It’s Time to Call out the Erasure of Disabled Women





Image description:  A large, triangular table is set with 39 place settings.  Each has a different runner and hand painted plate.

In 1974, feminist artist Judy Chicago created an installation artwork called ‘The Dinner Party’.  Her ‘guest list’ included the names of more than 1000 women, with 39 ‘guests of honour’, including luminaries like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Woolf.
 
It’s now regarded as the first epic feminist artwork – a ‘true milestone celebration of women in history’.  

That work is now almost forty years old.  Chicago started thinking about it in the late 1960s, after noticing that ‘there were no women’s studies programs, no women in history courses, no seminaries teaching about the female principle in religion, and scarcely any women leading churches.’  She wanted to create a visual symbol ‘to end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record.’

How far we have come.  Unless, of course, you are a disabled woman. 

When it comes to feminism, we’re not at the table.  Two years ago, the experiences of disabled women were effectively erased when Destroy the Joint, a feminist group, actively excluded them from ‘the feminist table’.  

That was only a few years after disabled feminist Stella Young had called out the same group for omitting disability from Destroy the Joint’s ‘pledge’ - living with disability, Stella said, was nothing compared to living with exclusion. 

And here we are again. 

This time, we’d asked for another disabled woman to be included in Destroy the Joint’s line up of women who have experienced violence.  

It’s the story of an intellectually disabled teenager who was allegedly gang raped at the hands of three men, who have all pleaded not guilty to multiple sexual offences.  

Perpetrators of violence against intellectually disabled women are rarely convicted without ‘forensic evidence’, (including pregnancy) because disabled women are often badged as ‘unreliable witnesses’.

But in this case, a lack of forensic evidence doesn’t seem to be an issue.  The three men allegedly used a GoPro to film her rape. 

The young woman doesn’t remember the rape.  The three men say that it was ‘consensual’, but the footage shows her sleeping or moving slowly.  The men have to direct her to take her clothes off, to move, to sit up. 

‘Are you ready for the next one?’ says one man. 

 ‘Put it in, you slut cunt,’ says another.  

‘Next, next, next,’ says another.  ‘Just bend her over the bed.’

You’d think that the violent gang rape of a teenaged girl would be something Destroy the Joint would be interested in, given their stated mission to end violence against women.  But the page owners refused to share one of the dozens of links about this current story.  

Why?

Curiously, Destroy the Joint says they ‘can’t post about that’.  Their response is as follows;

‘Lawyers say we can't post about a court case while it is going on because of the risk of comments being in contempt of court. Writing a court report is different. Opening it up on a Facebook page until the court case is over is different. Please see this link.’

The link, which is about contempt of court, includes a paragraph about 'publications that prejudice the course of justice'. 

It’s not clear why DtJ have cited the possibility of contempt as a reason not to share a news article about violence, especially given that dozens of similar reports have been shared recently.   

Nor is it easy to understand why the group blocked the voices of disabled women from the sight of the general public – yet again. 

Why is reporting the rape of a disabled young woman any different from the hundreds of other posts that DtJ have made about abused women? 

‘A quick scan of (Destroy the Joint’s) Facebook posts tells you that almost every post they make involves a court case or an investigation,’ says disability activist Kelly Cox. 

‘That is certainly true when a woman is murdered and they add her to their counting dead woman list.  Why would this be any different?  Why are we so consistently erased?’

We’re not just dismissed from the guest list of mainstream feminism.  It’s not even that there’s no suitable dinner table conversation for we uppity cripples.  The treatment of disabled women by non-intersectional, crip-exclusionary feminist groups is characterised by othering, silencing and erasure. 

Erasure is what oppression and systemic ableism feeds off.  Last week was the first anniversary of the murder of nineteen disabled people - Japan's worst mass murder since World War II.  That included ten women, who were knifed as they slept by a man who wanted to euthanise the disabled.

Destroy the Joint’s response?

Like other mainstream feminist groups, not a word.  Not then, not now.
Their social media pages were filled with messages of solidarity for Paris, Orlando and Manchester.  

The dead women at Samagihara may as well never have existed.  

For you non intersectional crip-exclusionary feminists: disabled women are tired of having to push their way in to be seated next to non-disabled women. 

Look at what you’re doing.  Who you’re speaking for, and about. 

‘Whose stories are taught and told?
Whose suffering is recognised?
Whose dead are mourned?’

The table does not exclusively belong to you.  It belongs to disabled women, Aboriginal women, sex workers, trans women.  It belongs to Black women and women of colour and Muslim women and all other women who identify as women.  

It belongs to all the women who are plagued by the types of injustices that might not ring familiar to your privileged ear. 

It belongs to the women whose identities and issues have traditionally been drawn in pencil, ready to be erased at any moment.  

There are few Australian disability rights activists whose voices are amplified.  We are projected as insignificant shadows, passively acquiescing to non-disabled people who would speak for us and declare themselves the agents of our histories.  We need our voices to be heard at that same table - disabled women should be authoring our own narratives.

Perhaps we need to stop asking prettily.  Maybe we should be speaking up loudly, forcibly moving those traditional place settings aside and installing our own thirty nine ‘guests of honour’.  Our Stella Youngs and Donna Williams’ and Jane Rosengraves and Jax Jacki Browns.  

Disability politics are essential to feminist politics.  Non-disabled women must learn to understand intersectionality and feminist organisations must start addressing their failure to include us in mainstream feminism. 

It’s only then that we can stop being regarded as ‘other’ and start being regarded as women.

Comments

  1. Well said! all or nothing and considering the statistics of abuse against disabled women we need to show more support than ever. The longer it is swept under the carpet the longer it will keep happening.

    I'm so distraught by the fact the defence lawyer called for her evidence to be dismissed because she's an unreliable witness. This happens to people with disabilities all the time. It's why we are not heard. We don't understand so how can we be credible right?

    ReplyDelete

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