Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My Letter to Toronto Life Regarding Their Misrepresentation of Aqsa Parvez's Murder

Here is the letter I sent today to Toronto Life in response to the callout from activists in Toronto objecting to that magazine's recent article on the murder of Mississauga teen Aqsa Parvez. I hope you take a few minutes to send one as well.

Dear Ms. Fulford.

I am a writer and parent based in Sudbury, Ontario. I am writing to express my concern over your recent article about the murder of Aqsa Parvez. I agree that it is an important issue and am happy that you saw it as important enough to cover. However, I feel that choices made by your publication in covering this issue have reproduced some common stereotypes and in so doing have obscured rather than clarified the real issues around violence against women, racism, and Islamophobia in Canada.

For one thing, I was shocked that despite the rich detail provided in setting out the context for Parvez's murder, your article says practically nothing about the realities of violence against women in Canada as a whole. Yes, different women experience this reality in specific ways, but the tragic truth is that women being murdered by male partners, fathers, brothers, friends -- including for reasons that have to do with controlling their behaviour -- is as Canadian as maple syrup and hockey, not some anomaly that can be attributed solely to Muslims or South Asians. By framing Parvez's murder nearly exclusively as an "honour killing" rather than as yet another instance of violence against women in Canada, you are invoking stereotypes of South Asian Muslim families that contribute to racism they experience, and you are effectively suggesting that domestic violence is not occurring at alarming rates all across Canada. The implication in your article that Muslim religiosity in Canada leads to family violence is also completely unfounded.

The attempt to lay this at the foot of "multiculturalism," and to frame the issue as some sort of essential tension between multiculturalism and gender equity, is misguided and completely misunderstands the issue. It creates a binary in which "we" are enlightened and tolerant and "they" are oppressive and violent. A thorough examination of how different kinds of violence is organized into people's lives, who is responsible, and who benefits, leads to a much different picture. In reality, women throughout Canadian society experience gendered violence and women and men of colour experience pervasive racism, among other things. The frame of an enlightened "we" and an oppressive "them" exaggerates one specific site for violence and oppression and mischaracterizes the causes, while it also hides from view the many other axes for violence and oppression that are just as central for shaping the experiences of all people in Canada, white women and racialized women in particular. Your magazine's extremely distorted description of the issues would lead to approaches to creating change that are not only unlikely to do anything useful but that are likely to make things worse for many people.

I would suggest that you, your reporter, and members of your staff spend some time reading about some of these issues. On multiculturalism and gender in Canada, I would recommend Himani Bannerji and Sunera Thobani. On violence against women, particularly racialized women, I would recommend Bannerji, Andrea Smith, Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Sherene Razack, and Leti Volpp. Razack's most recent work is also useful for learning about the experiences of Muslims in Canada and the impossible bind that analysis such as that in your article imposes on Muslim women and other immigrant women of colour. And of course the voices of activists on the front lines of dealing with these issues in Toronto and across Canada are the most important resource for the rest of us to understand the kinds of social change we need to be working towards.

I am extremely disappointed in your publication's sensational and misleading treatment of this issue. It diverts attention from the urgent issue of violence against women across Canada and fails to deal with the ongoing realities of racism and Islamophobia. I hope that in the future your publication will deal in a more serious and responsible way with some of these issues.


Scott Neigh
Sudbury, Ontario

EDIT: At the suggestion of a commenter, here are links to reviews I've done of some of the books I refer to up above.


michelle cho said...

hey scott,
thanks for writing a letter! can you post it to the facebook group/and or the toronto life site?


Scott said...

Hey Michelle...done and done!

Hope your event on Saturday went well...

Take care,

Scott 8)

hysperia said...

YAY! Well done.

Scott said...

Thanks hysperia!

Mohamed Taher said...

Good Blog, great posts and intuitive thoughts. Keep up.

Wonder, why you have not hyperlinked all the books you wish one reads (to get the full picture). I notice you have reviewed some of these, including Himani Bannerji.

By the way, would appreciate your comment (as well as vote in the poll) at my newest blog deartotoronto.blogspot.com.
Best wishes

Scott said...

Hi Mohammed, and thanks!

Good point about linking the books...I'll do that now. I didn't originally because I wrote this as an email to the editor of Toronto Life, and just pasted it straight into the post without thinking of adding links. Thanks for the suggestion!

Scott said...

Okay, I've added the links...I decided to add them at the end so I could make a comment or two on the books and not clutter up the letter itself. Thanks again for the suggestion, Mohamed!

Mohamed Taher said...

Scott: You are simply amazing. You did all that I suggested. My 2 cents are still valid and working. It is always better be cent-wise (although, poor dollar is not wise these days).

Now another thought. Your list of fav (right column) is longer than life. As you did a single link for book reviews, why not be merciful for the other categories. And, this reflection helps me too--physician heal thyself--now, I will adapt your template.

Scott said...

:) Again, thank-you!

I'm not sure I'm going to act as quickly on your suggestion re. the list of favourite posts on the side bar. For one thing, I don't have time at the moment. For another, I'll need to think more about it first...my hesitation is based on how people are likely to use those links. I think more would be likely to quickly scan the list and follow a link whose title catches their interest than would go to an entirely separate page just for the purpose of finding a list of posts. If I have a good selection of past posts in the sidebar, in terms of showing the breadth of things I write about in this blog, it's more likely that someone casually browsing the list will see something that interests them. That's the theory, anyway. As you say, it's a long list, so the trade-off is people who are turned off by that length and don't bother to browse it all because of that. So I'll think about it some more before I decide whether to change it.

Thanks again for your suggestions!

Frank Lacerti said...

If criticism of Islam is Islamaphobia, then criticism
of Christianity is Christophobia.
To tell you the truth, I think
I'm getting a phobia of phobias.
Anyway, Toronto Life's article
promoted young girls descent
into paganism and materialism
at the expense of family values.
We ethnic Canadians prize our
family values.

Scott said...

Hi Frank. The problem is not "criticism" per se. The problem is taking one horrific act, misrepresenting the social context in which it happened, and using that misrepresentation to denigrate a very diverse, complex, and internally contradictory collection of faith communities. And in so doing, completely missing the actual key political issues that we all must struggle with that create the conditions for patriarchal (and racist) violence.

I'm not sure I saw any signs of "paganism" in the article, and I'm not sure whether or not you are being sarcastic or what in the last two sentences of your comment. Certainly many families of people who have no misgivings about ethnically identifying themselves as "Canadian" exhibit lots of violence, lots of patriarchal features, lots of oppressive treatment of youth, of women, of queer people who belong to them...in general, I find that people who are anti-Muslim and who also glorify some vague something called "family values" don't tend to be too concerned about that.

David Froelich said...

It is interesting that many people have made their own conclusions about this matter, even though there has not been a trial. Toronto Life says multiculturalism is to blame, the ideologues on the left
say it is the patriarchy, and now someone likely a religious person says that it is paganism and hedonism to blame for young girl's rebellions against family. The conclusions are hypothesized before the evidence is out. Everyone is so sure of their conclusions, based on their ideological frameworks. And I imagine even when the evidence comes out in the trial, very few people will change their minds.
Evidence makes no difference to people who's minds are already made up.
Personally, I think the article provides a point of view, and the fact it has
stirred up so much controversy means that it pushes a lot of buttons with
its style and content. I think that is a good thing.

Scott said...

Hi David.

I appreciate your point about the importance of being careful and not presuming facts that have not yet been determined. That is important, and certainly it can be easy to lose sight of.

However, I think the insistence that the only way to develop a political understanding of the significance of an event is to concentrate microscopically on the event itself represents adherence to a particular analysis of the social world, just as much as what I said in my letter or what the right says about multiculturalism or what Frank says in his comment. Your position presumes a particular way in which individual events are connected to larger social and political context, though it allows the presumer to deny that such presumption is happening.

Personally, though I agree we will learn more as more facts about the event itself are revealed, I think it is perfectly valid to recognize that all events happen in a social context and it is important and necessary to understand that context in order to understand the event. I don't say it is "the patriarchy" that killed her -- it was, as far as we understand the events so far, another human being. But that human being and Aqsa Parvez herself existed in a context that is socially organized and that can be understood as such through paying attention to the _ways_ in which it is socially organized. It is possible, and I would argue necessary, to talk about the social and political context in which events occur even while some of the details of the events themselves are still being established. Such talk is "ideological" in the sense that it is explicitly about how I, how you, how Frank in the comment above, how the author of the original article analyze the social world. But recognizing the relevance of that kind of discussion to understanding an event like this is not "ideological" in the sense of refusing to engage with ideas that differ from one's own unless one chooses to do it that way.

I would also add that I think you expect far too much from the trial process. Yes, it will more clearly establish the events of the day that Parvez died. Yes, both the Crown and the defence will fit those facts into narratives that advance the respective sides they represent. However, though the facts may be useful, the narratives that the lawyers employ to give them meaning, and often that the media take up and adapt from the lawyers, are rarely particularly helpful, at least in the sense of gaining an understanding about how this event ties into social relations more broadly, which is really what this article and responses to it are debating. At least some of the authors that I cite above (Bannerji, Smith, Razack) have critically examined how violence experienced by women of colour and others get taken up in police and court proceedings, and they make it clear that such proceedings are rarely a path to truth and to real justice.

And do you really think controversy per se is good, independent of what has cauased it?

David Froelich said...

Interesting reply, it seems to say
that nothing is true, because everyone comes from his or her
own narrative, such as defence lawyers and prosecutors in a trial. On the other hand,
the message says that there is
"truth" and "real justice."
So it appears contradictory.
It would follow that someone or some group must have an a priori knowledge of what is true, outside
of any narrative.

E. G: either these people have an ideology, or they know the truth itself.

Evidence does concentrate on the
events immediately around the crime. And this evidence can
further certain political
points of view. However,
the evidence should come first, then the conclusions, unless of course, people have already made their conclusions. And according to Scott, there are true conclusions to be made before
we know the evidence, if we have
a true knowledge of social

Personally, I disagree, but then
I can't say I know "the truth"

Scott said...

Hi again David.

Hmmmm...that isn't even close to what I'm saying.

So we have the social world. Lots of people, with all sorts of different relationships among us, with our lives organized in lots of different ways. As we move through our lives, we develop analyses of the world through our own experiences, through experiences that we learn about from others, and through the analyses that others apply to their own and other people's experiences. The world is an extremely complicated place and our ability to collect information about it is extremely limited, and unfortunately often our lenses for sorting out that information have a lot to do with what is useful or beneficial to us. So our respective analyses of the social world are inevitably partial and should always be subject to challenge and change. And they might not match up very well against the analyses of the social world that other people develop.

That does not mean that anything goes, that all of these analyses are equally true, however. For instance, it is possible for a middle-class person who has never experienced poverty to develop a particular analysis of the welfare system based on reading right-wing newspapers. And someone who is actually on social assistance might be prompted to develop a different kind of analysis of the welfare system. These two, in significant ways, would probably not match up. Both are probably partial and limited. Yet they are not at all equally true. The former might claim, for instance, that the welfare system gives people cushy lives, while the latter would know very well that the welfare system is quite abusive towards the people it claims to help and could name X, Y, and Z ways about how to make it less abusive. In this case, it seems obvious to me that the analysis of the latter individual is much more likely to be useful.

So that's one point.

In my understanding of the social world, people's lives get organized in ways that can be investigated and understood. Obviously there are aspects of my life that are individual and idiosyncratic, but the space that I have to live my life and make choices and so on exists within a certain space that is not just individual but is organized at a social level. Say I was an elementary school teacher (which I am not). Even without investigating my specific experience of professional life, it would be possible to understand some things about how my professional life was organized by investigating (going and asking questions and/or reading relevant documents) how schools are organized, how education is regulated, what dominant media discourses around education say, how teachers' unions function, and all sorts of things like that. This isn't stuff that is randomly pulled out of the air -- it is material and analyzeable and shareable. So even without knowing, say, how many kids were in my class or what I thought about the new curriculum, you could say informed, reasonable things about the environment in which I was functioning.

In this case, the events of Aqsa Parvez's death are individual facts that can be investigated, publicized, understood. Some facts have come out about this specific incident. Others remain to come out.

However, it is still meaningful to discuss the specific facts that are known. It is also meaningful to discuss what is known about what some of those specific facts mean for how people's lives are organized. So, for example, we know that Parvez's family is Muslim, so it is relevant to try and understand what being Muslim in Canada can mean in terms of how people's lives are organized as part of understanding what happened to Parvez.

Or take gender. As I understand it -- based on my own experience, the experiences of others, my analysis of those experiences, and other analyses that I've learned from -- gender relations pervade the way that North American society is organized. How gender oppression is operating in any given instance has to be determined by investigation, but it is possible to make useful generalizations. And all of this, based as it is not on some random abstract fabrication but on prolonged, careful efforts to understand the world, is something that is subject to debate and exchange.

All of which is to explain in more detail what I was trying to get across in my previous comment: There are certain things that are extremely relevant to the situation in quesiton, and that it is possible to understand and usefully discuss, based on the current information available. Many of these things are related to how people's lives get organized, and how they exist in relation to others. Which is not about some sort of mythical "narrative", as you seem to think I'm saying, but about facts in the real world that we can learn, understand, share, and debate.

I'm not sure where you got the idea that I was saying "nothing is true." Nor do I have any idea why you would think my understanding requires someone who is "outside of any narrative." My approach to understanding the generation of knowledge insists on a critical and complicated understanding of "truth" but not on its absence, and it insists on recognizing that we only and always know the world from within social relations, not some mythical abstract point standing outside of them. (It is for precisely that reason that I think we need to understand that the kinds of knowledge and truth generated in court proceedings have their uses but also have their limits.)

Certainly as further detailed evidence of the events around the crime emerges, we should learn about it and talk about it. But that doesn't mean we can't have meaningful discussions now; there are already relevant things that we know and can talk about. These discussions need not just be blowing hot air, but can include various things subject to investigation and debate. Among those -- and there are lots of people who know way, way more about this than me -- is the various ways in which the lives of young women of colour in immigrant families can be socially organized, and the various ways violence tends to be organized into their lives. To learn about that, it seems to me, some good sources are young women of colour from immigrant families who have spent time critically reflecting on their experiences (such as some of those who initiated this action), and scholars who have spent time figuring out in more academic ways how those general kinds of experiences are put together.

And, to tie this back in to the original post, a number of people who have much more knowledge than myself about racial and gender oppression, and of the experiences of Muslims in Canada, raised some serious concerns about how the Toronto Life article was talking about some of these things. The article is demonstrably inaccurate, and not only that, it is inaccurate in ways that could potentially reinforce misunderstandings of the world that play a role in hurting people.

So. That's a lot more than I usually put into a comment, but hopefully it is a little more clear about where I'm coming from...

David Froelich said...

I appreciate the mighty reply, but to tell you the truth
I'm having trouble understanding
it. For example, you say that we
only and always know the world through social relations. But if
I put wood on a fire and feel warm it doesn't have anything to do with social relations. Also, DNA
evidence has nothing to do with
social relations. It is what it is. Some things just are facts.

Parvez's family are Muslims, but so are a lot of families, and they don't kill each other. It would be more precise to understand the Parvez incident by taking a look at father-daughter murders in general, or murders within the family, done by the man. But Toronto Life wants to sell magazines, it's not an academic

The article asks the question, "Are
Ontarians too tolerant?" but it doesn't answer it. It also gives
the point of view that some believe
the patriarchy is to blame. It interviews Parvez's teenage friends, who knew her very well,
The article interviews an Imam, posits that Muslims themselves are divided on what
is the cause of the murder, and gives evidence to show this. It takes a look at Aqsa's facebook pages. I can't say the article is inaccurate, unless some of the specific facts can be refuted.
The article quotes from individuals that were interviewed,
and other sources, to support its evidence.

People may disagree with the tone of the article, or the picture, or anything in the article, however, that's different from the article itself being inaccurate.

You say that the article could potentially reinforce misunderstandings. I am not sure
what this means. It could mean
anything and nothing. I think
many of the activists are making
a mountain out of a molehill here.
It's not Mein Kampf we're talking

Anyway, thanks for your point of view, I continue to take a look
at it, maybe I can learn something.