Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Patterns in violence against women and girls

It would be nearly impossible to be reading Canadian news over the past few days and not run across two high-profile cases of violence involving women or girls. The most recent, the much watched Shafia trial over the murder of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti Shafia and their stepmother Rona Amir Mohammed has generated heated condemnation for the three family members convicted of killing these women and girls (the youngest of the murdered was only 13). Some additionally point out the fact that at least twice some of the children sought help from authorities before they were murdered, but nothing came of the girls' attempts. Now, we could get into the debate over whether it is better to call these deaths "honor killings" or "murder" or "domestic violence" or even "femicide" but one thing that I think is worth examining is how frequently the family's national origin and religion are mentioned in reports of the crime--so much so that the Afghanistan Embassy issued a public statement condemning the murders and noting that neither Afghan legal standards nor Islam would condone such actions.

Perhaps it is natural that in the shock of being faced with this violence, many writers want to distance Canada and Canadian society from being somehow involved. It is a bulwark of Canadian culture that women and girls are as equally human and have equal rights as men and boys, so violence that is gender-based against females should not happen here. But while reading all these statements and reports, I could not help noticing one of the other threads of headline news: the Pickton Inquiry, which is currently examining how it was that it took the RCMP and other police agencies so long to stop Robert Pickton from murdering so many women, year after year.

While there are very different backgrounds to both these stories, there is a common pattern. In each case, alarms were raised but went either grossly unheeded (in the case of the Pickton murders) or were not seen as being serious enough that significant intervention was required right away (in the case of the Shafia murders). Also, and it seems to me that this is not an insignificant point, in both cases, the only people who were chosen to be murdered were female.

At least one other article I found while researching this post references both the Shafia and the Pickton murders in the same breath, and that article, like this post here, was written to look at the societal issue of violence against women and girls. The authors of that particular article, Yasmin Jiwani and Homa Hoodfar write that "The reality we as a society must face is that these murders are about gendered violence." Furthermore, they point out that such violence happens in Canada, to Canadians, by Canadians, and that--as with Pickton--such violence is not necessarily the supposed product of another culture. 

Of course it is the case that not every woman and girl comes under these kinds of threats. But it does seem worth asking what the structures that support such violence are--and by structures supporting such violence, I'm not just talking about the actions of the murderers, but also the accompanying apathy (particularly in the Pickton case) that allowed such violence to go on for years. The RCMP has now apologized for having taken so long to go after Pickton despite the mounting evidence, but, unsurprisingly, the apology has not meant much to the many families of missing and murdered women. This is an issue of social justice, (though one of many.) The courts have given their guilty verdicts and so some measure of legal justice was served in that way, but that is not social justice. It strikes me that social justice does not happen primarily in the courts, but in the homes and on the streets. How, then, do we pursue social justice when it comes to gender and violence?


  1. Both of these cases were of great interest to me as a Canadian interested in justice (social and otherwise) and commited to the proposition that we need to constantly strive to find ways to live and prosper together despite cultural differences, biological differences, ideological differences, or whatever may come to be used to divide us.

    I think it would be quite untenable to say that the Shafia case was not about honour killing or that this was not primarily an expression of a cultural phenomenon. That the violence was gendered does not mean that it is not also culturally rooted. That there are common threads across cultures between how females are regarded and treated (as there are for males) is not reason to not first look at the Shafia case as an honour killing.

    Disclaimers from the embassy of Afghanistan regarding the religious and cultural elements are nearly worthless for the purpose examining the roots of the Shafia case and cases like it. It is reassuring that the government of Afghanistan officially denounces the cultural habit of controlling women through murder but so do the governments of Pakistan and India, where these kinds of phenomena are still fairly common and exist largely because of deeply embedded cultural norms that even the police in those countries subscribe to. One more example (with a Canadian dimension) can be found in this article: http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/murderedbride/

    (I note that a man was also "chosen to be murdered" in this case.)

    The common thread to be drawn between the Shafia case and the Pickton case with respect to gendered violence is the systemic response. In the Pickton case the suggestion seems to be that it would have been different had the victims not been women but is there, in fact, any data to support that? Is the police response more robust when men go missing under analogous circumstances?

    Women are murdered in Canada at a rate between one half and one third of the rate for men. ( http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2010003/article/11352-eng.htm#a9 ) Murder itself can be called a "gendered" phenomenon on that basis, but it is, IMO, far more useful to look at specific causes than at emergent patterns (such as genderedness) if our purpose is to reduce harm. We must, again IMO, examine not only who is being harmed but who is doing the harming *and why*. That it will be mostly men is not insignificant (and perhaps even the more salient issue) but as I think both cases illustrate, the nearest causes are not the result of nor evidence of a general gender bias but of specific circumstances that express themselves in a gendered way.

    I think your final question "how do we pursue social justice when it comes to gender and violence" is a good one but I would not like to see us lose sight of the individual types of phenomena that in aggregate lead us to the generalisation implicit in that. One doesn't fight an entire forest fire except by fighting individual fire locations and heading off opportunities for the fire to expand.

    I also would not exclude the idea that social justice can in fact come from legal justice, perhaps even primarily from it, over time, nor discount the degree to which social injustice comes from legal injustice. The Pickton case can be seen in this light. The women murdered were sex trade workers. In Canada prostitution is legal but prostitutes have been surrounded by laws that effectively push them underground so much that the common protections of society are not available to them. To the extent that addiction is part of what compels some people to turn to the sex trades for income, the laws that criminalise drug use are also part of the equation.

  2. I think much of what you're saying is quite right, Daryl, and I do think that social justice can come from legal justice--though I'm not as sure that it comes *primarily* from legal justice. You raise the issue of the laws pushing sex workers underground (and those laws criminalizing drug use as well) as they related to the way the police dealt with the women who went "missing". Certainly those laws played a part, however indirectly, in making the conditions under which Pickton operated. Change those laws, and the conditions will be changed as well. But the point you raise about the disclaimer from the Afghanistan embassy being "reassuring" but ultimately not very useful for dealing with tracing the roots of a particular cultural phenomenon gets at what I am talking about when I say that social justice is (perhaps) not primarily a legal issue. Changing laws changes conditions and consequences, but it does not change attitudes--at least, not immediately. I think in the long run, social justice and legal justice have a closer relationship than they do in the short term, and certain kinds of legal justice have long term effects on social justice. But those effects will take time to work themselves out and be felt, and they are not always easy to predict.

    You say it would be quite untenable to deny that the Shafia murders were "about" honour killing, and I think there is a lot of truth in that. But the point some people are trying to make is that if we don't change the terms of the conversation, then changing attitudes is less likely. The words we use shape attitudes about a subject. Those who want to avoid the term "honour killing" aren't generally trying to deny that these women and girls were killed because of a completely twisted perception that they somehow brought "shame" to their family. Rather, they are trying to point out that killing someone is murder, plain and simple, and there is no justification for it by somehow adding descriptors to the "motive". Having said that,there does absolutely need to be a way to understand the phenomenon of the threat of violence to girls and women who are living under very oppressive patriarchal structures and are perceived within that structure as bringing "shame" on their families--in short, to understand how people think about "honor" and its consequences. We, collectively--social groups, legal groups, government, aid groups, etc--need to understand how the attitudes that support the notion of "honour killing" function in order to spot the symptoms before it happens, and change the attitudes surrounding it. But once violence has happened, there is a large part of me that agrees with wanting to call a spade a spade and saying plain and simple, "You murdered someone and there is no excuse for that, and there is no justification you can raise that makes it any less condemnable."

    You are very right to say we have to look at "who is doing the harming" and "why". My point in speaking about patterns of female gendered violence is precisely looking at who is harming and why. Attitudes about the worth of people who are sex workers or people with addictions needs to change. Attitudes about girls and women needing to conform to very particular ideas about how females should dress and act or pay for their non-conformity with violence needs to change. And to that point, it is worth pointing out that some of the officers investigating the missing women called those women the very same thing the Shafia father called his daughters: "whores". It is for these and other similar reasons that I think at least one thing we are dealing with in both cases is females not acting/dressing according to the societal norms set out for them and being marked as either worthy of death or not worthy of protecting because of it. That's the gendered pattern I'm seeing in these cases.

  3. Allyson, I think you hit the alarming nail on it's head in the last couple sentences of your above comment.

    In both of these cases, the women that were killed were perceived as overtly sexual. In the Shafia case, the daughters that were killed were perceived as rebellious and Westernized, keeping secret boyfriends and dressing in a Western manner. In the Picton case, the victims were the most sexualized women in our society -- prostitutes. Daryl is right to say above that most victims of murder in our society are men. But when women are the targets I think it behooves us to realize that their deaths are frequently related to the murderer's perception of their victim's sexuality.

    In the West at least (and in the world in general, I hope) we are moving in the direction of fewer women paying the ultimate price for being regarded as sexual beings. These two cases remind us we have some road to travel yet.

    1. Allyson's last couple of sentences only miss the mark by using the term "gendered" IMO. This is exactly the same; and I use "exactly" non-hyperbolically; with other kinds of violence that have some kind of bias associated with them.

      In the movie "Madagascar" there is a scene where Marty (the zebra) is loose on the streets of Manhattan. He's spotted by a cop on horseback who radios his station to report the zebra and get instructions. The cop's last words in the scene are "can I shoot it?", spoken with the stereotypical NYC accent.

      The writer of that scene revealed two things at once with that moment: the desire of the the mounted cop to take an extreme violent measure, and his need for permission to do so.

      This is what is happening with almost all seemingly bias-based kinds of expressions: a core need to assert power seeks some kind of permission to do so. Existing social biases merely provide the level of permission necessary for those who are sufficiently driven to assert power. Honour-killers feel shamed by their lack of power over their daughters and wives and find permission in their own cultural norms. Gay-bashers are usually thugs whose need for power derives from self-awareness of their low status in the social order, the assault itself establishing that at least they are above someone.

      This latter generalisation is backed up by personal and second-hand experience, BTW, not pure conjecture. One doesn't have to be homosexual, or catholic, or protestant, or a real witch, for the accusation of it to be used to justify violence against one's person. Bias is not the real issue. The need to have power and to express it as an individual or a group is primal.

      Which brings me back to the thoughts I was having before your post "---". In most cases men are the most basic common source of the violence, both as perpetrators, and I would argue, as perpetuators. This aligns closely with empirical research done on the reactions of men to win/loss scenarios. To me this means that it is not gender that is at the core of what has been identified here as gendered violence, but rather that gender or gender-related distinctions, amomg many other kinds of distinctions, can be used as justification for violence.

      The cops who called the killed prostitutes "whores" would just as easily call male victims of violence "dopers" if they thought the slur fitting. There is an element there of another kind of motivation: the need to explain away one's own lack of power to prevent certain kinds of violence. Gender is not the most significant factor in the Pickton murders nor the systemic response to them IMO. The significant factor is the undergrounding of certain kinds of activities through prohibition.

      Hopefully we are moving away from anyone paying the ultimate price for being what they are. Hopefully, those of us with the most ability to effect change of this nature feel it is our duty to do so by becoming aware of the often-subtle ways in which we signal approval of violence or at least of certain kinds of biases as justifications for violence.

    2. You are right, Daryl. To refer to these killings as gendered ignores the gay men who have been victimized for their sexuality, as well as the trans-people who have been killed for daring to express who they are. (There is a bold movement, called the International Transgender Day of Remembrance that involves holding events centered around reading the names of all those killed for being transgender around the world. I have heard recordings of several of these and this list is shockingly long year after year.) I can see your point -- (to paraphrase based on your use of the drug analogy) sexuality is just one of a list of biases that can be made by people to exert their power and excuse their violence.

      But I think it is worth considering some of the more commonly used excuses for violence. The more a society sanctions the excuses, the more often the perpetrators of violence will have the means and feel the leeway to attempt these deeds. Sexuality perceived as overt by anyone other than heterosexual men is a bias that has been used as an excuse for violence for a very long time. To ignore the role of historical perceptions of gender and heterosexuality as well as the historical and current role of religion in creating and reinforcing this these beliefs is misguided in my opinion.

      I also applaud the fatwah issued by the Islamic clerics that you note below. The Shafia murders, as well as the Picton murders, all violence against gay and trans-people, and any other time cultural biases are used to dehumanize people and do them harm must be condemned in strongest terms by religious groups, secular groups, women's and men's groups, the government, law enforcement and anyone else with a voice and an audience to speak to. Only by condemning this violence in language understood by all subgroups can we remove the excuses and moral cover from our society's violent and extremist members.

    3. I must say, I have to wonder about this "overt sexuality" thing, Triple Dash. It seems to me that women in general have much more freedom than men to express sexuality overtly, at least in contemporary Western culture.

      When you say "the more society sanctions the excuses the more perpetrators will feel the leeway" you are right on. This is what was most important about the protest now known as "Slut Walk". I have no doubt that the police officer who told an assembly of women that not dressing like sluts was good self-defence was sincerely trying to empower those women to protect themselves, but even the acknowledgement of a causative link helps perpetuate the notion that it is taken less seriously when the victim can be seen as partially to blame.

      I think it's true that ignoring the history would be unwise but I think it equally unwise to behave today as if we are still in the past. One really strong example is highlighted by the Slut Walk itself. I was alive when the "bra burners" were amongst us. There was within the women's movement itself the idea that any kind of overt sexual expression on the part of women that turned them into "sex objects" diminished them somehow. Today the attitude is more like "we can be sexual without surrendering a damn thing". The old attitude had a part to play, of course. It helped break the mould of women being most valued AS sex objects. It gave women permission to go out into the world without first trying to live up to the ideal of the Pan Am stewardess, and it worked. Yet, I know women, my contemporaries, who would agree wholeheartedly with the cop who advised women to not dress like sluts. They are on a different page, so to speak.


    On Saturday The Toronto Star reported that 34 clerics affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada issued a fatwah against honour killings and domestic violence in general. The Star quotes Prof. Imam Syed Soharwardy as saying "These crimes are major sins in Islam, punishable by the court of law and almighty Allah". Full article at http://tinyurl.com/7q3j4po

    This is more useful than government announcements IMO. We frequently view government as an optional source of moral authority since government itself is subject to the whim of a majority, and even at its democratic best, representative of compromise.