men, masculinities and gender politics

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Blackshirts stripped bare

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A group of Australian men's rights activists has been harassing and traumatising women and children. Gerry Orkin makes the link between the Blackshirts and Islamic sharia law.

Funtua, Nigeria. Melbourne, Australia. Miles apart, but not so different when it comes to some men's ideas about family values.

In Nigeria an Islamic sharia court recently rejected an appeal by a woman sentenced to death for bearing a child out of wedlock. The court ordered that Amina Lawal, 30, be stoned to death as punishment for this outrage against the sanctity of marriage, but delayed the execution until her child is weaned.

In Melbourne a men’s rights group with some sharia-like ideas of their own have also been in a punishing mood. Dressed in paramilitary uniforms and black masks, the Blackshirts men’s group meets outside the homes of recently separated women to throw some metaphorical stones of their own. In what is a traumatic experience for the women, the megaphone-wielding men broadcast extreme accusations of sexual misconduct and moral corruption against their victims, some of who have recently escaped from violent and abusive relationships.

This cowardly behaviour is intended to humiliate and shame women who have dared to leave unsatisfactory marriages. Not surprisingly it has drawn wide condemnation from neighbours, the Victorian State Attorney-General, Amanda Vanstone, the Commonwealth Minister for Family and Community Services, the courts and even other men’s groups who otherwise share the Blackshirts’ views.

There are striking similarities between the Blackshirts’ approach to women and that of the sharia courts. Under sharia law men can be found guilty of adultery only if they confess or there are witnesses to the act. Women however are automatically found guilty if they bear a child by a man who is not their husband (even, in some cases, if they have been raped). So a man who adulterously fathers a child can walk free from the same court in which the mother of the child is condemned to death.

The Blackshirts clearly share the sharia court’s enthusiasm for blaming and punishing women, but letting men off Scot-free. According to Blackshirts leader John Abbott, 90% of relationship breakdowns are caused by the “intrusion of strangers into their lives who more often than not are imposed upon the family by their mother” (sic).

This is nonsense. A 1999 Australian Institute of Family Studies study found that 20% of marriages broke down due to a spouse, male or female, having an affair. This compares with 21% of marriages that failed because of the husband's use of drugs or alcohol or his use of violence.

Men’s rights groups make other dubious claims in support of their arguments. These include complaints that women are financially advantaged by separation, that men are equally affected by domestic violence and that false allegations of abuse in family court cases are common and not the exception. Reputable research shows that each of these claims is false.

As well as claiming to defend the institution of marriage, the Blackshirts justify their behaviour as being in the best interests of children. However, while outcomes for children can be better in intact families, once marriages break down the evidence is that respectful and co-operative interactions between parents is the key determinant of good outcomes. Respectful and co-operative interactions do not include harassment, stalking and abuse.

As the community grapples with the high cost of relationship breakdown, men’s rights advocates can offer only punitive solutions designed to punish women who leave marriages or to prevent them from leaving in the first place.

Their suggestions include restricting access to domestic violence protection orders by raising the burden of proof to levels that would dissuade many victims from coming forward. They also want to reduce the level of child support and enforcement of shared residency, even in cases where high levels of conflict may endanger the children.

It’s time the Blackshirts realised that there is nothing sacred about a marriage that doesn’t work, whatever rituals, morals and traditions are foisted on it. The reality is that women are less likely to leave relationships in which each partner does a fair share of the income-producing, domestic and emotional work (including the care of children), where there is respect for individual and collective aspirations, where there is good communication and where there is no abuse. It’s not the sanctity of marriage that the Blackshirts seek to protect, but control of women who have rejected them as suitable life partners.

None of this is to ignore the high personal cost to many men of separation and divorce. Even feminist Eva Cox, one of the men's movement's biggest scary monsters, has acknowledged that women sometimes behave badly in family law cases; it is also the case that some men are subjected to false accusations of abuse. Poor health outcomes and levels of suicide among separated men also suggest the need for sensitive, respectful and accountable support services for men both before and after separation.

The end of any marriage means difficult changes for all family members. The Blackshirts would have Governments and state institutions act to protect and insulate men from this reality. For men concerned about the health of their marriages and families, a better approach is to consider what would make their partners want to stay in their relationships, for positive, life-enhancing and satisfying reasons. What might men do differently so that our relationships have the best chance of surviving and thriving, in our own interests and in the interests of our families?

This approach will pose some challenges for those who share the views and values of the Blackshirts, but it’s the best way of providing strong, nurturing and enduring families for Australian children.