Archives for November 2010

The very unfortunate decision

The very unfortunate decision

The very unfortunate decision
or words to that effect coming
from the intellect of a human
not from the non-leafy parts

The very unfortunate decision
(a newly-married couple visiting)
to go into an area where
700 murders occur a year

Not 700 rapes
Not 700 malnourished
Not 700 femicides
in your traditional calendar year

The very unfortunate decision
tourists going into Gugulethu
tourists going into a place
where people live their lives
(women and children are there)

The very unfortunate decision
not going into a leafy suburb
not going into the usual places
tourists get taken to in our name

The very unfortunate decision
apartheid-created ghettos still
casting a long shadow over all
but business is as it is usual

A very unfortunate decision, courtesy of an executive editor, on Sunday morning’s “The Editors” programme, 21 November 2010. The “700 murders a year in Gugulethu” came forth via another media person on the show.


(Photo Credit: West Cape News)

Women and Water: World Toilet Day

Friday, November 19th was World Toilet Day.  While this may not have the ring to it that World Water Day or World AIDS Day has, like those days it brings attention to a pressing problem: the lack of adequate sanitation through much of the world.

Approximately 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to basic sanitation.  The problem of lack of santitation compounds the problem of clean water access – without sanitation measures, people defecate in the open which eventually will wash into streams and rivers.  Drinking that water without treating it first can be extremely hazardous to one’s health, creating problems like widespread, chronic diarrhea and other water bourne illnesses.  Lack of sanitation has caused more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

World Toilet Day is a day of awareness to bring attention to this issue.  While the problem may seem to be solvable by just placing toilets in strategic areas, dirty toilets are just as much a part of the problem as no toilets.  The problem with lack of sanitation is a health problem, first and foremost, and dirty toilets can cause just as much risk to health as no toilets.

Lack of sanitation also complicates the issues of women’s security.  ‘Taking care of business’ in the open can leave a woman vulnerable to attack.  Additionally, she must do so in the early morning or late at night in order to protect her privacy because being seen going to the bathroom is associated with shame in many cultures.  Again this leaves her vulnerable to sexual assault.

Without adequate sanitation methods, young girls leave their education earlier because there is nowhere for them to urinate at school in private: the only option is to do so in front of peers, again making the girls vulnerable to sexual and physical assault.  Added to this is the problem of managing menstruation without adequate sanitation.  Without clean sanitation facilities, girls drop out during puberty.

In the Western world, we do not think about what impact not having toilets would be.  It is another bit of basic survival that is provided for us – we become disconnected to how important sanitation is because we don’t have to worry about finding a safe place to relieve ourselves.

If you are like me, you probably missed that last Friday was even a day of awareness.  It does not get the attention it deserves because in the Western world, we do not talk of such things.  They are taboo.  It seems like sanitation is only allowed to come up in the toilet humor of popular comedies, which are aimed at the male population.  Because women are especially not allowed to talk about such issues; it is ‘unseemingly’ or ‘unladylike.’ Feminist blogger RMJ tackles some of this in her blog ‘Deeply Problematic.’ Sanitation is another thing that women are supposed to keep private.  But keeping quiet can cause more problems than speaking up about the lack of sanitation in the world.

Women need to start speaking up about this.  The problem of sanitation does not go away just because we missed the awareness day – it is a continual problem that is not getting the attention it deserves.  Africa World Water Week is this week (Nov 22-26).  The goal of this week is to bring attention to water and sanitation issues in Africa, and the Millennium Development Goal to half the number of people without access to clean water and sanitation.  This goal is still far from being met, but getting people to talk about this issue is a big step forward.  So this week, when listing what you are thankful for, be thankful that you have access to adequate sanitation and get that conversation started.

(Photo Credit: United Nations)

Women farmers wait for justice

From left, Gail Lennon, Rosemary Love, Lind Bara- Weaver

In the Washington, DC, metro area, the local food banks are swamped. Loudon County, a half hour away or so, is the wealthiest county in the United States, at least if measured by median income. For the first time ever, its food pantry is providing free food. It will feed some 2000 families this week. The same story goes for the other nearby wealthy counties, Montgomery in Maryland, Fairfax in Virginia. Food insecurity is on the rise here.

The past week’s news stories of people seeking food more often than not profile women. On the one hand, it’s the season. Thanksgiving is in a couple days. Winter is looming large, as are Christmas and other Festive Season holidays. This year, the stories are of women who had jobs, good jobs, well paying jobs, who break down into tears as they stand, for the first time, in food lines at soup kitchens, or at fast food emporia, seeking jobs that would have been unacceptable a few years ago. Readers and viewers shake our heads in sympathetic dismay, and we sigh.

The story of food security and food insecurity is more than a story of hunger, of lack. It’s a story of food from field to fork, as Raj Patel has argued. Where are women in the rising swamp that is our current food situation?

Women produce about half of the world’s food and own about two percent of all land. In the United States, women own 7% of all farms, their numbers doubled between 2000 and 2007. Women are the fastest growing demographic group among farmers in the United States.

Last Friday, the United States Senate voted to settle a claim by Black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture. Those farmers, the ones still alive, will receive $1.5 billion. It sounds like a lot. It’s not. On one hand, this case started in 1997, when Timothy Pigford, a North Carolina Black farmer, sued the USDA for discrimination. In 1999, the Clinton administration came to a settlement. Then it was `discovered’ that thousands of Black farmers were left out of the initial deal. And so, eleven years and how many dead Black farmers later, we have a deal. Meanwhile, in 1910, Black farmers owned more than 15 million acres of farmland. In 2005, that number was 1 million.

A similar story holds for women farmers. In October 2001 Rosemary Love and nine other women farmers sued the USDA Farm Service Administration, FSA,  for discrimination, dating back to 1981, in loan making practice. That case is still pending. One of the stories of women denied loans begins in … Loudon County:

Lind Bara-Weaver’s difficulties with FSA began in 1984 when she sought to obtain an FSA loan in order to purchase and operate a 16.5-acre farm where she planned to raise Welch ponies, holly trees and worms. Ms. Bara-Weaver was repeatedly refused loan applications by FSA staffat the Loudon County, Virginia office. She was told that there were no loan application forms or loan funds available. Yet Ms. Bara-Weaver’s husband was able to obtain a loan application during this same time period by simply calling the FSA office and requesting that an application be mailed to him. She tried to obtain a farm loan from FSA again in 1988, but to no avail. After some difficulty, she was able to obtain an application, but was told by the FSA loan officer for Loudon County that women could not run farms. The loan officer also called her patronizing names like “cutie” and “honey,” and made sexual advances toward her. While making a visit to her farm in order to appraise it during the loan review process, the loan officer again made sexual advances toward her, which she refused. Her loan application was subsequently denied. Ms. Bara-Weaver lodged a formal complaint with the FSA state office in Richmond, Virginia, and with the USDA Office of the Inspector General in Washington, D.C., but never received a response to either of her complaints. After her husband’s death, Ms. Bara-Weaver relocated to Florida and sought again to apply for a farm loan from FSA. She visited the Flagler County, Florida FSA office a number of times in 2000 before she was finally able to obtain an application form. When she submitted the completed application in person to the Flagler County office, the loan officer asked her how she expected to farm without a man around, and then he threw her application in the wastebasket right in front of her.”

Loudon County is the wealthiest county in the United States. When you read about `food insecurity’, when you read about local food banks being swamped, remember Lind Bara-Weaver, of Loudon County, and all the women farmers and Black farmers who have struggled for decades to provide us with food.


(Photo Credit: Women’s Space / Jerry Hagstrom / Capital Press)


Feminist Networks, Feminist Assemblages, and Feminist Scales: Half the Sky is Only Half the Story

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn has received uncritical reception in the U.S.  Reviewers have praised it for exposing gendered violence—or “gendercide” as Kristof and Wudunn call it —women continue to face in third world countries. The book tells heinous yet compelling stories of violence against women and girls ranging from sexual slavery, trafficking for prostitution, dowry murders, rape, and acid attacks, to name a few. Each ends on a hopeful note: a microloan, education, or Kristof himself helps each woman. These reviews celebrate Half the Sky for exposing gendered violence and women’s struggles in places that are often discounted in everyday reporting. They also celebrate these stories because they are at once ordinary and spectacular.

This celebration raises feminist concerns about how first-world writers represent “3rd-world women.” Specifically, the book’s popularity raises  questions about the sorts of stories that speak to and move U.S. audiences who live in a country that is politically and economically a superpower that positions its citizens to do humanitarian outreach.

What are the political ramifications of Half the Sky’s representation of women needing to be saved by first-world men and women? What are the consequences of its uncritical reception? How can feminism offer a more complex analysis and political response to gendered violence?

Half the Sky’s reception has been so positive in North America because the book’s narrative framework relies on affective commonplace human-interest narratives. These narratives are written, circulated and read as what Rajeswari Sunder Rajan calls an unfolding serial: from mis-en-scene to disclosure of (gendered, racialized), oppression to progress through intervention (through a government grant or by Kristoff himself) to dénouement where individual woman move into a better future as an entrepreneur or as an economically independent woman. Invoking sympathy and compassion, the stories draw attention to gendered violence that individual women face. Once these stories are told, they quickly fade from view.

For us, Kristof and WuDunn’s book feels unsatisfactory and incomplete. After we read Half the Sky, we asked, now what?

This dissatisfaction has to do with its purpose: limited investment in the name of sympathy and compassion. A focus on individual women who manage to pull themselves up by their bootstraps suggests that poverty and lack of economic opportunity are local, domestic issues that can be addressed by changing cultural norms, external aid, and individual agency. But women don’t just live in families or small communities. Women live in nations and regions. Larger national and global decisions and events affect individual women and groups of women. For example, the economic and social restructuring of entire regions by IMF structural adjustment policies and events, such as war, contribute to women’s poverty and constrain their autonomy. Histories of ethnic strife that have roots in colonialism contribute to regional instability and to gendered violence.

Kristof and WuDunn never discuss the structural and historical relationship between women, poverty, national “development,” global economic policies, and regional policies. Nor do they address layers, or scales, of power in their discussion. For them, irresponsible, violent men and entrenched ideas about gender are the only obstacles to women’s economic success and empowerment.

Kristof and WuDunn’s stories resonate with several common “western” stories about how women are saved. Like the feminizing histories of the human interest story, with its roots in the 19th century novel, these stories were developed for a bourgeois class that sent white women out of the factories and into the interiors of the home. They also resonate with embedded colonial narratives where capitalism = the modern, and where westernization always trumps tradition. In this narrative, we (western women) save third world women from terrible fates, as capital saves the traditional backward third world from itself by contributing money, expertise, and commerce. In this narrative, money changes everything, empowering women so they feel better about themselves and are able to rise above the authority of men.

But does capital really save us/them all?

While Half the Sky pays attention to the micro-politics of the everyday, it doesn’t attend to larger systems and structures which shape the lives of women and which women must (and do) negotiate. It misses the larger processes that shape women’s lives and experiences.

Nor is any attention paid to how women actively engage larger processes and structures. Because there is no attention to larger structures and decisions, or to women’s efforts to negotiate those structures and decisions, the stories in Half the Sky only take us to the point where we are affected, or made aware, of the violence women face. We don’t know how to formulate a response that would talk about the situation of women in order to create meaningful action that would address women as a group or a class.

Half the Sky’s stories do not ask readers to understand broader contexts such as history, economy, patriarchy, and nation-state development, which influence women’s lives. This form of story telling ultimately hides the material and structural causes of women’s oppressions that transnational feminists demand we critically examine.

So what should be done? How can feminists reframe Half the Sky? How can feminists create ways to tell individual stories of gendered violence and link these stories to structures of violence? Of the police? The state? Within families?  Through structural adjustment? How can feminists write in support of individual women’s struggles while drawing attention to systemic gendered oppression and to structural gendered exploitation?

Those questions would lead to feminist writing emphasizing women’s activities in systems and structures. Naila Kabeer asks how women “as historically situated actors cope with, and seek to transform the conditions of their lives.” She asks feminists to pay attention to women’s lives and experiences in relation to multiple and interconnected scales of power.

It is important to look at how women live, struggle, negotiate, and work within political and economies structures and to ask how much voice women have in decisions that are made and how they negotiate systems where they have limited voice.

Rebecca Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard


(Photo Credit: NYC Independent Media Center)

…And Ishrat Jahan is dead

President Barack Obama went to India last week. He declared that India is “not simply an emerging power but now it is a world power.” President Obama suggested that India’s emergence as a world power now gave it the authority to “promote peace, stability, prosperity.”  He embraced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He met with leaders of the business community and spoke to the Parliament. He met with university students, he danced with primary schools students.

The President of the United States of America met with many people of the Republic of India. He talked of peace between nations, in particular Pakistan and India. He announced that the United States would support India’s permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.

Security is on the minds of many in India, and across South Asia. Many want to redefine security. National security. Personal security. Community security. Many of those who seek an alternative to security through military means and, even more, through the militarization of domestic spaces are women. President Obama did not meet with those people. He did not meet with those women who counsel nonviolent alternatives to security based on arms and force. Instead he talked about the Security Council

President Obama did not meet with Medha Patkar, the driving and visionary force behind the Narmada Bachao Andalan movement, a movement of tribal and aboriginal people, of farmers and peasants, of women, and of supporters. Narmada Bachao Andalan is a nonviolent direct action mass and popular movement that this year celebrates, in song and struggle, twenty-five years of organizing for real security. This began as a struggle to stop a big dam being erected on the Narmada River, and has evolved into an alternative vision of statehood, nationhood, security. President Obama did not meet with Medha Patkar, and no one is surprised.

President Obama did not meet with Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike for ten years now. In early November 2000, in the state of Manipur, insurgents attacked a battalion. The battalion retaliated, later, by mowing down ten innocents standing at a bus stop. Included among them was “a 62-year old woman, Leisangbam Ibetomi, and 18-year old Sinam Chandramani, a 1988 National Child Bravery Award winner.” A pregnant woman was also reported as being one of the dead.

The army knew it could act with impunity because it was covered by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or AFSPA. AFSPA was imposed in Manipur in 1961. Much of the rest of the Northeast has been under its rule since 1972. According to government reports, more than 20,000 people. By the government’s own statistics, tens of thousands of people, have been disappeared, tortured, beaten, abused. In Manipur, this began in 1961. By 2000, it had gone for almost four decades.

A young 28 year old woman, Irom Sharmila, decided enough was more than enough. She entered into an indefinite fast, a hunger strike that would continue until the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is rescinded, the soldiers withdrawn, the people restored. November 4 marked the tenth year of Sharmila’s fast. President Obama did not meet with Irom Sharmila, and again no one is surprised.

President Obama did not meet with these women of peace, considered by many to be the true Gandhians. Nor did he meet with Ishrat Jahan.

In 2004 there was a `police encounter’ in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat. Police encounter is a delicate euphemism for extrajudicial killings. Extrajudicial killings is a discrete euphemism for police murder, assassination, torture, disappearance, terror.

In 2004 the police encountered Ishrat Jahan. She was nineteen years old, a college student. She and three others were gunned down. The police claimed they were part of a terrorist organization and were planning to kill the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Five years later, in 2009, a police investigation determined that Jahan and her three colleagues had absolutely no ties to any terrorist organization of any sort. It was further determined, by police, that assassinations had been planned and carried out by senior officials who wanted to impress the Chief Minister. In a word, they were seeking promotion. Through security.

Jahan’s family was relieved and demanded further inquiry. The Gujarat High Court appointed a Special Investigative Team to delve deeper. The State of Gujarat appealed to the Supreme Court to disband the SIT, saying the High Court had no power, had no standing, when another agency was already investigating. The Supreme Court decided against the State … and for due process, and perhaps the people. This has been described as “an embarrassment to Gujarat government.” The investigation will continue.

…And Ishrat Jahan is dead. As she lies with the tens and hundreds of thousands killed in the name of security, killed and tortured in the pursuit of prosperity, Ishrat Jahan haunts the peace of so-called world powers.


(Photo Credit:


The United States abandons Mexican migrant children to violence and despair

Children waiting in the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Reynosa, Mexico

Migration analysts talk about sending and receiving nations. Sending nations are those countries that send, or `export’, its citizens to other countries. Receiving nations are those nations that receive, or `import’ or `absorb’, them. The status of some nation States has changed in the last two or three decades. For example, Italy and Greece were once considered sending nations, and today they are thought of as receiving nations.

Certain countries, such as the United States, are thought of as receiving nations. But that is only the case if the transnational and global export-import business is thought to be one of labor brokerage of national citizens. What are we to call those countries that export non-citizens, those countries that have made a business, a big business at that, of exporting asylum seekers, migrants, children?

Every year, the United States exports tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children to Mexico. These children are sent to centers run by Mexico’s social services agency called the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, or DIF. In 2008, a Mexican congressional committee reported that the United States had deported 90,000 children, of whom at least 13,500 were never claimed. “Never claimed”: that means the children were never reunited with their families.

Who are these children? They are Mexican children who are heading to the north, most often to be reunited with … their families, with their mothers and fathers: “With few exceptions they’ll cross again because their parents or loved ones are en el otro lado and on the other side of the Rio Grande there is hope. Hope to study, to work, or to just hug their mothers or fathers again.”

Susana is in many ways exceptional and in other ways typical of the 90,000 children. First, she’s a girl; 80% of the children are boys. Second, as she sits in a DIF shelter in Matamoros, she says she’s ready to give up, to go home: ““I don’t want to stay here. I’m tired of fighting.” Gender and the intent to return home make her exceptional.

On the other hand, Susana has tried to enter the United States five times, and on each of the five attempts has failed. Every time, she was returned, unaccompanied, to Mexico. Every time, she turned around and tried again. Her father works in Kansas. They haven’t seen each other in five years. He works, struggles, and pays to have his daughter brought over. Each time, the journey costs $2500. Again and again, he pays, again and again she tries. Just to hug her father again. This makes her typical.

The children are sent to centers in Reynosa and Matamoros, centers of the current drug cartel and War on Drugs violence. Reynosa is reported to be one of the most dangerous places in Mexico. Often the children are released to strangers or to distant relatives. Often, some say more often than not, they are returned to the mean streets, and in particular those of Reynosa. So, they then go North because they want to, to be reunited or to study or work, or they go North because they are forced to. Some girls, some boys, may be tired of fighting, but that doesn’t mean they are safe. That doesn’t mean the fighting has tired of them.

What do you call a nation that seizes children, sends them unaccompanied into a violence torn war zone, and then washes its hands of the whole affair, and closes its eyes and ears to the fate of the children? That is neither a sending nor a receiving nation. That is a state of abandonment.

Susana wants to go home, but it’s not that simple. The center wants one of her parents to come and get her. Her father is in Kansas, her mother has to take care of her younger brothers and sisters. And so Susana waits, and like the other 90,000 Mexican children the United States has abandoned to violence and despair, haunts more than the borderlands. Susana haunts citizenship.


(Photo Credit: Texas Observer / Eugenio del Bosque)