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When 'Feminism' Is A Killing Word

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This piece is co-authored by Jess Tomlin (the Executive Director of The MATCH Fund) and Lauren Ravon (the Director of Policy and Campaigns at Oxfam Canada).

Women are trash. What other explanation could there be for assassins in Honduras murdering indigenous rights activist Yaneth Urquia and then abandoning her body at a municipal garbage dump? What else could have caused peace activist Intisar Al-Hasairi to be shot and stuffed into the trunk of a car in Tripoli last year?

Women are dangerous. Why else would someone shoot Malala Yousafzai in the head for wanting girls to be allowed to receive an education? Why else would Qandeel Baloch, a young female Pakistani social media celebrity, end up drugged and strangled to death by her own brother in the name of "honour"?

We cannot just be feminists where it's safe.

It's easy to chalk up the violence to assassins, gangs and terrorist groups in faraway places. But when it hits close to home, it's an invitation to re-think. Think of the hundreds of Aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered here in Canada. Think of Professor Homa Hoodfar, who has lived nearly half her life in Montreal and is now being held in a notorious Iranian prison without access to lawyers or medications -- because she is a feminist.

What does it mean to be a feminist in a world where women are still threatened for speaking out, killed for standing up for their rights?

"I'm going to keep saying, loud and clearly, that I am a feminist," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared at a UN conference in March. "Until it is met with a shrug." He received thunderous applause from an adoring crowd, and rightly so. But let's focus, for a minute, on the second part of his statement -- the part about the shrug.

We cannot just be feminists where it's safe. We must stand alongside people who put their lives on the line and fight an uphill battle every day.

Just a few weeks ago, four Mexican women human rights defenders came to Ottawa on the eve of the Three Amigos Summit to share their stories. Forced disappearance, torture, sexual violence ... these are just some of the ways in which Mexican women are punished for seeking justice and standing up against corruption. They reminded us that a word that may soon be met with a shrug in Canada is still met with knives, guns and handcuffs in other parts of the world.

It's safe for Prime Minister Trudeau to say he's a feminist. A far more audacious act would be to make defending those who defend the rights of women a central tenet of Canada's foreign policy.

We can vote, and drive, and march on Parliament Hill without fear.

We hope to see Trudeau's feminism guide his leadership at the high-level Summit on Refugees that he will be co-hosting with President Barack Obama in New York City in September. A good place to start would be to consult women's rights organizations ahead of time to make sure their priorities make it onto the formal agenda, and insist that the specific obstacles faced by refugee women and girls -- including sexual violence, widowhood and forced marriage -- are at the heart of those discussions.

Going forward, Canada also should ensure that a bigger portion of our aid dollars go directly to women's rights organizations in the Global South. These organizations are best placed to help women strategize and mobilize to advance their rights, often in the most challenging of contexts. Canada can help ensure they have the resources to hold their ground, press for change and stay safe.

We also need to re-define what Canadian feminism is.

We can vote, and drive, and march on Parliament Hill without fear. But do we question the deep rooted inequalities that make it possible for Aboriginal women and girls to disappear without a trace, and without an outcry? Do we demand an end to the gender wage gap that has been stuck at around 72 per cent -- and hasn't budged in years? Do we insist that women be invited to actively participate in the peace processes that Canada supports in conflict-ridden regions?

We cannot just be feminists where it's safe. We must stand alongside people who put their lives on the line and fight an uphill battle every day.

It will be a great day when our prime minister can say he's a feminist and be met with a shrug by other global leaders. But we live for the day when women in Iran, Honduras, Libya, Pakistan and Mexico can be feminists without fear.

This blog was first published in iPolitics on July 22, 2016)

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