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Newcomer Women’s Services rally gives immigrant women in Canada a greater voice

For International Women’s Day, Newcomer Women’s Services, a charity that supports immigrant women, organised a public rally. They were supporting women coming into Canada from countries under Sharia law, such as Syria, where they can face persecution for speaking out. The rally however, through the use of signage, empowered the women to voice their opinions and experiences.

Syria has a dual legal system which includes both secular and religious courts, and the latter discriminate against women. Marriage contracts are between the groom and the bride’s father, and Syrian law does not recognize the concept of marital rape. Tragically, many honor killings occur each year in Syria while conflict in the country has led to an increase in child marriages. The harsh living conditions, the insecurity and the fear of rape, have led families to force daughters into early marriages.

Helping women prepare for the protest rally

Newcomer Women’s Services garnered support of its language instructors to help the immigrant women prepare for the rally. These instructors come from the organization’s English Language school that offers four classes of instruction for 55 women as well as child-minding, settlement resources, employment counselling and pathways to employment.

“We take a holistic approach that not only provides language training but life skills coaching; self advocacy. We are creating safe space with smaller class size to build a collective of strong women. For IWD we wanted to organize an event for these women students to share their personal struggles with gender imbalance not only in society but in their own homes,” said Judy Fantham, Executive Director of Newcomer Women’s Services.

“Our language instructors guided them through the creation of personal protest signs and then they marched in Toronto’s IWD rally. These weren’t generic protests. The messages on their signs had meaning arising from lived experience.”

Filling in the blanks of women’s language

The language instructors asked the women how they can advance gender parity through rallies and protests and, more specifically, through the language of signs. The first language of the organisation’s students is not English, so the initial challenge was understanding the vocabulary of signs. The instructors pitched some important questions: What is some typical messaging? What does that messaging convey? What is the desired outcome or impact?

The instructors then presented the women with blank signs and encouraged them to “fill in the blanks” with their own personal struggles with gender parity.

Giving voice to marginalised women through signs

The Newcomer Women’s Services’s IWD #BalanceforBetter campaign held great personal meaning behind each sign. While the messages still resonate broadly, importantly they resonate deeply with each woman.

For example, one older woman struggles with the sexist attitudes of her husband and son, where they leave all the housework for her, which gives her tremendous anxiety and a decreased sense of worth. Based on her personal experiences, she chose to write: “If you eat off it, you wash it.” Messages from other women included “I am not your maid” or more simple messages of  “I love my daughter!”

There was also some humour in the advocacy. One mother, tired of receiving debasing comments from men, wrote on her sign: “Don’t call me sweetheart.” Later in the rally when she tired, she handed her sign to her seven year old son, which led to lots of laughs.

“It was all so very personal and after all, aren’t movements often borne of single and tangible incidents of injustice?” adds Ms Fantham. “The best practice we can offer is to allow women the opportunity to speak from their own hearts; their own lived experiences; not to carry a generic sign (although some felt safer to do so) because it is that emotion that will bring about the motivation to advocate for change – even in small ways. Newcomer Women’s Services want to validate personal stories through discussion and sharing as a collective of women. We thank our instructors Shereen Gharseldin, Olga Khellebust, Dhurata Sinani and Elizabeth Wickwire for their inspiration.”