11 Jul 2011, Comments (18)

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

Author: Helen

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 cultural 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 Hoyden About Town

Comments (18) »

  • hannah's dad says:


    May I recommend this [new] site?

  • Fine says:

    Great article, Helen.

  • Helen says:

    Thanks Fine and HD!
    HD, I believe that website’s started by Elspeth McInness who has written some posts on OLO & elsewhere. I haven’t checked out the site in detail but it does seem like a good resource. Thanks!

  • M-H says:

    Thanks Helen. Well said. Can’t be said too loud.

  • paul walter says:

    Yes, it’s a spirited thread starter.
    It does seem, for as long as I can remember, that men haven’t coped with the social changes that have come with changes to production and the economy.
    It’s almost as if we’ve come to see women as “castrating mothers”, rather than as collaborators and allies, but the simple fact is, western women don’t have to stay at home and raise ten kids while hubby grinds away in the local industrial sweat shop, as was the norm until a generation or two ago.
    If a relationship doesn’t work, women will do what my mum back in the sixties, after getting jack of a suffocating marriage to someone habituated to the old ways; go out and make their own bones.

  • Link says:

    Yes Paul of course she can, should and does go out and make her own bones (which seems a rather unfortunate turn of phrase given the post. But I digress.

    Women’s lives (and children’s to a lesser extent) relative across the socio-economic-ethno-global spectrum, i.e, pretty much everywhere, are just not considered as valuable as a man’s, by men and sometimes by women too. (The latter group which make for the real sticking point.)

    Even in my own small sphere as a privileged, ‘liberated’ female I have found myself hurt and incensed that once the relationship has hit the rocks, the ex cares not the slightest jot for my physical safety and will leave me to the hounds or dump me on the freeway in the middle of the night. (Neither of which has exactly happened, but may as well have). That I am an independent, autonomous, creative and brave soul who does not actually need a man (and this is probably where some of the infantile resentment about owning such a wife, i.e, one who does not need a man lies), I can and for the most part need to be able to, save myself.

    (most) Men the world over, need to grow the fuck up and stop competing with and trying to assert their stupid little dicks and egos over women.

  • Allie says:

    Brilliant post, as always. Seems strange saying that as a lurker, but nonetheless..

  • paul walter says:

    Link, I understand your robust reply to my comments- you know that across the world women and kids are being being exploited and subject to grievous living conditons both domestically and in the workplace and you don’t want people like me, in a more fortunate position, to forget that there are fearful problems on different levels for different oppressed groups across the world, currently studiously ignored by the people running things.
    You also want me to understand the trauma of the victims of violence and their suspicion of their tormentors and you know that even someone like me, with little better to go on than a few hidings from my dad or the school bully in the way of the experience of violence, should be able identify and cope with the fear and loathing of survivors.
    All I can say is, I’m not an especially violent person personally, altho my personal conditioning will have me react in certain ways in certain situations.
    But I won’t cop out on agency, it actually shames me when I read a newspaper article on violence or murder and think, how is it that we fail to protect our own from predators?
    If I had my way there’d be no more FGM, no more mass starvation in the third world, rape, no more wives or kids on the end of some drunks fist and a hundred other things.
    I think a lot of blokes feel as I do, but we don’t know where to start, we know these things are wrong, try to understand them and join women in protesting them, but the global system is an unwieldy beast both in the macro and at micro social levels.
    The carbon tax and refugees show, it is hard to gain consensus and cooperation even on the most obvious situations.
    It often seems the best we get for this is the occasional consolation of seeing folk like Murdoch, who would have a say in how things are run, knocked off their perches for their arrogance.

  • Helen says:

    I think a lot of blokes feel as I do, but we don’t know where to start, we know these things are wrong, try to understand them and join women in protesting them, but the global system is an unwieldy beast both in the macro and at micro social levels.

    Absolutely, Paul! That’s why I’m suspicious of people who think that there are clear solutions and we can march into Other Countries (various) and Impose Civilisation™ . I’m pretty certain that bombing their houses and markets and infrastructure are not that solution, but otherwise, it’s complex. It merits a whole other post some other time.

  • paul walter says:

    Thanks, Helen.

  • Link says:

    Paul, yes the world would be a far happier, healthier, saner place if more men had your POV.

    My robust reply was not intended in response to your comment in particular, save the first bit where my thoughts got hijacked by your use of what is an unusual turn of phrase.

  • paul walter says:

    Link, it was an odd term- “making you bones”, in American street slang, is very “decisive” stuff indeed, but my mum remains in a lofty place in my memory for her decisiveness and appetite for life and what she managed to acheive over the term of hers, off a low resource base and not a great abundance of opportunity.
    It just bubbled up and ended up on the page, I thought “that’s not exact”, but groaned at the thought of having to rewrite it.

  • […] Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony Helen talks about ‘honour’ killings in white, Christian societies: Australia’s Honour killings – In the end, they’re just as dead […]

  • paul walter says:

    Just looking at that photo, he looks Americanised.
    Is he a Marlboro man?
    Who knows what crap was inculcated into him when he was young, certainly nothing has really changed about media and its depictions of culture, for start.
    In fact so much of life seems to be in the Groundhog Day awakening that informs me I never left 1970 in the first place, they succeeded after all in stymieing the counter culture movement and keeping things in a permanent Brady Bunch warp where fantasy is the defining characteristic and denialism a virtue.

  • Helen says:

    Paul, I interpreted his dress sense as having been learned in prison, but you may be right.

  • paul walter says:

    He looks a right “cracker”, right out of “Mississipi Burning”. I wish I had read more closely first time around, much worse in the detail the situation for a second read. I can see why Link might have wondered if I’d missed the point a bit.
    No crime passionel, no “honour”, just premeditated long term coercion, sadism and thuggery. Eerrk.

  • Kath Lockett says:

    Brilliant post as always, Helen. I have nothing insightful to add because I always find myself reading your stuff and nodding!

  • Helen says:

    Thanks, Kath! Give Milly’s ears a scratch for me, won’t you.

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