She Should Have Been Safe Here

Should she, though?  Really? New Zealand women are not safe, why would any other woman be?

It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not realistic.  Women in New Zealand are not safe because, although we care a bit, there are things we care about more.  In no particular order the ones that pop to mind are alcohol, rugby, and sex.  The list is not exhaustive.

In case you don’t know what I’m on about, recently a young English tourist was murdered by a man in a hotel in Auckland.  The Prime Minister made a public apology to her family, which included the statement, ‘she should have been safe here’.

What Ms Ardern did not say is this:  women are killed by men all the time here.  The English tourist, Grace Millane, wasn’t even the only one that week.  The other one didn’t get the personal attention of the PM, or vigils up and down the country, or her face on the front page of the paper, because for the purposes of – I don’t know, PR? – we were pretending that the death of the young tourist was shocking and unexpected and rare, rather than part of something so common that in general we don’t take much notice.  Also Miss Millane was young and pretty and rich and white, which always helps with the shock and sympathy factor.  It turns out that just as drunk girls alone at night in skimpy clothes are more rapeable, Māori beneficiaries in Northland or Flat Bush are more killable, so when someone who didn’t fit the ‘well I can’t say I’m surprised’ stereotype becomes a victim, we pay more attention.  Partly, I imagine, because it shakes our deluded belief that we’re safe as long as we don’t fit the ‘type’, and forces every woman to face the fact that it could happen to her, or her daughter or her sister or her yoga teacher or the girl that makes the great skinny frappuccinos at her favourite Ponsonby café.

We can talk all we like about how appalling it is, but there are things we value more than the safety of women, and we’re not willing to give them up.  Let’s talk about rugby.

Every time the All Blacks lose a match domestic violence spikes.  Men watch the game, drink, get all upset that their team didn’t score as many tries as the other team, go home and take it out on their partner and/or kids.  We know this.  It’s been true for a long time.  But what do we do about it?  Nothing.  What will we ever do about it?  Nothing, because in New Zealand culture, rugby is a higher priority than keeping women safe.  You can tell because of the amount of time that’s spent talking about the score compared to the amount spent talking about all the women who ended up in A&E afterwards.  When a big game comes along you can watch hours and hours of commentary and predictions and analysis and replays and whatever, over days and days, sometimes weeks, before and after the game, but in all of that there are numbers you won’t see a mention of: how many teeth were knocked out because of the result by men who couldn’t cope with the fact that someone else’s team put a ball over a white line more times than their team. How many black eyes there were.  How many broken bones, how many bleeding noses.

When I was in New Zealand and the country was gearing up for a World Cup match or whatever, I tended to keep quiet about the fact that I was picking the country I wanted to win not by where I live but by the relative population.  When the All Blacks play the Wallabies, for example, I want Australia to win, because they have the same binge-drinking rugby-worshiping culture as New Zealand but far more people, so overall a victory for them will mean more women get to keep their teeth.  Josh says this is a very cynical approach, but for me it comes into the category of once seen, can’t be unseen.  Once I know that this game-related violence is going on, how can I pretend that I care more about the ball-over-white-line business than I do about the women who are praying that either their man’s team wins or he drives into a ditch on the way home from the pub?

Unfortunately, this is a minority view.  The All Blacks could say right, lads, we’re not playing any more games until you’ve all shown us that you can go a year without disrespecting your ladies in any way at all.  Yeah, right, when Hell freezes over.  Or the t.v. channels could pledge to dedicate equal time to talking about the game, and talking about the effects.  They could report the final score and the current man-on-woman injury count in the same breath.  ‘Well, it’s a devastating 28-15 loss for the All Blacks, and we have reports of 35 men who’ve reacted by smashing their girlfriends’ faces, with more expected to come in later tonight.  Ritchie McCaw is being treated for a hamstring injury, and Mrs Angie Smith is in surgery to repair a fractured eye socket and cracked ribs inflicted by her husband Bruce, who loves the All Blacks winning more than he loves her.’

But no.  That’s never going to happen because as a nation we’re never going to do anything that might ruin our enjoyment of watching the rugby, not for any reason at all.

Look at the way we’ve forgiven Tony Veitch, the slimy little toad, and he’s not even a player, just a sports journalist, but the key word there is sports.  As it turns out you only have to be tangentially associated with rugby to get a free pass on the whole beating up your woman thing.  Back in 2006, at the end of a violent and abusive relationship, he broke his ex-partner’s back in four places.  Then he left her there on the floor and went to bed.  All wore out, poor boy.  In the morning, still refusing to call an ambulance, he put her in his car – and given that she had a broken back and had been on the floor for hours, you can only hope she passed out early on in the process – and took her to hospital and left.

This was clearly not a one-off.  Also, it’s not a man getting angry and losing his temper.  When you lose your temper you punch someone.  Leaving someone paralysed on the ground for hours while you’re all warm and comfy in bed is cold, vicious, brutal,  a slightly more sociopathic kettle of fish.  Then there’s the series of ‘poor me’ articles and interviews he’s published over the years since, detailing his hard work at getting his life and happiness back after that tough time.  He was sentenced to nine months’ supervision, 300 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine.  So to be fair, he had a lot to get over.  It must have been awful for him.

But it’s all fine now, so don’t worry! He got his job back, plenty of great career opportunities, some other poor woman incomprehensibly married him, and it’s all golden again for Tony Veitch!  Yes!  Whenever I see his name in the paper, I get a vision of a woman on the hard ground for hours with a broken back, but clearly that’s just me.  I mean, okay, people are entitled to a life after doing something bad, they are allowed second chances, yada yada yada.  But this man has spent the last ten years victim-blaming, avoiding taking responsibility, and generally being an asshole, and we’ve made him into a highly-paid celebrity.  Because he’s a rich white pretty-boy, but also, because he talks about sports and we really, really care about that.

Another aspect of Kiwi life that we hold very dear is the right – obligation, really – to binge drink and regularly get so drunk that we can’t keep ourselves safe, let alone anyone else.  We know that alcohol is a huge contributor to all types of violent crime.  It doesn’t cause assaults, rapes, or murders, but it makes them more likely to happen under certain circumstances.  If people stopped getting out-of-control drunk, women would be safer.

We do a fair bit of hand-wringing about this, but nothing much else, because when you get down to it, lots of people love alcohol, and plenty of Kiwis love their alcohol more than they love their women.  So, what to do?  I have no idea.  We could stop selling so much alcohol, but that’s up there with giving up rugby in the ‘cold day in Hell’ stakes.  It seems to me as though a woman’s right to not be killed overrides anyone else’s right to drink themselves into oblivion, but again, minority view.

Countries with better gender equality have less gender-related violence.  Scandinavian countries are the ones to emulate, apparently.  In cultures where women are respected rather than controlled, they are safer.  Obviously changing a whole cultural expectation is really, really hard.  I have no idea whether it can be done.  Culture is complicated, the causes of violence are many.  You can point to poverty, alienation, disadvantage, entitlement, mental illness, personality disorder, addiction, any number of things.  I’m not saying that rugby or alcohol are inherently bad things, they’re just two obvious fundamental pillars of Kiwi culture that certainly don’t help the cause.  What I am saying is, I don’t think we’re looking at ourselves as a country hard enough.  Until we do, women will continue to be expendable, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.



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