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February 24, 2001

Feminism should grow up and go abroad

Patricia Pearson
National Post

International Women's Day is fast approaching.

There. Do I have your attention, or have I lost it?

I would guess the latter: The concept of a day marking the struggles of women has become ho-hum and even faintly embarrassing, in these 26 years since March 8 was assigned to women by the United Nations.

And why is that?

Surely, there is still pressing work to be done. The women of Afghanistan have been so brutally stripped of rights by the Taleban, for instance, that it's barely tolerable for them to exist day to day. They deserve to be fought for tooth and claw by the international community -- something we did successfully against South Africa's apartheid regime.

March 8 ought to be a flashpoint for protests, punditry and political statements. For the women of Bosnia, it ought now to be a day of celebration, for they won the first-ever rape convictions at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague this week.

International Women's Day should coalesce around these battles -- and I am merely citing two out of dozens -- with the same self-evident dignity that Martin Luther King Day confers upon the fight for racial justice in the States.

It should. But it doesn't. And one of the reasons it doesn't, at least here in Canada, can be found in a story this newspaper reported a couple of days ago from Vancouver. A rape counselling society is currently before the B.C. Human Rights Commission defending its absurd, bigoted decision to reject a would-be volunteer because she is a transsexual.

The Rape Relief Society does not, as a matter of policy, allow men to be volunteers, nor women who are anti-abortion, or those "not dedicated to pursuing equality." Therefore, although the would-be volunteer, Kimberly Nixon, looks and sounds like a woman thanks to sex-change surgery, she began life as a man, and is not allowed to climb into the tree fort.

Said the society's lawyer, Christine Boyle: "women's oppression is a social order in which men by birth rule women ..." So, a woman who was born a man would be bad for victims to talk to because they "may feel that someone who lived as a man is not a peer on the issue of male oppression and ... might have a prurient interest in confidences respecting sexual/gendered assaults."

Really? What if the rape victim happens to love her husband and adore her sons and get along famously with her father and enjoy her close male friends and colleagues? Does she want a peer to counsel her on male oppression, or does she want a counsellor to talk to about being raped by one particular man?

I know several women who have been raped and not a single one needed an earful of demented politics from feminist zealots. To the contrary, one dimension of the trauma is a fear of men in general, which needs quelling in order to share intimacy again with loving partners.

The Rape Relief Society's position is outrageous, and it is that sort of childish, cliquish posturing that robs feminism of its dignity.

Christie Blatchford has been covering an inquest in Toronto into the starvation death of a baby boy at a women's shelter in the city. Hints abound in the testimony that a similarly deluded, touchy-feely, self-esteem building doctrine of female victimhood suffused that shelter and may well have contributed to the shocking fiasco of Jordon Heikamp's death.

This is not what we need in our feminism. We need focused, clear-headed, elegant advocacy. We need more organizations like the Canadian Coalition in Support of Afghan Women, founded last year by a group of journalists, academics and businesswomen, together with prominent Afghani women living here in exile. Its purpose is to set a workable agenda for pressuring the Talebandits to let girls go to school and women return to work, so they don't have to beg on the streets of Kabul, rendered homeless and penniless if their husbands happen to die or abandon them. Men can join the coalition. So can transsexuals. Who cares? The point is to aim a silver bullet at the heart of true oppression.

We need feminist advocacy, too, on behalf of the women of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and those who are killed for honour in the Middle East, and those who are abducted for marriage purposes in Ethiopia -- one of whom, as I saw recently on a CBC Witness documentary, was an Olympic-level long-distance runner snatched up from the road whilst training, by a stranger, who raped her and was therefore entitled to marry her, forbidding her with a shrug of his indifferent shoulders from ever running again.

These are not the finer points of local custom, something reasonable women can reasonably disagree with. These are instances of basic human rights violation. We should command attention for them on International Women's Day, and be able to do so with perfect dignity and gravitas. If we cannot, because of rampant, headline-hogging feminist frivolity here at home, then I'd call that a damnable shame.

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