The annual Feminist Lunch Hour series held its first event this year, titled “Feminists: Endangered? Dangerous?” last Tuesday
In light of the recent online threats targeting U of T feminists, the organizers rescheduled their guest speakers and assembled a panel to speak specifically about the issues surrounding the threats.
The event was sponsored by the women and gender studies department and the Equity and Diversity Office. Joan Simalchik, the program co-ordinator for the women and gender studies program, said that last year, when they planned the series for the upcoming year, they had chosen the topic of violence against women, not imagining the relevance it would have given the recent threats against feminists at U of T.
Simalchik mentioned how professors from different departments attached signs—“Feminist professor here”—outside their offices to show solidarity. Students wore buttons saying “U of T feminist” and carried placards with slogans to make the feminist students less of a marginalized group and harder to target.Professor Beverly Bain of the women and gender studies department began the event by reading excerpts from the posted threats. Bain then discussed how U of T had dealt with the threats. She said that it was problematic that U of T had referred the threats to the Toronto police and that the threats had been assessed as low risk.
Bain also referenced the incident of Jane Doe, a woman raped by a serial rapist. The Toronto Police Services had been following a suspect and they knew the profile of the women he would target. They did not tell Jane Doe about the danger that she could be in. They used her as bait to catch the suspect.
Bain said that the problem with referring the feminist threats to the police is that police are a patriarchal system with a militaristic approach to threats. Their solution is containment of potential victims. Bain said that the system needs to change so that women are empowered to act for themselves. This means that women would need to be informed of threats against their safety and not be taught to depend on law enforcement structures.
Professor Paula Maurutto, an associate professor and associate chair for the sociology department, described how UTM responded to the threats. Some sociology professors had offered their courses online for the first few weeks, while other professors requested that their classrooms be moved. Police officers escorted some faculty members to their classes and cars and stood outside their offices.
Maurutto continued on Bain’s points of police not being the only solution and how an institution needs to come up with flexible approaches that suit everyone. She spoke about how both male and female students carried placards stating “I’m a feminist” or “I support feminism”. “You can’t underestimate the sense of solidarity and safety that creates,” she says.
However, there have been times where Maurutto did not feel safe. Maurutto described a time when she was getting ready to leave the campus at 9 p.m. at night. She felt uncomfortable knowing she was all alone. Then she heard a sound outside her office. She looked out and was relieved to see it was a janitor and know she was not alone in the building. She realized though, that she would be going home and leaving the woman alone in the building.
UTMSU VP equity Zehra Ramsha read a statement from UTMSU and shared her own experiences as a student. Ramsha said that she had felt safer seeing security in her classes. She also said that in the first few weeks following the threats, students had come up to her and shared their concerns about whether attending class would be safe.
Ramsha said that when she worked late at night in a lab, she contacted Campus Police and Walksafer. She asked them to call and check in on her every 30 minutes to make sure she was okay.
Professor Linda Kohn from the biology department said that she felt responsible for the safety of her female students and that she discouraged them from doing lab work at 3 a.m.Aside from faculty and students, Cat Criger, the Aboriginal elder on campus, was also present at the event to speak on the topic. Criger spoke about how his culture is a matriarchy. From even before birth, he said, his culture’s fundamental teaching is to honour and respect women. They are the viewed as the water carriers, because water is a necessity of life, and they give birth to life. Criger asked the men in room to say “thank you” to the women in the room.
Criger said that similar teachings would have to occur in mainstream schools in order to reflect a change in attitudes towards feminists.