Making the move local, in light of Rehtaeh

It was a small yet solemn group that gathered together yesterday evening, downtown in Toronto’s Dundas Square at the candlelight vigil for Rehtaeh Parsons. Gang-raped by four others at a party in late 2011, this Nova Scotia teen suffered brutal humiliation after a photograph of the sexual assault was circulated amongst classmates (who then passed it further along), resulting in Parsons hanging herself.

Time and again, and along the course of other such heart-wrenching cases, we have learned that violence, particularly of the sexual kind, is fully capable of driving one towards complete loss of mind, body, and most importantly, hope.

Tara, and David at the vigil
Imagine my heartbreak then, on meeting David, who despite losing his own daughter to domestic violence, refused to be broken down and came out to support Parson’s parents. Co-organizer of the vigil, Tara (having made it past her own personal tragedy) blew me away with the genuine warmth in each hand she held to personally give thanks for being there.

Nova, also co-organizer (and pregnant with twin girls), amidst all the media frenzy, was able to highlight on the culture of sexual violence that serves as a colossal threat to women both young and old. Caleb, a young university student (only one to stay the entire two hours), especially struck a chord with his comment on the irony that people were more interested in the UFC wrestling on screens behind us, than the lit candles of our cause.

But… why did I go there?

What could a headscarf-clad young woman of visibly South Asian origin possibly have to contribute, in a candlelight vigil against the atrocities meted out to Rehtaeh Parsons?

Despite my foreign appearance, I consider myself every bit as Canadian as David, or Tara, or Nova, or even Caleb. And when a young girl in my homeland is driven to suicide by the despicable acts of not just four, but the many more who added fuel to fire, and with no sign of justice in its aftermath, it affects me too.

In fact, it affects me more because I have seen, first hand, these very atrocities occur and remain largely unnoticed in the international community; and that too, by the bucket loads. These are countries where the infrastructure to counter such cruelty may be in place on paper, but as an ideology in practice, has a rather long way to go. I don’t believe that to be the case with Canada at all.

In light of the Delhi gang rape, a tumultuous wave of anger took over all of India, manifesting itself in movements and protests as far as our very own city of Toronto. I fail to understand why our response to Rehtaeh should be any less intense. ‘Because, pyare, India mein toh yeh roz hota hai,’ (dear, this happens in India everyday) is a line I have heard far too many times in the South Asian community here, and it never fails to drive me right over the wall.

So what! Rape has nothing to do with frontiers. An act of violence, its exclusive purpose is power. One act is one too many; as the Caribbean-American writer and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, once wrote, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.’

The other day, my mother spoke to a woman in our community, who admitted rather nonchalantly of the domestic violence that is ‘common’ in her own home, and in the homes of several others that she knows. It makes my stomach churn, when I wonder if this revolting ideology is being passed down to her twelve-year-old daughter as well; thus, making it alright to accept disrespect, to tolerate trauma, and to break down, but still continue to yield. And all this, on Canadian soil!

Sexual abuse and domestic violence are far too rampant in our own backyards than we would like to acknowledge. I am not saying it hurts more when it is closer to home; but in my understanding of justice, freedom, and equality, the manner in which Rehteah has been wronged is no less cruel than that of the symbolically named Damini. And it is time, we shift our focus back to these issues that continue to wound the moral fabric of Canadian society.

We need to make the move local.  


  1. Excellent expressive with true reflection in support of a cause which is not a trivial commodity
    Abuse is shameful scar on a nations spotless fabric the nation we proud All must join by their voice in echo against any abuse

  2. Very well written article Sahar. I believe that the intensity of communal interaction amongst south Asians although an excellent facilitator of settlement and network, is also the bane of domestic issues. It prevents open dialogue about many concerns and is only discussed under the breath, in whisperings. I wonder if you have thoughts on the institution of clergy being used to bring these issues to the fore.