A tale of two failed approaches to violence: that towards women and terrorism

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Structural and cultural change, rather than crime crackdown, is needed to end this trend of violence towards women.
Australia Criminal Law
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The fear of terrorism offences has played a prominent role in the Australian psyche since the early 2000s. And a complicated set of laws has since been enacted to combat a particular type of crime, and this bipartisan project has served to combat a violence that's never really played a role on this continent.

The UN recommended all nations pass laws criminalising terrorism in domestic law a week after the 2001 9/11 terror attacks in New York. This nation's response was given further impetus by the 2002 Bali Bombings, which killed 88 Australians. And the terror lawmaking bonanza continues to this day.

But at the turn of the century, there were significant crises of violence playing out within the Australian setting, which, while resulting in actual deaths on the ground, haven't been given the significant and far-reaching attention that a particular type of terrorism has been approach with.

The violences that have long played out in Australia include settler violence towards First Nations peoples, general white supremacist violence, which has only been labelled terrorism in recent years, and that of the violence men perpetrate against women, which has again risen to the fore.

And while recent events have retriggered the focus upon a particular type of terrorism that's linked to Islamic political causes overseas, misogynistic violence is playing out in the private and public spheres and periodic kneejerk tough-on-crime responses are failing to address its root causes.

Stark disparities in approach

The two recent public stabbing events in Sydney highlight the disparities in approaches: one involved the mass murder of six people in a shopping mall by a white Australian man, whom NSW police consider was targeting women, whilst a 16-year-old Muslim boy stabbed a priest in a church.

In a 26 April statement, the Alliance of Australian Muslims sets out the “differing treatments of two recent violent incidents”, which involved the rushed dismissal of targeted violence against women as “a mental health issue”, while a Muslim teen was labelled a terrorist in the same amount of time.

Joe Cauchi, the 40-year-old man of European descent who stabbed six people to death in a Bondi Mall, was known to have issues in regard to women. And despite a new form of ideological terror, the Incel movement, having played out in the Anglosphere over recent years, this was dismissed.

However, when it came to the nonfatal stabbing of a Christian priest by a Muslim boy in Sydney's west just two days later, the police conducted terror raids on the family homes of boys aged 14 to 17, with five arrested in relation to alleged terrorist thought crimes.

So, six Muslim teenagers are on remand over one instance of violence, and all are facing decades in gaol. 

Yet, no thought was given to a potential Incel issue, which is an ideology closely linked to white supremacy, and ASIO has repeatedly warned of a spike in far-right online terror networking of late.

The terror of Australian suburbia

Eleven women have been violently killed by men in April alone. This violence includes the death of five women at the hands of Cauchi. And Counting the Dead Women Australia outlines that 27 women have died as a result of misogynistic violence this year: double the toll this time last year.

And the optics involved in the responses to the recent stabbings serve to reinforce the underlying issues with our society's approaches to these forms of violence: a nonfatal, potentially religiously motivated stabbing requires an urgent response, while five dead women are all but overlooked.

“As a woman, I am furious that no matter where women live, work, run, shop or even walk, we are at risk of violence and harm,” said NSW Council for Civil Liberties president Lydia Shelly in a 29 April statement, which is widely shared sentiment amongst women in the community.

“From a young age, women are taught to moderate our behaviour and shrink ourselves in order to ‘be safe',” the lawyer made clear. “The risk of violence impacts our participation in public spaces and in public life. The onus should not be on women to stop being murdered.”

On Tuesday, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) released the latest findings from the National Homicide Monitoring Program over 2021 through to 2023, which outlines that intimate partner homicides have increased by 28 percent during this period.

But the fact remains that violence against women has always been endemic in the Australian setting, and while penalties against this sort of violence and stricter bail laws to prevent reoffending have been enacted, it seems that our society indoctrinates men to consider this behaviour acceptable.

And as has happened in the past, women from across the nation rallied last weekend to call for societal change.

That current PM Anthony Albanese actually attended the women's violence rally over the weekend is an improvement upon the approach taken by Canberra to these same protests the last time they were staged nationwide in 2021.

But the fact that our former prime minister Scott Morrison told parliament, just three years ago, that the women marching for justice were lucky they weren't “met with bullets” is a key example of how pervasive the acceptance and dismissal of violence towards women in the community actually is.

Structural and cultural change

The idea that structural and cultural change needs to be implemented, rather than crime crackdowns, in order to transform the casual level of permissiveness that our society bestows upon men who commit violence towards women, is nothing new.

As Shelly points out, recent laws and penalties introduced over the last six years have “not abated” the “rising rates of domestic violence” and this “will not be solved by kneejerk legislative responses”, including expanding police powers and bail restrictions under guise of “making women safer”.

In response to the recent alleged murder of Molly Ticehurst, however, the Minns government is now raising the idea of another tough-on-crime and bail crackdown, as the 28-year-old was killed by Daniel Billings, who was out on bail after committing extreme violence against his victim.

But former NSW Magistrate David Heilpern stressed to the ABC that the problem in this scenario is due to inexperienced court registrars, who aren't lawyers, making the call on whether bail should be applied to specific cases on occasions, and it's this system that needs an urgent review.

And Shelly agrees with Heilpern. The NSWCCL president insists that structural changes to the criminal justice system, like a review on registrars, and cultural changes to attitudes of men and boys in the community are what's needed to progress an end to violence against women.

Indeed, this sentiment was further echoed by Domestic Violence NSW chief executive Delia Donovan when she met with NSW premier Chris Minns last Friday.

The expert on violence against women told the premier that rather than a law and order crackdown, funding is needed to work with boys and men to prevent attitudes that result in violence towards women, which can be actioned in settings like schools, sporting clubs and grassroots organisations.

“Real investment is required,” Donovan set out in a 23 April statement. “We know that domestic and family violence is preventable. There is a clear and immediate need to invest in changing community attitudes and behaviours through community education and early intervention programs.”

“Addressing the drivers of gendered violence is key to stopping it before it starts,” the chief executive added. “The number of lives saved depends on the funding the NSW government is willing to commit to in its upcoming budget.”

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