Daisy Kler on the way racism and misogyny play out in Canada to doubly harm women

Take Back the Night/Friday, September 18, 2015.

We talk about intersectionality a lot these days, but what does it really mean to combine our analysis of race, class, and gender? While we know women from all walks of life suffer male violence, how are working class women and women of colour impacted particularly? How does all this play out in Canada, in particular?

I spoke with Daisy Kler to answer some of these questions and more. Daisy is a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and is the founder of South Asian Women Against Male Violence. Daisy has worked at Vancouver Rape Relief for over 18 years. In those years she has played a role in training and maintaining volunteers and as a media spokesperson. She now assists in operating the rape crisis line and transition house. In recent years she was voted one of the 100 most influential Indo-Canadians in British Columbia. Daisy is a proud Punjabi whose paternal grandfather came to work here in 1905. She is rooted in the history of Vancouver’s South Asian immigrants and continues to fight for all women’s equality.

This interview originally aired on the Feminist Current podcast.


Meghan Murphy: After the racist violence in Charlottesville and a general rise in white nationalist activity in the US, conversations about racism have grown in North America. What has been discussed less is the role that misogyny plays in all this. What connection do you see between white supremacy and male supremacy?

Daisy Kler: First of all, we know the driver in Charlottesville, James Alex, had been charged with assaulting his mother. So there is a direct link between his misogynistic behaviour and racism. He displayed that he’s both a misogynist and a white supremacist. In a larger discussion, male supremacy and white supremacy are premised on very similar ideas: that women and non-whites are inferior. [Those who support systems like patriarchy and white supremacy] use this ideology to justify the unequal power relationships between men and women, and whites and non-whites.

They use this justification to steal Indigenous wealth, to hoard power, and as basis to refuse to share resources, power, or wealth. So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy fit well together.

Combined, they serve as a lethal mix when it comes to Indigenous women and women of colour. If you add class, there are three forces holding women down.

The individual white guy is one power, but his power is reinforced by every institution, because all the power structures are predominantly run by rich, white men. This reinforces the relationship between the two. They are easy bedfellows. And if you think about how women and people of colour are described in derogatory ways, it’s almost exactly the same. We are said to be over-emotional, irrational, dirty, polluted, unclean, not sophisticated, hysterical… You could be describing women or people of colour with those words.

So, in my mind, male supremacy and white supremacy share the same ideology. They are both used to justify men’s unearned power and privilege. On top of that, if you look at male violence against women as an enforcer of women’s inequality, the message conveyed through violence against women is: Stay in your place. You are meant to be kept down — don’t try to get up.

There are grave consequences for women, including death, if they overstep those boundaries.

And this is very similar to what’s going on in America and here in Canada with Indigenous people, if you think about the attacks from white supremacists, but also the attacks from the police or the state.

Meghan: I’m interested in talking about the role that women play in the alt-right. It does appear to be a movement that’s led by white men, but do you think women have any responsibility in terms of the rise of white nationalism in the US in particular?

Daisy: I think one straightforward answer is, yes — every person is responsible for the decisions they make, and obviously women who are joining the alt-right share that responsibility. But, I see it as similar to when women are fronted in the prostitution fight. When you see the pro-sex industry and the pro-pimp industry propping up women as their spokespeople, we have to understand that men are still running the show. Men are still the ones who are benefiting from everything that happens in the sex industry, and this is also true with the alt-right.

Yes, women can be spokespeople in these movements. Yes, they have some agency. But let’s not fool ourselves as to who’s really running the show: white men.

It reminds me of people who play devil’s advocate, which is a serious pet peeve of mine. Lots of white guys do this with me… They’ll say, “Women oppress too.” They will bring up women like Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton to prove that women are responsible for the oppression of women and people of colour. But since I don’t believe in biological determinism, I don’t believe women are born naturally kind or less oppressive, so of course they can play a role in the oppression of others. But it’s limited by the fact that they, too, are oppressed. So they’re not at the top of the hierarchy when it comes to gender, and nor are women of colour when we talk about the race hierarchy. Men still rule the world.

Feminism is a theory and a practice. No one is born into feminism. It’s a political commitment to the liberation of women. Obviously, women in the alt-right and white nationalist groups don’t subscribe to this practice, and should be held accountable for their decisions. At the same time, I think of Dworkin, who argued that you don’t only fight on behalf of the women you like — you fight for the liberation of all women. So, I’m fighting for those women as well.

A question that should inform our feminist analysis on this issue is: Who’s got the power? It’s still the men who are running the show. And eventually, those men who are part of the alt-right will betray their own women — they beat their wives, because there is no race or class of men who don’t perpetuate violence against women. So [the women who subscribe to alt-right beliefs] are facing oppression as well.

Meghan: The trouble with political conversations around both racism and misogyny is that we often centre the US in those conversations. Which makes sense, since the US dominates media in North America and everywhere, really. But it’s frustrating because Canada is different in some ways and has its own particular struggles around racism. How have you seen racism and sexism intersect and play out in Canada specifically? What are some issues specific to Canada that you’d like to see discussed more in public discourse?

Daisy: I think the most notable difference between Canada and the US, in terms of how the intersection of race and sex oppression plays out, is in Canada’s relationship to Aboriginal people, in particular Aboriginal women. Aboriginal populations in the US were decimated far more than in Canada. There’s an uprising happening there as well, but the uprising here is phenomenal. The way Indigenous women have been treated in Canada is a is a stark demonstration of how racism and sexism play out here. We know that Indigenous women are eight times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women. The impunity with which men execute that violence is breathtakingly horrific. If you look at the example of Cindy Gladue, the Aboriginal woman in Alberta who was killed by a john, the level of violence that he used was shocking. But state institutions and the police immediately believed the man when he said he just found her there [having bled to death] and didn’t know what happened. They didn’t even hold him as a suspect until the autopsy report. As Canadians, we have to look at the way the criminal justice system spoke of her as a prostituted woman and as an Aboriginal woman and what this means about us as a society.

I do think that there is some smugness that goes on with Canadians in thinking that we’re so much better than our American counterparts. But we have lots of racist policies. If you look at immigration and if you look at those who are incarcerated in our jails — it’s the same as in the US: Aboriginal people and people of colour. So we are not much better than the US. We uphold the Canadian Charter, and take pride in what it promises. If we look at the experience of Indigenous people, particularly women, we see a uniquely Canadian system of racial and sexual oppression.

Meghan: In Canada, the investigation into the missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women has been ongoing. Have you seen progress in terms of the way the Canadian government and Canadian media are approaching that issue? What are your thoughts on the inquiry so far?

Daisy: First, I want to acknowledge that the only reason there even is an inquiry is because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous women fighting for this, and the work of feminists. The missing and murdered women only came to light because Aboriginal women have struggled to see justice on this issue for the past 20 years. That this inquiry was launched is the achievement of women, in particular Indigenous women.

Having said that, there are some concerns with the inquiry. Some criticism has been covered in the media, but what the media rarely picks up on are feminists’ concerns and criticisms. For example, we can already see that there is no focus on men — who are the perpetrators of this violence — and no discussion on how to hold them accountable. Indeed, the inquiry has no power to hold individual men or institutions accountable for their actions. We also worry about the individual stories of the condition of Aboriginal women’s lives being on public display. Because of this, it ends up being a process in which women’s lives are being scrutinized and pathologized, rather than one that looks at the role of institutional racism, sexism, and violence. We should be looking at all the range of men who have been attacking these women, including the violence perpetrated by Chief and Band Council members, police, johns, pimps, and battering husbands. We’re worried that individual men in these institutions will not face scrutiny as a result of this inquiry.

We also know from Indigenous feminists that the Assembly of First Nations does not represent Indigenous women’s concerns. Indigenous women — in particular, feminists — need to be speaking in their own voices, and they need to be able to articulate their analysis of the problems and solutions. We’re not sure they will be given the opportunity to do this as part of the inquiry.

The Commission can make recommendations, but it cannot compel systemic changes, nor compel individuals to do anything. Merely making recommendations and not being able to demand systemic changes is a weakness to us.

Meghan: You’ve done anti-violence work for a long time now. You know how women of colour are specifically impacted under patriarchy. What have you learned from doing front line work — and anti-violence work in general — about how misogyny and racism connect to harm women of colour?

Daisy: Vancouver Rape Relief has been around as a collective for over 40 years now, working on violence against women. I know from my own experience doing this work that any disadvantage of race and class position further intensifies the already severe gender disadvantage of women. So, it’s worse for women of colour and women who are poor. And if you’re an Indigenous women who is poor, it’s even worse.

What we see is that men will attack women who they see as below them or at the same level as them in the race hierarchy. Because of racism, we have a hierarchy. White men are at the top, and women of colour and Indigenous people are at the bottom. So men will attack within their own race or class position and down. These are general phenomena that we’ve noticed over the years. Obviously, there are exceptions. But what that tells us about perpetrators of violence know we live in a racist and sexist society and use the race and class hierarchy to their advantage.

Men will use the fact that women face racism from police, the criminal justice system, and all other state systems to attack them. They know that Indigenous women will likely not get a response from the police. Add to the mix a poor Indigenous woman or a prostituted woman, and the odds are even higher that she will not get any kind of response from the police.

White men will say racist things as part of their attack on women of colour and Indigenous women. I’ve heard what men say to women in these contexts, and it’s awful. It’s used this as part of the attack and as part of the degradation and violence. But it’s more insidious than that. Men know that the institutions, criminal justice system, immigration, welfare system are all stacked up against women in general. Add another barrier such as race or class, and they know the systems are against women, and they will use that to their advantage. I had one woman tell me that her partner told her to go ahead and call the police: “Who do you think they’re going to believe? You or me?” He was a white guy and she was a woman of colour. He knew what the score was. So that’s one way men use sex and class to disadvantage women.

As women of colour, we also have to face the accusation of being traitors to our people and to our race if we call out men on their sexism. Men use the experience of racism — that they experience racism from the state — as a way to guilt women of colour and Indigenous women into not using the state and not calling the police. Men will accuse women of using a racist system against them and call her a traitor. So men will exploit women’s solidarity with them on race to excuse their sexist violence. Women of colour and Indigenous women know that more men of colour and Indigenous men are in prison — not because they do more crime, but because the system is stacked against them. So women will often not want to use the police or activate any part of the system because they know that an abusive man likely won’t be getting arrested because he hit her, but because he’s a brown or Indigenous man… And we’re talking about a low number of women who actually want to use the state in the first place.

I founded South Asian Women Against Male Violence for a few reasons. One being that I wanted to hold the men in my own community accountable for the violence that they perpetrate, or that they allow to happen by their silence. But I also wanted to be a voice against the racist backlash on the South Asian community. I could see the media covering male violence within South Asian communities as though we were backward, as though there was something inherently wrong with South Asian men, and I did not want that to go on — not in my name, not as a feminist. I also wanted to be out front as a South Asian woman — vocal, fighting and resisting, to be a model for other South Asian women. Because what violence against women does to all women is tell you to retreat back into the domestic sphere, back into your one-down position. I wanted to form a group that could actively resist that, to hold South Asian men accountable, while also not letting racist stereotypes be perpetuated. There was a spate of attacks on the South Asian community in 2007 and 2008 when I organized the group. I think there were three high-profile cases. One woman was burned to death; one was shot and blinded; another was murdered in her home — all by their husbands. So there was a real media frenzy and the South Asian community was under scrutiny and attack, and I wanted to fight that as a feminist.

Women of colour, Indigenous women, and working class women are constantly having to unfairly split their loyalties in order to reveal [men’s] violence to their community or to the state. They have to make a choice, because they will be accused of turning their backs on their people. As a feminist, I’ve been accused of being “too white” or duped by “white feminists” by men in the South Asian community, in particular (but not only by those men). My response is that white women don’t have a monopoly on the notions of justice, equality, and freedom.

Meghan: To what levels are sexual assault and other forms of male violence against women of colour and working class women ignored or not addressed effectively by the authorities and the courts? What are some cases or examples where these incidences are ignored or not taken seriously because of racism and institutionalized racism.

Daisy: In terms of sexual assault, there are lots of statistics on this. In her research, criminology professor Holly Johnson estimated that 460,000 sexual assaults occur every year in Canada, though the legal data reveals only (roughly) 15,000 are formal complaints or made to the police. Of those, only 2,824 are prosecuted in the court system. Just over half of those result in a guilty verdict. The result is a conviction-to-crime ratio of 0.3 per cent. To put it in simpler terms, 997 assailants out of every 1,000 walk free. That is abysmally low.

As a woman of colour, I think it’s important that we understand that male violence against women is kind of the great equalizer, as all women experience male violence. There is no culture or community that doesn’t. There are some things unique to women of colour and Aboriginal women, but what’s similar to all women and where we have solidarity is that women of every community experience male violence. And no one is getting a good criminal justice response.

Cindy Gladue was a particularly horrific example of how Indigenous women are treated. The police failed to take her death seriously from the beginning. [I read] some of the court documents and how they talked about her as a prostituted Aboriginal woman, as if that made what he did to her okay — as if he bought the right to hurt her in the way that he did, murder her in the way that he did, and as if it was somehow consensual and a mistake that he just carried too far. This was a profoundly important case and it only really came to light because Indigenous women fought back and were on the streets when he was found not guilty.

The arguments, for example, [seemed to state] that she consented to this horrific violence because she was a prostituted woman. They used the words “Indigenous” or “native girl” or “native woman” 26 times, and referred to her as a prostitute 25-26 times. So they were implying all sorts of things. But what they implied the most was that she somehow consented to this violence and that he wasn’t guilty of the horrible racism and misogyny that he perpetrated against her. I also think it revealed the racist and sexist bias within the criminal justice system.

Male violence against women is not addressed effectively by the state or the police. Most women don’t even want to use the police, because they know they will be treated horribly, not believed, or accused of lying. The Ghomeshi trial unfortunately reinforced all those beliefs. This sends a message to all women to not even bother engaging. The good thing about the Gladue case is that it is under appeal and we’re hoping for a better decision.

Meghan: We’ve seen a surge in anti-racist activism in the US and in Canada (though not to the same extent). Black Lives Matter, for example, has brought conversations about racist police violence to the forefront. I wonder if you’ve seen a similar surge in feminist activism? Do you think misogyny and violence against women have been able to galvanize people in the same way that racism has? What is your perspective in terms of how progressives, the left, and liberals address racism versus how they address misogyny and violence against women?

Daisy: My experience with liberals is that they do take racism more seriously than misogyny. I’ll probably catch some heat for saying that, but that has been my experience. Being brown and being a woman, it’s hard to tear the two apart. They’re both parts of who I am. But among white liberal men, I don’t know why they can galvanize themselves towards fighting racism, but not towards sexism in the same way.

I think the women’s movement has the most potential to have a resurgence. I think we’re sort of in one right now. It’s hard to harness the momentum and work as a united force… It certainly seems harder with the many cuts to women’s groups over the last 15 years.

The material conditions of women’s lives are also much harder now — there’s more entrenched poverty and welfare is at an abysmally low rate. I hear you could live on welfare at one point, which is absolutely not true now. The loss of most social safety nets has made it harder for most women to have time for activism. Many women now have two or three jobs to make ends meet, and there’s no housing to speak of. These things have an effect on how women can participate in fighting male supremacy.

Having said that, if you look over the course of five or six years, there’s been quite a surge in feminist activism since the Jian Ghomeshi case, and in terms of public discussion of male violence against women. Even before Ghomeshi there was #BeenRapedNeverReported, #YesAllWomen, the campus activism against sexual assaults, the fightback all over the world against the rape of the woman in India, the uprisings in Poland around abortion, the Brazilian women protesting the rape of the young girl… I think there is a lot of feminist activism right now and the public discussion has been phenomenal. But in terms of new groups forming and being active — other than on social media — it’s a little harder to gauge, certainly after Trump and the Women’s March. That was a great start, and we’ve intensified the discussion of violence against women as a result. I think all those things are indicative of the gains of the women’s movement. They’ve paved the way for these discussions.

We still have a long way to go. If you look at Black Lives Matter’s set of guiding principles, they do say they are fighting misogyny and I believe the local Black Lives Matter (in Vancouver) is led mostly by women. #SayHerName was a specific response to police violence against black women, because women felt that issue was not being given much weight. I think we’re doing pretty well when it comes to accepting feminism and being active. How to harness that as a unified movement is the million dollar question.

Meghan: Do you believe the left is addressing misogyny and male violence specifically in their activism? Do you believe they should be?

Daisy: Yes, I think they should be. The “left” is a very broad term so I’m bound to offend someone from the left in my response, here… I try to be specific, because generalizations prove to be a problem. So I’ll pick some specific examples of what I see as indicative of some general inclinations in the broader left.

I think we’re going two steps forward and two steps back. I can see that now, after doing this work for over 18 years. One fairly recent example is that Chris Hedges was invited to speak by Simon Fraser University. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writer, and reporter. He was supposed to be speaking at the State of Extraction conference and decided to talk about the relationship between resource extraction and prostitution. When the organizers who invited him learned he planned to speak on this, his speech was cancelled. It was only when feminists like the Asian Women’s Coalition Ending Prostitution, Vancouver Rape Relief, and others complained that he was put back as a keynote, and then they tried to act like they never cut him out. You may not think of SFU as the left, but I’m sure these particular professors who organized the event consider themselves part of the broader left.

The reaction was harsh when Hedges did finally speak — he spoke from an abolitionist position, making an analogy between resource extraction and what happens to women that have to be part of the “man camps” and discussed the way prostitution can proliferate when we’re looking at resource extraction. He was criticized for his position on “sex trade work.” SFU quickly distanced themselves from his views, stating outright that they didn’t agree with his position. SFU quickly got another professor who was supposed to speak on something else, who told the audience that they asked him to change his speech to discuss a pro sex-work position. Hedges was following feminist leadership on the issue of prostitution being male violence against women, and was punished for it.

This reaction, I would say, is common on the left, when it comes to male violence against women. It’s a refusal to apply their own class analysis to women being oppressed as a class and a failure to listen to feminist leaders. So I think in that way — in particular when it comes to prostitution — not much has changed.

Another example was when Julian Assange was facing sexual assault allegations. The men of the left lept to defend him — to characterize the allegations as an attack on his work with WikiLeaks and as a way for the state to try and punish him for that work. They completely dismissed the notion that he may have committed these sexual assaults, while still having done good work with WikiLeaks. Michael Moore came out and supported him, essentially saying Assange was “innocent until proven guilty.” Moore was criticized by feminists for not considering that the women also deserved a fair hearing, and he corrected himself, so I have to give him credit for doing that. But I think, again, this is a good example of how the left in general responds: state violence is more important; how could you accuse Assange of this? So his claims are legitimated and she is accused of ruining the left or splitting the movement with her frivolous claims of sexist violence.

These are examples of problems that are still happening on the left. Male violence against women is still considered a distraction, rather than a fundamental oppression that the left has to deal with. And certainly, the attitude of prostitution being a liberating choice for women is also embraced by many parts of the left. It’s a failure of those on the left to see this pro-sex industry and pro-pimp industry as male violence against women, and a failure on their part to address misogyny. And since that’s what prostitution is — violence against women — this is another really good example of what still needs to be done in the left.

Meghan: Of late it has become popular on the left, and even among a lot of young female activists and young women who would probably call themselves “feminist,” to discuss something called “carceral feminism.” The argument that men and women of colour are incarcerated at really high rates is true — that is a reality. But this term and this argument is used against feminists to say that women who want men to be held accountable for violence, for buying sex, and for sexual assault, through the court system, the criminal justice system, and by the police are “carceral” or “white feminists” to imply they are somehow racist or not “intersectional.” How do you respond to these arguments and accusations?

Daisy: Well, I really object to this idea that it’s feminists who are promoting a prison-industrial complex. I think this is just another way to attack feminism. And I really object to this idea of “white feminism.” I’ve been working as a radical feminist for two decades and this notion erases not only my history of activism, but the women who have come before me. It’s an easy and lazy accusation. There have been women of colour from early on in this movement and I think when we give this accusation weight, we are doing the work of white men, which is to undermine feminism.

This accusation that feminists are responsible for the law and order agenda has been ruminating for many years. As long as I’ve been an activist, this has been one of the accusations of the left. There are many organizations on the left — and women on the left — that I profoundly respect, so I think we have to be careful when we’re generalizing like this, because there are good women and men working on the left who are pro-feminist. Having said that, this particular accusation does come from a segment of the left.

First of all, so few men are jailed for male violence against women anyway. But also, we as feminists have been very careful in our call for holding men accountable to not reinforce every other the power of the state. We’ve never argued for a law and order agenda like fighting for longer jail sentences or anything like that. We demanded only that men are forced to face a judge, be judged, and held accountable for their actions. This may not always mean incarceration.

I think the feminist movement — more than any other movement — has considered many different alternatives to the criminal justice system. For example, transition houses. This is an alternative to the state. Women created them — feminists created them. And we created them, firstly, because women aren’t using the police in droves. And secondly, when women come to transition houses, they don’t have to engage the state if they don’t want to. And most women don’t. So that was the brilliance of the women’s movement that created transition houses. But also we were always thinking about what to do other than using the state. So we did things like poster campaigns, and we would have confrontations that we did ourselves with groups of women. Feminists have done our share of dreaming up alternatives to jail. So if the left has a better idea, let’s hear it, because we’ve been coming up with alternatives to the state since the women’s movement began.

Meghan: Finally, do you think we can effectively combat racism without simultaneously addressing patriarchy and capitalism, and vice versa? Do you think we can effectively address patriarchy without also at the same time dealing with white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism?

Daisy: No, I don’t think so. I think all feminists have to be fighting white supremacy and capitalism. I understand that there are groups that may choose to focus on one of these struggles more than the others, and I respect that. I meet experts on the frontlines representing all different kinds of alliances — people who are defending the land, fighting capitalism, imperialism… That’s all crucial. But ideally, I think the best chance we have to win is to integrate a race, class, and gender analysis into our movement. Where I stand is with women, and in particular, working against male violence against women, because so many women experience it. But I integrate a race and class analysis with that, and it doesn’t absolve me from fighting on those fronts.

I recall a young group of women of colour activists at a conference I went to in Chicago who were between the ages of 12 and 16. They were describing race, class, and gender as fundamental forces to fight from. And they saw these as three strands, saying, when the strands are braided, we have a whole different entity that is stronger than any one strand. That always stuck with me as a visual, partly because I’m South Asian, and Indian women often have long hair, so braids are a pretty nostalgic thing for me. But also it’s just true that if we combine the analyses and combine our forces, we’re much more likely to win. I think we need to see what unifies us, and build a strong movement based on multiple strands, woven together to build a strong force against male supremacy, white supremacy, and capitalism. In my view, to be a feminist, you have to be fighting on all three fronts: race, class, and gender.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.