Archives for June 2012

Spain’s women of coal are singing, rising up and sitting down

The women of Asturias are singing En el pozo Maria Luisa.

For centuries, Asturias has relied on coal mining. For centuries, mostly men have gone down into the earth to pull out coal. They have been injured and killed by the lethal working conditions. For centuries, their families and communities have struggled and organized. For centuries, the men have sung a song of resistance, called En el pozo Maria Luisa, a song to Santa Bárbara Bendita, the patron saint of miners. They sang this song during miners’ uprisings and strikes, such as those in 1934 that rocked Spain, and they sang this song during the Civil War.

The song tells the story of an explosion in the infamous Maria Luisa mine. A miner comes home from a mine blast in which four miners were killed. He is covered in their blood, and in his own, his head split wide. And he calls to his wife, Maruxina, and has one request: “mirái.” “Look.”

“mirái, mirái Maruxina, mirái / mirái como vengo yo”.

Look. Look Maruxina, look. Look at how I am.

This is a song traditionally sung by men, but times are changing.

Last month, the Spanish government announced it would cut subsidies to the coal mining industry by 63%. That would mean the end of coal mining in Spain. And that would mean the end of the mining provinces: Asturias, Castile and León. The miners engaged in local actions, and then declared a general strike. They have organized a Black March, which should arrive in Madrid on July 11, when the Prime Minister will report on the bank bailout and the economy.

Though a distinct minority, there are women miners now in Asturias. Women such as Ana Sánchez, who is on the Black March. She marches for herself, for her comrades, for her community, for her daughter and granddaughters. Somewhere right now she is singing the words to En el pozo Maria Luisa: “mirái, mirái Maruxina, mirái / mirái como vengo yo”.

Before the miners started walking, another group leapt into action, the women of coal, las mujeres del carbon. On June 18, some 400 showed up at the Senate in Madrid, at the discussion of the budget. 110 were allowed into the chambers, and they raised a ruckus. They chanted, they roared, they thundered, “Aquí están, estas son, las mujeres del carbon”. “Here they are, and they are … women of coal.” And they stopped the proceedings, while they sang the words to En el pozo Maria Luisa.

They continued in the streets, and they continue to this day. Today, the Black March arrived in León. This morning, two hundred women went to the national highway that cuts through town, and they sat down. And they stopped traffic, all traffic, for two hours. And they sang: Look, look how I am.

A specter haunts Spain. Look: “Aquí están, estas son, las mujeres del carbon”. Look. They’re everywhere.


(Photo Credit: (Video Credit:

Elderly? Disabled? Far from home? Afraid? Have we got a jail for you!

There are two stories concerning Lemlem Hussein Abdu. One is the story of the State. The other is her story.

Here’s the story of the State: are you an elderly disabled woman seeking asylum? If you are, have we got a prison cell for you! But there’s more. Almost immediately after caging you, we’ll send you `home’ to the very people and State that burned your village and killed your family. You’re welcome.

Lemlem Hussein Abdu is a 62-year-old woman living with disabilities, applying for asylum in the United Kingdom. She is, significantly, a resident of Sheffield.

Here is her story, as told on the petition “Lemlem must stay!”:

“Lemlem was born in 1950 in what is now Eritrea. In 1978 her village was burned down and her entire family was murdered during an attack by Ethiopian forces. Her family and neighbours were targeted due to their support for the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which was fighting for independence from Ethiopia.

Lemlem fled to Sudan and then subsequently to Saudia Arabia, where she obtained a position as a domestic worker. In 2000, Lemlem’s employers visited the UK and took her with them. Lemlem had a fall and injured herself when looking after the family’s children and has never fully recovered. Her employers stopped paying her wages as she could no longer carry out some heavy physical tasks. Then, in 2007, on a subsequent visit to the UK, the family abandoned her, with no money and no identification.

Lemlem is unable to return to Eritrea due to her affiliation with the ELF, which is persecuted by the government there. The United Nations has called on all countries to cease returns of asylum seekers to Eritrea due to the severe human rights abuses that have been committed against returnees.

Lemlem claimed asylum but has been refused. She is not allowed to work and receives no support, so has to rely on short-term help from a local charity, help which is now running out.

Despite her difficult position, Lemlem has a positive outlook. She is working hard to improve her English and is an active and well-loved member of her local community in Sheffield.

The Home Office is currently planning to deport Lemlem to Ethiopia. This is despite the fact that she has never lived in Ethiopia and has no contacts there. Her age and disability (a very bad limp and eyesight problems) mean that she would be unable to obtain work and support herself in a new country. She would have no means of earning a living and no support whatsoever in Ethiopia and the language spoken is not her first language. Lemlem is furthermore a member of the ELF, which Ethiopia has been at war with.”

Last Tuesday, Lemlem went to initiate new asylum proceedings. She was immediately rejected and transported to Yarl’s Wood. She was told to prepare for a flight Sunday night to Ethiopia.

Sheffield is a City of Sanctuary, the first such city in the United Kingdom. When Lemlem was carted off, the people of Sheffield – Lemlem’s friends, neighbors, supporters and also those who hadn’t known her previously – organized, protested, marched, and obtained a bit of a reprieve. Today, Tuesday, there’s a meeting with the Home Office.

As Gina Clayton, a trustee of Sheffield’s City of Sanctuary, put it, “Lemlem is absolutely terrified to the core of being taken to Ethiopia. She has no family and no connections in that culture and no physical ability to work. She doesn’t speak the language and she probably would be reduced to begging. The chances are she would simply die of starvation.”

Absolutely terrified to the core. That is the sum total of an asylum policy that sees prison and deportation as the normative response to vulnerability and pleas for assistance. A policy that places so-called national security over human needs fills the human heart with absolute terror.


(Photo Credit:

Pride 2012: Actualize Transfeminism

When my friend Diana and I first met up to discuss collaborating on a benefit for Chrishaun “CeCe” McDonald, we were filled with bitterness and rage. Diana had already started to campaign to raise money for CeCe, specifically wanting to get a chunk of money for her living expenses upon release. I loved a lot about that idea, particularly Diana’s life-affirming, positive remarks that she hoped there would be enough money raised that CeCe could just throw herself a big party when she got out, and not have to work for a while, and get massages every day. The list grew longer and we smiled as we thought of all the rest and joy CeCe deserves.

But when we started talking about the text of the poster, our anger resurfaced. We so wanted to curse all of the oppression that is responsible for CeCe’s situation. We wanted to condemn individuals working within the racist, cis-sexist criminal justice system and the institution itself, which is rigged to cage the poor and other undesirables. We wanted to attack the combination of administrative, legislative, and cultural forces that restrict the life chances of transpeople, particularly people of color, and punish or criminalize their survival. Yet we could not articulate that rage into a poster-sized message. Nor did we like the idea of that poster hanging on the walls of folks who probably do not need more anger and vitriol in their lives.

Diana wrote an amazing song for her band about the Trans Day of Remembrance, voicing her disillusionment and frustration at the despairing tone of the day, as well as at the futility of prayer. She is not the only person I have heard express their desire for a trans holiday that is more like a celebration.

For myself and many of my loved ones, striking a balance between the trauma of victimization and the triumph of survivorship is an ongoing struggle–in day to day life and in our activism.

Weighing all of this, we flipped our approach in crafting a message for the print to one of positivity and rejoicing, in the same spirit of that party for CeCe that Diana had imagined.

And we came up with:

we celebrate your survival
we praise your strength
we struggle with you

The bottom border of the poster contains three symbols: a crossed-out swastika asserting our resistance to fascism (both in the particularities of CeCe’s case and at large), the symbol for trans liberation, and a heart.


(Image Credit: Beck Levy / AstropressDC)


Widows demand justice

Tomorrow, June 23, is International Widows Day. Around the world, widows are denied justice. They are dropped from social networks, they are forgotten, they are denied access to property, they are circled in by various `cultural’ and legal restrictions. Around the world. This is not about `the developing world’. It’s global.

Rio + 20 ends today. Many who care about the environment, in whatever way, are frustrated by the lack of meaningful action. Women and women’s advocates, in particular, object to the absolute failure of the conference to understand as fundamental the link between family planning and environmental justice. Family planning covers the entire arc of family history, from before cradle to the grave … or at least it should. Did you hear any major discussion in Rio about widows’ rights? Me neither. What about at the G20 meeting in Mexico City this past week? No? Neither did I. How will widows figure into the family planning summit conference in London, in July? Wait and see.

Widows around the world are of all ages, and they share more than grief. They share reduced access to means of survival and well being. Some are workplace widows, such as Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark, Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto, whose respective partners were killed in the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, Have they received proper compensation? No. Do the widows of mining disasters receive proper compensation for their loss? Seldom.

Nanda Bhandare’s husband was a cotton farmer. Debts rose, Indian small farmers faced multinational agro-corporations and a hostile global market, bankruptcy and starvation loomed larger and larger. One day, Bhandare’s husband protested with his life. He drank enough pesticide to kill himself. He died, but his debts live on. Years later, his widow has taken the children out of school to work the fields to pay those debts. Each day, they move closer to death by starvation. Where is Nanda Bhandare in the global conference circuitry? Nowhere.

Around the world, widows are initially acknowledged and supported, especially after a catastrophe such as the recent airline crash in Nigeria. What happens next? Too often they are abandoned. Individuals, communities, agencies move on, feeling they have done their due diligence. They haven’t. We haven’t..

Around the world widows are organizing. In the Cross River State, in Nigeria, widows and their supporters are talking about what is needed: enhanced livelihood options through access to real education and equitable finance; increased cooperation among widows and widows-focused organisations through the formation of widows cooperatives and networks; increased public awareness on widowhood issues through information, education and communication; and, finally, enabling a policy environment for widows through an advocacy campaign.

In Nigeria, as almost everywhere, the condition of widows is lamentable, but it is not inevitable.

In Sierra Leone, for example, more than 20% of households are headed by women. Over a third of the women who are heads of households are widows. Women, like Gladys Brima, the founder of Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace, are advocating, organizing, pushing. Women like Sia Bona are staking their lives on organizing. When Bona’s husband died, her in laws swooped in and pushed her and her mother off the farm, a farm that had been Bona’s father’s farm. The law says one thing, customary and traditional law says another. Women, and especially rural women, don’t live in `the State’. They live where they live, locally. Federal or national laws without built in requirements for local transformation are, at best, empty symbols. More often than not, they are tools of oppression, exclusion, and betrayal. Bona, Brima and other women in Sierra Leone are organizing at all levels to change that situation … now.

A version of that exclusion takes place almost everywhere. Widows must have more than a seat at the conference table. They must be prioritized, not just recognized. Thus far, they are not. Instead, widows haunt the discussion of global and of local justice. And they are organizing.


(Photo Credit: PTI)

Reuniones, Nosotros, y Cooperativos

This past week was the second meeting of women at the Tenants and Workers United, TWU, in Alexandria, Virginia. In my fourth week, I am slowly realizing what it means to be a part of a group of women as someone from the “outside.”

Meetings are rough. I speak Castillian Spanish, cannot say gracias without a lisp, and had no idea what a carro was (I later learned it meant the same as coche).  I know little slang and even fewer curse words, the outcome of learning Spanish from my grandmother who focused on linguistics and never cursed in front of her grandchildren.  At meetings, I get laughed at frequently for my inability to catch the jokes being told.

Last week, however, I had a breakthrough. I realized that instead of listening I needed to speak up. Engage in the “we” or nosotros that the meeting had been focusing on. I had been sitting off to the side, silent, listening. It is so easy to just listen, but to speak up is harder. This is what I have encountered in my work at TWU. So many people are too afraid to say what they believe, especially in situations where the language is different or the cause is so close to one’s heart. For me, both of these are true.

I learned about the importance of staying active and honest. It’s easy to fall into a repetitive system, whether one’s own or that of an entire organization. Either way, it’s a trap. No change or security can be reached if the status quo is not constantly questioned and changed.

The women coming to the TWU meetings seek some kind of economic stability. They are concerned about their financial well-being, and they are trying to make changes in their lives to find financial security. I want to do whatever I can to work with them in that pursuit.

However, this is not what I should be doing this summer. I came into TWU believing that I could help the women who came to meetings and women in the surrounding community. My focus was on the individual even when I thought I was talking about the community. There is a different nosotros that I forgot to include in my research goals; it is a nosotros that cannot be measured, counted, or placed in a single box. It is the power of relationships that are not measured by individuals but instead by the active networks of awareness and action throughout a community.

Working with the women at TWU to create a cooperative is amazing, but the project’s focus is on individual rather than collective and communal self-awareness. For that reason, my new focus is on creating a curriculum that will engage women and men throughout the community, a curriculum that will provide education and community support for domestic workers and caregivers who work tirelessly behind the scenes. One cooperative will not change the face of domestic work or care-giving. Bringing women and men together in a space for dialogue and education will. With those tools, the nosotros will become bigger than 15 women, and instead will be a community consciousness that inspires change in wages, time-off, treatment, and access to support on a vast and uncountable scale.

Resistances, les femmes, le pouvoir et l’élection

Les électeurs français viennent d’élire un président socialiste, François Hollande. Il a été investi dans ses fonctions le 15 mai dernier et un nouveau gouvernement a été formé dans la foulée. Le changement est de taille pour beaucoup et une source d’espoir pour les femmes et les minorités. Ainsi le nouveau président avait affirmé qu’il appliquerait le principe de parité entre hommes et femmes pour former sa nouvelle équipe ministérielle. Il a pour ainsi dire réussi, 34 ministres dont 17 femmes. Il y a eu passation de pouvoir et à la suite du premier conseil des ministres il y a eu séance de photos et en particulier une photo du président et du premier ministre (Jean-Marc Ayrault) avec les femmes ministres de la parité. « Pourquoi une photo avec les seules femmes ministres?» demande la présidente de l’association des femmes journalistes, Isabelle Germain.

Est-ce un trophée ? Isabelle Germain ajoute qu’il n’y a pas eu de photos avec les hommes, ou les ministres issus de la diversité, elle en conclut que le concept de diversité est plus accepté que la parité politique entre hommes et femmes. Bien que cette décision doive être applaudie, il faut remarquer que la parité joue sur le nombre et non sur l’importance des postes de ministres, et il faut ajouter qu’il n’y a pas de parité parmi les conseillers du président et du premier ministre, comme le déplore Osez le Féminisme.

Toutefois image de progrès, la nomination de Christiane Taubira comme garde des Sceaux (ministre de la justice). D’abord cette nomination rappelle  l’histoire coloniale de la France, en effet, Christiane Taubira, est sénatrice » de Guyane. Elle représente les populations des caraïbes et a commencé sa carrière comme activiste indépendantiste de la Guyane.

Une de ses premières remarques qui mènera à une action rapide concerne la justice des mineurs. Elle a clairement indiquée que l’ère Sarkozy était terminée. Plus question de juger les délinquants récidivistes de 16 ou 17 ans dans des tribunaux correctionnels ordinaires, c’est à dire comme des adultes, cette mesure venait directement de l’exemple américain. Les mineurs seront de nouveau jugés comme des jeunes, ce qui veut dire pas d’incarcération dans les prisons des adultes et plus de programmes d’accompagnement. Bien sur l’ancienne ministre Rachida Dati (UMP) a immédiatement critiqué cette décision la qualifiant  d’ “acte irresponsable”. Rappelons que l’argument de dissuasion avancé en faveur du jugement des mineurs comme adulte, bien connu aux Etats Unis, s’est toujours avéré  erroné. Il est remarquable que Rachida Dati ministre de Sarkozy, elle aussi représentait l’intégration puisqu’elle est issue de l’immigration. Son approche était bien différente de celle de ces nouveaux ministres.

Cela nous mène à la nomination de la ministre des droits de la femme. Ce ministère avait purement et simplement été supprimé par le gouvernement précédent. Il avait été créé par le dernier président socialiste, en 1981 et avait eu un effet bénéfique pour les droits des femmes en France.  La nouvelle nommée Najat Vallaud-Belkacem est née au Maroc de parents marocains, elle refuse la comparaison avec Rachida Dati (elle aussi d’origine nord africaine). Najat Vallaud-Belkacem a aussi montré que les identités peuvent être multiples puisqu’elle a siégé au Conseil de la communauté marocaine à l’étranger (CCME) jusqu’à ce qu’elle s’engage avec François Hollande.  Beaucoup de travail à venir pour elle, notamment avec la loi sur le harcèlement sexuel qui a été invalidée par le Conseil Constitutionnel  récemment, créant ainsi un problème juridique pour les femmes voulant intenter une action en justice. Cette loi doit être repensée et surtout doit apporter une protection nécessaire aux femmes qui sont en France comme ailleurs de plus en plus victimes de violence.

Il est clair qu’après une campagne présidentielle menée par Nicolas Sarkozy sur le thème de la peur de l’étranger et de l’immigration, la formation de ce gouvernement montre une claire démarcation de la ligne ultra de Sarkozy, celui-ci n’avait pas hésité à remettre en cause la laïcité tout en utilisant la peur de la religiosité musulmane comme raison, alors qu’il prônait le retour a la morale chrétienne comme référence. Le débat s’éloignait de la nécessaire remise en cause de la colonisation dans ce moment où la mondialisation néolibérale représente une nouvelle forme de colonisation.

Dans ces temps qui révèlent les effets de l’organisation financière de la mondialisation néolibérale sur la société toute entière et avec les renégociations des accords européens pour instaurer les politiques économiques d’austérité destinées à mettre à genou les populations, le changement, si petit qu’il soit, venu de cette élection est une source d’espoir qu’il ne faut pas laisser échapper.


(Photo Credit: Reuters / Guillaume Paumier, Joëlle Dollé)


Lessons of a Hispanic Gringa

I exist as a contradiction, but a contradiction that has formed a part of my understanding of self and how I interact with women within and outside the Hispanic, Latina, and Chicana communities.

I grew up hearing the term gringa. I believed I could not be one, because of the Hispanic that was ¼ of my blood and an even greater part of my personal consciousness. I believed that I had escaped that title, one that stung of ignorance and outsiderness, but I had not.

I began my work at Tenants and Workers United, also known as Inquilinos y Trabadores Unidos, two weeks ago. I came in as an unpaid student researcher, overly ready to engage easily with the women in the organization.

The dreams I had of being recognized as my mother often is, as a Hispanic woman, were dashed as my short hair, pale skin, and introduction as a university student earned me the title of gringa. I was intimidated by this title and I doubted not only my heritage, but also my ability to speak Spanish with these women. My Castellano lisp gave my Spanish away as European learned, and my insecurities silenced me.

At this point, the erasure of my heritage was almost complete. The constant work to keep my grandmother alive in me through my hispanidad felt threatened. Was it possible to be a gringa and Hispanic?

I was at a frontera spoken of by Gloria Anzaldúa. I came in as different, an outsider, but the realization that the women I work with often feel the same way in US society changed my understanding of the situation. Their language and lifestyles often push them to the fringes of US communities and limit their access to resources they need to live a positive and fulfilling life.  The mix we two ‘outsiders’ create is not negative, but instead a powerful one filled with all the positive aspects for unification and change. It became less of fitting in, and instead a finding a common ground for establishing a nosotros, a we.

Who am I at this frontera? What can I/ should I bring? What can I take away? How can I help to make this fontera a place that women can inherit proudly and safely? These questions fuel the research that I am now doing at TWU. I am brining what I have access to in order to make the goals and dreams of the Women’s Group realities.

As a Hispanic gringa I bring a contradiction, a hybrid, una nueva identidad to the conversation. I have seen a different side of the conversation and bring a new view. My outsider gains power at this nueva fontera.


West Virginia Women: “Our Hair Can Grow Back. The Mountains Can’t.”

“Our hair can grow back,” environmental activist Vivian Stockman told me yesterday. “The mountains can’t.”

Last week, Stockman joined twenty other West Virginia women (and a few men) in silently shaving their heads at the West Virginia state capital. This week, seven more joined them at a protest in DC.  To Stockman, they are acts of mourning – “deeply personal” sacrificial actions symbolic of the pain that mountain top removal has brought to Appalachian communities.

West Virginians are no strangers to sacrifice.  Author Denise Giardinia wrote after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that West Virginia, my home state, has long been a “national sacrifice area.”  The health, safety, and environmental risks to mining communities have often been overshadowed by the fact that the rest of the country relies on the coal that comes from the region.

So now, women from West Virginia are making visible that sense of sacrifice – with their bodies.

The idea belonged to Marilyn Mullens who said that it came to her in a night of restless sleep.  Mullens explained that she wanted to lead a tribute to the hundreds of mountains and thousands of communities that have been damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. “We’ve gone through all the official channels of every level of our state government,” she said.  “We’ve been to DC.  Nothing is being done.”

Mullens pointed out that we live in a culture in which hair is deeply important to many people, especially women.  By removing hers, she is standing in solidarity both with the mountains that have been blown up and with the people in mining communities who have lost their health.  Mullens, who is from Southern West Virginia, knows the human effects of mountaintop removal coal mining firsthand. Her community has been flooded multiple times (mountaintop removal can lead to increased erosion), and the foundation of her home has been badly damaged.

There is an Appalachian saying that what you do to the land, you do to the people.  And it’s true – just ask people living near mountaintop mining who face cancer rates of almost 15% (compared to the 9.4% for other parts of Appalachia).

Or ask the parents of the five-year-old girl whose photo recently caused such a stir in a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources. The photo, submitted by award-winning environmental activist Marie Gunnoe, depicts a child in a bathtub full of brown tap water. Gunnoe was clearly trying to show the health impacts on communities near West Virginia mountaintop removal sites.  It is a photo that everyone in the country should see.

But the photo was not allowed to be shown at the hearing, and afterwards Gunnoe was pulled into a side room and questioned by the U.S. Capitol Police for nearly an hour on suspicion of child pornography.

As Aaron Bady wrote in the Huffington Post, the real obscenity is not the photo of a child bathing – it’s that the communities have no choice but to bathe their children in polluted water.

Denise Giardinia was right when she wrote that West Virginia is a national sacrifice area.  But women in West Virginia are coming together to hold up photos, shave off their hair, and make people look at what kind of sacrifice is happening.  What you do to the land, you do to the people – but the people can organize.

For information on how to get involved, check out the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition


(Photo Credit: Between the Lines) (Image Credit: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition)