by Yasmin Jiwani - Feminist Research, Education, Development & Action (FREDA)
Note: this article was published in 1997.
The massacre of the Gakhal family in Vernon, BC earlier this year brings to the forefront, once again, the issue of violence against women. Five days after the event, the South Asian community and the larger society, are still reeling from the shock of this senseless violence. Common questions that keep arising deal with how an event of this kind could have occurred. How could it be possible that a man with well-known violent intentions could have been allowed to get anywhere close to the family who subsequently became victims of his wrath? And other questions are surfacing as well. Did this massacre have anything to do with the cultural background of the killer or his victims? Did the criminal justice system fail the victims?
The media has labelled this event as the "second largest massacre in Canadian history." The first being the Montreal massacre of 14 women at the Polytechnique in Montreal. In between these massacres, are the countless deaths and assaults of thousands of women. Recent research reveals that 120 women in Canada are killed every year. On the average, 2 women are murdered per week by their partners. In January 1994, a Vancouver Police study found that there were 130 cases of violence against women in intimate relationships reported. More than 450,000 women are "slapped, punched, choked, beaten, sexually assaulted, or threatened with a gun or knife," by their partners. These statistics reveal that staggering nature of violence against women.
These statistics also reveal that violence knows no class, race, ethnicity or religion. It transcends these boundaries and is an endemic problem in society. Since 1992, more than 118 women have died as a result of violence in the Downtown Eastside alone. Violence is about power and control. When men feel that they can no longer control women, violence erupts. Approximately 50% of violence occurs after the woman has left or attempted to leave an abusive relationship. Violence occurs when men feel that women are taking over. The Montreal massacre was one such horrible instance where Marc Lepine felt that "feminists" were taking over - moving into areas which were previously defined as the exclusive preserves of men.
So what's culture got to do with it? The focus on culture serves to deflect attention away from the real issues at hand - namely, power and control and the outcome of challenging male authority or patriarchy. Rajwar Gakhal challenged that authority when she left her husband and filed for divorce. Yet, rather than focusing on the bravery of this woman, existing accounts simply blame the victim by suggesting that she was remiss in not laying charges. The fear of taking such an action is dismissed. However, when compared to existing research, it is apparent that many women are afraid to press charges for fear of retaliation from their ex-spouses. Because of this fear, many cases either do not proceed to court or result in a stay of proceedings. And it is precisely because of this fear that the Attorney General's office issued a mandatory charging policy in 1993. According to this policy, police have to investigate a case where there is suspicion of violence in an intimate relationship. Further, they have to report the case to Crown Counsel who then pursues it in court.
For many women, the failure to report the violence they experience is due to economic and social concerns. It has been extensively documented that women are poorer when they become divorced or separated. The "feminization of poverty" thesis argues that based on empirical evidence, women are poorer upon divorce. There are few resources for women who leave abusive relationships. In total, there are 400 shelters for abused women and 200 crisis centres across the country. Many of these shelters are facing funding cut-backs, and many are full to capacity. These shelters provide transitory help and support. But what happens after the shelter? There are few programs available to women who leave their marriages, common-law or otherwise, arranged marriages or marriages based on choice.
The Gakhal family supported Rajwar. They brought her back into the family fold and attempted to protect her from her ex-husband. Their actions speak to the strength of the extended family, regardless of its cultural background. Interestingly, media accounts of this massacre fail to mention this, even though the family was victimized as a result of its actions. Instead, the focus is on arranged marriages and how these marriages tend to fall apart as a result of the pressures of contemporary western society.
The focus on arranged marriages is a red herring in this situation. It fails to account for the endemic nature of violence in relationships which are supposedly based on choice. If we wish to focus on factors contributing to women's vulnerability to violence, then the focus should shift to aspects concerning women's status in society. Why for instance are women less powerful than men? Why do they earn less money for the same amount of work? Why are women more likely the victims of sexual harassment, campus rape, stranger-inflicted violence, and violence in the home? Why are women's voices less likely to be heard in the media, in the political arena or anywhere else for that matter? In general, why are women as a group treated as being less able than men? Historically, women had to fight for the vote, they had to fight to be recognized as persons, and they had to fight to enter into the workforce in capacities other than domestic workers. This has nothing to do with arranged marriages where families come together to ensure the economic and psychological security of their children.
The continuous emphasis on culture displaces attention away from other issues of importance. For one, Karnail Gakhal had been in Canada for twenty years. His daughter Rajwar Kaur Gakhal was barely six when she arrived, and her sister Balwinder was one year old. The rest of the siblings were born in Canada. They were raised on Canadian soil, and they died on Canadian soil. That makes them Canadians for all intents and purposes. Their deaths are a matter of concern to all Canadians.
Nevertheless, we live in a milieu where "differences" between Canadians tend to be emphasized. Cultural differences are then used to explain away basic injustices, or strategically used to argue against immigration. This situation breeds a political milieu where it is difficult for a community which has been stereotyped, marginalized and stigmatized because of its differences to even begin to talk about sensitive issues. And violence is a sensitive issue. Yet, and despite the external forces, South Asian feminists have been actively involved in the community, raising awareness about issues of violence both in the community and the society at large.
Raising awareness is one thing. Action is the other. Institutional action is necessary if laws and policies are to be put into practice. Rajwar Gakhal tried to protect herself by turning to her family and police. She made the latter aware of her situation. With a mandatory charging policy in place, it is difficult to understand why the RCMP did not pursue the case, and why, they issued gun permits to a man who had already expressed his violent intentions.
In a societal context where there is a clearly recognized disparity between women and men in terms of their access to power and resources, those with less power and fewer resources can only turn to the state to support and protect them. Some have argued that the state can no longer do this and that in this era of fiscal restraints, women have to take it upon themselves to seek social justice and protection. Such a view fails to take into consideration that women do not have the power to do this. Women and children are the victims of violence because of their lack of power, their unequal status in society. It is up to society and its institutions to ensure that those who have little power are protected against those who have considerable power and access to resources - that is, if we truly want a just society.
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