The memory of Aqsa Parvez and the future of feminism

| December 5, 2008
The memory of Aqsa Parvez and the future of feminism
On December 10 of last year, a young Toronto woman was murdered in her home by her father.

The force of this tragedy was deepened by details of the violence of her early death and by the dozens of photos that flooded print media, television, blogs and facebook groups of her beaming adolescent face. It soon emerged that the murder victim, Aqsa Parvez, born in Canada of Pakistani parents, had suffered abuse by her father for years, and that when he realized his inability to control her movement and choices, he decided instead to end her life.

It is for reasons just like these that over 200 Canadian women lose their lives every year to domestic violence (and this figure pertains only to solved cases of spousal homicide). Aqsa's story is a profoundly Canadian one, disturbingly ordinary. One might expect that, like countless similar cases, Aqsa's murder would be casually buried beneath other stories deemed more 'news-worthy.' Instead, her case crowned headlines for weeks, and fed an endless loop of debate and controversy over the state of 'multiculturalism' in Canada.

Genuine compassion or inquisitiveness regarding Aqsa's story dissipated all too quickly in the ensuing frenzy over the Canadian 'minority question.' The day after Aqsa's story broke, CityNews brandished a headline describing the "tradition and terror" behind the tragedy. A National Post columnist seeking to explain "the meaning of Aqsa Parvez" was quick to describe her death as an "honour killing" and elaborated on the "loathsome and barbaric" nature of the culture from which, according to this versions of the narrative, she was desperate to escape.

There is no doubt that Aqsa was desperate to escape - from her abusive home and tyrannical father. But as a young woman of colour, living at dangerous intersections of race and gender, belonging and exclusion, her options for escape were sadly limited. Women like Aqsa matter little in the grand scheme of things - until their deaths provide convenient grounds on which to mount xenophobic vitriol against Canada's dark Others.

Helen Yohannes, an esteemed Eritrean spoken word artist and Coordinator for the Respect in Action Youth Program at METRAC, described her concern over this widespread backlash, and the failure to instead step back and examine "domestic and gender-based violence, and the responsibility of schools, governments and communities to combat violence against young women of colour." Such questions, she remarks, were never even raised.

Gender-based violence, says Yohannes, "is the outcome of patriarchy, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, poverty and homophobia. Unless all of these issues are properly acknowledged, the cycle of violence against women and children will continue."

This week marks December 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. The issue became highlighted nearly 20 years ago, when a deranged anti-feminist walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal and selected and then shot down 14 young women. In memory of these young women, December 6 and the days preceding it remain a time to reflect on gender-based violence in Canada and to consider ways to prevent it.

Violence against women is a problem so immense that it is almost lost (and too often forgotten) for its pervasiveness. No wonder, since solutions are still so narrowly devised. In the wake of the Montreal Massacre, any progress made in confronting gender-based violence is still blunted by failures to recognize the different kinds of systemic oppression, especially racism and poverty, that force and keep women in situations of increased exposure to violence.

In Canada, there exists a strange paradox: a tendency to view women of colour and 'immigrant' women - especially Muslim women - as particularly weak and vulnerable, due to the supposedly more intrinsic patriarchy of 'their' cultures; and a concurrent, stubborn unwillingness in our legal, emergency response and, most importantly, education systems to put forward solutions that reach out to women in these positions, rather than further marginalize them.

Perhaps it is easier to sit back in cold condescension, to better reinforce the racist assumptions that keep 'our' values liberal and 'theirs' backwards - notions that in turn keep this country solidly white and impenetrable.

Eve Haque, Assistant Professor in Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, at York University, notes that media representations surrounding Aqsa's story reflected a "white-settler national narrative of oppressive vs. liberating cultures; it reduced multiculturalism to how 'we' can tolerate 'them' and solve their problems."

Such rhetoric was recently revived in an inflammatory Toronto Life article, against which Muslim feminists and their allies mounted wide public action, and which was subsequently defended by TL editor Sarah Fulford as bringing attention to confrontations between 'New' and 'Old World' values.

As it happened, the week this debate was raging, two white Toronto women were killed by their husbands - one a police officer. "When cases like that occur, we think, oh, what went wrong there?" says Haque, "it's confounding and inexplicable. But in Aqsa's case it's easily dismissed as an 'honour killing', testing the limits of toleration."

The Montreal Massacre took place before the term 'multiculturalism' had earned its recent mint as a catch phrase for race-relations in Canada. The term became especially freighted and cumbersome after 9/11, and lately has begun to chafe. Feminism, meanwhile, has not enjoyed much sympathy in my own lifetime, but I see it rehabilitated, dusted off and soundly misused often enough in mainstream culture when the situation calls for it.

When certain persons must be imprisoned without trial, when certain countries must be invaded, when certain communities must be ostracized, even the vilest patriarchs are all too happy to invoke 'feminism' - or their weak understanding of it. Conservative leaders seem to have few qualms about vilifying feminism as the source of all things anti-family and awful, and then raising a feminist flag to front an amorphous 'war on terror.' It would be almost funny if not for the perplexing ways in which so many feminists - inevitably white feminists - willingly participate in such posturing. The sound heard from mainstream feminist camps in the wake of Aqsa's murder was a combination of racist muttering and bewildering silence.

For those who chose silence, perhaps they felt there was little they could say on the matter (if you can't say anything politically-correct, say nothing at all.) But there was everything to say. There was everything to say - to scream, to insist - about improving prevention methods to be more culturally-appropriate and accessible; about demanding more access to services and support for women currently attaining citizenship status; about criticizing shortages in safe and affordable housing; about rebuking police and emergency response systems that do more to visit violence on newcomer communities (including women) than to help them escape from it.

To collude in simple notions of cultures clashing and to dismiss acts of violence as endemic only to certain communities, thereby 'proving' their inability to ever become 'true' Canadians, means accepting and abetting violence against women. To continue on this course means condemning more women to Aqsa's fate.

It has been suggested in both academic and activist circles that feminism and multiculturalism are fundamentally at odds. When asked if multiculturalism was bad for women, Stanford liberal feminist academic Susan Moller Okin returned a now famous and pointed 'Yes.'

Such a statement assumes that women are not agents in their culture; it assumes women experience one-dimensional identities and oppressions (either primarily gendered, primarily racialized, or classed, or religious, and so on). And it completely overlooks the existence of people like me: passionate feminists - from Middle-Eastern, 'new Canadian' families.

The week that encompasses December 6 - 10 should be a time to remember all women who are affected by gender-based violence, who are most prominently women of colour (especially Aboriginal women) and women living in poverty.

This is a period of mourning and remembrance, but even more, it is an opportunity to re-imagine feminist politics and action against gender-based violence along a number of fronts.


Sarah Ghabrial is a PhD candidate in History at McGill University, where she researches the development of politics of feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, and citizenship in the context of colonial and postcolonial pasts. She is also a co-founder of The Miss G_ Project for Equity in Education, a young feminist organization that works to combat all forms of oppression in and through education.

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