young feminists, I squatted over a mirror and had a good look, then later when my sister crouched between my legs with her camera and recorded in astonishing detail the birth of my second child. As a delaying tactic, I asked him what he actually wanted to see. You know, he replied. Not your toes.

I wrestled with this. Deeply in love, I didn’t want to refuse. I feared my reluctance was to do with sexual inhibition that I would do well to overcome, and much of our relationship was about both of us testing sexual boundaries, creating a list of what he called our “firsts.” I love him, I reasoned, so I can do this for him. I began with my breasts. I was pleased with the result, and so was he. We added this to our list of firsts. We moved on to even more intimate bits and I began to enjoy myself, it was exciting, it was fun, it brought us very close to each other, and so I wouldn’t feel alone in the venture and in good faith, he sent me pictures of his bits as well. I loved them because I loved him, but truthfully, a bloke’s bits don’t come near a woman’s for beauty and complexity.

Never in my wildest imaginings did I consider I might one day regret all this.

But I do. The relationship came to an emotionally devastating end. For the last few months I’ve fretted and churned about those pictures that I no longer want him to be able to look at. Several times I’ve contacted him by email, snail mail, and phone messages, asking that he let me know he has deleted the photos and that I don’t have to worry about them anymore. He has not responded to any of my requests. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Is he exercising vengeful power over me, by refusing to tell me what has become of my intimate photos? Is he determined to keep them, and rather than lie to me has decided to say nothing at all? While I cannot bring myself to believe he would misuse the photos, I don’t know that others with access to his computer would be as discreet, and besides, I don’t want anyone else even looking at them, as they shouldn’t without my consent.

The reality is, once I sent those images to him I relinquished any control over their fate. Sent in deep love and absolute trust, a powerfully bonding “first,” I now no longer have any idea who will see them and in what circumstances, and my former lover seems to want me to live with that distress.

Although I regret engaging in this “first” with someone who was obviously entirely the wrong person to trust, I don’t regret overcoming my inhibition. I don’t regret the deeper acquaintance with my body, though I wish I’d shared that discovery with someone who was trustable. I’m beside myself with rage and hurt at his refusal to reassure me as to the fate of the photos, and at my powerlessness to do anything about this. It is indeed a foul betrayal, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for women whose ex partners actually do post intimate images online without consent. The problem lies not with those of us who share images of our bodies with lovers, but with lovers who lack the sensibility to honour the intimacy of that sharing, and instead choose to cause us fear and distress in their abuse of our trust.

As Leonard Cohen tells it, I don’t have to be forgiven / for loving you that much…

 

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