Margaret Atwood: The “Bad” Feminist Author

Maral Askari Sirchi, Scarlet Staff

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Shortly after the news of a sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made public earlier this week, author Margaret Atwood became the target of a controversial discussion surrounding her signing of an open letter in November 2016. The letter called for an independent investigation into the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) firing of Professor Steven Galloway. The said professor had been accused of sexual assault and harassment by a student and exonerated ever since without the findings of the court ever made public. The findings of Justice Boyd, who undertook an independent investigation of the allegations against professor Galloway that subsequently led to the termination of his employment without severance or reference to original allegations, revealed that all but one of the allegations investigated (including the most serious ones) were unsubstantiated.

UBC has not yet made a clear statement regarding the matter, nor tried to apologize or make amends to the harm its previous actions have done to Professor Galloway’s reputation and career, but has claimed that the decision to terminate Galloway’s employment was the result of other unrelated allegations. The letter demands that since the matter has become a public concern, UBC should provide public clarification and provide the accused with the right to “fair treatment”. Atwood was one of those signing the letter and calling for due process on the case and has since received a social media backlash from those not agreeing with her on the matter, very much like the concerned crowd calling her a “bad feminist” last year.  

Atwood subsequently responded in a piece in The Globe And Mail, calling attention to the university’s lack of transparency and the fact that Galloway was made to sign a confidentiality agreement making him unable to defend himself. “The public – including me – was left with the impression that this man was a violent serial rapist, and everyone was free to attack him publicly, since under the agreement he had signed, he couldn’t say anything to defend himself,” Atwood wrote. “A fair minded person would now withhold judgment as to guilt until the report and the evidence are available for us to see.”

She points out that the assumption of guilt by accusation (or guilty until proven innocent) is the exact opposite of the principles of a civilized justice system and the conduct can be morphed into “a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit.” The social media immediately took issue with her views and criticized her harshly for using her powerful feminist voice to defend the due process when many sexual assault victims are still struggling with coming forward in the wake of the #metoo movement. Others pointed out that “unsubstantiated” merely means that there has not been enough evidence to convict and not necessarily innocent. But one would think that in a civilized justice system that should be all that matters and that innocent until proven guilty is an established basic lawful procedure. Why, then, would people assume that Atwood addressing the matter the way she has is tainting her fame and popularity as a feminist, accusing her of waging “a war on women?” There are of course loopholes and faults in the system, but as Atwood points out, to resolve the situation, the system should be fixed and not burned down and completely abandoned. While the voice of many women sexually assaulted struggling to come forward should not be silenced, it is equally important to remember that it is the right of all human beings to receive fair judgement and treatment, and not only women. The feminist movement should not at any point assume that women are angelic or child-like, and as Atwood points out, women as human beings have a complete range of good and evil behaviors and hence are capable of wrongdoings.

On the other hand, Atwood at no point aims to undermine or attack the accusers or disregard the corruption that is widespread in the legal system, institutions and corporations. She makes it clear that the #metoo movement was the “symptom of a broken legal system” that had failed for so long to give women and other sexual abuse complainants a fair hearing. Atwood rather tried to call attention to the flawed process – especially the one taken by UBC – to address these concerns fairly and according to basic Human Rights equal to all, and warns that the system is failing both the accused and the accusers alike. In this whole affair, many have taken it upon themselves to assume that such rights are women’s only and have reduced the credibility and accountability of the matters concerning the public.

The matter at hand requires elimination of ambiguity above all things and if women fail to give such issues proper consideration they risk falling into the same narratives that accused women of lack of fairness or rational decision making. The “guilty because accused” mentality that is threatening to overtake the public discourse will deprive many (and not just women) who do not have the power to defend themselves of fair judgment and may destroy their futures in the faulty process. If we were to follow the same mentality, the 9 year old black boy accused of “touching” a white woman in a supermarket would be behind the bars or in a rejuvenation center facing a not so bright future as a sexually deviant person, and maybe we’d be hearing a lot more about Asia Argento’s trial, who was one of the first advocates of the #metoo movement with the motto of “listen to the accuser” and when accused of sexual assault by her former student and co star Jimmy Bennett (underage at the time they allegedly slept together) had the tables turned on her. Argento was labeled a paedophile, lost (and regained) her job, her partner, and had to defend herself against the allegations made, even before the case came to a trial or conclusion. At the time it was also made public that she had made a deal with her own accuser and that alone fed the public with a hate that affected the accused in the lack of transparency on the matter, and that simply shows the incapability of the system to treat such matters, for both men and women, fairly.

If we as a society in our modern times, demand equal rights for men and women, and want to bring awareness to the problem of sexual assault, we must remain mindful that the justice system should treat both parties, regardless of their sex, gender, and position as accuser or accused, equally and give them due process until allegations have received lawful evidence to be proven or dropped. False accusations are dangerous tropes for modern societies and civilized justice systems, for men and women alike, and will not only not help the accusers but on the contrary will simply discredit their allegations if transparency and due process is denied. Such actions and allegations, not backed by evidence, may destroy the accused’s credibility, reputation, relationships, social image and careers by mere speculation, falling into the illogical assumptions of “guilty until proven innocent” that led many women in the Salem Witch trials to their deaths merely because they were accused.