It is a difficult time to be a woman. You don’t need to be paying close attention to current events to see that we are living in a time where bigots feel increasingly emboldened in their hatred, propped up by dubious media coverage and a proud ‘pussy-grabbing’ president. It has been six months since #MeToo went from a hashtag to a global solidarity movement, sparking hundreds of thousands of people to share their experiences of sexual abuse or harassment, an issue that affects affects approximately 81% of women. Canadian universities are embroiled in scandal as they mishandle allegations of sexual misconduct, and many of the country’s prominent public figures, from politicians to media pundits to musicians, have been revealed as abusive. Though it is heartening to see these conversations shift from the shadows to the public eye, the frequency of these revelations coupled with the underfunding of victim services and the indifferent attitude of the law has many women asking: where do we go from here?
Canada’s history of violence is unique in that two of the most notorious mass murders have been motivated absolutely unambiguously by misogyny. In 1989, when Marc Lépine killed 14 female engineering students at Université de Montréal's École Polytechnique, the media did not have to speculate as to his underlying motivations - the last words that many of his victims heard were “you’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” Decades later, on April 23rd 2018, Alek Minassian mowed down ten bystanders on a Toronto street under the same women-hating ideology, repackaged for the Internet age.
Minassian and Lépine took their misogyny to the extreme, but the vast amount of harm to women never makes the news. According to YWCA Canada, there are 460,000 sexual assaults against women in this country every year, of which only only 3.3% are reported to the police, and a miniscule 0.3% lead to conviction. Most at risk are women are who marginalized in other ways, such as women of colour, disabled women, sex workers, or LGBTQ+ women. Trans women in particular suffer levels of violence and harassment at almost double the rate of cis women and are hypervisible courtesy of ongoing debates over trans rights; in a 2014 study of trans women’s experiences, many reported a “constant” threat of violence in their day-to-day existence, ranging from low-level harassment to fear for their lives. Each year, the Trans Day of Remembrance marks the lives lost to transphobic violence, and in 2017, that list included Alloura Wells, a 27-year-old woman found dead in Toronto months after she had disappeared, and Sisi Thibert, a 26-year-old sex worker who was killed in her own building in Montreal. Mourned by their communities but largely ignored by authorities, their deaths are worrying evidence of the hostile environment for marginalized women in Canada.
Just this month, a report released by the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability stated that at least 57 women have been murdered so far this year, a rate of one death every other day, with marginalized women making up the bulk of the victims - 19% were Indigenous, despite the fact that Indigenous women and girls make up less than 5% of Canada’s total population. Myrna Dawson, director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence, told Global News that the deaths were evidence of "the underlying misogyny in society towards women" and that "there is a normalization and tolerance of violence towards women" in Canada, despite its ostensibly peaceful reputation.
On the structural level, there is little that individuals can do to affect the frameworks that consistently ignore epidemic levels of violence against women, but there are people trying to provide practical resources to deal with this reality. One such endeavour is the establishment of self-defense classes specifically for women, aimed at giving us confidence in our ability to detect and respond to threats. Historically, there have been two forms of self-defense classes for women; the kind generally led by police and taught in schools, which seeks to minimize risk and avoid confrontation, and feminist self-defense, which aims to accurately address and contextualize violence against women without employing victim-blaming rhetoric. The latter was an integral part of second-wave feminist organizing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the omnipresence of male violence in women’s lives became a central issue in feminist discourse. Many feminist groups organized free, accessible classes to teach self-defense tactics, and while most of these organizations disappeared by the 21st century, the openly sexist political atmosphere that we are currently living has led numerous radical and women-centered organizations to bring feminist self-defense back to the masses.
Of course, self-defense classes in themselves do not do anything to address the violent behaviour of men towards women, but they are not meant to - their purpose is to educate and empower women. An anti-oppressive women’s self-defense strategy is focused on providing the tools to respond to violence outside of the patriarchal confines of rape culture without placing the onus on women to reduce their public presence. For women, especially marginalized women, violence and harassment is a statistical reality, and accessible self-defense classes to provide support and guidance through fear and trauma are an invaluable resource. Many women report that self-defense classes give them back a sense of security following an assault, allowing them to reconnect with their body as their own. This is a vital part of feminist organizing against sexist violence, which should strive to provide unconditional and long-lasting support for survivors beyond the immediate aftermath of an assault.
Women’s self-defense classes do not end violence against women, but look to facilitate trust in our bodies and communities, allowing us to draw on a long tradition of women’s liberatory self-defense tactics without engaging in the language of rape culture. They are an essential part of a practical, grassroots response to misogynistic violence, and the resurgence of interest in such classes is representative of their sore need in the community. More than anything else, women’s self-defense classes are about literally embodying resistance, rejecting a societal narrative that tacitly allows misogynistic violence and recentering women’s safety and power.