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Quiet offences

Lezlie Lowe on the damage of everyday sexism.

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Have you heard about the University of Western Ontario Gazette's annual spoof issue and its mock news coverage of a fake "Take Back the Nightie" protest?

I'll save you the degradation of having to read it with a run-down of the low points: The writer illustrates some tiresome stereotypes of women, disparages the work of the university's Women's Issues Network and targets two of its members using thinly veiled pseudonyms. Worse, the author creates a spoof rape scene perpetrated by a police officer, who is seen "greasing his nightstick." Women are described as delighted to see groups of men encouraging the assault and the victim giggles, "I love it when a man in uniform takes control."

What's so interesting about the reaction to this piece—nationwide wincing and horror—is that it illustrates the fever pitch of indignation we can muster about sensationalist sexism. And yet we manage to let the day-to-day injustices of inequality in Canada gurgle away in its toxic undertow.

The Gazette's March 30 piece has been the subject of news stories and commentaries everywhere—in its hometown London Free Press, on Rabble.ca, in both national papers and in blogs aplenty. I haven't seen a single attempt to excuse the paper's behaviour (unless you count the two weeks of silence from editor-in-chief Ian Van Den Hurk before his April 13 apology). The response has been categorical, gender-wide abhorrence.

When's the last time any single, women's issue received such concentrated concern?

Canadians as a population have failed to get riled up about the Harper government's inch-by-inch hacking away at women's groups and we've pretty much folded our cards when it comes to improving the status quo (the gender wage gap? Helloooo?).

In October, the Harper government cut $5 million from the administrative budget of Status of Women Canada, forcing the closure of the Halifax branch office on March 30. Doubly damning during Harper's disastrous autumn spending review was the Conservatives' decision to refuse funding for women's groups which lobby or provide advocacy.

Closing an office is one thing, stomping on advocacy work is another entirely. As Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, told The Canadian Press when the changes were announced, "If you don't lobby and you don't advocate, you're not going to make systemic changes."

And it's systemic changes that women need—such as increased funding for women's issues lobby groups and the funds to mount court challenges when and where they're needed—not up-in-arms letter writers who only bother getting outraged when over-the-top sexism rears its head.

In fairness, we can't blame people for latching so vigorously onto this Gazette piece—it is appalling. It's also easy to lay blame for it—we might only know the cowardly author's pseudonym, but we can direct rage at Van Den Hurk. It's not so simple to point fingers when it comes to the fact that women in Canada make, on average, about 70 cents on the male-earned dollar.

But here's what we need to remember: The reason this article saw the press's ink isn't the simple, stupid sexism of The Gazette's editor. The long-standing underlying current of systemic sexism that exists in Canada is what's really to blame.

We can call editor Van Den Hurk and the anonymous author sexist imbeciles, sure. But unless you call yourself a feminist and actually do something to show that you are one—go to a protest, write a letter, demand equal treatment in your school and at your workplace—then you've got to take responsibility for the article, too.

What have you done for women lately? Email: lezliel@thecoast.ca

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