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October 18, 2017

#MeToo


As I scroll my timelines and see the sheer magnitude of #MeToo posts, I am shocked and saddened – even women who don’t usually participate in the online feminist conversation are posting the hash tag, some with harrowing stories, others just a simple declaration, still others with a laundry list of humiliations endured over a lifetime.

But there is no need for my shock. I know. We know. We whisper. We talk about who to avoid in our social circles, whether that’s the Hollywood scene, the arts and cultural scene in Toronto, the anarchist movement in Halifax, our student council, the management team at work – we all know, and we all know we’re not alone.

But we’re made to feel as though we are. We individually take note of who not to be alone with. Silently pity those who fail to heed or were not warned sufficiently, those who think they are above being treated that way only to be proven sorely mistaken. We cast our eyes away with the thought, ‘Thank god it wasn’t me.’ Don’t care to finish, but it comes automatically: ‘This time.’ We talk about and we know and we catalogue more open secrets than we care to acknowledge – and we fail to hold the men in our lives to account.

I’m not mad at women. I’m mad that this is the only recourse we have – trading on our pain, when oftentimes we’ve already laid it bare to those men and women who claim to love us, only to be asked, “Are you sure?” and told “It’s not that bad. At least you weren’t really assaulted,” because we were assaulted by a boyfriend, a friend, an acquaintance, a boss or a colleague, not some unknown monster lurking in the shadows of the night. Sure, we were smart enough not to traverse that back alley. But not quite smart enough to not send mixed signals, to not smile, to not want a career or education or something better.

Why is it so hard for these men we love and cherish to realize these are real assaults, too? Because they sound too much like something they have done? Mistakes they have made, miscommunications they have experienced with their own girlfriends, wives, and colleagues? Is that why even some women in our lives can’t possibly recognize what their lover, husband, father, brother has done or been accused of doing is harassment, abuse, assault, rape? Our collective imagination tells us only the boogeymen do such horrendous things, when stats and facts tell us it’s actually the men who live in our own homes.

My husband, my brother, my father, that guy I went to high school with who seemed cool and nice – How many #MeToo’s do they own? It’s far time we shift away from revelations – and focus on asking the men in our lives to step up and own the #MeToo’s that belong to them. Demanding the men in our lives to step up and acknowledge that what they maybe-if-we’re-being-generous thought was a game – life is defined by the battle of the sexes, is it not? – was actually a trauma inflicted upon someone else, for their own pitiful gain.

It is only a collective of individuals that can change this tide. Institutions and social circles cannot roust these attitudes alone – colleges, Hollywood, sports associations, political parties – do not exist in a vacuum. The answer is in how we raise our children, how we place value on people as though they’re commodities, how we teach girls to not make a scene, how we teach boys they’re entitled to a girl’s time and attention and body. And it’s so much more. Until we start demolishing our ideas about men vs. women and rebuild our ideas of what a person – what each and every person – is from the ground up, the majority of women (if not all) will have a reason to say #MeToo.

September 1, 2017

Femantics: Domestic Violence by Any Other Name


The term “honour killing” gets used liberally in Western media to describe domestic violence perpetrated in Western countries by men against women, but only when the perpetrator and victim are from particular regions or cultural groups – generally Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and South Asia.

Western media outlets seemingly plucked the phrase wholesale from the contemporary honour-based cultures where it originated, lending its use a veneer of legitimacy – indeed, if this is what it is called “over there,” then accuracy dictates that is what we should call it “here.” But if we unpack what the term “honour killing” truly means, is there any tangible difference between it and other cases of domestic violence perpetrated here, by people from any other background? Is there actual harm in using this term within the Western context?

Contemporary honour-based cultures (this paragraph and the one that follows explaining “honour cultures” is very facile for the purposes of this article, to give the reader an idea of the concept; it is not meant as a nuanced exploration of the topic) have largely grown from nomadic communities, where tenuous property and personal rights necessitate the cultivation of a strong familial unit (strength in numbers), as well as a fierce reputation for retribution (using that strength as protection against the lack of codified law). As the familial unit is strictly formed along patrilineal lines, it is the duty of the men to actively create that honour – first by defending their father’s property and then their own, partly by producing their own sons to continue the cycle.

While the men are actively producing honour by producing sons and providing protection through violence, women can only tarnish a family’s honour, most usually through her sexual activity. Fertility and reproduction are key to honour-based cultures – they’re the only ways to continue the line, accruing more honour and maintaining the family’s social position. Because everyone who falls under the patriarch of a family – women and children – are seen as his chattel property, each female family member’s reproductive potential is the patriarch’s property, too. As the male family members must also reproduce in order to continue the line, homosexual men are often the victims of honour-killings, as well.

So, when the patriarch’s rights over that reproductive potential are threatened – either by his female family member asserting her sexual autonomy or by outsider male(s) who sexually attack her – the family’s honour is tarnished, and the only way to restore that honour and erase the social stigma against them in the community is to remove the source of the stain by violent retribution. This can be achieved by attacking the woman (for example, with acid or more sexual violence) or by killing her outright.

Within these cultures, this honour system and the attitudes it breeds about women and their sexuality are arguably the seat of all domestic violence – making domestic violence synonymous with “honour killings” within these communities. Feminist movements from within these cultures have brought increasing attention to the issue in order to educate individuals and communities to eradicate the practice. Calling it out by name in these places is empowering and encourages people to challenge the ideology behind it, leading to fundamental changes from within the culture.

The use of the phrase “honour killing” by the Western media, about cases that take place in Western countries, however, is problematic, and should be at least approached with a greater critical eye, if not discontinued altogether. The use of this term is, at worst, complicity with the ideology outlined above, and at best, disingenuous – not unlike the use of the term “Islamic terrorist.”

By importing the term wholesale without critical reflection, the media legitimizes the concepts on which the ideology is based and tacitly agrees with the terms necessary to classify an incident of domestic abuse as an “honour-killing” – that a woman’s worth is only in her reproductive and child-rearing abilities, that a woman’s worth belongs to a man, therefore their reproductive (and sexual) lives belong to a man, that a woman honours her family by spending her worth appropriately, and that a woman violating that worth by expressing sexual autonomy is so shameful she deserves to die.

But does Western media believe this is true of any women, even those from these cultures? Probably not. That is why the use of the term in disingenuous. Media are painting a portrait that all people of these “other” cultures believe and practice this, in juxtaposition to our civilized society. In this way, the term serves to reinforce racism, downplay the failings of our own social systems, and attempt to hide the wider domestic violence problem in the West by “othering” both perpetrators and victims of high-profile cases like the Shafia case here in Canada – thus allowing us to unashamedly shirk our responsibility for the domestic violence perpetrated here in Canada against women of differing nationalities and cultural backgrounds.

The Shafia case involved four women (three sisters and their father’s first wife) killed by their family for tarnishing the family’s honour. The young sisters were seen as being “too Westernized,” evidenced by their choice of clothes and romantic relationships by their killers. Their father’s first wife was killed for being infertile, the same reason why the Shafia patriarch chose to marry a second time.

It was widely reported at the time of the crime and during the subsequent trial that the young women had sought help, contacting Child Protective Services and the police to report ongoing abuse in their home. They reported to teachers and others, begging them to intervene. Yet nothing was done to protect them.

At the same time, there was very little reporting on the wider domestic violence epidemic in Canada, furthering the idea that these things don’t happen to “Canadian” women and children (and not to men at all). This is an active erasure of the 760,000 Canadians who reported experiencing conflict, abuse, or violence by an intimate partner within the last 5 years, as well as the one-third of all Canadians who reported experiencing abuse before the age of 15.

The media’s focus on this particular “honour-killing” case also hid the fact that an average of 172 homicides are committed every year in Canada by a family member; yet these cases barely cause a blip on the media radar of even their own local media, let alone the national and international stage. This further reinforces the racist attitude that only members of certain cultures commit such horrific crimes.

Use of this term is useful in the cultures where it comes from, as it names a common practice that people are working tirelessly to eradicate. It shines a light, as it simply means “domestic violence” within those communities. But here, it does the opposite – it shrouds the issue of domestic violence in the mysterious darkness of the “other,” concealing our collective responsibility in violence perpetrated against women who live in the West. Domestic violence affects women of all backgrounds, and the only shame in these cases is ours, for failing these women.

July 25, 2017

That Darn 'Contraception is Abortion' Loophole

Lately, Missouri is really living up to its nickname, ‘the show-me state’ – as in, ‘show me your medical records if you want to work or live on your own and happen to be a woman.’

In February 2017, St. Louis city council passed Ordinance 70459, a bill protecting women from discrimination based on their reproductive health decisions. This update to the city’s existing anti-discrimination ordinance offered specific protection to women who have had abortions, use contraception, or who are pregnant from being denied employment or housing for those reasons.

St. Louis Alderman Megan Green sponsored the bill because she felt women needed protection at the local level, as the current Republican state government has shown a penchant for restricting women’s reproductive rights. Republican Governor Eric Greitens reportedly stated that the St. Louis ordinance turned the area into “an abortion sanctuary city,” proving Green’s logic frighteningly correct. Not even she could have predicted the run-around state politicians would concoct to stop the city from asserting this law, however.

In response, the Republican-dominated Missouri Senate and House extended their spring sessions into the summer in order to pass SB 5 – a bill intended to impose stricter regulations on abortion providers and add protections for ‘pregnancy centers.’ Passed by the Senate on June 14, it went on to be expanded by the House before they passed it June 20, sending it back to the Senate. They were expected to pass it sometime the next week; however, I have not been able to find confirmation as to whether it passed or not (if you have a link, please send it along!).

Among the several provisions added by the House, there’s this particular gem of a clause:

188.125 4. A political subdivision of this state is preempted from enacting, adopting, maintaining, or enforcing any order, ordinance, rule, regulation, policy, or other similar measure that has the purpose or effect of requiring a person to directly or indirectly participate in abortion if such participation is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of such person.

Thus, if SB 5 passes, the St. Louis ordinance will be null and void, and all other local governments in Missouri will be barred from enacting protections for women to make their own reproductive decisions without fear of retaliation by… just anyone. For all their talk about small-government, the Republicans sure do like to impose their influence from the top down.

At first glance, this clause may not look dangerous; I mean, it sounds like it would really only apply to those in the medical field who may have to actively participate in an abortion, or businesses that abortion clinics may approach for services. However, many religious people – including members of the internationally powerful Catholic Church and members of the politically-powerful Christian fundamentalist movement in the United Statesconsider using contraception a form of abortion; or, at least, as sinful as having one, stemming from the belief that all sex should be for procreation only.

This leaves open a loophole for discrimination against women using contraception not only by employers and landlords, but anyone who may have to interact with a woman. By employing, housing, or otherwise dealing with or supporting a woman while she’s using contraception, they would be indirectly participating in ongoing, continuous abortions.

Considering the Guttmacher Institute reports that 99% of all sexually active women in the United States have ever used contraception, and that 62% of all women between the ages of 15 and 44 years old currently use some form of it, this law has the potential to impact a significant portion of the Missourian population, directly or indirectly – regardless of their religiosity. According to Guttmacher, 99% of Catholic and Protestant women who have had sex have used a form of contraception, the same overwhelming proportion as the general population.

Planned Parenthood estimated in 2012 that at least 700,000 Missouri women were on birth control. Many of these women were given prescriptions to not (only) avoid pregnancy, but as treatment for a variety of health issues. While some feel those who use hormonal birth control will be exempt from discrimination because they’re not using it to prevent pregnancy, I doubt those looking to express their religious rights as defined above would split such hairs – especially considering the attitudes expressed above are so intertwined with the belief that women are manipulative liars: even if she claims it’s just for endometriosis, you can’t be sure that’s the truth, and since it will prevent pregnancy if she does have sex, better punish her just in case.

And that is what is at the crux of this law and all abortion-restricting laws – the belief that a woman should be punished for having sex, especially sex for the sake of pleasure and not procreation. While Republicans insist the bill is about regulating abortion providers and protecting pro-life pregnancy centres (a whole topic of its own), the wording is vague enough to allow for legal challenges based on the belief that contraception is a form of abortion – especially in the “post-fact” era, where arguments are successfully made that personally-held convictions are just as important as the facts of a case.

SB 5 should be enough to give every Missourian woman pause about how much their state representatives have shown they care about women’s well being.

‘Show-me’ state, indeed.

Ireland's Equality Paradox

It may be tempting to celebrate Leo Varadkar’s confirmation as Ireland’s new Prime Minister: he’s openly gay, the son of an Indian immigrant, and young – a veritable dream trifecta of equality and inclusion in politics for any social justice warrior.

But as his historical coming to power unfolds, a report in the most recent publication by the Child Care Law Reporting Project has come to the fore of national and international discussion, throwing doubt on Ireland’s newfound claim to political and social egalitarianism. It tells the harrowing story of a young teenage woman who requested an abortion and believed she was going to receive one, but found herself involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward by her psychiatrist under the Mental Health Act instead.

The young woman had informed her psychiatrist that her unplanned pregnancy was making her depressed and suicidal. The mental health practitioner did not agree that terminating the pregnancy was the best way to treat the young woman, instead reporting her as having a mental health disorder under Section 25 of the Mental Health Act.

The Abortion Rights Campaign was just one of several women’s and pro-choice advocacy groups to question the medical practitioner’s motives. Spokesperson Linda Kavanagh commented to the Irish Mirror, “Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs.”

Once detained, the young woman met with hospital and court-appointed psychiatrists, both of whom found that, while she was depressed, she did not suffer from a psychological disorder and should not be held. The court agreed and discharged the order, releasing the young woman from the hospital’s custody. The report does not elaborate as to whether she ultimately received the treatment she was seeking.

This is particularly disturbing, as it not only highlights the draconian restrictions on abortion in Ireland – they are only legal if the mother’s life is in immediate physical danger – but it seems to fly in the face of a 2013 amendment which added  ‘risk of loss of life from suicide’ as the third scenario when abortions may be permitted. This amendment followed the Ms. Y case, where a pregnant woman went on hunger strike after being denied an abortion, and was subsequently force-fed by court order. Ms. Y was seeking the abortion after becoming pregnant from a rape and falling into a suicidal depression. Ms. Kavanagh called the parallels between these two cases “alarming.”

Not only did the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act supposedly enshrine a woman’s right to an abortion if her mental health is threatened by a pregnancy, but it’s meant to protect women against health practitioners that do not agree with abortion. Subsection 17 of the act states: “A person who has a conscientious objection referred to in subsection (1) shall make such arrangements for the transfer of care of the pregnant woman concerned as may be necessary to enable the woman to avail of the medical procedure concerned.”

Although this seems to suggest the psychiatrist in this case acted illegally, there has been little to no discussion of this in the surrounding conversation. Indeed, it appears Irish women may not even be aware they have the right to a transfer of care, and there appears to be no systems in place to ensure they know their rights and how to act upon them. As Ms. Kavanagh stated to the Irish Mirror, “It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”

So as this new era is ushered into Ireland, it’s hard not to feel as though the new sense of equality is still only available to a select few – namely, men. To his credit, Varadkar has promised a referendum on abortion access. However, this comes across as merely paying lip service to women’s bodily autonomy (pun intended), as Irish attitudes still seem to favour only allowing abortions in cases where the mother’s life or the life of the fetus is in danger.

For example, an October 2016 Irish Times/Iposos MRBI poll found that only 19% of the Irish population agreed that abortions should be provided in all cases requested. A January 2016 Newstalk/Red C poll showed slightly more promising results, with 41% of voters reporting that abortions should be available in any circumstances a pregnant woman felt necessary; however, this estimate still falls short of the necessary majority to pass a legally-binding measure.

So while some communities and their allies celebrate this new era of visibility in Ireland, it is important to remember the fight for true equality and inclusion for all is not yet won. It is imperative that this new visibility is wielded in the continuing battle for women’s right to make their own reproductive and health care choices.