DIGEST December 2022

Ending gender-based violence: Rays of hope amid the despair

First, a little celebration: FMUS is one-year old! Woohoo, happy dance! Thanks for being on the journey with me. I wasn’t sure how it would go when I began writing. Would I find my voice? Not that I am shy and retiring, but it’s different to speak as Françoise and not as the representative of an existing organization. Would anyone want to read what I had to say? Thankfully, it seems so, and I receive thoughtful feedback from you regularly. Would I find the right balance between anger and outrage, hope and inspiration? I’m working on it, even though there are times I just want to scream! Would it feel discouraging to chronicle women’s rights at this time? I’ve certainly found the current state of affairs sobering and sometimes downright scary. And I remain frustrated that it’s still so hard, even for progressive decision makers, to make women’s rights and gender equality a priority. Thankfully, interviews with activists have reconnected me with many badass feminists I admire and have allowed me to meet new, fabulous ones—all of whom energize and amaze me.

And whenever doubt starts gnawing at me, I find solace in American writer bell hooks’ admonishment to Black women writers, which she extended to women writers as a whole with her characteristic generosity: “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much’. Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… No woman has ever written enough.” Thank you, bell hooks, for these words of encouragement, and thank all of you for being FMUS (“famous”) feminists.

As always, I’ve been thinking about gender-based violence. By that, I mean violence against women, of course, but also violence against LGBTQ+ persons. How are these two types of violence connected? One word: patriarchy. Women who dare live their lives as they wish, or choose to leave their male partner? They must be controlled. Men who choose to partner with another man rather than dominate a woman? Women who don’t partner with men at all, and instead marry another woman? Unacceptable. And worse of all, someone assigned the male sex at birth who repudiates that exalted male privilege to live as a woman? Someone assigned the female sex at birth who claims the right to live as a man? Intolerable! This violence, in all its manifestations, acts a mechanism to uphold patriarchy and traditional sexual and gender norms—what the European religious far right has dubbed “the natural order.”

A year ago, in the FMUS Digest, I wrote about the December 6, 1989, massacre of 14 women at the University of Montréal’s Faculty of Engineering, Polytechnique Montréal, by a 25-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle. I was a third-year law student at University of Montréal that year, and this attack hit very close to home for me and my peers. I noted how, at that time, Canadian media and local authorities resisted recognizing this mass shooting as a hate crime against women—what we now call a femicide. Media focused on the killer’s mental health. They simply would not acknowledge the fact that breaking gender barriers to study engineering could get young women killed in “friendly” Canada. This, even though the gunman yelled his hatred of feminists as he shot the women.

Headlines emphasized the mental state of the killer. That night, Barbara Frum, perhaps Canada’s most respected journalist at the time, refused to frame the massacre as violence against women: “Why do we diminish it by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?” she asked on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Journal.

The Polytechnique massacre created shockwaves around the world and spurred activists to take action. In 1991, as a result of this activism, the global Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence was launched. Known as the 16 Days Campaign, it begins every year on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ends on December 10, on International Human Rights Day. It encompasses lobbying campaigns for better laws and policies, public messaging, awareness-raising efforts, and more. Also in 1991, December 6 was recognized in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, at the urging of feminist groups who refused to let history be rewritten.

Honoring the lives of the "filles de Poly" over the years.

It was only in December 2019 that the plaque that commemorates the Polytechnique massacre in a nearby Montréal park was finally changed to acknowledge the antifeminist nature of the events of that night:

The sign, as it was until three years ago:
December 6, 1989 Square
In memory of the tragic events that took place at the École Polytechnique (School of Engineering) on December 6, 1989, and to promote the values of respect and non-violence
The new sign for December 6, 1989 Square reads: This square has been named in memory of the 14 women murdered during the antifeminist attack at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. This was done to recall the fundamental values of respect and equality and to condemn all forms of violence against women.

It took 30 years of activism for that simple recognition to be achieved, right around the corner from where the shooting occurred. But it was changed. And in 2019, December 6 was recognized as the International Day to End Femicide.

Meanwhile, over all of these years, feminist activists in Canada have lobbied for stricter gun control. True, Canada’s death by firearm rate is a fraction of that in the US—eight times less, to be exact—but it’s higher than it should be and higher than that in Europe, Australia or Japan, for example.

(Source: IHME/Scot Glenn)

Evidence clearly shows that gun control reduces mass shootings. After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia enacted a ban on semi-automatic rifles and other rapid-fire weapons. As a result, Australia went from 13 mass shootings in the 17 years preceding the ban to zero mass shootings in the 19 years following the ban. And gun control also reduces the all-around rate of homicide by firearm. In the ten years after the ban, Australia saw its gun deaths drop by 50%.

That means fewer women and children murdered by male family members. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, worldwide, 38% of women murdered each year are killed by an intimate partner—a husband or boyfriend. In the US, where there are 120 guns for every 100 persons, that figure rises to 50% of all murdered women. While mass shootings garner a lot of attention worldwide, violence in the family is clearly where the greatest danger lies for women and children. And data shows that having a gun in the home increases that danger. Over 53% of women murdered by their partner in the US were killed by firearm, with Black women and American Indian/Alaska Native women being disproportionally impacted.

According to Disarm Domestic Violence, a US-based anti-violence coalition, the presence of a gun in the home increases the risk fivefold that an episode of domestic violence will end up in murder. In the US, death by gunshot is now the leading cause of mortality in children. And of course, firearms are used extensively by partners to intimidate, threaten and control women and their children, causing untold and lasting trauma. Around the world, domestic violence increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the numbers of women killed by their partners in many countries.

On the Canadian front, progress on gun control has been followed by reversals. A Canada-wide firearm registry was enacted in 1995 to require owners register their weapons, just as they register their cars—hardly a controversial idea, one would have thought, and a fairly mild measure at that. The registry was abolished in 2012 by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, against the vociferous objections of the government of Québec and to the dismay of Polytechnique activists.

Did the gun registry make a difference? Years ago, when my fairly traditional father became too old to go deer and rabbit hunting, he brought his two rifles to a Montréal police station to be destroyed. The registry was still in place and it had made my father think about what he should do with the hunting rifles he had owned for over 50 years. After the Polytechnique massacre, he looked at them differently. He told me that he did not want the guns to be passed down to his grandchildren, that he wanted our family to be gun free. I was moved by his concern.

Seven years after he was first elected and after years of lobbying, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has finally moved forward on this agenda. In October 2022, a national freeze on the purchase, sale or transfer of handguns and a ban on the import of new handguns into Canada came into effect. And Canada’s Parliament is currently reviewing legislation that would ban assault-type weapons and make it easier to seize the firearms of a perpetrator of domestic violence or of someone engaged in criminal harassment, such as stalking. That only took 33 years of pressure and activism.

Predictably, Canada’s small but vocal gun lobby is fighting the proposed law by spreading disinformation. They enlisted Carey Price, a Montréal Canadiens ice hockey player and member of the Ulkatcho First Nation, to repeat their arguments even though the shotgun Price holds on his Instagram post would not be banned under the new law.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights (CCFR), a fringe pro-gun group (there is no right to own guns in Canada despite the Coalition’s name), offered its swag in early December under promotional code POLY. The group’s contempt for women’s lives could not be clearer. Price later apologized for posting his message three days before December 6th, something he recognized could come across as insensitive. The CCFR did not have any such decency.

One ray of hope in all of this: the World Health Organization’s data also shows that violence against women is lower in some countries and regions than in others. Lifetime prevalence of violence was highest in Pacific Island countries such as Kiribati, Fiji or Vanuatu, and lowest in Japan or Western Europe. This means that violence is not an immutable fact of human nature, but a behavior that can be modified with preventive action at the individual and community levels and with macro-level policies that foster peace and reduce poverty. According to the WHO, interventions that work include:

If you want to know more, take a look at the WHO’s RESPECT framework, which gathers all the available evidence.

In my last newsletter, I wrote about armed violence against LGBTQ communities in the US and around the world, and the far-right authors of these attacks. That situation has gotten noticeably worse in the US over the past two weeks as right-wing politicians and pundits have amped up their dangerous rhetoric, particularly against trans persons. Heavily armed men connected with the Proud Boys (the militia whose leaders were convicted of sedition for their role in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol) and neo-Nazi groups have shut down public events featuring drag performers across the US, from brunches to library story hours.

Proud Boys and other far-right groups showed up to intimidate a drag queen story hour in Columbus, Ohio on December 5, 2022.
(Screenshot via Brendan Gutenschwager & Storyful)

Not one to be left behind, hyper-macho Russian President Vladimir Putin just signed into law a ban criminalizing any expression of LGBTQ identity among adults. In particular, the law criminalizes “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” as well as “propaganda promoting pedophilia”, falsely suggesting that homosexuality and trans and non-binary identity are tied to the sexual abuse of children. It’s not entirely clear what “propaganda” means under the law, but existing laws on protecting children from those pesky non-traditional sexual relations define it as “distribution of information”, which could include all kinds of books, as well as advocacy for the rights of LGBTQ people. One might think Putin would have other things on his mind right now until one remembers that attacks on “gender ideology” are a core strategy of the far right to keep its base mobilized. War in Ukraine going badly?! Double down on the attacks on feminists, gays, lesbians and trans persons!

Another ray of hope, however, was the Respect for Marriage Act (RMA) signed into law by President Biden on December 14, 2022. Unfortunately, the law does not codify the US Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 2015 Obergefell decision that recognized same-sex marriage as constitutionally protected—Republicans would not agree to that! But, should the Court continue on its rightward lurch and overturn Obergefell, the RMA would kick in. US states would no longer be required to perform same-sex marriages if they had laws or constitutional provisions to that effect, but they could not refuse to recognize a valid marriage performed in another state. The RMA would also require the federal government to continue to confer all federal benefits for married persons to these individuals (such as federal tax deductions, immigration preferences and Social Security survivor payments). The same protection is offered by the RMA to interracial marriages, should the Court decide to overturn its 1967 decision in Loving. Definitely important safeguards in these troubling times.

Still, it’s disappointing to imagine the issue of marriage being returned to individual US states. We know how disastrous “states’ rights” have been for access to abortion, voting rights, racial justice, and more. Just a flimsy cover for bigotry. Individuals living in a US state that once again banned same-sex marriage would have to travel elsewhere to get married, and I can easily picture them facing complications and hassles in their dealings with their own state’s government. Moreover, the RMA provides protections for religious objectors, and allows “churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, nondenominational ministries, interdenominational and ecumenical organizations, mission organizations, faith-based social agencies, religious educational institutions, and nonprofit entities whose principal purpose is the study, practice, or advancement of religion, and any employee of such an organization” to refuse “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.” Phew. Think about the implications, for same-sex and for interracial marriage.

Given that the RMA was passed with some Republican support in both the House and the Senate, it might mean fewer US states would ban same-sex marriage than have banned abortion (18 states at this point). But some foresee as many as 32 states banning same-sex marriage, if given the opportunity. Despicable. But wait, you say, same-sex marriage enjoys a lot of support among Americans (67% are in favor), so that won’t happen, right? Well, so does access to abortion (61%), and yet here we are.

We have a lot of work to do to end all forms of violence against women and LGBTQ folks, but I gain comfort from the fact that we are activated. These days, I especially admire the work of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in the US. These moms in red t-shirts are fierce and unapologetic grassroots advocates who follow elected officials at all levels to demand they support gun control. We know what we have to do—let’s get to it!

By the way, last year, over 30% of the graduates of Polytechnique Montréal were women. In 1989, that figure was 13%.

In feminist peace and solidarity,