Monday, December 6, 2010

Today I Remember The Women of École Polytechnique

(21 years ago Marc Lépine went on a shooting spree, which today has become known as the Montreal Massacre. By the end of the day, 14 women would be murdered by his hand for the crime of being women.  This horrible massacre continues to resonate deeply with Canadian women, as we use this day to say unequivocally that violence against women must stop.  I wrote the following piece 2 years ago, and decided to re-post it today)

For women across Canada, December 6 is a day that we are reminded that despite the gains of feminism and women’s work to end gender based violence, we are still marginalized and vulnerable bodies. It is the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. On this day we think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

To ensure that there was no confusion as to why he felt the need to enter École Polytechnique and massacre 14 women, Marc Lépine left behind a detailed three page letter in which he blamed feminists for being “so opportunistic they neglect to profit from the knowledge accumulated by men through the ages. They always try to misrepresent them every time they can”. He considered himself to be “rational” and therefore, he felt his rage against feminists was justified. He went on to state in his suicide note, "why persevere to exist if it is only to please the government. Being rather backward-looking by nature (except for science), the feminists have always enraged me. They want to keep the advantages of women (e.g. cheaper insurance, extended maternity leave preceded by a preventative leave, etc.) while seizing for themselves those of men.” Lépine was so angry at the perceived loss of unearned male privilege, due to the advances of feminism, his letter also included a list of nineteen other women that he also wished to see dead.

After such a horrible event there were many that felt that this terrible act of violence should be looked upon as the actions of a sole mad man, who had lost the capacity to reason. While it might be comforting to look at this as a singular incident, to do so would mean ignoring the degree of violence that Canadian women live with on a daily basis.

Lépine was the product of domestic violence, having grown up in a home where he spent his early childhood with an abusive father that routinely told him that women existed to serve men. Is it any surprise that after having been indoctrinated in this way, in his formative years, that he would come to see any woman with agency as a threat to what he considered traditional gender roles?
Even knowing that the end product of such an environment for children is dangerous, in that it produces men like Lépine, socially we still exist with the idea that a clear distinction between genders is necessary to our well being. We use colloquial phrases like, boys will be boys to justify violence, or aggressive behaviour in young males, while encouraging docility and submissiveness in young girls. The discord in worth and value between men and women is systemic.

It is not a simple matter of the so-called angry man hating feminists trying to secure special rights for women. Though patriarchy has much to gain from painting acts like that of Lépine as an isolated incident, the fact of the matter is that statistically speaking women represent a vulnerable minority.
In a report for Statistics Canada, completed by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statics that compiled a statistical profile in the year 2004, girls and women by far constitute the largest percentage of those who have been exposed to violent physical and sexual acts.

• In 2002 females accounted for 8-in-10 (85%) of all victims of spousal violence reported to the subset of police departments. Young females aged 25-to-34 experienced the highest rates of spousal violence.
• In 2002, girls represented 79% of victims of family-related sexual assaults reported to a subset of police departments
• In 2002, older females were more likely than their male counterparts to be victims of family-related violence. Of the approximate 1,100 older adult victims of violence by family members, about 700 (or 65%) were females. This is largely attributed to the fact that females make up the majority of victims of spousal violence.
• Males made up a large proportion of those accused in family violence against older adults, accounting for nearly 8-in-10 perpetrators. Approximately 22% of accused were males aged 65 or older, most often spouses and over one-third were between 35 and 54 years of age, typically adult children.
• Data from the Homicide Survey indicate that between 1993 and 2002, women were more at risk than men of being killed by their spouse (8 homicides per million couples compared to 2 homicides per million couples). The risk was also higher among younger and common-law spouses.

What the facts bear out is that despite our cultural rhetoric of equality between the sexes, women of all age groups are subject to larger amounts of violence than their male counterparts. This is not to say that all men are abusers, or even violent offenders, but the degree to which violence is targeted at women serves to keep us leading lives that are dictated by our fear of attack.

On that cold winter day, Lépine’s victims were just ordinary women working on getting an education. There was nothing special, or unique about any one of them. They became targets of Lépine’s rage for having the audacity to attempt to receive an education. Whatever excuse that is proffered, male violence against women exists to support patriarchy.

Though his fourteen victims now lie silent in a cold grave, their deaths remind all women just how vulnerable we are in a world that has chosen to value one sex above another. We reify this in every single institution from education to government. Each December 6th as we stop to remember our fallen sisters, we are reminded of just how far we still have to go.

In a just world women would not have to worry about walking to their cars on a dark night. There would not be domestic violence shelters decorating the landscape from coast to coast. We would not routinely need to inform women of the various ways in which to protect themselves from attack. It would simply be assumed by all, that such gender based violence is unacceptable in a civilized world.

As westerners, we have a tendency to look at areas like the Middle East, or the so-called third world and label them backwards in terms of their gender based acts of violence. We look on in horror as young girls are forced to undergo female genital mutilation. We express righteous indignation when we hear of rape victims being sentenced to prison for being raped, or subject to honour killings because their virginity is deemed more valuable than their person. When we make these moral condemnations of other social norms, we do so from a place of Western certainty that somehow we are more evolved. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that because public stoning and honour killings are not the tradition of western countries, that we have reached a true state of gender parity. Feminists are often told that real inequality does not exist in western states, and that we should look to our third world sisters if we wish to view real systemic gender based injustice.

What this attitude does is affirm a hierarchy of oppressions. There is no such thing as a good oppression. Whether it is a woman being beaten in Calgary by her spouse, or a woman in Tehran being lashed for daring to reveal a wisp of hair, both acts constitute an indignity to the body and an act of patriarchal oppression. Looking at the Middle East as the prime example of violence against women encourages Westerners to live in denial and ignorance at the crimes that are committed daily against women within our community. We may have many freedoms due to our secular state, but that does not mean that we should hold ourselves up on a pedestal as though violence against women is not occurring in our society.

Marc Lépine is not a solitary mad man that lost his mind one day, rather he represents a collection of men who through acts of violence daily remind women that male supremacy will be defended at all costs. Today we weep for the potential that was lost that cold December day so long ago, but amidst our tears, we must come together and commit to ending the conditions that lead to this sort of violence. All bodies matter and this must become our communal mantra.