This interview came out shortly after the acquittal of Ghomeshi, a Canadian Broadcasting Company host who faced 7 counts of sexual assault. This case was incredibly controversial. As Henein says throughout the interview, nearly everyone within the country had an opinion on the case one way or another. High profile cases tend to have this polarizing effect. While I myself was outraged with the acquittal, it was for a whole host of reasons beyond what floated around the twitterverse. However, that isn’t what I want to talk about now. What I’d like to delve into is the details of this interview with Marie Henein, someone who found herself under fire throughout the case. I’d like to examine her comments on feminism, and sexual assault cases in the legal system.
I’d like to start with the fact that Henein is an incredible lawyer. Her fierce intelligence and incredible logic contribute to her ability to act impartially while in the court room. Even throughout the interview, something which she admits she does reluctantly, she maintains a level head and speaks with clarity and eloquence. When Mansbridge brings up the comments about her ‘betraying women’ or the idea that ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’ she doesn’t seem terribly bothered by it. In response to that they discuss the fact that if she were a man, the same comments would not have been flung at her. She even goes so far as to defend the rights of those who made these comments, saying she is glad that we live in a society where freedom of speech allows them to do so.
Henein represents a very particular brand of feminism. She claims the word during the interviewer, but in a way that seems old fashioned. As I’ve already mentioned, Henein is incredibly intelligent. She claims her logical thinking patterns and other things that make her a great lawyer as factors of her personality. For a long time, feminism fought for that particular brand of empowerment. Equality with men, the ability to own property, to have jobs of the same calibre, to be regarded as serious and logical. All of these things are valued in our society, a society that has been built by the patriarchy. There is no shame in wanting to be those things, in fact, they are accomplishments in many ways.
She also supports the legal system relentlessly. She claims that she lives in one of the best countries in the world with one of the best legal systems. A legal system that deeply adheres to its rules. This is all well and true. The Canadian legal system is fantastic. It grows and adapts with the culture. All that being said, it is a system that was developed by the same society that is the reason we have issues such as sexual assault. The patriarchy is equally responsible for an impartial legal system as it is for the irrational crimes that are sexual assault. Within the legal system, there are clear rights and wrongs, no room for gray areas and logic is of the highest value. How is it that we expect a system like this to deal with crimes like sexual assault, where there is nothing but gray and chaos and trauma.
I strongly believe that if we rely on the legal system to bring us justice, then we will never see justice for survivors. There is no logical way to recover from that kind of trauma. Once you lose all autonomy over your body, there is no way to ever completely get over it. Many turn to substance abuse or self harm. Others develop post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Some are left with horrific memories, others are left with physical scars and on going health conditions. There is no way a court settlement could ever resolve this. There is also no room for these kinds of victims within a system that expects plaintiffs to be level headed, infallibly logical and unemotional.
The most aggravating discussion within this interview was the one that surrounded the ‘I/We believe survivors’ campaign. She states that we can’t believe people based on who they are, but we believe people in positions of power all the time. We give more weight to the testimony of doctors and police officers because they are seen as inherently more reliable precisely because of who they are. Why is it that we cannot believe a survivor about their own experience. Surely we can agree that no one knows better about the trauma than the victims themselves. Lady Gaga’s lyrics describe sexual trauma perfectly, “Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels… Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real.” This is also problematic due to the way society is biased. Men are generally seen as less emotional, more logical and thus more reliable. In the vast majority of sexual assault cases brought to court, the ‘he said, she said’ nature of the case means the female victim is seen as inherently unreliable. He gets the presumption of innocence while she is left with the burden of proof.
This trial, and this interview, bring up so many of the problems that the court system has in dealing with sexual assault. By the end of this interview, my biggest problem was that I was unable to disagree with Marie Henein. While I may not like her brand of feminism, or her decision to defend Ghomeshi, I still have a lot of respect for her as a lawyer. She did her job; what she didn’t do, what the system could never do, is bring justice to survivors of sexual assault. It is my belief that we need to look elsewhere for this kind of justice. We need to get better as a society at helping survivors, at preventing the problem in the first place, and at shaming perpetrators. I’m not sure exactly what justice looks like for survivors, I’m sure every single one has a different image of what it would mean for them.
We need to become better educated on what consent is and how to practice it. We need to get better at believing people about their trauma and at doing everything we can to help them live with it. We need to get better at putting the blame where it belongs, on the perpetrators of the crimes. People need to be held accountable. Both for actions that take away someone’s autonomy, but also at the lack of action that too often allows for this kind of thing to happen. Moving forward, we need to find a different way to seek justice. This system created the problem, it is up to us to subvert the system to find justice.