Marlène Cummins: “It is time to break the silence”
After years of instability, the Aborigine Marlene Cummins has chosen to break her silence and tell her story. In Black Panther Woman, she retraces her path, her commitment to the Australian Black Panthers and the suffering that was silenced. Present at the FIFO festival, she accepted to talk to us about herself and, through her, to talk about the status of Aboriginal women in her country.
In the film, you demonstrate difficult living conditions for Aboriginal women; can you tell us about it?
The context should be recalled first of all. For us there was no colonisation, but an invasion. They tried to exterminate, assassinate and to poison us. Many Aboriginal men were assassinated or abused in front of their wife, in front of their families. It was very cruel, the idea was partly to show who the “boss” was. The women were treated as sexual objects. Some whites cut the hair of the little girls to suggest that they were boys who worked for them, but they were actually sexual objects.
Was this the context for you joining the Black Panthers in 1972?
It was a time of greater political awareness, of learning the law, a time when we learnt what it meant to be black. Several women joined the movement at the time.
In the end you suffered violence within the movement and you are not the only one. Why did you and other women remain silent?
We sacrificed ourselves for the general interest of the public. If we had denounced the physical and sexual violence, the police would have killed the Aboriginal men involved, politicians and the media would have immediately seized upon this affair to say ‘Look at what the Aborigines are doing, look at what they are’, they would have condemned the whole community. We had to protect the community. The media still regularly paint a very demeaning picture of Aborigines today. For them, women inevitably prostitute themselves and if the men are violent it is because it is in their culture. However white men are just as violent with their wives, there is nothing cultural about it. That is why we chose to keep quiet and then there was also the weight of the Aboriginal community which is very strong.”
Why was the voice of the Aboriginal women not heard?
That is still the case today. If you go to the police to denounce a rape, you will be told that it is your fault; that it is because you have drunk too much or because you are a prostitute. You are not considered a victim.
Do you regret this silence?
Yes, but you know, I still had to compromise to participate in the film scenario. I had no control. I couldn’t say everything; I had to make sacrifices again. I would like to make my own documentary in order to have free speech.
In the film, you show the damage caused by the violence amongst the female population. You show that the latter is more vulnerable to poverty, prostitution, dependency on alcohol and drugs, etc. You were even homeless.
Yes, it was very difficult. I am not a thief, but sometimes I had to steal to eat. I am not a prostitute, but sometimes I had to sell my body to survive. I went from hotel to hotel, because I didn’t know what to do or where to go. You drink because you are offered a glass and you end up being drunk. I had to fight against my gambling addiction too.
How did the Aboriginal community take the film?
Some activists from the Black Panther movement saw it and asked for my forgiveness. I cannot forgive.
What message did you want to pass on by telling your story?
I have not had access to education. My education is actually my experience in the face of violence, brutality and rape. It is time to break the silence. It is also time for the law and education system to take Aborigines into account. I often hear demands in Australia ‘Give us our land back!” but before talking about land, let’s treat women correctly, let’s start with humans. I do not want land, I do not want anything, I want to be respected. Let’s start by educating and protecting women, everywhere in the world.