Don't Get Over It

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An Open Letter to all Federal and State MPs

Like Prime Minister Rudd, I am a White Ribbon Day Ambassador who has made a commitment to eliminating all forms of violence against women. I am writing this letter to challenge MPs to speak out with equal vehemence against those who belittle the experience of victims of sexual assault, regardless of their faith.

Applicants for provisional and permanent visas are reminded that gender equality is an important Australian value. It seems, however, that some of our political representatives are more concerned about this issue when sectarian, cultural, or political points can be scored.

Before I go any further, let me lay my own sectarian cards on the table. I am an Australian of South Asian heritage. My ancestral faith is Islam. Religion is but one layer of my identity. Like many people for whom Islam is their ancestral or chosen faith, I have had no hesitation in openly criticising religious leaders who have made ugly and insensitive remarks regarding the causes of rape and the experiences of rape victims.

Hence I was among the first to condemn a Sydney sheik who in early 2005 remarked that women who dress in a certain manner became "eligible for rape". When Sheik Tajeddine Hilaly made his infamous cat-meat remarks, I had no hesitation in openly condemning his comments and calling for his removal from the post of mufti. My calls were published in newspapers around the world They were also broadcast on a number of major websites including newmatilda.com, Crikey and Online Opinion.

Hilaly’s comments were unacceptable and he was pilloried by politicians and media across Australia. Ordinary people who tick the "Muslim" box on their census forms also had responsibility for Hilaly’s comments sheeted home to them by some prominent media commentators and political leaders.

No doubt the Bishop Fisher’s recent description of parents of two girls raped by a Catholic priest as "dwelling crankily … on old wounds" was deeply offensive not only to the family of these victims but also to millions of decent people of all faiths. Thus far, however, ordinary Catholics have not been made to feel responsible for these remarks.

And nor should they. The vast majority of lay Catholics and Muslims have no meaningful role in the selection or removal of clergy, bishops, popes, imams or muftis. Further, the views expressed by Catholic clergy are hardly representative of the majority of ordinary Australian Catholics. The same applies to Muslims, many of whom had been openly criticising Hilaly years before his remarks about uncovered meat.

It’s interesting to compare responses to the two cases. In the case of Hilaly, commentators and politicians of all stripes and faiths vocally condemned the remarks.

On the other hand, the relative silence of political leaders over Bishop Fisher’s comments suggests that many political leaders are not serious about ending violence against women. It appears that the issue of sexual assault — which should unite Australians of all backgrounds and persuasions — has become a tool to fight mono-cultural wars.

This isn’t just another case of inconsistency inspired by sectarian prejudice. The message being sent here is that misogynistic and insensitive remarks about sexual assault victims only merit condemnation by political leaders if those making the remarks belong to the ‘wrong’ religious, ethnic or cultural background.

When virtually every State and Federal MP is silent over the description of the families of rape victims as "dwelling crankily … on old wounds", we still live in a society in which imbecilic words belittling the experience of sexual violence victims are only condemned when they serve sectarian or cultural prejudices. This is a society in which violence against women is effectively tolerated.

Ordinary Catholics celebrating World Youth Day shouldn’t be held accountable for Fisher’s statements. They had little or no say in his appointment — any more than they have in procedures used by the Church in sexual assault matters. Nor should commentators and politicians cast aspersions on Australian Catholics in the same manner as many did on Australian Muslims. This would achieve nothing.

When sexual assault becomes a cultural or sectarian wedge, however, it demeans and insults the suffering of all victims and their families. It also opens to question our society’s commitment to unconditionally ending violence against women.

I congratulate those MPs who stood up and condemned Sheik Hilaly’s remarks. However, should they continue in their silence over Bishop Fisher’s remarks, they will prove that sensitivity toward rape victims is dependent upon extraneous sectarian, cultural and political factors. This issue should enable us to rise above petty sectarianism.

I challenge our MPs to prove me wrong.

Show that political leaders in this country are unequivocally and unconditionally committed to ending violence against women by speaking out with equal vehemence against all who belittle the experience of all sexual assault victims.

Let’s start with you, Mr Rudd …

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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