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From Women's March to #metoo

Fourth wave feminism gets personal- and allies.


Despite his years in quiet retirement, Howard States felt compelled to come out for this momentous and historical moment. A former "Advocacy Teacher" at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, Mr. States spent his career teaching the younger generation the significance of their voice in a widely marginalized community known as Regent Park. His work, for the most part, was about guiding students and teaching them how to be advocates; whether in their community, city, country, the world- or just in their own lives.


Now, in this moment, he still felt a need to encourage others to fight to reclaim their voices and be heard the day after the inauguration of one of the most divisive American presidents, especially after video footage surfaced of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. In a sea of faces and a crowd swelling in size as it came nearer to the noon start time at the Parliamentary government buildings on Queen's Park, Mr. States was alone but firm in his presence at the march. He seemed to echo the ordinary citizen's sentiments for why they were there for the event.


"I am here today because I stand up for justice, peace, women’s rights, and fundamental rights.”


Like all the others around the world, Toronto's inaugural Women's March was on January 21st, 2017. Just one among hundreds reported around the world. Pop music was played through the large speakers on stage. Many of empowerment, some of just playful dance tunes to get the crowd's energy going. Young girls came with their girlfriends, having created homemade posters the night before and using the event as an opportunity for activism as well as sorority and sisterhood. Families arrived, veteran activists emerged, and loud musicians with percussive instruments made their presence heard. It seemed an extraordinarily diverse crowd, spanning thousands of participants just in Toronto alone.


Another prominent presence at the march were sponsors such as Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union. Staff scattered around the field with their flourescent orange-and-yellow vests enlivened the crowd before events, including Ogho Ikhalo. She offered free Women's March buttons to participants from her cozily mittened hands, exclaiming cheerful words of encouragement. She said, “it’s an empowering event to help us gather near and far for justice. We gather today in unity. It’s an amazing event and an honour to be here.”



Jean Walker, also from Unifor, said this march is not just about women. In a more serious note she believed the burden of responsibility for greater gender equality lay beyond women. She said, “this is for sons and dads to fight for us, so we don’t have men that abuse women anymore. So that when we take one step forward, they will not take us two steps back."


Marie Clarke-Walker, Executive Vice-President of the Canadian Labour Congress was also in attendance and an active supporter of the day's events. She believed in the global movement, far beyond what just the city was doing, as it stood united with several others around the world.


“We are here today so women can stand in solidarity, so women around the world can be given economic equality, and we are here to stand up for what’s right. We say no to racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, the alt-right. Together we are stronger than their hatred.”


While many participants remarked about the significance of the moment in regards to what the future has to hold, Beverley Johnson emphasized the significance of the march for her in terms of what she has already witnessed in the movement for women's rights. Reflecting back on her own journey Johnson said, “women of my generation have fought against these inequalities. And now I see the gains we made are taken away. It’s happening right here too. No more, we have to stand up.”


After the initial speeches on stage, the crowd moved from Queen's Park down to University Avenue, where traffic was blocked off to allow the crowd to move through. Several marchers carried banners and homemade posters to share messages of female empowerment, with several hot pink hats bobbing through the crowd. It was the symbol for the day.


Toronto Police were present to monitor the event, especially those on bikes to move in pace with peaceful protestors. After successfully walking from Queen's Park to City Hall, several more speakers addressed the crowd including Indigenous Senior Catherine Brooks, Toronto District School Board Trustee Ausma Malik and Ryerson University’s Consent Comes First, Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education Manager Farrah Khan. They cited several organizations that helped inspire their action.


Khan said, “our Canadian values are about human rights and justice for all."


It seemed like a strong start for a new wave of feminism, especially in Toronto. Only several months later at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, a new and incredibly intimate documentary premiered called A Better Man. Tickets sold out almost immediately. It returned in June to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema before being more widely distributed through TVO and smaller venues for intimate screenings around the city that often included a group discussion about the film’s content. The screenings at Hot Docs had counsellors on hand should viewers need emotional support. Pamphlets were distributed to educate the audience on the film’s featured content, and there was a trigger warning given right before the screening.


Among the summertime viewers was Geneviève Ramage, who works at the TD Learning Centre and supports the Immigrant Women Integration Program. The program is a free 8-month ‘intensive leadership development opportunity’, according to their website. Women graduate from the program with new skills that help them achieve post-secondary education, increased employability, and independence. Despite having a personal history of trauma herself, Ramage discussed why she decided to attend the screening.


"One of my best friends who works at Hot Docs said that we could go and check it out so I really wanted to because she told me when people left the theatre they were crying and hugging and it was really powerful so I was like we have to see this."


She went to the screening with two of her closest friends and was surprised by her own reaction to the experience, which didn't seem too uncommon for such a screening.


"In the middle, I just broke down and I started sobbing. And it was really intense; it came from this place that I didn't even know existed that was just so deep and so raw and so in pain. I feel so grateful that my two friends were there because they both held me and held my hand. They just knew to be there for me."


Ramage was among the audience members who felt a strong desire to speak to a counsellor because of her own reaction to the film. According to Ramage, the counsellor gave her some words of wisdom, encouragement and many resources to look up. Ramage recalls being told that emotional abuse could be just as bad as physical abuse, and should never be downplayed. She provided some local resources to Ramage such as Reclaim Your Voice, a trauma therapy program at The Women’s College Hospital, and the Scarborough Women's Centre. The counsellor also recommended she look up the cycle of violence known as the Duluth model power wheel.


Co-directed by Attiya Khan, she is the subject of the film and a longtime counselor for women and children. The documentary explores how two former lovers meet over twenty years down the road to unpack the horrific abuse Khan's partner inflicted upon her. The beatings became so violent, she recalled constantly thinking she was going to die this way, believing he was going to kill her one day. During a few of their sit-down therapy sessions, she lists some of the hateful words he would call her like "ugly" and "Paki". Even when she finally left, she had post-traumatic stress from the experience, being chronically plagued with nightmares for years and even feeling extreme nausea when she revisited the house they lived in together.


Yet it ends optimistically with Khan celebrating the day she left, as she has always done every year since she’s left, showing the audience there is still something worth celebrating. While it gave voice to the survivor, it also gave a platform to her abuser in a manner supportive to survivors. What this documentary emphasized is that those who experience abuse need to feel a sense of justice, whatever that may look like for them. For Khan, her sense of justice was having her ex-boyfriend appear for this documentary and take responsibility.


A sense of justice is essentially reclaiming a sense of self because much of the victim’s sense of self can be lost in trauma, whether a sustained experience like Attiya’s or just one horrific moment or encounter. A Better Man shows the similar patterns of abuse and pain one can experience, as Ramage related intimately to Khan’s experience of intimate spousal abuse, two women from completely different racial, cultural and generational backgrounds.


Only months later, news broke about Harvey Weinstein's horrifying system of sexually assaulting women. Dozens. First, the story broke with a New York Times article and then Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker. Not long after, women shared their own stories globally. Alyssa Milano borrowed the hashtag #metoo from activist Tarana Burke who coined the term after a young girl confessed she was sexually abused and Tarana in that moment, refused to listen. Regretful, she decided to create the #metoo dialogue because she was also a survivor. The hashtag would be used for millions to share their experiences of sexual abuse through social media.


But it wasn’t just Hollywood women that seemed to appreciate that the tide may be turning. For Ramage, this seems to be her sense of justice as well. She said, "I'm really revelling in all these men being taken down because it's really showing the dark underbelly about all this but then it's reminding us to keep on, to pay attention and it's showing men to talk about it. You have a role to play, you can't just say I didn't know.”


Kouraba Toronto Centre for Cultural Advancement’s Director Rachael Abah examined the culture that allowed such abuses to occur. Namely, she focuses on cultural conditioning and personal upbringing that influences such development. Abah said, “It’s the good people; church going, praying, loving my kids, daycare, white picket fence- those people are the ones that I’m calling out before you start pointing fingers at the Harvey Weinsteins and start judging. What about you? Who are you raising? He didn’t grow up on an island. Alone.


Local Toronto-based radio host Abby Plener notes the dialogue will open up understanding to the different ways abuse is carried out. Plener said, “I think often, when people think of sexual assault, they think about the most violent thing possible. But really there’s a whole slew, spectrum, of different actions that violate consent and exert power and manipulate people.”


While the third wave of feminism broadened our understanding of intersectional issues women from different races, classes, and generations face, this new wave has built upon that and turned inward, toward women’s daily lived experience and the toll it can take on their personal well-being. More surprisingly, it seems that men are more willing to be of support, such as Khan’s former partner, and other men in the documentary.


Eventually another man came into the situation to help Khan. Currently married, her husband is also seen in the film handing out white ribbons with their son, a campaign for men committed to end violence against women. It speaks not just to the shift in narrative where men are more willing to show up as allies, but they are helping the next generation learn not to do it at all, so it doesn’t get perpetuated through generations.


Even during the screening, Ramage shares how she saw men coming alone. She said, “when I went it was very sombre. I think a lot of people were just shocked but my friend and I were just like ‘Oh my God, some guys are just going by themselves, they want to learn.’”


In the documentary, Khan’s ex-boyfriend admits none of the attacks were provoked. Yet there was sincere remorse every time he apologized, but without the capacity to carry out any meaningful change. He admits he wanted to do this work years later in order to let go the labels of ‘victim’ and ‘abuser’, showing a vested interest for men coming to terms with the abuse as well. He said, “that is when you can pack things up and leave it in a place behind you... you can start owning your life again.”


But Ramage believes men can become better by standing up for women’s rights, not simply for who women are in relation to men but because of who they are as individuals. She said, “it's because they're fellow human beings and they deserve to be treated with respect."


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