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Are educational spaces in Canada safe for women? On December 6 and academic life

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This week, as I mourn the lives of 14 women who were murdered simply because they were female students rightly enjoying educational space and opportunities, I am pausing to think about what it means to be both a scholar and a woman. For me, the two cannot be separated: my scholarship, my teaching, and the interactions I have in the academy are deeply intertwined with being a woman, and a racialized woman in particular. Yet, all too often, I realize and observe that "female scholar" continues to be a deeply contested identity, no matter the department or faculty.

Perhaps it is less contested than in previous decades, and that being said, I honour the work of so many phenomenal scholars and students who paved the way for it to be just that bit easier for me. But things are still not so easy. I am thinking about the long legacies of women scholars before me, and the legacy I share with colleagues of my own generation. I would be lying if I said I was not worried. I would be lying if I said that I believed we lived in a world where female scholars can speak, study, dress, and occupy space in the academy as freely as we should be able to. Because we know. We know that the aggressions we face are all too real.

It's being one of few female scholars in a male-dominated field, especially within the applied sciences. It's engineering schools and business schools and FROSH weeks which have rape chants and songbooks of horrendously misogynist lyrics, all designed to "create community" at the cost of women's experiences, bodies, and sexualities.

It's being criticized for dressing too femininely or not femininely enough.  

It's when University of Toronto instructor David Gilmour said that there were no women writers he deemed worthy enough to teach. Save for Virginia Woolf. 

It's the commentary about whether or not women with children can "balance" their academic work with their family lives (a question which, I assume, men rarely are subjected to). 

It's the fact that until very recently at the University of British Columbia, female faculty members were being paid distinctly less than their male counterparts. Female faculty members were subsequently offered funds to close this pay gap.

It's the various aggressions that women face at the intersection of race, sexuality, and disability in the academy. It's getting labeled as the "angry racialized woman" in the classroom or the department.

It's being assaulted or harassed by a fellow student, or even a faculty member, and feeling as though one has little if any recourse to justice.

It's worrying about one's students and hoping beyond hope that none of them will have to face sexual assault in their time on campus. It's knowing that despite what I hope and wish, that female students on university campuses in Canada still face sexual violence, and often find themselves without adequate institutional support or policies in place to protect them.

My heart is heavy. It is heavy because it has been 25 years since the massacre at the École Polytechnique, and while women are not currently being gunned down in their classrooms or the hallways of their university campuses in Canada, it doesn't mean that they are safe. 

Safety is also a relative term, one that each of us has to negotiate and define on our own terms, based on our oppressions and our privileges. What is safe for me may not be safe for another. This we must recognize, and that is why we must have these discussions in a context that recognizes a global struggle as women in education. We must talk about the fact that hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were stolen, not only from their schools, but from their families and from the freedoms they deserved. We must talk about the fact that Malala Yousafzai was very nearly killed, not only because she publicly advocated for education, but because she was daring to seek an education. We must talk about the fact that the history of our education system in Canada also includes residential schools and their horrendous abuses of power. We must talk about the fact that Anita Sarkeesian was threatened with a "Montreal-style Massacre" if she dared to follow through with a scheduled talk at Utah State University. We must not see the events of December 6, 1989, as things that happened so very long ago, but rather, as part of a continuum of violence that occurs in educational settings and contexts, in Canada and beyond.

Nevertheless, at the same time that I am frustrated, concerned (and to be frank, quite terrified), I am also deeply grateful. It is important to acknowledge these moments.

I am grateful to have had access to education my whole life, and never to have been denied educational opportunities on the basis of my gender.

I am grateful for the mentorship I have had, and the collegiality I have enjoyed.

I am honoured to be working with a committee of three brilliant, strong, creative women, ones who inspire me each day to continue my work and to carve out a place for myself in academia. 

I am honoured to know so many other incredible female faculty members whose mentorship and kindness have made this journey possible.

I am grateful to the thinkers and activists who do their work outside the walls of the ivory tower, who push back against how the academy attempts to constrain or delegitimize certain types of activism and scholarship. I am grateful for women whose scholarship takes place on the ground, in lived experience and praxis.

I am grateful for my colleagues and friends, with whom I can have difficult conversations, and with whom I can share laughter when my heart is near-breaking.

I am grateful for male allies in the academy.

I am grateful for CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), whose incredible work and facilitation of difficult but important conversations has changed the landscape of public discourse around gender issues in literary and academic life.

As we commemorate the 25th Anniversary of this tragedy, I want our educational system to take a long hard look at itself. I want our policies to reflect a commitment to gender equity on campus. I want us all—students, staff, faculty, administrators—to think about how our classrooms, our policies, and our communities do or do not support gender equity and safety. I want us to have the courage, especially in the case of sexualized violence on campus, to acknowledge that oppression happens on our campuses, and not to sweep it under the rug or to frame it as merely the actions of a few lone individuals.

Learning is difficult. Educational opportunities can be as challenging as they are rewarding. But in the names of the 14 women who lost their lives 25 years ago, let's make sure that gender violence is never again part of the lesson plan.

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