Author: Hannah Dickinson
“Women have been a footnote in [a] male defined system. And if women are the footnote, then Aboriginal women are the footnote to the footnote.” Monture, cited in Grey (2004).
On February 27th 2015, the National Roundtable on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was convened in Ottawa, Canada. Bringing together the families of missing and murdered First Nations, Metis and Inuit women, alongside representatives from National Aboriginal organisations (NAOs) and federal, provincial and territorial governments, the roundtable sought to discuss coordinating future action regarding worrisome levels of Indigenous violence. Despite calls for an independent inquiry into the issue, the Canadian federal government remains adamantly opposed to such an inquiry – leading Aboriginal leaders to voice their “frustration” over the roundtable outcome.
The scale of the problem with violence is rife: 1200 Indigenous women are missing or have been murdered in Canada since 1980, of Inuit women in Nunavut have suffered physical violence, and it is estimated that only 29% of domestic abuse is ever reported. So why are Inuit women so vulnerable to violence? The answer: the myriad pernicious effects of Euro-American colonialism, which continues to linger and leave its ghostly imprint on the lives of contemporary Indigenous peoples.
The initial oppression of Inuit women stems from the gendered rhetoric of Euro-American cartography (Dittmer, Mosio and Dodds, 2011), in which the Arctic was referred to as a “her”: a virginal land to be colonised, probed, and conquered by masculine dominance. These gendered discourses constitute what Palsson (2000) terms “Arcticality”– a form of “Orientalism,” whereby the Arctic (and Arctic peoples) became discursively produced as an exotic and feminised ‘Other’.
Pre-colonialism, Inuit family roles reflected a balance of power between genders, and it was not uncommon to encounter ‘role crossover’, such as skilled female hunters and accomplished male midwives. Flexibility and collaboration in household roles was seen as pivotal in order to ensure survival in the harsh Arctic environment. The complementary and intertwined nature of Inuit familial organisation is summed up in a traditional Inuit saying that “a man who lost his wife could not function alone”. Unfortunately, Euro-American colonisation brought with it a host of patriarchal norms and values, which fundamentally unsettled traditional forms of Inuit social organisation and established Western modes of demarcation between gender roles. Further, some colonial endeavours such as the residential school system contributed both directly and indirectly to the problem of violence against women. Many faced abuse within the schools, and the legacy of the system has considerably contributed to the high levels of drug and alcohol abuse in society.
The was viewed as an empowering historical moment of self-determination for the Inuit. However, the process of nation building has seen a deliberate reconstruction of tradition whereby Inuit men have evoked an inaccurate history (and geography) of traditional gender roles. These ‘inaccurate histories’ attempt to naturalise the position of males as hunters and ‘historic’ leaders of the community, and thus to politically and socially codify the domesticated role of women- thereby illustrating the infiltration of Western values into the collective Inuit male imaginary. Galbo argues this “obfuscation of Inuit tradition leaves women without a voice, rendering them powerless,” and in a position of ‘cultural liminality’ which leaves them susceptible to violence.
Despite the vulnerability of Inuit women, it is imperative to challenge the idea that they are “powerless”. As notable postcolonial feminist and social activist bell hooks argues, marginality is “a space of resistance” and “offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.” Arguably, Inuit women are not imagining ‘new worlds’ but drawing on past worlds to evoke a counter-discourse which resists the misappropriated rhetoric of tradition that excludes, exoticises and appropriates the female body. Increasingly, Inuit women are taking steps to ‘reclaim’ their bodies, and thereby illustrate that their marginalised bodies can become sites of resistance and empowerment, which can reawaken hidden and authentic histories and challenge institutionalised violence.
One method of resistance has been the revival of traditional female tattooing. Historically, being tattooed was a rite of passage; it signified the woman had learned the essential survival skills such as hunting and rendering seal fat. The tattoos were symbolic of female strength and accomplishment, but the Shamanic practice was eradicated by the conversion to Christianity dictated by colonisation. Now however, contemporary Inuit women are ‘reclaiming’ their position in history, by reinvigorating the tradition and consequently decolonising their bodies through tattooing. The reawakening of traditional tattooing represents a concerted action in which the female body is (re)presented as a conduit of strength, and it allows women to locate themselves beyond victimhood. In this sense, Inuit women are challenging norms and inaccurate histories and geographies, through practices of embodied resistance.
It is plain to see that, Inuit women and the Inuit female body specifically, are routinely marginalised as a result of the legacy of the Euro-American colonial imprint. However, we should not be so hasty as to strip these women of their agency – many are utilising their marginal status as a way to challenge male dominance in nuanced ways; which is a testament to the ingenuity and resilience of these women.
About the Author: Hannah Dickinson is a Masters student in the MSc. in Geopolitics and Security Program at Royal Holloway University of London. She is particularly interested in the ways in which geopolitical notions such as sovereignty, diplomacy and the state can be approached critically and problematised.