From Bikinis to Burqas: We Need an Honest Conversation

“Women in the West are sexually exploited. They are portrayed indecently in their media.”

That’s a paraphrase of the words printed on the inside cover of my Grade 5 school book in Iran. And while I don’t recall the precise wording, the message made a lasting impression on me.

 Even then, however, I did not buy into the conclusion that the note was asking us to draw: that the imposition of modest attire, including the hijab (not niqab or burqas) required by the Islamic Republic of Iran, were, therefore, more respectful to women than Western standards.


I instinctively felt that objectification of women in the West did not justify subjugation of women in the East.

What I read in that textbook in 1981, and what I learned in Iran in many contexts, did contribute to my looking critically at how women are treated and sexualized in Western media and culture. And when I came to Canada with my family in 1983 at the age of 12, I could see, in ways that some of my peers could not, the impact of fashion magazines and the movie and television industries on girls’ free will, on our conduct, and certainly on how we dressed.

As a result, every time we have a “debate” in this country about burqas or other religious garb (including the Quebec government’s attempt to legislate “social cohesion” and equality through Bill 62), I recall that passage in the textbook. And I arrive at the same conclusion each time: what we need now is conversation, not coercion.

Bikinis or burqas: is one a sign of greater emancipation and one a sign of greater oppression? Is it outrageous to ask the question?

There are vast differences between the institutions and value systems that permit or require these extremes. Still, neither system grants us women complete autonomy. And neither frees us from objectification or coercion.

Neither the protectionism of religion nor the liberation of secularism; neither the modesty of a long, flowing dress, nor the freedom to go shirtless on public streets; neither the building of a closer relationship to G-d, nor the legislation of gender equality; none of these have succeeded in granting women complete autonomy over our bodies and our choices.

None of these have freed us from sexual harassment and assault. None of these have stopped the rape of women and girls in war. None of these have stopped abusive marriages. None of these have stopped the trafficking of young girls and the marriage of young girls to much older men. None of these have placed us on an equal footing in high-powered jobs and in the boardroom.

I am not arguing that as a progressive, inclusive society, we should embrace or even permit all religious practices or restrictions. We do not and we must not. And I am not arguing that the political, religious and cultural institutions that permit bikinis or require burqas have equal impact on women’s rights or even equal moral legitimacy. They do not.

But unlike theocracies or extreme interpretations of religion, progressive liberal democracies give us the freedom to engage in meaningful discussion instead of coercion. And that is precisely why the liberal democratic state should not overstep its role and irresponsibly legislate what women cannot wear.

What could we discuss?

My views may seem irrelevant to some — after all, I am not even Muslim (I am Jewish) — so who am I to offer my opinion? Yet for years, I adhered to and internalized the Iranian State’s values with regards to modesty, so much so that when we first arrived in Spain after leaving Iran, I refused to remove my hijab. In Canada, I resisted wearing shorts. And I did not wear a bikini until my late 20s. Many Jews, as well, adhere to a strict notion of modesty in dress. So I have had my own discussions about these complex issues, and have arrived at my own conclusions. I have clearly and consciously chosen progressive, liberal democracy, despite its shortcomings in achieving gender equality, over state-sanctioned or culturally imposed religious authority.

I know the undeniable value of discussion and citizen engagement in a robust democracy.

Dialogue over dogma: we need to have an open, honest and civil discussion about bikinis, burqas and everything in between. It is incumbent on us to have this conversation, for the sake of our democracy and the rights and freedoms we cherish. This is a discussion we need to have, before we think about whether there is a need or justification for a next step.

But the people having this discussion first should not be decision-makers who then impose broad discriminatory laws. They should be women, primarily. We should be having the discussion about bikinis and burqas. We — women — must engage in an open, meaningful exchange about our choices and challenges; societal and cultural pressures and freedoms; oppression and liberation; sexism and misogyny; and whether bikinis or burqas are appropriate in certain circumstances. We, including burqa-wearing women. We must make every effort to have respectful discussions in the absence of a sense of moral or religious superiority.

Through dialogue, understanding and mutual trust, we will achieve better social cohesion.

So when it comes to bikinis and burqas, let’s seek conversation, not coercion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Toronto Police Services Board About to Give Its Blessing to Institutional Racism

(This article was published in the Toronto Star and in the Huffington Post on April 14 and 15, 2015.)

“Fair and bias-free policing.”

That was the promise of Toronto’s Chief of Police less than a year ago. At the time, Chief Bill Blair was hailing the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER) report. According to Chief Blair, the report was a “comprehensive review.” It was written by the police and made recommendations on how to eliminate racial profiling and bias from policing in Toronto.

While many felt that the report did not go far enough, Chief Blair echoed the sentiments of Professor Atiba Goff of the Los Angeles Centre for Policing Equity, who said that PACER “is about as good as you can ask for.” The Chief signaled his and the force’s intention to implement the recommendations of the report, including one that required officers to issue “receipts” to those residents (disproportionately young black or brown men) whom they stopped and questioned, even if they were not linked to an offence.

That particular measure proved incredibly effective: the requirement to issue receipts resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of random stops, proving that most of those stops were not essential for public safety, and that, more importantly, officers who are held accountable are less likely to stop and harass people without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

The goal of the PACER report was to make Toronto police a “world-leader” in bias-free policing. And in committing to its goals, the Chief made the promises that were morally and ethically required of him. He asserted, “We do not tolerate racism or racial profiling in the Toronto Police Service…It is essential that we do everything possible to ensure that bias does not influence our decisions.” [Emphasis is mine.]

But in the 10 months since Chief Blair wrote those promising words in a Toronto Star opinion piece, the police have reverted to denial and resistance. Inexplicably, the Chief and his boss, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), which includes Toronto’s new mayor, participated in a closed mediation. The result: the TPSB is now set to vote, this Thursday, on a policy that is offensive and insidious. This new policy not only eliminates the requirement to issue receipts, but it takes us back even further than we were a few months ago.

So we’ve gone from refusal, to resistance, to resignation, to recognition of the problem, to partial resolution (the PACER report) and now, to retraction, recalcitrance and regression.

Where is the commitment to a fair and equitable society, to bias-free policing?

When our police force and the TPSB were initially faced with undeniable proof of racial profiling, they could shield themselves with claims of, “We did not know the extent of the bias. We are not racist.” Indeed, in the PACER report, the police drew a valid distinction between bias and racism. And Chief Blair, in his Toronto Star piece, declared, “We are not racist but we are all human. The science of bias teaches us that even the best-intentioned, most decent and honourable people can be influenced by the implicit bias we all have.”

But the police can no longer hide behind good intentions and claims of “mere” bias. We know that racial profiling occurs and that it is discriminatory and harmful. While human nature makes us prone to bias, institutional policies can either prevent that bias or promote it. We had taken some steps to rectify the problem. And now we have reverted.

When we reverse our efforts to eliminate or drastically reduce bias, and come up with mechanisms that will condone it, we are no longer “merely” biased. We are now something much worse. We are knowingly, recklessly, and irresponsibly permitting racial profiling. This is institutionalized racism.

Is this the wish and the legacy of the Chief who once said, “Good enough won’t cut it” when addressing racial profiling? Is this going to be the legacy of a Mayor who ran for “One Toronto?” Is this the direction of an oversight body and a civilian boss, the TPSB, that was once committed to diversity and fair treatment?

If the Board approves the Chief’s proposal on Thursday, the answer will be a loud and alarming, “Yes.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why Were Brampton Police So Quick to Arrest Defence Lawyer Laura Liscio?

(I wrote and posted this article in the Huffington Post on February 17, 2015)
Laura Liscio, a criminal defence lawyer, was arrested in Brampton Court on Thursday, February 12, allegedly for passing narcotics to her in-custody client.

According to many accounts, police arrested her in full view of the public, while she was in her lawyers’ attire, about to enter a courtroom and represent her client. They handcuffed her. They paraded her through the courthouse, marched her out the front doors and took her to the police station. It was a humiliating arrest, from officers who must have contemplated the impact of such an arrest, not just on Ms. Liscio, but on the reputation of all criminal defence lawyers.

Peel Region Police claim that Ms. Liscio that drugs were found in the change of clothes that Ms. Liscio brought for a client in custody. They arrested her soon thereafter.

I don’t know Laura Liscio personally.

In any case, this article is not really about her.

It is about how she was arrested her. And how that arrest differs from the way other actors in the criminal justice system, such as police officers, are treated when suspected of having committed an offence.

Peel Regional Police deny many of the details of the arrest. But others, including her lawyer, confirm the assertions described above.

The arrest is particularly objectionable because this kind of public humiliation seems to be reserved for criminal defence lawyers (and other “bad guys”). It’s not how officers generally arrest other officers.

Now, you may ask, “What was she doing, bringing a change of clothes for her client?” And, “What is wrong with a criminal lawyer being quickly arrested for possession for the purpose of trafficking narcotics?”

Let’s first look at the issue of obtaining civilian clothes for inmates, and then at the options available to the police when they believe that someone has committed an offence.

Inmates and Civilian Clothes

When accused persons who are detained in custody are transferred to court, they are often brought in their prison gear: their orange or blue jumpsuits. Most people don’t want to appear before a judge or jury in these jumpsuits. They want to give their evidence, their side of their story, or to listen to the evidence against them, in their own clothes. They want to be presentable. They want to feel as human beings. They don’t want to dress as if a guilty verdict has already been issued against them. This is perfectly understandable.

Usually, the families of these detained accused can make it to the detention centre and deliver some clothes to them, ahead of their hearing. But sometimes that does not happen. Some detainees don’t have family or friends close by. Often family members attend the jail, only to be turned away, because there is a lock down, a job action, not enough staff on duty, or for a myriad of other reasons.

In such cases, a family member or a friend may bring the clothes to the court house, to give to the accused person. But there can be no direct contact between members of the public and the accused at the courthouse. And the guards do not take items from the public for inmates. So the only solution left is to make defence lawyers the couriers who take the clothes from the family members and take them to the guards, who then pass them on to the inmates.

Now, it’s alleged that the change of clothes which Ms. Liscio likely received from someone and likely passed to the court guards contained narcotics. It’s not hard to imagine that drugs could have been hidden, by a third party, in the clothes in a manner that could not be detected by a lawyer.

This is possibility required further investigation by the police. But it appears that they did not do that.

Instead, they immediately arrested Ms. Liscio.

But even if Ms. Liscio should have been arrested, the arrest should not have been conducted in the manner exercised by the police.

Let me clarify some points about the decision to arrest:

Arrests don’t need to be done a) immediately, b) with the use of handcuffs, or c) publicly:

First, the police can and often do exercise discretion in deciding when to act. They can conduct further investigation to determine, for example, if Ms. Liscio had any knowledge of the drugs allegedly being found in the clothes. Let’s say Ms. Liscio passes some items for an inmate to a court officer. It’s entirely possible that that officer will then pass the items to another court officer. But that first officer would never be charged for trafficking. What distinguishes that first officer from Ms. Liscio? Nothing other than the fact that Liscio is a defence lawyer.

Based on the facts, and the real possibility that Ms. Liscio was unaware of the presence of narcotics, her case certainly warranted patience and further investigation.

Second, the police don’t have to actually handcuff people to arrest them. Unlike what we see on T.V., an arrest can be and often is affected without handcuffs. In fact, the words, “You are under arrest” usually suffice. Officers are supposed to use less intrusive options whenever it is safe to do so. Ms. Liscio was certainly not posing a danger to anyone. She was not running away. This was a clear example of a case where handcuffs should not have been used.

Third, even when a person must be arrested, the police do not need to make a public spectacle of an arrest.

Officers can wait until the lawyers’ court matters are completed, then tell her that they need to speak to her. They can even tell her that they intend to charge her. They can tell her, as they do in many other cases and almost always when they intend to arrest other police officers, “Come to the station. Bring your toothbrush, we’re going to hold you. Bring your lawyer.”

What circumstances, then, would justify officers barging in and arresting someone at their workplace, or in such a public, demeaning manner?

If the officers have reasonable grounds to believe that the person in question is about to commit another offence, then they can immediately arrest him or her. If they believe that the person will get rid of evidence (for example, delete documents on a computer, or throw a gun into a river), then they are justified in arresting that person immediately. But in most cases, where the police have their evidence, and where there is no reason to believe that there will be a perpetuation of the offence, the police can ask the person to attend the station, or to come and talk to them.

That’s what police officers often do. It’s certainly the courtesy they extend to other police officers who are accused of crimes.

And that’s what they should have done here.

This would not be special treatment for a defence lawyers. It would be a professional way of handling the situation. It would involve a less onerous and less intrusive way of charging someone: something that officers are required to do, when praticable.

Compare Ms. Liscio’s case to those of police officers, also players in the criminal justice system, who have been charged with much more serious offences. How were they dealt with by other officers?

Officers Arresting Officers

Remember Sargeant John Schertzer, Detectives Steve Correia, Joseph Miched, Ray Pollard and Richard Benoit? Among them, they and other officers faced several serious charges, including extortion, obstruction of justice, theft, perjury, assault causing bodily harm, and falsification of notes. At the time when they were charged, these officers’ unlawful and criminal behaviour had led to 150 cases being stayed.

Yet these officers were not arrested in public, in front of their families, or made a spectacle of in any way. In fact, they were treated with utmost respect, considering the egregious charges which they faced. They were permitted to turn themselves in, attend the police station with their lawyers AND union representatives. They walked into the station, not through the public front doors, but through the back, hidden from view.

Even more astounding: Remember Officer James Forcillo, accused of second degree murder for the shooting of Sammy Yatim? He was charged with one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code, one that carries the maximum sentence available to the state, that of life imprisonment. How was he charged? He was also invited to surrender to the Special Investigations Unit. He turned himself in, was charged, held for bail and released, all in under 24 hours. No public shaming by the police (this is not to take away from the humiliation or shaming he experienced otherwise.)

But defence lawyers seem to be arrested in or just outside of courthouses, in the middle of cross-examinations, or when about to start a case.

In this case, the police should have considered other explanations for the presence of drugs. They should have questioned Ms. Liscio. They should have given her the option of turning in herself. They should have considered that, as a defence lawyer, and like Crown Attorneys and police officers, Ms. Liscio has a duty for upholding the integrity of the criminal justice system. Indeed, she is reputed to be a highly ethical person.

All members of the public should be treated with respect when investigated or apprehended by the police. Whether it is a defence lawyer, a Crown Attorney, a police officer, or a regular member of the public, they should be treated with consideration, in a manner proportionate to the alleged crime, and with a deep appreciation for the possibility that the suspect may be innocent.

But whereas officers treat one another with decency, some of them appear to reserve this kind of degrading and humiliating treatment for defence lawyers.

Addendum: On Wednesday, February 18, Peel Regional Police published a third news release. In this release, police issued a retraction of some of their previous statements, and made an apology to the community, to the media, and to Ms. Liscio.

Here is an excerpt from that news release:

“On Friday, February 13, 2015, Peel Regional Police issued a press release in an attempt to clarify what were believed to be inaccuracies that had been reported both via social and traditional media. At the time of the release Peel Regional Police vehemently believed that what was contained in that release (Friday) was factually accurate. Peel Regional Police would like to correct the following details published in that release:

Upon arrest Ms. Liscio was indeed handcuffed in her court attire and escorted to a discreet location within the Court Bureau.
Following her arrest, Ms. Liscio was escorted by both uniformed and plainclothes officers to a marked cruiser.

It has subsequently been determined that the information that was originally relied upon was in fact incorrect. Peel Regional Police sincerely regrets publishing the misinformation and the impact that it has had on members of the community, members of the media and Ms. Liscio.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Looking forward to returning…

Hello readers,

I have been away for too long.  Rest assured, though, that during the campaign, I did address issues of social and criminal justice where appropriate.  In fact, I was the only one to do so publicly.

The campaign ended months ago…then there was the wrap-up and figuring out what is the next best step.  Do I return to criminal law practice (which I left when my kids were born, in 2005?)  Do I return to teaching?  Do I start something else?  While exploring those options, I’ve tried to stay active in a couple of other areas.  I did write, but not on criminal justice issues.  One article was about municipal politics- development, specifically.  The other was about my experience of being mistaken as a Muslim candidate during the election.  Here are the links, in case you are interested: Being Mistaken for a Muslim Candidate and    Building the Toronto that We Want 

Now, as I work on a couple of other projects, I intend to return to my criminal justice advocacy through writing as well.  With a new study about how easy it is to get people to give false confessions (and to insist that a false memory is true), I plan to write about the aggressive technique police use to get confessions from suspects.

Looking forward to engaging with you again,


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Running for Office, Taking a Short Break

Dear readers,
I am running for Toronto City Council.  Through government, I want to advocate for respectful policing, responsible development, good governance and vibrant, inclusive communities.  I want to work for my community and the City of Toronto, where I live, to make this city even better.
So I am sad to inform you that I have to take a little break from this blog.  I am thrilled, however, at the prospect of public service.
In the meantime, I will provide you with the link to my Huffington Post articles- a few of them were not posted on my blog:

To check out my campaign web-site, go to

Wish me good luck!


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Officer Who Shot Sammy Yatim Got Bail. Does This Mean Anything?

James Forcillo, the officer who shot Sammy Yatim, the teenager who was alone on a streetcar while holding a knife, was charged with murder.  He was taken into custody and released on bail on the same day.  Would other offenders be treated this way?  Read my August, 2013, Huffington Post article on this issue here: James Forcillo’s Bail Proves a Double Standard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Will We Ever Learn the Whole Truth About Sammy Yatim?

To read my blog for the Huffington Post on, “Will We Ever Learn the Whole Truth About Sammy Yatim?” click here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized