New Canadian Media
Wednesday, 27 September 2017 21:29

Saudi Arabia, Modernity and Counter Terrorism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Three cheers for Saudi Arabia!  The conservative Kingdom has ruled that women can now drive and no longer need to be accompanied by a mahram (essentially a male guardian) when they are in a car. Many are celebrating this decision although some conservative killjoys have accused the government of ‘bending the rules of Sharia’.  Some have joked that the country has finally joined the 20th century. 

That quip is actually more accurate than might appear at first reading. In many ways – socially, religiously, ideologically – Saudi is stuck not in the 20th century but in the 18th century, and, truth be told, in the seventh century.  The 18th century is a reference to the pact made between the up and coming Al Saud family and a bunch of ultra-conservative clerics headed by Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab whereby the Al Sauds took care of people’s economic and political well-being while the ‘Wahhabis’ looked after their souls. 

By that, I mean, they imposed an austere, joyless interpretation of Islam that they claimed was void of what they saw as all the alterations and aberrations that had entered into the faith since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the early to mid-600’s.  Wahhabi Islam is rejected by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims and would have remained an insignificant blip on the international stage had it not been for the 1970's oil crisis and the gazillions of dollars that flowed into Saudi coffers, only to be redirected worldwide in the spread – through mosques and schools – of this hateful and intolerant version of Islam.  

There really is no other way to look at Saudi Islam and it is undeniable that the vitriol inherent in Wahhabism is directly responsible for a huge part of the ideology that became Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

So what are the Saudis doing about all this? After all, the Kingdom has suffered from jihadi attacks itself and one would think that the regime does not want or like to be tainted with any association with a violent bunch of terrorists. It is an open debate, though, whether Saudi Arabia really cares what outsiders think in light of its massive wealth and still rather closed society.  Here the news is both good and bad.

On the good side, the government has been cracking down on ‘preachers of hate’ and dismantling their ability to spread their message.  Many have also been arrested and Saudi security forces have successfully foiled many terrorist plots.  The ‘reform’ programme – and I use the term loosely – of King Salman and, probably more importantly, his son and second-in-line for the throne Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ambitious in scope and must be seen as a move in the right direction. Whether it actually achieves much and how the Wahhabi clerics react to it will bear watching.

The decision to allow women to drive should be seen through this prism.

On the other hand, Wahhabi influence is still growing in places like South Asia and Southeast Asia, as clerics continue to influence the locals, including children in madrassas and pesantren (what they call madrassas in Indonesia).  Saudi economic weight is clearly playing a role here as the Kingdom can offer education and religious instruction to countries where there simply isn’t enough room in the budget to do so.

Saudi Arabia is also incontrovertibly involved in massive human rights violations in Yemen, where it has been mired for years in a civil war that it tries to paint as a necessary struggle to prevent Iranian (read: Shia) infiltration into the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf kingdom is trying to quash attempts to have independent, neutral observers carry out investigations in Yemen to determine the scale of suffering and point fingers at those responsible for it. 

Speaking of the Shia, Saudi police and the military continue to mount ‘counter terrorism’ operations in the country’s Shia-dominant eastern provinces. While there certainly are violent extremists in the region, a lot of the violence is state-imposed and driven by the Wahhabi belief that the only good Shiite is a dead one.

It is thus a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to Saudi Arabia and terrorism. The Kingdom talks the talk and is involved in some worthwhile national, regional (not Yemen) and international counter-terrorism initiatives. But, as long as Wahhabi Islam is the dominant form of Islam practised in the country and spread through Saudi ‘benevolence’ worldwide, that nation must be seen as both part of the solution and a big part of the problem.

What then do we in the West do?  The unfortunate answer, for the time being, is ‘not much’.  We cannot ignore Saudi Arabia, we cannot tell it what to do, we cannot isolate it and we cannot pretend that it is not behind the contagion of hateful Islamic teachings. In other words, we are damned if we do nothing and damned if we do something (if anyone has a better idea please e-mail me).

Last week, I was a guest lecturer in a graduate course on terrorism offered by my friend Thomas Juneau at the University of Ottawa. The class was discussing the nature of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the consensus seemed to be that Washington has no choice but to guarantee the Kingdom’s existence and remain a close ally because all the alternatives are worse (if Saudi Arabia decides to move closer to Russia or China, going in an even more radical direction, etc.). 

That is what has been termed Sophie’s Choice – where either decision is unbearable.  And that is seldom a good place to find oneself. 


Phil Gurski has worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available online and in bookstores. 

Published in Commentary

by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa

On International Women’s Day, equal rights experts say that cabinet gender equality, a prime minister who calls himself a feminist and social media campaigns such as #HeForShe help in the fight for women’s rights in Canada and internationally, but that there is still a long way to go toward policy parity that translates into real progress.

In interviews with iPolitics, the heads of the United Nations Population Fund and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights say that while there’s greater awareness around issues of gender inequality than in the past, that still needs to translate into concrete action to improve the lives of women in Canada and abroad on issues like access to education, career opportunities and sexual and reproductive rights.

“It’s not just about wearing a badge and saying ‘He For She,'” said Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in reference to the viral social media movement spearheaded by UN Women and actress Emma Watson over the past two years.”We have to do things — what are we doing at home and in the workplace environment to make sure that women are treated equally? We need to keep pushing.”

Time to stop 'skirting around' the issue

Since the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his gender-balanced federal cabinet, there’s been renewed attention domestically on the issues of gender equality and women’s representation in politics.

“We can talk about gender equality, but until we actually start doing things and confronting things, we aren’t going to get there.”

Cabinet ministers including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have sparked discussions over work-life balance and the challenges faced, particularly by women, by, for instance, late votes in the House. Former NDP MP Sania Hassainia, prompted debate on how to make public and work spaces more family-friendly when she brought her baby into the House of Commons during a vote in 2014.

It’s these kinds of discussions that are vital to putting the issue of gender equality on the public radar, Osotimehin says, so that leaders prioritize “creating child-friendly spaces around the world and making sure that women don’t lose their career growth.”

“We have skirted around it for too long,” he said. “We can talk about gender equality, but until we actually start doing things and confronting things, we aren’t going to get there.”

With a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, Canada is better placed than it’s been in years to lead initiatives on gender equality not just at home but abroad, says the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.

Sandeep Prasad says Monday’s announcement for greater funding for sexual health education and family planning is an indication that the government isn’t going to shy away from supporting gender equality globally, and the language used in the announcement of $81.6 million in funding for the UNFPA is a welcome change from how the past government approached women’s sexual and reproductive health.

“This is the first time I can recall of the government referring to sexual and reproductive rights in full."

“This is the first time I can recall of the government referring to sexual and reproductive rights in full and indicating its support for those issues,” Prasad said. “We’re waiting for more steps forward, but we’re taking note of this one and we’re going to enjoy it.”

While the former Conservative government’s Muskoka Initiative on Maternal and Newborn Health was a strong step in helping save the lives of mothers and children, Prasad says it didn’t pay equal attention to women who are not or do not want to become mothers.

“We saw a lot of [focusing on] women as childbearers and the initiative also prioritized the lives of mothers over other women,” he said. “Agency and autonomy as central principles of sexual and reproductive rights are critical.”

Canada poised to be leader around sexual rights

While International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said Monday the government is having discussions around other initiatives specifically involving abortion, there was no timeline set for when or how the government plans to act on its support for the topic abroad.

Improving access to RU-486 — otherwise known as the abortion pill — would be a significant step towards showing their commitment to women’s reproductive rights.

Prasad said his organization is hopeful the government will commit to advancing abortion rights as part of its support for sexual and reproductive rights over the long term, but also pointed to things they can do at home in the short term.

In particular, improving access to RU-486 — otherwise known as the abortion pill — would be a significant step towards showing their commitment to women’s reproductive rights, he said.

Health Canada approved the combination of drugs known commercially as Mifegymiso — which is really two pills of Mifepristone and Misoprostol — in June 2015 but imposed several restrictions on how it can be used.

Although the World Health Organization approves the drug combination for pregnancies up to nine weeks, Health Canada set the limit for use in Canada at seven weeks.

As well, doctors seeking to prescribe the drug must undergo specialized training to do so and there must be a registry kept of the doctors prescribing and pharmacists dispensing it.

Prasad says allowing Mifegymiso to be used up to ninth week of pregnancy would bring Canada in line with other allies and mark an important step in the government’s willingness to ensure access to abortion services in Canada over the coming year as it continues to brand itself as a government bringing Canada back as a leader in the international community.

“I’m hoping that we will be moving towards a Canada that reasserts its place on the global stage and in Canada on the issues of women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights as well, and we can see more evidence-based discussion on these movements and what Canada does at home and abroad,” he said. 

“There’s ample scope for greater political leadership for Canada in advancing sexual and reproductive rights.”


Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca.

Published in Politics

by Shan Qiao in Toronto     

Women’s rights advocates are looking for influential Canadian female figures to join a national women’s coalition to raise awareness about women’s issues and get more government funding. 

On Mar. 5, the third day of the National Metropolis Conference, a roundtable titled “Changing Support to Women’s Organizations: Implications For Immigrant Women” was hosted by Debbie Douglas, the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). 

Other presenters included representatives from Status of Women Canada and several frontline workers from different women’s organizations serving specific ethno-cultural groups or geographically located clients. 

“The opportunity arose when we brought all different women’s organizations from across the country together,” said Douglas. “What we saw happening was that by the end of it, there was real enthusiasm for a network and very concrete suggestions on holding a national women’s symposium on a broader range of women’s issues.” 

A national women’s coalition 

What these women’s organizations try to build are networks that include indigenous women, immigrant and refugee women, lesbian and trans-women, and moms facing problems like finding affordable childcare and returning to the workplace. 

“We need to get together as Canadians, regardless how long we’ve been in this country.”

“We need to get together as Canadians, regardless how long we’ve been in this country,” Douglas urged. 

Some issues they want to examine are violence against women across all races, cultures and classes; wage gaps and women not being able to advance in careers because of gender discrimination; and limited childcare spaces. 

As a result of an engaging roundtable discussion, one of the participants, Fatima Filippi, the executive director of Rexdale Women’s Centre in Toronto, proposed the idea to form a national women’s coalition to gather different women’s service groups together, asking for government support and sustainable funding. 

The roundtable participants brainstormed on who should be involved and suggested groups for immigrant women, mothers, foreign caregivers, women from shelters and feminists. 

Participants also proposed inviting influential female figures, such as the Minister of Status of Women Canada Patricia Hajdu and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, who is the prime minister’s wife. 

Deteriorating funding 

Government funding for women’s organizations has been continuously deteriorating from when it was at its peak in the ’80s, explained Douglas. 

Yannick Raymond, regional director of Status of Women Canada in Ontario, comes from one of four locations across the country that works for the ministry to deal with all stakeholders. There used to be 16 locations before former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government took power and closed 12 of them. 

[W]omen’s advocates say they are starting to see a change in tone, which at a minimum slows the downfall of the women’s movement in Canada.

Raymond was among a dozen stakeholders who discussed women’s issues from the perspective of the government. She praised Hajdu, who she said has a thorough understanding of current women’s issues based on her past social and community service experience. 

As for the new Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, women’s advocates say they are starting to see a change in tone, which at a minimum slows the downfall of the women’s movement in Canada. 

“Beginning with Brian Mulroney’s government, we started to see a real cut in social programs, followed by the Liberal government that stayed in power for almost 13 years, who really did deepen cuts, but still had the language and values of supporting women’s organization,” explained Douglas. “In comes Harper. They changed the mandate of Status of Women where all references to women’s equality were removed.” 

Douglas continued, “We saw the closing of significant women’s organizations, immigrant women’s organizations, and indigenous women’s organizations.” 

Looking forward to change 

An earlier workshop, also hosted by Douglas, titled “Impact of Ten Years of Conservative Rule on Women’s Political Organizing”, shared the same perspective on the deteriorating changes to women’s organizations due to funding cuts. 

“Twenty years ago, Canada ranked first in women’s equity. Now we are 14th. We were way worse under Harper."

Writer and activist Judy Rebick who gained national prominence as president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women in the early ’90s, quoted statistics from a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on Canada’s inequality index number to explain the funding cuts. 

“Twenty years ago, Canada ranked first in women’s equity. Now we are 14th. We were way worse under Harper. The lack of connections between the government and women’s advocacy was huge,” she said. 

However, Douglas remains optimistic. 

“Come 2015, we see the articulation by a prime minister who talks about the importance of women’s representation. For example, 50 per cent of his cabinet is female, his attention on indigenous issues. He at least articulates a value for wanting to see immigrant and racialized women succeed,” Douglas said of Trudeau, adding, “We’ll have to see what’s in the budget.”


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Top Stories
Tuesday, 05 January 2016 21:49

Historic Election for Saudi Women

Commentary by Ghadah Alrasheed in Ottawa

This year was marked by important elections around the world. Here in Canada, the Liberals leaped to a majority government, bringing Stephen Harper’s decade of power to an end.

And last month, in Saudi Arabia, women voted for the first time in municipal elections, not long before the nation made international headlines for increased tensions with Iran.  

The 2015 municipal elections were the third in the history of the kingdom; previous elections were held in 2005 and 2011, and were open only to male voters and candidates. The polls for 2,100 seats at 284 municipal councils across Saudi Arabia ended with roughly 47.4 per cent voter turnout.

The most prominent feature of this year's elections was the presence of women as voters and as candidates.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics.

A historic day for Saudi Arabia

Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the kingdom, from the largest urban centres to smallest rural areas, in order to give their voices.

Twenty women won seats in the Saudi councils, some in what are known to be the most conservative areas of the kingdom, such as Qassim.

Although the 20 candidates represent just one per cent of the total seats across the 284 councils, this is seen as a significant step for wider women’s suffrage and democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Out of 130,000 registered female voters, 82 per cent cast ballots in comparison to approximately 50 per cent on the male side. This reveals Saudi women’s determination to take opportunities to prove their presence and influence on the level of politics and civic participation.

An important step for women’s empowerment, it also has the potential to expand the democratic experience in general and affect citizens’ propensity to engage in politics.

Before the day of the election, for example, a Saudi woman made a video called “Banat Baladi” (“My Country’s Daughters”) that explained the significance and the process of the elections.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics and awareness of citizen responsibility.

The decision to allow women to participate was made by the late King Abdullah, who also appointed 30 women in the Saudi Shura Council.

Under King Abdullah, women had been given bigger roles, such as sending more of them to universities – some of which are in Canada – and opening more opportunities for employment. Many hailed these steps as part of his legacy.

It is encouraging now to see King Salman fulfilling Abdullah’s commitment to integrate women into the political space, continuing his careful reform of women’s rights.

Saudi women took selfies after they voted.

Challenges to voting

This is not to suggest that the elections were without hurdles: reports of women facing difficulties surfaced.

Bureaucratic measures made providing proof of identity and address challenging. A conservative group distributed flyers renouncing women’s presence in the elections and asking voters to refrain from voting for women.

Other difficulties related to transportation, an issue that prompted Uber, in collaboration with a Saudi women’s empowerment group, to offer free rides to polling stations on election day.

Despite these challenges, many received the elections with celebration. Saudi women took selfies after they voted. Some voters brought their moms and others brought their kids, which made the elections a cross-generational event.

Saudi men and women rushed to the Twitter accounts of the women candidates to congratulate them on winning the elections.

Among the first elected was Rasha Hefzi, who received many congratulatory tweets. One tweet said, “You entered history.” Similarly, another applauded Hefzi’s “entrance into history” stating, “Congratulations to us, to Jeddah. How lucky we are!”

I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small space in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist, called the women’s elections a historic day for Saudi Arabia.

Canadian and international media also agreed it was a historic and symbolic victory for women in the kingdom.

A victory with substance?

But is it really a victory, taking into consideration the fact that the powers of the municipal councils are limited to local planning and development issues such as public parks and trash collection?

Regardless of the subject of the powers of the councils, I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small step in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

It provides a healthy model for future generations and normalizes women’s presence on both the social and political levels.

It also reveals, in opposition to the dominant discourse centred on deep-seated cultural impediments to women’s participation in Saudi Arabia, that the Saudi society, like any other, is ready for change.


Ghadah Alrasheed was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She finished her bachelor’s degree at Princess Nora University, Riyadh. She has been in Canada for about 11 years and is currently doing a PhD in communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is a contributor to New Canadian Media and Saudi-based Al Hattlan Post and Sofaraa.

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary
Monday, 28 September 2015 02:22

President Dr Ernest Bai Koroma at the UN

President Dr Ernest Bai Koroma has kicked off a week-long US visit with a Global Leaders' meeting at the UN on the topic - "Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: A Commitment to Action".
Speaker after speaker have reiterated commitment to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia noted that although her election as the first female president in Africa was an indication of her country's commitment to gender equality and (...)

- Salone News /

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Published in Africa
Monday, 31 August 2015 09:03

Living With Arab Girl Syndrome

by Summer Fanous (@SummerFanous) in Toronto, Ontario

Living in Jordan and Syria as a teenager, I witnessed daily injustices – and because I was born female, I faced them as well.

I always knew I wanted to share my story and write a book, but hadn’t got on the right train, so to speak.

As luck would have it, I volunteered to judge a Canadian annual creative-writing competition for ESL students around the world called CreatEng Café. I was involved in a number of steps in the process of creating the book, and once it had been published, the light bulb suddenly came on.

The idea for my book was staring me right in the face.

In my case, out of years of frustration and constant questioning – and a bit of humour – I discovered that I had “Arab Girl Syndrome.”

Culture shock

After spending five years in the Middle East from age 12 to 17, I moved to Toronto in 2011. I love everything about Canada, from the people to the scenery – and especially the hockey.

I must admit, though, my love for hockey has less to do with it being Canada's national sport and more to do with the fact I was born and raised in Chicago and am a Chicago Blackhawks fan. 

But I’ve loved every moment of being in this country. I feel it is a place for true beginnings, especially for newcomers. I lived in Jordan and spent a lot of time in Syria, before any of the civil unrest started happening, and I’ve seen how Canada has stepped up and been friendly to Syrian refugees.

Arab Girl Syndrome is an inherent feeling of inequality rooted in sexism that manifests itself in Arab tradition.

But the extreme culture shock I faced while moving between countries opened my eyes wide in disbelief. Living life on one side and then switching over to the opposite side overnight does something to you.

Right before we were about to fly to Amman, my father was watching a program on television that was talking about honour killings in Jordan.  I asked him what the show was about, and he just told me not to worry.

This experience with my parents speaks to many others I’ve had with them about certain topics. Sex was probably the main one – it’s no surprise to me that immigrant parents in Ontario are so riled up about the changes to the sex-ed curriculum in this province.

Many parents avoid talking about sex in the hopes that their children won’t be “lured” into it.

But having “the talk” is critical for the development of healthy and mature lives. Children need to know about the parts of their bodies that are private. They need the proper language to communicate what’s happening to them.

When parents don’t speak with their children honestly, openly and in an age-appropriate manner, they create confused and misinformed people.

For example, how can children feel comfortable reporting sexual abuse if they don’t know how to discuss it, or what to do if it happens?

The challenge of being born female

Arab Girl Syndrome is an inherent feeling of inequality rooted in sexism that manifests itself in Arab tradition.

In order for a revolution of any sort to happen, people must understand that those outdated ideas and taboos aren’t appropriate in today’s day and age.

The goal for every father of an Arab daughter is to protect her honour and dignity before she gets married off and becomes the responsibility of another man. In most cases, the importance of her “honour” lies in her anatomy and is to be protected of all costs – her virginity.

In the Arab world, marriage – and, therefore, permitted sex – is the one thing that’s probably on everyone’s mind, yet no one is talking about it.

As Shereen El Feki argues in Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World“Moreover, for women in Egypt and its Arab neighbors, having a husband is key: a woman’s social value is still tied to her status as a wife and mother, no matter how accomplished or professionally successful she might be… As they say in Egypt, ‘The shade of a man is better than the shade of a wall.’”

Giving voice to Arab women

In order for a revolution of any sort to happen, people must understand that those outdated ideas and taboos aren’t appropriate in today’s day and age. Giving voice to the ideals that Canadian Arabs and Arab females from around the world believe today will help get the message across.

But in many Arab countries, “outside” opinions and information that are beneficial to women might not always be welcome.

Thankfully, Canadian society doesn’t subscribe to the same ideals as society in the Middle East, which is why I am proud to be living in a country that affords all people the opportunity to become a better version of themselves.

The last thing I want is for my children to be misinformed about sex. I want my daughter to understand the way the world works and to change the old-school mentality about what’s important as an Arab female.

Our voices are underrepresented, and I believe it’s finally time for them to be heard. That is why I started the Arab Girl Syndrome writing competition, which offers New Canadians from various parts of the Arab world the opportunity to share their stories. The only requirements are that applicants must be female and of Arab descent.

There will be prizes, as well as a chance to be published in a collection of works by Arab women including essays, poetry, short stories and original artwork. The book will be an elegant yet raw look into the lives of Arab girls and women from around the world.

The competition begins September 15, 2015 and will run until January 31, 2016.


Summer Fanous is a professional freelance writer in Toronto. Please visit her website, www.summerfanous.com, for more information. Her passion project can be found at www.arabgirlsyndrome.com

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture

By Septimus Kanu, Freetown.
The Parliament of Sierra Leone on July 2, 2015, after a marathon debate has unanimously ratified a Government Motion on the AU Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, dated 11th July, 2003.
In presenting the Protocol to the House, prior to ratification (while both lower and upper galleries in the Chamber were filled to capacity with concerned women), the Minister for Social Welfare, Gender and (...)

- World News

The Patriotic Vangaurd

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Published in Africa
Wednesday, 12 November 2014 09:56

Our Male Chauvinist Culture

by Fred Maroun in Ottawa

Canada’s government will shortly introduce a bill intended to further discourage “barbaric cultural practices,” such as polygamy, forced marriages, and “honour” killings. I suspect that this bill will be supported by the vast majority of immigrants to Canada. Speaking for myself, I would certainly agree that such practices are barbaric and do not belong in Canada (or anywhere else).  The clearer we can be about the illegality of these acts, the better.

It is interesting, although I am sure purely coincidental, that this bill is being introduced during the ongoing Jian Ghomeshi scandal which has brought the issue of violence against women to the forefront.  Clearly, whether we are immigrants or not, we Canadians have a lot of work to do in order to improve our record in the way we treat women.

Jian Ghomeshi, a son of Iranian immigrants, who for many years was known as a charming and talented radio host, appears now to have been physically abusing many women over many years with impunity. It is reported that Ghomeshi’s abuse affected many women, all his staff knew about it; it was even reported within the media organization, but Ghomeshi’s abuse was allowed to continue.

Campus Frosh weeks

In September 2003, a story broke about a chant promoting rape at events during Frosh Week at the University Of British Columbia's Sauder School Of Business.   Not having learned anything from the UBC incident, a similar chant was reported at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax the following year.  Apparently, Frosh leaders, both at St. Mary’s and at UBC, said “it’s just lyrics, it’s just a chant, they have no meaning behind it.”

In November 2014, two players from the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees hockey team were charged with sexually assaulting a young woman at a Thunder Bay hotel during a game trip seven months earlier. Taking no chances, the university president, Allan Rock, suspended the entire team, but his caution was criticized by students as “unfair”.

We have a reputation for being polite, liberal, and egalitarian. Perhaps we do not deserve it.

Radio hosts and university students are considered to be among the most educated Canadians, and such educated people are expected to understand that women are not their sexual toys. Some people have suggested that Canadian universities have a “rape culture”. I think that the problem extends far beyond universities.

Sexual offences

According to Canada’s Department of Justice, “the highest number of police-reported sexual offences were against girls between the ages of 11 to 19, peaking at age 13 (781 per 100,000 population).” Think about this for a minute: 13-year-old girls are the favourite target of rapists. The same document also states that “78% of sexual assaults were not reported to the police”; other reports give even higher numbers, going as high as 94%.

One could argue that 781 per 100,000 population is only 0.78% and therefore not representative of the general Canadian population. However, since only 78% of sexual assaults are reported, the actual rate is 3.5%.  In addition, the 3.5% rate of rape is only the tip of the iceberg.  Sexual misconduct goes well beyond rape.  In June 2013, almost 300 current and former female RCMP officers joined a class-action lawsuit alleging harassment in the workplace.

According to the Canadian Labour Congress, "10% of women 18 to 24 years of age report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace within the previous 12 months."  At this rate, it is not hard to imagine that most women in Canada have experienced sexual harassment at least once during their lifetimes.  In fact, a private company, Canadian Labour Relations, estimates that over 90% of women in Canada have been sexually harassed at least once.  This is far beyond an innocent Frosh week chant; this indicates a sense of entitlement on the part of men towards women and girls.

This is far beyond an innocent Frosh week chant; this indicates a sense of entitlement on the part of men towards women and girls.

Our global reputation

This is clearly not a Canadian problem alone, but we pride ourselves on being better than the rest of the world. We have a reputation for being polite, liberal, and egalitarian. Perhaps, we do not deserve it. The reality is that the vast majority of Canadian men have been abusive to women at one point or another in their lives, and many, like Ghomeshi, appear to feel fully entitled to do so as often as they wish.  It is not just our universities that have a twisted idea of sexual consent; this syndrome appears to be widely shared among men in our society: even former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps was not immune, as we have just learned.

Whether it is “honour” killings, rape, or other attacks on women, we Canadians, immigrants or otherwise, clearly have a lot of work to do. We need to provide more support to women who are victims of these crimes so that they will feel secure enough to come forward. We need to recognize gender equality as very high among our cultural values, and we need to shun old male chauvinist attitudes and behaviours traditionally promoted within many cultures. 

Laws are essential, but they are not enough. We need to take personal responsibility for this, in our families, in our workplaces, and within our communities.


Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin who lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of the civil war. Fred blogs at Times of Israel and his own blogspot

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:15

It’s not about sex — it’s about the law

by Albertos Polizogopoulos

There has been much talk about York University’s decision to accommodate the religion-based request of a male online student to not engage in group meeting work with female students. Most of the “news” pieces I’ve seen call the decision, and the student who made the request, sexist, misogynistic, and archaic. To accommodate this student, we’re told, would be a violation of women’s rights. Even Canada’s Minister of Justice spoke out against the decision, saying that Canada did not send troops to Afghanistan to fight for women’s rights only to have them degraded here.

All of these characterizations are, in my opinion, wrong. Here’s why. There is no question of, nor threat to women’s equality rights in the accommodation request of an online university student.

This story is being driven by a thorough misunderstanding of Canadian law and human rights.

There are no competing rights to be balanced in a case where granting one student’s request does not infringe on the rights of others. In Ontario, every person has the right not to be discriminated against, and to seek accommodation, on the basis of their religious beliefs. Because this is the law, York University is required to accommodate, to the point of undue hardship, the religious beliefs and practices of their employees and students. “Undue hardship” is a legal term which is fluid and case-specific, but in the simplest of terms, it means “undue burden”. Among other factors, an undue burden can be determined by the cost and/or labour required to provide the requested accommodation and the impact of providing the accommodation on the human rights of others.

Default option

As an employer I am required by law to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of my staff. That being the case, if an employee requests the day off to observe a religious holiday, I would likely have to accommodate the request. If, however, that employee requested that I close the office and give everyone the day off on that religious holiday, I could successfully argue that it would be unworkable for me to provide the accommodation without undue burden. But the default in these kinds of requests is to provide the accommodation.

The York student’s request was a private one. If the professor had kept the request private, as would be expected, there would be no uproar. The student did not ask for female students to be treated differently, prohibited from participating in the online class or prohibited from participating in the group work. He asked that he be grouped with male students for assignments or that he be exempted from having to complete the work in a group. How would granting his request by having him complete the work on his own or placing him in a group with other male students, violate women’s equality rights? It wouldn’t.

We may not agree with the beliefs that underlie this student’s request, but his requested means of accommodation does not violate anyone else’s rights. Or provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Or sections of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

No balancing of rights

Men and women have the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex, but there’s no right for men or women to be in a study group with students who may not want to be in a group with people of the opposite sex. There is no legal balancing of rights necessary in this case because there are no competing rights in this case. If the student had asked for female students to be excluded from the classes he participated in, that would be a case of competing rights. In the balancing of rights in that scenario, request denied!

What matters here is context. Neither the student’s religion nor the basis of the religious belief preventing him from being in a study group with female students was divulged. Should it matter whether he is Muslim, Jewish, Christian or something else? In law, it doesn’t. In law, so long as the religious belief is sincere, it doesn’t matter whether it’s shared by all or most other people subscribing to a specific faith system. At least that is the opinion the Supreme Court of Canada has expressed on several occasions.

If this student truly believes that, for religious reasons, he ought not to be engaged in group work with female students, he should, at law, have his religious beliefs accommodated to the point of undue hardship.

Imagine, for a moment, his request was not a religious one. Imagine the student requesting the accommodation was Raj Koothrappali, the fictional character from the television show The Big Bang Theory. Until recently, the plotline had Raj unable, from fear, to speak in the presence of women (other than his mother) unless he had imbibed alcohol. In such a scenario, the accommodation request would be based on disability, not religion. Would that be sexist, misogynistic and a violation of women’s rights?

No one-size-fits-all

What if a female student who had been the victim of domestic abuse asked not to be placed in a group with male students? Would there be such an uproar? Would the professor have denied the request? Would the professor have discussed the request with his students? The media?

If someone would grant these latter two requests but not the one on religious grounds, perhaps their objections are rooted in their view of religion, not this specific case.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to human rights. Factual context and a proper appreciation of the law is necessary. At present, we label ourselves — constitutionally and in our laws — as a society that respects and affirms religious freedom. Until and unless we change our position as a society to one that only respects, affirms, and tolerates religious freedom for religious beliefs and actions we agree with, there is no legal basis upon which this student should not have received the accommodation he requested.

Albertos Polizogopoulos is a Partner with the firm Vincent Dagenais Gibson LLP/s.r.l. in Ottawa, Ontario. He regularly appears before courts and appellate courts including the Supreme Court of Canada to advocate for his clients’ rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression and parental authority. He also frequently appears in media interviews and on panels to discuss constitutional law. This opinion was originally published by Cardus. Reprinted by permission of Cardus and the author.

Published in Commentary

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