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

James Ramage released from Beechworth Prison. Source: The AGE

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.
Crossposted at the Cast Iron Balcony

Categories: crisis, gender & feminism, law & order, relationships, social justice, violence

Tags: ,

15 replies

  1. Our honour killings may appear different in detail from the ones those Others perpetrate, but in the end, the women are just as dead.

    Sadly, so true.
    Very worthwhile reminder of exactly how far we have failed to come in “The West”.

  2. The sad thing is you’re right, Helen. I recall a couple World Health Organization reports that stated America has the highest rate of spousal murders among Western industrialized countries, but the problem doesn’t seem to be rare in any Western nation.
    What are the causes? There seem to be many. Certainly regarding women as property is a significant one. I’d also suggest our cultures often teach us that other people are responsible for our feelings — especially in matters of intimacy. Maybe we don’t take that notion so far as to make women wrap themselves head to foot in volumes of clothing on the theory they are responsible for our sexual feelings, but we do seem to take it far enough that many of us are prone to believe our partners can force us to be miserable if, say, they fall out of love with us.

  3. The fear of loneliness and the rage of disappointment can account for some of that misery, but the big kicker seems to be the social mirror: the idea that if a relationship doesn’t last together-forever that there must be something wrong with us because that’s what society says, instead of it being more pragmatically accepted as a social reality that it’s actually quite rare for people to share a wide range of priorities/goals/dreams for more than five years, let alone ten, twenty or fifty.
    Women are socialised from an early age into being told that there’s a whole lot of things wrong with womanhood and what women want: do women tend to accept the blame for a relationship breakdown more stoically, because it’s just one more thing that we’re doing wrong, eh? Whereas men are socialised to expect to be the decision-makers, and to have the decision taken out of their hands can for some be too great a shock to the system?

  4. Tigtog, your point about men being socialized to be decision-makers strikes me as spot on. It puts me in mind of the shock I felt when my first wife left me. “Shock” is an overused word, but perhaps there is no better for the disbelief I felt over the fact I had no say in her decision. My expectations were greatly out of whack with reality.
    I also think you make another very valid point: Although many of us remain happy in a very long relationship, the divorce rates — among other things — seem to indicate that at least half of us do not. I think there’s even a theory in one of the evolutionary sciences that we might have evolved to practice serial monogamy, for the most part. Relationships of about five to seven years, followed by a new partner. I don’t know how well supported that theory is, though, but it does seem to have some plausibility.

  5. Every time I hear of another such killing I feel all of this in my gut, but haven’t had the chance to put together such a compelling and powerful, bang-on analysis. I am elated there’s someone out there telling this truth. I am printing your blog to use in my teaching.

  6. Thanks for this. I hadn’t thought about spousal abuse/murder this way before, but it really makes sense.

  7. Paul, that is interesting about the murder rate in the US; I couldn’t find any numbers but there are certainly plenty of reports and the dynamic seems to be similar in the US, UK and Australia. I think it’s difficult because, as with the DV stats, once someone is killed that gets amalgamated into the homicide stats. I’ll have a google for the WHO report, if you have a link to it already and could post it that would be great!
    TT – this: “Whereas men are socialised to expect to be the decision-makers, and to have the decision taken out of their hands can for some be too great a shock to the system.” Yes, this is the Western-style “honour” I’m positing – “loss of face” is another word for it.
    Grateful – What a lovely comment, thank you.

  8. Your article makes a poor argument. It is absolute arrogance that western “feminists” in the western world refuse to acknowledge the privilege of their birth and choose instead to claim that their society’s are just as violently oppressive or anywhere close to as violently oppressive as other cultures.
    As a foreign women who really did have to live with the pressures of arranged marriage and impossible barriers to divorce, the “pity us western gals” attitude you have disgusts me. There are 5000 honor killings in non western countries each year, vastly more than there are in the western world. These murders involve things like fathers burying daughters alive, chopping off noses etc. And what is worse is that unlike Australia, most of those murders are trivilized or ignored in total by law enforcement. It is perfectly santioned for male family owners to kill their female relatives whenever they want with no real fear of consequence.
    And it is worth pointing out that women like Julie end up in their situations in part because of their own choices. That was a man she chose to date and marry. The victims of real honor killings often never even have the choice to marry or not marry a violent husband. They are murdered even because of someone else spreading false rumors about them or because they are raped. And they are murdered by entire families and an entire society that conspires against them. In many parts of the Middle East I have been to, I see no women on the streets where there are many men. A world where women have no chance to make contacts outside the family that owns them is not comparable to the world Julie lived in. Mr. Ramage is identified as a person with a pathological sense of possession. Nearly every man in Yemen and Afghanistan feels the same level of possession that Ramage felt, but the difference is that there that sense is normal and proper and in Australia that sense is widely considered pathological and dangerous.
    Sure, Julie ended up just as dead as an honor killing victim. But there are far fewer such women in Australia, their victimizers go to jail and most importantly, no one sees the actions of John Ramage as a valid restoration of honor. In the Middle East, men that commit honor killings are congratulated for their bravery. Their was a case of a father parading his daughter’s head through the streets in Egypt as though it was something to be proud of- he must of had reason to believe others in the street would be proud of him. That’s why those are honor killings. Not only the murderers, but the whole society thinks the murder restores honor to the murderer. That is ultimately why Julie’s death is absolutely not an honor killing. It is not the western version of an honor killing. The western world thinks her murder was *shameful*

  9. Helen, the WHO report was cited by Jocelyn Elders, former Surgeon-General of the United States, in the foreword to a book by Judith Levine called, “Harmful to Minors”. I no longer have the book, so I don’t have the exact title of the report. If I recall, the report was from 2000. But I have since read of a more recent WHO report that found the US still led the Western world in spousal abuse and murder. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more than that for you to go on. When I tried to find the report on the net, I got swamped by other WHO reports and couldn’t find that specific one.

  10. Leona, did you not get the part where I stated (more than once) that the details of Western wife-killings and those in other countries, differ? How much more clear can I be?
    As for the victim-blaming of Julie Ramage and the reiteration of the old argument that Western women have equality done and dusted, which is the very thing disproved by events like these, I’m simply not wasting time on it.
    Julie Ramage, Marlene McDonald and all the others are dead. Dead. I hardly think, as they were slowly strangled, beaten, or whatever the chosen technique was, “Gosh, I’m so happy I’m a lucky Western woman who at least doesn’t have to undergo ritual killing like those others.”
    The idea that the West thinks those killings are shameful merits another post to itself, though. You can’t know much about our society if you don’t know that it is only very recently that these killings were considered shameful and that it is still common for the victim to be put on trial for being a bad wife, or a slut, or whatever. Police are reluctant to attend where a disturbance is “only a domestic”. And so on.
    “Honour” means different things. In your country it’s family and clan. In mine it’s an individualistic concept, ego, status. It still comes from the same deep, dark patriarchal river.

  11. @LeonaDante: Perhaps I misunderstood, but I didn’t take Helen as claiming the West was as violent towards women as other parts of the world. I understood her to be criticizing the popular Western attitude that we are generally above murdering our spouses — and that such events are increasingly rare. As such, I think she has a case.

  12. This is a terrific post – loved its clear-headed arguments, loved its reframing of tragic recent events. Thanks for posting it.

  13. I do agree that the hundreds of murders of spouses in the Western world are symptomatic for misogyny and a very patriarchic concept of the man being the owner of his wife hence ending up with the idea “if I can’t have her, noone will”.
    Still, honour killings for me have a different notion. They are performed not by him (husband, boyfriend…), but by her family. The concept of honour that is thought to be recovered is much less a man’s but a family’s. And I do believe that we need a totally different approach trying to prevent those cases.
    In muslim countries btw there are both concepts popular. And you’re absolutely right: They both leave women dead or mutilated and traumatized… Betrayed by those who should help to protect them.

  14. Really great post, this is something I think a lot about so it is wonderful to see someone writing so competently about the subject. Thank you!

  15. Still, honour killings for me have a different notion. They are performed not by him (husband, boyfriend…), but by her family. The concept of honour that is thought to be recovered is much less a man’s but a family’s. And I do believe that we need a totally different approach trying to prevent those cases.

    Yes Katja, I agree, see paragraphs 6 & 7.
    I agree there are a lot of different approaches needed to change patriarchal systems – perhaps many different approaches in each culture, even. The common thread I see here is that men and families have to not feel that they own women.

%d bloggers like this: