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.
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.