Feminism on trial: The Jian Ghomeshi case and sexual violence in 2016

Jian Ghomeshi was a Canadian icon as the star host of the CBC radio program Q. Accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking by three women in total, his acquittal of all charges on Thursday, March 24th has sent shockwaves across legal and feminist circles.

Many have commented on the trial, with pieces sympathizing with those losing the trial and discussing structural sexism stacked against women in sexual assault cases. Others sympathize with Ghomeshi whose career now lies in tatters.

This case reflects serious discussions in the legal profession and with feminism today.

First, some facts. Jian Ghomeshi stood accused of multiple acts of sexual assault almost a decade ago. In a trial lasting over a year, his story has been made high profile by several factors: he is/was a beloved celebrity in Canadian media; he hired notorious legal icon Marie Henein to defend him and one of his accusers waived her right to remain anonymous and took her case to the press. Additionally, there has been substantial public support for DeCoutere, the named witness-accuser in this case.

Protests regarding the ingrained sexism of this trial, the legal process, and unspoken sexual violence overwhelmingly affecting women at large have been held, with even more erupting after the not guilty verdict and DeCoutere’s comments still insisting Ghomeshi sexually assaulted her.

The tone of the judge’s comments following the case have been striking given heightened public emotion. Judge Horkins opined ‘women are believed far too often in matters of assault’ and, further, ‘at the risk of being labelled an “activist judge”, I am willing to take a courageous and principled stand to suggest that perhaps it’s time to start unquestionably believing men who are accused of sex crimes.’

Today, it is estimated two in one-hundred rapes result in prison sentences in the US, and in Canada, it is believed 90% of sexual assaults go unreported. Documentaries such as The Hunting Ground demonstrate how terrifyingly common the issue is and how little is done about it. Sexual violence is an unspoken epidemic in our societies whose moral repugnance and absolute barbarity have for millennia been brushed under the carpet.

In the rest of a country with a fierce enough progressive tradition ‘because it’s 2015’ and purports a gender-neutral cabinet, Horkin’s comments advocate societal recidivism. Did he enter this case with a truly balanced frame of mind or was he sceptical towards women from the off?

The hiring of slick criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein also raises a deeper point. Henein represents the woman who has it all – a successful career, power and respect, a well-rounded home life. Clicking into the room with those high stilettos and that wry lipstick-smile, she represents the aspirational figure of feminine power many young women want.

This makes matters uncomfortable for many as Henein is now the vanguard of what many perceive to be all that is wrong with the trial and what it says about society at large. She ‘whacked’ all three of the women – used minutia details and loaded questions to make the witnesses contradict themselves so they looked unreliable. Infamously used in sexual assault cases, many argue it plays on the pre-existing stereotype of women as hysterical and over-emotional.

To those portraying DeCoutere as a feminist heroine speaking up for the voiceless, Henein is their nemesis. Having a woman accuse other women of jealously lying to get revenge makes for a much more compelling case. It deflects what would otherwise be criticisms that an old lawyer-man is epitomizing all that is wrong in the male-dominated legal system together with his buddy The Judge.

Worse still, campaigners argue women face prejudice throughout the whole process. From being asked what they were wearing at the police station to having a judge secretly wonder if they were ‘asking for it’, these pertinent questions were invalidated in a trial which could potentially have raised much awareness on this. Many also argue that because the traditional female role is as the fixer who keeps her head up at all times, rationalizing away a sexual assault by telling herself the man really cares about her. Having a female rip this apart has upset many, setting the argument back.

Henein is a feminist too. She is just a different kind, not interested in the greater feminist “cause” we typically hear of. She represents ‘bourgeois feminism’ – the belief a woman should be able to, essentially, do all a man can do in life. Other feminists take issue with this, believing the goal is to overturn the inherent biases in a society that give men advantages in the first place.

This case, more than anything, highlights the struggle between the two to be the dominant theme in society. By now, all agree that men and women ought to be equal in the world, it’s just what kind of equal. Should women be free to engage in male-dominated worlds and let nobody stop them like Henein? Or should women acknowledge the common struggle to have their experiences validated by society at large?

This has been a theme ever since the second wave of feminism in the 1960s which pitted this new thinking of societal change against the rights-driven feminism of old.

Between Horkin and Henein, Canada’s legal professionals and feminists alike will doubtless be thinking about this trial. Whether it be sexist comments, whacking, or how to reconcile a feminist arguing what some would call an anti-feminist case, the closure of Ghomeshi’s trial just opened a host of fresh ones.


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Idrees Sarwar 2 Articles
Idrees is a Politics and International studies student at the University of Warwick currently living in Canada.

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