Haunts: Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters

March 30 is International Domestic Workers’ Day. Around the world domestic workers, overwhelmingly women, work to clean households, cook, mend, care for children, for elders, for the sick, for those with disabilities. Around the world, domestic workers, millions upon millions of women and girls, travel to or wake up in other peoples’ homes and take care of their employers’ emotional well-being. Around the world, domestic workers organize and struggle with denial of payment, denial of social security, unpaid extended workdays, mistreatment, exploitation, abuse. So, when Ai-Jen Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, wishes her sisters happy international domestic workers’ day, the wish is as aspirational as it is of the present moment. It’s as hopeful as it is courageous.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s life story demonstrates that all too well. On March 8, a video started circulating. The video showed a young Ethiopian woman, presumed to be a domestic worker, pleading for help outside the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. A car pulls out. Men jump out, attack the young woman, kick her, knock her to the ground, and worse, and then force her into the car and disappear. All this was caught on video and then shown on Lebanese television news.

Later it was reported that the young woman was indeed an Ethiopian domestic worker, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, 33 years old. She was from Addis. She was the mother of two children. She arrived in Beirut in December 2011, less than three months earlier.

Dechasa-Desisa was suffering. According to her employer, she was suffering a nervous breakdown. Many in Lebanon doubt that was the case. Her employer dumped her at the Embassy, who did nothing. Worse, the Embassy told the employer to take Dechasa-Desisa to a mental health hospital. Take her anywhere. Take her away.

When the police found the young Ethiopian woman, they took her to the immigrant detention center, with the intention of deporting her. She cried so much she was taken … to a mental health hospital. Two days later, she was dead, by hanging. Suicide. Structural homicide. Alem Dechasa-Desisa was dead.

The video shocked Lebanon. The video shocked Ethiopia as well. The death of Alem Dechasa-Desisa disturbed Europe as well, and received some mention in the United States. But what exactly is the shock, the scandal?

The abuse of domestic workers is systemic. The abuse of transnational, migrant workers is, if possible, even more systemic. This new form of a very old situation is intensified by nationalism, racism, sexism. It is also intensified by the structurally induced greater vulnerability of the transnational migrant domestic worker. More often than not, she is a live-in worker. Her `home’ is her employer’s home. Live-in for a transnational migrant worker means more than being on-call 24 hours a day, although that would be bad enough. It means the worker is homeless. If she’s kicked out … there’s no place to go. If she leaves, there’s no place to go. Her very being on the street becomes a criminal act.

All domestic workers struggle with exploitation and abuse. All domestic worker struggle with the absence of any real possible response to exploitation and abuse, other than personal resistance. They know that no State will aid them. Quite to the contrary.

For transnational domestic workers, it’s worse.

The vulnerability of the transnational domestic worker is intensified by the reliance of the home country on the money earned and sent home by the workers who have traveled to richer countries. The home countries also rely, heavily, on the absence of those workers, the reducing of pressures to employ them. The home country needs its workers in other countries and it needs them `to behave’.

The Ethiopian Embassy responded to Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s pleas. It closed its doors.

Alem Dechasa-Desisa’s story is the story of young women on the move, around the world. Hers is the story of modern labor, young women workers struggling to make a living. Without strong unions, women domestic workers are left to their own devices. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ stories only come to the surface when someone is abused in public and caught on video. Without strong unions, women domestic workers’ lives are defined, by the public, by `suicide.’

Women domestic workers define their own lives differently. Hard work. Advancement. Struggle. Shared laughter and tears.

Yesterday, Friday, March 30, 2012, was International Domestic Workers’ Day. Remember and recognize Alem Dechasa-Desisa and her sisters. Honor them as builders, as the women who have built the everyday lives of the entire planet, and support their organizing efforts. Happy International Domestic Workers’ World!

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Feminism and Love: We Shift

“The act of ‘falling in love’ can serve as a ‘conduit’ or impetus for the action necessary to challenge oppression.”
-Chela Sandoval, paraphrasd by Maythee Rojas

As borders are not separated from all of us who construct them, the cracks in the borders do not merely take off a weight so that we can breathe more easily. When we see each other in new ways, we, too, shift: our convictions are tested, our lived experiences are re-interpreted, and we are confronted by the fear and promise of transformation.

To talk about the borders is to talk about fear. To talk about responsibility or liberation or love is to talk about fear. Even in the supremely brave act of love, we fear that every word can be misinterpreted, every action misguided, every relationship threatened by the realities of our bordered lives.

Thus, we must respond to this fear in “the language of lovers [,which] can puncture through the everyday narratives that tie us to social time and space.” We can write the borders in the language of our own stories. We can challenge the borders out of responsibility to and love for one another. And we, ourselves, can shift.

The language of love represents a radical change from the language of the everyday, for it challenges the comfort of our abstract principles, the familiarity of our homes, and the constancy of our very selves. It throws us into relationships that force us to confront our privilege and our prejudice, our fears and our doubts. It calls us to “de- and re-center,” to be transformed by one another, to find a home amid all manner of shifts.

To create a home in our bordered world is to live each day with the inescapable realities of separation and oppression and to be called every day to common struggle. Our feminist struggle is not common in the sense that the oppression we face or the liberation we envision is the same. It is common through our dedication, first and foremost, to one other.

After a night at Occupy Wall Street, Manissa McCleave Maharawal “biked home over the Brooklyn Bridge and I somehow felt like the world was, just maybe, at least in that moment, mine, as well as everyone dear to me and everyone who needed and wanted more from the world. I somehow felt like maybe the world could be all of ours.”

Love imagines that possibility; that the world does not belong to an intangible universal but is home to all of us, sharing our stories, challenging our borders, and bravely committed to the responsibility and the joy of loving one another.

Anne Schwartz, anneschwartz91@gmail.com

The incarceration of a Black woman is ….”fun?”

We should listen to formerly incarcerated women when it comes to prison issues. After all, women, particularly Black women, are the fastest growing prison population in America.

For example, the recently held 2012 UCLA Law Symposium, entitled “Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization,” brought together renowned and influential thinkers and lawyers, as well as activists from non-profit organizations. All the panelists focused on incarceration, and many advocated for the creation of a “feminist, anti-racist, prison abolition coalition.”

On the first day, only two Black female panelists identified themselves as formerly incarcerated. One was Kemba Smith. She eloquently told her story. While in college, she began dating a drug dealer. Despite never having used, handled or sold crack/cocaine, Smith was sentenced to nearly 25 years in prison.

I did not catch the name of the other woman, who was filling in for the director of the non-profit where she worked. She did not tell her story, except to say that she had served time in prison. Instead, she shared the goals of her organization, and compelled conference attendees to help break the cycle of incarceration, with more urgency and less flair than Smith.

At the end of the night, I overheard a symposium attendee tell the second woman, “Your talk was really fun!” Weeks later, I’m still curious what about incarceration is “fun.”

I wish I had asked the attendee what she meant by her comment. I would guess that she was well-intentioned. Nevertheless, I wondered what it meant to call a presentation at an academic symposium “fun.” Did it serve as a compliment? Or, as it seemed to me, did it strip this woman’s narrative of legitimacy? Such a comment was not directed at Kemba Smith, the lighter-skinned Black woman who had straightened hair, and wore a suit. No, this comment was for the darker-skinned, “poorly-dressed” woman with thick braids.

How do our own perceptions of people inform our understanding of what they are qualified to say, and why we should (or shouldn’t) listen?

This conference repeatedly referenced Michel Foucault’s notions of power and surveillance, highlighted the historical legacy of slavery, reminded us of color politics and “the paper bag test,” and challenged the stereotypes that have shaped American laws and social policy. Still, we needed to revisit the basics of feminist standpoint theory and “relations between the production of knowledge and practices of power.” Standpoint theory emerged as a “way of empowering oppressed groups,” and “valuing their experiences”, but the second speaker’s experience and voice were not honored. By suggesting that this panelist’s talk was “fun,” one conference attendee discredited the panelist’s voice, merely reproducing the structures that confine and silence certain women.

Everywhere, we should welcome the voices of all women. When working towards a feminist, anti-racist, prison abolition coalition, we should especially try to include all formerly incarcerated Black women. Unfortunately, we don’t.

Cameron Bell, cameronbell3@gmail.com

Haunts: Education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned

Forty some years ago Paulo Freire argued against what he called the banking model of teaching and learning. That was then. Today, the bank  is gone, and a prison stands in its place.

Ask Tanya McDowell or Mireya Gaytan.

Tanya McDowell is a Black woman, a single mother, living with her 6-year-old son. She lives, officially, in Bridgeport. `Officially’ because in fact McDowell is homeless. Or she was last April when she was arrested, in Norwalk, for stealing education. Stealing education is a first-degree larceny offense.

McDowell registered her son in Norwalk, using the address of her babysitter. When this was `discovered’, McDowell was charged with theft. Two weeks ago, she pled out, and was sentenced to five years in jail and five years probation. That’s almost a year for each year of her son’s life.

The public story is `complicated’ by McDowell’s arrests and convictions for selling drugs. Thus, the trial in Norwalk, despite her attorney’s protest, was for both the sale of narcotics and the first-degree larceny, because, somehow, these have to be taken together. That way, it can be demonstrated that Tanya McDowell is not a woman trying to get a decent education for her child. No. She’s a bad mother. She must be. She sells drugs. And she’s not only a bad mother and a drug dealer. She’s Black, homeless, unemployed, underemployed.

The story hearkens to that of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Black woman in Ohio who was found guilty of stealing education. The story is complicated by the ongoing narratives of the national and regional campaigns to criminalize Black women, and women of color, more generally.

And to criminalize their daughters as well.

Yajira Quezada is eleven years old. She lives, and goes to school, in Colorado. Earlier this week, she got into some trouble with the administration in her schooling, mouthing off or not showing proper respect or deference. So … they called in a counselor. That didn’t work. So … they called in “the school resource officer.” He handcuffed the eleven-year-old girl, took her into his squad car, and delivered her to the juvenile holding facility. As explained by the local sheriff, this is standard operating procedure for `transport’ of juveniles.

This public story is `complicated’ as well.  Children across the United States are subjected to such treatment regularly. School `resource officers’ routinely handcuff children; routinely take them off to juvenile `facilities.’ Children across the country are routinely dumped into `seclusion rooms’. Solitary confinement.  In Georgia, in Wisconsin, children have met their deaths in school-based solitary confinement.

Yajira’s mother, Mireya Gaytan, is outraged. She doesn’t want her daughter to be allowed to misbehave or show disrespect … to anyone. But she also doesn’t want her daughter to be treated as a criminal. In short, she wants her daughter to receive an education.

Tanya McDowell, Mireya Gaytan, two women in America who want their children to receive an education. Not a prison sentence. Not a death sentence. Not a criminal record. Not a trace memory on the wrists. Not a sense of overwhelming vulnerability. Not an indictment based on the color of skin, not a conviction based on where you live … or don’t.

An education.

Education is not merchandise. Those who seek education are not `clients’ or `customers’. They are human beings who know that education is always shared, always social. They are women and girls, and especially women and girls of color, who know that education cannot be stolen, handcuffed, or imprisoned.  Education is a human right, a civil right, a women’s right. Period.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Resistances: Expose the attacks on the undocumented and on women in France

While in the United States, attempts to hurt, reduce and constrain women’s bodies are multiplying (as the recent bill in Virginia to impose vaginal sonogram on women who seek an abortion demonstrates), two recent developments in France show that the politics of constraint and control of the body and in particular of women’s bodies are also expanding in Europe.

In France, undocumented immigrants, “les sans-papiers” have access to health care, through “l’aide medicale d’Etat” or AME (State Medical Aid), if they have been in France for at least 3 months. While this seems to be better than many other places in the western world, some barriers that have been erected to divide and control immigrants and residents.

For example, it used to be that in order to register, people could go to any regular center of the national health coverage “les caisses d’assurance maladie,” and there were many of them. Recently, new rules have been introduced. Since the end of 2011, in Paris only two centers have been processing applications to be registered in AME. After two months, the Observatory of Foreigners’ Right to Health, ODSE, has reported a series of problems. These include long waiting lines, starting in the middle of the night, summary selection of applications, loss of applications, mounting administrative red tape. All these difficulties contribute to delaying indispensable coverage and access to health care for people who are already among the most vulnerable.

Another recent development directly affects women’s health and well being. In 2001, a bill was passed that gave women’s reproductive rights a great boost. The new law includes provisions for anonymous access to contraceptive and abortion services for minors and without parental consent. It also provides for an ambitious sexual education program, lately the distribution of money to enforce this law has been problematic. Recent reports have shown the importance of sexual education through school as well as free and easy access to centers where women and men can access information on the various questions related to sexuality.

The law itself is beyond repeal, but that does not mean it is safe from dilution. Although officially budgeted for the 2012 fiscal year and voted by the parliament, apparently, 500 000 Euros slotted sex ed programs has disappeared. The Sarkozy administration must have misplaced it!

So how are these two issues related? Both are about creating barriers for some women to access services that allow full social participation and meaningful exercise of their rights. They are about relegating to the back seat some selected populations who are excluded through constraining policies on their bodies, which are, thus, made invisible in body politics of the nation. The reshaping of existing social advances concerning reproductive rights, health care for all, has become the priority of neoliberal governments. It follows the pattern that has already been developed for emerging countries, cutting public services. It is important to identify policies that follow this pattern. It is important to expose them in order to lessen the impact of the US neoliberal transformation anywhere it is being exported.

Brigitte Marti bridgemarti@gmail.com

Radical Feminisms & Occupy

As one who was an activist and a radical pre-occupy (as I have been during- and will be post-), I had mixed feelings upon occupy’s initial momentum. It is nice to be surprised once in a while. A friend put it best—“if someone had told you five years ago that Adbusters would be responsible for the next US protest movement, and that Crimethinc would be providing useful, levelheaded discourse on it, would you have believed them?” Not a chance. So when it kicked off, I was extremely skeptical. I had long ago dismissed anything resembling a mass mobilization as being unable to enact real change in the USA. Instead, I cast my lot (as did many of my friends and colleagues) with what we call somewhat euphemistically “long term movement building”: direct services, raising funds and resources for said direct services, and small-scale community building. But I was also excited that the national conversation was approaching a critique of capitalism, excited for there to be a left movement in the USA again, and intrigued by the possibilities of the encampment tactic. Occupy’s connection to the “Arab Spring” in the national imagination gave it a particularly tantalizing flavor of possibility.

On paper, occupy is inherently aligned with feminist critiques of power. The heart of occupy is an objection to unearned power—the same objection at the heart of work seeking to dismantle patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, ableism, and the myriad interlocking oppressions that both sustain the ruling order (or in the parlance of occupy, the 1%) and keep the 99% divided and conquered.

But at large and locally, the internal and external dynamics of the movement have not always reflected that ideological alignment which seems at once so obvious and so necessary. Instead, the physical spaces of occupy have often replicated oppressive social relationships, when they should have been sanctuaries for those who need it the most—people experiencing homelessness, people of color, queer and trans* people, women in need of shelter and childcare, and survivors of violence, to name a few. Also, the conversation with occupy seems to have shifted to mainstream liberal concerns such as Citizens United and away from poverty and structural violence.

Occupy’s shift to liberal values, if not tactics, did not come as a total surprise. Radicals have long known to be wary of our liberal and moderate compatriots. They can sometimes be our worst enemy or biggest obstacle, as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently expressed in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is why a feminist critique is essential to occupy. We have got to keep an eye on the people who claim to be speaking for us or on our behalf, but are not. It is not a lack of demands or incoherence of message that weakens the occupy movement, but the lack of a radical analysis, and the unwillingness of privileged people within the movement to step back and let the movement be directed by the needs of its most marginalized participants.

For a moderated panel discussion of this and more—where is occupy going in relation to labor? To academia?—please attend a Panel Discussion on the Future of Occupy, GWU Gelman Library, Wed March 7

Beck Levy, becklevy@gmail.commarch_7_forum_flyer

The UK asylum system still isn’t gender sensitive

Participating at the Go Feminist conference earlier this month, I sat and listened to Herlinda. Herlinda was there to talk about her experience as a woman claiming asylum in the UK after fleeing persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country where rape is “commonplace” and perpetrators generally go punished.

Herlinda’s story – of claiming asylum in the UK, of being disbelieved by officials, of ending up destitute and sleeping rough – is similar to the accounts given by all too many women who seek asylum here.

Indeed, her story is dispiritingly familiar. In January Asylum Aid published our new report, “I feel like as a woman I’m not welcome”, which combines legal analysis and interviews with asylum-seeking women and their legal representatives to test the Government’s promise to make the asylum system more gender-sensitive. And while political rhetoric on this has been encouraging of late – the Deputy Prime Minister promised in May 2011 that “we’re ensuring the process is sensitive to the needs of women and girls” – the situation on the ground can still be desperate.

I spoke with women who had been denied even basic standards of privacy when claiming asylum at the UK Border Agency (UKBA) unit in Croydon, so that the information they were asked to share with officials was compromised from the start (something that has lately attracted the concern of the independent Chief Inspector of the UKBA). I talked with one woman who, having claimed asylum after escaping from sex traffickers, was asked by immigration officials how many men she had slept with and whether she enjoyed working as a prostitute. And I met with a mother who, having been forced to move cities so that she could receive accommodation and support from the UKBA, was so scared that she and her children dared not leave their unfamiliar new housing for three days. I heard story after story like this each day while conducting the research.

The stakes could hardly be higher. When someone flees gender-based violence and persecution in their home country, they turn to our asylum system in desperation. But too often they find a procedure which is dysfunctional and ill-equipped to meet their needs.

We know from previous research that women are too often disbelieved when they seek asylum, and that they have a higher chance of winning their appeal when the case is scrutinised in more detail. We know that the specific grounds on which victims of gender-related persecution might be recognised as refugees – as a Particular Social Group – is worryingly misunderstood and underused by asylum decision-makers.

The quality of decisions when women seek asylum has long been a concern, and this new research exposes how deeply other causes for concern run through the full, end-to-end asylum system. There is limited consideration of gender issues in current legislation, and where UKBA policies do provide safeguards to women they are too seldom implemented in practice. From the way asylum interviews are conducted to living conditions in accommodation and immigration detention, asylum-seeking women continue to be treated very poorly. This is morally indefensible.

The Government has tools at its disposal for addressing this. Focused work on the daily operation of the asylum system – ensured privacy for anyone making their asylum application in Croydon, for example, or accepting the need to reconsider a claim where there is late disclosure of rape or sexual violence – should go hand-in-hand with strategic leadership that places gender at the heart of the asylum system. With the position of Gender Champion of the UKBA currently unoccupied, now would be a good finally to time to invest that role with influence and real meaning.

The asylum system won’t be fair, the Deputy Prime Minister has admitted, “until we’re sure no single group is being singled out”. All of us who work with women asylum seekers will continue to hold the Government to account. We are only asking, after all, that they honour their own promises.

Christel Querton

Christel Querton is the Legal Policy Officer for the Women’s Project at Asylum Aid, the editor of Women’s Asylum News, and the author of the new research report “I feel like as a woman I’m not welcome”: A gender analysis of UK asylum law, policy and practice. Asylum Aid is an independent, national charity working to secure protection for people seeking refuge in the UK from persecution and human rights abuses abroad.

This first appeared at The F-Word, here:  http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/02/the_uk_asylum_s .