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Stories of strength highlight area International Women's Day event

'We will not rest until every woman in this world gets a fair chance at life,' says speaker Malika Khimji at International Women’s Day celebration

The outrage and sorrow is evident in Lily Pourzand’s voice as she vividly recalls the stoning of women in the streets of Tehran as she marched at age four with her mother and grandmother on International Women’s Day March 8, 1979 in a massive protest against the new law mandating hijabs in the workplace, just after the Iranian Revolution.

“Put a hijab on or we will beat your head,” Pourzand translates the command shouted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard for the rapt audience of more than 120 women from across York Region at the International Women’s Day event hosted by York Region Liberal MPs at the Aurora Town Hall March 3.

“On Sept. 16, 2022, Mahsa Amini was murdered by morality police in Tehran with the same slogan that I heard 44 years before on March 8 on the streets of Tehran,” she said.

The death of 22-year-old Amini, who died in custody after reportedly being beaten and struck on the head following her arrest for wearing her hijab “improperly,” ignited waves of protest in Iran and across the globe.

Pourzand, a gender equity expert now living in York Region, was among a group of speakers with powerful messages that not only highlighted the 2023 theme for International Women’s Day in Canada on March 8 — Every woman counts — but emphasized the importance of supporting each other.

The event, with keynote speaker Marci len, Canada’s minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth, aimed “to celebrate women across York Region who make our communities a better place – each and every day.”

Led by Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill MP Leah Taylor Roy, host MPs included Markham-Thornhill MP and Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development Mary Ng, Markham-Stouffville MP and Minister of Public Services and Procurement Helena Jaczek (absent), Vaughan-Woodbridge MP and parliamentary secretary to the minister of National Revenue Francesco Sorbara, Markham-Unionville MP and parliamentary secretary to the minister of Housing and Diversity Paul Chiang, Newmarket-Aurora MP Tony Van Bynen and Richmond Hill MP Majid Jowhari.

Pourzand shared her story to underline the gender violence and “gender apartheid regime” that is a daily reality not only for the women and girls of Iran, but for many women across the globe who have few if any rights at all.

Supporting the women-led revolution in Iran will benefit women across the world, Pourzand said, while acknowledging her MP, Taylor Roy, whose “voice played an instrumental role after the Iran Women Life Freedom Revolution.”

“We cannot drop the ball one more time for Iranian women, and women in the region, because I promise you, if we get to the end of this oppressed era for Iranian women, the region will be a better place to live. Afghanistan will be a better place to live. Ukraine will be a better place to live. And there will be a ripple all around the world, basically, for gender equality.” 

She urged local residents to get involved in being a voice for change.

“We are working days and nights to make sure when the time comes, we are ready to help our women in Iran and all over the world, and we need your help.”

Anastasia Dieieva, now living in Ottawa after fleeing Ukraine with her nine-month-old son during the Russian attacks, urged support of women in Ukraine.

“The most important thing that we can do for each other, as women to women, as men who support women empowerment, is … to help to transform this pain into positive action.”

In Ukraine, Dieieva said she launched an international movement to promote gender equality and was a government deputy minister, and she continues to run a Ukraine foundation from her new home here.

“As Ukrainian women, we know what we are fighting for, and we feel so blessed when we meet people like you, because Canada was always with us … in history. My main mission now is to unite with the 18 million women who stayed in Ukraine, to unite in sisterhood to support them, because they need daily humanitarian aid for them, their families, for their kids.”

As well as supporting the recovery of Ukraine, Dieieva also encouraged action to help integrate the women who fled to Canada.

“That’s how we actually win-win, how we make Canada grow and Ukraine prosper … and stand jointly stronger and united,” she said.

Malika Khimji, who is working in Taylor Roy’s office, came to Canada “where a woman’s voice truly matters” from Kenya with her family.

While empowered and supported by her parents to pursue a university education and government career here, few women are involved in government and decision-making roles in her home country, she said.

She urged support of Canada’s Indigenous women, with 63 per cent of them experiencing violence, and nearly half experiencing sexual assault.

“We most certainly can use our voices and privileges to support and raise more awareness for the injustices that Indigenous women here in Canada are experiencing,” Khimji said.

“Together, as women, we are a symbol of strength, perseverance and power. We will not rest until every woman in this world gets a fair chance at life.”   

Minister Ien, a child of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, said she overcame obstacles as a Black woman journalist  — an “only” in the CTV newsroom, and eventually became the first Black woman in Canada to co-host a national morning show.

“There weren’t a lot of people that looked like me. In fact, it was just me, and that meant something. … Even back then, I knew it wasn’t about me, it was about ‘who’s next?’ If I don’t do a good job here … will anybody else get a shot?

“(My) voice was unique and there’s a huge responsibility that comes with that.”

Rather than “play it safe,” as her father advised, Ien said she chose to use her platform to “say too much, to push, and rock the boat.”

When some viewers responded negatively to her advocacy and sharing of experiences as Black woman, “that’s when I knew I had hit a nerve and I had to keep talking and keep acting,” she said.

After agreeing to run as a Liberal candidate in the last election in the Toronto Centre riding in which she grew up, Ien became the 100th woman to be elected in this term of Canadian Parliament. 

“Women aren’t just one big homogeneous group. This room reflects that,” Ien said. “There are various life experiences that have to be acknowledged. And I agree, in a lot of cases, most cases, we have each other’s backs, but as we look forward to International Women’s Day, I agree that there’s so much more to do. That day is about the work, where we need to be, how we get there together, what we can do together, what we can do better, it is all of those things.”

Ien recalled being approached by a young woman in her neighbourhood recently, who made a comment that continues to resonate with her: “I want to thank you for being in the places that we’re afraid to be.”

“Again, that’s so not about me, but for every woman … (who has) the courage to walk into unfriendly rooms,” Ien said. “Be resolved that your presence is going to change the temperature, that you’re going to push no matter what, and do so knowing that you’re making a difference for those beside you and, frankly, those coming behind you. Allyship is so important,” she added.

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas said International Women’s Day is “a time for all levels of government and all businesses and community leaders to recommit to building a fair and more inclusive future with equal opportunity for everyone. 

“The sad reality is that too many women, girls and gender-diverse people still face significant barriers, and we know that those who come from marginalized and racialized groups face even more obstacles. 

“It’s incumbent on all of us to work together to ensure all women, girls and gender-diverse people have the opportunities to succeed in communities across the country. I think one important way of doing this is by having dialogues and conversations that can inspire and empower others.” 

Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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