I’m writing this on December 6, 2021. This was the day, in 1989, when 14 women, 13 of them engineering students at the École Polytechnique (Faculty of Engineering) of the Université de Montréal, were killed by a 25-year-old man with a semi-automatic rifle. The gunman explicitly came to kill feminists. He had failed to gain admission to the Faculty of Engineering, and believed that these women were responsible—that they had taken a place that was rightfully his. In a last letter (not released by the police at the time, and made public only a year afterwards) he wrote: “Feminists have always enraged me. I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their maker.”
I was a third-year law student at Université de Montréal then, and that evening, my class was holding an end-of-term celebration nearby when we heard the news. The horror and shock are still vivid. Each of these murders was what we now call a femicide —the killing of women just because they are women. I felt the anti-women hatred behind the massacre viscerally, but it was hard to talk about it. We didn’t have the words, yet. And very soon, public commentators in Canada actually began downplaying or even denying the misogynist character of the massacre. Only when the gunman’s letter was released, could the gaslighting stop.
Author Rebecca Solnit is famous for Men Explain Things to Me, her essay about women having their own field of expertise explained to them by men (cf. mansplaining). In her 2020 book, Recollections of My Nonexistence, Solnit revisits her early twenties in San Francisco, when she faced almost daily harassment as a young woman. Her reflections about the way harassment and violence affect the lives of women and girls are lucid and devastating: “Young women are urged to never stop picturing their murder.” Indeed! My beloved maternal grandmother constantly warned me against hitchhiking and talking to strange men, pointing out stories of murdered girls to underline her point.
So many passages of Solnit’s book resonate: “I became expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away, backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at taking less and less space on the bus as yet another man spread into my seat, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself. At the art of nonexistence, since existence was so perilous.” Ooof. I suddenly was once again my teenage self on the train, trapped next to a masturbating man, or the young lawyer dodging the senior partner trying to kiss me at the holiday party.
What does this violence do to women and girls? It silences women, for a start. But Solnit notes that even when women and girls overcome violence or the threat of violence and speak up, they constantly struggle to be heard (audibility), believed (credibility) and have their words matter (consequence)—the same doubly so for women and girls of color. “To be a person of no consequence, to speak without power, is a bewilderingly awful condition, as though you were a ghost, a beast, as though words died in your mouth, as though sound no longer traveled.” Changing who has a voice—whose account is heard, believed and acted upon—is the determined and painstaking work of feminist and racial justice activists all over the world, to which Solnit has made a signal contribution.
In 1991 the campaign known as “The Global 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence” was created by feminist activists. At the time, violence against women was still a deeply neglected, taboo issue—considered a “private” matter by lawmakers, police, and human rights advocates, its very existence often downplayed or denied. How far have we come since?
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