The Apartheid of Mainstream Feminism (or when is a woman not a woman?)

When is a woman not a woman? When she’s disabled, of course.

It’s been a sad week for women with disability who are battling for inclusion in feminist circles. But it’s nothing new.

In 2013, Stella Young wrote an article about ‘The Politics of Exclusion’, in which she recounted a story of her contact with Destroy the Joint, a feminist group who aims to make sure women are included in public participation.

Destroy the Joint had set up a website where people could take a pledge. It read, in part:

I want an Australia where girls and women, where men and boys, can take part in our society without enduring discrimination, sexism and violence.

I want an Australia where we respect each other; an Australia where no person experiences hate because of their gender, race, religion or sexuality.

And I will challenge anyone who uses sex, race, religion or sexual orientation to incite hatred or to demean or vilify any of us. I will not stand by and let others do so without speaking up.’

Stella thought that the omission of disability as a reason many people experience hate and exclusion is striking, so she raised it with the creators of the pledge. Disappointingly, they said, ‘we can’t include everything’.

It seems nothing has changed. Despite the fact that people with disability make up twenty percent of the population, and more than half of us are disabled women, it seems that we don’t rate a mention in the exclusionary world of mainstream feminism.

Next week, I will be at the White Flower Memorial with other board members of People with Disability Australia, where we will remember women, men and children who have died as a result of violence, neglect or abuse. There are hundreds of current stories about the abuse of disabled women – literally hundreds. Despite the fact that Destroy the Joint refused to include some women with disability who had died at the hands of others in their ‘Counting Dead Women’ project, I thought I’d ask them to share the White Flower Memorial event on their page. After all, we are also counting dead women. I received this (inboxed) response.

‘Destroy the Joint
Hi Samantha, thanks so much for your message. This is obviously a very important issue to bring attention to. Can I suggest posting it to disability activism pages? That may be the best way to raise awareness. Unfortunately we won’t be able to post this to our page as we have to stick to our remit closely, but we all wish you the best for raising awareness of this important cause. D49.’

I was confused. Aren’t dead disabled women – well, just women? When we’re murdered, we’re just as dead. I wrote back,

‘We’re not trying to raise awareness. We are holding a memorial service for dead disabled women.’

I thought I would reword the message to focus more on the gendered nature of violence against women. Then I went to post it, and it would not post. Then Facebook sent me this message. Destroy the Joint had reported the above message as ‘abusive’.

‘Your message couldn’t be sent because it includes content that other people on Facebook have reported as abusive.
If you think you’re seeing this by mistake, please let us know.’

I was blocked from further messaging.

Not just othering. Not just ignoring. Actual lateral violence by women against women, because somehow disability renders us genderless.

Counting dead women, unless you’re disabled.

So much for the fucking sisterhood.

I was stunned. I went over to look at their page and find out what kind of information DtJ considered more important than the counting of dead disabled women. They’d just posted a lighthearted ‘Buzzfeed’ post, where women were asked to contribute their experience of #beingawoman.

The Tweets included lighthearted and serious statements from women, including the following –

Rachel Wenitsky @RachelWenitsky
We should probably stop applauding men for marrying accomplished women as if they adopted a blind one-legged rescue dog

Siobhan Thompson @vornietom
BRB, teaching a flock of parrots to say “what if that character was a woman?” And then releasing them in Hollywood

Lily Karlin ✔ @lilykarlin
Ladies, never show panty lines!!!!!! It breaks the illusion that your pants are actually your skin!!!!!

The comments were so far removed from some of our experiences that I decided to post some #beingawoman posts from a disability perspective, some personal, some about dead disabled women.

‘My doctor told me to get a hysterectomy or change my tampon in my office because there was no accessible toilet nearby at my workplace #beingawoman’

‘Peta Doig was raped thousands of times in her lifetime in a WA institution before dying screaming – the WA Government refused to segregate her from aggressive male clients #beingawoman’

‘In 2011, it was reported that a major mental health service in Victoria had been covering up sexual assaults of its patients, that a 20 year old girl allegedly was sexually assaulted by a male nurse. She was told by staff not to tell anyone so it didn’t become ‘office gossip’. #beingawoman’

‘Young women with intellectual disability are routinely sterilised without their consent because of the ‘chance of rape’ or because ‘she may become distressed by the sight of blood’. This contravenes the Torture Convention #beingawoman’

Other women with disability joined in, including an Aboriginal woman with a disability.

‘when i lodged a complaint against a taxi company for racism and all the drivers assumed i had been sexually assaulted because that happens to lots of disabled women. taxi rape #beingawoman’

‘when people deny my sexuality because they think disabled people having sex is disgusting #beingawoman’

‘When people deny my womanhood and treat me like a child #beingawoman’

In social media circles, we would call this ‘engagement’

But instead, we received this comment.

Destroy the Joint Destroyers, please note that as always, repetitive, circular and off topic comments will be hidden in line with our commenting guidelines. Repeat offenders will be banned. D25

We were banned and our comments were deleted.

Another disabled woman, Carole Robinson, a UK activist, made this comment,

‘Hmmm…what would the reaction be if the buzzfeed post had said ’32 hilarious comments that only disabled women would understand’. Personally, I don’t think that would get a mention here.’

Her comment was promptly deleted. She was banned.

Destroy the Joint felt the need to justify banning disabled women and silencing their voices.

‘Regretfully, we did have to ban a couple of people who were repeatedly spamming this post and page with a large number of obvious half truths and distortions,’ they said.

‘Unfortunately, this meant their one main ontopic visitor post which was already seen by the page’s large readership was automatically deleted too. But when we give a warning to stop spamming repetitive comments, it’s a good idea to take notice. Sorry if any other Destroyers saw any of the other stuff. Feel free to carry on in the original spirit of the post! D25’

There we were. Other disabled women who posted something, anything, about disability and being excluded from discussions about feminism were promptly banned from commenting. Their comments were deleted.

Disabled abuse survivors also began posting on the wall in protest.

‘Three times I left and three times I was forced to return….forced by the agencies who were supposed to help me. Told the abuse was my fault and I should be grateful for the sacrifices my carer and his son gave up for me. And when I tried to complain about one of the dv agencies I ended up losing all supports and funding as the agency was affiliated with the ngo disability service provider I was under. Leaving me even worse off. And left much more traumatised as a result than I already was by the abuse at home.’

Dozens of messages from disabled women have been directed at Destroy The Joint – who have left a single ‘visitor’ post, neatly in the corner in the back room, mostly untouched. We’re allowed to have our space there, you see. Not over there at the desirable ‘disability activist’ space, but in the equivalent of a special school or a small congregate setting, where disabled women can remain unseen and unheard, excluded from the main conversation. No inclusion, but a respectful heartbeat of silence to allow ‘those people’ their space before going back to business as usual. Despite the murders, despite the abuse. Despite the fact that 90% of women with intellectual disability report being sexually abused in their lifetime.

We can count dead women, but not dead disabled women.

When we are murdered, it is not violence, because it may not be the type of violence you know and understand.

We are abused and murdered in places that you do not know about, in circumstances that you’re not familiar with.

But there is this.

We are still women, and we are just as raped, just as dead.

Next week, at the White Flower Memorial in Sydney, we march. We will call the names for dead women and others with disability who have died as a result of violence, neglect and abuse, especially those in institutional settings. We will place white flowers in memory of those who have had their lives taken, whilst elsewhere, the Senate Inquiry into Violence, Neglect and Abuse against People with Disability is tabled.

We call upon all women – not just disabled women – to join us in expressing solidarity for the thousands of women with disability who are abused every day. We call upon you to express anger towards the perpetrators and at the social conditions that disempower us, including exclusion, segregation and apartheid. We call upon you to fight with all your sisters against oppression and violence.

We are disabled women. But we are still women.

Image description: A sign reads ‘The divisional council of the Cape – White Area. By order Secretary. Die Afdelingraad van die kaap. Blanke Giebied’.