The unheard voices: how society silences women

May 29, 2024
women without faces Image: iStock/ Bigmouse108

In our country and across the world, the voices of women often go unheard. Whether it is a gasping plea of ‘I can’t breathe’ or a harrowing confession of ‘He raped me,’ the voices of women are frequently dismissed, disbelieved, or outright ignored. This tragic reality stems from a deeply ingrained societal bias that views women as manipulative, deceitful, and cunning. Through this gendered lens, society perpetuates a culture of scepticism and distrust toward women, effectively demonising them and invalidating their experiences.

The gendered lens of distrust

Historically, women have been portrayed in literature, media, and folklore as schemers and temptresses, perpetuating stereotypes that paint them as inherently untrustworthy, and therefore dangerous. Think of Circe in Greek mythology. Circe is a powerful sorceress who lived on the island of Aeaea. She is most famously featured in Homer’s epic, The Odyssey. In this tale, Odysseus and his men arrive at Circe’s island during their journey home from the Trojan War. Circe invites the men into her home, offering them food and drink that she has laced with a potion. This potion transforms them into pigs, hence revealing Circe’s so called ‘deceptive’ and ‘manipulative’ nature. Or what about Morgan le Fay, also known as Morgana, a prominent character in the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Morgan le Fay is often depicted as a powerful enchantress with a deep knowledge of magic, and her character is frequently associated with manipulation and deceit. Morgan is sometimes depicted as Arthur’s half-sister, who uses her magical abilities to scheme against him and his kingdom. One of her most famous plots involves the seduction of Arthur’s knight, Sir Lancelot, and various attempts to undermine the unity of the Round Table.

The legends of women’s power and wiles aren’t just stories from folklore and mythology, they are tales that have had a lasting impact on how women are perceived in society. They have perpetuated the idea that women, by nature, are schemers and temptresses, contributing to the deep-seated mistrust and demonisation of women that persists in various forms to this day. The stereotypes created by this narrative have seeped into the collective consciousness of humanity, influencing how women’s words and actions are perceived. When a woman speaks out, whether it is about sexual violence, domestic violence, workplace harassment, or any form of mistreatment, she often faces an immediate and disproportionate level of scrutiny. This scepticism isn’t just a societal oversight; it’s a reflection of deeply rooted misogyny.

This deeply entrenched misogyny was apparent in the recent Brittany Higgins case. Higgins was treated with suspicion when making allegations of rape by her former Liberal party colleague, Bruce Lehrmann in 2019. Allegations which later led to Lehrmann being found at fact by Justice Michael Lee to have raped his colleague in Parliament House. However, back in February 2021, then senior ACT police officer, Detective Superintendent Scott Moller, who supervised the police investigation, disclosed to an inquiry his ‘immediate suspicion’ of Brittany Higgins’ allegation of being raped during her time working in Parliament House, citing her intention to speak to the media as a reason to question her motives. In his mind, Higgins must have had nefarious motivations for alleging rape, motivations other than justice. She was, in his mind, a manipulative individual using her claim of sexual assault for attention rather than seeking genuine redress for the wrong done to her. This perspective, particularly in cases that become high profile, starkly illustrate the deep-seated misogyny that clouds the judgment of those in power, leading to the systemic disbelief and demonisation of women who come forward with their stories.

The consequences of disbelief

The consequences of this pervasive disbelief are devastating. Women who report sexual assault are frequently met with suspicion; their credibility questioned before the facts are even considered. In fact, ABS data from 2021-22 stated that the majority (92%) of women who experienced sexual assault did not report the incident to the police. Often, women are required to provide extraordinary levels of evidence to have their complaint taken seriously. Their life becomes a magazine anyone can thumb through. This not only deters many women from coming forward but also emboldens perpetrators, knowing that the likelihood of being believed is slim.

In the past week, the National Network of Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (The National Network) have raised awareness of the treatment of one of their members by the Queensland Police Service (QPS). The National Network allege that a criminalised Aboriginal woman sought protection from the QPS while attempting to leave a violent marriage characterised by coercive control, strangulation, physical, financial and emotional abuse; and was dismissed and treated as the perpetrator instead of the victim. The victim-survivor who has a criminal record was treated like she was fabricating her claims of violence and could not be trusted because she was a formerly incarcerated woman. The disbelief faced by the Network’s criminalised member in her report of domestic violence is a clear manifestation of the broader cultural and institutional biases and racism against women, and in this case, Blak, criminalised women. This treatment underscores the broader issue: many criminalised women are reluctant to seek police assistance due to the lack of support and understanding from law enforcement, as well as the victim blaming, and the fact that police have often been perpetrators of violence towards the victim-survivor, all of which often results in their remaining in abusive relationships. This case highlights how the stereotype of women as cunning and devious directly influences the response of the State. In this specific instance, the National Network member was seeking a protection order, however after discovering her criminal record, the police initially sought a cross order forcing the National Network member back into court.

When women report crimes like sexual assault or domestic violence, they face an additional burden of proving their credibility beyond the norm. This added scepticism is a direct consequence of the misogynistic view that women are inherently manipulative and cannot be trusted to tell the truth. We also see this play out in the provision of health care. Specifically in the ways women’s pain, suffering or distress is often downplayed or dismissed entirely. Numerous studies have shown that women are less likely to be believed when they report symptoms of pain, leading to misdiagnoses and inadequate treatment. This gender bias in medicine can have serious, even life-threatening consequences, as women’s legitimate health concerns are trivialised or ignored.

At the coronial inquest of Selesa Tafaifa who died at Townsville Women’s Prison in 2021 after being handcuffed and spithooded, custodial correctional officers (CCO) giving evidence repeatedly alleged that Selesa was manipulating them into removing her spithood by gasping, ‘I can’t breathe’ four times, and calling for her asthma inhaler ‘my puffer, my puffer’ six times, before she died. One CCO went on to explain why he did not believe the spithood should be removed by explaining that in their training, they are taught about a concept known as ‘The Girl who Cried Wolf.’ They explained this is a strategy employed by women prisoners to manipulate officers in order to get what they want. This so called ‘Girl who cried wolf’ technique, if it even exists, is inherently dangerous. It can, has and will lead to officers dismissing genuine distress signals, such as when Selesa stated ‘I can’t breathe’ indicating potential positional asphyxia. When the CCO was asked by the family’s barrister, Mr O’Gorman SC if he believed that a sign of positional asphyxia was the subject saying, ‘I can’t breathe’, the CCO replied, ‘a prisoner will state all types of things.’ To suggest that women possess such omnipotent power in prisons to manipulate through the ‘Girl who cried wolf’ technique is not only ludicrous, but also dangerously undermines the realities of power differentials within carceral environments. This approach not only perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes but also unjustly places the blame on women prisoners for manipulation tactics, and in doing so in Selesa’s case, perpetuates the outdated notion that she inherently wielded manipulative prowess over those authority figures, ignoring the systemic inequalities and vulnerabilities she faced and then blamed her for her own death in custody.

The demonisation of women

The demonisation of women manifests in various ways. When a woman asserts herself, she is often labelled as bossy or aggressive, while a man displaying the same behaviour is seen as confident and assertive. If a woman shows vulnerability or emotion, she is often considered weak or overly dramatic. This double standard serves to keep women in a precarious position, where they must navigate a narrow path between societal expectations and their own authenticity.

This demonisation extends to how women are portrayed in public scandals and media coverage. High-profile cases involving women are often skewed to focus on their behaviour, attire, and past relationships, diverting attention from the actual issues at hand. This character assassination not only harms the individual woman but also reinforces the harmful stereotype that women are not to be trusted.

In my own criminal trial, I took to the stand and withstood two full days of questioning. I felt that I gave my evidence and withstood cross examination with honesty and articulation to the best of my ability. I was proud of how I presented myself during my time in the witness box. I felt like I stayed true to myself and was confident in how I was relating to the court, and to the jury. However, as soon as I had given my evidence, I was shocked when the prosecutor and my co-accused’s lawyers pointed at me and suggested to the jury that my ability to articulate myself clearly and confidently, made me a ‘cunning’ and ‘smart’ woman and therefore the ‘criminal mastermind’ in the fraudulent ‘scheme’. It was suggested in court that because of my intelligence, I must have been the one who masterminded the whole ‘scheme’ and dragged my then-husband into this life of crime. In court, this gendered lens painted me as a woman who manipulated and coerced a supposedly feeble man into a criminal situation. And worse, I was accused of emasculating him simply because I earned more money in my job, which is utterly absurd. My career and success were a result of my hard work, and it wasn’t my fault that he wasn’t earning as much. I couldn’t just be seen as smart, intelligent, and articulate in that courtroom. I had to be seen as cunning, sly and a criminal mastermind. All of my good traits were pathologised against me. Women like me continue to be unfairly depicted as deceitful and manipulative within these systems, a bias that undermines our credibility and distorts the truth. The portrayal of women in this light ignores the complex realities of our circumstances and perpetuates a narrative that unjustly blames us for crimes we did not mastermind or orchestrate (but hey, never let truth get in the way of a good story, right?).

Challenging the narrative

To challenge this narrative, something’s got to give.

Society has to undergo a fundamental shift in how it views and treats women. This begins with education and awareness, dismantling the stereotypes that have long vilified women. It involves listening to all women’s voices (not just some women’s voices) without prejudice and believing all of their experiences. Women like me don’t just want a seat at the table, I want to smash the table and use it for kindling to burn down the institutions that are causing people like myself, my sistas, my nieces and my daughter the most harm. No amount of legal and institutional reforms will ensure that women’s claims are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, without bias, racism or undue scepticism. We’ve been stuck on a reform hamster wheel for so long now, that the government has kept us so dizzy and busy that we can’t see that all of their suggested improvements in the name of gender equity and gender reform are just smoke and mirrors.

I want a say in the future that my daughter will grow up in. I want genuine voices of people with actual lived experience to be heard across all areas, like politics, business, art, and beyond. I want to normalise the idea that women are credible, capable, trustworthy and not willing to take what’s heaped on them anymore.

But mostly I want the lives of the women I have spoken about in this article to matter. Selesa was able to be killed by this system because she was an Indigenous Samoan woman. Her coronial inquest was happening in the shadows of the national marches of feminists across the country calling for justice for women in relation to family and domestic violence. I noted the ubiquitous silence of all feminists on the state violence perpetrated against Selesa. I noted the media’s silence when the National Network tried to draw attention to the plight of their member who was being victimised and mistreated by the QPS after leaving her violent marriage, even when there was an Independent Commission of Inquiry into Queensland Police Service Responses to domestic and family violence in 2022. I noted the deafening silence of carceral feminists when the National Network demanded QCS explain this ‘Girl who cried wolf’ training package. Absolute *crickets* across this country for some women, and noise for others.

The journey toward a time where everyone’s life matters is long and challenging and people like me are often told to be patient, that change takes time. We don’t actually have time for it to chug along at the rate it is right now, because some women are dying – Blak, Brown, Indigenous, disabled and poor women are dying.

Time has run out.

We need change now.

Like yesterday.

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