Haunts: the peculiar women

Women are the peculiar of the contemporary world. Two recent articles, published on the same day, suggest as much. Here are five aspects of the women-peculiar.

The peculiar trend

Girls’ sports events bring more cash and more carriers than do boys’: “As the popularity of youth tournaments has intensified over the past decade, a peculiar trend has emerged: girls’ sporting events tend to attract more relatives and generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys. And that is drawing increased attention from economic development officials. `There are far more people who will travel with 12-year-old girls than even 12-year-old boys,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, a trade group that advises communities on attracting sporting events. “And vastly more people will travel with 12-year-old girls than 18-year-old boys.’”

Whether this reported trend is bogus or not, what would make it peculiar?

The peculiar sensation

On the same day, Saaret E. Yoseph reported on watching a KGB commercial that featured an all Black female cast, and wondered, “Why can’t ads get Black women right?” Good question. Here are the first two paragraphs of her reflection:

“`It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’

—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

I wonder if the peculiar sensation W.E.B. Du Bois had in mind when writing The Souls of Black Folk is the same one I get when watching KGB’s latest ad. The directory assistance turned question-and-answer text service has me experiencing the 21st century version of double-consciousness—an American Negro woman, a consumer—two warring identities and one bad commercial break.”

When Du Bois wrote about peculiar sensation, he placed that between being-a-problem and becoming-a-coworker. “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.” For Du Bois, the peculiar sensation begins there, with the real question that elicits seldom a response, that is, the question of the Black Real.

The goal of the Black Real project is simple: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self….This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius”.

For Du Bois, the question of the Black Real was the question of the Black Man: “For Du Bois, the African American male was the paradigmatic Black intellectual”. The Black Woman? The “American Negro woman”? She did not attain the status of problem. She was peculiar.

As she is today: “For black American women, our two-ness is never more evident than when people are trying to sell us something. As advertisers vie for our attention, the incongruity of our two identities—who we are and who we are perceived to be—could not be more clear than in those 32 seconds.”

The peculiar paradox

Jayathi Ghosh has a new book out, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India. I hope to read it soon. A recent review quoted Ghosh as having written: “We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work….[These] indicate the reduced economic and social bargaining power of women as workers”.

Women’s peculiar paradox, in the neoliberal political economy, is that the more they work, the fewer jobs they have, the less wealth they have, the greater debts they incur, all the while suffering a reduction in economic and social bargaining power, as workers, as women workers, as women, at home, in the streets, in the so-called work sites.

The peculiar institution

In United States history, peculiar is a key word. Plantation owners, and for generations after them historians, referred to slavery as the peculiar institution. Kenneth Stampp, who died earlier this month, wrote The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, published in 1956. That book “juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.”

The slaves never referred to slavery as `peculiar’. Slaves never referred to those who claim to be their owners as `peculiar’. Slaves never refer to their situation today as `peculiar’.  The `peculiar’ of the `peculiar institution’, slavery, was not the peculiar of odd or strange. It was the peculiar of the slave woman and of the women in patriarchy, although neither figured prominently in Stampp’s account.

The peculiar

The peculiar trend, the peculiar sensation, the peculiar paradox: these are terms of art for the categories of woman and of women. Peculiar means particular, of one’s own, odd or eccentric. Peculiar, from peculiare, a sixth century word meaning private property … sort of. Peculiare derives from peculium, which meant “money or property managed by a person incapable of legal ownership.” Under Roman law, it was the “property which a paterfamilias allowed a member of his family, or a master allowed his slave, to hold and administer, and, within limits, to alienate, as though it were his or her own.” Paterfamilias to family, which actually here means wife, master to slave, they’re  the same.

So, when I read that New York City has decided to help the homeless is to buy them one-way tickets `back home’, or that England has decided to help asylum seekers, especially women and children, by eliminating services, I think, “How peculiar.” How peculiar indeed.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: the socialism of those who wash others’ underwear

Maids fill the rooms and haunt the stories in Petinah Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly, a brilliant and evocative narration of living and dying in Zimbabwe.

“The Maid from Lalapanzi” tells the heartbreaking story of SisiBlandina, a revolutionary, tragic, ordinary woman. Read the story and you’ll see. The next story, “Aunt Juliana’s Indian”, focuses on the complex relationships between Indian Zimbabweans, particularly male employers, and `African’ Zimbabweans, particularly women employees. Juliana is herself a revolutionary who strikes out against oppression and unreason … literally. The story of Mr. Vaswani and Juliana is the story of a nation being born, despite the Big Men who were already trying to kill it in the name of liberation.

Susan, the neighbors’ daughter, is a minor character. She works as a maid in a white household. She and Juliana spend their time arguing about who has the worse boss and who suffers the most. Whoever suffers the most wins.

When the first real elections are impending, the air is filled with the promise of change.  Juliana dreams of a raise, better treatment, time off, so that she might complete her secretarial studies. Only Susan has doubts: “`It may well be that there will be this socialism, Juliana,’ she said, `But I can tell you right now that no amount of socialism will make my madam wash her own underwear” (191)

Maids, domestic workers, nannies, babysitters, care providers, housemaids, cleaners haunt stories of the world, of the everyday, of everything important and everything ordinary. They are present and yet absent, valuable and yet worthless. They are the stuff of national liberation, of revolution and socialism, of feminism, of development. They are as unmentionable as the dirty underwear that somehow gets washed.

As Petinah Gappah noted in a recent interview, “`Zimbabweans are more than just victims of Robert Mugabe….We are also horrible to each other. We’re not very nice to women. We don’t treat our maids very well.” When it comes to the oppression and exploitation of maids, if Robert Mugabe didn’t exist, we’d have invented him, a Great Man. Who washes his underwear?

In Burma/Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is on trial this week. Aung San Suu Kyi is a great woman. July 5, 2009, marked 5,000 days in captivity for Aung San Suu Kyi. She spent the day “with the two women she has been detained with since 2003.” Who are those women? They are her co-defendants, her two “housemaids”, her two “maids”, and most reports don’t mention their names.

“On May 14, Special Branch police arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and her two live-in party supporters and domestic workers, Daw Khin Khin Win, and her daughter, Win Ma Ma, at Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Rangoon, and transferred the three to Insein Prison.”

Daw Khin Khin Win. Win Ma Ma. Mother and daughter. Party supporters and members. Maids. There is no Aung San Suu Kyi without them. This does not take away from the value and accomplishment of Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, it enriches it. But do a Google news search for Daw Khin Khin Win, and what comes up? Nothing. Unmentionable and invisible as the washing of dirty underwear. 

Everyone needs a maid. In South Africa, there’s a white squatter camp, where the white residents are mostly unemployed. It’s located near Krugersdorp, in the West Rand, Gauteng. It’s a historic site. The British built a concentration camp in Krugersdorp, during the Anglo-Boer War, for Afrikaans women and children. But the camp is not all white: “The camp is also home to a few black people, mostly maids and handy-men of the white squatters.” A place called home, by Whites only, requires Black maids and handymen. Whose names go unspoken. As unmentionable as the dirty underwear they wash.

They are like maids everywhere. They are exploited and betrayed. Recently, the New York Times Magazine featured a lengthy interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg tells a story about maids: “The very first week that I was at Columbia, Jan Goodman, a lawyer in New York, called me and said, Do you know that Columbia has given layoff notices to 25 maids and not a single janitor? Columbia’s defense was the union contract, which was set up so that every maid would have to go before the newly hired janitor would get a layoff notice.”

Bosses and unions collude to protect men and sacrifice maids. Again.

They are sacrificed. That Ginsburg interview appeared in the July 12th edition of the Magazine. The night before, on July 11, the body of Eridania Rodriguez was found. Eridania Rodriguez was an office cleaner in a building in lower Manhattan. Eridania Rodriguez was one of the thousands of women who clean offices, alone, at night. Elizabeth Magda continues to clean offices in the same neighborhood, night after night, alone, largely unnoticed and unknown by those who work in the offices: “Few people pay attention to the workers who clean their offices, as long as the desks are clean in the morning and papers are not tampered with. But every once in a while, something happens to cast a spotlight on their relatively solitary, uncelebrated occupation. On July 11, there was a grisly discovery that did just that: the body of a cleaning woman was found stuffed in an air-conditioning duct in the Lower Manhattan office building where she had worked at night.”

What does it take for cleaners, maids, housemaids to be seen, to be named? Must the narrative of domestic labor, in households or in offices, be one of sacrifice and martyrdom, framed by anonymity, punctuated by sexual abuse and torture? Daw Khin Khin Win, Win Ma Ma, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Black women domestic workers in white households and neighborhoods. The Columbia 25. Eridania Rodriguez, Elizabeth Magda. They are not specters and they are not supplements to some more important national or workers’ or any other story. They are women with names, bodies, stories, and lives. They struggle to create the socialism of those who wash others’ underwear. The struggle continues.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Mourning Mothers, Morning Mothers

A mother is a mother for as long as she lives.

Around the world, mothers gather in parks, gardens, public open spaces. As they sit and watch and talk, they gather and create comfort, wisdom, knowledge, strength, pleasure, laughter, sighs, touch, love, safety. They create spaces where truth can be spoken and heard. This is not sentimental or romantic. It is the news of the day.

Parvin Fahimi is Sohrab Arabi’s mother for as long as she lives.

Sohrab Arabi, a 19 year old student, “was reportedly killed on June 15, when a member of Iran’s ideological basiji militia opened fire on a crowd of protesters close to central Tehran’s Azadi Square, according to his aunt Farah Mohamadi, who was informed of his death by security forces.”

Fahimi went looking for her son. She went to the prisons, she went to the courts, she went to the hospitals, she went to the morgue. Then, on Saturday, July 11, 26 days later, Parvin Fahimi “was finally called in by officials and asked to identify her son in several photographs of corpses.” He had been shot.

She went looking from place to place to place, from face to face to face, for her son.

Taraneh Mousavi was also a young person in Iran. On Friday, June 19, she went to the Ghoba Mosque, in Tehran, to hear a sermon on the post-election `martyrs’. She was arrested. Reports suggest she was tortured, raped, burned to death. It’s hard to confirm. What isn’t in dispute: Taraneh Mousavi was arrested and disappeared. “Taraneh, whose first name is Persian for “song”, disappeared into arrest. Weeks later…her mother received an anonymous call from a government agent saying that her daughter has been hospitalized in Imam Khomeini Hospital in the city of Karaj, just north of Tehran — hospitalized for `rupturing of her womb and anus in…an unfortunate accident’. When Taraneh’s family went to the hospital to find her, they were told she was not there.”

Taraneh Mousavi’s mother is Taraneh Mousavi’s mother for as long as she lives.

The Mourning Mothers, the Mothers of Laleh Park, gather every Saturday in public parks, such as Laleh Park in the heart of Tehran, from 7 – 8 pm, the day and hour in which Neda Aghasoltani was killed.

The world is too full with Mourning Mothers.

Kessie Moyo is Godfrey Moyo’s mother for as long as she lives.

Godfrey Moyo was from Zimbabwe and suffered from epilepsy. On January 3, 2005, he was awaiting trial, at Belmarsh prison in the UK, when he suffered a seizure, followed by a behavioral disturbance, in which he attacked his cellmate and struggled with guards. He was taken out of his cell, thrown to the floor, constrained and controlled, during which he suffered two more seizures. Unconscious, he was taken to the intensive care cell and dumped, kneeling against a bed. Then he was injected with a sedative and died, 20 minutes later.

Four and a half years later, an inquest was finally held, from June 22 to July 6, 2009.  This story brings together disability, race, nation, class into one terrible stew. And it conjures the Mourning Mothers.

Kessie Moyo, Godfrey Moyo’s mother, lives in Zimbabwe. In 2005, she received a six-month visa to attend the funeral and inquest, the inquest which wouldn’t occur for another four and a half years. When Mrs. Moyo applied for an extension, she was denied. Due to “very compelling family reasons”, Kessie Moyo stayed in England until 2007, only then returning to Zimbabwe. When at last the inquest date was announced, she was denied a visa. Why? She had overstayed the earlier one, and those family reasons didn’t matter. Also, since Zimbabwe is a humanitarian crisis site, Kessie Moyo would have no reason to return. There’s no logic like State logic.

Finally, the High Court [a] granted her a visa and [b] forced the UK Border Agency to expedite the processing. She barely arrived in time to sit with her daughter, Godfrey’s sister, Lomaculo Moyo, and listen to the guards describe her son as `a smashing lad’. She barely arrived in time to weep for her murdered son.

Kessie Moyo is Godfrey Moyo’s mother for as long as she lives.

Marta Servin lives in Koreatown, in Los Angeles, and she is the mother of three children. She is their mother for as long as she lives.

Koreatown, located in the center of Los Angeles, is the most densely populated area of the city. Mostly Koreans and Latin@s. Ten years ago a group of women started a community garden, Francis Street Community Garden. Small in size, huge in value. Now, “every day at about 5 p.m., women from the neighborhood gather at the garden to drink coffee and tea, cook spontaneous meals and talk for hours as the sunlight fades and neon signs begin flickering on in neighboring strip malls. They celebrate birthdays together with colorful pinatas and paper flowers and welcome newcomers to the neighborhood. Their children play and chase after the free-roaming roosters, hens and chicks.”

Marta Servin is one of those women. She came to help the clean up and never left. Mothers and daughters gather, in their garden, in their space. They are the Morning Mothers. One day, I hope the Mourning Mothers, those of Iran, those of Zimbabwe, those of anywhere else, might become the Morning Mothers as well, because, you know, a mother is a mother for as long as she lives.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Maternal mortality, and it still is news

Euna Lee and Laura Ling are in prison. Mallika Chopra is haunted by them: “I wanted to share a story about Euna Lee, who along with Laura Ling, has been held in N. Korea for 4 months.  As a mother, the story has been haunting me since I heard it. It haunts me because I can totally relate to Euna’s actions.” Mothers in prison haunt the mothers of the world.

Chopra had dinner with Euna Lee’s husband Michael who recounted the story of how Euna struggled to send him an urgent note: “Euna wanted to make sure that Michael had sent in the registration form for Hana for summer school. Euna had chosen the Korean immersion school for her daughter, but was scared her husband would forget to send in the form! Hearing this story brought tears to my eyes.  Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.” Their daughter Hana is four years old.

Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.

Lisa Belkin read Chopra’s account and was haunted as well: “When a friend of mine was weak with the cancer that would soon kill her, she began leaving Post-It notes around her bedroom for her husband. Thoughts on what to get their two sons for their birthdays. Reminders of playdates that were scheduled for the next few weeks. Suggested grocery lists. A mother is a mother as long as she lives.”

A mother is a mother as long as she lives.

“As long as she lives”. What does that mean in a world in which maternal mortality persists? “Every year some 536 000 women die of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, 99% of them in developing countries. The global maternal mortality ratio of 400 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2005 has barely changed since 1990.”

Improving maternal health is one of the Millenium Development Goals, or MDGs, and it “constitutes the most off-track of all MDGs.” The thing about maternal mortality, about deaths in pregnancy or in childbirth complications is that almost all of them are preventable. Family planning, education, access to maternal and reproductive health care services would do the trick. A bit of money, a bout of commitment, and a dose of recognition that women actually matter would suffice.

Preventable maternal mortality haunts the globe.

Take South Africa, for example, whose Department of Health recently released a report on how the country is failing to save pregnant women and mothers. The report is titled Saving Mothers 2005 – 2007.

According to the report, “38.4% of the deaths were clearly avoidable within the health care system….There were 1519 (38.4%) clearly avoidable deaths within the health system….This is approximately the same as reported in 2002-2004 where the clearly avoidable deaths 36.7%….Four out of five of clearly avoidable maternal deaths were due to complications of hypertension, obstetric haemorrhage, pregnancy related sepsis and non-pregnancy related infections.  The ways to prevent these deaths are known. Specific protocols have been developed and these have been included in the recommendations given in the previous report.  Despite this, the most important avoidable factor is still substandard care. . . .Delay in seeking help was the most common patient related avoidable factor. The exact meaning of this is hard to establish as assessors can only use the data available in the case notes.  If lack of transport or other factors inhibiting the woman seeking help is not recorded in the notes, the assessor will not be able to document them. Independent research has indicated most of the delays are due to the inability to access transport especially at night leading to delay, rather than lack of knowledge or concern by the patient.”

Women’s delays in seeking help is more often than not a factor of inaccessible transport than of the woman’s knowledge or concern. That is, it’s a function of everyday life for poor women, and especially for poor rural women, living and dying in South Africa. Those women, they haunt the trains, the collective taxis, the buses, the side of the road. They haunt the clinics and hospitals to which they never arrived and when they did, they were poorly cared for.

The report’s Conclusion is short, bitter, and to the point. Here it is in its entirety: “The final comment of the 1999-2001 report was “Every woman who becomes pregnant and continues with her pregnancy does so in the expectation of delivering a healthy child and the joy and satisfaction of watching the child grow.  Surely, it is the duty of society and the health care profession to do the utmost to fulfil this expectation?  To this end, the deficiencies identified in this report must be urgently addressed.  The committee are anxious to see clear signs of progress by the next triennial report”.   Unfortunately this, with the notable exception of women dying from complications of hypertension in pregnancy, has not come to pass.  We will have to redouble our efforts.”

This is not just about South Africa nor is it about the `developing world’. This is about the globe. Them that’s got shall get. Them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said, and it still is news.

Women who die of pregnancy and childbirth complications haunt the world. We mourn their loss, their absence, and honor their lives. Women who die of preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications, on the other hand, haunt our every days and every nights. We must do as they have done. Howl. We must do more than write reports and articles that begin and conclude, “As we said before, and it still is news.”

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Democracy beyond asylum

On July 14, during the second day of hearings for Judge Sonia Sotamayor, Senator Charles Schumer noted, smiling: “in the nearly 850 cases you have decided in the 2nd Circuit, you ruled in favor of the government — that is, against the petitioners seeking asylum, the immigrants seeking asylum — 83 percent of the time. That happens to be the exact statistical median rate for your court. It’s not one way or the other.” These numbers are meant to assure us that, when it comes to foreigners and asylum seekers, the Judge is ok. She has a balanced record.

Asylum is a legal court procedure with rules and codes and whatever else. But it’s also about sanctuary, an inviolable place of refuge, of safety from seizure. The people who seek that asylum, the asylum of refuge, are not all immigrants, nor are they all `foreigners’. Where in this country can the seekers go to find asylum?

Not Santa Monica. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Santa Monica this week for violating homeless peoples’ rights by harassing and arresting them, all while the city cuts back on beds for the homeless. They call it “a deportation program for the homeless”. It sounds like the poorhouses of England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the State fenced off the common land and forced peasants to move to find work, and then passed anti-vagabond laws, which criminalized unregulated popular movement. And so a cheap, reserve labor force came into being. What profit does Santa Monica wrest from the bodies of the twenty first century imprisoned poors?

Nadine Chlubna is a 56 year old schizophrenic paranoid woman who fears spaceships and the Santa Monica police force. Only the police have actually ever done her any harm, having arrested her three times and mocked her delusional fears of interplanetary aliens. Where is asylum for Nadine Chlubna? Not in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica was the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. You can read all about her in The Confessions. It’s good stuff. And you know where Monica and her son Augustine were born and lived much of their lives? North Africa. They were Berbers from what is today called Algeria. Augustine moved to Italy, and, after her husband died, Monica followed. As immigrants, they found asylum. Would the same happen in Santa Monica or in Italy? I doubt it.

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless just released a report, Homes Not Handcuffs, which lists the ten meanest cities in the United States, those that most viciously and thoroughly criminalize the homeless and militarize the streets and all public spaces. Number one? Los Angeles, just down the road from Santa Monica: “A study by UCLA released in September 2007 found that Los Angeles was spending $6 million a year to pay for fifty extra police officers to crack down on crime in the Skid Row area at a time when the city budgeted only $5.7 million for homeless services.” Six million for 50 cops, 5.7 for all the homeless. It’s a delicate balance. You know what the crimes were? Jaywalking. Loitering. Serious stuff. 

Here’s what six million dollars buys: “Police brutality against homeless people intensified during the crackdown on crime in Skid Row.  In June 2007, the Los Angeles County Community Action Network reported one example: two L.A. Police officers attacked a petite homeless woman, who may have been mentally disabled, with clubs and pepper spray.  Police reportedly beat her and tied her down.” Six million dollars doesn’t buy asylum, doesn’t buy security. It buys beat-downs, tie-downs, lock downs, and fear. At six million, it’s a bargain. 

In Bradenton, Florida, the ninth meanest city in the U.S., a police officer arrested a homeless woman, and tried to help her maintain her possessions. Everything she owned was in a shopping cart. The officer, Nicholas Evans, pulled the cart alongside his car for the 12-mile drive to the county jail. Imagine that. He was punished. Imagine that. I hope he learned his lesson. 

In Denver, “two women were confronted by police at the 16th Street Mall when trying to help out homeless individuals.  One of the women gave a homeless man a hamburger and a dollar in front of two undercover police officers.  One of the police officers proceeded to chase her down and forced her back to where she gave the homeless man the burger.  One undercover officer said that he could arrest her for giving money and food to a panhandler after dark.  When she questioned that such a law exists and asked to see his badge, the police refused to do so and told her to leave.” Another woman bought a fleece blanket for a man in wheelchair, outside the same mall. Denver winters, high in the Rocky Mountains, are cold, in more ways than one: “when she tried to give the man the blanket, an officer told her to stop and asked her for identification.  While the police confronted her, the man in the wheelchair left.  She was subsequently arrested for interfering with law enforcement.” 

From sea to shining sea, undercover and uniformed police are harassing the homeless and anyone who tries to offer assistance. Where is asylum in this world? What is the word for the system in which women and men who need help and women and men who want to help are made to feel the full heat and weight of the security State? In the United States, it’s called democracy, democracy beyond asylum.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com 

Haunts: how do you like your torture, fast or slow?

Saleyha Ahsan has been visiting Y, an Algerian who fled Algeria for the United Kingdom, seeking asylum. His story is being enacted in a video on the Guardian website. He can’t see it, because he’s “a threat to national security”, and so he can’t access a computer, much less the internet or a mobile phone. His crime? “Y was tortured in Algeria – the evidence is clear from the scars on the front and back of his head. His crime was to speak out against human rights abuses in the early 1990s. When it was clear that he had to leave he came to the UK, and with his powerful testimony he was given full rights to remain. Not a false passport or fake name in sight. Leaving saved his life. Not long after, he was issued with a death sentence in absentia in Algeria.” Wait. That can’t be right. His crime is that he `agreed’ to be tortured? Yes, that made him a threat. However one parses the niceties, Ahsan has watched “an isolated edgy young man turned old through the “slow torture” of these last eight years in the UK. Detained for a total of 57 months in prison – first for the ricin case, for which he was fully acquitted, then detained again based on…? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s called secret evidence and neither Y or his lawyers have any idea what it is.”

This practice of slow torture is particular to women and takes many forms.

In the UK, according to the most recent Prison Reform Trust Fact Files, The number of women in prison has increased by 60% over the past decade, compared to 28% for men. On 12 June 2009 the women’s prison population stood at 4,269. In 1997 the mid-year female prison population was 2,672. In 2007, 11,847 women were received into prison.” Twelve years of step-by-step, rung-by-rung escalating incarceration of women. Twelve years of silence. Slow torture. 

Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian has been thinking and writing about the slow torture of Palestinian women. Palestinian women have been placed in a condition of betweeness: “we as women are in a state of betweeness, we are kind of border patrolling everything, we are border patrolling the border between the outside and the inside, the private and the public – our bodies, our lives, our future are all in the state of betweeness….Look at the example of the checkpoints …; I was dropping my partner off at his clinic… they stopped us and they put the men on the right side and the women on the left side, and they told the men to raise their hands and body searched them, and we were on the other side, and this kind of not knowing, this uncertainty that we were all living at that moment, this geography of fear that they created in a very small space, our space as women, all of a sudden it became militarized and they kind of stole our space from us. We became exilic in our own space and the men became dehumanized and demonized in front of our very eyes….This militarization … ends up putting us, as women, as boundary markers, so we are the punching bag for the men outside and the punching bag for the men inside, and we want to move and change the situation, but we are in a state of ‘betweeness’.” The checkpoints are the fast and the quick of torture. The slow torture is the state of exile in one’s own home. How many decades of silence before a new language and a new home are fully established? 

Slow torture is a product of a particular application of the rule of law to women and men deemed to be foreigners, and so [a] menace to society and [b] meant to be grateful for whatever juridical crumbs they can get. 

In California, for example, activists have targeted undocumented residents and their U.S.-born children. They want to cut off public services to undocumented residents, to challenge the citizenship of any U.S. born citizens of undocumented residents, and set harsh new standards for birth certificates. Who’s targeted here? Women. Making pregnant women worry about what will happen, to them and their children, if they go to hospital in labor is that same as shackling women prisoners while in labor and childbirth. It’s criminal, and it happens all the time. It’s slow torture. 

Veronica Lopes is from Guatemala. She lives in California. She lived with a violent and abusive partner. She reported him. He was tried and deported to Guatemala. Lopes then spent nine months in immigration detention, terrified that she would be deported back to the reach of her abusive husband. Only at the eleventh hour, and then some, did the State come through and grant her a U-Visa, which is designed precisely for women in Lopes’s situation. Others have not been so lucky, and have been deported. The state of betweeness for women stretches across the world. The practice of slow torture haunts us.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: The priceless gift of infinite standards

Amy Goodman is upset at double standards, specifically two standards of detention.

Scott Roeder is in jail for having killed Dr. George Tiller. While in jail, Roeder has just about unlimited access to the press, to visits, to the internet, to phone calls. The conditions of his incarceration in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is all the others held incommunicado. Fahad Hasmi, for example, or Andrew Stepanian: “Hashmi is a U.S. citizen who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and went to Brooklyn College. He went to graduate school in Britain and was arrested there in 2006 for allegedly allowing an acquaintance to stay with him for two weeks. That acquaintance, Junaid Babar, allegedly kept at Hashmi’s apartment a bag containing ponchos and socks, which Babar later delivered to an al-Qaida operative. Babar was arrested and agreed to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for leniency….Fahad Hashmi was extradited to New York, where he has been held in pre-trial detention for more than two years. His brother Faisal described the conditions: “He is kept in solitary confinement for two straight years, 23- to 24-hours lockdown. … Within his own cell, he’s restricted in the movements he’s allowed to do. He’s not allowed to talk out loud within his own cell….He has Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) … against him.” Hashmi cannot contact the media, and even his lawyers have to be extremely cautious when discussing his case, for fear of imprisonment themselves”

Animal rights and environment activists are treated to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s newest toy, “communications management units”, or CMUs. According to Stepanian, the CMU is “”a prison within the actual prison. … The unit doesn’t have normal telephone communication to your family … normal visits are denied … you have to make an appointment to make one phone call a week, and that needs to be done with the oversight of … a live monitor.” 70% Muslim prisoners, CMUs are commonly referred to as Little Guantanamo. Amy Goodman thinks this situation is wrong: “Nonviolent activists like Stepanian, and Muslims like Hashmi, secretly and dubiously charged, are held in draconian conditions, while Roeder trumpets from jail the extreme anti-abortion movement’s decades-long campaign of intimidation, vandalism, arson and murder.”

Surely, having two standards is better than having one. Surely that suggests wealth, just as having two cars or two houses. The U.S. has two standards not because it is racist or any other supposedly bad thing. It’s wealthy and can afford them. Everyone else is just jealous, that’s all.

Want to hear about three standards? There’s a standard for prisoners, a standard for women of color, and a standard for mothers: Last November, Venita’s baby was getting ready to enter the world, but Venita couldn’t move. While she was going into contractions, her ankles were shackled, her hands cuffed, and her waist tied. For extra assurance, her hands were further restrained with a black box. Just following procedure, the officer said as he escorted her to the birthing room. The pain and joy of child birth may be the most intense experience a woman will ever have. For incarcerated pregnant women in New York, however, they’re prisoners first and mothers second”. Not quite. Prisoners first, women of color second, mothers third. America, a marketplace of standards.

Across the United States, juvenile justice programs, cultural programs, educational programs, caring programs, are being cut. Special transitional houses for girls, for example. Most of the girls are African American, Latina, and Native American. The programs work, the reforms work. And so they shall be cut. How many standards does that make. America, a shopping mall, a mega-mall, of standards.

Want more standards? How about prisoner and disabled? Howard Hyde, for example. Terrified shrieks and the harsh crackle of electrical current filled a courtroom on Friday as surveillance video of the tasering of a paranoid schizophrenic was shown at an inquiry into his death. The video shows Howard Hyde regaining his feet, clad only in the shorts in which he was arrested. Momentarily at bay, facing three officers in the booking room of Halifax police headquarters, he throws himself over a waist-high counter and vanishes into a hallway. The audio recording continues and captures what sounds like another application of the taser. The Dartmouth man stopped breathing in that hallway and had to be revived. He died 30 hours later after a struggle with guards at a local jail.” Disabled prisoners generally have a hard time. If the disability is mental health … well, that’s a whole other standard. At least it’s Canada, and not the U.S. That’s a relief.

Maybe it’s not wealthy countries that can afford the extravagances of multiple, infinite and proliferating standards of detention. Maybe it’s countries with greater and growing wealth gaps, greater and growing chasms and higher and harder barricades between the wealthy and the poor. And each new standard? A gift, and especially a gift to women and girls of color across the land. You really can’t put a price on that now, can you?

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Who’s in, who’s out, who’s counting?

Maps and tallies tell stories. They tell something about what’s going on, who’s in, who’s out, who’s where. They reveal more about the mapmaker and the list maker, the cartographer and the accountant.

Over the weekend, police in three major provinces of South Africa were accused of `fiddling’ with the statistics to make it look as if they, and `we’, are winning the war on crime. Like all modern wars, the war on crime is a statistical phantasmagoria, and so to win the war, one must play the numbers. The police played. Charges include stockpiling, burning, hiding dockets generally; ditching dockets of crimes on the increase; failing to register crimes with a low chance of prosecution; reducing serious crimes to lesser charges; and cover up.  

Meanwhile, the police in Los Angeles are fiddling as well. The LAPD online crime map `omits’ close to 40% of serious crimes committed over the last six months, serious crimes that are actually reported elsewhere by … the LAPD! The Department officially reported 52,000 serious crimes between January and June of this year. The map shows 33,000. 19,000 crimes went missing. That’s a lot of missing numbers. That map has some pretty big holes.

From South Africa to the United States, and beyond, some numbers are abandoned, others are abducted.

In Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi is a guest of the State, in Insein Jail. She counts. Sunday July 5 marked the 5000th day of her incarceration.

In Uttar Pradesh, or UP, in India, Roma counts, too. She’s Number One, the first woman in the state to be charged under the National Security Act. She’s accused of consorting with Naxalites, of being a terrorist, a dangerous woman. There have been no incidences of insurgent violence where Roma works and lives. There has been “a silent revolution”. Women from over 500 villages have occupied over 20,000 hectares of forest land and have established farming cooperatives. Without committing an act of violence. But Roma is a member of the National Forum of Forests People and Forest Workers, she has worked and lived with tribals in UP for twenty some years, she is a writer, a researcher, an activist who calls for democratic dialogue, a woman who supports tribal women, social justice, peace. She says she has lost count of the number of accusations and arrests. She has never been successfully prosecuted.

In Zimbabwe, Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project, is also counting. Having been abducted and disappeared last year, she now counts the number of times the government of Zimbabwe lies in order to keep her in prison or under the formal threat of imprisonment. At the end of June, state prosecutor Fatima Maxwell admitted that indeed Mukoko had been abducted by state security agents, and that the abduction was illegal. According to government testimony, at least three rights were violated: the right to liberty, the protection of the law, and the right to freedom from torture. A week later, State Security Minister Sydney Sekeramayi denied it all, said no rights were violated. Jestina Mukoko is counting the lies and mapping the spaces where rights used to be. Some are abandoned, some are abducted. We keep trying to count, we keep losing count, we keep counting.

We are in a map of the countless. In Iran, for example, journalist, feminist Zhila Bani Yaghoub was arrested, along with her husband, Bahman Ahmadi Amooy. They were taken to Evin Prison. Yaghoub has written about, and for, women’s rights in Iran for years. The Nobel Women’s Initiative expressed concern “for the safety of Zhila, her husband and the countless other Iranian activists and protesters currently being detained in Iran.” Countless. The numbers are countless. Not because they are so many, although they are many. They are countless because the tally is forbidden. How many lives lost, how many acts of violence, how many rights lost, how many mourners?

Mairead Maguire, Cynthia McKinney, Derek Graham, were among a small boatload of 21 people and humanitarian aid, toys and building supplies and medicine, headed for Gaza, epicenter of the countless. The Israeli Navy took the boat and hijacked it to Israel, where the crew and passengers were detained, mostly in Ramle Prison. Two days later, Maguire, Graham and McKinney were deported. According to Maguire, “Gaza is like a huge prison, but—because its borders are closed. The sea pass into Gaza, which has been closed for over forty years by the Israeli government—we are only the seventh ship to get in to the port of Gaza that tried to break the siege.…And also farmers—fishermen, who try to go out without—in about twelve miles to fish for their families, are shot up and have been killed by the Israeli navy in that area. So, Gaza is a huge occupied territory of one-and-a-half million people who have been subjected to collective punishment by the Israeli government…. It is also tragic that out of ten million Palestinians of a population, almost seven million are currently refugees out in other countries or displaced within their own country, particularly after the horrific massacre by Israeli jet fighters after just earlier this year. Twenty-two days Israel bombarded Gaza, Gazan people, civilians.” 40 years, seven ships, twelve miles, 1.5 million people, 10 million Palestinians, 7 million refugees and displaced persons, 22 days of bombing. Countless. Not infinite, not insuperable, not unimaginable. Simply imprisoned, behind walls and barriers. How many abductions, how many abandonments?

In Ramle Prison, Cynthia McKinney met African women refugees, women who had “arrived…in a very difficult way”. Those countless women wait to be counted. In immigration detention centers around the world, countless women and children and men wait for the fog of their war to dissipate, for the fiddling to stop, for a new set of maps and tallies, and cartographers and accountants.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Children of Incarcerated Mothers, or Albie Sachs haunts U.S. prisons!

Albie Sachs is a South African judge who haunts the U.S. prison system. Why? Because he is a decent human being, that’s why. He decided to listen to a woman colleague. He decided that primary caregivers of children should not be sent to jail. Here’s a version of the story: 

“Albie Sachs…was fleetingly in the UK last week, primarily to tell the story behind the judgment he made in South Africa not to send a woman to prison because it would infringe the human rights of her three children.…

“Judges are the storytellers of the 21st century,” says 74-year-old Sachs….

At first sight, he had intended to throw out an appeal on behalf of Mrs M, who was facing four years in jail for up to 40 counts of credit card fraud that she had committed while under a suspended sentence for similar offences. “I remember drafting an extremely dismissive response. I said: ‘This doesn’t raise a constitutional question. She simply wants to avoid going to jail. She doesn’t make out a case, and her prospects of success are zero.’ “It was a female colleague…who insisted that the case be heard. She argued that the human rights of the accused woman’s children were not being looked at separately.

“She said: ‘There is something you are missing. What about the children? Mrs M has three teenage children. She lives in an area that we politely call fragile, an area of gangs, drug-peddling and a fair amount of violence. The indications are that she is a good mother, and the magistrate gave no attention to the children’s interests.’

“The minute my colleague spoke to me about the importance of the three teenage children of Mrs M, I started to see them not as three small citizens who had the right to grow up into big citizens but as three threatened, worrying, precarious, conflicted young boys who had a claim on the court, a claim on our society as individuals, as children, and a claim not to be treated solely as extensions of the rights of the mother, but in their own terms.”

As a result, Sachs created a legal precedent in 2007: a woman who otherwise would have gone to jail did not have to, because of her children’s rights. “We could have said the children’s rights must be considered but sent Mrs M to jail anyway, perhaps for a lesser term. But that would not have changed anything.”…

Although three judges dissented from the majority verdict, the precedent was set in South Africa that – at least in borderline cases – primary caregivers of children should not be sent to jail. And if the court decided to jail a primary caregiver, it had to take some responsibility for what happens to the children. “The court can’t simply say that she should have thought of that before she committed the offence, or that she can’t hide behind her children.”…

At the time he was drafting the judgment, Sachs did not know of any country that took the rights of offenders’ children into account, but he subsequently discovered that similar ideas were being framed in Scotland in a report by the then children’s commissioner, Kathleen Marshall. The report, Not Seen, Not Heard, Not Guilty, argues that the rights of offenders’ children to family life under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are systematically ignored by the court system. The report found that almost two-thirds of prisoners in the Cornton Vale women’s prison in Stirling had children under 18, but there was no provision to take their rights into account during sentencing.

“This was astonishing,” Sachs told the audience. “In a totally different legal system, in a totally different society, a conclusion was being reached that is almost identical. It showed that the time has come for new ways of thinking.”” 

Albie Sachs haunts the United States, home of “the incarceration generation”: “The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood. “Parental imprisonment has emerged as a novel, and distinctly American, childhood risk that is concentrated among black children and children of low-education parents,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at the University of Michigan who is studying what some now call the “incarceration generation.” Incarceration rates in the United States have multiplied over the last three decades, in part because of stiffer sentencing rules. At any given moment, more than 1.5 million children have a parent, usually their father, in prison, according to federal data. But many more are affected over the course of childhood, especially if they are black, new studies show. Among those born in 1990, one in four black children, compared with one in 25 white children, had a father in prison by age 14. Risk is concentrated among black children whose parents are high-school dropouts; half of those children had a father in prison, compared with one in 14 white children with dropout parents, according to a report by Dr. Wildeman recently published in the journal Demography. For both blacks and whites, the chances of parental incarceration were far higher than they were for children born just 12 years earlier, in 1978.”

None of this is new, news or surprising. Cage the fathers, superexploit the mothers, forget the children. It’s simple. Put a nation of mothers behind bars, where too often there are no fathers or other guardians around and there is no public support, and you imprison the children. Where’s the surprise? Shackle pregnant women prisoners in labor and delivery, in the name of security. Are you surprised? This has all been said before. It’s common knowledge.

In South Africa, Albie Sachs acted. In Scotland, so did Kathleen Marshall. In the U.S., it’s time, it’s way past time, for similar action.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com