When I woke this morning, the first images that came into my mind were those of naked corpses of young Sri Lankan Tamil women.
The images are part of the film No Fire Zone that I saw last Friday. Sri Lankan soldiers filmed the footage as their fellows destroyed the evidence of their war crimes at the end of the civil war in 2009.
I can confidently say that No Fire Zone by Scottish director Callum McCrae is the most devastating film I have seen. It provides systematic documentation of cold-blooded executions, repeated firing on thousands of fleeing civilians, and deliberate bombing of hospitals.
I want to focus on a single aspect of this bleak picture – sexual violence as a tool of rape and torture in Sri Lanka. Another enduring image from the film is the terrified faces of young Tamil women disappearing on the back of a truck, never to be seen again.
In February, Foreign Minister Bob Carr told a Senate Estimates Committee in response to a question from Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon that there was no evidence that 2010 Sri Lankans who had been returned to Sri Lanka were ‘being discriminated against or arrested, let alone tortured.’
Also in February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report about politically motivated sexual assault of women and men by the Sri Lankan military and police that continues.
The Australian High Commissioner Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe told the ABC that the report was not credible, using Carr’s denial as evidence.
The HRW report included the case of 36 year-old Tamil woman, “YJ”, who came back from the UK to Sri Lanka for a conference in 2011 and was detained. She said: “They asked me to sit down and remove my blouse. I refused but a woman police official forcibly removed it,” she said.
A few days later, two men came to her room. “My hands were tied together and I could not fight them. Both men raped me. They behaved like animals and bit me. They burned me with cigarettes on my breasts and genitals. They left me naked with my hands tied back the whole night.”
There is a long and dishonourable history of rape in war. Rape in war is not only about gender (women can be perpetrators and men are victims) but so long as women are objectified and subject to systematic discrimination, sexual violence and abuse of women will be used as a weapons of power and humiliation.
I don’t support governments that cover up rape and other forms of torture. The Gillard government legitimised the Sri Lankan regime by agreeing to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo in November.
So why did I feel so unaccountably sad when Julia Gillard herself was axed last Wednesday?
It’s because I’m a feminist and in my experience, once a feminist, always a feminist.
An important part of feminism is the opportunity to equal rights and participation for all women. My grandmother became a teacher before the First World War but the law prevented her from being one after she married my grandfather. My mother also had to give up nursing when she got married. At the time I was born in the mid 1940s, no woman had been in an Australian cabinet and only two had been elected to parliament.
Feminism is also about women being seen as whole beings whatever their sexuality, married status or whether they have children. Unmarried women like the talented teachers who taught me were never quite seen as ‘fulfilled’ because they were single. While my generation expected to have careers, the message was that the key to happiness lay with marriage and children.
Much changed but, as we have seen, not that much.
For all these reasons and more, I felt excited when our first woman Prime Minister arrived unexpectedly on the scene although I was dismayed when she immediately mentioned reopening offshore detention.
Then began the unrelenting sexism from political opponents in the media and parliament.
Although Gillard could never be my hero, I barracked for her when she stood stoically against News Ltd and shock jocks’ insults and digs about her body, her hair and childless status.
I cheered with millions at her misogyny speech and was relieved when author and journalist Anne Summers struck a chord by documenting the sexism. I ‘followed’ Destroy the Joint, which has attracted over 32,000 ‘friends’ to its campaign against sexism.
It’s a mistake to reduce the argument to whether or not Gillard’s gender led to her destruction.
This misunderstands the way that sexism was woven through the overwhelmingly negative coverage of the carbon policy which was more akin to propaganda than journalism, and the relentless plotting of Rudd and his supporters both in and out of the media.
Whether in war, politics or in an argument at your local pub, sexism is constantly in use against women in conflict.
The suffering of Tamil women cannot be equated with the humiliation of Julia Gillard. Women experience sexism in different ways. Gender is embedded through class and race.
I am suggesting that it is this common thread of sexism that many of us tapped into last Wednesday night, and what saddened us was that there was not more outrage at the sexism.
This brings me to Roseanne Beckett, whose miscarriage of justice case I have covered for 13 years.
When Beckett stood up against her ex-husband’s violence and sexual abuse, she was falsely accused by corrupt police and his mates of crimes against her husband. When a sexual assault worker supported her, she too was threatened with rape. When Beckett was convicted she became that ‘evil and manipulative woman’, a mantra repeated to this day by all her enemies.
As Beckett watched the events of last week, she too recognised that common thread of sexism.
She wrote to me this week: “I just feel JG and my life run parallel in a different ways, under constant attack which ever way you move, I feel she did extremely well to cope the way she did and I truly admire her for that, strong people are hard to find, it is very much a man’s world, they are threatened by strong women. I did not agree with all that she did, she was only a mouth piece. It takes a very strong woman to carry it through.”
Julia Gillard’s career will evolve. Beckett’s was terminated by ten years false imprisonment for which she has received no compensation. But she too survives. Not so the two Pakistani women killed by a brother for posting a video of themselves dancing in the street this week. As for Tamil women who survived the trauma of war, we are detaining them when they seek our help.
The female PM is banished and we’re back to two male contenders. The ‘witch’ signs have been packed away and the media minders and journalists now code their sexism into reassuring photos of happy ‘normal’ families.
Abbott tackled accusations of misogyny by mobilising ‘Margie and the girls’ to remind us that Gillard was unmarried with no children. He lacks policies on a number of fronts including gender.
Then there is Rudd. We hear that he may at least may reverse the savage cuts which saw single parents forced to survive on Newstart. But in announcing his Cabinet that includes more women than Gillard’s, he declared: “I don’t see things through the prism of gender. I never have and I never will.” The Deputy PM Anthony Albanese was also reported by The Australian as feeling a need for correction in the government’s approach to gender.
None of this bodes well for women or for men who oppose sexism.
The prism of power is multifaceted. One of those facets is gender. There has never been a better time to keep gender on the public agenda. If a year from now, it has slipped off the public agenda again, we will know that the sexists won. It’s up to us.