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Australia’s Honour killings – In the end, they’re just as dead

Publication Date: 
July 11, 2011

James Ramage was released from prison last Friday, after only eight years following his conviction for strangling and bashing his wife, Julie, to death in their house and burying her in a shallow grave. The details of the case reveal a textbook case of a controlling, abusive spouse who killed his wife rather than let her leave.

One reason the Ramage case has been in the news so much is that it was the last time the defence of “provocation” was used in a court case in Victoria. That was the reason for the derisory sentence, and since the case exposed the enormous injustices flowing from that defence, the law was changed. The law moves slowly, but social mores change more slowly still.

The silencing argument that women of the Anglophone “Western Civilisation”, or whatever you would like to call it, are completely liberated, done and dusted, and have no business complaining about anything, has continued unabated lately. In such a cultual climate, a few people were rocked back on their heels when Phil Cleary and Julie Ramage’s sister Jane described her murder as an “honour” killing. But you know what? They’re right.

A couple of years ago I heard Germaine Greer reply to a question from the late Pamela Bone, as to why we (meaning anglophone “western” feminists) weren’t doing more to liberate our sisters in the Muslim world. Her answer was in two parts, and the first part was about our absence of standing in that world. The second part was that we haven’t yet cleaned up our own back yard. There is a pervasive myth in our “western” society that harsh and primitive crimes of misogyny only happen There, perpetrated by Them, those Others. Therefore, Western feminism is a hobby for genteel and well-off middle class women who enjoy perfect equality in their world. It’s false. Let’s not let them get away with it.

If Julie Ramage’s killing had been some kind of rare aberration it would still have spoken volumes about gender related violence in our society, but in fact it was just a very high-profile instance of a common and repeating pattern. Here’s the thing: Women are most at risk of being killed by an intimate partner when they have just left the relationship, or when they are planning to leave and the partner becomes aware of it. Think of the number of times you read “estranged husband / boyfriend / de facto husband” when you read about murder cases in the news.

Sure, there’s cultural differences aplenty between our anglocentric killings and the honour killings in other countries which we, rightly, deplore when we read about them. But they’re still about “honour”, a notion of honour which has been twisted and deformed by patriarchy until it looks like its opposite. Sure, the manifestations differ. Here in our more individualistic society we don’t have “but she can never get married now!” or “Shame on our family!” excuse. Instead, we have the “He just loved her too much!” “If I can’t have her, no-one can!” or some shit. But it’s the same thing, different continents; Control of women under patriarchal norms, whether it’s out and proud – as they are in the countries we finger-wag at – or flying below the radar, as in Australia, UK and US.

Instead of a ritualised, family mandated killing involving brothers or cousins or fathers – and how painful that betrayal must be to the victims – we have more individualised, but still family centred, killings where the betrayer is the person who has promised to love and cherish the woman; not the same in every detail, but still a horrible betrayal, the killing of a woman for a warped notion of “honour”. Not, here, the family-based “honour” but something more modern, the man’s ego or self worth. It’s the same thing, dressed in modern, individualistic clothes. Also, it hardly needs to be said, it involves the concept of the woman as property, which we’ve supposed to have left behind but which seems to just be thinly buried. As with everything else – our remotely controlled weapons, our Guantanamos and detention centres – we really excel, in the West, at disguising the aggressive impulses of our society to make our harms look more civilised or justified. In this case, we pretend that wife-killings are random acts of aggression rather than a repeating pattern.

This affects women of all classes, indigenous women, transwomen, up to and including women at the top of the income and status tree, like Julie Ramage. Privilege won’t save you here.

If Australians want to be smug about the fundamentalist fringes of Islam, we should take a harder look at the rising fundamentalism in the Christian churches in our society. Around the time the Victorian justice system was getting ready to release Ramage, it was jailing John McDonald for the murder of his wife, Marlene McDonald. Again, power and control was front and centre. Marlene had left the abusive relationship and was working at a truck stop north of Melbourne, where her husband believed she’d formed a new relationship with one of the customers. But it went further than that. “Ms Ritchie told the hearing McDonald had confided in her that she had been attacked by two masked men in her home one night but she knew they were her father and brother. “They both started punching and kicking her. The father was very religious and was saying over and over that she had sinned, that she had committed adultery … whilst her brother was calling her a slut and a whore,” she said in a statement tendered to the court. They continued dragging her by the hair to the laneway … when they got outside, her brother started using a baseball bat … She thought they were going to kill her.” She was right.

So, commenters on “western” blogs and news sites, let’s not pat ourselves smugly on the back and vilify feminists on the grounds that we’ve achieved absolute equality (I wish!), while they, over there, commit atrocities in the name of honour and therefore have to bear all the opprobrium. Our honour killings may appear different in detail from the ones those Others perpetrate, but in the end, the women are just as dead.