This guest post is courtesy of Adriana Rolston. Adriana is a pro-sex feminist, a recent journalism grad and an erotic baking enthusiast. She is the online editor of 1234V, a vajournal, and checks facts at Chatelaine.
Canadian Dimension’s “The New Feminist Revolution” issue addresses some of the pivotal issues facing the feminist movement today. The left-wing magazine that serves as a forum for independent political discussion touches on topics like the mobilization of a new generation of active young women in the feminist movement, depleted government funding for women’s advocacy groups, autonomy over women’s bodies, sex work rights and the politics behind regarding sex work as traditional work, and respecting intersectional feminist experiences while recognizing and breaking from the imperialist practices of the past and the present.
The first chunk of the issue introduces the RebELLEs*, a young group of Quebec feminists who were formed out of a need to reignite the Canadian feminist movement and which has come under severe attack by the Conservative government in recent years, by fighting “with love and rage,” to protect women’s rights. Sarah K. Granke and Lissie Rappaport of the Winnipeg group, FemRev, and the 2011 RebELLEs Organizing Committee, outline the aims of this grassroots collective, which is to introduce young women (ages 14-35) from diverse experiences to alternative ways to organize and counteract a culture of apathy towards feminism.
Barbara Legault gives a concise historical overview of the RebELLEs’ frenzy of activity, starting with their first gathering entitled “Waves of Resistance” in 2008. Over 500 young feminists from across Canada converged in Montreal to collectively create a manifesto, participate in workshops, discuss issues and launch fresh activist initiatives that very day. International Women’s Day in 2009 saw the RebELLEs organize more than 25 anti-right wing projects, and in 2010 a group of members engaged in the G8-G20 protests to challenge the capitalist, colonial and patriarchal agenda set by world leaders who met in Toronto. The RebELLEs also created a feminist critique against Stephen Harper’s maternal health care initiative, which refused to fund safer abortions in developing countries, and challenged police sexism and brutality toward female protestors.
The RebELLEs movement is still growing, with branches in the Yukon, New Brunswick and Ontario. The 2011 2nd Pan-Canadian Young Feminist Gathering will be in Winnipeg from May 20-23, and is seeking out volunteers and mobilizers from across Canada and Quebec. To make a donation or get involved, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next, both Jodi Proctor and Juliana Scramstad provide thought-provoking pieces that address whether, in Canada, where women’s rights are slowly and subversively being stripped away by Harper’s Conservatives, how are our bodies and voice being stifled?
As Proctor so aptly puts it in her piece “Silencing Our Collective Voices,” by slashing government resources for women’s research and advocacy groups like Status of Women Canada or the National Association of Women and the Law, “the Conservatives are quietly placing a muzzle over the mouth of the Canadian women’s movement.”
Scramstad also points out in “Our Bodies Ourselves: Are We Free Yet?” that the Conservative government is threatening the safety of women by pushing to dismantle the 15-year old gun registry program, which was initiated in the wake of the 1989 massacre at Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique in which 14 women were shot to death. According to the most recent report by Statistics Canada, in 2007, more than 8 in 10 victims of police-reported spousal violence were female. Between 1988 and 2007, in cases of spousal homicide, 28% of women were shot by their spouse. This is proof that in the private sphere, women are still most vulnerable, and Scramstad argues that if Harper is able to scrap the gun registry, the protection that women’s groups have fought for years to preserve will die.
The two opinionated pieces in Canadian Dimensions that debate the rights of sex workers and the legitimacy of the profession were written prior to Ontario Supreme Court Justice judge Susan Himel’s ruling to strike down Canadian prostitution laws in September. As of December 2, the decision was put on hold, effectively criminalizing living off the avails of sex work, working and operating a brothel and communicating for the purpose of prostitution in Ontario until April 29th, 2011, or until the issue is heard before the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Pascale Robitaille and Émile Laliberté make a case for the rights of sex workers in “STELLA: Sex Workers Get Organized,” about the Montreal-based organization that represents many forms of sex work, from porn actresses, to escorts, to web girls. The authors point out: “to us sex work can be a job that we love or we hate. It is often a really bad job, but it is our livelihood and we don’t like seeing it threatened.” They argue that the people they associate with, for example, boyfriends, roommates, landlords, employers and bodyguards shouldn’t have to be threatened with criminal charges based on their line of work. And the clients that they enjoy working with shouldn’t have to be criminally penalized for seeking out a sexually pleasurable experience. Sex workers deserve justice in the form of safer, better working conditions and recognition as equal status citizens, not the often condescending judgement they encounter that brands sex workers with a lesser-than stigma.
Anti-violence worker Daisy Kler takes the opposing stance in “Not Work, Not Crime: Who are the True Agents in Prostitution,” claiming prostitution is a violent exploitation of women’s oppression. She points to the fact that considering prostitution “sex work” suggests that it is a woman’s own choice and distracts from the gendered power relations at hand while also removing the responsibility from the men who degrade sex workers. While Kler makes some valid points about the racism perpetuated by the commodification of different cultures in sex work, her arguments ultimately infantalize sex workers and paint them as powerless victims. She completely discredits the autonomy of a woman who would consciously choose to enter into some form of sex work. Both Robitaille and Laliberté address that STELLA is opposed to this kind of stance, which they call a form of psychological violence. “We, protesting whores, live our encounters with the abolitionists as violence.” And although Kler says that decriminalizing prostitution would be a positive step forward, she maintains that the entire transaction threatens the freedom of women and addressing it as work will not provide equality.
In one of the final features, “Fighting Colonialism, Racism, and Imperialism,” Robyn Maynard addresses today’s forms of subversive imperialist violence masked by the guise of “liberating” racialized, migrant and Indigenous women. She uses the Canadian government’s rationalization of the invasion of Afghanistan as an example where “women’s rights” partially served as a scapegoat. “One of the justifications for bombing Afghani women, their children, and their families was to “save” women from the Taliban and their religion (though the “war on terror” remains the larger framework).” Quebec’s ban against public use of the burqa also polices women’s bodies while paternally chastising their right to religious expression. Maynard cites the Live-in Caregiver program as another form of exploitation whereby Filipino women who represent the majority of participants can be forced into inhumane working conditions, employer abuse, and unpaid overtime under threat of deportation.
In our own backyard, the rising number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada is a sad reflection of our sustained colonialist practices. And although the government has finally responded by committing $10 million dollars over two-years to improve law enforcement practices and local safety, it’s merely a drop in the bucket when the underlying lack of economic support for Indigenous communities as a whole contributes to the devaluation experienced by Indigenous women.
When asking, “Where do we go from here?” Maynard responds that a true feminist movement should strive to engage with the struggles of every woman’s experience. “Women do no need, and have not ever needed to be saved, but rather need to be supported in efforts to liberate themselves.” In the words of the RebELLEs, this is a revolution for all of us, fought with love and rage.
*[Ed. note: The RebELLEs organization has demonstrated a lack of commitment to pro-sex work and anti-oppression through the silencing of Indigenous sex workers and allies, and strong pressure to protest on the streets regardless of status or personal comfort level, at its Pan-Canadian feminist gathering. Shameless has not investigated whether these issues have since been addressed within the organization, but puts this information forward in the interest of disclosure.]