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Mothers of sin: Aboriginal women's perceptions of their identity and sexuality

Dudgeon, Patricia (2007) Mothers of sin: Aboriginal women's perceptions of their identity and sexuality. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is a critical study of Indigenous women’s perceptions of their identity and sexuality, using both autoethnographic and narrative analysis methods of inquiry from an anti colonial standpoint. The author engages with her own lived experiences as an Aboriginal woman, woven with interviews from other Aboriginal women from the Kimberley region of North West of Western Australia, to understand and describe how the processes of colonisation have shaped perceptions of gender and cultural identity. The study was restricted to a particular locale – the Kimberley region. There are major differences between the north and the south of the state: with different periods and processes of European settlement, the north being settled by Europeans much later and in a different way than the south and the north was considered a frontier until recently. Contact and relations with non-Europeans, such as Asian people, were also more intense in the North West. Discourse on Asian/Aboriginal relationships, specific cultural influences and shared racism and marginalisation have only recently entered the public arena. These heritages are also discussed in the thesis. Although perceptions of identity and gender are inexplicitly intertwined, Aboriginal women are seen to have suffered, and continue to suffer, more oppression than anyone else. Whether conceptualised as an additive model of oppression or a matrix of domination, it is apparent that Aboriginal women were victims of all aspects of the colonising project - the invasion of their lands, genocide, dispersal and relocation into reserves, missions or other western institutions. As well as physical and environmental loss, this process entailed changes in cultural practices. As women, sexism was imposed upon them. Despite the contestations about Aboriginal women’s status and roles in pre-contact times, there is no doubt that western perceptions of gender were also imposed upon Aboriginal people and these were particularly oppressive towards women. The culture of Aboriginal people was distorted and misrepresented as part of the colonizing project. However, the distortions of the roles of Aboriginal women constituted a separate issue because they were seen as slaves and chattels to Aboriginal men, of even lower status than their white women counterparts in their society. The oppressions that have and continue to confront Aboriginal women are unique to their group: Aboriginal women have suffered racism unlike white women; they have suffered sexism unlike Aboriginal men, and perceptions of their traditional roles have been distorted and fed back to them so that they began to believe that they were better off as women under the structures of western colonization. A fourth oppression of Aboriginal women was the commodifiction of their sexuality. As the frontier expanded, they were used for sexual services by white settlers, and yet conversely viewed with contempt in terms of their sexuality by their oppressors and by white society. The effects of these oppressions are still inscribed into Aboriginal women’s consciousness in contemporary times. Despite these oppressions, many Aboriginal women have maintained a strong sense of themselves and their sexuality. Aboriginal women appreciate those women who have a grounded sense of themselves as women.

Cultural survival and what I propose as an ‘Indigenous cultural renaissance’ of the last part of the 20th century, as a decolonising process and a reclamation and reconstruction of culture, is overviewed in this study. The struggle for survival and to be recognised as human, the reconstruction of Indigenous identity, and the struggle for Indigenous people to name themselves and their realities as a continuing concern, form the first part of this study. These changes and the historical, social, and political dynamics are mapped under and against the changes in modernity, post modernity and post colonial contexts. The specific characteristics of adaptation in the north such as the development and demise of social categories such as ‘coloured people’ for those of mixed heritage descent, is also overviewed as an adaptation to colonisation. I propose that changes are directly and indirectly discursively connected from local to national and global movements.

In the contemporary situation of Aboriginal women, the oppressions confronting them, relationships with Aboriginal men, White men and White women are considered. Despite ongoing challenges for equality, and due to the socio-historical factors, I conclude that in contemporary times Aboriginal women do not share the same access to social, political privileges as do their white women counterparts. A defining project for Indigenous people in the near future will be to continue to reclaim and reconstruct Indigenous cultures and identities. Gender roles and the status and position of Indigenous women will also continue to be a significant and somewhat separate part of the project.

In conclusion, this study explores and contextualises the lives of a small group of Aboriginal women from a particular region and background. The focus of this study moves from historical to contemporary times, from self and society to global changes. Of particular significance is the lived experience of the author and that of Indigenous women involved in this study, all of which has taken place during a time of unprecedented social change for both women and Indigenous people locally, nationally and globally.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Psychology
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Walker, Iain and Martins, Audrey
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