Associate Professor Shawana Andrews
Cloaked in Strength: An exploration of Aboriginal mothers’ experiences of family violence and the role of cultural practice as a tool of engagement, resilience and resistance
Associate Professor Shawana Andrews graduated in 2021 and is Director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health.
The violence in the lives of Indigenous women globally has been sustained and perpetuated through generations of patriarchal and colonial subjugation. As a result, a growing and important discourse on Indigenous feminist thought explores the possibilities of Indigenous women’s polity, agency and gendered standpoint. In Australia, the nature of domestic and family violence (DFV) experienced by Aboriginal women is distinct and of urgent concern as rates rapidly increase. The Cloaked in Strength study seeks to examine the lived experience of DFV of urban Aboriginal women using an Indigenous women’s standpoint and an Aboriginal woman researcher’s subjectivity.
The study begins with a broad narrative review of the literature pertaining to DFV, Indigenous women and feminism, and cultural practice. A critical interpretive synthesis of the literature follows, enabling a deeper review of Indigenous mothering and DFV. The study engaged 17 Aboriginal mothers living in Melbourne through yarning interviews and a series of possum skin cloak workshops to consider their stories of DFV.
The research uses a possum skin cloaking methodology to frame its engagement with Aboriginal women. Cultural practices and their restoration as a process of healing and cultural continuity are under-researched as protective factors and important mechanisms to support Aboriginal women in the context of DFV. In Aboriginal communities across south-eastern Australia, possum skin cloaks were traditionally made in preparation for the birth of a baby, were inscribed with tribal lore, and imbued the wearer with cultural identity and place. Contemporary possum skin cloak making is grounded in renewal, belonging and cultural strength – all synonymous with healing in the context of DFV.
The findings are themed as Aboriginal women’s place, relationships, being and future in the context of DFV. They relate to the marginal positioning of Aboriginal women within the private and public spheres, in their communities and across society. Analysis of the interviews draws attention to the nature of Aboriginal women’s relationships and how structures of power impact their mothering and the obfuscation of accountability. The trauma of DFV is a feature of the findings, as are survival and hope.
Several significant areas of discussion emerge, including the perpetuation of silences, the relationality of Aboriginal women and the support they provide one another, and the agency Aboriginal women demonstrate that informs a self-represented counter-narrative. Methodological findings related to the possum skin cloaking highlight important considerations about DFV research with Aboriginal women. These are discussed in the contexts of authorising environments, and repositioning value, agency and resistance. They explore assumptions about Aboriginal women and their citizenship value and the ways in which Aboriginal women establish safety and self-representation in contexts of violence. Tenuous DFV theorisation and the silent locations of DFV discourses are detailed throughout the discussion.
An important conclusion is that DFV research is important to Aboriginal women. While Indigenous women’s feminisms vary around the world, they have a unifying feature that foregrounds Indigenous women’s gendered and cultural experiences of being in the world. Colonialism, inextricably shaped by patriarchy, uniquely positions Indigenous women worldwide in their resistance against violence. Empirical research, conducted appropriately, can un-silence Aboriginal women’s voices.
Professor Cathy Humphreys and Associate Professor Bridget Hamilton
School of Health Sciences, Department of Social Work