Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review: Obsession, With Intent

[Lee Lakeman. Obsession, With Intent: Violence Against Women. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005.]

My recent reading has included a lot of material about the ongoing epidemic of violence experienced by women at the hands of men and the state, because the next two chapters of my project, which brings to light aspects of Canadian history through the stories of long-time activists, will focus on the subject. This book is perhaps one of the most directly relevant to my purposes that I have yet read because its author is herself one of my interview participants and her words will feature heavily in one of the upcoming chapters.

This book has a rather unusual but fascinating genesis. It began with a five year research project by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, or CASAC, which defines itself as

a Pan Canadian group of sexual assault centres who have come together to implement the legal, social and attitudinal changes necessary to prevent, and ultimately eradicate, rape and sexual assault. As feminists we recognize that violence against women is one of the strongest indicators of prevailing societal attitudes towards women. The intent of the Canadian Association is to act as a force for social change regarding violence against women at the individual, the institutional and the political level.

From my understanding based on reading the book, the goals of this project were two-fold: it was intended to increase understanding of the ways in which the criminal justice system functions in ways that prevent the conviction of men who have committed sexual assault, and it was intended to make use of the very few resources that are available for women's equality-seeking groups in the current era to help build not only knowledge but functional political relationships among feminist women active in anti-rape and anti-woman abuse activities across the country. It seems to have been quite successful in both of these aims.

Lakeman emphasizes that her organization does not see the criminal justice system as the only or even the main avenue by which violence against women will be ended -- at the very least, the increasingly disproportionate poverty experienced by women and the retreat of the neoliberalized Canadian state from redistributive goals are also central to allowing that violence to continue. However, CASAC also believes that as long as so much of our lives are shaped by the state, women have the right to demand that the state fulfill its commitments as expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Conventional on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Womenm (which the Canadian state has accepted and ratified) to create substantive equality for women by using its powers to address the scourge of male violence against women. To that end, given that there was a rare opportunity to obtain federal resources to do useful work in the service of women's equality, CASAC jumped at the opportunity. The research combined a thorough review of documents from the criminal justice system in jurisdictions around the country with interviews with 100 women who had been raped and chose to pursue the matter via state intervention, as well as the reported experiences of many frontline workers in anti-rape organizations. Most women never report the violence they experience to the authorities, and for reasons explained in the book the women interviewed in this project tend to represent greater persistence in their attempts to overcome the barriers thrown in their way by the state than is generally true even of women who report, according to the everyday experience of sexual assault centre staff. Nonetheless, this allows for a powerful and depressing picture of the way the criminal justice system betrays the equality rights of women who have been assaulted by men.

The book began life as the final report of this project. Photocopies of the report were widely circulated and used by activists within Canada and even internationally, and the decision was made to turn it into a book.

Now, the fact that it began life as a report for a funder has an impact on the form of the document -- I've written such documents myself, and I know it is its own kind of writing with its own kind of rules. This means, for example, that in the book there are sometimes references to events, legal precedents, and bits of history that I experienced while reading as not being explained as thoroughly as they might be. While this was occasionally distracting, the political ideas in the book are communicated strongly and clearly, and its overall message should still be very accessible whether you have been part of the movement in question or not.

What is more significant about the path that this document took from initial discussions among feminist women to book form is that it is a rare and powerful Canadian example of knowledge generated by and for a social movement. This is not academic research that can be partially appropriated for the benefit of movements and it is not government research that can be read into activist frames; rather, it is knowledge production that responds directly to immediate needs of a collective of collectives of feminist women who are trying to change the world. They are not interested in proving to supposedly disinterested peer reviewers that X or Y is "true" according to some sort of abstract standard that really just hides gender, class, and racial bias. Instead, their standard for validity is how well this knowledge supports their efforts to push for reforms and ultimately for transformations necessary to end violence against women.

Pursuing knowledge creation of this sort is a powerful, powerful tool that is not understood even by many activists. Part of that is that such work is quite resource intensive, so even though activists and oppressed people more genreally do it in uncoordinated ways every day, even when activists are aware of the power to be found in greater coordination and deliberate collective effort, often we just don't have the resource to do it. This book is an inspiring example of a movement finding ways to do it anyway, despite lean and hostile times.

The biggest political learning for someone not in the movement is the detailed illustration of how profoundly the criminal justice system fails women. At every step of the process, women who have experienced violence and who call upon the state in their search for justice and freedom from male violence face barriers in the attitudes of professionals and the polices and material realities of institutions that shape their environment.

Also of interest was reading this so soon after reading Andrea Smith's book and other material that has come out of the movement of which Smith is a part (exemplified by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and related groupings, I think mostly in the United States). Both books and the movements from which they spring share a radical commitment to ending the violence that brings misery and terror to so many women's lives, and both are highly critical of the state. However, the two take those things in somewhat different directions, both in terms of how they elaborate their analysis of gendered violence and how they orient their social change work with respect to the state. It would be interesting to witness or read some sort of substantive engagement between these two perspectives. As well, though I wouldn't expect it from this particular book because it is outside its purpose, there are a number of other areas where it left me feeling that I (and probably others) would benefit from engagement across different feminist analyses in ways in which all parties are committed to giving the views of their opponents as sympathetic a reading as they can in critiquing them as a way to explore the roots of such differences, as well as a more thorough discussion of the ways in which power and privilege inevitably threaten to shape the centre, boundaries, and internal functioning of any movement.

But of course this book is not about me or my needs, and that's a big part of its value -- as a source of important recent herstory of parts of the Canadian women's movement and of radical feminist social analysis in the Canadian context, its power comes precisely from the fact that it is grounded explicitly in the needs of women who have experienced violence at the hands of a man, women who have been failed by the Canadian state, and women who have committed themselves to collectively challenging both of those things and forcing the state to meet its commitments to women's equality.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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