Social ‘Brainwashing’: Exposing Fundamental Discrimination that makes Otherization a Killer

By Jeanne Sarson | Feb 7, 2012

“How the killers were caught,”[1] and “Afghan wife slain for having baby girl,”[2] were the headlines occupying the front page of the ‘B’ section of The Chronicle Herald on January 31st, 2012. Under the first headline is the tragic story of the seven members of the Shafia family from Montreal. A son, his father and a second wife living in a polygamous arrangement were all found guilty of the killing of three daughters and sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia 13 and Rona Amir Mohammad, 52, who also lived as a wife in the polygamous relationship. The second headline comes from Kabul, Afghanistan. It reports how a woman was strangled, allegedly by her husband, for giving birth to a third daughter rather than a son. To add more clarity to this second story another article reports the woman’s name was Stori.[3] She was 22. She was apparently murdered not only by her husband but also by her mother-in-law who was arrested for her involvement in the alleged strangulation of Stori. In the “Afghan wife slain for having baby girl,” article a brief reference was made to the torture of a 15 year-old girl, also living in Afghanistan. She was not named in this article. From another article I learned her name. She is Sahar Gul.[4] I have more to say about her later.

Both headlines in The Chronicle Herald expose fundamental female sex-based discrimination that exists globally. It could be called sexism but more appropriately stated these crimes committed against women reflect patriarchal misogyny. There are no winners in expressions of patriarchal relational misogyny—both genders lose. All societies lose--globally.

If we look, truthfully and closely, at relational fundamental female sex-based discrimination it reveals being born a female person is life threatening. Femicide—the killing of women because they are women—is a worldwide violent phenomena. And female infanticide also means that baby girls are killed because they are girls.[5] Femicide and infanticide are crimes of fundamental sex-based discrimination. There is no stage in life where a female can be said to be innocent, her ‘guilt’ begins as soon as the male sperm, which determines the sex of an infant, shapes her genitalia and she is born without a penis. She is blamed for her father’s failure to produce the ‘Y’ chromosome which would have made her a boy. Although in the story of the woman killed for having a baby girl, it is written that the baby girl was not killed, but, take note, she still has to withstand the dangers of growing up female. To reverse her dangers maybe societies could suggest to men to start killing their own kind—killing men for their failure to produce a “Y’ chromosome. But, I do not think this solution would be embraced. And, in all seriousness, I do not embrace it either. I write this thought only to give rise, I hope, to triggering a sense of repulsion—personal and social. A repulsion that has, to date, not been vibrantly strong as to cause a global uprising to put a stop to the social brainwashing of the fundamental sex-based discrimination that lies underneath acts of violence committed against women and girls just because they are women and girls—because they fail to act or behave or produce as directed by a father or a spouse as revealed in the opening paragraph.

This fundamental socio-cultural female sex-based discrimination can be conceptualized as a ‘we’ and ’them’—‘we’ being male and ‘them’ being female. This means that the ‘them’—the female is considered ‘the other’, hence the term otherization. Otherization has been discussed in the literature as a way of explaining crimes against humanity, such as genocides of the past and those inflicted in the present.[6] The otherization of females must also be understood as occurring within intimate relationships. Using the ‘we’ and ‘them’ analogy means that the global socio-cultural and relational systems are constructed by otherizing one-half of the population on this planet—the female. It can be said that otherization—gendercide—has existed in the air we breathe from the beginning of time. Otherization happens within family units as the two opening stories reveal.

Female otherization permits and reinforces patriarchal misogyny and the objectification of women as relational property—inferior property—to be dominated and controlled by the superior male. Patriarchal misogynistic otherization can be considered as the root cause of the crimes spoken of on the ‘B’ pages of The Chronicle Herald. There has been much discourse in the trial and in the media about the murder of the three sisters and Rona Shafia as ‘honour killings’. If there is a ‘positive’ to such a discussion of the term ‘honour’ killings, it is that it clearly exposes patriarchal misogynistic otherization. We can try to displace ‘honour’ killing or this form of femicide as belonging in another country and its culture that ‘immigrated’ to Canada, but, in reality, no society or culture is immune to fundamental sex-based discrimination. Canadian socio-cultural systems invisibilize its home-grown patriarchal misogynistic otherization. Femicide, for example, is invisibilized by lumping it together with all killings by calling femicides homicides. By doing so a slippery slope develops whereby fundamental sex-based discrimination that exists within socio-legal systems remains invisibilized.

Let’s return to the sub-story of the torture of 15 year-old Sahar Gul that was mentioned in “Afghan wife slain for having baby girl.” Sahar’s story of torture victimization describes how she had been kept locked in the basement toilet of her ‘home’ for six months. During this period her fingernails were pulled off, her fingers broken and her hair pulled out. She was burnt with a hot iron and electric shocked by her husband and in-laws in an attempt to force her into ‘prostitution’.[5] This is a her-story of torture that occurred in the so-called ‘private’ or domestic sphere, as were the killings of the women described in The Chronicle Herald in the opening paragraph. Sex-based fundamental discrimination not only invisibilizes femicide in the Canadian socio-legal system, torture that occurs in the private/domestic sphere is also invisibilized by misnaming torture that happens in the home as another crime such as an assault.

Canada is supposedly a country that upholds human rights. It sings its praises that John Peters Humphrey, a Canadian lawyer, who when appointed the first director of the Human Rights Division of the UN Secretariat, was a principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This document recognizes the inherent dignity, worth and non-discriminatory equality of all peoples—female and male—as well as their right to fundamental human rights and freedoms including the right not to be subjected to torture at any time, in any place. In other word fundamental female sex-based discrimination ought not to exist—but it does—and globally!

Like all efforts to understand the socially constructed dynamics of human relationships there are always fault lines present in exposing and explaining how the status quo has organized sex-based fundamental discrimination. That is, there are individuals whose actions deviate from any so-called explanation about status quo human behaviours. One sees this when discussing fundamental sex-based discrimination and otherization in that some women do absorb patriarchal misogyny and destructively turn on their own kind. As seen in the stories in the opening paragraph as well as in Sahar’s story, women were involved in the infliction of harms—femicides and torture. Additionally, there are men who strongly resist the social brainwashing of fundamental sex-based discrimination and otherization and stand for sex-based equality. Standing against the status quo can be/is painful even in Canada. It’s akin to whistle-blowing. And we all know that even though the whistle-blower is trying to right a wrong, generally it is the whistle-blower who gets attacked. As senseless as this is, it remains a common human group response.

Appreciating that words carry and export socio-legal and relational meaning, the use of the word femicide exposes relational misogynistic violence. If the word femicide was used socio-legally it would help break down the evolutionally patriarchal fundamental sex-based discrimination that we have all swam in since the beginning of time. This also applies to differentiating torture from other crimes. Therefore, I include Sahar’s torture victimization, because generally speaking there has been/is a global denial that torture happens in the home. This denial exists in Canada; it exists in the socio-political and legal fields. For example, since 1993 Linda and I have been active in trying to have torture that happens in the home recognized as a specific and distinct criminal and human rights offence. Presently the political legal system wants to continue to name such torture as an assault of some sort. They do this in spite of the evidence that acts of torture are being inflicted on Canadian infants, children and adults. By continuing to misname torture perpetrated by private individuals there is a failure to educate citizens as to the degree of violence that occurs within our society. In other words, using the word assault does not inform that torture is occurring. The consequence is a political legal cover-up of reality. Although any citizen can be a victim of violent crimes, global research indicates that women and girls are the predominate victims of home-based violence including some acts that should be considered torture. This reality does not exclude that boys and men can also be victims of torture. And although men are the dominate perpetrators women, including mothers as shown in Sahar’s her-story, can also inflict torture. Based on Linda and my working experiences sexualized torture is dominant. By maintaining the position that torture can be misnamed as abuse or assault the Canadian political-legal system continues to support the ongoingness of fundamental discrimination. 


To place a ‘face’ on sex-based fundamental discrimination in relation to sex/gender-based violence I share this very basic condensed diagram of a continuum of forms of relational sex-based violence that can/does occur within the domestic/private sphere. The socio-legal position to invisibilize femicides and domestic torture crimes that happen in the home exposes, if we choose to look, how fundamental discrimination makes otherization a killer and a torturer; both occur in Canada and around the world—no country is exempt. This statement is not rooted in hopelessness because Linda and I also know that there are women and men who historically and today work to transform the roots of female-based fundamental discrimination and otherization—to shift these processes of ‘social brainwashing’ or more commonly called processes of social conditioning. Linda and I also appreciate that we are privileged women in that we can speak out without fear of being murdered or assaulted for speaking out, a reality that is not present for many women and men and girls and boys around the world who are human right defenders/activists. Achieving the elimination of female-based fundamental discrimination and otherization in Canada can impact positively on the rights of women and girls and men and boys—on all members of all societies on this planet, making it a win-win for the world and for our future. It is a fight worth the effort but tragically contains potentials for damaging and/or deadly risks.


[1] Jones, Allison. (2012, January 31). How the killers were caught. The Chronicle Herald, pp. B 1, B2. 
[2] Shah, Amir & Vogt, Heidi. (2012, January 31). How the killers were caught. The Chronicle Herald, p. B [3] Bowley, Graham. (2012, January 30). Afghan kin are accused of killing woman for not bearing a son. The New York Times, p. A6; Sarwary, Bilal. ( 2012, January 30). Afghan woman is killed ‘for giving birth to a baby girl’. BBC News, Kabul. 
[4] Associated Press. (2012, January 4). Child bride’s torture shocks Afghans, shows women’s rights shortfall 10 years after Taliban. 
[5] The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). (2007). The State of the world’s children. Women and children The Double dividend of gender equality. Author.
[6] Staub, Ervin.  (1993). The roots of evil The origins of genocide and other group violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.


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