Law, through Another Lens
By Heidi J. T. Exner
Canadian females are disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts, whether in the classroom, the boardroom, or the domestic sphere. Some subsets of women are at higher risk of gender-based harassment or violence, or they face a more substantial gender wage gap than other females. Popular narrative explains the wage difference away as a result of different education levels, or points to their lifestyles to say that some females place themselves at a higher risk for violence. These types of arguments are a part of the problem, as they reflect an unacceptable blindness to very real inequalities that exist in front of us and all around us. The truth is that some females experience debilitating systemic discrimination in their lives, which also produce the very effects that these arguments frame as their “choices.”
What is Intersectional Feminism?
A feminist will point out that women are significantly less likely than men to advance beyond middle management in the professional arena. An intersectional feminist will acknowledge this too, but will dig a bit deeper and see that of the women who do receive promotions, non-Caucasian and LGBTQ+ females are even more severely underrepresented. Because the effectiveness of the gender equality movement hinges on its ability to push for gains for all women, it is imperative for a serviceable movement to take an intersectional approach.
There is diversity among UCalgary Law’s student body, which is great to see. We could congratulate our admissions committee members, and ourselves, for a job well done and call it a day, but is this really sufficient? When one takes the time to observe a classroom in action, the finer granules that intersectional feminism attempts to address begin to emerge. For example, the loudest and most confident female voices among the student body appear to be heterosexual, Christian, and white. These voices are positively steeped in privilege, perhaps because they inhale an air of entitlement with which they use to speak. The voice behind this article might appear similarly confident: I am a heterosexual, Caucasian female. I will not pretend that I have not, and do not, benefit from social and economic privileges. I also do not pretend to have the same knowledge about obstacles that females experience when they also happen to be transgender, bisexual, Muslim, black, blind, or what-have-you. Being an intersectional feminist ally, I choose to use my own voice to advocate for inclusion and diversity. I support my peers who face barriers, and I do my best to try to understand what these barriers really are.
CWSLA x LNFB Forum
The Calgary Women Studying Law Association (CWSLA) is a club at the University of Calgary that celebrates all females who are studying law. Its leaders advocate use of an intersectional lens to better understand the unique issues that females face within our justice system. In 2019, the CWSLA submitted a bid to Law Needs Feminism Because (LNFB) to host the 2020 LNFB National Forum here in Calgary – with an “innovative intersectionality” theme. Their pitch won the bid, and with the help of numerous supporters,* the 2020 LNFB National Forum, filled with workshops and speakers from across Canada, will be held in Calgary on March 6thand 7th. A look at the forum’s original leadership and some student-presenters provides insight into the ways in which law students are shaping the future of our profession with their own innovative approaches to intersectionality.
Souhila Baba Ahmed is now an articling student, but she has been a part of the LNFB Forum since its inception among McGill’s law student body in 2017. She is the LNFB’s Research Co-Lead, where she is creating a database of feminist legal scholars in Canada. Souhila is also on the board of directors of LEAF Québec. She is a woman of colour, an immigrant, and a francophone. “To me, if your feminism isn’t intersectional, it is simply not feminism,” she said. “I have learned that feminism and law have a complicated relationship … [T]here is still a resistance to acknowledge feminism as a valid framework to be self-critical and to move the profession forward.”
Although many people who have operated within the feminist movement for a while can forget this, myself included, we cannot afford to work from a definition of feminism that is restricted to our personal experiences. To truly be an equity seeking movement, feminism has to account for the intricacies of identity and individuality, as well as collective and community belonging. Working through systems of oppressions is what feminism does, and to suggest that only the patriarchy is oppressive to all women or non-binary folks would be to confine their identity to a single sphere – which is oppressive in and of itself.
Souhila asserts that today’s law students are not only capable, but they have a responsibility to reshape the future of our legal landscape.
Sara Sicherman believes that Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar who coined the term “intersectional feminism” in 1989, put it best when she said, “Not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women.” Sara is one of UCalgary’s own: she is a 3L who has contributed to criminal law through her research on the way race, religion, and culture intersect with sexual assault, breaking the cycle of addiction-related criminal recidivism, as well as in a hands-on capacity working for the Crown. Sara is hosting a workshop called “Consequences of social Location in Access to Justice Advocates at Heart” at the 2020 LNFB Forum.
“It’s so much harder when you have a lot of actors in the legal system who come from a very privileged place,” Sara said. “Context matters! There is a lot of empathy exhaustion and just a lot of exhaustion generally where [counsel] have to shut themselves off for their own mental health. It negatively impacts those who are before the court with so much of a story that can explain what has happened and what they need to go forward.” Sara hopes to engage people from all backgrounds and all walks of life in her workshop, so that we can begin to consider the perspectives of all interested parties.
Aria Kamal is a JD candidate at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She is co-hosting a workshop titled “Effective Lawyering: Integrating Intersectionality within your Legal Practice for the Social Justice Advocates at Heart” at the 2020 LNFB Forum. The practical takeaway for attendees of this workshop will be a new understanding of the social and legal interests of different actors within the justice system. The objective, Aria says, “is to figuratively step into the shoes of one’s clients in order to truly empathise with social barriers that factor into the root cause of their concerns.” Factoring into her involvement with PLAN Canada's “Because I am a Girl” campaign, Aria has engaged the public with discussions about a myriad of feminist issues. Three years ago, she spoke in Toronto about the glass ceiling that exists for females in specific industries (including law).
“Your experience is what shapes your perspective,” Aria explained. “An intersectional analysis goes beyond a focus of a single social category to consider the simultaneous interaction of different aspects of social identity.” Aria believes an intersectional analysis helps to establish that various forms of social identity converge to disadvantage life chances for some within society, while different forms of identity can converge to advance others. For this reason, an intersectional lens helps to articulate the various other forms of social identity that work together to determining a woman’s general quality of life.
Law school does not merely teach us the mechanics of law. Our time as law students may be short, but it will begin to define our roles in the community and shape our careers. The attitudes and efforts we exhibit now have the power to reinforce the status quo, or they will manifest real change in the legal profession. The choice – and the responsibility – is ours.
There are many ways we can all apply intersectional feminism to create a more equitable future, starting with our everyday lives. Instead of making broad assumptions about marginalised groups, we can use our common sense and recognise that within groups of people, multiple identities and experiences exist (not all persons within an identifiable group or community have the same experiences or perspectives). When we really observe and analyse the diversity and representation we see in our daily lives – at school and within the legal community – can we identify ways these spaces could be more inclusive and welcoming? Perhaps most importantly, can we recognise that it’s not the responsibility of individuals with different lived experiences to educate others? If this generation of the legal profession wants to create real and lasting change, it needs to begin in the here and now. Let’s take the initiative, today, to try to broaden our collective understanding of one another.
*The 2020 LNFB Forum is supported by: Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP; Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP; the Law Society of Alberta; University of Calgary Student Law Society; Moot Times; Bennett Jones LLP; Fasken; McLennon Ross LLP; Dentons Canada LLP; Gowling WLG; OUTlaw SLS club and LexisNexis Canada.