Law and the Girl: Genre, Gender and Violence in the Interpretation of Law

11 October 2018

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JSI Seminar Series:
Law and the Girl: Genre, Gender and Violence in the Interpretation of Law

Speaker: Dr Honni van Rijswijk, University of Technology

The figure of the child is a figure of crisis. Across national and international frameworks—from UN frameworks to national inquiries—the figure of the child has provided both the occasion and the justification for a number of law’s exceptional jurisdictions. This paper will begin by considering how the liberal legal imaginary has responded to the systemic removal of indigenous children in Canada and Australia, where recognition of “historical” harms was produced through transitional justice frameworks, testimonial processes, and national apologies. In these processes, the figure of the child attained a significant place in the juridico-political imagination—transitional justice processes such as these frame injury within the sentimental genre, even, in Robert Meister’s view, as ‘melodrama.’ Transitional justice and reconciliation narratives have the effect of aligning non-Aboriginal beneficiaries with the position of the bystander, rather than that of the perpetrator, thereby disguising the complicity of non-Aboriginal subjects in state acts that have caused (and continue to cause) suffering.

Honni van Rijswijk then shifts the critical emphasis from the figure of “the child” in the liberal imaginary to the figure of “the girl,” in the more radical imaginaries of Australian novelist Alexis Wright’s novel The Swan Book (2013) and in two graphic novels by Canadian writer A D Robertson, Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story (2015) and Will I See? (2016). She considers how the figure of the gendered child provides a subject position from which to resist and re-create juridical and political spaces—especially in the context of state forms of adjudication for sexual violence. In these representations, the girl is a liminal figure caught up in scenes of violence simultaneously defined as “extreme” and quotidian. Dr van Rijskijk reads the figure of the girl in Wright’s and Robertson’s novels as a means to re-contextualise “abused” and “disappeared” Aboriginal children within the frameworks of violent state law. The point of this mode of reading “the girl” is to deepen our understanding of the ways histories of colonialism inform the interpretation of contemporary scenes of sexual violence. Most significantly, gendering the child figure makes not only gender but race central to the critique and re-imagining of law, for, as Dr van Rijswijk will show, “the girl” is necessarily racialized.

This critical method means recognising that state law is not the only law operating through any one territory, at any one time. Rather, multiple legal systems co-exist as complex relations—some of which are recognised and met by the majority, most of which are not. In this way, Dr van Rijswijk’s critical analysis of imaginative literature initiates alternate modes of not only thinking about law, but also of constituting law and legal thought with the Aboriginal girl at its centre. She focuses on modes of indigenous law, feminist law, queer and anti-racist law—all laws that become legible in genres defined as “fiction,” in contrast to what she terms state law’s aggressive realism.

About the speaker

Dr Honni van Rijswijk is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Dr Honni van Rijswijk is a graduate of Sydney Law School and received her PhD from the University of Washington, where she was a Fellow in the Society of Scholars at the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Her research is interdisciplinary, and she writes primarily at the intersections of law, literature and critical theory. She has published on feminist theories of harm, formulations of responsibility in law and literature, the role of history in the common law, and on questions of justice relating to the Stolen Generations. Honni is currently writing a monograph, Law and the Girl: Gender, Genre, Violence, which argues for the centrality of the figure of the girl to emergent critical and cultural forms that challenge liberal law and social violence.


CPD Points: 1.5


Event details



Law and the Girl: Genre, Gender and Violence in the Interpretation of Law

Where Common Room, Level 4, New Law Building (F10), Eastern Avenue, Camperdown, University of Sydney When

11 October 2018


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