We must understand violence against women and girls as on a continuum, meaning it is not enough to just not beat the women in your lives. But aside from physical violence, there are many other ways to exert power and control, and to silence and exclude. If you were ever excluded because of the colour of your skin, your accent, your non-Canadian education, or whatever reason, you know what it feels like. You would also know that sometimes it is very hard to put your finger on it and to put words to it, but you can certainly feel it and you know it exists. You may have felt powerless in your ability to change the circumstances, or felt that it was going way beyond your means to take the battle on, so you may have chosen to accept it and remain silent. You may have even reacted negatively and so the blame fell on you.
We have to ask as a community, are we doing enough to help lift women and girls to the highest levels possible? In Canada, we have not even reached the critical mass of women in our political structure required to make change; single mothers and elderly women are the largest groups in poverty; and women compared to men, on average, are paid less for the same work. There have even been recent cases of sexual assault against women officers within the RCMP. So it is clear that we have a long way to go in this country when it comes to gender equity. Women of colour, racialized women, and women who have been “othered” in any way have even greater challenges. Thus, within the Muslim community we certainly have our work cut out for us. This is tough work because it means we have to examine so many other parts of our culture, community, and society. Further to this, it means we have to challenge ourselves on our most inner beliefs.
Importantly, we have to work with men to make cultural and social shifts in their understandings of relationships with women, whether those relationships are with their mothers, sisters, wives or daughters. We have to consider, why do men feel the need to control the women in their lives? Where do men get this idea from? Why did Mr. Shafia and Mr. Parvez feel ashamed due to their daughters’ behaviours? Why did they feel their only option was to kill their daughters? The answer is more complex than just dismissing them as ‘abnormal’ bad apples that we could find the likes of in any culture. These murderers got the idea from somewhere. They didn’t randomly kill just anyone. They strategically killed their own daughters.
Patriarchy, although works-out better for men than for women for the most part, is limiting to men and damaging to everyone. Many men have been bullied throughout school because they did not display the appropriate normalized masculine image. Racialized men have been at even further risk due to additional qualifiers of masculinity related to how one speaks, how one looks, and any visible religious identifiers, or anything else that “others” them from the normalized image of a man defined by the dominant mainstream community. Many of these men learned that in order to survive, they too must become bullies. There are many male adult survivors walking around who have never appropriately addressed their own experiences of male violence. We also know that many men go on to repeat the cycles of abuse they have seen in their families as many abusers were victims themselves or were witnesses of abuse against their mothers. We also know that in many immigrant families, men feel devalued when they are not able to find suitable employment. They are told they do not have Canadian experience or are not the right ‘fit’ and they start to see and feel the patterns of exclusion. This puts a financial and emotional strain on the family and leads to many men taking back their power through the control of women and girls in their lives.
Some young men who have been bullied will say, “Well that’s just the way it is. Nothing I can do.” Or that, “Men suffer too, but men don’t talk about it like women do, it is just a part of life we all have to accept.” This is where we see patriarchy internalizing, which makes change next to impossible. This is the very mindset we must break. The truth is, social and cultural change is possible. History has proven this over and over again.
So how do we start with such work? What can you do? As individuals we have a lot more power than we realize. Here are a few simple things you can consider:
1. Make a conscious effort NOT to laugh along at sexist jokes or remarks.
2. Do not buy-in to woman-blaming or participate in gossiping about the lives of women.
3. Do not comment on a woman’s weight, body shape, skin shade, how she dresses, how old or young she looks, her marital status, or judge how “Muslim” she is.
4. Do not take customs and norms as static and unchangeable. Ask a lot of questions to get people’s minds thinking about the origins of their beliefs.
5. Do not judge women and girls for their choices, simply listen and support them to make the best choices for themselves.
6. Challenge sexist and patriarchal thinking, starting within yourself.
7. Make a personal commitment to learn about sexism and its impact on girls and women in your specific community or family.
8. Create dialogues and discussions with people in your community about women’s issues.
9. Ask your place of worship what they have done to address issues of violence (in its full range) as well as enhancing the status of women in the community.
10. Ask your local political leader and any community leader you may know what s/he has done to improve the lives of women and girls in your community.
11. If you are a man, learn about unearned male privilege and join the White Ribbon Campaign to become an ally in the fight against violence. This includes finding the courage to speak to other men in your life about attitudes towards women and girls.
12. If you are a woman, build connections and support networks with other women.
About the Author:
Tahmena Bokhari is a college professor, social worker and social activist who is both Canadian and Pakistani.