A reflection on Rod Mickleburgh’s visit, and facing the inconvenient truth

A community sensitization meeting on human rights and violence against women in Nepal. flickr/CWGL

Rod Mickleburgh, a senior journalist with the Globe and Mail, paid a visit to the UBC School of Journalism on March 8. While ostensibly, the purpose of his trip was to discuss the localization of global news events (and vice-versa), the conversation that resulted was intense, emotional, and more than a little uncomfortable for all of us at the School.

It’s safe to say that I was not exempt from the discomfort we all shared. But unlike many of my classmates, and at least one of my professors, my own uneasiness owed not to a perception that Mickleburgh showed bad judgement – even shades of ethnic and cultural stereotyping – during his talk. Rather, I was concerned that many of us were far too dismissive of what Mickleburgh had to say.

Mickleburgh has been in the journalism business for longer than most of us at the School have been alive. He’s no fool. He’s no bigot. He deserves neither our censure nor our excuses. And discussing challenges that certain ethnic, cultural or religious groups face – challenges borne out by both empirical and anecdotal evidence – is not racism. Rather, it’s a critical examination of reality in a society too often seduced by the unproductive banalities of political correctness.

While it’s not easy for me to adopt a tack opposite that of many of my peers, I feel a need to revisit a few comments Mickleburgh made, and some of the challenges to his statements that our professor Dr. Mary Lynn Young articulated. (I’ll do my best to represent them fairly here, given that I’m relying on a notoriously unreliable device – my memory – for reference.)

Mickleburgh: Domestic violence is a serious issue within South Asian communities in Canada, and culture is a factor

Some of my classmates took issue with this type of statement, out of concern that it would perpetuate Canadian media stereotypes around the South Asian community, in particular the notion that culture causes domestic violence in that context. Far be it from me to dismiss as illegitimate those sources of reticence – echoed by academics and social scientists within the South Asian community like Yasmin Jiwani of Concordia University. But as journalists, I firmly believe it is our duty to pursue the truth, even when that truth is painful or repugnant to ourselves and others. In fact, I’d say it’s especially crucial to seek the truth on those occasions – provided we do so with sensitivity, and out of a sincere desire to make things better.

As Mickleburgh alluded, a substantial body of evidence supports the conclusion that domestic violence is a problem within Canadian South Asian communities, and that the cultural background of the perpetrators plays a role – including the frequency of violence against women and girls in countries like India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to which I’ll refer again later. A recent report authored by Indian-born social worker Aruna Papp, on behalf of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, reflects this conclusion, and discourages the application of tags like “racist” or “prejudiced” to those who try to examine the factors contributing to domestic violence among Canada’s immigrant communities.

As Mickleburgh correctly pointed out, prominent Sikh lawyer and community activist Wally Oppal has referred to domestic violence – usually aimed at women and girls – as a “cancer” within the South Asian-Canadian community. Oppal also stated, in an interview with the National Post, that he believes culture is a contributory factor, and that denial runs deep within the community.

Is it fair to presume that Oppal and Papp, who have devoted much of their careers to social justice causes, hail from Canada’s South Asian community and have studied it in detail, don’t know what they’re talking about? If the answer is no, then it’s equally unfair to condemn Mickleburgh’s reporting and commentary.

It’s important to note that no reliable data exist showing the prevalence of domestic violence among new immigrants to Canada, compared to settled or multi-generational Canadian families. There are also no solid data comparing rates of domestic violence within South Asian communities to other communities in Canada. Perhaps this lack of clarity is part of the problem.

Young: Violence against women happens everywhere. The issue of culture is a non-sequitur

Young used the example of serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton to support her argument.

Of course, no one can deny that violence against women – like violence in general – is a global scourge. But surely there’s a distinction here.

Robert Pickton is the most prolific, and arguably the most nefarious, serial killer in Canadian history. His cultural background is Anglo-Saxon, and working-class. But I don’t believe you could legitimately argue that this type of behaviour – slaughtering scores of women in unspeakably brutal ways – arises regularly among working-class, Anglo-Saxon Canadians. Murders happen, and some Canadian Anglo-Saxon men commit both murders and acts of violence against women. But Pickton is a psychopathic outlier. He is, decidedly, an island set off from the shore.

Certainly, patriarchy still exists in mainstream North American culture, and likely contributes to gender-based violence in society as a whole. But again, the lack of compelling data on rates of domestic violence among South Asian-Canadians, or violence against women, precludes any meaningful comparison. My best insight comes from the opinions of Papp and Oppal, a number of incidents of violence against South Asian women in Canada, discussions of the unique challenges that South Asian women face from the South Asian Women’s Empowerment Forum, and reports of ongoing violence against women in South Asian countries.

Mickleburgh: The motive for the murder of the Shafia girls in Ontario is an important consideration. Preservation of the family’s “honour” likely figured in the culprits’ decision

Young: (To all of us) Please avoid using the term “honour killings” as it implies that culture, and not violence against women in the general sense, is a motivating factor

Let me make clear that I vehemently denounce violence that victimizes women, no matter where, why or in what context it occurs.

But motive is always important in solving a crime. Always. It’s important because unless you can discern why a wrong happened, you will never figure out how to stop it from happening again. Motive exists in almost every act of violence against a woman in human history. By adopting the opinion that violence against women is a uniformly universal, random force of nature, we will never understand it. And we can never hope to rid ourselves of it.

In the Shafia case, the Crown managed to persuade 12 jurors that Mohammad Shafia, his wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and the couple’s son, Hamed, were guilty of murdering the family’s three daughters, on the ground that the girls had done dishonour to the family by leading a Canadian, secular lifestyle.

It’s also fairly evident that the girls were victims of a range of abuses preceding their tragic demise – and quite likely that the motive for their mistreatment was similar to the motive for their murder. And comparable acts, like honour killings in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan reported by the NGOs Human Rights Watch and RAWA (The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), suggest that the cultural and/or national background of the perpetrators factored in their decision to commit murder.

Even if the explicit term “honour killing” does not appear in the vocabulary of Afghan-, Pakistani- and Indian-Canadians, there is little doubt that the concept of killing, or committing an act of violence in order to preserve a family’s honour, exists in South Asian countries, and that many types of brutal violence against women and girls (including the acid throwing Mickleburgh mentioned) are disproportionately common in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, where the Shafias hail from.

As a Canadian with many friends of South Asian descent, it pains me greatly to say this. But I also believe it behoves me greatly to say this.

There were several other issues that both Mickleburgh and Young touched on that I either took exception to, or felt warranted closer examination. Unfortunately, if I went into all of them, this blog post would be way too unwieldy. But I really felt I needed to make some effort to point out that domestic violence is a legitimate concern in South Asian communities in Canada, and there’s a significant chance – albeit no unequivocal proof – that an acquired, excessive cultural conservatism plays a role in many of these incidents.

Let’s not indict Mickleburgh, or make excuses for him, for the crime of telling the truth as best he can discern it.