The FemJustice Legal Centre seeks to increase the use of feminist lawyering techniques in the legal sector, with a particular focus on increasing feminist leadership among legal practitioners, law students and other individuals working with survivors of gender based violence. We believe that the legal field has massive potential to advance the feminist and gender-rights movement. In order for this to be successful, legal approaches with a gender-sensitive lens need to be employed.
Rather than just filling the legal aid gap in India, we work to provide a space where the process of seeking justice can be a transformative tool to combat gender-based crimes, while simultaneously recognising the survivor-client’s agency, lived reality and desires for justice. This project hopes to change the narrative around gender-based violence by distilling theory into practice.
This interview series seeks to take the conversation to professionals who have created a tangible feminist justice responses in their field of work. The objective is to open up space to explore various different forms of feminist justice, across personal and professional spaces looking at interpersonal and systemic challenges.
Maëlle Noir from One Future Collective spoke to Dr. Margarita Pintin-Perez, feminist scholar and social worker based in Canada. She holds a PhD from the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Toronto. Her research has examined the roots of violence, with a focus on the structural, spatial and discursive realms that enable violence and secure inequality. Specifically, she looked at forms of gendered, racialized, structural and everyday violence against Central American migrant women with precarious status in Mexico. She is now the Senior Coordinator for the Initiative to End Gender-Based Violence at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). This national project aims to develop a network of survivors alongside community members as well as frontline workers to form a strong advocacy network across Canada as well as to develop leadership from a community and systemic standing to eradicate gender-based violence.
OFC: Given your experience across countries in the migration context with a focus on gender based and racialized violence, and the role of dominant discourses in shaping social inequality, what is your definition of feminist justice?
Having worked in different contexts, serving different roles, there are multiple variations and interpretations of what feminist Justice means to me. Themes such as power and inequalities would immediately emerge when talking about feminist justice but the way we make sense of that depends on where were are, who we are and how we are socially remote. This became evident when I was doing field work in places like Mexico. The script of feminism that has worked to champion certain ideas around violence against women in the Canadian context does not necessarily adapt to every setting. It is interesting to see that, sometimes, feminism, in that kind of space can work around an agenda that would secure nationalism and racism.
Although the concept of feminist justice might centralise the idea of women, it may lack sensitivity to the situation of racialized women or women with precarious status for instance.
My understanding of feminist justice mostly comes from my reading of the English literature and it was just not applicable in that space. I believe that, as much as we want to have a kind of collective feminist network, philosophy and theorisation, trying to come up with a universal definition of feminist justice actually works against what we are after, which is to challenge the notion of power.
OFC: You are saying that feminist justice is a plural and flexible concept that must adjust to the specificities of each space and context. How do you think this adaptation should occur?
Due to my social location and my positionality, I often wonder if I am the right person to work on such contexts. I feel it helps to understand that we all play different roles within the fight for gender equality. It is important to acknowledge that theorizing and writing extensively about feminist justice looks different than what’s happening in the field.
Something that stayed with me from my experience in Mexico is that, what might feel like a requirement to be liberated or to be truly feminist according to scholars, would be deeply harmful in another context. If we remember the roots of feminist thinking and advocacy, it has often remained outside the spaces of theorisation by researchers. As such, in some ways, feminism is being corrupted by this obsession to find THE truth.
Standpoint feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins wrote extensively on this topic. She argues that feminist philosophy and practise are about having different voices and not appointing someone in a hierarchical fashion to express their one truth. These are all truths, in plural, that we need to celebrate. It is precisely the idea according to which there would be just one truth to be adopted that has secured patriarchal laws, policies and everything in this material world that we live in.
Thus, we want to make sure that, as feminists, we all respect the plurality of truths. Let’s not collapse into this idea that one of us has it right or that one group is more legitimate to talk about feminist justice.
OFC: It is interesting because when you talk about feminist justice, you speak about it from a collective perspective. Should feminism be a collective fight or a personal ideology?
There is room for both. I believe there is a requirement to internalise feminism so that each one of us, individually, can figure out what it implies: what is my feminism? How do I practise this ideology? How do I put it in a way that is not about “performing feminism”?
International women’s day is a very good example; I’m always on the floor with the amount of people that are posting on social media. I’m happy to see visibility around this but I don’t think feminism is something we perform. What I mean by this is that it becomes a day to perform and demonstrate your work towards a ‘cause’ that has become increasingly commodified – for example with selling a feminist shirt that celebrities will wear on this day. It can seem petty – at least they care, right? But what is lost in this moralizing performance is the deep commitment and alignment to feminism and understanding the contradictions inherent in these declared days, a commodification of cause, which leaves unchallenged the deep roots and institutions instrumental to securing gender inequality. Feminism is a philosophy that needs to align with our personal values, with the community that we care about and with the work that we do.
So there is an element of feminism that is internalised, and there is another piece of it that is really important within the collective sphere. Working from a feminist perspective should be about compassion and shared responsibility rather than about isolation. Indeed, sometimes, feminism can be diseased by individualism. I find it helps to reference the work that challenges system-affirming practices in this regard and says let’s talk about “solidarity” not “charity”. How do I challenge the ways that feminism has been co-opted and leaves us in a narrow individualism?
To me, being feminist is about trying to make sense of all these collective and individual pieces that are required for this ideology to be able to operate.
OFC: When did you first get introduced to the concept of feminist justice? What would your present feminist self think about the 18 year-old feminist that you were?
Sara Ahmed in her book Living a Feminist Life, talks about feminism as a “sensible reaction to the injustices of the world”. I might not have had the language to qualify it when I was younger but when reading this book, I remember thinking to myself that this was something I had always been conscious about.
Like many others, I grew up in a household where there was a gendered way of doing everything. I recall that I was always suspicious of this idea that I couldn’t do things that my brother could or was allowed to do. Cutting the grass for example – I was always told that I couldn’t do it and I remember thinking “can’t I?” I was constantly questioning these situations. Interestingly, when growing up, I was very close to my older brother and it felt that I wanted to do everything he would be doing. I was always rebellious in that regard and I would challenge the authority that would come and say I was not allowed to behave like my brother. So I think we’re introduced to this concept of feminist justice early on and we just don’t have the language to develop a deeper understanding of it until we’re reading about it.
Feminist justice does not make sense only when we label it. We have created a whole language around this philosophy, and , what constitutes and legitimises it seems to be the knowledge around feminism.
The present version of me now has refined some of these ideas because of years of reading, thinking and writing which have been so helpful as it informed me so much. Therefore I would be proud of that 18 year-old self.
Actually, 18 is an interesting age because it coincides with the start of my community work and volunteering about building a sense of belonging around newcomer youth and aboriginal indigenous youth in our city. I remember that, even though it was only a 20 minute drive (and I was privileged enough to have a car), I would realise that I was entering a whole new world, where life chances and opportunities look so different. That was so profound to me.
It is this other reality that made me want to challenge mine. It was my first way of questioning the social order and everything I was being conditioned to accept. I would say that this rebellion that happens to all of us revolved mostly around the concept of inequality for me.
Thus, being a feminist when I was 18 years-old was perhaps about having an inner dialogue about inequalities at large. I had a lot of that insight, thinking about it, maybe flagging it. Now, I have more of a commentary that I am very fortunate in the role that I have with OCASI and even to have had the opportunity to access education.
OFC: You are currently coordinating the initiative to end gender-based violence with Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI). Within this project, you state that empowerment of survivors is not enough, but requires us to work within the context of social justice and advocacy led by community, frontline workers and other key stakeholders. Can you tell us more about this? How can feminist justice play a role in building leadership capacity amongst these individuals?
The project is based on two existing programs in Ontario. The first one is an advocacy focused group. Advocacy is critical for social justice work, however, the work of service providers, frontline workers, and even researchers, has increasingly lost or been reoriented in advocacy efforts because of restrictions due to funding priorities and institutional mandates for example. Thus, it seems that we need spaces to organize and advocate that much more. In fact, looking at history and the roots of feminism, advocacy is how it started, through movements, protests and relationships. This anger, this frustration, this sadness and this suffering is what triggered a collective consciousness to fight for change. The project builds on the work of an existing advocacy network in Toronto, aiming at building a national one to connect and engage with people who have the capacity to do this advocacy effort.
Within funding calls, there has been this emergence to include survivors of gender-based violence and who have precarious immigration status in the thinking and design of programs. Their insight is, in a way, informing how we advocate. In our project, that is the focus of the building leadership part. But, it requires deep reflection to do this in meaningful ways, in order not to place burden on communities. How do we ensure that someone who has ample experience and can identify what the priority for their community is, can become a leader? How do we warrant that people are adequately recognized for their work? It is a balance as there might be a funding call, but this has long been the assertive demands of grassroots to center survivors of gender-based violence. How do we mitigate the fact that empowerment and leadership have structural limitations when the process occurs in a context of injustice? This is particularly true for frontline work. Therefore, this project also focuses on how to create broader contexts of social justice alongside this type of growth and leadership using a feminist perspective.
OFC: This project also looked at how immigration policies in Canada perpetuate gender-based violence both against women immigrants and also within immigrant communities. Can you tell us more about your findings? Do you think a feminist perspective towards justice could transform the ways laws and policies are enacted, interpreted and implemented to better address this? How?
I feel very much in line with this idea of feminist lawyering because there is definitely a need to shift from laws and policies – especially those protecting women against gender-based violence – that are shaped and emerge from patriarchy. It is this feminist lawyering perspective that is required to question the system, to highlight that the law as it is operating is unfair and, sometimes, even secure harm towards women.
There is no such thing as neutrality in the law and it does require a feminist based understanding and interpretation in order to challenge that. I think that, especially in the context of immigrants with precarious status, it has been so important because it’s a combination of different people and different areas.
This intersectionality nurtures further discrimination and the law is such an important place to disrupt and modify these. A feminist perspective is also a relevant tool to adjust to communities’ specific needs. For example, there is so much investment in the judicial system and in the police institution which does not protect communities that are already over-policed such as racialized communities.
It’s not about saying that we should not have laws but it is about how we are doing it in a way that is considerate of people’s different experiences and relationship to this law.
OFC: At OFC we believe that the law is not an end but a tool that works towards eliminating women’s oppression and inequality including gender-based violence. What would be the other spaces that are also at stake when building gender equality?
I believe there are so many layers to this. There is the law that is securing particular interests at the material level as well as the very foundation of patriarchy that supports these ideas in our relationships and through the language that we choose, for example.
Feminist justice is highlighting the fact that patriarchy is so pervasive that it operates in almost every space. I definitely agree that the law is a tool in the way that we can challenge our reality, asking for prevention and intervention, adopting a discourse to legitimise that patriarchy is harmful. But where is this social imaginary? In what space is that change supposed to happen?
I believe that the social reality about women’s rights is so nuanced and complicated. This imaginary is also in our education and in the way the system is structured. It is what is embedded in the taken for granted, everyday way we live that secures ideas of gender and how to do gender. Our world left unquestioned is acting as a compass, that is not oriented towards our greater good. Worse still, in the case of gender, it excludes, conditions and harms.
Our mission is therefore to dissect this reality and to re-imagine the system to come up with a transformative tool such as feminist lawyering.
There is a big difference between just calling patriarchy out, and allowing this work to be transformative, creating other spaces of change and re-forging our relationships. We can already see it happening especially at the community level when people are helping each other, trying to find that kind of closeness within this distance that has been imposed on us.
OFC: What do you think is the direction feminist justice ought to take today?
Speaking in the context of my work, I would say that there is a requirement or whatever direction we go to, to have the awareness of protecting women who do not respond to the ideal victim narrative. In those lines, we should wonder where our work goes when we are thinking of people who are not recognised under the state such as immigrants with a precarious status. They are almost not fully human in the way our world has organised.
“So, your work is with women but what about other communities, the Spanish-speaking community or the sex worker community?” is a question I’m often asked. These are absolutely relevant points but there seems to be this misconception that, in fighting for women’s rights and feminist justice, then I don’t have solidarity or alignment with other causes. I reject this theoretical frame of “oppression olympics” trying to determine which issue is more severe. All our problems are. We all have different relationships to the state, there is a lot of work to do to help each other and no one can take urgency over another, every human being requires attention.
The feminist agenda will continue to emerge. I believe that feminist justice is a process and that the end goal can never really be achieved until we are more in places where we collectively participate in this agenda.
Maelle Noir is Program Officer at the Feminist Justice Legal Center, One Future Collective.