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Laura Keil

Have you heard about the group of university students in Saudi Arabia who chanted about rape but are allowed to continue their studies after they meet with the Imam?

Oh wait – that wasn’t in Saudi Arabia – that was in Nova Scotia and BC and likely many other campuses across Canada.

The only reason the frosh week rape chants are in the media this year is because a video was posted to the Internet, but these chants have been a part of frosh weeks for”¦ who remembers how long?

It’s tradition. And traditions die hard.

But should we consider this chant just a bit of silly and misguided fun? Can we assume it is detached from a larger culture of poorer opportunities for women and girls?

The Premier of Nova Scotia called the incident at St. Mary’s University “shocking.” Is the fact that women are being ritually degraded at a university frosh week in 2013 “shocking”? The Premier calling it shocking implies we have achieved a culture where rape and sexual assault are not joked about or trivialized and where they seldom occur. That is sadly not the case.

This chant about non-consensual sex with a girl is a symbol of something larger, and not an isolated “disturbing” incident. As the Premier of the province where Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide last year, he should know that. To me it shows how out of touch he is with the prevalence and acceptance of sexism, rape and the value put on virginity in Canada. In fact, it is so prevalent, many people refuse to recognize it’s there.

Perhaps these news stories reflect a change in attitude of the general Canadian public, where trivializing or ignoring the issue of rape is no longer considered acceptable. I certainly hope that is the case. Can you imagine what a frosh student would feel about the chant if they were a survivor of sexual assault?

I recently watched a film called “Iron Jawed Angels” about the fight in the US for women to get the vote. These women’s fight happened less than 100 years ago. Their fight, of course, was to convince the men in Congress and the Senate. Those women broke many taboos – they demanded equal rights; they organized; they defied a picketing ban during World War I to continue their demonstration outside the White House; they were thrown into jail on a charge of “obstructing traffic,” force fed during their hunger strike, thrown into solitary confinement and the psych ward – all because they wanted equal rights. Less than 100 years ago. These women were considered “insane” because they wanted to vote for the people who made the laws that they had to follow.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, but how far? Until 1983 you could not charge your spouse with rape – only indecent assault, common assault, or assault causing bodily harm. “Rape” was not something that occurred in a marriage.

Sexual assault and harassment continues to be underreported due to the stigma attached.

Today, women only make 70 percent what men make for work of equal value. Canada’s gender income gap puts us 11th out of 17 comparable developed nations. Women only form 25 per cent of federal MPs, making Canada #50 worldwide.

In business, the 2011 Catalyst Census: Financial Post 500 Women Board Directors finds that only 14.5 percent of board seats in corporate Canada are held by women. Nearly 40 percent of Canada’s largest companies have no women on their boards, and more than 46 percent of the largest public companies have no women directors. The study has found exceptionally slow growth in women’s participation each year.

The fact that it was UBC School of Business students that sang the rape chant makes it even more poignant. In a world where we ask “Why aren’t there more women in business/politics/on major companies’ boards etc,” this incident almost makes me laugh at the question. It’s like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. We are all culpable for not speaking out, for not “making an issue” out of it. It’s not just children and teens who need that discussion; it’s adults too.

We need to stop assuming that we’ve achieved equal rights and that everybody knows what equal rights means.

We need education and self-reflection.

I cannot dismiss these events as foolish, isolated incidents stemming from a traditional hazing culture that have, over time, become non-politically-correct. Rather, they are glaring examples of a downplayed culture of sexist and insensitive behaviour where actual sexual assaults and rapes are trivialized, women are degraded and everyone’s attitudes perpetuate a culture of less opportunity for women.

The problem is not necessarily that parents and role models are teaching kids to be callous and insensitive; it’s that there is NO discussion at all, and adults assume children and teens will “unteach” themselves things they are exposed to in real life, in movies, online and in video games. It’s not just about doing or saying nothing – it’s about speaking out when something offensive is said or done. Blaming the world’s problems on video games is ignoring our own responsibility for the culture that creates those games. Our language, our humour, our choices. When we speak up and when we don’t. When we laugh and when we don’t.

Of course, the discussion around rape & sexual assault makes us uncomfortable. We would rather avoid it. We tell ourselves kids are naturally “good” unless they are corrupted by some big event. More often, they are corrupted by no event at all, but by a series of small incalculable events that desensitize – and so we see nothing to “correct.”

One female university student was interviewed after the incident at St. Mary’s and said “I’m not a feminist kind of person. It didn’t affect me personally.”

The naivetÔ© in this statement is revealing: after all, anyone who sees something wrong with the chant should consider themselves a feminist – yet many don’t. Many still equate feminism with overreaction. No doubt many powerful forces wish us to think that.

The University President says he wants the school to take “a measured approach” when dealing with the students involved in the incident.

“I wouldn’t want to see something that harms the careers of the kids,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see that happen.”

No you wouldn’t want their careers to be interfered with, just because they led a group of frosh students in a rape chant that humiliated and degraded women and girls everywhere. That would truly be unfortunate.

In my view, these student “leaders” should be expelled. If we pardon every person who perpetuates a sexist or racist or anti-gay philosophy and let them hide behind “tradition,” few people will ever have the courage to confront those traditions.