By Chelsea Craig.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sparked some controversy by attending a gender segregated mosque – Ottawa’s oldest – this past week.
To his credit, Trudeau acknowledged the divide, raising his hand to address the crowd of women on the balcony, saying “Diversity is a source of strength, not just a source of weakness, and as I look at this beautiful room — sisters upstairs — everyone here, (I see) the diversity we have just within this mosque, within the Islamic community, within the Muslim community in Canada.” But critics quickly pounced on the event, suggesting Trudeau’s own self-described commitment to feminism was tarred by attending the mosque, while others defended the prime minister attending, arguing religious tolerance and community outreach is just another extension of an open and democratic society.
The debate reflects a larger question that’s been looming in Ottawa since Trudeau’s election: what does it mean to be a feminist? Should the prime minister, as a feminist, not have visited such a place of worship? With contemporary questions such as these, void of gatekeepers, the answer is entirely (and frustratingly) open to debate.
“Because it’s 2015,” Trudeau said, breaking the internet into smithereens in an instant with nothing but a shrug. The Trudeau “era” as it were, began in that moment – intrinsically linking his administration with his own personal feminism forever. It was a showing of goodwill, a casual deference to the present times, that showed the world for the first time that their new prime minister was a serious feminist, a man who was actively fighting to break down gender barriers in politics. His first step? Achieving a gender parity within his own cabinet
The word ‘feminist’ is often thrown around to describe someone who thinks men and women should be treated equally; a casual flip through a dictionary might give you a definition like: “someone who advocates for social, political, legal and economic rights for women equal to those of men.” But just because more people are starting to call themselves feminists doesn’t mean we are any closer to achieving true gender equality. Far from it, in fact.
Rather, the society in which we live in today likes the word ‘feminism’ – men like the word ‘feminism’, governments like the word ‘feminism’ – but what, truly, does it mean to be a feminist? Is a man, a feminist, if they encourage women to pursue their dreams and overcome the barriers in their way? Or is that also behaviour that supports male privilege? The sexual organs one possesses should have absolutely nothing to do with their capabilities in the workplace, at home or in society as whole. So you might ask then why women are still reminded that they are ‘women,’ – their success inseparable from their gender – and why it is men still define when being a feminist is ‘cool’ or not?
Just shy of eighty years ago now, Quebec women were granted the right to vote provincially – the last Canadian province to do so. Women were finally told by men, that they were informed enough to make decisions over who could govern them in office. But three generations later, women are still subject to that same patronizing drivel. When Trudeau appointed an equal number of women to cabinet positions as men – a decision that did not come without its share of criticism – some argued that more qualified men were overlooked due to Trudeau’s decision. Similarly, Tory interim leader Rona Ambrose argued pursuing this idea before forming his cabinet, as Trudeau had done, made it seem like some women were appointed solely based on the fact that they were women.
For saying half the population is female, it seems oddly difficult for some to understand why women might want equal representation, especially given their smaller presence in the House. Ultimately however, people were simply mad that for the first time in our history, women in politics – the same people, like Shelia Copps, who had been on the receiving end of abuse, sexism, and exclusion from “old boys” networking for decades – were being favored over their male colleagues for something.
This conversation only continued more fervently when Tourism minister Bardish Chagger was appointed government House leader – the first woman to be appointed as such. Critics wasted little time criticizing Chagger’s appointment as she was sworn in at Rideau Hall last month. ‘Why judge a book by its pages,’ the critics reckoned, ‘when its cover will do?’ Accusing her of being, among many things, too young and inexperienced to take on such an important role for the government.
Trudeau’s feminist ways continued to be a hot topic after the cabinet appointments last year. You might remember “Elbowgate” for example, which began with the prime minister accidentally elbowing NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brousseau in the chest, which sparked a full blown debate on women’s safety in the workplace – precisely the kind of debate that feminism engenders nowadays. What exactly is feminism, we might ask ourselves?
So, she was elbowed in the chest by accident. But what if the shoe had been on the other foot and a female MP hit her male counterpart in the balls by accident while being muscled around in a crowd – would that have been sexist? Probably not. After all, it was an accident, right? Yet the opposition parties jumped down the prime minister’s throat with gusto, thrilled to finally have something to cut his image down with. It became so easy to construe this situation as gendered that the real story behind why the prime minister was on the other side of the House was quickly lost in translation.
In the meantime, Brousseau admits she received phone calls telling her to resign, that it was ‘her fault’.
But the NDP continued to harp on this incident as sexist. The NDP’s Niki Ashton even took it as far as to say that she was ‘traumatized’ by the incident and no longer felt that young women were ‘safe’ in the House of Commons. Which makes you wonder whether being a feminist is now something just another aspect of someone’s ‘cool,’ something ‘trendy.’ The prime minister, having staked his own reputation on his feminism, is now to have his feminist ‘credentials’ questioned at every turn.
The Rio Olympics brought sexism back into the light recently, taking Trudeau with it. The prime minister came under fire on social media for referring to female athletes as ‘girls,’ in a tweet congratulating them on all their medal wins for Canada.
Kathryn Trevenen, the director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, found that the prime minister’s remark reflected a broader societal problem. Men are seen as being serious, they aren’t ‘boys’, but women are girls who just like to have ‘fun.’
How she understood that from a simple tweet, I’ll never understand but if a woman can’t be referred to as a girl, can she also not be referred to as a ‘dude’? How far are we willing to navel gaze at a simple comment and continue to ignore all of the pervasive sexism that persists around us? For starters, Canadian female athletes owned the podium in Rio, winning the majority of Canada’s medals, yet continued to be referred to as this person’s “wife,” or as owing their success to their husbands. When will women be recognized for their accomplishments as people rather than as women?
A man’s accomplishments are celebrated without stating his gender, while a woman’s rarely are. How many times in a day are women encouraged to better themselves or be the best they can be “for a woman?” Society constantly reminds females of their genders by putting boxes around what femininity is and what it is not. For example, Kim Kardashian, arguably one of the most famous people on the planet is constantly being shamed for her behavior because she is a woman, a mother of two, a role model for girls etc. But Kim Kardashian is not just a woman, she is a person who is worth over $80 million, a business person who understands her target audience and sells her brand to its full potential. She is not just a pretty face – she makes video games, make-up, and clothing – yet is constantly being branded as “being famous for being famous,” or slut shamed.
But whether you like the Kardashian brands or not, there is no denying that those women work hard. So what if she takes pride in her body and takes nude pictures of herself? How does Kardashian demonstrate an ugly side of society when a picture of a naked man has never been taken as reflection of who he is as a professional – let alone a parent.
Women can’t even agree amongst themselves on what a feminist is. Rona Ambrose, a strong political figure and a veteran MP, surprised many in taking a jab at the prime minister at the last Conservative convention. While describing how the Conservative Party had been the first to have women in leadership roles, she went on to add how Kim Campbell, a Tory, was the first female Prime Minister, even though some might think Trudeau was. Har, har, har. The comment, shocking as it would be coming from a man, was even more shocking coming from Ambrose, a woman herself.
What about Justin Trudeau seems effeminate to Ambrose and moreover, why does it matter? If his ability to connect with voters’ emotions emulates some sort of ‘feminine’ trait, so be it. But the gender expectations game lives on, even in this day in age: powerful, authoritative traits are favored in men, while emotional, empathetic traits are preferred for women. The world around us continues to teach little girls that women in positions of leadership are ‘bitchy’ and when a man shows empathy he must be effeminate. Yet, one’s gender should bear absolutely no relevance on the jobs they possess or the characteristics that should be favoured.
Women should not be seen as blocks of voters – voters yearn for desirable attributes in their candidates not masculinity. A man can represent a woman as well as a woman could a man.
Gender parity in cabinet is a fantastic initiative, I would never stress the contrary, but the fact that it continues to be a topic of discussion shows the deep divides in our society. Half the population are women, so why wouldn’t half the representatives be as such? Similarly, we are constantly instructed to see the world through gendered lenses even when we encourage women to achieve their dreams. Why is it still deemed acceptable to encourage women to take on roles because ‘we need more women in charge?’ True gender equality in our society will only begin to be realized when women’s accomplishments are praised without a nod to their gender.
Chelsea Craig is an advocate for youth engagement in politics. She recently graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and is particularly passionate about Canadian and Quebec relations.