Haunts: Evangeline Banao Vallejos will not go gentle into that flight

Evangeline Banao Vallejos won a “landmark decision” today in Hong Kong. It was a women’s victory, and hopefully not temporary, in the War on Women. She won the right to abode, the right to stay, the right to permanent residency. She won the right to be, the right to live with her family, the right to unpack her bags and stop living in fear.

According to the law in Hong Kong, non-Chinese who have entered Hong Kong with a valid travel document, have stayed in Hong Kong for seven continuous years, and have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence have the right of abode. That is, they can become permanent residence, with all the protections and privileges that allows.

Unless they’re domestic workers. Another law excludes foreign domestic workers, officially called “foreign domestic helpers”, from becoming permanent residents … ever. Hong Kong has a little under 300,000 foreign domestic workers, the vast majority of whom come from the Philippines and Indonesia. The rest come from Thailand, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Hong Kong totals around 7.1 million residents. That means 4% or so of those living in Hong Kong are foreign domestic workers.

Evangeline Banao Vallejos went to Hong Kong, from the Phillipines, in 1986, and has worked, continuously, for the same employer since 1987. In 2008, Vallejos applied for permanent residency and was rejected. In 2010, she applied for judicial review of the law that excludes foreign domestic workers from being … ordinary people. She is not alone in her cause. Organizations, such as the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body and United Filipinos in Hong Kong, have supported her case.

Other foreign domestic workers are also suing for admission into the world of ordinary people. Irene Domingo, for example, arrived in Hong Kong, from the Philippines, in 1982 and, except for a brief period where she had to wait for a visa, has lived in Hong Kong continuously ever since. Josephine Gutierrez has been working and living continuously in Hong Kong for twenty years. Ordinary women seeking the status of the ordinary.

Here’s how, by law, the “extraordinary” are treated. Foreign domestic workers are subject to two-year employment contracts. They must live in the homes of their employers. They cannot bring in their spouses or children. This is the price of being extraordinary in the midst of the “miracle” of economic growth. For women in the global economy, being extraordinary means being disposable, deportable.

What is the threat constituted by Filipina women, by Indonesian women? Flood. Influx. That’s how the State, that’s how the media, describe the possible consequences of treating foreign domestic workers as anything but ordinary women. Give them rights and they will flood the labor market. Recognize their ordinary humanity and a flood, a tsunami, of “others” – family members – will come crashing down on the island city.

Evangeline Banao Vallejo. Irene Domingo. Josephine Gutierrez. These are not the names of tropical floods. They are the names of terrifically ordinary women workers who haunt the world economy. And for now, they’re staying put.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Afghan feminists haunt the liberation narrative

On October 7, the world will “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Why did the United States send air and land troops into Afghanistan? To save the women … of course. How’s that working out?

Girls are going to school, and in big numbers. As many as 2.4 million girls have entered primary school. Few have finished, very few have gone on to secondary school. Girls’ schools are under attack. Women teachers are as well. The assaults can be physical and deadly, or verbal and “cultural” … and as deadly.

Recently, the Afghan government announced it would take over shelters for battered and abused women. The shelters had been accused of serving as a front for the sex work industry. If the government had taken over the shelters, women would have needed government approval and a virginity test before entering the shelter.  Afghan women’s groups and feminists leapt into action and defeated much of the proposal. It was “a rare victory.” Even now, the remaining regulation states that a woman can only leave the shelter if she is moving to the residence of a male relative. The laws governing women’s movement may have changed, but women report that walking in the streets without male escort invites physical harm.

Some swell victory.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, the sex workers, part of a thriving sector, come and go, speaking of Michelangelo.

When it comes to “saving Afghan women”, there is only blur. The government shades into the Taliban. The aid agencies nestle in the embrace of the military until they are one and the same. All in the name of the liberation of Afghan women.

Afghan feminist Leeda Mehran recently described the “joke” of the current state of Afghan women’s liberation: “A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea…. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.”

Inconvenient” Afghan feminists have not forgotten and have never stopped organizing. As a member of the Loya Jirga, the Afghan Parliament, Malalai Joya argued against the power of the warlords. As a member of the world, Joya has protested the so-called world powers’ continued support of warlords, who claim to be against the Taliban. For Joya, those who leave warlords in power become warlords themselves. The Afghan blur has become the global blur.

Farzana Wahidy’s photographs focus attention on the complexities of Afghan women’s lives. Wahidy has photographed the dire – attempted suicide by self immolation; the everyday –  women shopping, relaxing, doing what women do; the iconic – burqas; the joyful – weddings. She attempts to make the complex networks of context visual. Wahidy tries to show the common moments as she teaches the world how to see, how to look at, how to envision Afghan women.

Three years ago, the “charismatic” Sima Goryani founded the Ghoryan Women’s Saffron Association, an all-female co-op near Heart, with the slogan, “Why poppies, let us plant saffron!” At its inception, the cooperative had 72 members. Now they are close to 500. Five hundred women growers who are now taking on the misogyny of the marketplace, including that of international so-called saviors of whatever stripe, military or assistance.

One version of the Afghan women’s liberation story has been that Afghanistan is a great battle in which the lines are clear. On one side stand freedom, democracy and women’s rights. On the other the forces of evil line up under the banner of the Taliban. The real struggle is between progressive Afghan women and men, on one side, and a vast array of regressive forces, on the other. Which side are you on? Which side is your government, or your non-governmental organization, on?  Afghan feminists want to know. No joke.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions

Oxfam came out with a major report this week on land grabs in five countries, Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras, and South Sudan. In Uganda, over 20,000 people were evicted from land they had farmed for decades, evicted so that a British corporation, New Forests Company, could come in, create tree plantations, earn carbon credits, sell timber.

The residents were never consulted. Quite to the contrary, tales of violence abound. For example, Olivia Mukamperezida, whose house was burned to the ground. Her eldest son, Friday, was at home because he was sick. He was killed in the fire. She buried Friday, and now is not sure if he’s even in his grave. “They are planting trees,” she says.

Christine was forced off her land as well: “We lost everything we had .… I was threatened – they told me they were going to beat me if we didn’t leave.”

Christine lost more than everything she had. She lost the future. Before she and her family lived in a six-room house, farmed six hectares, sold produce, sent their kids to school. They had been doing so for twenty years. Now, they live in two rooms, eke subsistence living out of a small plot, eat once a day, and the children no longer attend school.

The Oxfam report highlights the particular vulnerabilities of women, and the specific impact of eviction on women around the world. They note that in Africa, the situation is particularly dire: “Women’s land rights are less secure and more easily targeted. They also depend more on secondary uses of land, which tend to be ignored in large-scale acquisitions. Furthermore, although women comprise the majority of farmers, men effectively control the land and the income derived from it, even if it is the fruit of women’s labour. In practice, a new commercial opportunity often means that men assume control of the land at the expense of women’s access. Thus, new sources of income from the land are likely to burden women and benefit men. The new competition for land between biofuels and food crops, leading to less availability of food and higher prices, is also likely to affect women more than men, as women tend to take responsibility for feeding the family.”

From direct physical and verbal assaults to the processes to the consequences, the entire land grabbing machinery is violence against women.

None of this is new. Previous researchers have issued reports on that describe the gendered impacts of commercial pressures on land, that wonder if land grabs aren’t simply, and intentionally, another bigger, badder yoke on women’s land rights. Activists, such as Esther Obaikol, Executive Director of the Uganda Land Alliance, have also been organizing with women farmers … for decades.

When it comes to land grabs in Uganda, as elsewhere, women farmers have been pushed harder, deeper, further. They are the first and final targets of land grabbing. Mass evictions attack women. Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions … everywhere.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Gender equality is so “sticky”, says the World Bank

The World Bank this week issued its so-called flagship report, The World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. The report proclaims that “gender equality is at the heart of development.” It goes on to suggest that progress has been made, but it’s spotty or mixed … or “sticky”. Sticky? In almost 400 pages, that word, “sticky”, is the only surprise.

According to the report, for the past 25 years, women have been ascending … with some exceptions. Here are just some of the exceptions to the rule of women’s improvements.

There are more schools and more students in schools, but the excluded, the ones who never get formal education or receive very little, are still overwhelmingly girls. Globally, more women have entered the formal labor market, but women still make up the vast majority of low-wage job holders. The pay gap between women and men continues, and in some cases widens.

According to the report, “culture” is still a hard nut to crack. Household culture, faith based culture, community culture, you name it. In rich countries and poor, women are still at risk of domestic violence, by commission and omission. Women are under attack, and the State too often refuses to do anything.

In fact, “culture” and “economy” have merged … to the detriment of women. In countries with “shining” economic growth, such as India and China, high maternal and child mortality rates continue, as they do in the United States. Rapid income growth has led to higher levels of sex selection. Women are dying in childbirth, and girls are going “missing”. It’s the price of “progress”.

The report calls these “exceptions” “sticky”. They are either “`sticky’ domains” or “`sticky’ problems.” The quotation marks are the World Bank’s, not mine. Sticky? What does that mean? As a term, “sticky” is never defined, although it begs, screams, for some definition. Here’s how “`sticky’ domain” is defined: “Improvements in some domains of gender equality—such as those related to occupational differences or participation in policy making—are bound by constraints that do not shift with economic growth and development. Gender disparities endure even in high-income economies despite the large gains in women’s civil and economic rights in the past century. These outcomes are the result of slow-moving institutional dynamics and deep structural factors that growth alone cannot address.”

That is precisely the sort of sleight-of-hand that feminists have long criticized.  When it comes to women, according to the Bank, the improvements are fine. Growth, like greed, is good. The internal contradictions, the flaws, such as increased violence and broadening poverty, those are not part of growth. Those are … the signs of a backward culture! And the fact that they’re persistent just means they’re … sticky.

“Sticky” was a perfect word choice, because it accurately describes the mentality of this sort of “gender equality and development.” After all, what takes care of persistent “sticky”? A thorough “cleansing”.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Permanent Rebellion: Making Women’s Charters in Egypt and South Africa – part 4

The lesson for the makers of the Egyptian Women’s Charter is that the South African charter came up short not for what it contained but for what it left out.  In capitalist societies such as Egypt and South Africa, the state concentrates power among few, capital concentrates wealth, and both these institutions play a crucial role in maintaining the patriarchal power of men over women, to the extent of nullifying legal victories as we have seen in South Africa. Historically the socialist movement fought to end capital as an institution, and anarchism fought to end the state, while feminism or women’s movements veered between taking on these struggles and maintaining neutrality. The South African Women’s Charter stayed silent on whether capital and the state are compatible with the liberation of women. The present role of these institutions in imposing increasing misery on women arguably indicates that such a silence in the Egyptian Women’s Charter would be a mistake.

Inserting into the Women’s Charter a commitment to struggle against capital and the state would not necessarily spell the end for these institutions in Egypt, and neither would it necessarily have done so in South Africa in 1994. However, this is precisely where the South African experience speaks the loudest. When the demands of the Women’s Charter became part of South African law and policy from 1994 onwards, the Women’s National Coalition disbanded and its leading members took up positions in political parties and the state. When from 1996 the neo-liberal onslaught came, there was no national women’s movement to oppose it. Up to today South Africa has no national women’s movement, which is part of the reason for the confidence behind the reassertion of patriarchy. So no, a declaration in a charter will not end capital and the state, and yes, such a declaration might scare of those activists with a strong attachment to capital and the state, but it will provide a rallying point for a women’s movement that cannot be neutralized by paper concessions. It is in such a women’s movement, and not in capitalist laws and policies, that women in Egypt will find the best protection against the marginalization the men in charge of the state and business surely have planned for them.

Egypt today, being in a transitional phase, offers vast scope for a women’s movement not just to mobilize political pressure against patriarchy and its supporting institutions, but to launch direct actions and take over significant resources to dedicate to the liberation of women. With the police discredited and the military nervous about antagonizing the people, an action to take over, for example, a hotel owned by a multi-national or by the elite of the Mubarak era and use it as a women’s shelter, communal kitchen or feminist school has more chance of succeeding than at any other time in the recent past. It is such direct actions that will enable the Egypt women activists to transcend the dependence on the state that has proved so terribly costly for their South African counterparts. Of course women activists have to be prepared politically to take such actions. A giant step in such preparation would be to place the necessity for direct actions in a prime spot within the Egyptian Women’s Charter.

Ronald Wesso

(This post originally appeared here: http://permanentrebel.blogspot.com/2011/09/making-womens-charters-in-egypt-and_14.html. Thanks to Ronald for the collaboration!)

Haunts: It wasn’t sex. It was rape.

Last month, in Australia, a cadet was found guilty of two counts of having raped a woman cadet while she slept. The rape occurred in 2009. He filmed the act, ostensibly as evidence for his mates. His lawyer claims the kid just wanted to fit in. A horrible, and all too familiar, story, and not only in Australia.

The language of the coverage is telling. The woman was a `colleague’. Really? When did  rape become a collegial act? “Culture” comes into play as well. The military culture of “work hard, play hard” is offered as part of the context. Really? Rape is, somehow, play?

The most telling instance, in the BBC coverage of the story, is the link on their home page. There, the headline reads: “Filming sex `rife at Navy base’”. Only when a reader links to the actual article does the headline read, “Australia Navy cadet filmed rape ‘to be accepted‘”.

It wasn’t sex. It was rape.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: Women at work, not miracles, feed the village

At the end of November, Durban, South Africa, will host COP 17, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As happened last year, in the run-up to the Cancun conference, the press yet again `discovers’ women farmers, women fisherfolk, women workers, who are at the core of the struggle for climate justice, both as active participants and as targets of environmental devastation and climate change. Yet again, the story is that women `bear the brunt.’

This story takes one of two routes, miracle or mercy. According to the first, by some miracle, women discover a way to feed their communities. According to the second, the slow death of climate change shall have no mercy on women. This week’s Mail & Guardian offers a prime example of the miracle narrative.

In “The `miracle’ tree”, the village of Tooseng is saved by the `miracle’ of the moringa tree. It was no miracle. It was instead Mavis Mathabatha, of the Sedikong sa Lerato drop-in center, which feeds 320 children and provides after-school care. As well it was her mentor, Mamakgeme Mphahlele, who directs Lenkwane Lamaphiri drop-in center, in Mphahlele Seleteng. Both Mathabatha and Mphalele have committed their centers to planting the super-nutritious moringa trees. The moringa leaves are a treasure of nutrients: calcium, vitamin C, potassium, iron, vitamin A, protein, and lots of each.

There was no miracle. Mathabatha and Mphalele, as women in charge of drop-in centers, did what women in charge of drop-in centers do. As Mavis Mathabatha tells the story, the women performed research. They asked questions. They went on-line and researched some more. They found the information, then they found the agencies to provide the seeds, then they found the means. They took care of the children, the community, and, in their way, the world.

Climate justice. Sustaining and sustainable food. Healthy children. These are not lofty, impossible goals, and they are never the result of miracles. They are, instead, produced by women who live in the everyday, in the odinary world we all inhabit, and who struggle to improve it. We have had too many stories of miracle workers. Instead, let’s hear about the neighbors and friends, the women around the corner or in the next village, and what they’re doing. Let’s admire Mavis Mathabatha and Mamakgeme Mphahlele for their radically ordinary pursuit of well being for all.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Permanent Rebellion: Making Women’s Charters in Egypt and South Africa – part 3

South Africa’s constitution receives a lot of praise for enshrining human rights. A big part of the reason is its commitment to achieve gender equality by eliminating discrimination against women in the present as well as the effects of such discrimination in the past. This aspect of the constitution, plus the associated laws, policies and institutions making up the National Gender Policy Framework and the National Gender Machinery testify to the great success of the Women’s National Coalition. There is nothing in this coalition’s Women’s Charter that was not inserted in either the constitution or the laws and policies designed to carry it out. A hundred percent success therefore. Why, then, are women’s social conditions deteriorating?

According to the diagnostic overview of the National Planning Commission – a presidentially appointed commission under the leadership of Trevor Manuel, the Minister of Planning, whose task is to develop a long term development plan for the country – the reasons are ‘cultural “norms” and patriarchy’, ‘social fragmentation and passive citizenry’, and unemployment and a lack of access to an enabling social wage, which combine to undermine the aspiration of the constitution towards “Healing the divisions of the past and establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights”. In this diagnosis the problems of women are getting worse in spite, not because of the constitution. Government is not alone in having this view; it is in fact a near universal consensus.

A critical look, however, reveals the central responsibility of South Africa’s constitutional order for the worsening oppression of women here. For a start, take the three reasons put forward by the National Planning Commission. Cultural norms that underwrite patriarchy all depend for reproduction on institutions such as churches, traditional (tribal) leadership and families. None of these institutions were created in South Africa through free association. Christianity was imposed through violent dispossession and racist indoctrination. The current traditional leaders are the political heirs, not of Shaka and Hintsa, but of the chiefs that administered the violently imposed Bantustan system that was rejected over and over by black liberation movements. Families that teach women and children to submit to patriarchal authority also impose themselves through violence, abuse and the capacity to deny care, particularly when challenged; the wife/daughter that obeys out of fear and the one that gets beaten are both victims of this. The constitution ostensibly protects the victims of patriarchy, but it also protects these institutions, which are patriarchy’s perpetrators, and are much richer and more powerful than their victims.

What are the causes of social fragmentation and the alleged passivity among citizens? Certainly the way the political system is structured plays the major role. The state carefully assigns a particular status to every individual in the territory of South Africa. This status determines the relationship of this individual to the state as a whole – this one is a president, that one a prisoner, that one a police officer on duty, that one an ordinary citizen, and that one an undocumented immigrant. Everyone gets a position in a strictly constitutionally designated hierarchy where power is concentrated at the top. The competition and conflict that this concentration of power engenders is responsible for a major part of the social fragmentation in South Africa and other societies with a similar political structure. It also induces the alleged passivity, because people are not really passive politically, they are (sometimes) pacified by repression or by the frustration of being ignored or fobbed off. The power that South Africa’s political elite uses for socially fragmenting competition for more power, and to repress, ignore and fob off those of lower political status is given to them by none other than the constitution.

Growing unemployment, poverty and economic inequality are probably among the most acute of all the reasons fuelling the worsening position of women. A large part of the power of churches, chiefs and family heads flow from the fact that women have to submit to misery or face destitution. It is not possible to envisage the liberation of women without a radical redistribution of society’s wealth that would give black women control over most of it, and that would deny patriarchal institutions any of it. The constitution, of course, is dead set against such a redistribution. Instead it protects the property rights of the rich and facilitates neo-liberal policies that take even more from the poor to give to the rich, with devastating consequences for women.

The constitution and the gender laws and policies contain everything the makers of the Women’s Charter asked for, but it also contains and protects the cultural, political and economic institutions that destroy the hopes of this charter. It is like serving the women of South Africa a meal, full of delicious and nutritious ingredients, liberally sprinkled with poison.

Ronald Wesso

(This post originally appeared here: http://permanentrebel.blogspot.com/2011/09/making-womens-charters-in-egypt-and.html. Thanks to Ronald for the collaboration!)