Vulnerable bodies

Professor Mythili RajivaMythili Rajiva was working on her PhD thesis when a teenaged victim of bullying was savagely beaten and murdered by peers in British Columbia. Reena Virk’s case in 1997 attracted national attention. It had particular relevance for Rajiva, who was investigating issues of identity for girls of visible minorities in Canadian society.

“The media focused on Virk’s lack of belonging and her inability to penetrate the peer culture she wanted to be part of, but they didn’t focus very much on her racialized identity,” recalls Rajiva, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies. “She was seen as an outsider because she was South Asian. There was not a lot of interrogating of the notion that she didn’t fit into a white, middle-class society.”

Virk’s story has continued to inform Rajiva’s work. In 2012, she joined the University of Ottawa to study questions of sexual violence against girls and women. “I feel particularly privileged to be part of the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, which I have found to be an exciting, intellectually stimulating and very collegial environment,” she says.

The sociologist recently received a four-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to examine what she calls “ordinary trauma,” everyday decisions women make because of a fear of being hurt, such as avoiding walking alone at night. Through interviews with young women and social workers, the researcher and her team hope to uncover more on how sexual violence is defined among racial and sexual minorities and among disabled girls and women. Their study will also include cyberbullying, which contributed to the suicide of Nova Scotian teen Rehtaeh Parsons in 2013.

Rajiva says her research delves into topics — such as the plight of Aboriginal and disabled girls and women — which are understudied in Canada. Hundreds of Aboriginal women have gone missing in Canada in recent decades, prompting calls for a national inquiry. “I would theorize that Aboriginal girls have to navigate a landscape of traumatic fear because of an epidemic of violence against them,” she explains.

The SSHRC project is just a fraction of the research Rajiva is working on. Last November, she co-authored a chapter with Amar Khoday of the University of Manitoba in Within the Confines: Women and the Law in Canada, a book by fellow University of Ottawa professor Jennifer Kilty. Rajiva and Khoday examined how the Canadian media portray “honour killings” — the killing of a relative, usually a girl or woman, who is thought to have brought shame on the family, affecting its standing in society.

“Honour killings are presented as exceptional in the Canadian context,” Rajiva says. “This allows the Canadian media, the government and the population to continue to overlook regular violence against women.”

Rajiva also contributed to a book, published in August 2014, which discussed the findings of a workshop on young women’s sexuality. Her chapter focuses on sexual violence and trauma, which was inspired by a presentation she heard during the workshop about a young woman who witnessed a teacher sexually assaulting a classmate. “She was a witness in a particular kind of way,” explains Rajiva. “Her description of what happened was very visceral, so that she didn’t just see this happening and think ‘this is bad,’ but she had an embodied reaction, almost as if she herself was experiencing the assault.”

The quest to better understand at what point in their lives women learn that society can be dangerous if they don’t take precautions is the overall thread tying together Rajiva’s various research interests. Such knowledge might yield better ways to help make society safer for women. “Direct as well as indirect experiences of sexual violence for girls can be quite profound in terms of shaping their identities as vulnerable bodies who learn to accept the threat of violence as ever-present in their lives,” she says.

“As grown women, we often take for granted the fact we have to walk down brightly lit streets. We have to carry keys at night. We have to be careful of where we go, what we wear and how we behave. At what stage in a young woman’s life does this start?” That’s the question at the heart of Mythili Rajiva’s research and the point of departure for dealing with sexual violence and trauma.


by Elizabeth Howell

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