Yesterday, I spoke at the University of Toronto’s December 6th event of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. This event is held every year across the country to honour the 14 women who were killed in 1989 at L’École Polytechnique de Montréal. In addition to honouring the lives lost, this event is crucial in raising awareness on gender-based violence. We are reminded each year that the victims were killed simply because they were women.
Some of the investigations into the Monreal Massacre revealed that the gunman was reacting to more women being admitted into the school of engineering and he believed that feminism was to blame for more women taking up career paths that were traditionally taken up by men. The gunman believed that women were the reason his application to the school was rejected. He walked in with a gun, separated the women from the men and then specifically shot at the women, saying that he hates feminists.
Violence against women happens in various forms and it happens every day, in fact it happens every 60 seconds here in Canada (Canadian Women’s Foundation). However, I feel that we still have a very long way to go in understanding ‘violence against women’. The gunman’s violent reaction to women now taking up public space, something women have long and hard fought for over Canadian history, is an indication of how far we had not come as a Canadian society in 1989. Minister of Provincial Parliament Laurel Broten, who is responsible for women’s issues and who spoke before me at yesterday’s event, rightly pointed out that the term ‘violence against women’ was delayed in being used to explain the Montreal Massacre.
As a Muslim Canadian of Pakistani origin, I can relate this to my experience during the media reporting of the murder of Aqsa Parvez on December 10th 2007 in Mississauga, ON, Canada. This was a case where a father verbally and physically abused his daughter before he and his son killed her. As reports came in and the community started to talk about this horrific incident, I kept hearing discussions that seemed to circle around a few common explanations for the murder such as:
· it being a mere random incident not at all representative of the community or of Canada as a whole;
· this was just a case of a rebellious, disobedient and sexually out-of-control teenage daughter with a father who had reached his limits, or that;
· this had more to do with letting immigrants into Canada with their “barbaric practices”.
What I was waiting to hear and read was that the murder of Aqsa Parvez was yet another example of gender-based violence, a form of violence that has been happening in Canada since its inception. The lack of acknowledgment of this in 2010 is indicative that we as a Canadian society have far to go. Furthermore, the discourse surrounding the murder of Aqsa Parvez showed me that we were even more behind than I thought because now islamophobia, racism and sexism were now all woven together into the nice and neat package of a whole new phenomenon, “honour killing”.
So what has changed in the 20 years since the Montreal Massacre? Violence against women is still happening at alarming rates. Some of the statistics indicated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation are as follows:
- Half of Canadian women (51%) have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.
- One to two women are murdered by a current or former partner each week in Canada.
- Spousal violence makes up the single largest category of convictions involving violent offences in non-specialized adult courts in Canada over the five-year period 1997/98 to 2001/02. Over 90% of offenders were male.
- Physical and sexual abuse costs Canada over $4 billion each year (factoring into account social services, criminal justice, lost employment days and health care interventions).
- Violence against women occurs across all ethnic, racial, religious, age, social and economic groups. Some women are more vulnerable however, and are more likely to experience violence, including women with disabilities, geographically-isolated women, young women and Aboriginal women.
These are rates that some say make Canada sound like a developing country. Women’s shelters, human rights/ gender-equity support offices, and women’s counselling centres are all still getting call after call of women experiencing some form of gender-based abuse. Critics accused feminists of using the Montreal Massacre to further the cause of what we think of as “domestic violence” or to further an otherwise base-less feminist agenda. No, what happened at L’Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal was not “domestic violence” or “family violence”, but it was violence targeted at a specific group of people, solely based on their gender.
Violence against women continues to exist here in Canada in visible and invisible, subtle and overt, and at macro and micro levels. We need to expand our understanding of violence against women. We often think of it as only physical abuse commited by one person, often from an intimate partner, and we think it is interchangeable with the term “domestic violence”. However violence against women includes all the various forms of power and control over women that still exist, including familial, cultural, religious, social and economical. Many of these are used to create the fear of physical harm, to keep women depedent on men and ultimately to lock women into abusive life situations. Male violence against women can look like any of the following and this by no means is a comprehensive list:
· sexual molestation of girls by male authority figures
· financial abuse by a son against his elderly mother
· sexual harrasment by a coworker
· date rape
· forced sex by a male relative
· touching of a woman by medical staff when she is under anesthetics
· using derogatory language to decrease a woman’s self-worth and self-esteem
· jokes that make fun of women, insult a woman’s attire or body, make fun of violence against women, or any statements that validate that women somehow provoke violence
· bullying a woman into sex, into handing over money, or into doing anything that benefits the bully
· financial struggles within families being used as an excuse to get angry and abusive towards women
· religion being used as an excuse for the power and control over women
The term includes any act of abuse that is based on gender in which the male perpetrater utilizes the power imbalances that exist between men and women in our culture.
The social change of women being self-sufficient has been through the movement of women from the private to the public domain. This has been slow and difficult in this country and is a battle we are still fighting. Think of the women’s right to vote, women’s right to being recognized as a person under the law, women to not be defined as property of men, women being able to own property, women’s rights to education and to take up all careers. It took centuries to get here and we have barely scratched the surface of equity. There is still a lack of affordable housing, lack of affordable legal support, women still earn less than men and still do majority of the unpaid work at home, and not to mention all of the challenges that surround being a single mother. I will also add here that other forms of oppression such as racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia and so on, also act as barriers to women getting the help they need. These are all barriers we must address in order to provide women true options in the kinds of relationships they have with men.
Violence against women is wrong in any form, it is still happening in Canada, and it is an indication of a patriarchal culture. When we reduce violence against women to the mere doing of one man or to just the random act of a “crazy” person, or when we blame just one religion or one community, we are ignoring the problem. When we refuse to acknowledge the larger context of gender inequity, or of gender-based power imbalances in our culture that surround incidences of violence, then we are going backwards as a society. We must look at the broader understanding of the status of women, and that means all women, and we must address all of the surrounding barriers if we are going to make a significant dent in the very large numbers of women who are currently living with violence.
About the Author: Tahmena Bokhari is a college professor, social worker and social activist. She is a Canadian of Pakistani origin, Muslim and a feminist. She is seen here in this pic speaking out at a rally on violence against women earlier in the fall. For for information you can join her page of Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/TahmenaBokhari