Wednesday, November 25, 2015

November 25th: International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women

On a crisp winter afternoon in December 1989 I was walking across the University of Waterloo campus to one of my final classes in honours mathematics and computer science. I was stopped by one of my female mates from the (now closed) Womyn’s Centre. She asked me “Have you heard the terrible news”? I had not. It was December 6th.

Over the past 26 years I have attended December 6th memorials, I have fundraised for the December 6th Toronto fund to help women escape violent husbands and I wrote and performed a spoken word piece in 2012 at the annual Toronto memorial event. It is perhaps the most significant day of remembrance of any kind to me. It struck a deeply personal chord as a woman studying in a traditionally male dominated field. And over the years I have heard from many other women that it struck a deeply personal chord with them too. When women hear of that type of massacre they tend to recoil. Being killed for being a woman is something that strikes too close to home for most, if not all, of us.

In 2012 I found out about the Counting Dead Women campaign that Karen Ingala Smith started in the UK. She started recording the names of all women suspected to have been killed by male violence. She tweeted regularly the names of these victims and documented them on her personal blog. As her work progressed she started tweeting and writing about the patterns she was seeing. In following her work I often thought “Canada should have something like this”. I googled and asked my fellow feminists and found out that there were some provincial iniatives but nothing nationally. Over this same time period I saw and supported the growing awareness of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigineous Women.

At the beginning of this year, after seeing some summary info about the UK 2014 list and learning of a similar new iniative in Australia I decided that instead of asking why Canada doesn’t have anything like this I would just start doing it. And so I did.

As of this writing, there are 125 women and girls on the list for 2015. That’s 125 women and girls suspected to have been killed by male violence or 1 every 2.6 days. And the summary information I have collated looks very grim. Of the 76 solved cases (where a suspect has been charged), 54% (41) of them were killed by a current or former partner and 13% (10) were killed by their sons. I have been able to identify 22 of the 125  as aboriginal. The aboriginal population in Canada represents 3.9% of the total population. On the Counting Dead Women Canada list they represent 17.6% of the total victims. There are also inexplicable geographical differences. The population of Alberta represents 11.6% of the Canadian population yet on the CDWC list they represent 26.4% of the victims. A similar disparity occurs in Saskatchewan - they represent 8% of the victims yet their provincial population is only 3.2% of the total national population. At the beginning of the new year I intend to post more detailed summary information for all of 2015 on the NL Feminists and Allies facebook page.

I see now how the work I am doing in compiling this list is the best way I can honour not only the 14 women killed on December 6, 1989 but the unrecorded numbers of women killed globally by male violence. I do this work in the hopes that such lists will be become unnecessary. And, on the 34th anniversary of the call by Latin American and Caribbean Women to declare November 25th the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I invite you to not only contemplate the 125 Canadian women and girls on this list for 2015 but also the 1000s of women and girls facing fatal and non fatal violence both nationally and globally. And, in order to raise national awareness of femicide on #IDEVAW, on my personal twitter account I will be tweeting the names and pictures of each victim on this year’s list. I will start at 9:00 a.m. and tweet one name every 5 minutes. As of this writing the last tweet is scheduled for 7:25 p.m.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Well played Grandma, well played.

Mum posted a reminder on facebook today that not only is this weekend the festival of Imbolc and St. Brigit's day but that it is also the source of her mother's middle name. My maternal grandmother was born in 1914 on January 31st. Custom in Ireland at that time was to name your child with the closest religious feast day (perversely, the roman catholic church was the original culture jammer). So on January 31st, 1914 an infant girl named Marie Brigid O'Sullivan launched into this world for a much too short life. She died of skin cancer in her 50s after a lifetime of tanning (which is still a strange fascination of women in Ireland, despite all evidence that this practice leads to skin cancer). My grandmother was also the victim of torture known as symphysiotomy. The long term effects on her health due to this horrific procedure we might never know but she got sicker and sicker after each of 6 live births and had to remain hospitalized for a very long time after her last child was born in 1957 (her pelvis had to be rebroken since it hadn't healed correctly after the procedure).

I have written about my maternal grandmother before. She was a fantastic storyteller (or in Irish, seanchai). How do I know this? Well one of my earliest memories involve her telling me the story of the food growing in her backyard.  She was dying and Mum went back with me and my infant sister to spend a few months with her. We were the only grandchildren she ever got to meet. I am the eldest of 18 grandchildren (and a still growing posse of great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren) on my maternal side so there is a huge gap in our lives due to this loss. I remember her pointing to the fruit trees and her telling me that they were planted in that location in order to maximize the sun they would get. Grandma literally planted the seed of my food justice activism because I remember being fascinated with how much thought went into something like the fruit I enjoyed eating.

Despite her early death one particular story of hers continued on in my life and has had a lasting legacy. I had an early talent for mathematics and was often told the story of how my grandfather was also gifted in math and had scored in the top 10% of the national Irish exams in math. Alas, as the only son he had to forgo studies in the subject in order to support his mother and sisters after his dad died just as he was finishing secondary school. As a child, Mum was given strong encouragement by both her parents for learning to do arithmetic in her head so she wouldn't be stuck serving tables. Grandma often told her the story about her dad as an explanation for the talent she was displaying. This encouragement helped her to excel in maths and is was what enabled her to have a successful career as a corporate accountant. And this encouragement also helped me excel in maths and I felt so proud obtaining the mathematics degree in 1990 that my dear grandfather was unable to obtain.

So imagine our surprise when in 1996, after my grandfather passed away, we were all back in my mum's childhood home in Ireland clearing out some bedroom cupboards and we came upon Grandpa's Leaving Certificate. His standing in Maths? Ordinary level/pass.

So today dear Grandma, I am having a good chuckle in your memory as I unpack into a new house and hang up my two framed degrees (one math, one engineering) obtained via a story you told to your daughter and that she passed along to me. In the parlance of today's world:  well played grandma, well played.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An open letter to a Northeast Avalon Times columnist

Dear Ms. McGrath,

I believe what you were trying to write about in your January 2015 Column in The Northeast Avalon Times is gender and the harms that gender causes in our society. It's a pity that you obfuscated this very relevant topic with your thinly veiled hatred against girls/women with a particular hair colour and eye colour.

As someone who is blonde (and blue eyed) and has raised a blonde (and blue eyed) daughter I would like to point out a few inaccuracies in your article.

First of all, I am still blonde and I'm 47. Yes it did get darker and now it has grey throughout but I did not 'resort' to artificial products to 'restore' my natural hair colour. And neither has my now 20 yo daughter.

Secondly, and I know I can't speak for all blonde blue eyed women BUT my own personal glory was found by completing not one but two degrees, the first one majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Computer Science and the second a graduate degree in Engineering. I've got other glories lying around too and none of them have to do with the colour of my hair and/or eyes. My 20 yo daughter is currently accumulating her own set of glories that (shock!) also have nothing to do with her hair or eye colour. She is in her third year double majoring in International Development and Economics and is on the Dean's honour list. She is going to India on a placement in May. She backpacked Europe last summer. She volunteers. She is in the Student Leadership program. And (another shock) she wore pink as a child, as I did. I myself was not into the whole princess/doll scene but, alas, she was. But she also liked books. And interactive games. And swimming.

Thirdly, your attempt to determine whether me, my daughter, and others of our ilk are repulsive is, in a word, repulsive. It is also repulsive that you question how you would have treated your own daughter if she herself was blonde and blue eyed. It is also repulsive that you compared blonde and blue eyed people to albino bugs. It is also repulsive that you are given a public forum to voice these repugnant views.

Fourthly, apparently you know my Mother. How do you feel about her now, knowing that she raised not one but two blonde and blue eyed girls? Is your opinion of her diminished or does it remain the same since she herself is not blonde? Does she get demerit points for occasional buying (or making) pink items of clothing for us? Or letting us see a princess movie? These items need to be clarified.

And lastly, and most importantly, you realize that hating people on sight might be indicative of needing to see a psychiatrist? It's called being a sociopath. Unfortunately the prognosis is not good for this type of ailment. Maybe, with encouragement, you'll get the help you need.


Orla Hegarty BMath MASc

P.S. If you wanna read up on the whole gender issue thing I'd recommend Gender Hurts by Dr. Sheila Jeffreys. It's available, for free, in our provincial library system.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Tools and fools

The narrative around consent, rape culture, violence against women and narcissism exploded into the Canadian stratosphere this week. Ricochets of #BeenRapedNeverReported are still being heard around the world.

The absence of one aspect in this dialogue is sitting very uneasily within me. Actually, there are a few aspects but I'll focus on just the one, for now: Sexual objectification.

It's a term that has been suspiciously avoided during this week's dialogue but it's a term that is central to the events that occurred. And it underpins much of the dialogue that is happening...both by the talking heads and the victims.

Sexual objectification: "the act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure....without regard to their personality or dignity."

This definition helps explain a lot things going on, doesn't it?

Women are merely instruments, tools, of sexual 'pleasure', see?

That is why an executive can ask a young intern if they've been used as a tool.

That is why executives can believe that texts and photo evidence of a man using a tool was 'consensual violence'.

That is why a violent man can be an unchallenged taxpayer funded spokesperson for Canadian culture despite knowing about Jian - for years.

This weeks events have not occurred in a vacuum. Anybody looking clearly around at the world today can see that our society continues to devour women. We are merely tools.

But let's not just examine the term and it's implication in this scenario. Let's also think about the term and what it means for what our notions of sexuality and sexual pleasure are in our culture.

Some feminists claim empowerment via sexual objectification. Slutwalk, anyone? These women proudly proclaim themselves as tools and put themselves in the tool box - happily and willingly. Ergo, status quo achievement: unlocked.

But other feminists are trying to get out of the tool box. They recognize that sexuality is so much more than being a tool. Sexuality is the fluid beautiful essence of what it means to be human (pun intended). It is an act that fully engages your body, heart and mind. It is not a mechanical tool. And it does not involve violence. Ever. There should be nothing 'pleasurable' about using a tool to orgasm. If it is reduced to that then the full experience of sexuality and what it means to be a human being is erased. And if you don't believe me and my sisters on this then maybe this man will help you understand the concept of physically and emotionally safe sex better.

If our society continues to be directed by those that orgasm using tools then we are all fools for continuing to allow it. After all, tools can't report themselves as broken.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What do you believe?

I am a person of strong opinions. That is vastly different from merely being opinionated. For example, I no longer hold strong opinions on ideas on which I am not well informed about. I now take time to assimilate information about an idea and let it sprout into knowledge, As this knowledge blooms, I will generally become more forceful in my beliefs surrounding that idea.

In my lifetime, I have ditched opinions more often than not. I used to believe in God. I used to believe in academia. I used to believe in marriage. I used to believe in democracy. I used to believe in peace. I used to believe in hope. I used to believe in certainty.

I look back on the naivety of my certitudes with a nostalgic fondness now. I clung to them with desperation. It is freeing to not feel the chains of blind faith while trudging through life. I have joy in the new lightness of my being.

Recently I had a discussion with a new neighbour about religion, god and faith. She was getting frustrated and flustered about my atheism. She asked: "Well, what DO you believe in then?"

"I believe in humans. It's all we've got." I replied calmly.

And by her look, I could tell, that she did not share this belief. This makes me sad since I realize that she is not alone in her misanthropy yet ironically must feel quite alone whilst walking amongst her fellow humans.

But, in my humanism, I too am not alone. I have met some astounding people over the last few years that also believe in humans and the power of human connection. This has brought more faith to my life than the three decades of religious indoctrination in my youth. Watching their activities through the magic of technology, inspires and humbles me daily. It literally gives sight to my faith and cushions me with the comfort of knowing others have belief in me and in each other.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The gender badge vs. the gender vadge

Dear Females,

I apologize for travelling along the third wave feminism road.  It was the road called equality and it seemed to logically follow the road my mother and grandmothers fought for. I apologize for calling it equality and erasing liberation from the nomenclature of feminism.

I apologize for believing that in the 21st century women had a right to choose to sell her body. I apologize for thinking porn helped further sexual liberation. I apologize for thinking pro-choice = reproductive justice.

I apologize for thinking that women and men were wired differently and I somehow won the genetic lottery by earning the right to call myself a mathematician and an engineer despite being born female.

The road to my enlightenment was long and twisted and admittedly, privileged.

My privilege came from a mother determined to not award gender badges to her daughters. A mother who allowed me firetrucks and my sister cowboy regalia. A mother who encouraged a love of learning and a love of math. And a father who 'allowed' this freedom and even (gasp) changed our diapers in the late 1960s. A father who 'allowed' my mother to be the primary wage earner and he even cooked our family meals during the week and took us to lessons and medical appointments. There were no gender badges awarded in my family growing up. And when my sister came out as a lesbian in her early twenties in the early 90s, my parents embraced her despite their catholic upbringing and a church determined to erase her reality.And we did not seek to give her the gender badge of butch dyke or femme lesbian. She simply loved women and we accepted that without needing to label her beyond lesbian.

And now my privilege is being slammed because I also have the audacity of having a gender vadge. I am a female that calls herself a woman and I happen to also have a vagina. The fact that my parents tried so hard to eliminate the gender badge from my life - as did other freethinking parents who saw the harms of boxing in their children into prescriptive gendered roles while children - is now considered irrelevant and even dangerous to third wave feminists. Flaunting the fact that I have a vagina and others born with one need liberation is deemed cissexist. Saying that someone born with a vagina is more likely to be penetrated in a violent act whether for money or torture is called sex-phobic. Telling people that I want access to female only space is pronounced transphobic.

The only thing that seems to be relevant today is what gender badge you feel like you have and the quicker you identify your gender then the quicker your "problem" can be solved if you don't have the right body parts to match. The solution ultimately  involves lots of drugs and genital mutilation surgery. But, if caught early enough, the gender badge will be awarded.

My vagina is not gendered, it is female. My brain is not gendered, it is human. My feminism is not gendered, it is about females. My privilege is not gendered it is about socio-economic class and education and race.

Ultimately I am sorry that it took me so long to wake up to our female born reality and what the true liberation of females entails. The road behind is only a couple of centuries old and I fear the road ahead is much steeper than it was before gender badges and gender vadges become priority #1 in First World Feminism.

The penance for my own third-wave feminism fiasco will be that for the remainder of my life I will cry every time I see another female shame another female for anything.

And I'm crying a lot these days.


A 46 yo womens liberationist.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Today the wind is gathering momentum outside my saltbox by the sea. It is expected to crest to upwards of 100 km/hr. AGAIN.

It is a metaphor for the myriad of emotions I feel while reading and listening to tales of women's oppression. And as you likely know, it's everywhere.

I met with two women in town for lunch this week. We had all just attended a rally to protest the closure of the Family Violence Intervention Court here in my new home province of Newfoundland. This court, opened by the current government in 2009 was closed last year. The budgetary savings of a mere $500,000 (only 0.02% of the entire provincial budget) was deemed too much to improve and save the lives of women. A province with the highest rates of domestic violence in Canada closed the only program offering real solutions to families facing the horrors of domestic violence. It is beyond shameful and should be criminal.

At our lunch the three of us shared part of our own stories of domestic violence. We agreed it is the shame that weighed heaviest upon us and nearly crushed all of us. And the fact is that domestic violence does crush some of us. Five women in Newfoundland were murdered by their partners in 2012. Five women literally crushed out of existence by five violent men. 

So yes, I'm howling today. And the backdrop of the raging wind is providing a poignant metaphor for the way so many of us women feel whilst desperately battling the shackles of oppression in our town, our province, our nation, and our world.