Ask Women Anything panel on sexual harassment highlights need for women’s voices in media

Anchal Sharma, Editor

On Thursday Nov. 30, Media Action, an Ottawa-based non profit organization that pushes for gender equity within the media, hosted their second fall panel of their Ask Women Anything Series—an event where women who are experts in various fields and have media connections come together to answer questions by the general public.

The event is intended to give women the opportunity to voice their informed opinions about a certain topic, with Thursday’s panel focussing on sexual harassment, and the Me Too campaign.

“Ask Women Anything started when we (realized) ‘hey I know this woman, and she’s an expert…’ wouldn’t it be great if we could hear from these women, and amplify their voices,” said Amanda Parraig, the president of Media Action, adding that it was inspired by Reddit’s Ask Me Anything subreddit.

The latest edition of the event took place at Bar Robo and heard from Amy Kishek, a labour lawyer, Yamikani Msosa, Vice Chair of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, Major Nancy Perron—a military officer in the Canadian Armed Forces with a masters of psychology—and Chelby Marie Daigle, editor-in-chief of Muslim Link.

One of the organizers started off the question period by asking about the aftermath of the Me Too campaign, and how individuals can turn the conversation surrounding sexual harassment into action.

Amanda Parraig, president of Media Action introduced the event. Photo: Christine Wang.

Answers varied, highlighting that different factors must be addressed in order to deal with sexual harassment effectively.

Kishek emphasized the idea of believing women. “I think the part that we challenge ourselves the most with is being reliable sources when these things happen. Think about how your social interactions in the workplace impact other people,” she said. “Believe women you don’t usually socially interact with.”

The other panelists shared their thoughts as well, addressing the faults in the Me Too campaign, having only heard from privileged voices. The need for intersectional feminism was also highlighted, as the panelists listed systemic issues like job security and power dynamics within various institutions.

For Perron, a key issue lies in the lack of resources put towards prevention. “(In the military) we’re asked, what’s the percentage, how many, and my goal right now is to try and move beyond counting, because one is too many,” she said.

“Let’s stop wasting the money on counting and let’s move towards unpackaging the pieces. I want to understand better the respondents of perpetrators…The data isn’t really clear on what the story is behind that.”

Msosa buckled down on transformative justice and marginalized communities, explaining that “believing survivors is one thing, but I would also caution that, because which believers do we choose to believe?” For Msosa, it’s important that people recognize that work is already being done, but isn’t being acknowledged. “What’s next has been happening,” she said.

“The folks that are trying to change systems are already present, we need to amplify their voices. We need to be really honest about our movement here.”

Questions fielded from audience members revolved around getting men to participate in the conversation rather than “preaching to the choir,” with one audience member pointing out that there were only four attendees who were men, one of whom worked at Bar Robo, one who was a photographer and left early, and another who was kicked out for heckling Daigle.

“It is a lot of work and I think the most we can do is start with the people closest in our lives. There’s a lot that happens in spheres that we’re not in that they are in,” Kishek responded.

Amy Kishek participated as one of the panelists. Photo: Christine Wang.

“If they hear rape jokes, or if they hear things that everyone laughs along to, they think it’s normal. The casual way that we objectify women, those sorts of conversations have implications. It’s up to to the men in their lives to call them out on that.”

Daigle’s approach was to invite men into the conversation by giving lectures and asking questions within community institutions such as Mosques, where she recently spoke about marital rape in the context of islam, and gaining insight from their experiences.

“It’s like we’re speaking a different language,” she said. “But men are experiencing other forms of violence, even sexual harassment. We need to be opening up those discussions and find out what’s happening to them.”

Whereas Msosa’s solution is to create more spaces for men to talk about toxic masculinity and how that impacts them. “There’s men on the ground, even in Ottawa, having these conversations, and doing this work,” she said in reference to I Can MANifest Change. “Just continuing to cultivate spaces, to have these critical conversations about ending gender based violence, but also about how men, cis and trans men, are impacted by toxic masculinity.”

For Perron, the issue is systemic and change should occur at a level of institutional power. “We look at preventative programs that try to engage men because we’re 80 percent male, so there’s not a lot of female voices, and there’s not a lot of female voices at the top,” she shared about working in the military.

“I know in a particular situation with my boss, we had a human rights and diversity (program) so we had a gendered desk officer because there’s so few women, so they used to put the guys from the combat arms in that job, they made them responsible for gender integration in the military.”

Perron also mentioned her initial disbelief at this project, but the surprising change it incurred.

“At first, I looked at these guys, and I thought, are you kidding me? But you know what, over time, because it was their job to make sure that integration was happening, they learned and they started speaking and you could hear (the change) coming out of their voices.”

“Now that’s one man at a time. To do it at a larger level, we have to understand the context of our organization, find where are the leadership levels,” she explained.

Another question came from a member of the media, asking how to better portray instances of sexual assault in the news in a sensitive manner.

“First of all, rape is not sex,” Msosa said.  

“Sex is consensual. I deal with a lot of media and they’ll be like ‘so it was sexual relations,’ and I’m like no, it wasn’t sexual relations, it was rape.”

Msosa added that “another issue is the ways in which different survivors get reported, and the images they report, and who gets to be a survivor that we feel empathy for,” referencing the portrayal of Indigenous women in media and the lack of coverage concerning marginalized voices.

In terms of what media is doing right, Msosa said that NOW magazine invited her along with other experts to offer training workshops on better reporting, something she says gives her hope among the lack of sensitivity she sees in many media outlets.

Daigle’s main concern is that media gives in to backlash over stories that make people uncomfortable. “Sometimes media is like ‘I’m gonna do the other side of the story’ and it’s true, they have to do two sides, but what is the other side?” she asked, a sentiment recently multiplied by the recent New York Times Nazi profile.

“What is the other side?” – Chelby Marie Daigle. Photo: Christine Wang.

“I’ve just been reflecting on this recently with the reporting that’s been happening in Libya on African migrants and I feel like what is this, torture porn? I feel like because it’s clickable we’re exploiting on people’s suffering … and the gory details and the survivor stories … it’s harmful for them.”

“Media is driven by a lot of hits,” Daigle said. “Maybe sometimes, it’s better to write a balanced story, that isn’t going to get as many hits.”

Media Action’s Ask Women Anything Series will be held once a month at Bar Robo, and will return in January. For more information, you can visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

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