Discuss: Everyone can do something

Tahmena Bokhari and Connie Guberman explore the struggle to end violence against women.

Connie Guberman and Tahmena Bokhari

Senior lecturer Connie Guberman (left) and women's advocate Tahmena Bokhari in conversation.

About 13 years ago, a young woman named Tahmena Bokhari enrolled in an undergraduate course on violence against women at UTSC. The course was taught by Connie Guberman, a senior lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies as well as a former Status of Women Officer at the University of Toronto.

The class experience played an important role in Bokhari’s career. She has since become an outspoken Toronto-based advocate for women’s issues—both in her local Muslim community and around the world—as a social worker, college professor, consultant and public speaker. Meanwhile, Guberman, who received the Canadian Urban Institute's Urban Leadership Award in 2010 for her work on safety and resilience in Canadian cities, continues to inspire and challenge the next generation of leaders, educators and activists in her courses every year.

UTSC Commons brought the two women together to talk about how the movement to end violence against women has changed since they met in a lecture hall more than a decade ago.

Connie Guberman: I have been teaching a course on violence against women at UTSC since 1990, the year after the Montreal Massacre. It’s very moving to teach because it’s a course about our lives, not just about scholarship. You’ve taken what you learned in my class 10 years ago and moved very quickly into the community to address issues of violence against women. How did you get started?

Tahmena Bokhari: I wanted to have open discussions about violence in the mosques and in communities [that] are not in the mainstream. I saw women transformed in your course, and I was certainly transformed when I was there. So, I felt it was important that the leaders of my community be educated and informed around issues of violence and the barriers and obstacles women face. And it’s been an ongoing struggle as violence is such a complex issue, and to talk about violence means to address so many other areas where women do not experience freedom in the way men do.

CG: Just 10 years ago, society-at-large didn’t allow violence against women to be a part of accepted conversation. Now it seems we are able to speak the words, and women are allowed to speak their experiences.

TB: The issue is certainly less taboo. I am very optimistic. But there are still a lot of challenges around naming these issues publicly and having open and honest discussions about them. For example, I think people find it easier to use terms like “domestic abuse” or more gender-neutral language when they talk about violence against women.

CG: And “domestic abuse” doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in the vast majority of cases, women suffer the violence.

TB: Exactly.

CG: One issue in the headlines right now is honour killings. Do you think we’ve figured out how to address killings that happen in the name of honour in our society? Do you think there is an understanding of the cultural dynamic behind it and how to challenge it?

TB: People have this idea that Canadian women are so liberated. And then I talk about the stats: one out of four women in Canada experience abuse; one out of three will experience an assault at some point in their lives. Violence against women is not something foreign to us as Canadians. So, when people ask me, “Are honour killings a part of the culture?” I say yes. It is called the culture of patriarchy and this is the same power dynamic we see here in Canada. That’s where “honour killing” gets confusing for people: it becomes a debate about allowing people to practice their culture or religion, which takes away from the real discussion we need to be having. On a positive note, I was very happy to see that the White Ribbon Campaign—wherein men sign up as allies in the fight against violence—was recently launched in the Muslim community by imams around the country.

CG: In many traditions, many women wouldn’t call what they’re experiencing as “violent” or “abusive.” Do you find that “violence” and “safety” are defined differently by women across cultures, especially among those who are unaware of Canadian laws?

TB: Understanding our own experiences is always a challenge. I have worked with women in the South Asian community who say outright that violence against women is just a part of their culture. Of course, their own narratives are very different from the way I would discuss the issue. But how do we handle this discrepancy in views without censoring women? We want women to feel empowered, to tell their stories as they see it.

On the other hand, I also talk to young women who see various forms of violence in their families and clearly say no to it. There are brave women out there going to school, going to work, going on with their day-to-day lives and accomplishing great things, yet living with violence. And this is happening all around us every day.

CG: I’m troubled that we haven’t figured out how to address the needs of children who witness violence against their mother or who experience violence themselves. Studies show that young boys who experience violence often become perpetrators of violence later in life, and that young girls tend to internalize the idea that they deserve to be abused, that it’s their role in life. And so, the gender dynamic continues.

TB: Yes, the problems from childhood can often compound into layer after layer of complex unhealthy domino effects such as drug abuse and health problems, as the individual moves through the stages of life. It is so important to break the cycle, and as an optimist I see that there are many opportunities for intervention through our education system [and] our public healthcare system, as well as through community programs and places of worship.

CG: So, do you think teachers can make a difference?

TB: Of course! Given all my identities and the different communities I’m connected to, [I think that] to be able to influence thinking minds and inspire my students is a tremendous privilege and honour.

CG: I agree that teachers play a key role. I think we need to get that message out that no one has to do everything, but everyone can do something. This is the essence of the Green Dot Campaign, which was developed at the University of Kentucky and which just made its Canadian debut here at the University of Toronto. Green Dot is all about encouraging bystander intervention.

TB: Once you go through a women’s studies [educational program] or take a course like yours at UTSC, your eyes open to all of these issues, and you want to take what you are learning and apply it to your own life. You become an agent of change wherever you go.

CG: Well, that’s what university should be all about. The greatest compliment for a teacher is when a student says, “I’ve done something! I challenged discriminatory attitudes. I’ve done a little bit. It hasn’t changed the world—yet—but it has made a difference with the people around me.