A woman enjoys a pleasant night out with friends which at approximately 1.41am after ending the festivities she politely declines a ride home, opting instead to walk the five minutes to her apartment around the corner where she no doubts looks forward to crawling into the warmth of her bed with her husband who is expectantly waiting on her. Except she never makes it.
6 days later, after an exhaustive search, microscopic study of surveillance tapes, requests for assistance from the public and sleepness nights by her friends and family, her broken body is found raped, murdered and discarded on the side of the road without even the decency of a shallow grave.
I’m not describing an episode of “CSI”, “Criminal Minds”, “Law and Order” or any of the other numerous murder and rape for entertainment television shows that our culture enjoys and consumes with an insatiable appetite.
No, this story is real even if it eerily replicates our particularly morbid form of “entertainment”. This is the story of Jill Meagher that has so gripped the city of Melbourne, Australia and so dominated our national news coverage for the last six days finally culminating in an expected ending that a vast majority of us typically “enjoy” in our entertainment life. Yes, life does indeed replicate art and Jill will not return home again.
As I read through the details of her final moments I found myself asking these questions. Why didn’t she get a ride home with her friend? Why didn’t she ask her husband to come down and get her? Why did he “allow” her to walk home at that time of night by herself? “Why, why, why, why, why” and yet as a man who is involved with an organisation that does pro-active work in my community in regard to educating and raising the profile of domestic violence and sexual assault with teens I know the answer to that question and yet, like most of you, succumb to the pressure of “victim blaming” that is common in our rape culture.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “rape culture” is a concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media (see my previous paragraphs), normalise, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence.
Rape culture in a nutshell is telling girls and women how to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, who your friends are, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of your purse you carry, or in the case of Jill Meagher, what time you walk, if it’s dark, and as one individual asked the reporter this morning “Maybe it’s time we take a serious look at whether or not women should start carrying pepper spray or something in their purse”.
Instead of asking why this keeps happening to the women in our society we instead examine what THEY could have done differently. This is an essential aspect of rape culture. Victim blaming, is the initial thought process and the default for the overwhelming majority of our society, male and females alike. It is this toxic cultural milieu that allows situations like this to continue, for women to be abused, exploited, raped and murdered- to never return home to their loved ones and for predators to act with impunity.As long we focus our attention on the victim we can never address the real problem: a patriarchal, misogynistic, culture that preys on women to the point where we even find ways to commodify it and turn it into “entertainment”.
The depths of insanity are so deeply entrenched that it even causes the grieved to speak out of turn and know not what they speak off. In speaking of Jill’s murder, 774 ABC presenter Jon Faine bravely paid tribute to his friend and colleague at the start of his show today saying her legacy is important. “Jill’s death must not come to define us. That is not what it is like to live in the Melbourne we know,” he said “This is an exceptionally rare event. Its randomness is part of what is so incomprehensible about it.”
And yet those of us who are aware know that is simply not true. A study completed by Victorian Health in 2004 found that violence against women in Victoria, the very state that Jill Meagher’s life was cut short, is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44. Violence against women in the state of Victoria is more responsible than many of the well-known disease burdens with preventable risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking and obesity. Furthermore, according to statistical data provided by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 1 out of 3 women, that is 1 billion women in the world, will be raped, coerced, or abused and potentially murdered during the year 2012. See that data here: http://unfpa.org/gender/violence.htm
The unfortunate truth is Jill Meagher is not the exception, not in this regard. She is in fact another number to add to a every growing pantheon of victims that our society and culture sees as “exceptions to the norm”. This is far from normal. This is normal exacerbated and distorted.
In the movie “The Village” the writer and director M. Night Shyamalan focuses on the occupants of a small village who live in fear of nameless creatures who live in the surrounding woods. The elders of the village have passed this legend down by lore and have built a barrier of oil lanterns and watch towers that are constantly manned to keep watch for “Those We Don’t Speak Of”. For all intent and purposes for the viewers and its fictional on screen residents the village is threatened by these beasts in a setting that we can place somewhere in the early 19th-20th century. However, when an attempted murder is committed by one of the villagers out of jealously we find that the village had really been setup in the 20th century (the 1970s) by the elders and that the time frame is not the early 19th-20th century but in fact modern times.
There were no monsters, they were a trope created by the elders who established the village to keep future generations inside, to protect and isolate themselves from the perceived dangers of the outside world. Their very existence was in fact a faux- reality and fabrication, the attempted murder ripping the fabric of that carefully “created reality” to shreds.
We find ourselves faced with the same predicament. That the world is not as we think it is. The abduction, rape and murder of Jill Meagher and the billions of victims like her are a stark reminder that the monsters “out there” are us and that the noble, equal, safe community we like to think we live in is as in the movie, a faux- reality as long as tragedies like this and the attitudes, norms and practices that support still exist.
My hope is that we all begin to see the death of Jill Meagher for what it is and not see it as some small but tragic disruption in the grand scheme of our artificially perceived “noble and civilised” local and global community. My prayer is that we use it to propel us to engage in fruitful dialogue and work to begin to change this culture and attitude that seeks to destroy, eradicate and use women. We can start that work today by actively seeking ways to educate ourselves about the issue of gender violence in our communities and the world over and supporting and volunteering with organisations that seek to promote and highlight these issues in our communities. We can begin to practice it today by not using language that is derogatory and misogynistic towards women and not supporting tv shows that use female bodies as a form of “entertainment” and commodities for profit. There is much work to be done and the harvest is many but the workers are few.
In a oft- overlooked but pivotal scene in “The Village”, two of its protagonists are engaged in a conversation where one character named Lucius Hunt, who has wholly bought into this faux-reality, says to the blind but more perceptively aware Ivy Walker “Are you upset you can’t see?” in which Ivy Walker responds, “I see the world Lucius Hunt, but not as you see it.” Ivy, though being blind could more clearly see the false reality that was the ‘The Village” than Lucius who had sight.
Let our eyes be opened to the truth of our communities for as long as they remain shut to the realities and facts of these truths, lives like Jill Meagher’s, one billion precious lives to be exact, will continually be destroyed and cut short.
Rest in peace Jill Meagher. Let your life not be in vain. As in the words of the poet Dylan Thomas “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Let us not let this moment, this anger that we feel as a community be wasted, but rather use it to effectively combat a culture that seeks to snuff out lights around the world like Jill Meagher’s.