Stalked by a culture of misogyny

Date: May 22 2006

By Melanie La'Brooy

And a very big hello to the carload of spirited lads who kindly informed me that I'm a slut. I'm very grateful to them because otherwise I might not have realised. It was a cold night, you see, and I'd forgone my regular Friday night garb (sequined G-string and a couple of pasties) for boots and a thick coat. My knees however, were daringly visible through my tights.

I've been thinking a lot about those boys. I wonder whether they have sisters, if they're usually polite and why it is that men who lean out of cars and make abusive sexual comments never have the diction of Hugh Grant. One of them yelled "Nice legs!" at me, (although my boyfriend maintains the comment was directed towards him). As the car screeched around the corner, another of the boys leaned out of the car and shouted his opinion as to my sexual proclivities. There were P-plates on the car and it was late on a Friday night and they were undoubtedly young and filled with group bravado. But I just can't help wondering why it is that they needed to scream at me in the first place. I didn't welcome their compliment and I certainly didn't want their abuse. I was just walking home.

I attended a girls' school and during my final year we all undertook a compulsory self-defence course. It was quite fun and it seemed like a sensible idea at the time. But the memory of that course now fills me with great sadness, because although it was never explicitly articulated, it was tacitly understood: we were learning to defend ourselves against men.

At the risk of being branded a man-hating lesbian female wrestler for the rest of my life - why do we keep hiding from the fact that some men in our society hate women? And that this hatred is daily manifested in myriad unpleasant, and sometimes criminal, ways?

There is something deeply wrong with a society in which the abuse, rape and murder of women are daily events. Last Wednesday's edition of The Age provided an open-and-shut case that we live in such a society. The front page was dominated by the details of abuse against indigenous women in the Northern Territory. This is the horrific extreme of misogyny, where women are routinely raped, set alight, mutilated and murdered. On the back page of the same edition, Diary carried an item about a clique of Melbourne women who are secretly having cheap copies made of their expensive jewels. The women intend to use the money from the sale of the real jewels to run away from their controlling husbands.

The last high-profile case of a woman who attempted to leave her wealthy, controlling husband was Julie Ramage, who in 2003 was murdered by her husband Jamie. Jamie's lawyers used the defence of provocation and he was duly convicted of manslaughter rather than murder. A major factor in Ramage's successful evasion of a murder conviction was that the rules of evidence did not permit the disclosure to the jury of his history of controlling and violent behaviour towards his wife.

In January this year, Colleen and Laura Irwin were stabbed to death in their Altona North home. The only remaining suspect is William John Watkins, a convicted rapist and burglar, who was shot dead by a policeman in Western Australia days after the murder. The Victorian police, supported by the State Government, have refused a freedom of information request for Watkins' criminal history. The right to privacy of a deceased convicted rapist and burglar and suspected double murderer remains paramount. In 2004, a convicted rapist complained to the Privacy Commissioner when his photograph was published in a newspaper. This complaint resulted in a comprehensive ban on the release of criminal's photographs under the Freedom of Information Act.

Women are being abused and murdered daily at every level in Australian society, not just in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Legal decisions that favour the perpetrators of violence against women, such as the Ramage and Watkins cases, merely reflect the wider apathy towards misogyny.

The International Women's Development Agency has stated that violence against women is a greater cause of ill health globally than traffic accidents and malaria combined. While the Howard Government spent millions on an advertising campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence, funding for shelters (which is a shared responsibility between the state and federal governments) is at crisis point. According to a 2005 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 50 per cent of women fleeing domestic violence are turned away from refuges, because there's no room.

I meet all of the criteria that our society demands to merit acceptance and respect. I'm law-abiding, educated, employed and I don't pay attention to Sam Newman. But, somehow, all of these achievements can be rendered meaningless in an instant, by virtue of one other fact. I am also a woman. And this alone means that a youth half my age can abuse and degrade me and strip me of my dignity as I'm walking down the street. However, unlike the indigenous women in the Northern Territory, Julie Ramage, Colleen and Laura Irwin or any one of the Australian women who are victims of domestic violence, I have somehow escaped being one of the statistics. And yet, the misogyny in our midst continues to stalk us all.

Melanie La'Brooy's latest novel is The Wish List.