Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How we're 'celebrating' International Women's Day at the University of Waterloo

Today is International Women's Day. While we have much to celebrate--and indeed, have taken to celebrating here on this blog--it remains true that women do not enjoy the full complement of human rights in much of the world. Here at the University of Waterloo, a recent spate of incidents on campus and online demonstrate that even on the campus of a research university in Canada, women are still the targets of hate for some, and, perhaps, not taken fully seriously by others.

This is a guest post by Shannon Dea, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy, here at UW.

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For just under a month, women at University of Waterloo have been terrorized by an anonymous propagandist who claims that women’s “defective moral intelligence” poses a serious risk to the planet. Starting on February 7, when student election posters for female candidates were covered by misogynistic flyers, there have been three waves of flyers (two of them attached to eccentric and disturbing email messages) and two Facebook messages disseminated by an author who has variously referred to himself as Lord Irwin, nath007, Feridun Hamdullahpur (University of Waterloo’s president), and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The rustic and syntactically idiosyncratic communications, the most recent of which was emailed to assorted students, staff and faculty members late March 1, have bit by bit advanced the thesis that women should not be educated as highly as men, and that universities should not teach gender equity, because woman’s deceptively weak exterior hides her evil interior. When women are educated and treated as equals, according to the propagandist, they pose a real danger to the planet. The poster girl for this campaign is Marie Curie, who figures prominently in all of the flyers, and is characterized by their author as the “mother of the Nuclear bomb,” as the “evil” woman responsible for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the Eve leading a hapless Adam-Pierre Curie toward the apple of Nuclear weaponry.

Understandably, women at UW are frightened. The day after the first Marie Curie email was sent out, the student government (the Federation of Students) closed the university’s volunteer-run Women’s Centre and LGBT student centre (GLOW), out of concern for volunteers’ safety. And, rightly so. Both centres are obvious targets. And, while the propagandist’s misogynistic ambitions may not extend beyond distributing his paranoid ramblings, no one’s willing to rule out the terrible possibility UW might join the ranks of Polytéchnique Montréal or Virginia Tech.

Well, no one but the University, that is.

Throughout this business, the administration has had remarkably little to say about UW women’s fears that the flyers may be warning signs of a misogynist who poses a real danger to them. At first, the University’s newsletter, the Daily Bulletin, didn’t discuss the flyers, with at least one staffer there dismissing them as a “prank”. Then, when the propagandist sent an email in which he impersonated Hamdullahpur, the Daily Bulletin reprinted an official letter from the president deploring the offensive message conveyed by the flyers and assuring readers that the president wasn’t really the email’s author. Of course, no one had ever taken seriously the idea that Hamdullahpur might really have sent the offending email. This wasn’t the message the university community needed to hear. We needed to hear that senior administrators and campus police were concerned about our safety and knew that the only way to secure it was to devote all of their resources to apprehending “Lord Irwin.” However, in the various official communications since this all began, the university has remained limp.

In a discussion panel concerning the flyer campaign, audience members were disappointed to hear that the UW Police were pursuing the mystery man for charges of impersonation (of the president) and posting prohibited flyers. If they had any leads, they didn’t let on. Of course, I hope that the reason the UW Police are investigating misdemeanour charges against the perpetrator is that they know it's important to catch him before he hurts someone and these misdemeanour charges are the best mechanism currently available to catch him. That is, I hope that the police are taking the incidents and the investigation more seriously than the charges they're investigating would, in themselves, warrant. I hope that these charges are to the author of the posters as tax evasion charges were to Al Capone. While I hope all of these things to be true, no communication we’ve yet received from the University has warranted any confidence in these hopes. Instead, we get periodic reassurances that police are taking “appropriate action” and that all members of the UW community have the right to be safe and to feel safe.

Well, sure we do, but what I need right now isn’t a university administrator telling me “I really want you to feel safe.” What I need is a crack team of computer scientists – this is University of Waterloo, after all! – quickly tracing the emails and Facebook messages back to their author before he hurts someone.

Emblematic of administrators’ blindness to women’s fears was Associate Provost Bud Walker’s advice to audience members at the discussion panel that “You probably think everyone here is on our side, but there might be people walking through this room right now who don’t understand that women have a right to equitable treatment.” [Ok. Full disclosure: Walker has never in his life, so far as I know, uttered the sentence “Women have a right to equitable treatment.” But the foregoing is a plausible, if charitable, paraphrase of what he actually did say.] This shows just how wide the gap is between Walker’s experience and that of women at UW. No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal. As one after another audience member revealed in the Q & A following the panel, the climate for UW women is a chilly one at best, and sometimes it gets downright cold.

How cold is it? Well, cold enough that weekly flyers railing against the evil that is woman have become a thing here. And cold enough that, within days of the scariest of these flyers, the following remarks about the matter were posted on Bill’s Portfolio, a blog authored by a self-described UW student: “Yeah, the campus is full of big bad scary monsters…. Now, most UW students that I know are intelligent enough to know that this shit is wrong…. Yes, it is wrong, yes, it is inappropriate, but get a life if you are going to fuss and cry over stupid shit like this. Because if you do, you must be living in a sheltered bubble.”

Now that’s cold.

16 comments:

  1. The "Sheltered bubble" comment from Bill's portfolio is particularly ironic. Just who lives in a sheltered bubble? Those who fear the messages because they have experienced the mundane-threats a patriarchal culture issues to women, or those who have never experienced such threats. Oh the irony.

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  2. The dissemination of such hateful material is bad enough; the administrations apparent inaction is even worse. My thoughts are with everyone affected at Waterloo.

    Are there any online reports/details of these events? I googled for more information, but didn't find anything -- which is maybe illuminating in itself.

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  3. If the communications were targeting any other group on campus, they would rightly be seen as a hate crime and the UW senior administration and campus police would be working hard to bring the perpetrator to prosecution. In a so-called post-feminist age women are open targets.

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  4. Many thanks for this post. This kind of intimidation is appalling. It is absolutely a hate crime. I cannot believe that UW closed down the Women’s Centre and LGBT student centre! That's outrageous and seems like completely the wrong response. Are there any petitions going on or any collective letters being sent to the UW's senior administration?

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  5. Terri, it was a decision of the Federation of Students to close those centres: it was made to indicate the seriousness of the perceived threat, and to protect members of those spaces--it wasn't a top-down fiat.

    Today, I read that two women in a dorm on campus awoke early Monday morning to an intruder in their room. He fled, but again, the emphasis is on telling women on campus to lock their doors (good advice, such as it is) as though it's anyone's fault when an intruder breaches their private space.

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  6. Well written, Shannon, and thanks. In my experience even before this unsettling turn of events the University of Waterloo was not always either a safe or welcoming place for female faculty, staff, or students. I agree with the thrust of your post - that real, tangible progress at identifying the perpetrator should be the University's first priority in dealing with this issue - and would add a little something to your sentiment that this perpetrator should be stopped "before he hurts someone." In my view, the dissemination of hate literature and the silence from the University is already hurtful.

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  7. Thanks Aimée for clarifying the reason behind the shut down. Clearly, the threats are serious, but increased security (as awkward as it might be) and a public effort on the university's part to track down the perpetrator would have been a much better response. These centres may well be life lines to many people and closing them (for how long?) is also a problem. I am appalled that the administration aren't doing more.

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  8. This situation makes me angry, and Aimee's mention about the dorm room entry makes me particularly livid. I encountered similar situations during my own undergrad at York, about eight years ago. When there was a serial rapist terrorizing the campus, all of the female residents were advised to walk in groups, and to avoid going out at night. We were also given a self-defense class.

    Later that same year, a male resident repeatedly tried to break into women's dorm rooms, including my own. He did manage to get into one. We were all told to lock our doors. When I voiced my anger, I was yelled at by my resident advisor, and told that I was making things worse. The male resident was eventually kicked out, but it took time, and we all had to live with him during that time.

    I only mention these two incidents because they emphasize the degree to which the problems at Waterloo are not confined to Waterloo. I've experienced similar anti-women events at each of the Canadian universities I've attended. At each, too, the incidents have been downplayed by the people in charge.

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  9. Amanda -- I did my undergrad at York. Campus at night there never really felt safe. Actually, campus during the day was no peach either. I lived at Calumet, so on the edge of nowhere and a big walk to anywhere, day or night. I did use the campus security shuttle service a lot, and that was great.

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  10. If you’d like to read further about this matter, Luisa d’Amato’s report here (http://www.therecord.com/news/local/article/489999--two-uw-centres-closed-following-anti-female-messages) is the best that’s appeared in the media so far.

    Here’s the official word from UW: http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/2011/feb/24th.html. That article links an earlier one here: http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/2011/feb/17th.html (but you have to scroll down quite a ways to get to that article – evidence of how concerned UW administrators were about the matter on Feb. 17). Note too the use of quotation marks in both titles. The charitable reading is that the quotation marks really do indicate direct quotation, but note that “incidents” and “posters” are also direct quotes and aren’t enclosed in quotation marks. One wonders whether the author worried about the aptness of the terms “disturbing” and “offensive”.

    For a variety of reasons, I’m sorry that the Women’s Centre and GLOW were closed, but I do think it was necessary to protect the safety of the volunteers there. Personally, I would have preferred to have campus police station a uniformed officer in that hallway to protect the volunteers, as I indicated in one of the several emails that I sent UW Police to no reply. In any case, both centres reopened after reading week. I hope this was the right decision.

    If you think UW could be doing more about this matter, here are some senior administrators at University of Waterloo whom you might email:

    Feridun Hamdullahpur, President, fhamdullahpur@uwaterloo.ca

    Janet Passmore, Associate Provost, Human Resources, passmore@uwaterloo.ca

    Bud Walker, Associate Provost, Students, bwalker@uwaterloo.ca

    Daniel Anderson, Director of Police Services, dananderson@uwaterloo.ca

    If you prefer to send an old-fashioned paper letter, you can contact all of these folks at

    200 University Avenue West
    Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1

    If you write to any of the above, consider cc’ing the letter to these two people at the Faculty Association of University of Waterloo (FAUW):

    George Freeman, FAUW President, george.freeman@uwaterloo.ca

    Diana Parry, Chair, Status of Women and Equity Committee (SWEC), dcparry@uwaterloo.ca

    (Again, if you prefer a paper letter, the above address prefixed by “FAUW, MC Building” will get it to them.)

    The women at UW will be most grateful for any support of this type that our colleagues at other institutions can provide.

    Best wishes,
    Shannon Dea

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  11. Thanks for thoughtful post Shannon. I was disheartened to read that the university admin had not taken these incidents very seriously. If they weren't doing so initially, they will have good reason to now with all of the media attention.

    Respectfully, I want to disagree with part of your post: "No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal. As one after another audience member revealed in the Q & A following the panel, the climate for UW women is a chilly one at best, and sometimes it gets downright cold."

    I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo over a decade ago, and even back then, I assumed that everyone thought I had the right to be there and that I would be treated equally. And 99% of the time, gender didn't matter. And if I had to hazard a guess about how my female classmates felt, I would say the same about them. We were all working too hard to care about gender.

    I only started to detect the undercurrent of sexism when I headed up the Womyn's Centre. But I would say that the kind of chilliness you're referring to was pretty rare, even back then. I was appalled by Bill Li's comments because no one that I knew in engineering would *ever* have thought, never mind, said anything like that in my day.

    I've also blogged about this and I'm going to share your post on my site.

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  12. Regarding the shut down of the Women's Centre and GLOW:

    Based on what I was told by one of the members of GLOW, both the Women's Centre and GLOW themselves decided to shut down, out of fear of safety for their members and anyone else visiting either of the two centres. During the panel discussion, one of the students from the Women's Centre said that they'd be happy to reopen if they had a police presence (the chief of police was on the panel as well, and the student seemed to be directing that comment towards him). However, to the best of my knowledge, the police did not step up and provide security for either of the centres (someone please correct me if I have that wrong).

    As for the chilly climate issue, well, there's WAY too much to say about that. My own students, who have taken courses in CS and engineering, have noted some sexism and felt uncomfortable in the classroom (in subtle ways -- for example, feeling less comfortable speaking up in classes where they're in the minority). I'd speculate that there's a correlation between women who experience the chilly climate and those who end up leaving; if that's the case, it wouldn't be surprising that those who remain in the program report not noticing a chilly climate (I've heard similar stories in philosophy -- one of if not THE most male-dominated humanities disciplines). But of course, if this is happening (which I'm sure it is), then that in and of itself is a problem -- when the chilly climate drives out women in higher proportions then men. There's LOTS more to say about that, but I'll leave it there.

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  13. Shannon Dea for President! You have been one of my favourite profs ever since I took PHIL 202 and I would like to thank you so much for writing this. Though I have to say that I am disturbed by the actions of this (hopefully) individual, I have never felt worried for my personal physical safety on campus. Can't say the same for my intellectual safety, though. Fight on!

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  14. I am greatly disturbed that someone so spiteful shares the same campus that I did. I can only hope that the UW administration takes strong steps to end this unbalanced person's activities. An interesting comment from a female alum that was passed on to me:

    "What gets me the most is that someone wants the U of W world to know what he thinks, but doesn't have the balls to let the campus know who he is... he does it in secret. I thought cowardice was supposed to stereotypically be a female fault."

    As a male who did his best to be welcoming to everyone, I have to take issue with Dr. Dea's comments about no woman feeling welcome in any public space on campus. While I admit that there are too many instances of that at UW (and anywhere for that matter), her statement is an over-generalization. I knew women while I attended UW that were just as confident in their right to be there as anybody else in the room, and they had the respect of everyone I knew. My older sister went to UW as well, and I can tell you with confidence that none but the most rabidly misogynistic male would ever dream that she had no right to be there.
    The same woman who made the statement I quoted above is of Asian heritage, and she said that she encountered people who had issue with her due to her race, but not her sex.

    I will say that far too many men need to wake up to the fact that women are just as capable as men (especially in my discipline; engineering). This does not mean all of us have this problem, however. Please remember that.

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  15. Hi Patrick, thanks for your comments. I didn't actually say that no woman feels welcome on campus. I said that "No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal." There are lots of wonderful, welcoming people at UW, many of them men. Thanks to them, most of us UW women feel welcome most of the time. However, feeling welcome isn't precisely the same as believing that every single person on campus welcomes you.

    Thanks too to Christine for the very thoughtful reply and for the wonderful blog post about this matter. Christine, you're probably right that many women at UW don't feel marginalized in the way that I described. I suspect that my description applies more to faculty and grads than to undergrads and likely applies more to women in the Arts than in the STEM disciplines. Strictly speaking, my "No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal" should probably have been "many women entering a public space on campus and have serious doubts that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there and to be treated as an equal." Thanks for keeping me honest.

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  16. I took Prof Dea's Phil 202 class a couple years ago (fantastic course, I highly recommend it) and I haven't been in contact with her since, so it's nice to hear from her again. Hi Shannon! Hope you're well! This current situation aside, of course.

    I'm not gonna lie, my first reaction to this post was c'mon, aren’t we getting too worked up here? It could be nothing more than an elaborate prank. But on second thought, I saw the seriousness of the situation - no one saw Ecole Polytechnique coming, and everyone dismissed the Columbine shooters’ threats before they went on their rampage. The possibility of violence is terrifying, I agree, and I think that anything less than a swift response by the UW administration, police and student body to keep UW women safe is not enough.

    Having said that, what if there was no threat of physical violence? What if the worst that could happen was, in Shannon’s words, a "chilly" environment - catcalls, obscene comments, or a general cold shoulder to the female population? Unfortunately, too many women are familiar with this type of climate.

    So what should we do about these chilly environments. It is our job (and given that her area of research is in gender issues, it is especially Shannon's job) to be informed of the ways we oppress women, and to make some noise about it. But I think that there is a more powerful tool for change. I think the most powerful thing that women can do is to excel and succeed, and make no apologies to themselves or others about it. What could be more transformative?

    My worry is that we can react to anti-woman incidents too strongly, and give those behind them too much press. Shannon was right to say that a woman cannot expect EVERYONE in a UW public space to treat them as an equal. The reality is that there are people out there who will not be convinced that women and men are equal, and somehow, some of those people made it through the admission process. But if we react too strongly to their ridiculous opinions, we are dignifying them with our attention. Why waste effort trying to convince those who are determined not to see women’s success? I know that women are capable human beings. I know this not because someone made an argument to that effect; I know it because in my engineering studies at UW, and in countless other life experiences, I have seen women succeed – as students, as professionals and as humans. If they open their eyes, the reasonable people out there will fall in line.

    Sadly, there are also unreasonable people out there, and sometimes violent ones - it only takes one of them for a terrible incident to take place and this should justify police involvement in the current case. But more generally, what can we do?

    In my opinion, this is where men need to step up. Even unreasonable people have reasonable friends, and peer pressure is a powerful force. Too many men are silent on the issue of violence against women, or the more subtle ways that our society oppresses women – even if they don’t condone it themselves. I have no doubt that even the most dangerous women-haters would think twice if their friends made it clear that no, I don’t agree with you, and here’s why.

    In short: first, let’s make sure that everyone is safe. But once we’ve done that, let’s go back to making sure that women keep kicking ass - and making sure that men talk about it.

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