Words and Silences: Aboriginal Women, Politics and Land

By Peggy Brock | Go to book overview

4
The silence and power
of women
DEBORAH BIRD ROSE

Silence can be powerful. It can also be a symptom of powerlessness. My purpose in this chapter is to examine two dimensions of silence: silence as an active voice, and as a passive condition. I take active silence to be characteristic of an Indigenous system of knowledge, as well as of religious and political life. Passive silence derives from the deployment of power to stifle or destroy people and their knowledge. This form of silence is thus characteristic of regimes of terror (Mackinnon, 1987), and is a principal tool in colonisation. As is well known, colonisation depends on erasure; the political economy of knowledge within which colonising practice is embedded generates the silence of the conquered. Where silence previously existed as an active voice, the practices that stifle and ultimately erase thus work a double damage: not only suppressing people's audible voices, but reconfiguring the meaning of their silences as well (Mackinnon, 1987).

The quality of silence expresses power relations; it is, of course, gendered. Generations of anthropologists, ethnographers, and untrained observers have recognised the existence in Australian Aboriginal culture of a domain of knowledge and action restricted to men and organised around gradations of initiation. The interior of this domain has long been

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