canada · guest post · in the news · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reading anti-niquab legislation alongside sexual harassment

The anti-niqab legislation newly passed in the Quebec legislature comes amidst a longstanding debate about “reasonable accommodation” for religious views and a more recent debate about sexual harassment and assault, the “me too” campaign that sees women everywhere describing unwanted sexual advances and attacks.  It’s worth seeing these two issues as related.

I’m a woman so, naturally, I have my “me too” stories. I too have experienced routine harassment and open assault, dating way back. Sometimes it seemed relentless: multiple propositions, day in and day out, just because you were walking in the streets or taking the subway or even going for a jog. Some guy would proposition you and then shout abuse when you declined to engage. I was eighteen when I went for a solo walk in the woods and was assaulted. That was also the year that I stopped wearing makeup. A visiting cousin persuaded me to put on some of hers. But within five minutes of leaving the house, I’d received so many catcalls that I rubbed it off, and never wore the stuff again. To wear makeup seemed to be taken, by the men on the street where I lived, as issuing a sexual invitation.

If there had been a veil option, I think I would have taken it. Anything to make those propositions and gropings stop. It’s hard to say: “but listen to what I have to say” when attention is being continually directed to how you look or what you wear or other female attributes. That’s why sexism—or racism—in the university is so toxic, especially for students seeking a voice: one’s body seems to speak louder than one’s words at a place where words are supposed to be particularly valued. I don’t think Premier Couillard can have any idea of the frustration that women can experience from that onslaught of sexual harassment. Deciding to wear a veil can be, for some women, a little bit like deciding not to wear makeup. It can be a choice for more privacy, less visiblity, less sexualization. It’s not something we should forbid, any more than we should set rules on makeup. Women can and should make up their own minds.

Quebecers have fought hard for women’s rights. They don’t like the idea of women being bullied and they have gone to considerable lengths to oppose it. Many Quebecers, I think, see the niqab as a threat to women’s autonomy and liberty; they think they are protecting women from bullying when they oppose the niqab. Quebec has had some truly horrific experiences of misogyny in recent years: so-called honour killings and the terrible events of 1989 when fourteen young women were killed for supposedly being out of their sphere.  It’s no wonder that Quebecers aren’t quite satisfied with an official stance that suggests people can believe what they like and comport themselves as they like, so long as they don’t cause public trouble. It’s no wonder that Quebecers want more searching protections for women. I think the same impulse that makes Quebecers want to “protect” women from the niqab would also make them, on fuller consideration, repudiate anything that would actually provoke bullying, as this ban must inevitably do. They would be the first to leap to the defence of any person they saw being bullied or even arrested for trying to ride a bus.

Cynical politicians have tried to exploit such concerns and direct them towards nativist resentments. But Quebecers repudiated that sort of nativism in the last election and I’ve no doubt they will do so again if the case is squarely put to them. If some people wish to politicize what women put on their faces, then the way for a secular society to respond is not: “Hey, we can politicize it right back at you,” but, instead: “Whatever. Wear a veil or wear five of them; we take no interest in the matter.” Only when we stop sensationalizing what women wear and focus instead on what they have to say, can we genuinely overcome misogynistic bullying. And Quebecers are more likely to come fully around to that view if they, too, are addressed moderately as reasoning beings, rather than attacked as incorrigible racists.

Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University. Her views are her own.

community · emotional labour · feminist communities · in the news · risky writing · women

From the Archives: To Build Sustained Discourse on Rape Culture is a Feminist Act

If you’re in Canada you will know that today marks the start of the trial of former CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, who is being accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.

We have been thinking about how to have mindful, generative, public discussions about rape culture for a long while here at Hook and Eye, and our thinking is built on our identification as feminist academics.

If you’re looking to think with us I have pulled some of our writing on the subject from the archives, as well as one brilliant piece by Lucia Lorenzi which was originally published at rabble.ca

Lily, on silence, forgetting, and being at the Ghomeshi bail hearing.

Erin, on social media, slow academe, and building sustained public conversations about rape culture.

Lucia Lorenzi at rabble.ca on how the burden of healing is still placed on women.

Erin, a year later, on the how the Ghomeshi scandal changed her.

Erin, asking what it is going to take to have sustained and generative public discourse about rape culture.

Jana, on reading the comments.

Erin, on healthy communities and mentorship in the wake of public revelations of misogyny in Canadian literary circles.

And Erin again on restorative justice, social media, and why it is important that #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral.

And Erin once more, with an open letter to Rex Murphy about why language matters when we are talking about rape culture, racism, and systemic violence.

in the news · literature · righteous feminist anger · risky writing · sexist fail

The Finkbeiner Test and What We Say When We Talk About Dead Canadian Writers

By now, it seems that everyone has heard about the almost-laughably sexist New York Times obituary of aeronautical scientist Yvonne Brill. You know, the one that describes her beef stroganoff, her sacrifices for her husband’s career, and her childcare arrangements before it notes that “in the early 1970s [she] invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Douglas Martin, the article’s author, notes that “the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend,” but instead of critiquing the gender bias that prevented Brill from becoming an engineer, uses this circumstance as evidence of her resiliency. Martin, and the newspaper, have been roundly criticized for the article’s sexism, and yet it has been only slightly edited since.

Critiques of Brill’s obituary and mentions of the Finkbeiner Test, designed to avoid gender profiles of female scientists, have started to go hand in hand. To pass the Finkbeiner Test and stand as a profile of a scientist, and not a profile of a woman scientist, the article cannot mention:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…

While the test was designed to assess writing about female scientists, it works just as well for writing about professional women in any field, particularly in those where men outnumber women and women are often held up as trailblazers for their gender. My dissertation work is currently about Canadian poet and academic Jay Macpherson, who died in March 2012. As Cameron Anstee notes, her death was almost entirely ignored by the Canadian literary community, except by people who knew her. When a long and praise-filled obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, albeit nearly six months after Macpherson’s death, I was initially pleased that a major publication had even remembered her. Never mind that it seemingly should have been a given, considering that she was for many years the youngest Governor General’s Award winner for poetry and one of the few Canadian recipients of the prestigious Poetry [Chicago] Levinson Prize. (I later learned that Margaret Atwood, one of Macpherson’s closest and longest friends, convinced the newspaper to run the obituary). But my pleasure largely disappeared when I decided to apply the Finkbeiner Test.

The title of Sandra Martin’s piece was the first red flag: “The nurturing nature of Jay Macpherson.” No mention of her brilliant poetic mind, her many awards, or Martin’s own newspaper’s statement, back in 1957, that Macpherson was Canada’s “finest young poet.” Indeed, no mention of the fact that Macpherson was a poet at all. Despite Macpherson’s choice to remain unmarried and childless, Martin still manages to construct an image of her as maternal which trumps her professional identity, suggesting that her poetic output was small because “she was a ministering angel to waifs and strays, often to the detriment of her own work and health.” Point 4. on the Finkbeiner Test: fail. Points 1 and 7 are spectacular fails in the first paragraph: “After winning the Governor-General’s Literary award for The Boatman in 1957, Jay Macpherson was asked to give a talk about Canadian poetry at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The invitation, which marked the first time the all-male Hart House student union had invited a woman to address its members, provoked such a fuss that women were barred from attending Macpherson’s talk.” And while Macpherson didn’t have a husband to mention, Martin can’t help but credit Macpherson’s success as “a collegial and hard-working member of the Canadian poetic community” to her prominent male mentors: “It didn’t hurt that as a very young poet, she had already attracted the attention of three key mentors and literary scholars: George Johnston, Northrop Frye and Robert Graves.” Let’s consider that a fail on Point 2. Even Macpherson’s work as the founder and sole editor of Emblem Books, which published collections by major Canadian poets including Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy that Anstee argues are “surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century,” is construed as an act of charity rather than of literary labour: “Macpherson put her meagre financial resources into publishing other poets.” I could go on, but I won’t. [Note 1]

In contrast, The Globe and Mail just published the obituary of Milton Wilson, who was one of Macpherson’s first publishers and reviewers, as well as one of her doctoral supervisors. Unlike the title of Macpherson’s obituary, Wilson’s foregrounds his professional accomplishment: “Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man.'” The early paragraphs focus not on his gender, as they do in Macpherson’s, but on his accomplishments; his family life doesn’t come in until well toward the end, and his wife is described only as “attractive.” But what bothers me most is that one of the first things he is praised for is his non-sexist hiring practices: “He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.” I find this paragraph problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, I object to the way the author, Judy Stoffman, uses this instance of non-sexism to whitewash the blatant gender-bias he displays elsewhere; this is a snippet of his review of Macpherson’s The Boatman, which was considered by many the signal collection of the 1950s in Canada: “Her palace of art is distinctly feminine, … her apocalyptic imagery, pervasive as it is, remains gratuitous and decorative, [and] her Atlantis is a pink cloud, not a prophecy.” Secondly, I can’t imagine that a female professor would ever be praised for asking nothing about a candidate’s personal life. Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lack of sexism should be a baseline expectation of decent human behaviour, and therefore not worthy of praise, whether it’s 1967 or 2007. [Note 2] As Kelly Williams Brown argues on her cult blog Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 486 Easy(ish) Steps:

Step 277: Do not expect kudos for being decent

Let’s say you are a non-racist, thoughtful-to-LGBTQA folks, non-sexist, bill-paying-on-time, recycling-sorting, never-kicks-puppies kind of person: To you I say, and mean it, congratulations. That is awesome. Take a second and feel nice about yourself. All done? Good. Because those are not things that make you worthy of praise. That shit is standard. Do not expect others to pat you on the back for a lack of assholishness. Pat yourself, and others, on the back when it is merited.

If there’s to be a test for profiles about men like the Finkbeiner Test, it needs to contain the rule that it must not include “How he didn’t discriminate against people with less power and social currency than himself.” As Brown says, “That shit is standard.”

I’m angry a lot about the state of CanLit, and the state of writing in general. There’s lots to get mad about: Brill’s obituary, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s stunning account of the sexism she’s faced as an author and war-photographer, the disparity between what we say when we talk about dead Canadian writers if they’re male or if they’re female. But there’s some to get excited about too: despite the fact that I can predict with near 100 per cent certainty that CWILA‘s national survey of book reviews–now underway, if you want to volunteer–will again reveal that women are seriously underrepresented as both reviewers and the reviewed, at least someone’s doing the counting. Hopefully the numbers will look better than last year:

And at least Brill’s obituary now lists “rocket scientist” before “beef stroganoff.”

What gets you mad about issues of gender in CanLit, or in the arts more generally? What gives you hope? 

***
Note 1: Sandra Martin’s piece is otherwise well-written, accurate, and positive; she’s also been generous with her time and knowledge in helping me with my own work, for which I’m grateful. I also don’t mean to suggest that her gender-bias is intentional; these sorts of gender profiles are far from rare in the genre, and we need things like the Finkbeiner test to alert us to our own blind spots as readers and writers.

Note 2: It pains me to note that when I raised my issues with a male colleague, I received a brisk dismissal; he did, however, later concede that he understood my point. I read his gaslighting, which I’m sure was unintentional, as a symptom of the normalcy of casual gender-bias. 

in the news · systemic violence

Violence against women is always someone else’s problem

Violence against women is making headlines these days. The recent brutal murder of South African activist Reeva Steenkamp, allegedly at the hands of her famous boyfriend, Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius is currently the sensationalist news story of choice for most mainstream agencies. Notably, these discussions often draw our attention to the problem of systemic violence against women in South Africa, and include calls to rectify this tragic situation. Women in South Africa suffer violence too often at the hands of their partners, with apparently 3 women being murdered by their partners each day. Similar discussions of the problem of systemic violence against women circulated following the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in India. Despite having a mainstream media in which feminist perspectives tend not to be popular, the issue of systemic violence against women has somehow made it into media disocurses and is being acknolwedged as a significant problem that must be addressed.

The problem for me with this state of affairs is that all too often, violence against women is considered a problem that someone else has. Women in India and South Africa face daily violence, and it is those countries that are deemed to have a problem on their hands. I have, when making a feminist argument about systemic inequality to some of my more “worldly” friends, been reminded that I have it pretty good — I don’t actually know what gendered oppression is and Canadian women like me have nothing to complain about. Now, I will acknowledge that I am a very lucky person. I do not face daily violence. I am safe, comfortable, and healthy. I have a good education and a partner who is not violent. I may be lucky, but my experience is definitely not universal amongst Canadian women.

The day before the sensational Oscar Pistorious case hit the headlines, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the long-term, sustained, and systemic violence against aboriginal women in Northern BC at the hands of RCMP officers. This region includes the “Highway of Tears” where 18 women have gone missing since the late 1960s (this is the official number, the actual number of the missing may indeed be much higher). Despite the severity of the allegations — that the RCMP have, far from simply not protecting the women in BC’s north, in fact been participants in the violence that these women face — this shocking news has not received the same calls for Canada to deal with its own issues of systemic violence against women. I find this frustrating and shocking, though admittedly all I know about media bias renders it also very predictable. I am appalled with how quickly the story about violence against aboriginal women in Canada was pushed from the headlines, to be replaced with an equally tragic, highly sensationalist story from a far away place, that we are perhaps more comfortable scrutinizing. South Africa is a very violent place, we will all willingly admit it. Can we not also open up a conversation about how violent some of the spaces in our own communities actually are, and that perhaps that needs to change as well? Violence against women is a global problem, we must all find ways to stop it, and it is definitely not just someone else’s problem.