In the Blog
When I woke up on Monday last week and heard on the radio that a 16 year-old Muslim girl in Mississauga had been strangled by her father and was not expected to live, I thought Please, don’t let her die.
I thought this for the very obvious reason that Aqsa Parvez’s eventual death is a tragic thing. But I also dreaded the storm of reports demonising Islam and blaming Parvez’s death on her family’s faith. I dreaded the fact that this already awful event could easily be turned into an excuse to be racist and xenophobic.
And yup, as the web editor of the only Canadian feminist magazine for teenage girls and women, I knew we were going to have to say something - to say nothing would be wrong. And I also knew I didn’t know what to say.
How do we recognise without a single disclaimer, how terrible and saddening it is that Parvez is dead, and that women everywhere face this kind of violence from their closest family members in their daily lives - without falling into the easy racist traps that feminism has fallen into so many times before: when we demonise cultures where apparently women don’t have it as good as we do in white, middle class, educated, urban North America?
From the CBC to Salon.com, the internet has been rife with criticisms of feminists who’ve kept quiet about Parvez. Natasha Fatah writing for the CBC is particularly angry, saying women’s advocacy groups “have played mute” on Parvez’s death, asking:
Are we going to allow cultural relativism to be the scapegoat for abuse and murder in this country?
Fatah also asks of Muslim clerics:
Why are they so afraid of acknowledging that obsession with a religious ritual may have been a factor [in Parvez’s death]? It is because they fear their own culpability in this horrible tragedy.
I would argue however, that seeing violence against women as a systemic problem is a stumbling block not limited to the Muslim community.
December 6 and the Pickton trial alone could’ve generated reams of newspaper pages on how the actual problem is ongoing and systemic violence against women, racism, and poverty, not a few bad men here and there. However, the only time the news media has decided to talk about how institutions support violence against women, is when we can blame an institution that we hold as decidedly foreign: Islam.
We’ve talked many times on this website about how our beliefs about who is going to be hateful are hateful themselves. As a culture, it’s much easier for us to imagine that the only people who are sexist are Muslims, or 50 Cent, or basically people who aren’t nice, white, healthy, middle class folks.
I would have to disagree with Fatah that Canadians have been reluctant to blame Islam for Parvez’s death. Enter “Aqsa Parvez” into Google.ca and you get “hijab dispute”, “tradition and terror” “Muslim teen abused” “clash over hijab”…The website Muslimah Media Watch published a very thoughtful post on Parvez’s death, pointing out that the emphasis on the hijab is “…especially frustrating as at this point we are not clear on the motive,” and discussing at length the headlines in different publications crying Muslim Extremism! and confusing the hijab, which is head covering, with the niqab, which is full face covering.
I cannot speak for all feminists, but I know that this feminist’s silence on Aqsa Parvez’s death comes from the fact that I am deeply disheartened and saddened to watch the death of yet another woman be hijacked by our dogged cultural stupidity - our insistence that the problem is not our culture, but the specific individual circumstances of Parvez’s life. When women die, we say, she was Muslim, or she was Aboriginal, or she was a sex worker, or she was drunk - we never say she died because in Canada, 1 - 2 women per week are killed by a family member or partner. Sometimes, our refusal to admit that gets to be a bit too much for me, and so sometimes, I don’t speak up when maybe I should.
As a woman of colour, I am tired of listening to people rail against FGM/C in Africa, forced marriage in South Asia, sex slavery in Southeast Asia, honour rapes and killings in the Middle East…without a single word lent to the daily destruction, violence and brutality experienced by women in white culture. And I am exhausted by the violence against women of any culture.
Fatah says because feminists are too afraid of being politically incorrect to “speak for Aqsa,” no one will. And while I think that is harsh, it is true that we still do need to mourn Aqsa, and recognise that sometimes when Islam collides with patriarchy, what is essentially a faith of peace and love becomes a means to subjugate women. But the problem is not Islam, it is patriarchy, because whenever Christianity, or Sikhism or Judaism coincide with patriarchy, you get the same result.
In the end perhaps the best way that feminists can “speak for Aqsa” is to remember that the only way we can talk about violence against any woman of any faith, race or culture in a way that recognises the enormity of what we lose any time a woman is beaten, raped or killed by a man is to remember, again and again and again, that it is not Islam, and it is not Muhammed Parvez, Robert Pickton or Marc Lepine who we should reserve our rage for - it’s our systems. And then keep fighting them.