The Walling of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

I traveled with the NOW-NYC group to the march in D.C. on January 21. We felt exhilarated as we made our own signs and carried them up high for everyone to see. The colorful parade with its provocative banners against Trump and his team, signs that screamed out in protest of the new government violating our much fought for voter, reproductive, and civil rights, absorbed us and we were soon pushed toward the vicinity of the rally with its speakers lending their powerful language to further energize an already energetic crowd. The feeling of solidarity, the awfulness of the election of a President who was antithetical to every idea of justice Americans had fought for, the need to work together to handle this new beast—all of this was palpable.

As I was pushed into the thickest part of the crowd, I realized the crowd was sandwiched behind barricades on the corner of 4th and Independence to restrict them from flowing down Independence Avenue. Some of the women around me were fainting and had to be escorted by the national guardsmen into the medics’ tent. I focused on the speeches by Tammy Duckworth, followed by Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood, and I used all my willpower not to pass out when Alicia Keyes was speaking. It grew suffocating by the minute.

Some of us wove our way back toward C Street. The marchers reported that they were not allowed beyond 14th street. Why had Trump ordered us to be blocked away from the White House? As May Nazareno, one of the staff organizers for NOW-NYC said, “He is working for us. We need to take ownership of our democracy.”

Another thing many marching with me noted was the absence of helicopters and drones to maintain a count of the marchers. Why had Trump made this area a no-fly zone when only the previous day, drones and helicopters were making a tally of the number present at the inauguration?

As May Nazareno pointed out, not many reporters were present at the march compared with the barrage of media present at the inauguration. Why such a paucity of reporters?

So, we need to do the job of the media and post on Facebook, write blogs and articles of our eyewitness accounts of the march, become historians and document everything and respond to issues as they arise, because an authoritarian government’s main task is to curtail democracy and free speech and twist truth and replace reality with falsehoods.

What I witnessed was the immediacy of unity, peace, justice, awareness of issues, sensitivity, kindness, wit, humor, and love. And these we can build on to save the country from falling apart.

(Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times) (Audio interview with May Nazareno conducted by author)

Women of Color Mark the Silver Lining in Bleak 2016 U.S. Election

 


Four women of color make their mark representing Democrats in the national and state legislatures. They are Kamala Harris from California and Catherine Cortez Masto from Nevada, elected to the Senate; Pramila Jayapal from Seattle, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Each of these women have a remarkable background. Kamala Harris, born of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father grew up in the working class neighborhood of Oakland. Pramila Jayapal emigrated to the U.S. from India and has traveled globally to widen her activist foundational knowledge. Ilhan Omar, who lived in a Kenyan refugee camp as a young girl, has her ear to the ground regarding immigrant concerns. Cortez Masto, third generation Mexican-American, is conscious of the immigrant journeys of her grandparents.

What special issues do these women bring to the floor? Both Harris and Cortez Masto, as Attorneys General, have done much work with citizen rights in relation to law enforcement. Harris, especially, was unafraid of taking unorthodox positions to support citizen rights but at the same time negotiating better relations with police. She will also be strengthening her work on anti sex-trafficking legislation. Cortez Masto, outspoken about Donald Trump’s rhetoric of divisiveness and misogyny, can be counted on to work for equal pay for women, immigrant rights, LGBT rights, and against human trafficking: “My grandmother was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and my grandfather came from Chihuahua, Mexico. They came to this country and brought their young family here for the same reason many families do: to have a good job, work hard, have every opportunity to succeed, make sure your children get a good education, and you can’t forget that. If I forgot everything that my grandparents went through so that my sister and I could be the first ones in our family to graduate from college, that wouldn’t be right. We don’t close the door behind us.” Ilhan Omar, a community organizer, brings her awareness of social and environmental justice that affects many people, including immigrants, Native Americans and African Americans. Upon winning, Omar said, “I hope our story is an inspirational story to many people.” Along with ensuring that minority women entrepreneurs receive the help they need to succeed, Omar said her priorities would be “closing the opportunity gap in our educational system, working on criminal justice reform, taking on policing reform.” Pramila Jayapal, a child of India’s process of decolonization, has paid close attention to immigrant rights, refugee rights, the fight for fair wages, LGBT rights, women’s healthcare and equal pay. Having built ties with many groups in Seattle, she is in touch with the pulse of different communities’ concerns.

While many voters have been dispirited by the 2016 election results, reading about the backgrounds, issues, and policy concerns of these four women can prove energizing for many of us who want the country to move in the direction of peace and justice.

 

(Photo Credit: Imgrum) (Video Credit: YouTube / Buzzfeed)

 

Where Have All Trump’s Victims Gone?

It is barely two weeks since Trump won the election and suddenly the media attention on the women who came forward about being sexually assaulted by him has vanished. The networks are now intent on normalizing Trump and are not touching the questions: How did we elect a sexual predator as President? How come the women who came forward with their stories have now disappeared? Will our judicial system throw out cases brought forward by women who have experienced rape? Will students in fraternities be emboldened to rape with impunity on the basis of the precedent set by Trump?

At a recent National Organization of Women’s New York convention. Jane Manning and Emma Slane, prosecuting attorneys for two women who were raped after being drugged unconscious spoke about their cases. They described their cases as difficult particularly because they had to prove that because the victims were unconscious they had no memory. They won their cases because the victims had used the rape kit, and the attorneys were able to use techniques such as the hair test, where the DNA matched the hair sample from the attacker.

In Trump’s case, the women not only remember being assaulted by him, but they had told their close friends about it; therefore, we also have credible testimonies. So isn’t it bizarre that at a time when prosecuting attorneys are able to win difficult cases, Trump’s victims have vanished into the woodwork? What’s more, in New York the statute of limitations has been lifted, a victory that should make some of Trump’s victims press charges more easily.

The woman who said she was raped by Trump when she was 13 has now withdrawn her charge on account of receiving death threats from Trump’s supporters. Does this mean women will be more afraid now to bring cases against attackers who are powerful, because they will be threatened by a society that sees the victim as the “problem,” not the rapist? So, what is the difference between this current crisis and of sexual assault that goes unpunished in countries like Pakistan that we are quick to criticize for the same problem?

Remember Dominique Strauss Kahn who assaulted a maid in a New York hotel? His trial lasted 4 years and it prevented him from running for the Presidency in France. It is indeed deplorable that Trump who is more powerful is not held accountable. And the media’s silence is deafening.

And why aren’t we taking any action, even if major women’s organizations like NOW have devoted much of their energy to fight sexual violence and bring perpetrators to justice? Why aren’t millions marching outside Trump Tower so a sexual predator is not elected President? How come millions are marching in South Korea to impeach their President for her criminal offences while we who believe ourselves to be a superpower are laboring under a pall of silence about this horrendous double crime—that of sexual assault and the crime of electing a perpetrator?

Just when we thought we are finally able to fight against hegemonies such as economic class and status of perpetrators of sexual violence, we are now encountering someone who indeed believes, along with a puppet media, that he is immune from the law.

 

(Photo Credit: Cisternyard)

Is the disappearance of solidarity our most imminent threat?

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica

On the morning of November 9, 2016, many NWSA members packed their bags and went to Montreal to attend the National Women Studies Association conference. I was one of them. Our families and friends joked, “Please come back,” because for several weeks, Americans who feared a Trump presidency swore they would leave the country if the unthinkable happened. The unthinkable did happen. And I, along with my fellow members, had to somehow get our dispirited selves together and make the trip.

Arriving in Montreal felt like a breath of fresh air: we were greeted by narrow streets, ivy covered brick walls, flowers on the balconies, the sound of French, French cuisine, Chinatown, Notre Dame. The conference focused on the theme of decolonizing, the tensions facing indigenous communities, transnational views of political issues, and so on.

On Saturday, my friends from the South Asian caucus and an African-American professor went for lunch in the old town and walked up to Notre Dame. A woman who was at the entrance said the church was closed; it had closed just 5 minutes back. We asked if we could just step in for a few minutes since we were leaving back to the U.S. the next day. She said in a hostile tone that the church was closed and would open for Mass at 5 pm. So we spent some time taking pictures and went to the gift shop adjoining the church. The woman there said she would be closing in 10 minutes. She repeated this a few times. I said, “We heard,” and she said, “in case you are caught off guard.” I was surprised at her choice of words. One of my friends bought a tiny statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we left feeling we were not welcome.

My friend Fawzia, a fan of Leonard Cohen, wanted to stay for Mass where a tribute was being paid to him. The rest of us left back to the hotel. Later that evening, a traumatized Fawzia called us and we ran to meet her in the conference center. She was visibly shaken. She said that after we had left, she had hung around the steps of the cathedral for a while and went up to the guard who asked her to come back in 15 minutes, and that the Mass will be in French. So Fawzia stopped at a store across the church and bought something and went back after a few minutes. The guard again intoned that the Mass will be in French. At this point, a stream of people were entering the church. When Fawzia joined the line, the guard stopped her and said “Not you. The Mass is in French.” At this point Fawzia spoke to her in French that she was planning to stay for the Mass and why was she letting the white people enter but not her. Another guard then joined her and came close to her with his hand up and told her to go away. Fawzia immediately said she would not and why were they being racist. A third woman joined the guards and blocked Fawzia’s way. The first guard said she found her aggressive and the second guard threatened to call the police. At this point Fawzia said they could call the police if they wanted. She took out her camera and began taking their pictures. The first guard quickly shielded her face. The other two continued to block the entrance. People who witnessed the scene passed by even though Fawzia said loudly to them that she was not being allowed into the church and only white people were being let in.

She took a cab and burst into tears and told the cab driver what happened and wondered if this was what Montreal was like. The cab driver said he was sorry she had this experience.

Our collective illusion that Canada was somehow going to be a reprieve from our fear of the beginning of the nightmare that had unfolded in the U.S. was just that—an illusion. The reality, as our Canadian feminist friends reminded us, was the history of white supremacy in Canada and the U.S. alike. Canada was also fighting the fracking war; immigrants who were people of color have had a rough history there; indigenous populations continue to face a wall that Fawzia and her friends were up against. The wall is that of white hegemony; the Anglo-French war of old resurfaces from time to time in Montreal and immigrants get caught in its midst.

The hands that pushed her away are the hands that push away migrants heading into European countries, the hands that push away the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the asylum seekers, the refugees. It is important to recognize the wave of fascism that we are currently seeing in the U.S. –with the Trump Presidency being heavily endorsed by the KKK and neo Nazi and white supremacist groups—is now giving the nod to right wing forces in France, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary. Turkey has already noted the progress of demagoguery in the U.S. and is engaged in a wave of arrests of journalists and intellectuals. Putin is happy that he has an ally. The makers of Brexit also have in Trump an ally so the unwanted minorities can be deported or eliminated. Transnationally, racism and xenophobia are ruling out inclusion and democratic processes.

The following morning, at 7:30, a few members of NWSA and the local South Asian women’s group held a protest outside Notre Dame. The held a pink sari as a banner on which they had pinned the sign of the South Asian Women’s Community Center and signs that read “Love Not Hate,” while one of the members took pictures and a video to be sent to media outlets. Fortunately, the protest ended peacefully. There was no police presence or arrests.

Those of us from abroad may want to ponder what it means to protest in a foreign country; what it means for a conference whose headquarters is in a foreign country to show its support to its members who have encountered racism at the hands of locals; what would be the result if police did indeed arrest protesters on the basis that they are foreign and are disturbing the peace, just as it is currently happening in Turkey and is now looming as a threat in Arizona toward undocumented immigrants who are protesting; why none of the bystanders and the people entering the church intervened, and if the disappearance of solidarity is our most imminent threat; the hegemony of the U.S. over Canada that distorts the picture of racism against a U.S. citizen of color, which has played out all over the world against men and women of color in contested sites in the Middle East.

 

(Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette / Marie France Coallier)

THOU SHALT NOT WEAR THE BURQA

Member of Islamic Central Council of Switzerland member distributes flyers against veil ban

A few weeks back Switzerland passed a law banning women from going out in public in a burqa. The fine for such an offence is $10,000. Even tourists are not exempt from this law. A similar contentious debate over Muslim women wearing burqas in public arose in Canada. Conservative candidates want to bring about a ban on the hijab or burqa, while liberals argue for freedom of religion. In protest, one man appeared at the polls wearing a pumpkin mask and another covered his face with a Mexican wrestling mask to make a statement on the foolhardiness of a law that bans burqas in public.

Comedy aside, what are the repercussions of such a law that conveys that some people are not welcome unless they assimilate with the majority culture? Perhaps the burqa makes the Swiss uncomfortable. But in this era of mass migrations, multicultural societies should have made that discomfort passé. So will the Swiss next ban Indian women from wearing saris because this clothing exposes women’s midriffs?

Such a law will further ghettoize Muslims and make them hardened in their beliefs because they are reacting to a majority culture that demonizes Muslims for such customs. Such a hardening in fact harms future generations of Muslims within Switzerland and also increases the gulf between them and the majority culture.

The choice or lack of choice to wear the burqa depends on particular families and the cultures from which they originate. The politics within these cultures have also influenced the wearing of this clothing. There are many debates within Muslim societies about women’s freedom and their choices. If we do not allow for a community to figure out its choices, but impose a choice (or lack) from outside, we are colonizing these communities. The Swiss may argue they are liberating Muslim women by enacting the ban on the burqa. The Swiss are doing exactly what feminists did in much of the last century by imposing their ideas of liberation on minority communities. It is paternalistic and condescending to impose an assimilationist model on Muslim women.

Many of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, may feel that the burqa is a symbol of women’s subjugation, but do we have the right to impose our view on another? And if a Muslim woman does choose to wear a burqa as a sign of her surrender to Allah, do we have the right to tell her that her experience of spiritual liberation does not match with our idea of women’s freedom? Of course, in many fundamentalist communities, women are forced to wear the burqa. But does it mean that the members in these communities are not debating the issue?

In fact, the Swiss will be surprised to find that if the ban did not exist, Muslim women in the next decade could very likely appear in public without the hijab or the burqa or the niqab.

 

(Photo Credit: AFP / AlJazeera)

Freedom of Expression versus Intolerance in India: Writers, Artists, and the Sahitya Akademi

Sahitya Akademi, the highest literary body in India, finally announced that it supports the writers and artists and condemns attempts to curb their freedom of expression. This announcement comes after months of protest by 100 prominent Indian writers and the relinquishing of their awards to Sahitya Akademi. There has been international support of the writers. From the United States, the South Asian feminist caucus of the National Women Studies Association lent its voice in support of the writers marching against the growing intolerance in the country toward minorities, and the murder of writers, such as the famous Kannada writer, Malleshappa M. Kalburgi and the threats against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.

What is particularly distressing is the opposition to freedom of expression, an effort staged by groups within BJP, such as the student wing of the BJP. A recent report states, “Activists of the BJP’s student wing, the ABVP, also joined the protest led by the Joint Action group of Nationalist Minded Artists and Thinkers, JANMAT, which also submitted a memorandum to the Akademi, questioning the motive of the writers. `We want to appeal to the Sahitya Akademi to maintain its autonomous nature and not come under pressure from the very same writers who had earlier appealed to the people of the country to not give their mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These writers are engaged in undemocratic actions, JANMAT said.” There is a growing tendency within the BJP that all institutions should support the ruling party, an autocratic demand in a democracy.

The opposition claims that the writers have a vested interest. Of course they do—they want to protect their freedom of speech and not support nationalist ideals! As today’s New York Times article points out, communal or sectarian violence is being fueled by nationalists within the BJP and is a major obstacle to any of the goals of development Prime Minister Modi had promised when he got elected a year ago. The outcome of this statement is because Modi and the BJP party have suffered a setback by losing their election in Bihar.

It is indeed useful to ponder if the Modi government’s aims to achieve its development goals by squashing freedom of speech as well as the rights of minorities and women will or will not favor it. Arundhati Roy’s books, like Walking with the Comrades, predict the downward slide of democracy in the government’s effort to offer up land and resources to corporations. What is interesting is that a country that is so plural may prove to be strongly allied against nationalist forces simply based on its plurality. This is my slim hope. The success of the writers to make Sahitya Akademi speak out in their support attests to some possibility of freedom of speech.

Bengali poet Mandakranta Sen returns Sahitya Akademi award

 

(Photo Credit 1: The Economic Times of India) (Photo Credit 2: Newsx.com)

Can Violence Against Women be “Cultural”?

Recently, I was discussing with a colleague some of the current rape cases in India and in the U.S., when she said that rape and other violence against women in countries like India is a cultural problem, whereas rape in the U.S. is not. What did she mean by “culture?” Culture, as most anthropologists define it, is a set of mores and customs that human beings follow within institutions, such as family, religion, and so on. So, the U.S. would not be exempt from “culture,” as it is glue that holds humans together socially. Perhaps my colleague meant that outside the U.S., cultural norms find violence against women to be acceptable, even normal, whereas, in the U.S. there are definite proscriptions against it, both in our laws and in the social system. She is not alone in thinking that women are easy prey elsewhere; whereas, in the U.S. violence against women, especially rape, is an aberration, as a result of inebriation or drug abuse.

This kind of binary drawn between the U.S. and not-U.S. is problematic, for it sets up the former as an exemplar of superior humans who have somehow conquered “culture”! Since this conversation rose out of talking about the rape cases in two different countries, how is a gang rape in New Delhi different from one in New York? According to Uma Narayan, sensationalism surrounds violence against women outside the U.S. She cites examples, such as “honor killing” and “dowry death,” both of which, according to her, are domestic violence cases. In the U.S. we call death at the hands of a lover / husband domestic violence, whereas the same kind of murder when it pertains to Indian women is called “sati” or “wife burning” or “dowry death.” Such nomenclature immediately makes the same kind of violence in two countries “seem” very different. To call a homicide “honor killing” exoticizes it, and explains it away as something expected out of the religious tradition, when in fact the phenomenon may have nothing to do with the religion. Narayan questions the “cultural explanation” that alludes to Sita or sati or the Laws of Manu, none of which add any illumination to the violence under examination. Narayan calls these shorthand explanations “death by culture.” She remarks that when we see huge statistics on American women dying as a result of gun violence, we don’t tar this with the cultural brush.

I wonder why my colleague did not see the obvious: the role played by patriarchal culture that sees the woman as inferior in society. Any rape in any geographical area shows power and control that the victimizer has over the victim.

Even if we allow that some societies condone violence against women, and further victimize women through ostracism, there are forces at play that demand justice and make communities and the government recognize the violence. No society uniformly accepts oppression.

 

(Photo Credit: STR / AFP / Getty Image / Slate)

Why do I say “No” to Carly Fiorina, even though I want a woman President?

Why am I not jumping with joy that a woman is finally among the long list of Republican contenders for the 2016 Presidency? The woman is Carly Fiorina, who was in the lower tier in the first Republican debate in August and was ushered into the first tier with the top boys in the second debate organized by CNN. She proved to be the right match for Donald Trump, making him wilt with her sharp tongue and business chic. Even though here was a woman who was smart, bold, fluent, at ease with her knowledge and public speaking skill, and made Trump look a few inches shorter by the end of the debate, I did not leap up to place her as my number 1 choice.

She peddled the same bad narrative about Planned Parenthood; yes, that story about Planned Parenthood engaging in fetal tissue donation, as seen in the secretly made, dubious video showing a fetus that was breathing and kicking. How could such a savvy businesswoman buy into false depictions and deliver them as facts in a debate? What’s more, a few days later, she accused politicians of being laissez faire with facts, unlike business people who are held accountable for their facts. Really? Is she describing herself, now a politician, as irresponsible about facts?!

I am wary of Fiorina’s neoliberal policies, especially as seen in her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She sacked a huge number of employees—all of them were mere numbers to her; not faces, with real lives. They were collateral damage in her effort to save the firm. But her measures bore ill results—HP stocks plummeted and it merged with Compaq. In this era of CEOs running schools, are we now heading into the era of CEOs, not simply having a stake in the government, but now occupying and leading the country?

Even if I suspend my prejudice against CEOs running our country, Fiorina will not support any of the causes that will help and advance women’s lives. She does not believe in women’s right to choose abortion; she supports the unborn fetus over the mother; she does not believe women should have paid maternity leave; she is against (undocumented) immigrant women, even if they are part of the economic lifeline of this country, but she supports the Dream Act; she detests all the women’s causes that Hillary Clinton supports; she does not support Obamacare; she does not believe in expanding Medicare; she says she has fought for equal pay for women in her company, but this contradicts her sacking of 30,000 workers from HP.

And her views on foreign policy are frightening; she does not support the Iran nuclear deal; she wants to keep GITMO open; she advocates a strong military presence in the Middle East.

Does she think of the lives of women in the areas where she wants the U.S. military to be present?

Do I want Carly to be President because she is a woman? No, thank you. She may be a woman but she does not give a fig for women’s causes. Sadly, what we see is a woman who has internalized the whole hyper-patriarchal, capitalist ideology.

 

(Image Credit: carlyfiorina.org)

Assessing Misogyny in Candidates Battling for the 2016 U.S. Presidency

It is disheartening to see the rampant misogyny and racism that has surfaced in the current U.S. Presidential election speeches, debates, audience reactions, and media coverage.

None of the Republican candidates running for President have shown any concern for women’s health. In their denunciation of Planned Parenthood and threatening a shutdown of the government if funding Planned Parenthood is included in the budget, we see their failure to connect with women, especially poor women, rural women, and teenagers, who need organizations like Planned Parenthood for their overall reproductive healthcare.

One would think a woman candidate would speak up for women in the electorate. Carly Fiorina is more ferocious than any of the male Republican candidates in her denunciation of Planned Parenthood, basing her argument on a dubious video created by an anti-abortion group. In the attention paid to the Republicans’ heated exchanges about Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton’s support of women’s reproductive rights has been drowned out while the uproar over her email server is driving her views of women’s health to the periphery.

Earlier this month, candidate Donald Trump deliberately failed to stop an audience member making anti-Muslim comments about President Obama and Muslims in the country. Since Trump is very much in the thick of creating the argument that Obama is not American, he let this comment feed into the larger Birther controversy. The racism that is ladled out by the Republicans is plentiful and the crowd that is swallowing it has a voracious appetite, having bought into the equation of illegal immigration and the devaluation of America both economically and culturally. Since the racism is so palpable and coming from the mouths of “authority,” the crowd feels very comfortable about ensconcing itself in it.

The media plays into the frenzy of the Republicans. Journalists use language that seem to celebrate the candidates, by calling them “bold” and “delivering change,” and for being “outsiders” and not succumbing to Beltway politics. An alien who walks into this media reporting would think he/she is hearing about someone progressive who has uttered profound truths for the betterment of humanity! Why is the media so fascinated by candidates like Trump, and why aren’t there more intellectual debates about the flaws and lack of historical understanding in the Republican debates?

Paralleling the Republican denunciation of illegal immigration is the crisis in Europe of migrants and refugees crossing the borders of Syria and Turkey into Hungary, Greece, France and Germany. Republicans are not addressing the refugee crisis for they have built a wall around their position. While part of the public in European countries is advocating porous borders, many Republican candidates are exploring the aesthetics of walls that can be built on the borders with Mexico and Canada.

Since Carly Fiorina is the only woman standing for elections among the Republicans, and Hilary Clinton among the Democrats, both women had to deal with their opponents’ comments that had nothing to do with their political positions. Trump commented on Fiorina’s “face,” saying her appearance would not inspire people to vote for her. When Hillary was First Lady in the 1992, some people remarked that she should be baking cookies instead of designing healthcare legislation. Today, she faces remarks about her age. Neither woman can escape comments about their clothes and hair. Hillary faces the additional demand to convey emotion, talk about her personal life, and periodically shed a few tears, so she can garner more votes.

Are we still at the stage of having to prove that women can run for office and be accepted for who they are in terms of their personalities? Do women running for office have to subscribe to stereotypical notions of gender? Will immigrants of color continue to be an anomaly in the Republican Party? Will Republicans ever recognize that while the U.S. is using global resources, it is hypocritical to talk about “walls” to prevent people from coming across its borders? Will the Republicans ever acknowledge that our economy is supported on the shoulders of “illegal” and “legal” immigrant women’s labor, from farm to factory to our dinner table?

 

(Image Credit: Mother Jones) (Photo Credit: Coalition of Immokalee Workers)

State terrorism against women: Purvi Patel and the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S.

It is now four months since an Indiana court sentenced Purvi Patel to 70 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent, based on an obsolete method called the floating lung test which determined the fetus was alive, not stillborn as Patel claimed. Despite an initial flurry of protest from various organizations internationally, such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women and Manavi, since their April and May 2015, there has been silence in the news media regarding her cruel and unjust conviction.

Looking at this case within the framework of the crumbling reproductive justice for women highlights important factors that are becoming more widespread across the U.S. Patel’s case is part of a growing history of women who have been convicted for miscarriages. With the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S., women’s intentional abortions, miscarriages and giving birth to a stillborn child increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. In Patel’s case, the Indiana law penalizes women for getting abortions outside state sanctions. So even if abortion is legal under federal law, state law found Patel guilty.

Would her sentence be different had she been a resident of New York or California, since the cutoff dates for obtaining legal abortion differ between states? This question gets murkier, when we put race and class into the heavily gendered mix. The arbitrariness of the law when applied to women is dumbfounding.

If the abortion pill can be legally obtained in the U.S., why is it illegal to obtain abortion pills by mail? It would be absurd to restrict pharmacies in other countries to mail abortion pills to the U.S. So the prosecutor in the case argued the obvious – that the fetus was a person and needed to be protected from the mother who was trying to kill it. The absurd and cruel outcome is that the case was treated like first degree murder, instead of a case of unintended pregnancy, the mother’s attempt to abort (legal in many countries, including some states in the U.S. currently), and birth of a stillborn fetus. Patel did not receive any respite from medical practitioners or the law.

Does Patel’s attempt to go to a hospital because of her bleeding that led to the doctor and law enforcement officer reporting her “illegal act” mean that pregnant women would fear getting medical help? This is exactly the outcome, says Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Doctors who are supposed to be advocates for patients are now turning against their female patients based on the law of the state, and sometimes their belief systems. Forget the Hippocratic oath!

In India, where feticide is prevalent, the judicial system is caught between legal abortion, which was partly strengthened by a population control policy, and the government’s attempt to dissuade women from aborting female fetuses. It is often difficult to say for sure if an abortion was just that, an abortion, totally legal, or a female feticide. How can the same abortion if legal be also illegal—this is the conundrum for Indian courts. As social scientists point out, we need to look at the large social system—institutions, families, and so on that promote male privilege; so we need to figure out how to change the culture instead of penalizing women.

Recently, an Indian reporter said Purvi Patel’s alleged feticide would be “normal” in India. I would argue that it is important to combat a culture that would advocate feticide; by the same token, we need to combat a culture that penalizes women for obtaining an abortion and tells her summarily that her body, and her fetus, is the property of the State. Apart from the legal determination on Purvi Patel’s case, the very fact of women not being allowed any right over their reproductive functions is outrageous. And to be eviscerated of freedom by being sent to prison, by arguing that self-induced abortion is a crime, is an egregious wrong.

 

 

 

(Photo Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock) (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)