Menu Close

Carceral feminism and coercive control: when Indigenous women aren’t seen as ideal victims, witnesses or women

Shareena Clanton standing before Parliament House after a NAIDOC March
Indigenous women are insisting upon a broadening of policies that facilitate safety and justice for all women. James Ross/AAP

The SBS documentary series See What You Made Me Do aimed to spark a national conversation about criminalising coercive control. Instead it highlighted the stark power imbalances in conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous women.

She wasn’t being a good victim, she wasn’t standing there in the sheet dripping in blood and trying to control all this emotion that was going on with her […] she said I want my Dad, I want my Dad and they decided she couldn’t have her Dad. The two policeman, one woman and one man, they said that Tamica spat and they said, ‘That’s assault and you’re getting arrested.’

These were the words of Kathleen Pinkerton, a Widi woman from the Yamatji nation. Kathleen was describing the police treatment of her niece, Tamica Mullaley, who was a victim of domestic violence. Rather than being treated as a victim, the police treated her as an offender, which resulted in the most tragic of consequences for her baby Charlie.

The good victim

Tamica’s story was at the centre of episode two of the documentary series See What You Made Me Do, which is based on journalist Jess Hill’s book of the same name. SBS claims the documentary “is not just about making TV content, it’s about making change”.

Indeed, Hill’s aim to criminalise coercive control is part of a larger national agenda. It was the first priority set for the Queensland government’s recently established Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce.

The taskforce and documentary both call for a carceral solution to coercive control – coercive control refers to systemic domestic violence that operates through a matrix of subtle practices including surveillance, gaslighting, financial control, and fear of potential violence.

This plan for criminalising coercive control has been met with sustained critique from a range of Indigenous women academics, activists and frontline workers. They argue such a solution would result in more Indigenous women being imprisoned than protected.

These concerns are evidenced statistically, by the staggering increases in Indigenous female incarceration. They are also shown clearly in the story of Tamica herself, who was “misidentified” as an offender by the police (which included a female officer).

In the documentary, Tamica’s tragedy is used to make a case for extending police powers and consideration of female-only police stations. Yet, her story negates the case being made by demonstrating how police-based solutions will harm Indigenous women.

This has many rightfully questioning the function of Indigenous women’s trauma in narratives constructed by carceral feminists - those who see state institutions such as police and prisons as appropriate solutions to gender based violence.

A key point we raise is the failure of this approach to understand how the state itself perpetrates abuse and coercive control over Indigenous women.

The terms of reference of the Queensland government taskforce expressly state Indigenous women should be considered as “victims and offenders.” While Indigenous women and children may be positioned in public debate as victims to lever emotional support for carceral solutions, it is clear Indigenous women are already considered potential perpetrators by the taskforce meant to protect them.

Sadly, concerns raised by Indigenous women have fallen on the deaf ears of those who claim to care. Here, we see how Indigenous women make for neither good victims nor good witnesses.

Read more: No public outrage, no vigils: Australia's silence at violence against Indigenous women

The good witness

This was on display in Hill’s expert panel discussion that followed the airing of the final episode of See What You Made Me Do. Dr Hannah McGlade, a Noongar academic expert, lawyer and head of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, cogently challenged Hill’s call to criminalise coercive control.

McGlade spoke of the reality of Aboriginal people being over-policed. Hill responded by replying directly to McGlade about “what gives her heart and keeps her advocating for these laws” despite just having heard why they are deeply problematic. Later, she again responded to McGlade, telling her that actually Indigenous women advocate for the laws rejecting her claim that Aboriginal women are fearful of contacting police.

In bringing her expertise to the conversation, McGlade interrupts what was meant to be Hill’s conclusion from the three part documentary - that a “revolution” is required to save women, which includes criminalising coercive control. But the dynamics of the panel reflected the dynamics of the debate: where Indigenous women and female academics are not only not believed, but ignored and told they’re wrong.

Indigenous women, much like in Tamica’s case, are not deemed worthy of protection. In Queensland, nearly 50% of Indigenous women murdered in domestic violence contexts have previously been named by the state as perpetrators. We argue that Indigenous women are framed as a threat to be contained, whether they seek protection for themselves in domestic violence situations or for other Indigenous women in public debate.

The current dialogue around coercive control troubles white Australia’s limited understanding of who can commit violence against whom, and who can be a victim and who is a perpetrator.

Theorists such as Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire and Judith Butler, have examined who is grievable (the good victim) and who is believable (the good witness).

White Australia tends to see both white women and state agents like police as fundamentally good, and both are almost always deemed grieveable and believable.

Amy McQuire reminds us of the importance of recentering “the voice of the Black Witness”:

“Like the White Witness, the Black Witness also uses the language of war. While the White Witness uses it to stage an attack, the Black Witness will mount a defence, because it is not the White Witness’s war they want to talk about, it is the real war — the continuing resistance against an occupying force […]

While the White Witness thrives on accounts of the brutalisation of black bodies, most commonly of black women and children, the Black Witness pushes these same black women to the forefront — they are the ones with the megaphones in the centre of the Melbourne CBD — in the very heart of white, respectable space.”

When we listen to Indigenous women, it is clear they don’t necessarily want inclusion in the agendas of white women. They are insisting upon a broadening of policy development that ensures safety and justice for all women.

Indigenous women shine a light on a form of violence that carceral feminism continues to overlook. This violence is not only between the police officer (male or female) and Aboriginal women, but between the state and its citizens. It often manifests as exactly the kind of subtle entrapment Hill describes as coercive control - using isolation, surveillance, financial scrutiny, gaslighting, refusal of care and threats to children.

The problem with criminalising coercive control isn’t only a matter of poor design or of perception of deserving victims. The problem is it results in an extension of power by the state.

In Queensland, this extension of state authority justified using the same kind of framing of female trauma Hill uses in See What You Made Me Do. It follows other concerning expansions of police powers and resources in recent months.

Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Linda Burney on the treatment of Indigenous Women

The Good Women

In this moment, it is Indigenous women who are refusing to aid an already authoritative state accrue more power. There is little that is revolutionary about carceral feminism. Hill herself acknowledges her calls to criminalise coercive control aim “to reform the current domestic violence law”. Yet, such a reform serves to further entrench abusive power relationships against Indigenous women.

Gomeroi Kooma woman Ruby Wharton offers the revolutionary imagining required when she speaks of decarceration and Black deaths in custody:

it’s not about doing performative things within their system, but abolishing it […] we can’t demand incarceration of police when we are dying of the same system […] as long as we walk in love we will be able to seek justice.

From Wharton, we see the kind of care so desperately needed in this conversation - in which all people are afforded care. The refusal of carceral feminists to think about care in its most inclusive sense is a refusal to “walk in love” alongside Indigenous women. This is because they exercise their virtue on the basis of an authority afforded by a racial order that exists within Australia, which privileges them above Indigenous women.

Distinguished professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson in her seminal text Talkin’ Up To The White Woman some 20 years ago concluded:

the real challenge for white feminists is to theorise the relinquishment of power so that feminist practice can contribute to changing the racial order. Until this challenge is addressed, the subject position middle-class white woman will remain centred as a site of dominance. Indigenous women will continue to resist this dominance by talkin’ up, because the invisibility of unspeakable things requires them to be spoken.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 186,900 academics and researchers from 4,996 institutions.

Register now