Okay, so as some of you may or may not have known, I was invited to present (by my good friend, Ayesha Sultana) to present at a local event, earlier this month, entitled How is Canada Failing women? (This was my first time speaking at a local event, as usually I speak at academic conferences and such, so it was pretty exciting and no doubt one of the best experiences ever.)
Anyway, even though I finally got around to sharing the video of my talk (that a very good friend of mine was so sweet to record) on Facebook (if you’re a friend of mine, you, too, would have seen it, if not, tough luck ;)), a lot of my friends have also been asking me, quite a few times now, to share a transcript of my speech. (I didn’t think it was all that, but they seemed to really like it, so, here you go.)
Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I am very honoured to be here today, with all of you, to speak a little bit about the unending issue of violence against women, as nothing is more important than having a meaningful dialogue about it, because that is one of the first steps towards finding ways to bring change and hopefully make a difference.
I know we often say that action speaks louder than words, but we also need to realize that words can be just as powerful, especially when those words are exchanged among like-minded people and then put into practice.
Two days ago, Dec. 6th, marked the 25th anniversary of the horrific Montreal massacre that took place at the Montreal Ecole Polytechnique and left 14 young women dead. And although it has been 25 years since this horrible tragedy occurred, it’s a painful reminder that violence against women still exists, even till this very day.
Today I am going to discuss a little bit about the violence that encompasses the lives of “racialized” immigrant and refugee women living in Canada. These are women who leave their homes and move to Canada in search and hopes for a better future. However, for many of these immigrant and refugee women, those hopes and dreams are never realized. The common belief is that when you leave your ‘home’, which could be somewhere in South-and Central-Asia or the Middle East, or perhaps even anywhere else in the developing or even the developed world, you try to leave everything there in order to start afresh somewhere else. Which is why we’ve coined the term “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
However, that is rarely the case, as many families that immigrate, do not intend to leave behind their old practices and traditions, examples include killing in the name of ‘honour’ or ‘honour-killings’, and would rather enforce them (especially on their women) in the countries to where they immigrate as well. They don’t believe in “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but rather, “When in Rome, continue to do as we do, because we are right and you are wrong.” Of course, I made that up, but I am sure you understand the gist of my point.
Although I personally believe that it’s important not to forget your culture and your origins when you immigrate to a foreign country to make a living, at the same time, you need to make sure that whatever practices you engage in are socially appropriate and do not serve as a threat nor bring harm to both the members of your family (especially the women), and to society at large.
When we discuss violence against women, we need to realize that it’s not fastidious, for it can cross various lines including socio-economic status, religion and/or culture, race and ethnicity.
Statistics from the Canadian Women’s Foundation show that 50% of Canadian women experience physical or sexual violence after the age of 16 — let that sink in for a little bit — the age of 16, and that a woman is killed, on average, every six days by her intimate partner.
For racialized women, exposure to poverty and racism in their daily lives places them at a much greater risk for domestic and sexual violence. In Canada, 54% of Aboriginal women reported severe forms of family violence compared to 37% of non-Aboriginal women, and other racialized women that also suffer greatly from domestic violence.
With such disturbing figures, having this dialogue today is more important than ever, and it is without a doubt that these conversations must include looking at race as well.
The United Nations defines violence against women as:
“Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”
There are multiple barriers to women that exacerbate violence against them, and we need to understand the context of these barriers in order to find ways to overcome them.
1) I know most of us don’t give this much thought, but poverty is a racialized issue with many racialized Canadians earning about 81.4 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized Canadians; and the reality for racialized women is even worse. In Toronto alone, 62% of people living in poverty identify with a racial group. And while we need to understand that poverty doesn’t necessarily lead to domestic violence per se, its consequences can actually increase the effects of violence. This is because, in some cases, poverty restricts women’s independence, especially if they are less educated(or at all), and don’t earn their own income; they, hence, become very dependent on their partners, further making it very difficult to leave abusive relationships.
2) Another barrier is racialized women’s access to the healthcare system. A 2003 study by Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre found that “one in five women have experienced racism when using the healthcare system, as a result of cultural insensitivity, stereotypes, name-calling, and inferior quality of care.” Further barriers include understanding and speaking the language, where racialized immigrant and refugee women, who do not speak English or French, or any language that is widely spoken in the countries to where they’ve immigrated, have difficulties navigating through a system that tends to be more than unaccomodating.
3) Another major barrier, that is very exclusive to racialized women is that of traditional cultural and/or religious practices. (I suppose this is why the bill for the Barbaric Cultural Practices was passed quite recently, and although I have a problem with their calling it “BARBARIC CULTURAL PRACTICES” per se, I won’t delve into that now, as there are too many layers and dimensions to it, and it is whole debate on its own that can be discussed for another time.)
Anyway, often than not, I come across distressing stories about women who are beaten, tortured, maimed, and in some of the worst cases, killed by male (and sometimes even female) members of their families. It never fails to surprise me when I learn that many of these cases are on account of an honour that was supposedly ‘stained’. This ‘staining’ hence serves as an excuse for people to resort to violence – violence against women, in particular – which has always been a global pandemic. And, from where I come from, honour killings is the norm. Women are often killed for having had illicit affairs/relationships (often with the opposite gender), or sometimes even for having been raped, where blame is often placed on the woman for “alluring” men in order for the rape to happen.
Sadly enough, there have been many cases in the past where ‘honour killings’ have also been practiced among immigrant and refugee families, right here in Canada.
Back in 2010, Aqsa Pervaz — a normal 16-year-old girl whose only crime was to wear western clothes and attain a part-time job (just like her school-mates) — was murdered in cold blood by her father and brother in Mississauga, Ontario.
That same year, an Afghan mother was arrested in Montreal; she was accused of stabbing and hence killing her 19-year-old daughter after she stayed out all night. This case is now being seen as a possible ‘honour’ crime.
And then there’s the 2012 case of Muhammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Muhammad Yahya, and their son, Hamed Shafia, who were accused of killing Shafia’s first wife and three daughters. I am sure you are all quite familiar with that story, as it was quite huge and deeply troubling as well. Their dead bodies were later found in a vehicle submerged in a canal in Kingston, Ontario.
It’s stories like these that makes one deeply question why these cases are recurring time and time again in a country where women are supposed to have more rights, more opportunities, and more access to freedoms that would otherwise have been denied to them had they stayed back in the countries from where they immigrated.
Besides the huge issue of honour killings, another major cultural aspect is that a lot of women cannot simply leave abusive relationships, simply because it is culturally seen as wrong and inappropriate. Divorce is taboo and is never seen as an option for many of these racialized immigrant/refugee women. So, they stick it out, internalize the violence that is inflicted upon them, and carry on with their lives, in hopes of a miracle that things just might change for the better. Yet, the fact of the matter is that for most of these women, it doesn’t get better. It gets worse.
I remember talking to a Pashtun woman, a few years ago, about her past as an abused woman. She was in a very abusive relationship for many years, and when I asked her why didn’t she just pack up and leave. She simply looked at me, with tears in her eyes, and then she looked towards her young daughter (who was about eight years old at the same), and told me that she just couldn’t leave, it was impossible at the time, because:
- She was living too far away from her family (they were living in Canada, while she and her young daughter had moved to the Middle East) with her then-husband; and,
- She knew no one and had nowhere to go. She was very stuck at the time, and too overly dependent on her husband.
Of course, eventually, she did finally manage to escape and found refuge in a women’s shelter, amidst large rats and cockroaches, but she told me that living there was far more better than the beautiful mansion she escaped from.
There are many instances like these, where simply telling someone, “Just pack up and leave” is not as easy as it sounds. It’s never easy. Which is why race and culture matters so much with regards to discussions on violence against women, both in the global and the Canadian context.
I also want to add that social media is powerful in giving some women the platform to come out and share their stories, especially if they want to remain anonymous for safety and security reasons. A prime example is the recent hashtag #WhyILeft and #WhyIStayed which went viral over Twitter, and which gave us a deeper understanding of the types of abuse women endured and the difficulties that they had in dealing with them.
So, when finding solutions to violence against women, it is important to not stop at race and culture. We need to consider numerous perspectives when looking at the larger experience of violence against women; these needs to be seen from the lens of religion to sexual orientation to women with disabilities to culture and so on and so forth.
So, today, not only should we commemorate the 14 slain women back in 1989, in light of the 16 days of activism campaign, but we owe it to women past and present to start working towards more meaningful and feasible solutions to eradicate violence against women once and for all.
Thank You very much.