Culture

A Candle For Every Woman

In what feels like a revolving door of distress, yet another Australian woman has been killed at the hands of a man who once claimed to love her. When will our country recognise this crisis for what it really is? A national emergency.

By Jamila Rizvi

Culture

In what feels like a revolving door of distress, yet another Australian woman has been killed at the hands of a man who once claimed to love her. When will our country recognise this crisis for what it really is? A national emergency.

By Jamila Rizvi

In silence with heads bowed, we do not remember them. Instead, we imagine.

That’s because remembering requires prior knowledge, something only a few of those assembled to mourn on this day have. Dressed in black, we turn our faces to the sky. Beside me one woman grips her bag so tightly it makes the veins of her hand pulse. To my left stands a girl wearing her school uniform who is silently crying. As I arrived, I glimpsed a group of women who’d seen this all before, too many times to count. Their mouths formed tight, fixed frowns; creased at the edges. Their eyes were weary but determined. Together we mark the death of a woman we didn’t know and whose brutal murder means that we never will.

When Eurydice Dixon was killed in June of last year, more than 10,000 people gathered in the North Carlton park where her body was found. Visiting university student Aiia Maasarwe had her life stolen in January this year. At that time, thousands assembled on the steps of State Parliament in Melbourne. Mourners carried roses as they sat in silence, some for several hours, before laying their buds on the number 86 tram. The same one that Aiia rode on the night she was brutally murdered. Few will recall the names of all the women around Australia, killed by men, in the months between Eurydice and Aiia’s deaths.

But Jessamy Gleeson and Karen Pickering do.

Karen Pickering (L) and Jessamy Gleeson (R) hold a vigil for every woman murdered in Australia.
Tributes are seen before a vigil held in memory of murdered Melbourne comedian, 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon. Image credit: Michael Dodge/ Getty Images

On average, one or more women a week is murdered in this country. Most will be killed by a person who was known to them, a person who once held them close and promised to love them forevermore. Nearly all will be killed by a man. Some of their stories will be reported extensively in the news media, garnering national and even international attention. Others will receive only a passing mention in the court reports or death notices. However, every single murdered woman will have their death marked by Jessamy, Karen and the women who sit beside them.

Jessamy and Karen organise silent vigils for the women – and children – who are killed by men. Their work began in the middle of last year when thousands gathered at a silent night time vigil for Euridice Dixon. Jessamy and Karen are now determined to mark the theft of every woman’s life in this same public way. Sometimes the pair are joined by thousands but more often than not, it is only a handful of people who gather to mark each woman’s murder. You will see their protest most weeks; women seated on the steps of Victorian State parliament, dressed in black and not saying a word. Sometimes a week will pass without a vigil taking place. Moments of respite amongst the dark and heavy reality. Sometimes, there will be two or even three vigils to be held. Each life is honoured.

Jessamy explains that silence accommodates the different feelings of people who gather to mourn and Karen agrees. “Partly it seemed like a respectful and considerate way of recognising grief and that it wasn’t affecting everyone in the same way, while allowing for anger and rage,” says Karen. “Silence is not passive or weak but a way to allow people space for reflection and the full gamut of emotion. People need to feel energised so they can channel that anger into what they need to do next, what they need to do to stop this”.

 

“We want a rolling action that looks the same all the time to give people a visual and visible reminder of the scale of the problem. It connects [women] in this story of men’s violence against women.”

 

It’s a markedly different approach to what we usually conceive of a ‘protest’ but that is exactly what these actions are. While the vigils are a chance to mourn an individual’s passing, this ongoing public protest on behalf of murdered women is also designed to draw attention. The organisers are making a political point, at well as holding space for reflection and memory. It’s a far cry from the usual rallies held on parliament’s steps, where speakers tend to go on for too long and audience members are left frustrated and disgruntled. The silence allows for feelings to exist without judgement. Mourners can have a range of motivations for being there, without value being attributed to one reason over another.

“We want a rolling action that looks the same all the time to give people a visual and visible reminder of the scale of the problem,” says Karen. “If someone passes by and thinks ‘oh, they were just here yesterday’ or ‘this is the third time this week I saw someone in black on the steps,’ that connects the woman who was raped and killed by a stranger and the woman whose husband murdered her. It connects them in this story of men’s violence against women”.

Karen looks at me thoughtfully, contemplating this ongoing story and the extent of the damage done to the lives of women and their loved ones. “Sometimes I wonder what if two or three young men’s bodies were turning up every week, what would happen?” she asks. “And if every time they found the perpetrator it was his girlfriend. There would be incredible public outrage and dissection of ‘what is it about women? What is wrong with women? What is it in the gender of womanhood that is producing this sick pattern?’”

Of course, there are few media commentators who would ever think such a thing, and fewer still who would dare to say it aloud. Imagine if this were the other way around. Imagine if this epidemic of men killing their women partners or former partners were reversed. The response would be swift and immediate. Parliaments would hold emergency sittings. New laws would be expeditiously passed, and exorbitant funding promised to end this immediate and horrific threat posed by murderous women. There would be a media whitewash. No other story would get a mention. Think pieces asking ‘why’ would soak up pages and pages of ink.

Jessamy explains that the facts of violence against women alone aren’t enough to move people anymore. One in three Australian women will be a victim of violence at some point in their life. One in five will be the victim of a sexual assault. More than one woman a week is killed by a man who is or was her partner. 69 women were killed last year alone. The alarming nature of these facts don’t cut through in the way they should. The reality of violence against women has been repeated so many times that the horror has begun to fade. These physical demonstrations are designed to draw people’s attention to the problem once more.

There is something beautiful about the simplicity of their protest. Silent vigils honour the life of a single woman or child. It makes that moment in time about an individual; a human being with feelings and hopes and dreams and a future rather than another distressing statistic. It connects those attending – and also those who walk past – with the person who died. It helps us to imagine how we would feel if it were a woman we knew, a woman we cared about. It helps us realise that it could have been us. Empathy building happens through the personal reflection attendees are asked to engage in. While simultaneously there is broader awareness of the depth and insidiousness of the problem being fostered through repetition of the action.

Thousands of locals of the City of Melbourne during a vigil for Aiia Maasarwe on January 18, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Image credit: James D. Morgan/ Getty Images

At the vigils I’ve attended, I’ve noticed women in their 20s and 30s make up the bulk of the crowd. This is perhaps unsurprising given that this is most often the age and gender of the victims. However, such a pattern also contradicts the pervasive media narrative of a digital generation whose activism is confined to social media. When I ask Jessamy and Karen for their view, they don’t hold back in praising the internet as a tool for organisation and bringing people together. It allows for rapid and broad communication that would otherwise be impossible or financially inaccessible. The internet makes their activism possible.

Yet even while organised so effectively online, the physical need to gather in the face of tragedy remains. Jessamy mentions the physicality involved with the act of mourning. I immediately know what she means. “There is a need to by with others and share the same feelings in the same space” Jessamy says. She thinks these public gatherings are “about giving that emotion, that feeling, a physical space to be tied to. To say, ‘that happened there,’ or ‘this is where she was’ or ‘I won’t forget, and I am not alone’. Karen agrees, “even as far back as when Jill Meagher was murdered, there was a sense of violation and terror that your suburb, your streets could all of a sudden feel unsafe. You reclaim them with the strength of others around you”.

26-year-old Leeton woman, Stephanie Scott was murdered in 2015, just days before her wedding. Australians shared their grief on social media, with thousands of women posting images of their own wedding dresses hung on the front door of their homes. A tribute to a woman who missed out on what is so-often called the happiest day of her life. In the absence of an opportunity to be together in physical space, women created an online vigil and recognised Scott’s death privately in their own homes. Emotion can be tied to a place, or sometimes to an object. Togetherness comes in many forms, it seems.

Karen reflects that part of the need to physically gather is because of how that act is perceived. There is a practical political element to this protest: the need to have impact. “Older people and the media still take it more seriously if people show up in person,” Karen explains. “They say, ‘wow there are hundreds or thousands of people there’. It changes public opinion to see a huge group of people in one place. Online activism can be early dismissed”. Jessamy adds that “it’s easier to conceptualise [physically], than seeing it online. It makes [the demonstration] more visible”.

“To put it really bluntly, it’s more effective as political resistance when there are many hundreds of bodies are together in one place,” says Karen. She points to the history of the women’s movement and other movements for social change as examples. “It’s how we defended abortion clinics, it’s how we fought for workers’ rights, there’s a tradition of turning up and being in one place together in how you change people’s minds and express solidarity”.

Flowers and messages sit outside of the front of the Duchess Boutique on Sydney Rd, the store which captured the last CCTV footage of Jill Meagher on September 28, 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. Image credit: Scott Barbour/ Getty Images

I inquire about the logistics of organising these major public vigils, especially when Jessamy and Karen have been able to make them happen so quickly, seizing the public mood. “From a logistical perspective it’s not actually harder to organise something fast. The longer you have for anger and momentum to build, the more people are likely to attend and from the purely practical side, that’s more complicated,” Jessamy says. I’ve seen Jessamy in action, speaking quietly on her mobile phone as she manages a police presence, serves as a contact point for the victim’s family, connecting various community organisations and managing media. I’m in awe of her calm practicality, and I tell her so.

Jessamy insists “if we hadn’t organised them someone else would have, someone would have stepped up”. I wonder if that’s actually true. Many of us feel the pain of a publicly reported tragedy but we don’t necessarily do the work. These two women are remarkable. Recently, in the wake of one unnamed woman’s death [the police sometimes repress the names victims for legal reasons], Jessamy was the soul person who made it to the steps of parliament house, dressed in her black. The week before, there were just five protesters who gathered to mark the violent departure of another soul. This work is often small, quiet and thankless. Not every vigil comes with a national spotlight.

I ask Jessamy if she lost faith on the day that she held space for a murdered woman all on her own. She insists that she did not. “It didn’t make me lose faith. No. I just thought well, it’s me for tonight and I am here. I get an hour, I am going to sit here and that’s my hour to think about it and then I am going to go and return to my life because I have to”. Karen smiles at her friend’s dedication. “We don’t want this to come off as martyrised,” Karen adds. Allowing yourself to be reached by it, to feel the horror of it, feels right and appropriate. To bear witness and honour that woman’s life. Maybe even more importantly when not many people are.”

It’s undeniable that some murders draw more public attention than others. Sometimes two or three deaths will immediately follow a particularly highly publicised murder but for whatever reason, pass without notice. There are the murdered women whose names we know, and they are the women the media chose to care about. As a consequence, they are the women we the public show up for.

Jessamy and Karen explain that it’s women of a particular race, class, age and occupation whose murders receive the most media coverage. While there’s growing evidence women with disabilities are more likely to experience family violence, their deaths go underreported. So too do the deaths of indigenous women, who a 2014-15 report showed are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised due to family violence and are overrepresented as murder victims. The death of sex workers is rarely reported in the press beyond the basic factual details. When Qi Yu, an Australian woman of colour was murdered in Sydney, only days after Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne, the coverage of the two deaths was compared by several commentators. Women are not equal. Not even when their lives are stolen.

Prejudices come to the fore as we mourn white, middle class, attractive young women more urgently and loudly. Activist Tarang Chawla whose sister Niki – a woman of colour – was murdered, says that this sort of differential reporting is highly problematic. He has written that, ”hours after the news broke of Niki’s murder, ill-informed opinions flourished online, with little knowledge of the facts. While my parents and I sat in our family room, stricken with grief on a sofa with one empty seat, from behind the anonymity of their keyboards, strangers pointed the finger at my family. Someone said to me that she “got what she deserved”.”

Another key divide between the murders of women that garner attention and those which don’t is whether the victim knew the perpetrator. There is a stark difference in how the community responds to the murder of a woman by her partner or former partner, compared with a stranger. We consider the latter somehow less egregious. According to Karen and Jessamy, it’s is a symptom of the broader problem of victim blaming. “People will literally use phrases like ‘well, it was a domestic’,” says Karen. “People ask ‘why did she marry him?’, ‘why didn’t she leave?’ or ‘why didn’t she take an intervention order against him’, ‘why would you be with someone like that?’”.

Jessamy says that for her, the varying significance attributed to each women’s murder means the vigils become even more important. She wants to mark, and mourn, every single death. Karen concurs, while also pointing out that even so-called ‘perfect victims’ will be criticised. The onus is consistently placed on the woman for not having done more to protect herself from violence, rather than on the man for committing violence at all. Jessamy illustrates the point as she ticks off media, police and public criticisms on her fingers, “Euridicye Dixon: Why was she in that park? Aiia Maasarwe: Why did she catch the tram so late?”

Women are never complicit in their own murders. They are the victims of murderers.

Image credits: Instagram @fixeditheadline

Journalist Jane Gilmore is another activist doing the important work of drawing attention to every woman murdered and specifically to the problematic role of the media. Her #FixedIt campaign captured the sensationalised and inaccurate way the press reports on violence against women. She edits media headlines to reveal how judgemental and problematic the language used is, how it subtly tells the reader how they should feel towards this particular victim, painting her as either an innocent or not. Gilmore is writing a book on the portrayal of violence against women that will be published later this year.

I wonder aloud how we solve the problem of language and the way a community talks about violence against women. It seems to me there is an unspoken acceptance that men’s violence towards women is inevitable to some level. That there isn’t much to be done to change these murder figures. Society lectures young women to prepare for men’s violence, to carry their keys in their fist, to call a friend while walking home, to use tracking apps, to pay for a taxi rather than walk, to wear less-revealing clothes, and all the rest… It’s akin to expecting that everyone builds a bunker to shelter from hurricanes in areas where those hurricanes are becoming rapidly more common. Perhaps the bunker might help but really, the question we should be asking is: What is causing so many hurricanes and how do we stop it? We grasp at limited, ineffective solutions to the perceived risk because we don’t want to admit to the larger concern of human-made climate change.

Our Watch reports that the greatest health risk factor for women my age is not breast cancer or heart disease or death during childbirth but intimate partner violence. Family violence is the most significant driver of women’s homelessness, it’s a common factor in child protection notifications and results in a call to police every two minutes. The problem is enormous. It is, quite literally, killing Australian women – and yet, we’ve all just accepted that’s how it is.

Feeling helpless and frustrated, I ask Jessamy and Karen if they think we’ll see the figures change in our lifetime and what it would require. Karen is hopeful. She says “I think about how in my childhood drink-driving was the norm and it was culturally acceptable. Public health, the law, police, media, the community, education sector all had to agree this was a problem and we were going to fix this. It required far reaching and punitive laws, re-education of the public, advertising campaigns for awareness and penalties for individuals. We arrested it.”

 

“[Action] is happening in these ad hoc ways. I think that is to be commended but like any massive social epidemic, to arrest and turn something around you need broad consensus that urgent and drastic action is needed.”

 

Karen explains that it was the same for preventing deaths from skin cancer through the promotion of sunscreen use and the impact humans have had in addressing the HIV epidemic. “We made progress after we agreed it was a serious problem. [Action] is happening in these ad hoc ways. I think that is to be commended but like with any massive social epidemic, to arrest and turn something around you need broad consensus that urgent and drastic action is needed.”

There was concern after Donald Trump was elected in the United States, and to some extent it’s proved correct, that eventually the media would normalise his ludicrous behaviour. When horror or the unbelievable happens again and again, we get used to it. It becomes believable and somehow acceptable. People’s anger at a new situation and passionate defence of what used to be, starts to fade. I ask how Jessamy and Karen maintain their rage and commitment in the face of so little actual progress. I ask how they protect themselves from the trauma of it all.

Reclaim Princes Park Vigil held after Eurydice Dixon’s Murder. Image credit: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

“It’s traumatic work and we’re traumatised!” says Jessamy, part-joking, part-serious. “We have a level of desensitisation as well,” says Karen. “We have to. I’ll receive a text from Jess that says, ‘another one’. It’s natural that you become immune to it. You have to detach yourself to some extent to be an activist and an organiser in this way”.

The pair insist that they are fortunate. They are not the only Australians doing this work and cite the efforts of Cheryl Moody, Jenna Price, Celeste Liddle, Jane Gilmore and others. “They are all documenting and publicising the deaths, letting no woman’s murder go unnoticed,” says Karen. “It is important work of public memory. We rely on their work. For us and our role, it is how do we take this woman, who had these kids, and this job, and honour the individual? You have to humanise people who have been dehumanised by patriarchy. Patriarchy is the system that caused their deaths and also causes people to forget and pay little attention”.

I shake my head in disbelief at the strength and commitment of these two women. They are brave and resilient. Their labour is largely thankless and much of the time will go unnoticed by all but a few. Yet what what they are doing matters enormously to the families of victims. It matters to the growing community of women and men who are desperate to see change. It gives hope to other activists and is relentless in the pursuit of quiet, dignified attention on behalf of the women whose lives have been taken. Even in the face of unrelenting barriers and continual disappointment, Jessamy and Karen remain committed.

They may not have known these women in life, but they hold the space for them in death.

If this article brings up any issues for you, or if you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.