International Women’s Week began on a high note for me when I turned on CBC radio on March 7th to listen to Sunday Morning. The show began with Parachute Club’s “Rise Up,” surely a song to inspire hope if there ever was one.
Then, it was three hours of stories about amazing women:
The 1969 Abortion Caravan: a documentary that every high school student should hear so they can be inspired by the courage and determination of the women who made reproductive choice a possibility in this country
Haleh Esfandiari: an Iranian American woman who was an early feminist pioneer under the Shah and who was imprisoned in 2006 when she returned to Iran to visit her elderly mother
Nellie McClung: as told by her youngest granddaughter
The Miss G Project: bringing gender studies courses to Ontario high schools
The Voice of Women: women’s peace activism, 1960s style
Judy Collins’ haunting rendition of “Bread and Roses”
The Sisterhood: grade 8 girls in a Toronto school creating their own space for sharing stories, getting and giving support and having a good time
What a great way to start the week, I thought. Perhaps the whole week will be this good!
Well, it is only Tuesday evening, but the euphoria I felt after listening to Sunday morning has long since faded.
Why? Here are a few reasons.
i. Margaret Wente and her March 4th attack on “Reality Check: Women in Canada and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Fifteen Years On,” the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and Canadian Labour Congress coordinated report to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
The superficiality of her smooth dismissal of the wage gap is staggering. To claim that women earn less than men because men work more hours than women and women prefer jobs in the public sector, without examining the gender-based reasons for this, is too offensive for words. I have some nonetheless.
Do you think that perhaps the lack of flexible child care has an impact on how many hours mothers can work?
How about the fact that, according to data gathered in the 2005 General Social Survey, working women spend 4.3 hours per day compared to men’s 2.5 on unpaid housework and child care? Or that women miss more time from work than men because of family responsibilities? In an average week in 2004, 5% of women and only 2% of men missed work time due to family responsibilities. Overall that year, women missed 10 days of work and men just 1.5 to take care of family responsibilities.
These statistics come from the federal government’s 2005 General Social Survey, which can hardly be dismissed as “the usual labour-feminist rhetorical stew, flavoured with a heaping cup of statistical abuse,” as Wente describes the FAFIA/CLC report.
ii. Canada’s Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, Helena Guergis, and her comments at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. While claiming that her government is committed to helping the victims of domestic violence, she made no mention of the present move to remove gun control legislation. She spoke proudly of the fact that women make up more than 50 percent of the paid workforce in Canada, but said nothing about how many of us work part time or about the wage gap between women and men.
iii. The recognition by the United Nations during the Status of Women Commission that: "Progress towards gender equality has been uneven and slow.”
iv. A sexual assault case currently awaiting decision by the Ontario Court of Appeal on the issue of consent. The facts of the case are admittedly unusual. A woman was asleep in the bed of a man with whom she had had sex in the past. While she was asleep, his identical twin brother got into the bed with her. The man claims the woman consented to the sexual activity that followed. She says there was no consent because she believed him to be his twin brother. The man was convicted by the trial court, but has appealed his conviction, claiming he asked her: “Are you sure?” and she, “by her conduct, not by her words, consented.”
It can only be hoped that the Court of Appeal will dismiss this appeal, but it is troubling that it is even being heard. Surely there can be no question that consent includes an understanding of who we are agreeing to be sexual with. Surely, waking someone up to ask “Are you sure?” when you are in someone else’s bed, someone to whom you happen to look identical, is not sufficient to meet the legal standard for consent. Surely, this woman should not have to continue to relive this experience 4 years after the sexual assault took place.
v. Canadians Nathalie Morin and Nazia Quazi: Nathalie and her three children have been trapped in Saudi Arabia since 2005 and Nazia since 2007 for no reason other than that they are women in a country where any movement by a woman must be consented to by a male guardian. In Nathalie’s case, it is her abusive husband; in Nazia’s, her abusive father, who will not provide consent for them to leave the country.
The Canadian government has declined to become involved in either case. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s press secretary has said, of Nathalie’s plight: “When Canadians leave Canadian territory, they are subject to the laws and conventions governing the country where they are.” The government has also said that it cannot involve itself in what is “essentially a domestic dispute” that must be resolved in a way that is “consistent with Saudi laws and regulations” and that Nathalie and her spouse must reach “a consensus on the issue of custody.”
This list (which is a pretty random gathering of news stories – there were lots more I did not include, and each of you readers could add your own) makes it hard to feel very celebratory about International Women’s Week.
Let me end with two more positive thoughts.
First, from Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters, by Jessica Valenti:
“(f)eminism is a pretty amazing thing. When you’re a feminist, day-to-day life is better. You make better decisions. You have better sex. You understand the struggles you’re up against and how to best handle them.”
Second, from the mouth of the 5-year-old son of a feminist friend, who asked him why he thought we had IWD: “It’s Women’s Day because they do all the stuff for us.”
Perhaps there is some hope, after all.