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The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo

March 8, 2011

Photo source: Canadian University Press

This post is in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan “The brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!” A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: Kill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexism. It had the caption: “Marie Curie = evil”.

Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterloo’s President. In this mass email, the message railed against “against women in leadership and women attending university“.

This was followed up by a Facebook profile, presumably from the same person:

When a bad idea comes to this Earth it always hides behind The Shield of Vulnerability. This way it is immune from being attacked in the open. Radioactive Technology was hiding behind the vulnerable looking mask of Marie Curie and this is why no one caught it in advance. They figured that if a female was pushing it then it was harmless. They figured wrong. The truth is that overeducated women are truly dangerous. If they don’t know right from wrong they will nuke the whole Planet and call it the latest fashion from Holt Renfrew. This is the truth. The world is in trouble today because the higher moral intelligence of men is not in charge anymore. How long will you let this continue? The choice is in your hands. I didn’t leave posters on your campus because I am a fool. I left them because I am your father who is concerned about where your education is ultimately going. You are being taught the virtues of gender equality when gender equality is nowhere in the Orginial Plan of Creation. Queen Elizabeth is leading you astray and charging you big money for this evil favour. When you graduate from here you will have a degree but no real intelligence. This is the truth.

There have been at least two stories in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the case, an article posted on the Maclean’s website, and now, an article on Jezebel. The UW campus police are investigating: “forensic analysis of the posters; review of closed-circuit television footage; and collaboration with computer specialists to track the identity of the individual who sent [the] impersonating email fraudulently.”

These are the facts that I have been able to cobble together. While I am loathe to give any legitimacy to the person who has done all of this, I felt that it was more important to post these comments so that readers can get a better sense of why I was alarmed. It may be the case that this person was just trolling and stirring up trouble. But if you take these sentiments at face value, this person comes across as off-balance and in need of counselling.

Obviously, this is not representative of how the larger UW community feels about female scientists, female students, and female leaders. The University of Waterloo as an institution, in my experience, has been quite sensitive to gender issues on campus (though Prof Shannon Dea eloquently disagrees with me in her post on this issue). Having assertive and capable female leaders at all levels of the institution has helped.

Yet this is not just about the misogynistic acts that have been committed, but it is also about how the larger community chooses to respond to these acts. Sadly, in addition to the many constructive conversations that have taken place as a result of these incidents, other comments have been less than helpful, to say the least. For example, Bill Li, a current UW computer science student had this to say in response to a female student who was extremely upset about the events:

Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.

You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.

I have seen similarly insensitive posts on other sites. Bill seems to agree that these incidents were wrong, but he fails to grasp that his comments contribute to making women in his program feel unwelcome. Women like me graduated from computer science and engineering despite sentiments like these, which thankfully, were extremely rare in my corner of UW.

Part of the reason that I’m posting about this is because it feels like I could just as easily have been the target of these incidents. I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished female classmates. One third of my class was female (and none of us dropped out). I also ran for and became president of my student government at Waterloo. Those posters could just as easily have been mine.

There is also a larger social and historical context to this story that should not be forgotten. Twenty-two years ago, on December 6th, 1989, Marc Lépine, walked into the École Polytechnique (part of the engineering school at the Université de Montréal), then shot and killed fourteen female students, and wounded ten other women and four men. If you read the coroner’s report about how the men and women were systematically separated before the women were all shot in the name of feminism, or watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Polytechnique about the Montreal Massacre, a chill will run down your spine. This event casts a long shadow over incidents like those at UW.

In 1998, during my last year as an engineering student at Waterloo, I organized the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial. I exchanged emails with Chris Redmond, the editor of UW’s daily newsletter, about why the memorial was important in spite of the fact that gender didn’t seem to be much of an issue with my cohort. He posted part of our exchange online. I don’t completely agree with everything that was said by my 23 year-old self anymore, but I do think the issues I raised back then are still relevant thirteen years later. Here is an excerpt:

I understood [when I was 14] that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? [Chris and I] talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

[Marc Lépine] committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination [are] not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. [Women] are valued [equally] in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be.

I know that these recent events were “isolated incidents”, but I think that they still raise broader issues of gender equality that are worth discussing. Comments on other sites also suggest that while gender was never an issue for me at UW, it has been an issue for other women.

While I hope that this is just a trolling incident that has gotten out of hand, there is a distinct possibility that there is worse to come. In light of the Montreal Massacre and my previous comments on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the power of political rhetoric, this conversation about women’s equality is clearly one that needs to continue.

* * *
For more constructive commentary on these incidents, E. Cain suggests some concrete measures for improving campus safety, Maclean’s discussed the importance of hate crime legislation, and UW campus leaders gathered to discuss the problem. Shannon Dea has a thought-provoking piece in Hook and Eye.  Also check out the commentary following the Jezebel article. And from Ben Selby, writing in the engineering society’s newspaper, an invitation to embrace feminism at UW.

Sidenote: On the accuracy of the claims about Marie Curie, see Luke Bovard’s piece: the honest truth: Marie Curie.

Update: Bill Xin Li took down his post on this topic but before he did so, he decided to troll someone who sent him an unfavourable response. Preferring not to do further damage to this person’s reputation by providing another link to what was written, suffice it to say that it was rude and inappropriate. Let’s keep this clean and constructive.

Update 2: The NY Times has an article on the unintended consequences of affirmative action policies for female professors, with spillover effects for female students.

March 23, on the UW Daily Bulletin: “Last week a male, distributing posters in Biology 2, was confronted by a student. The male left the area, but is described as having olive skin, no accent, brown eyes and eyebrows, 5’9” to 5’11” and a slim build, wearing a black ski mask only with eye holes, black puffy jacket, possible goose down or feathers, black dress pants that appeared too long, black shoes and black gloves. He was carrying what appeared to be a laptop computer sleeve.”

May 30, in the KW Record: 34-year-old Zamir Nathoo (former UW student) of Kitchener was arrested and charged with charged with criminal harassment, personation with intent and mischief to property. More details in UW’s IMPRINT.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy F. permalink
    March 8, 2011 6:30 pm

    I came to your article from your facebook page.
    What is the percentage of females entering engineering/comp sci today compare to when we graduated highschool?
    I attended UWO Engineering in my freshman year, that class was about 35% female. I recall being much more segregated by gender in engineering (especially in certain disciplines like civil). I later transfered to Computer Science, where female students averaged 20% (but there was no segration..perhaps because there were so few of us). The only sexist remark I recalled, was when a fellow (male) student offhandedly said I got an interview (and he didn’t) because of my gender. Other (male) friends nearby were quick to disassociate themselves from his comments. No one I knew would’ve made remarks like Bill Li’s in private, much less a public forum.
    That was 10 years ago … Has the education system, or society changed? How is it such ignorance and stupidity came to be?
    Also, it seems like there are less females in the US & Canada now entering Engineering & Computer Science. I have worked in the US for the last 11 years…I have only ever worked with one other US or Canadian (highschool & undergrad) educated female engineer. I recall seeing some statistics on asian Engineering & Computer Science students..the female percentage is significantly higher then the US/Canada numbers.

  2. March 9, 2011 1:00 am

    Hi Amy,
    I found a couple of interesting reports for you on the UW Women in Engineering website, including this one: Computing is too important to be left to men (http://www.engineering.uwaterloo.ca/wie/Computing%27s%20too%20important%20to%20be%20left%20to%20men.pdf) and the NSERC Report on Women in Science and Engineering in Canada (http://www.engineering.uwaterloo.ca/Women_Science_Engineering_NSERC.pdf).
    Thanks for your comments.
    Christine

  3. Jodi Campbell permalink
    March 10, 2011 7:06 am

    I would just like to say, in response to Bill Li who said that UW is male-dominated because girls “don’t want to give the effort” and that “girls” should go to Bryn Mawr – he’s right. “Girls” should absolutely go to Bryn Mawr. Not only is Bryn Mawr a far better school than UW, it’s also WORLD-renowned. That means that all the little peon “boys” who go to UW don’t mean shit when it comes to academia. The world says, “UW? What’s that?” University of Wisonsin? No. University of Whothehellcares? Yes. Bryn Mawr “girls”, however, are far more significant. While it may upset these “boys” to realize no one, and I mean absolutely no one, cares about UW, I would also like them to know that no one, let’s be clear – IN THIS WORLD – cares about what a few dorky boys from UW who have never even talked to a women in their entire lives has to say about women scholars. You shouldn’t speak about that of which you know nothing. It’s not surprising, though, because, after all, they are just a few dumb “boys” at UW, hiding away in their labs, trying to make themselves feel smart. I feel sorry for them. They are pathetic. If I joined their program, not only would they all hit on me, they would all have to find ways to be better than me and that, my friends, would be impossible.

  4. Josh permalink
    March 15, 2011 2:55 pm

    @Jodi: Clearly you’re upset about some posters, but don’t kid yourself into thinking anybody has ever heard of Bryn Mawr. Let’s talk about facts instead of conjecture. All the major tech companies hire tons of interns and grads from UW. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook. The list goes on and on. In fact, Facebook hire more grads from UW than any other school except Stanford. Where is Bryn Mawr on that list?

    UW sends tons of students to grad school at places like MIT, and Stanford. These are the best computer science schools on the world. How many Bryn Mawr grads go on to grad school at places like that?

    UW alumni have created the Blackberry, and the PHP programming language among other things. What world changing technological innovations have come out of Bryn Mawr?

    UW is either directly, or indirectly responsible for such world renowned local research institutes, such as the Institute for Quantum Computing, and the Perimeter Institue for Theoretical Physics. Professor Stephen Hawking recently joined the faculty of the latter. Tell me, Jodi. Which person has joined the Bryn Mawr faculty lately that is widely considered to be the most brilliant person of our generation?

    Needless to say, you’re completely wrong about UW. The drivel you wrote about UW is no different than the drivel that idiot wrote about women on those posters. Grow up.

  5. March 20, 2011 4:28 am

    Hey Christine –

    Great blog post – talk about six degrees of separation – my cousin’s daughter is currently a UW student and she posted about the posters on facebook and put up a link from *another* blog which had linked to your blog post … your name caught my eye! Sounds like you have been busy and doing amazing things in the past 12 + years since I last saw you!!!!

    I’m doing a post-doc at U of Manitoba, Hank works at IISD as a Director of Natural Resources Management. We live in Winnipeg and have three kids – our daughter Lydia is 7, our middle son Harry would be 4 on April 4, but he passed away 2.5 years ago from cancer, and our baby Sebastien, will be 1 on Friday (March 25!).

    Cheers,
    Cynthia

    • March 22, 2011 12:59 am

      Wow. It’s been a long time Cynthia! Strange to catch up via a blog post… but I am elated to hear how well you and Hank are doing, though also very very sad to hear about Harry. I’ll catch up with you via FB.

  6. Anne permalink
    October 28, 2011 12:52 am

    Hi Christine,

    I just recently came across your post. I am currently involved in a research project examining the dialogue surrounding the “problem” of women in engineering and I was interested in the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial you referenced and in particular, your email exchange with Chris Redmond. Were these emails published in the student newsletter? Did you pioneer the commemorative project?

    Thank you,
    Anne

    • October 28, 2011 10:02 pm

      Hi Anne,
      Here is the exchange I had with Chris so many years ago:
      http://www.bulletin.uwaterloo.ca/1998/dec/04fr.html
      As for the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorials, I believe they were held at most major universities in Canada since 1989. I didn’t pioneer the event.
      From what I remember as a teenager, I think these initially emerged as spontaneous displays of grief across university campuses immediately after the Monreal Massacre. These gave way to annual memorials. The memorials took on different tones depending on the organizing group and the university.
      Christine

  7. Auntie Islam permalink
    August 6, 2012 7:30 pm

    The actions of Zamir Nathoo do not reflect on that university or any of the students on that campus, which I heard is a good campus. They reflect solely on the views and priorities of the ass-backwards Muslim community that infests the place.

    The similarities between this incident and the 1989 massacre are more than skin deep. From Wikipedia: Lépine was born Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi, in Montreal, the son of a Canadian nurse and an Algerian-born businessman. His father was abusive and contemptuous of women.

    The notion that this Zamir Nathoo had some kind of personality disorder is total bullshit. He was just being a muslim. He couldn’t get a job in aerospace engineering because of 9/11 for obvious reasons. So instead of blaming Islam for his woes and his intellectual failure, he airs the usual tired laundry list of islamic propoganda to explain why he is being denied his entitlements as a man by blaming women for his inability to get a job.

    But he is not a man. He is an islamic fundamentalist scum, who has brought fear and infamy to his university and his community. He is a complete moron and a total loser. The more muslims there are at that (or any other) campus, the more likely there will be a repeat incident like this one, with the same vitriolic views that show the true face of Islam.

Trackbacks

  1. The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo | Geek Feminism Blog
  2. Misogynist activist at the University of Waterloo hates scientist Marie Curie and women. « Restructure!
  3. Women’s History Month: Women, science, past and present

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