New Canadian Media
Saturday, 13 May 2017 20:30

To Understand a Culture, Read the Women

by Tazeen Inam in Brampton

Canadian woman authors believe that our society tends to equate femininity with a sense of flawlessness. Women have to be impossibly perfect in so many different ways that it’s just another way of imposing oppression on them.

“I really want to show about my characters that it’s not a bad thing to fail, it’s not a bad thing to make mistakes,” says Sarah Raughley, author of the "Fate of Flames".

Raughley longed to work with characters who have the courage to pick themselves up when they fall, in contrast with setting up ideals for women that are very difficult to live up to.

Striking a balance between strength and frailty 

Her characters are not everyday superheroes. Four teenage girls are the only people who can save the world from the massive beasts who are terrorizing the world. One girl stands for each element: fire, wind, air, and water.

“But they don’t have those masks on their faces, everyone knows who they are," Raughley explains.

Her characters are criticized for being too whiny and annoying because they make mistakes, they fight too much, they are weak and make many mistakes.  

“So I was thinking that what are the expectations for women? Especially since these are teen girls, they haven’t figure out themselves, let alone having to carry this huge destiny to fight giant monsters,” she added.  

At the Festival of Literary Diversity, in Brampton, ON, the panel of “Wonder Women” featured authors of young adult literature. They spoke about the protagonists from their stories, stressing that strength is not the same as perfection. But rather that it is in the courage to rise up from devastation and defy all odds by reaching your destination.

Shoilee Khan, the panel moderator, opened the discussion introducing the protagonists of the selected books as women of the present, who everyone aspires to be or would like to befriend.  

“They are fierce, they are stoic, but they are tender and they have this enigmatic aura of cool about them,” she says.

She said that there is a dichotomy of softness and strength exhibited by the characters, that can be translated into real life situations women face everyday.  

“They rise up against obstacles not with complete fearlessness but with a magnetic combination of illation and frailty, first for themselves and then through that self-respect, serve their communities in profound and integral ways,” Khan added.

Seeking protection with intimacy 

The panel then discussed a character with an arsenal of dangerous and desirable skills: Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liar: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.

Thom is a writer, performer and psychotherapist. 

Thom’s unnamed protagonist is a martial arts expert who runs away from her abusive parents’ house. Raised in a city called "Gloom", she escapes to the glamorous and dangerous "City of Smoke and Lights" where she is forced into oppressive factory work governed by a racist system of castes. However she is able to find herself as a trans-Asian femme and finds a community with other trans-femmes. 

Thom suggested that for transgenders there is something about femininity that’s degrading all the time, that they are weak and hyper-sensitive. But her book starts with this really intense physical strength as opposed to a trans-woman that is helpless and constantly subjected to violence. 

The protagonist loves using her strength, power and speed, until she encounters Kimaya. A mother figure whose nurturing personality is unable to mask her fierce power, Kimaya serves as a mentor figure that helps her realize that there are different kinds of strength. 

She discovers a desire for safety and a longing for closeness but struggles to have intimacy that is also safe. 

“That’s the journey that my character takes and I found out in my life too,” says Thom. 

"Manning up"

Another panelist, M-E Girard in her debut novel, sought a balance in her character when she puts them together with a combination of femininity and masculinity. 

M-E Girard is a YA fiction writer and a proud feminist, her debut novel is "GIRL MANS UP". Her lesbian character, Pen, wrestles with the external pressures societal norms bestow upon her when she exhibits both masculine and feminine qualities.

Although she is a strong protagonist and her choice of clothing and friends makes her imperfect and independent, all Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. Pen realizes that respect and loyalty are hollow words, and in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to "man up".

“My character is tender in some ways and she is also fierce and strong in her own way. Some of it [is] modeled after her masculine ideal and some of it is modeled [after] her feminine ideal. So it’s kind of a big mess,” says Girard. 

Celebrating Canada's 150th anniversary this year, founder and creative director of FOLD, Jael Richardson, says that she was inspired by the famous indigenous writer, Lee Maracle’s quote “if you want to understand the heart of the culture, read the women”. Richardson observed that at every session or panel, the audience was touched by something they weren’t expecting to hear.

“They are always surprised by the wealth of stories, writers and ideas they encounter, and it’s really powerful because that’s when real change happens,” she added.

The second annual FOLD festival was held from May 4 - 7 and hopes to bring change by highlighting the voices of women authors who offer a different perspective.

Published in Arts & Culture

by Amrita Kumar-Ratta

The tensions between multiculturalism and feminism in Canada are at an all-time high, with recent events demonstrating it’s time to reopen this debate. These tensions between multiculturalism and feminism are not new to Canada; in fact, they occupy a large portion of Canada’s contemporary political narrative, illustrated most recently by the controversial incident that took place at York University when a professor denied a student’s request to skip a group project because his religious beliefs did not permit him working publicly with women – a request that was subsequently overruled by the university’s officials and that has since garnered much critique.

Another controversial case of religious accommodation is the proposed Québécois Charter of Values (Bill 60), whose implications for religio-cultural freedom and gender equality – particularly for those women wearing the hijab or niqab -- have been hotly debated since the bill was announced in May 2013.

In this context – of heated debate and controversy over which human rights principle supersedes the other – is also the hot-button issue of sex-selective abortion among South and East Asian women in Canada: the abortion of female fetuses because of preconceived biases against them. Yet, in addition to sparking debates over multiculturalism versus feminism, this situation reveals yet another paradox: some individuals against the practice have termed it “the Achilles heel of feminism.”  

This has reinvigorated Canadian pro-life activists in their calls to government action against abortion. Not only is sex-selective abortion a matter of gender discrimination and so-called cultural injustice in Canada’s multicultural polity, it is also on the political radar as the issue that will likely put our entire, cherished reproductive rights paradigm to the test.

These issues are part of an ongoing political narrative about the duty of Canada (and its citizens) to protect against the “cultural barbarism” of newcomers – a narrative in which, for instance, many South Asian Canadian communities play a prominent role.

Blurred facts

How exactly has sex-selective abortion been represented in the Canadian public sphere and what is wrong with this picture?

Canada has been without anti-abortion legislation since 1988. This decision has time and again been legitimized on the grounds that a pro-choice stance guarantees the protection of individual freedom. Thus, the debate has never easily been reopened, particularly since Canada’s discourse of choice has been lauded as confirming the state’s responsibility towards ensuring gender equality in sexual and reproductive health. In this context, especially, evidence of sex-selective abortion being disproportionately practised by South and East Asian Canadian women hits a sore spot for ardently feminist pro-choice activists and for pro-life activists alike.

Over the past two years, the public controversy surrounding sex-selective abortion among newcomer women in Canada has gained increasing attention. From the study conducted by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital, whose findings were released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) in 2012 and suggested the likelihood of skewed sex ratios among foreign-born (particularly Indian and Korean) women in Canada, to the CBC’s hidden- camera investigation revealing early sex-determination ultrasounds offered at certain private clinics in immigrant-heavy areas of the country, to politician Mark Warawa’s campaign to pass Motion 408 condemning sex-selective abortions country-wide, and finally, to the March for Life campaign in May 2013 attempting to rebrand anti-abortion rhetoric by adopting as its theme, “’It’s a Girl’ should not be a death sentence,” sex-selective abortion has emerged as a political issue that has isolated many South and East Asian newcomer women in Canada.

What the numbers reveal

If the politics surrounding this issue have been so heavy, what do the numbers say? According to the evidence collected between 2006 and 2012, the sex ratios among first generation South and East Asian immigrants to Canada are only slightly higher than the norm, at 108 boys to 100 girls, although these numbers are likely to become even more skewed over time. A separate June 2012 study concluded that of all foreign-born mothers in the country, those from India are the most likely to have a male infant. But researchers Dr. Joel Ray and Dr. Prabhat Jha have both repeatedly stressed the lack of conclusive data about the cause of these sex-ratio discrepancies and their unwillingness to jump to any unwarranted conclusions.

Even with the limited evidence, these skewed sex ratios among certain communities in parts of the country have become the basis for heated political campaigns and popular representations that dwell on Canada’s abortion discourse, on the “question” of immigration, on gender equality and on the concern about violence against women.

It should be stressed that at the global level, sex-selective abortion is certainly a matter of grave concern – particularly as societies age and as marriage economies shift and transform. Given that the practice has been correlated to demographic statistics in certain parts of Canada – even if these statistics are slight – it is not to be dismissed from important national discussions about gender equality and reproductive justice in the country. The key question is how we frame such discussions.

Canadian discourse

Canadian public discourse on this issue has taken whatever little evidence there is of sex-selective abortion among South and East Asian communities out of any sociocultural and/or economic context that might explain why this is itself an issue, whose choice is at play and why the procedure might be harmful, regardless of who undergoes it – and where she might come from. Instead of critically engaging with the choices women make and calling to improve Canada’s reproductive care system, popular representations of this issue have relied very strongly on cultural stereotypes associated with immigrant women. 

This kind of portrayal can’t be good for anybody.

While the evidence for the practice among South and East Asian women in Canada is inconclusive, it is essential to keep the discourse alive.  The question of how we might begin to find a place for women’s experiences in the development of what Dr. Eileen Fegan calls a “reflexive legal and political strategy” by which to promote reproductive justice is one that should continue to preoccupy us – as responsible and politically aware citizens – beyond the timeline of any public images and political misrepresentations of the issue. After all, if it is not sex-selective abortion stirring our souls, it’s inevitably some other issue that is similarly steeped in ideas about gender, citizenship & immigration, and cultural diversity.

As a young – and, at times, idealistic – academic, I for one hope that this topic continues to be discussed in a constructive manner as a matter of social justice and social inclusion in Canada. Certainly, these tensions between multiculturalism and feminism aren’t going to stop influencing the Canadian public ethos anytime soon.

Amrita Kumar-Ratta holds a BA (Hon.) in International Development Studies and World Religions from McGill University and is a Master of Global Affairs Candidate at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  She is passionate about issues of transnational migration, religio-cultural diversity and women’s rights. Along with her experience participating in various community-building projects in Canada and internationally and her recent appointment as a research analyst for the UNDP in Bangkok, she continues to conduct research on gender-based discrimination among South Asians in Canada.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

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