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Femicide in the streets

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even as Calgary celebrates the opening of the art exhibit Walking With Our Sisters, this lovingly crafted and beaded commemoration of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women offers a bare glimpse of the hatred and the hazards facing all women, just because we are women.

Whatever aspiration women might have, a significant percentage of men are predators who evaluate us not by our looks or achievements or public standing, but by whether they’re likely to get away with hurting us. Too often, the predators are our most intimate partners. Femicide has been practically invisible because it has been a private matter.

With the recent Toronto van attack and the Parkland shootings, the perpetrators seemed to be aiming at women. Femicide has become public. Both times, the alleged perpetrator (Alek Minassian, Nikolas Cruz) had previously voiced intentions to make women pay attention to him, one way or another.
                
Both members of an online community of "involuntary celibates" or "incels" for short, they both quoted the incel icon, Elliott Roger. His final video rant included: "I don’t know why you girls are not attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it."

The term "femicide" (as opposed to "homicide") surfaced in 1976, at the popular-run International Tribunal of Crimes Against Women. Speaker Diana Russell's definition of Femicide included "the murder of women by men motivated by hatred, contempt, pleasure, or a sense of ownership of women" and "the misogynistic killings of women by men."

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability defines femicide as "the killing of all women and girls primarily by, but not exclusively, men" -- because some cultures and contexts may require women to participate. By that standard, Canada sees a femicide every six days.

Half of Canada’s femicides occur within the immediate family, where "a sense of ownership" may be a factor. The good news is that intimate murder has decreased significantly in Canada since women’s shelters came online in 1975, from 20 per million then to 9.4 per million in 2015.
    
Decreased violence means everybody benefits. 70 per cent fewer men were killed by their intimate partners, and 40 per cent fewer women died at their spouses’s hand. This suggests that women turned to support services when they could, rather than resorting to violence. That’s the good news.
 
The bad news is that "the misogynistic killings of women by men" seem to be increasing. Self-defined "incels" like the Parkland shooter and the Toronto van driver have quite explicitly attributed their rage to lack of sexual access to women, to which they feel entitled.

"We need to address the toxic masculinity that lies at the heart of their hatred," as Arshy Mann wrote in Xtra recently. "These young men have been consistently fed lies their whole lives; women are things, men are entitled to their bodies and sexual conquest is the route to fulfillment."

While it’s only human to feel lonely or rejected sometimes, he says, the incel community sharing of their feelings "has now festered into a toxic subculture of people who dehumanize women, fetishize violence and push each other to enact that violence in real life, whether to themselves or to others."

Dehumanizing women is all too easy in North America. Two hundred years ago, legally we were chattel, the property of the men in our lives, along with all our worldly goods. Sixty years ago, Playboy turned our bodies into public commodities, and our presence into accessories. Until the last couple of generations, men have been quite able to live in an all-male world, with female attendants.

Women also live in men's world. For us, it's a world of carrying keys in our hand, splayed out like claws, when we walk alone after dark. It's a world of checking locks, and checking in by phone with friends after a date -- of avoiding underground garages and parking on the street even if it means walking farther -- of putting a cover on our drinks and politely staying out of reach of inebriated customers. Living in a men's world can hazardous for anyone who doesn't appear to conform to gender expectations.

The power difference is stark. As Margaret Atwood said, "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them." 

The World Health Organization recommends taking a public health approach to preventing femicide, by changing prevailing opinions and practices, starting at the societal level. In Canada, Bill C-75, a bill to reform the criminal justice system is now before Parliament. It offers some new tools for dealing with domestic violence, such as a reverse onus bail for repeat offenders, who will have to prove they are safe to release.

Law professors Elizabeth Sheehy and Isabel Grant argue these are not enough. "What we need is a comprehensive, integrated strategy to prevent and respond to domestic violence, and resources to support women extricating themselves from violent relationships."

Similarly, writes Arshy Mann, "Instead, boys and men need to be taught healthy forms of expressing masculinity. The extremist misogyny of incel culture is derived from the more casual and systemic misogyny of our broader societies. That needs to be fought in classrooms, in online spaces, in pop culture and within our institutions..."

Otherwise, he warns, "Minassian's act of terror was intended to inspire others to do the same. And unless we act, that’s exactly what will happen.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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