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Misogyny is deadly: Inequality makes women more vulnerable to being killed

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, July/August Newsletter by Elizabeth Sheehy July 2010

Misogyny kills. It’s that simple. Well, not quite. Actually it is men who kill women, but here in Canada they are aided and abetted by women’s inequality — social, political, legal and economic inequality. Moreover, Aboriginal women and racialized women experience the most profound levels of inequality and exclusion, rendering them acutely vulnerable to being killed by men. A 2002 Statistics Canada report found that Aboriginal women are eight times more likely to be killed by a spouse than non-Aboriginal women. And that doesn’t even account for Aboriginal women’s vulnerability to killing by strangers, the likely fate of hundreds of missing women.

Male violence is intended to shut women up. Scandinavian researcher Margareta Hyden says that men she interviewed “used their fists because they did not want to hear any more words. Violence offered these men the best option for achieving what they wanted… They beat their wives into silence.” And of course femicide achieves a woman’s silence forever.

I, for one, am not going to shut up about it. I agree with Catherine MacKinnon’s famous observation that “Feminists have this nasty habit of counting the bodies and refusing not to notice their gender.” Or their race.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have us believe that his government is giving women what we want — safety — through his law-and-order measures: longer sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, raised age of consent, even hackneyed proposals to reverse our sexual assault law reform. All of the evidence, however, indicates that women are most vulnerable to male violence in societies that are more highly stratified on the basis of sex and race. Harper’s crime measures will not alleviate but rather exacerbate inequalities of sex, race and class by criminalizing and jailing those most vulnerable to our legacy of colonization and racism.

Only equality and a full-fledged assault on misogyny and racism can deliver us safety from male violence. But women’s equality is not on Harper’s agenda. Far from it. Not only have equality-seeking organizations been systematically de-funded, but the word itself — “equality” — has been banished from government institutions.

Misogyny — hatred of women, or the belief in the inferiority of women — is alive and well. It is actively and overtly promulgated by men’s rights groups and their female apologists, and you can read it, plain as day, online, in response to almost any Canadian news item about women: women who are leaders, women charged with crime, women who have been victimized by men. Although we might wish to think of these social conservatives as a pathetic fringe group, they are quoted in newspapers and consulted by governments.

Misogyny is also manifested in our culture by our obsession with women’s bodies, sexuality and beauty, by our devaluation of mothering, by our insistence that women meet impossible and conflicting expectations that they be feminine, but not too “girly,” strong but not “ball-busters,” smart but not ambitious or accomplished. We expect women and girls to be vigilant in protecting themselves against sexual assault and avoiding the grip of violent and controlling male partners, but not be afraid of men. In fact, we nourish the cult of obsession and possessiveness as “romantic love,” and marriage as an imperative is pounded home to adolescent girls by the wedding industry.

It is true that, on some measures, Canadian women and girls are “equal” or even ahead: women outnumber male students in universities, for example, and we can see women in positions of power, such as those who sit on the Supreme Court of Canada or on corporate boards of directors. A growing number of women out-earn their male partners. Other studies have found that women hit men at least as often as men hit women. Social conservatives use statistics like these to suggest that therefore we have no problem with inequality or male violence against women: we’re equal or, better yet, women are the real abusers.

But let’s not get confused here. Men continue to dominate Canadian universities in terms of professorships, earning, leadership positions and, notoriously, “star” status, as evidenced by the recent announcement of 19 newly appointed Canada Excellence Research Chairs, all of them men. The face of the poor in Canada is overwhelmingly female, with women making up 60% of minimun-wage earners, and with 24% of single mothers living in poverty.

As for the claim that women are as violent as men, these studies hide the severity of the assault and its consequence. Did she throw a plastic bottle at her partner, or did she choke him into unconsciousness, bursting the blood vessels in his eyes and leaving his throat marked by her thumb prints? Did she step on his car keys, or did she rape him while the children sobbed on the other side of the door? Battering — the pattern of coercive control that is aimed at striking fear and limiting the freedom of another person — is committed almost exclusively by men.

So is domestic homicide. Of the 230 domestic homicides in Ontario between 2002 and 2007, 92% were committed by men and only 8% by women, according to the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee. And even these data cannot be compared, because the most common motivation for men’s deadly attacks on their intimate parters is sexual and proprietary jealousy, whereas husband killing by women is most often committed in self-defence.

The killing of women in Canada can only be stemmed by an explicit and sustained commitment to ending sexual and racial inequalities, to valuing the lives of women — all women. There is no short cut.

And we cannot afford to shut up.

(Elizabeth Sheehy is a law professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. She is currently writing a book on battered women who kill their abusive male partners, using Canadian murder trial transcripts.)