The Federation Press

A Fatal Conjunction

Two laws, two cultures

Overview

Why do Aboriginal women in Australia experience such high levels of violence in their own communities? In this considered and carefully researched book, Joan Kimm discusses the extent and nature of the violence, its underlying causes, current policies that deal with it, and changes that might improve these policies.

Her work covers:

  • the devastating legacy of European colonialism on Indigenous culture,
  • modern anthropological evidence about patriarchy and violence in traditional Aboriginal societies,
  • beliefs held by Aboriginals, particularly men, about their cultural heritage,
  • the impact of cultural heritage upon modern Indigenous society, and
  • changing judicial attitudes to sentencing Aboriginal men for violence to Aboriginal women, shifting from emphasis on the men’s cultural background to emphasis on the women’s rights as victims.

Kimm shows how this multi-faceted environment, particularly the interaction of two patriarchal laws, has had, and continues to have, very real destructive effects on Aboriginal women.

Kimm argues powerfully that Aboriginal women, like all women, like all humans, have the universal right to lives free of violence. She contends that current law, policy and practice place too much emphasis on their rights as Indigenous people and too little on their rights as women. A shift in emphasis will be an important first step to safer lives.

Reviews

Joan Kimm discusses the physical and sexual abuse of Aboriginal women and argues that they are now the victims of more violence than any other group in contemporary Australian society. She suggests that this is because they are caught between two patriarchal cultures and two laws, both of which regard women’s interests as secondary to those of men. ... Her case studies are wide-ranging ... Kimm’s examples clearly show that [courts’ taking account of Aboriginal customary law] is often disadvantageous for Aboriginal women who are caught between two patriarchal legal systems and cannot rely on getting justice from either. ... The Law Reform Commission has long argued that in situations of doubt the human rights of Aboriginal women should prevail. There are signs that many Aboriginal people are coming around to this viewpoint and, as Kimm says, it is they who must make the decision to change. The hope for the future lies with Aboriginal women taking control and choosing the way forward. Clearly, there is also a need for greater cultural awareness on the part of the police and judicary. This book provides useful material for discussion of the issues and points the way forward to improve the situation for Aboriginal women. - Anthropological Forum 16(1), March 2006

Joan Kimm’s A fatal conjunction is a nuanced and rational analysis of a cultural conundrum – abuse of Aboriginal women by men and the inadequacy of western jurisprudence to address the root causes of the phenomenon. The text inter-weaves cultural understanding, historical realism and sound legal reasoning in a manner appealing to a wide audience. A Fatal Conjunction is a well researched, carefully documented and closely nuanced treatment of the physical abuse of Aboriginal women. The arguments are well anchored in contemporary scholarship and research. In addition, the short and well-written chapters will appeal to a wide audience. This, however, is also a weakness because informed readers will need more discussion of these important issues. This minor criticism aside, A fatal conjunction is essential reading for historians, lawyers and a general public interested in Aboriginal issues. - Reviews in Australian Studies No 1, March 2006

In a short and relatively easy to read book [Kimm], a non-Indigenous woman, has opened a particular and public window on the violence that has been, and continues to be, experienced by Indigenous women. ... She firmly locates this violence within two key domains: a cultural domination of Indigenous men over Indigenous women, and a Western and patriarchal legal system that has perpetuated that domination. My own experience of these two domains is that they cannot be as simply reduced as Kimm proposes. ... What I found helpful (and also quite dispiriting) in this book is its litany of legal tragedy. Kimm moves across the decades of recent history and different state and territory boundaries to demonstrate a consistent, even systematic, pattern of legal ignorance, insensitivity and incompetence in relation to Indigenous women. ... Her book exposes, as it indicts, the Western legal system, especially as [largely] non-Indigenous men have administered it. It also discloses our inability, as non-Indigenous people, to seriously engage with, understand and respect the values that lie deeply within Indigenous society. The title of this book is powerfully suggestive. It points to the dire consequences that have resulted from the meeting of two laws and two cultures. However, by the end of the book we cannot more clearly identify the pathology of this violence than to conclude that its virulence comes from men, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. As a non-Indigenous male reader, I found the book disquieting and limiting, but also challenging.... - Brian McCoy, Eureka Street, December 2004

This is a terrifying book and so it should be. It opens a window that we prefer to keep closed; a window through which we can glimpse in horror at the extent and viciousness towards women within Aboriginal communities and families. Joan Kimm is meticulous and unflinching in setting out the routine patterns of traditional violence and abuse as dealt with by two sets of laws: traditional Aboriginal law and the law of the general population. ... If these descriptions are not terrifying enough, Kimm demonstrates how Australian courts have often given more weight to a defence of cultural or traditional behavour than to the suffering of the woman. ... While dispossession, alcohol abuse and poverty have all contributed to the plight of Aboriginal communities, Kimm demonstrates that violence against women is endemic and predates colonisation. She ends on a promising note that slowly the dimension of the problem is being recognised but, sadly, not fully addressed, especially by some men in the communities themselves. If, after reading this confronting book, a reader feels powerless to do anything to improve the plight of Aborginal women, the very least he or she could do is present a copy to state, territory and federal parliamentarians and keep asking why tolerate such a situation. Education is the most powerful tool available. - Ian Mathews, Unity, 17 September 2004

There is always a moral dilemma when writing about major problems inside minority cultures. How do you avoid joining the bigots who demonise minorities out of sheer prejudice? And how do you deal with problems experienced by minorities without sounding as though you are simply imposing a dubious set of values embraced by the majority? These are the issues which haunt Joan Kimm’s sensitive analysis of violence against women in Aboriginal communities. ... By any conventional measure, this is a deeply distressing book. The violence against Aboriginal women as described is horrendous. It is not all alcohol-related. Some of it, Kimm explains, is rooted in the nature of Aboriginal society. Other aspects of violence are products of European settlement, the degradation of Aboriginal men and the consequences of disrupting a non-urban lifestyle and moving people into urban areas. This is not an easy book to read, but Kimm has been rigorous and fair. Anyone wanting to understand a problem,likely to become a divisive political football over the next decade should read this book. - Bruce Elder, Sydney Morning Herald, 8-9 January 2005

Table of Contents

No safe places
Community silence and denial
A failure of the law
The oppression of being “civilized”
Violence to women in traditional society
Moral violence
The “promise”: customary law marriage
Rape
Different cosmologies
Yolgnu and Balanda
“What is truth?”
Cultural disintegration and violence
Reconciling rights in sentencing
Is anybody listening?

Notes/ Select Bibliography/ Table of Cases/ Index

Of interest...