Graphic novel aims to spark dialogue on sexual violence in newcomer communities

Stories written by and for refugee and immigrant women help open a discussion on sexual harassment, assault and rape


Even in 2017, sexual violence is still difficult for people to talk about. Survivors often aren’t believed and supported, women are shamed and blamed, and rape culture feels like it grows stronger by the day. The World Health Organization says that one in three women in Canada experience sexual violence in her lifetime.

Now imagine: you’re a refugee or immigrant woman, living in a new country not fluent in English. You don’t know where and who to ask for help. For newcomer survivors of sexual violence, the outlook is that much worse. 

A one-of-a-kind graphic novel written by and for immigrant and refugee women is hoping to change that. Entitled Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women’s Resilience, the project is a joint partnership between the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Le Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (MOFIF).

The organizations conducted a series of workshops with newcomer women, who shared their stories and worked with illustrator Coco Guzman in creating the graphic novel. Telling Our Stories launches at Women’s College Hospital Auditorium (76 Grenville) on March 2 ahead of International Women’s Day. Attendees will be able to pick up a free copy of the booklet.

“OCASI has been doing work on violence against women for a long time, but we wanted to do something more engaging with the community, especially in terms of sexual violence,” says Krittika Ghosh, a spokesperson for OCASI. “A graphic novel is more accessible because people of all ages and reading abilities can approach it.”

Guzman, who sometimes goes by the moniker Coco Riot, is a Toronto-based visual artist who focuses on social justice in her work. She met with 40 participants at workshops that were conducted in Toronto, Ottawa and Windsor in both English and French.

“We spent a lot of time together creating this graphic novel. Even though we were talking about sexual violence, we were also using our imaginations and being creative,” Guzman says. “The experience allowed some people to express themselves in a way they weren’t used to.”

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OCASI/MOFIF

The graphic novel deals with a variety of situations including workplace harassment, marital rape and sexual violence in bars.

Fayza Abdallaoui, who works with MOFIF, says that rape, sexual harassment and assault are difficult subjects for many newcomers to approach. In many cultures, talking about sex and personal issues is still considered taboo. When newcomers arrive in Canada, they learn to adjust to different cultures, environments and laws, so it’s important for them to understand how sexual violence is defined in Canada as well, she says.

“It’s not just about translating words. It’s about translating context and emotions,” Abdallaoui explains. “One of the topics covered in the graphic novel is sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s very different in a Canadian environment. There are subtle things like how you share your opinions in a meeting as well as relationships between colleagues and supervisors. You can see how that experience would be different for immigrants and refugees.”

One story in the graphic novel deals with marital rape, which wasn’t criminalized in Canada until 1983. There’s also one that takes place in a club and portrays gang rape, and another that discusses the intersection of sexism, harassment and Islamophobia.

Copies of the novel will be distributed at settlement agencies and community centres in a dozen regions. OCASI and MOFIF are printing 7,000 copies in English, 3,000 in French and 1,000 in nine other languages including Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, Punjabi and Somali. Eventually, the stories will be available online.

“What we hope is that by creating this discussion, we’ll be able to set up specific workshops afterwards so that newcomer women can be trained on the laws here,” Abdallaoui says.

Ghosh adds: “The stories don’t tell them where to go for support, but it let’s them know there is support.”

michelled@nowtoronto.com | @michdas

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