Until we label misogynistic acts including killings for what they are, their underlying motivations will be obscured and our ability to respond disabled.

The word “misogyny” is used by academics and feminists theorizing from their ivory towers – or at least that’s often the criticism. It’s true that misogyny is not a word used in our everyday conversations, but society is beginning to recognize it is part of our everyday lives – it has been used this week to describe the killing of 10 pedestrians and the injuring of 14 others in a Toronto van attack. News reports say alleged killer Alek Minassian was sympathetic to a misogynistic online movement. Police say most of the victims were women.

But even before this latest attack, the term misogyny had begun to (very) slowly enter the mainstream public domain, with the increasing international attention paid to the problem of the killing of women because they are women, or femicide. Latin American countries have led the way in identifying femicide as a pressing social issue. More recently, mass protests across India about the rape and murder of two young girls in separate incidents underscore the need to label such acts as femicide.

Last month, Dubravka Šimonović, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said “eradicating gender-based violence against women and girls is visible but slow and inconsistent due to insufficient state response and deeply entrenched stereotypes that make us all tolerate and normalize such violence.” Since 2015, she has been calling on countries to establish femicide observatories to collect, analyze, and review data on femicide. She underscored the importance of such initiatives during a visit to Canada earlier this month.

The Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability is responding to this call. We launched the observatory only a few months ago to track femicides in this country and to monitor social and state responses.

During a media interview, one reporter recently shared with us that she and her colleagues had never heard the term “femicide.” This was not a surprise. Until we label acts for what they are, their underlying motivations will be obscured and our ability to respond disabled. That is one goal of the Canadian Femicide Observatory – to label such acts as femicide when they occur and to work against tolerating and normalizing male violence against women.

And yet, there appears to be a reflex to argue that it’s a pointless exercise to apply a label to the attack, that there are random acts over which we have no control. Note that this resignation to fate doesn’t seem to surface when national security is deemed to be at risk. Focusing on issues such as how to prevent the use of vehicles as weapons, rather than how to address misogyny, is another way we help tolerate and normalize male violence.

Let’s be clear. Femicide is the misogynistic killing of women by men. We need to label it as such to distinguish it from the killing of men – they too are most often killed by men, but for different reasons and in different situations.

Women are most often killed by men in their intimate relationships. One might argue that not all women who are killed are victims of the misogynistic attitudes held by their perpetrators – attitudes that are perpetuated and maintained by larger societal structures – but most are. Recognizing and acknowledging that misogynistic attitudes exist and can have dire consequences is important. Attitudes are the hardest thing to change, but they have long been recognized as the key contributor to violence, particularly violence against women. We need to label and challenge these attitudes if we are to eliminate them from our social, legal, and political structures, including the media.

Minassian’s alleged actions, regardless of what precise motivations are eventually identified by prosecutors, have brought the word “misogyny” into public discourse in a way that has been absent since the Montreal Massacre in 1989. But it’s important to remember that the misogynistic killing of women occurs like clockwork in our country – it did before 1989 and it has continued up to the present day. One woman or girl is killed every other day, on average, somewhere in Canada. Misogynistic attitudes play a role in most of these femicides. Yet research shows that countries continue to minimize violence against women, including intimate partner violence, and femicide when it occurs. This largely leads to a denial of justice for many women and girls. For example, research shows that offenders who kill intimate partners are often subject to lighter punishments than those who kill victims with whom they had more distant relationships (e.g., strangers), particularly when those victims are women.

It is time that we talk about intimate or domestic terrorism and the misogyny that fuels all forms of femicide. We also need to recognize and discuss how other forms of oppression such as racism and poverty increase the marginalization of some women and girls in particular and, in turn, their vulnerability to violence in various contexts. We need only look to the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to find a clear and disturbing example of these other forms of oppression and how their intersections with gender can impact the lives of some women and girls. Labelling these processes is an urgent necessity.

Photo: Toronto: A crowd observes a moment of silence at a memorial on Yonge Street the day after a driver drove a rented van down sidewalks Monday afternoon, striking pedestrians in his path in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Galit Rodan


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