Amalia Leal: We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment.

Women prisoners, almost exclusively Central American and Mexican, at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, recognized Thanksgiving by engaging in a hunger strike, both in their own name and in solidarity with largely Bangladeshi hunger strikers in Alabama and California. It’s a small world after all, in the global gulag of asylum seeker and refugee detention.

The stories of the women intersect with the story of T. Don Hutto and of the current U.S. regime. T. Don Hutto opened, as T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility, in 2006. From the outset, it was a nightmare. Finally, after three years of prisoner protests, supporter protests and law suits, the government decided to shut it down … sort of. In 2009, T. Don Hutto was into a women’s immigration prison, and it’s been a special hell for immigrant women. The Correction Corporation of America runs T. Don Hutto, and they must be very proud of it, since they named the facility after T. Don Hutto, one of the company’s three founders.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is equally proud of T. Don Hutto: “The T. Don Hutto Residential Center (TDHRC) represents a unique and pioneering setting, offering the least restrictive environment permissible to manage persons in administrative U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. In keeping with the director’s call for civil detention reform, TDHRC represents a clear departure from historical detention settings. Residents experience expanded services that include free and open movement, recreational and educational participation, food services and medical and mental health care. TDHRC’s person-centered philosophy guides every interaction with the residents by understanding the often complex circumstances surrounding their detention. TDHRC continues to fulfill the mission of ICE while at the same time recognizing and valuing the dignity of the individual.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, over 100 mostly Bangladeshi prisoners Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Theo Lacey Facility in Orange County, California, and Otay Detention Facility in San Diego went on hunger strike. Behind them was another Bangladeshi women’s hunger strike.

In October 54 South Asian women started a hunger strike at ICE’s El Paso Processing Center. Five days later, 14 Indian and Bangladeshi women began a hunger strike at ICE’s La Salle Detention Facility in La Salle, Louisiana. La Salle and El Paso hold women and children.

At the time Francisca Morales Macis, a Mexican domestic abuse survivor, was being held at T. Don Hutto. She heard of the hunger strike, and started her own. Within days, over 100 women were on hunger strike. The women described horrendous conditions, including extraordinarily long waits for adjudication. The average wait in the Houston immigration court is 703 days. Francisca Morales Macis and Amalia Arteaga Leal, a Honduran refugee, were identified as the chief organizers of the hunger strike. Both were peremptorily transferred to the South Texas Detention Center, in Pearsall, Texas. South Texas Detention Center is an overwhelmingly male detention center. ICE says this was not retaliation because there was no hunger strike. How could there by a hunger strike in a person-centered institution?

According to Amalia Arteago Leal, “They brought us here from the T. Don Hutto detention center because there was a hunger strike there. Many people were protesting because we want our freedom. We have spent a lot of time appealing our cases, and we are not receiving answers, and when they call us, they always tell us that they are postponing us or giving us other dates, and the truth is, we’ve spent a lot of time in detention and we can’t tolerate this much time … I think that it’s unjust that they have detained us for so much time, because I think we have the right to bond. We came to seek refuge, and instead we found punishment. What I want people to understand is that they should support us, because it’s true that we have entered the United States for a second time, but I want to apply for bond. I’m on strike because I want my freedom. I can’t tolerate imprisonment anymore, because I am between four walls and I think this has a psychological impact. We come from our own country with our problems, and many times, we can’t get out of these problems — we’re trapped, imprisoned — and now, we’ve come to another form of imprisonment. For me, I think it’s an injustice.”

The women in T. Don Hutto know the truth. It’s a prison, where `person-centered’ treatment ranges from abuse to torture. Shut it down, today. Set the women free now. It’s way past time.


(Photo Credit: Grassroots Leadership / Twitter / Colorlines)

Australia’s Flotilla of the Damned

Australian navy intercepts asylum seeker boat within 200m of Christmas Island on 20 November.

Today’s headline reads, “Christmas Island asylum seeker boat ‘disappeared’ after being towed by navy.” There was no disappearance but rather a death sentence, pure and simple and ordinary. The only news perhaps would be the “disappearance,” except that it’s not news because it’s so ordinary. Australia has learned to disappear whole boatloads of women, children, and men asylum seekers. This is just one more incidence.

The story, such as it is, is short. “A boat carrying asylum seekers was intercepted close to Christmas Island on Friday, the first to reach Australian waters since June 2014. The boat made it within 200m of Flying Fish Cove before it was boarded by Australian officials, sources on the island told Guardian Australia. It is unclear whether the boat was intercepted by Australian navy or Border Force staff. Those on board were given life jackets. The boat was moved further away from the island and covered in a tarpaulin so the arrivals cannot be counted or identified, the sources said. The boat was towed out to sea by an Australian navy patrol boat. After that, thus far, all is silence. The government won’t discuss “operational matters”, and so the boat has “disappeared.”

In 1939, the MS St. Louis famously traveled the Atlantic and Caribbean, seeking a safe haven for 908 German Jewish refugees fleeing State violence. Having been rejected by Cuba, the United States and Canada, the refugees returned to Europe, where they moved to England, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. In the ensuing violence, it’s estimated that anywhere from 400 to 700 survived the war. What also survived was the shame of those nation States that refused entry, in particular the United States and Canada. Of course, apologies, both State and personal, have since been extended, but the shame is there. This was the Voyage of the Damned.

But the boat never disappeared, nor was it meant to. There was no policy, on the part of so-called democratic States, of forced mass disappearance of refugees and asylum seekers. Now, in Australia, there is. Disappearance is so much more efficient than detention centers and offshore penal colonies. Someday, someone might apologize, but for now there’s simply Australia’s Flotilla of the Damned: women, children, men seeking asylum, set adrift in the silence and the fog of “operational matters.” Because for the state, #OperationsMatter … not women and children.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

From Mumbai to Paris and Beyond: Transnational Solidarity In the Face of Violence

The following conversation took place right after we received news of the Paris attacks. We were in Milwaukee at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, where we were presenting on a panel on the invisibility of mothers in the U.S. and in India, made more so by social policies, particularly pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled during pregnancy and labor. When the horrific news reached us, taking time out of the conference to respond to each other was the only way we knew to attend to our emotions and thoughts.

B: Yesterday, the news came. Something happened in Paris, the city I know well and where many of my relatives and friends live. The first pop-up news stated, “40 killed.” What? And then there was an avalanche of dreadful messages from friends and family. Then began the task of looking for everyone there. Pramila, with whom I presented that afternoon in Milwaukee, was with me and I clung to her to stay afloat.

P: My heart was in my mouth when I heard of the attacks when we finished our panel on the invisibility of women.  Over the next two hours, we got the news in dribs and drabs on CNN. My feeling of tragedy was overwhelming, especially because my friend Brigitte lives near Paris and visits there often, and it only happened she was currently in the U.S. and presenting at our panel. What were the chances that she and her family were not at that particular site of one of the attacks? What are the chances that any one of us is at the wrong place at the wrong time? But even as I think this way, I am already guilty of surviving. I am also witnessing another kind of suffering that is unfolding before my eyes—the sorrow of the witnesses.

B: Yes, the link to precarity struck me as well. My thoughts went to the family from Syria I met on the train to Thessaloniki. They left Syria to go on this very dangerous journey, crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy boat, scared. They were abandoned and ended up in the water, from where they were rescued. Yesterday in Paris, people stepped on pools of blood as they ran for their lives. It was difficult to locate friends and family certainly and my heart was pounding at times, but I felt that we had an urge for human connection, for solidarity. We wandered in the hotel and met our friend Sherry who hadn’t heard the news. We told her. Her first words were “Bush and his team opened a Pandora’s box!”

P: I, too, am thinking about how precarious our lives have become, even more so after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Daesh is no accident—it is the horrific outcome of a violent situation created by the invasion of Iraq under the false rhetoric of bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. The irony of this is not lost as we witness not simply the hardship brought about by the violence witnessed everyday by the Iraqis—a violence that was perpetuated by the U.S. presence and now by Daesh; the spreading of this violence into France that upholds liberty, equality, fraternity in its social policies and its political philosophy.  So it is not surprising that President Hollande’s first word after the shock of the attacks last night was “Compassion.”  Not revenge, not an eye-for-an-eye argument. Because the way out of the revenge equation is more liberty, compassion, empathy toward the marginalized—values that are anathema to fundamentalism everywhere. Because fundamentalism thrives on divisiveness, subjugation and fear.

B: The work of compassion was expressed by one of my interviewees in the documentary “What Do You Mean Shackled?” That is one of the values that we share and forget about so quickly when profit and money animate the elite and put us at risk of violence. Compassion and solidarity work together. Shackling pregnant women is simply horrific, as it was horrific to enslave people from another continent. But we continue to talk about “our values.” What and where are they? This morning, besides the probably necessary forceful responses, everybody in France is talking about the values of compassion and solidarity. How can we reinforce these values in actions instead of acting in opposition to them?

This morning in Paris, people were hugging and kissing each other. My friend there told me how they want to take care of each other, atheists, Muslims, Jews, Christians simply because they are human beings and nothing else.

P: I am recalling the terrorist attacks that happen in cities like Mumbai, the most recent being in 2008. Although the terrorists from Pakistan claimed responsibility, the Indian government followed the legal steps to achieve justice, instead of launching attacks on Pakistan, for it knew that violence only begets more violence. Remarkably, each time a riot happens, the plural citizenry of Mumbai stick with each other, offering support and solidarity. So it is only solidarity that can be the single most effective strategy against violence.

Words of sympathy from strangers…so simple, so natural.

This morning as we were having breakfast in the hotel, the waiter brought us the bill and on it he had written, “Our heartfelt sympathy for the French people.” This simple gesture brought tears to our eyes. Brigitte said, “We need to treasure these moments…such as the moment of solidarity I experienced with the Syrian refugees and the Greek women on the train to Thessaloniki.”

Solidarity and compassion are the only antidote to violence and hatred.

And one must go on. That sense of carrying on with our purpose is best expressed in  W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. The opening line goes, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In the poem, Auden describes the fall of Icarus from the sky into the water; the ships and people keep going on despite the suffering of the fallen boy. One can read the poem as people turning away from the suffering person. They see what happens; they absorb it; and they continue with their task. I want to add a few lines to this poem, depicting the folks on the shore turning toward each other and extending a comforting hand, rather than remaining isolated. Being isolated when suffering unfolds around you diminishes the spirit. What is spectacularly humane is for people to turn toward each other to offer comfort.

B: I watched on French TV the reaction of people in the iconic Place de la République. Some targeted Muslim people to give them kisses and hugs and to tell them thank you. One man said that he was appalled by the distortion of his faith and asserted that he felt more like a citizen. Certainly, people are looking for a common humanity.

Some people and the French press examined how Daesh came to be.

In the name of which god did the U.S. invade a country, with oil in its soil, so far away a country named Iraq?

In the name of which god did they incarcerate so many in jails like Abu Ghraib and carry their violence with them?

They instilled the indistinguishable sense of injustice, detained the innocent with the angry. They tortured, pronouncing that it was fair to torture bodies from another place.

They believe in this competition for violence; competition–another word that negates solidarity and compassion, the basis of justice.

We are listening to countless stories of violence perpetrated in the name of which god? Stories of violence on farmers, women, and the ones who live and enjoy life in Paris.

This violence comes from nearby and far away–this is what deterritorialization of mode of production has produced. It comes from greed, from controlling faith, from competition. I think of your words about Mumbai as a place of laicity; I think of Paris as a place of laicity, a place for resistance maybe. I remember the French President saying no to war in 2001, no to the invasion of Iraq…Will he be remembered for saying the words of the people who never want war?

P: Yesterday I heard from a friend who said she was so disturbed by the Paris attacks that she wanted to reach out to her friends and embrace them. I was touched. In the same email, she said that only one religion is responsible for creating so much bloodshed. I want to tell those who are blaming the Muslim faith, we need to look at the set of circumstances that produced the current violence in Europe.  We need to see the chain of events, beginning with the first Gulf War, then the attack on Iraq as retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the massive breakdown of infrastructure in Iraq, its repercussions across the region, the vacuum of power that was filled with a government that was divided across sectarian lines, the daily carnage in Iraq, unemployment, loss of hope for young people facing a bleak future.  The ousted government of Saddam Hussein became the Islamic State. Their establishment is not based on religion—it is based on an ideology of violence in order to build territory and acquire totalitarian power. William McCants, author of Isis Apocalypse, says the Islamic State’s territory is shrinking and they are losing much of their money in undertaking organized violence. At the same time, places that are unstable will become the breeding grounds for ISIS recruits and for the establishment of their government. So what can we do to counter this maddening expansion of Islamic State members in our midst?

B: Additionally, the South, where Iraq and Syria are, has been affected by climate change generated in the North. The discriminatory system of the current economic system is also at work. Maybe that is the biggest hidden issue in the invasion of Iraq, the destabilization of the region, and as a result, the building of Daesh with the role of war capability as a rationale. Deleuze and Guattari said fascism requires a war machine. Fascism formed in the Western countries and it imposed a world war on populations in the Pacific Ocean and in Africa and many other places. Maybe the greatest threat for humanity is our divisiveness. We should not lower our guard as many forces would like to use these events to threaten the social and civil cohesiveness that is more than ever needed.

Solidarity and compassion should be viewed as crucial components for organizing, if we want to counter the maddening expansion of the Islamic State power and the maddening often concealed violence of the neoliberal order. Both require resistance.



(Photo Credit 1: Oliver Hardcore /  The Guardian)(Photo Credit 2: Enzo Dkndt / The Guardian

Karabo Moseneke: Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother

Karabo Moseneke

It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, just outside Pretoria, and Karabo Moseneke is celebrating her ninetieth birthday.” What follows is only a small part of the story of the life and times of Karabo Mabel Moseneke, but even this small part is worth knowing. It’s the story of the grace and beauty of a woman’s endurance.

Karabo Moseneke was raised in a religious family. Her father worked as a chef and her mother worked in a laundry, and they struggled to make sure their daughter would be educated and become a teacher, which she did. She married a man who became a headmaster, and they created a house that cherished the spirit and the substance of freedom, especially freedom that emerges from and within education. They had four sons, the most well known of whom is Dikgang Moseneke, who is currently the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, the second most powerful judge in the country. Much of Karabo Moseneke’s story is filtered through the rise of her famous son. Dikgang Moseneke was born in 1947.

In 1960, at the age of 13, Dikgang Moseneke opened the newspaper and was changed forever. Black African children, like himself, had been massacred in Sharpeville: “The inequality was egregious. You could see it out there, jumping at you as a young person … My sense of fairness was inbred and I think it’s inbred in every child.” And so the 13-year-old boy joined the African Student Union, which was intimately linked with the Pan African Congress: “I had caught on to a wonderful phrase from someone called Robert Sobukwe, who said, `You must be your own liberator, in your lifetime.

Three years to the day after the Sharpeville Massacre, Dikgang Moseneke was taken from his home by the police. They wouldn’t tell his parents why nor where he was going. For 90 days, he was tortured and held in solitary confinement. He still bears the scars of those days. His mother searched frantically: “When I got home, I just sat down and started crying.”

When Karabo Moseneke finally found out where her son was, he was about to stand trial. She and her husband went to court every day, during the six-month trial. Every day, the guards would come and ask her if she was the mother of Number Six. Every day, she would respond, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.” Then the guards would tell her that her son, Number Six, was sure to hang. Every night, Karabo Moseneke would have terrible nightmares of hangpal hangpal, the gallows the gallows, and every morning she would return to the court and say, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.”

Dikgang Moseneke was sentenced to ten years prison, and was immediately shackled and chained, shoved into a van and carted off to Robben Island. For ten years, Karabo Moseneke brought food and love, food as love, to her son, and watched him grow, behind bars, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. During the ten years, Dikgang Moseneke committed himself to studying and moving forward. He completed his matric, Bachelor of Arts degree and a B Juris degree. When Dikgang Moseneke was released, he was placed under house arrest in his parents’ home, for five years. He continued to study, they continued to suffer and support: “My parents never once judged me, they never once blamed me.”

According to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, interviewed separately, the moral of this story is endurance. Karabo Moseneke endured and then some. She never judged nor blamed, and she never gave up and never stopped asking questions. Why should someone hang? Why should her son, who had done nothing, be abused and tortured? Why should people suffer? Where was God in all this? Where is the humanity? And throughout, according to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, they would cry, freely, without collapsing under the heap of sorrow.

It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, and it is time to celebrate.


(Photo Credit:

In South Africa, a victory for women in and beyond customary marriages

On Wednesday, in the Durban High Court, in South Africa, women in customary marriage won a major victory. Although their names are known, we’ll call the woman SN and the man BM. In 2012, SN and BM were married at Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal, by the Induna of the Cunu Traditional Council. The two were married in accordance with Zulu customary law. SN was 25 at the time of the wedding. The marriage was not registered with the Department of Home Affairs.

The following year, BM took a second wife in another customary ceremony. At the time, SN was “heavily pregnant with their third child.” According to SN, she was forced to attend the ceremony, but never agreed to the second marriage: “I was terribly unhappy with the unfolding events, but felt powerless to do anything about it. I resigned myself to being the first wife, even though I had not given my permission for the marriage.” That was 2013.

Soon after, SN discovered, via social media, that BM had married a third wife, this time in a civil ceremony, and that was the last straw. She sued to nullify both of the later marriages. On Wednesday, the High Court did just that and also ordered that SN be entitled to register her customary marriage.

The Mercury, which has followed this case throughout, called yesterday’s decision a blow to patriarchy: “Our choice of the story, then and now, was … to highlight an ongoing gender injustice that many other women probably suffer in silence and endure in the name of culture and tradition.” They argued that this case is “a matter of human rights and striking a blow against patriarchy and male privilege.”

In 1998, the South African Parliament passed the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, or RCMA. While many, and especially those organizing for recognition of same-sex customary marriages, have seen too much vagueness in the description of “customary”, the law has been used to protect the rights and status of women in customary marriages. It set minimum age standards, and established formal structures of consent. Much of the early impetus for the law came in response to the non-recognition of customary marriages in the prior apartheid regimes and in the earlier English and Dutch colonial regimes.

According to the Legal Resources Centre, who represented SN in court, the key provisions in this case are Sections 7(2) and 3(2). Section 7(2) of the RCMA states that “a customary marriage … in which a spouse is not a partner in any other existing customary marriage, is a marriage in community of property and of profit and loss between the spouses.” Further, Section 3(2) of the RCMA states that a civil marriage cannot co-exist simultaneously with a customary marriage unless the spouses are married to each other, exclusively. Finally, the Matrimonial Property Act of 1984 gives customary law wives equal stand­ing as civil law wives.

SN realized that her husband’s continual marrying in complete violation of both customary and civil law meant he was an unreliable economic partner and that she could be, and most probably would be, out in the cold without a rand to her name. She also realized that she has rights, as a woman in a customary marriage.

None of this is new. In 2005, the Constitutional Court found the customary law rule that women are unfit and incompetent to own and administer property to be unconstitutional and a violation of women’s rights to dignity and equality. In 2009, the same court found that non-recognition of women’s right to ownership, including access to and control of family property, upon dissolution of a customary marriage, was discriminatory and, again, a violation of women’s Constitutionally protected rights. Repeatedly, Courts have protected women’s rights to property. Community is community, and the Constitution is the Constitution.

SN’s victory is both concrete and aspirational. Concretely, she has secured full recognition – as a woman, citizen, human being. She has secured her material well being, as much as that can ever be secured. At the same time, in her own words, she has protected the rule of “custom, customary law and the law of the country.” Aspirationally, the Legal Resource Centre put it best, “The LRC welcomes the order and hopes that it may encourage women in similar situations to register their own customary marriages. This would give effect to the purpose of the RCMA and address the historic gendered inequality within customary marriages.”

Last year, women stopped the Traditional Courts Bill, and that was a victory for all women. Now women have organized to enforce the actual rule of law of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, a victory for all women. SN helped turn women’s silence into a women’s thunderclap, and now, patriarchy is falling, every day. #PatriarchyMustFall


(Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Emebet Mono Bezabh, another warrior in women’s struggles for emancipation and power

Emebet Mono Bezabh worked for two years as a live-in maid working for the head of the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) in Thailand. According to her reports, the diplomat and his wife regularly beat and starved her. They made her sleep with the family dog, and they treated her as “less than an animal”, which is to say they treated her like a slave. On Monday, an out-of-court settlement between Emebet Mono Bezabh and her `employers’ was reached.

Emebet Mono Bezabh was brought to Thailand from Ethiopia. Her employers are Ethiopian. Emebet Mono Bezabh is twenty-five years old. She was orphaned at the age of five. She has little to no formal education, and is deemed illiterate, but she knows something about justice: “This money doesn’t make up for what they’ve done to me.”

A year ago, today, we wrote about Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian domestic worker in Hong Kong who was beaten and starved almost to death. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, “My case was finally exposed because of the unity of the migrant workers’ movement in Hong Kong. I am happy that through my case more such cases of exploitation are being exposed and given more attention. I hope that both—the sending as well as receiving governments– will give more attention to the protection of migrant workers. I hope there is no more exploitation against migrant workers, against women and no more cases like me”.

Emebet Mono Bezabh’s case was finally exposed through the unity of the women’s movements in Thailand, where she was supported by the Foundation for Women, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Lawyers Council of Thailand. That was the story last year, it’s the story this year, and it most likely will be the story next year, same time: the solidarity of women workers breaking through the chains of domestic hyper-exploitation, violence, oppression, and slavery.

There is no room to be surprised, yet again, by the violence of domestic workers’ employers. It’s time to recognize the histories of struggle by domestic workers, in unions and associations, in courts and on the streets. Women workers’ ongoing and historic struggle for emancipation and power is the story. Pass it on.


(Photo Credit: Bangkok Post)

And she didn’t die: Lauretta Ngcobo and the political economy of women’s `vulnerability’

Lauretta Ngcobo

On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, writer, novelist, essayist, teacher, activist, mentor, fierce and ferocious (and often very funny) feminist South African Lauretta Ngcobo died. In the past few days, many writers, and not only South African, have shared that it was reading Ngcobo’s work that led them to choose writing as a path and career. For what it’s worth, I have always directed those seeking insight into the years of anti-apartheid struggle to Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die and Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants’ Revolt. In December 2012, in Africa Is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane named Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile as a favorite book of the year.

The South African Sunday Times titled its obituary for Lauretta Ngcobo, “Lauretta Ngcobo: Writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice.” Lauretta Ngcobo knew better. She knew that women weren’t and aren’t vulnerable. Women are made vulnerable, by many forces. In Ngcobo’s works, State policy and patriarchal comrades colluded to oppress women, and then blame, telling them their weakness and vulnerability had caused the oppression. Lauretta Ngcobo knew better.

Lauretta Ngcobo knew that vulnerability is neither status nor class nor caste nor rank nor state of being. Lauretta Ngcobo taught that vulnerability is never inevitable. Vulnerability is always a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable.

Ngcobo is often described as having opposed “both apartheid and Zulu traditions that limited women’s freedom and reinforced their oppression under apartheid”. While accurate as far as it goes, Ngcobo’s writing make it clear that she was a warrior for women’s emancipation and power as key to the emancipation of all of humanity. And that meant all women. Born in 1931 in Ixopo, in the sugarlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was well aware of the struggles taking place each second of each and every day. She knew of the struggles in the households and in the fields. She knew of the struggles among comrades, including the propensity to discount the worth of rural organizations, especially among the ANC and PAC in exile. She knew the difference between word and deed, and she knew the ravages of white supremacist patriarchy and of homegrown patriarchy, and she rejected both and each.

And she knew she was not alone. Lauretta Ngcobo’s writings and life history teach, and she was always teaching, that women’s solidarity is a tangible, material good, and that it is deep and powerful. She was not sanguine about the past or the future. In 2005, Ngcobo noted, “No matter what African women have done to fight side by side with African men in the liberation struggle, the tension between men and women remains the same, if not worse.” In her non-fiction prose as in her novels, Lauretta Ngcobo showed how “Black women’s associations made … collective rebellion possible.”

Writing of the Women’s March of 9 August 1956, Ngcobo recalled, “We, who were standing in the crowds, felt the waves of the voices in front and carried in another wave further down. (At the time, I was carrying my six-month-old son.) It was the most moving demonstration of dignity, unity and determination and has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.”

Reflecting on the meaning of the life and life work of Lauretta Ngcobo, Angelo Fick concluded, “Lauretta Ngcobo’s passing has left a gap in South Africa’s culture of letters. It may take us some time to come to terms with the importance of her work and her life. Ngcobo’s work is indispensable for anyone interested to know how we were, and how we resisted, and how in that resistance, the lives and struggles of Black women cannot be forgotten or discounted.”

While her passing has left a gap, Lauretta Ngcobo’s life work has left a home for writers, activists, women, feminists, dreamers and builders.


(Photo Credit 1: The Sunday Times) (Image Credit 2: Publishers Weekly)

In the California Institution for Women, women are still dropping like flies

Stephanie Feliz

We received a letter this week from someone at the California Institution for Women (CIW), which reads, in part: “I am … at CIW and I was told tonight that there were two more women who attempted suicide at CIW this past week. Three weeks ago, a woman … broke into tears because she walked into her room and her roommate was hanging from her sheets, but she was able to intervene. That is 3 more attempts in the past 3 weeks alone, and I wonder how many more attempts have occurred. The number 4 is an official tally, but attempts happen much more frequently. It is November…things don’t seem to be slowing down.”

Four months ago, California Department of Corrections officials “discovered” a crisis. In the previous eighteen months, four women prisoners at the California Institution for Women, or CIW, in Chino killed themselves … or were killed by willful neglect: 73-year-old Gui Fei Zhang, 34-year-old Stephanie Feliz, 31-year-old Alicia Thompson, and 23-year-old Margarita Murguia.

April Harris, a sister prisoner in CIW, explained Margarita Murguia’s death, “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something. Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.” She finally did it. A woman hanged herself that night? No, a woman was hanged.

After Stephanie Feliz’s death, April Harris, a CIW prisoner, wrote, “We have women dropping like flies, and not one person has been questioned as to why … I have been down almost 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Ever.” Why are so many women committing suicide in California’s women’s prisons, and in particular in the California Institution for Women? How the State count women prisoner suicide? What is California’s policy? When, if ever, does the State listen to women prisoners’ accounts of death in prison?

According to the California Department of Corrections most recent tally, from September 2014 to September 2015, at CIW, twenty women have attempted suicide and two have succeeded. Since the “great discovery” of the crisis in late July, four women have attempted suicide. Indeed, things don’t seem to be slowing down, and, apart from the usual suspects, nobody cares.

There are so many explanations for these suicides, and you know them all: mental illness, overcrowding, lack of resources, and poor staff training. The academy is as guilty as the prison house. How many times must we read a research article that begins “To date, there have been few studies of suicidal behaviour among female prisoners” before we finally understand? How often can one claim to be surprised by “Evidence shows that women prisoners are more likely to self-harm and commit suicide than male prisoners, while this is the opposite in the community” or “Alarmingly high rates of mental health problems are reported, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and a tendency to self-harm and suicide”?

Women are dropping like flies in the California Institution for Women because dropping like flies is more convenient than treating women as full human beings, more convenient than treating prisoners as full human beings, and a whole more convenient than treating women prisoners at all.

Women prisoners and supporters, such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, know how to count, and they have been doing so out loud. They have continually and loudly denounced the conditions and called for a thorough overhaul, beginning with releasing most of the prisoners. When women in the California Institution for Women participated in last July’s statewide hunger strike, they called attention to the State assault on their bodies, minds and souls. They identified a crisis, and the State looked away, and instructed all good citizens to do the same. It is November and the assembly line of women prisoner deaths is not slowing down. It’s time to smash the machinery once and for all.


(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / AP)

Just look at her

Just look at her
Just look at her
our Caster Semenya
who faced a testing time
in a world insensitive 
to anything unlike
Just look at her
amidst a doping scandal
our BRICS partner
in strong denial
(a fine example to the youth)
(are they swimming in it
her decrier reckoning
there is no other way
to do it)
(perchance it was
the pharmaceuticals
speaking their mind)
Our Caster could gloat
what with her detractor
a gold medalist
herself now facing 
a testing time
Thankfully we have
a strong constitution
(the country comes first
all folks being equal
though some seem more)
Thankfully we have
Ubuntu and all that
we forgive and forget
(for apartheid allies
we have a Sports Hall of Fame)
Just look at her now
Caster ‘cheated’ out of gold and ‘Alarmed’ Coe seeks doping answers from Russia (Cape Times, November 10 2015), and Coe hardly trying to prove athletics is safe in his hands (Argus, November 11 2015). The ‘just look at her’ remark is Semenya’s disparager’s.
(Photo Credit:

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: