By Emerald Bensadoun
On March 8, Arezoo Najibzadeh, a Ryerson public administration and governance student, will be giving up her seat at the *national Daughters of the Vote summit at Parliament Hill to illustrate a point about sexual violence against women in Canadian politics.
The application process for the conference was tedious and only one delegate was chosen for each riding. During the conference, 338 women, including Najibzadeh, are planned to take their seats in the House of Commons, meet members of parliament, and attend meetings with committees and interest groups to further familiarize themselves with Canadian politics. The event aims to celebrate Canadian women’s political contributions, as well as inspire the delegates to take on leadership roles within political institutions in Canada. It is run by Equal Voice, an organization that is committed to electing more women to all political offices in Canada.
According to Equal Voice, only 26 per cent of elected members of Canada’s national Parliament, the House of Commons, are women. Additionally, less than 40 per cent of provincial and territorial legislatures are women. In some communities, that number is as low as nine per cent.
The idea to give up her seat came to Najibzadeh shortly after the provincial portion of the summit at Queen’s Park on Feb. 21.
By giving up her seat, Najibzadeh hopes to make a statement against “sexual violence and the political system’s failure to support women going through it.”
“I owe it to every young woman, or women in general, who have not been able to continue their role in politics, or has not been able to enter politics because of gender-based violence or sexual violence, to not take my seat while being present in that room,” said Najibzadeh. “I feel like it will be much more meaningful to me than taking my seat and pretending that everything’s alright when it’s not.”
Politicians like Alberta’s Member of the Legislative Assembly, Sandra Jansen, are regularly attacked online and in-person based on gender-specific violence.
On Nov. 22, 2016, Jansen stood in legislature and read comments she had received to bring attention to the difficulties women in politics face. One person wrote, “Now you have two blond bimbos in a party that is clueless,” while another called her a, “Dumb broad,” and added that the NDP party is a good place for her to be “with the rest of the queers.”
Jansen received these comments following her decision to leave the Conservative party because of alleged sexism from other political leaders.
Women in politics are accustomed to receiving these comments and often have little support from the institutions they are a part of. The blog ‘Madame Premier’ tracks comments posted on various social media platforms that attack Canadian women premiers.
Najibzadeh stressed the importance of portraying both sides of women’s history in politics. She said she hopes her decision will serve as a reminder to speak out against sexual violence both on and off of Parliament Hill, including at university campuses and public spaces.
“Every time we celebrate something and every time we celebrate ‘being together’ we should also think about the women who are not there and what we can do to change that,” said Najibzadeh, referring to other women she said “couldn’t even bring themselves to apply to be a delegate.”
Najibzadeh added that there were other shortcomings at the February Queen’s Park gathering. According to Najibzadeh, what was supposed to be a historic event symbolizing diversity and inclusion, and a celebration of 100 years of women’s engagement in politics, quickly turned into a “catty” exchange of name-calling and “white feminism.”
During the event, Kayla Tiller, a Western University student, stood up and asked how white women who experience stigmatization of being right-wing supporters could make their way into politics.
“As soon as the words ‘stigmatization’ and ‘right wing’ left her mouth, I felt not only myself, but the women who were sitting beside me, tense up. Most of us were women of colour, some of us hijab wearing, some of us queer,” Najibzadeh said. “As people who have been targets of hateful and discriminatory ‘right wing’ policies and attitudes, we felt scared and uneasy, and did not know how to address the situation aside from checking in with each other and talking amongst ourselves.”
Najibzadeh Tweeted during the event, “White girl talking about stigma against right wing youth…it’s not stigma, it’s resistance against bigotry.”
Shortly after posting, Najibzadeh said other young women identifying as right-wing Conservatives attacked her on Twitter.
Tiller could not be reached for an interview regarding her comments.
In response to the Twitter exchange, Equal Voice National reached out to Najibzadeh. “Daughter of the Vote is about creating opportunities for respectful, meaningful dialogue and understanding,” they wrote, adding that the conversation deserved a better forum than social media.
Najibzadeh said several other delegates identifying as women of colour said that during the event, they felt “tokenized,” and reduced to “boxes that needed to be ticked off on a checklist.”
“If we don’t address these differences and these historical instances and contemporary instances of racism, women of colour and marginalized people will continue to feel unwelcome, tokenized, and uncomfortable in those spaces,” Najibzadeh said.
Najibzadeh said she sent an email on Feb. 20 to Equal Voice to ask if they would be open to having active listeners in Ottawa during the conference and during the events to help mediate difficult conversations and topics.
“If we’re going to talk about politics, if we’re going to be in a building that holds a lot of meaning and symbolism for a lot of young women,” she said. “We need to have mechanisms in place that will check in with them, that will make sure they’re alright.”
Najibzadeh said she has not yet heard back from Equal Voice and Daughters of the Vote.
*Correction: a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Daughters of the Vote is an international conference. In fact, it is a national conference.