National Women’s Day 2018: Where are the women prisoners?

Yesterday, August 9, across South Africa, people acknowledged, in various ways, National Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to protest the pass laws and much, much more. On August 1, across South Africa, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women and gender non-conforming people engaged in an “intersectional women’s march against gender based violence” and stayed away from all work and commerce. This was under the banner, #TotalShutdown. Organizers asked people to find ways of supporting those women who were forced to work that day. Additionally, for women in rural areas, where a march to a High Court might not be feasible, women were asked to `simply’ stand together, to unite and stay away from work and commerce. In between August 1 and August 9, on Sunday, August 5, Barbara Hogan, anti-apartheid activist and politician, returned to the Women’s Jail, now turned into a museum, on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Hogan remembered her stay in that prison from 1982 to 1983. On Women’s Day, in Women’s Month, and in the #TotalShutdown, where are the women prisoners? Where are South Africa’s women prisoners, generally, and where are they in the movements for women’s emancipation and power?

According to the most recent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Report, covering April 2015 to end of March 2016, South Africa has 236 operational prisons, of which 9 house women prisoners. Only 2.6 percent of prisoners are women. As Johann van der Westhuizen, the inspecting judge of Correctional Services, noted, this is “one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.” Not bad? No. Johann van der Westhuizen continues, “Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.”

The number of women in prison is low, and yet the women’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. How can that be? Part of the answer appears in van der Westhuizen’s report, “Due to the high turnover rate of remand detainees, remand units were found to have deplorable health conditions and dilapidated infrastructure compared to those occupied by sentenced offenders.” Pollsmoor Remand was 251% overcrowded, and was “short” 2448 beds. According to the Department of Correctional Servicesmost recent annual report, 2012 to 2017, the number of male remand prisoners has declined fairly steadily, from 44,742 to 41, 397, while women’s numbers have risen, from 998 to 1,128.

What does that look like “on the ground”? For women prisoners, and especially for those awaiting trial, from overcrowding to access to healthcare to food to hygiene and sanitation to access to education, reading materials, decent work or any work, exercise and recreation, to contact with the outside world, the conditions are “horrifying.” At Pollsmoor, for example, more than half of the women prisoners are awaiting trial. Many wait years for a trial that is often thrown out or postponed indefinitely.

Reflecting on her experiences in prison, Barbara Hogan commented, “Prisoners do not need to be told that policeman beat up prisoners. They know it.” Last year, in August, the Women’s Jail opened a new exhibition, paintings from that jail by anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer. The paintings’ very existence testifies to the myriad forms of women’s persistent, resistant and defiant organizing. At the same time, they speak to the ongoing squalor and dehumanization of women behind bars. The conditions of women prisoners, in particular women remand prisoners, is not an oversight. Those women have not been forgotten. They have been dumped, disposed of, and that’s public policy, not some accident. Prisoners do not need to be told that, but the public does. Someday, along with the Union Buildings and High Courts, women and their supporters will march to women’s prisons across the country to acknowledge, learn from, and build on the intersectional women’s organizing taking place each and every day among those women who are forced to sleep standing but never surrender.

 

(Paintings by Fatima Meer; Mail & Guardian)

In 2006 in South Korea, women railway workers went on strike. 4526 days later … they won!

KTX women workers on strike

In 2004, South Korea launched its national bullet train, the KTX. KTX advertised to hire women train attendants. Close to 5000 women applied. KTX hired 351, all in their 20’s. The women were hired on a two year contract. The women were told they would become `regular’ employees at the end of the two years. These jobs were considered dream jobs. The women were highly educated; the jobs were secure, well paying, government jobs. What could go wrong? Everything, and predictably so. After a year, the government launched a privatization program. Women were told they were to be permanently outsource. They would be permanently irregular workers. They could still be called “the Flowers of KTX”, however. In 2006, male and female workers walked off the job. Four days later, the men returned. Twelve years later, on July 21, the women won their victory! On July 21, the Korean Railroad Corporation, KORAIL, said it would reinstate all the workers. One of the strikers, Oh Mi-seon, commented, “The ‘time of struggle’ isn’t over yet.”

The story of the South Korean railway workers’ organizing has at least three major strands. First, there’s the ongoing, intense women workers’ organizing campaigns, lasting twelve years. Women workers organized rallies, sit-ins, occupations, tent cities, and more. Since January 2007, KTX union leaders have conducted a sit-in at Seoul’s central train station. The women workers knew that they were right. They knew that, despite the numbers actually working on the trains, women made up only 5% of KORAIL’s regular employees. They knew that no one can be a permanent `irregular’ employee, and they knew that that particular destiny was slotted for women workers.

Second, the women workers went to court. IN 2008, the women filed a lawsuit. They won in 2009. KORAIL appealed. In 2011, at the appeals level, the women workers won again. KORAIL appealed again. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of KORAIL. But it didn’t end there. Since 2015, the women workers, while continuing their demonstrations and other actions, argued that something was fishy about the Supreme Court decision. At the end of May, they were proven right, when documents revealed that former Supreme Court Justice Yang Sung-tae had colluded with former president Park Geun-hye and twisted the law to benefit KORAIL. With that, the women threatened to storm the Supreme Court. Two months later, KORAIL caved.

There is a third strand. When the Supreme Court issued its ruling, in 2015, KORAIL attacked the women workers. KORAIL went to court, insisting that each of the women had to “repay” the company the equivalent of $76,000. In March 2016, a 36-year-old woman worker, only identified as Ms. Park, committed suicide. In every demonstration, press conference, action, Ms. Park is remembered, invoked, conjured. Ms. Park left a note for her 3-year-old daughter: “I am sorry, my baby. All I can leave with you is debt.” When Kim Seung-ha, head of the Korean Railway Workers Union, heard of the agreement with KORAIL, she responded, “I want to tell the friend who couldn’t be here with us for this joyous moment that we were right, we were justified.” Oh Mi-seon added, “I plan to keep battling until the truth comes to light – if only to restore the reputation of the friend I lost.”

Militant women made this happen. Militant women rejected being rendered irregular, precarious, inferior, vulnerable, weak. They withstood and transformed, and today, they are taking the struggle forward, inside the spaces of work and labor, and onto the trains. After twelve years, Korean women workers plan to keep battling until the truth comes to light. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Minplus)

India strips millions of women in Assam of their citizenship. Call it femicide

The documents these women presented were deemed invalid.

What’s it called when, with one sweep of a pen or publication of a report, millions of people `lose’ their citizenship. Today, India dropped over four million people living in the resource-rich state of Assam, in northeast India, from the citizenship lists. Poof. Gone. Four million. In one state. And, to no one’s surprise, the majority of the four million are women. Even if women weren’t overrepresented in the rollcall of the suddenly disappeared, the impact on women, individually and collectively, is particularly deep and vicious, and is particular to policy formation in patriarchal states and societies.

Today, the Indian government published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens, NRC, for Assam. Assam has been experiencing a considerable population growth over the last decade. About two-thirds of the state is Hindu, and one third is Muslim. For over seventy years, Indigenous Assamese, in particular the Bodo, and Bengali Muslims have opposed each other, often violently.

Those dropped from today’s citizenship lists are largely, almost exclusively, Bengali Muslims. Many view this as part of the national government’s saffron policies, turning secular multicultural India into Hindu India. Whatever the reasons, the NRC predictably targets, and eliminates, Bengali Muslim women. Shorbhanu Nessa’s story is typical of many Bengali Muslim women in Assam … and typical of many women across India and beyond.

Shorbhanu Nessa married before she was 18. She is surrounded by nevers that result in her elimination from the NRC: never went to school, never owned property, never had a bank account, never thought she needed to. She is the mother of five adult children. As far as Shorbhanu Nessa knew, being married to her husband was sufficient. Not any longer.

Shorbhanu Nessa’s son, Hussain Ahmad Madani, explains, “Because she never voted in her maiden home, she had no way to prove now that she was her father’s daughter. Her father’s legacy data is there, but she has no document to establish her linkage to him. There is no school certificate which would have mentioned his name. Her family settled in this char (a sand bar by a river in Assamese) when she was one-and-a-half years old after their char (Majarlega Char) was swallowed by the Brahmaputra. She was married off to my father in this same char. Though her father passed away, everyone in the neighbourhood knew whose daughter she was; trouble began when documentary evidence was sought by the NRC authorities to prove who her father was.”

Everyone knew, but this particular category of everyone doesn’t count.

Many of those who were dropped from the rolls are women. Almost all of them are Muslim. Most, if not all, are married. As of yet, there’s not an exact gender breakdown of the disappeared, but the stories are everywhere, repeating one another.

No matter how one cuts it, the design for the data collection for the NCR predictably attacked Muslim individuals and communities, who, for various reasons, would not have the documentary evidence to prove what everyone in the neighborhood knew and had known for years, decades and generations. What is it called when millions of people are stripped of their citizenship? Genocide.

But there’s something else here. The NRC structures specifically targeted Bengali Muslim women of Shorbhanu Nessa’s generation. In 1988, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. Bengali Muslim women, like Shorbhanu Nessa, were `encouraged’ to marry before they turned 18. Thus, they never voted using their birth, or maiden, names, and so now they can’t prove they are, and were, who they are, and were, precisely because they were dutiful daughters. None of this is surprising. It’s part of publicly and widely known culture in Assam, and it’s equally part of the NRC plan. The way the data was collected meant Bengali Muslim women would be disappeared, in large numbers, and that was perfectly fine with both Assamese officials and those in the national government. What’s it called when millions of women are disappeared in a single day? Femicide. In this world, citizenship is life. In one fell swoop, India created the single largest stateless population ever, and at the heart of that effort is the nation-State assault on women.

 

 

(Photo Credit: The Wire / Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty)

When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home

Today, the London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, an all-party committee, released a report, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. The report argues that women matter, that women’s contact with the criminal justice system is particular to women’s situation in the world and in London specifically, and that something should finally be done about supporting “women who offend and those at risk of offending.” While the report is welcome, as far as it goes, it also notes, repeatedly, that much the same call was made a decade earlier, and that, in that decade, little or nothing has been done. In that sense, the report is far too kind to history. This is the story of the report and the past decade. None of this is new; we have been here before, too many times.

It all began with HMP Styal, in August 2002. From August 2002 to August 2003, Her Majesty’s Prison Styal suffered an “epidemic” of women’s self harm and suicide. At that time, in the United Kingdom, forty per cent of sentenced women served three months or less, and yet somehow manage to `harm themselves’ at a rate of three incidents per inmate. The Corston Report: a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the U.K. criminal justice system, described the situation in March, 2007.

Behind the Corston Commission Report sat HMP Styal, “one of the largest women’s prisons” in the U.K. Between August 2002 and August 2003, six women died at Styal. Anna Claire Baker, a 29-year-old mother of two, a remand prisoner, was found hanged in her cell in November 2002. Sarah Campbell, 18, took pills, informed the staff she had taken pills, and was promptly left alone in a cell, to stew for a bit. Rather than stew, she died, as did Julie Walsh, in August 2003. Walsh, a 39-year-old mother-of-two, died after taking pills. The tragic deaths of these six women at Styal was the impetus of the Corston Commission. According to Nicholas Rheinberg, the Cheshire Coroner who conducted the inquests into the deaths at Styal, “I saw a group of damaged individuals, committing for the most part petty crime for whom imprisonment represented a disproportionate response. That was what particularly struck me with Julie Walsh who had spent the majority of her adult life serving at regular intervals short periods of imprisonment for crimes which represented a social nuisance rather than anything that demanded the most extreme form of punishment. I was greatly saddened by the pathetic individuals who came before me as witnesses who no doubt mirrored the pathetic individuals who had died.” That was then.

In February 27, 2009, “The chief inspector of prisons has warned of more deaths at Styal women’s prison if services for vulnerable inmates do not improve…. John Gunn, brother of Lisa Marley, who died at Styal, asked: “How many more women have to die before something is done?”

The next chapter of this story involves HMP Holloway. At one point Holloway was the largest women’s prison in western Europe. Sarah Reed died, or was executed, there on January 11, 2016. On January 11, Sarah Reed, 32 years old, Black, living with mental health issues and drug addiction, the victim of a famous police brutality case, was “found dead” in her cell at Holloway Prison, north of London. Her death went relatively unreported for almost a month, until the family managed to contact Black activist, Lee Jasper. In 2012, Sarah Reed was viciously attacked by a Metropolitan Police officer. The attack was caught on camera, and, in 2014, the officer was dismissed from the force. In October 2014, Sarah Reed was in a mental health hospital when she allegedly attacked someone. Her family says she wrote to them saying she had acted in self-defense. On January 4, Sarah Reed was shipped over to Holloway Prison, to await trial. While there, according to her family, she received no mental health treatment. Prison authorities claimed that Sarah Reed “strangled herself” while in her bed. Her family doubts that narrative. Further, they say they were prevented from seeing Sarah Reed and were treated “in a hostile and aggressive manner.”Sarah Reed was the last woman to die in Holloway Prison. On July 2016, Holloway was closed, and prisoners were moved to HMP Downview and HMP Bronzefield, outside of London. According to the Chief Inspector of Prisons, in 2013, the conditions in Bronzefield were dismaying.

And that leads us to the most recent chapter, A long way from home: Improving London’s response to women in the criminal justice system. Holloway was not only the largest women’s prison in Western Europe. It was the only prison in London. So, when Holloway closed, two years ago, women prisoners of London are shipped out of town. As the report notes, first, the majority of women shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system in the first place: “The crimes that women typically commit are ‘low-level’ offences like criminal damage, theft, common assault and TV licence evasion”.  Second, the women shouldn’t be sent distances from their families and communities of support. Third, a short sentence, which is what most women receive, has long-term catastrophic effects. Fourth, the system for women needs a thorough overhaul that begins with the problems women face and addressing those problems. Finally, we have all been here, among these “findings” and recommendations, before, more than once, and we did nothing, less than nothing.

A news article on today’s report notes, “The report from the London Assembly covers the capital but has national importance.” Actually, it has global importance. As in London, so in many parts of the United States and other countries. Women prisoners are in for low-level offences that suggest need for support and assistance rather than incarceration. Women prisoners are sent greater distances than male prisoners. The system for women prisoners everywhere needs a thorough overhaul. Finally, none of this is new, we have all been here before, and we have done nothing, less and worse than nothing. The time has come, more than come, to move beyond “findings” and recommendations, and to begin the real work of overhaul and transformation.When it comes to addressing the specificities, and injustices, of women’s incarceration, we are all a long way from home.

 

(Photo Credit: London Assembly)

What are you, Nicaragua, but pain and dust and screams in the afternoon, screams of women

In Nicaragua yesterday, July 17, the State celebrated el Día de la Alegría, the national Day of Joy which celebrates the day in 1979 when the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle fled the country. In Nicaragua yesterday, July 17, the State sent its soldiers and paramilitaries into Masaya, the protest or rebel city, and “regained control.” The cost of control, extracted over the past three months, is more than 300 dead and untold injured, wounded, scarred, violated, tortured, and traumatized. This has been unfolding for the past three months and, until this week, the world press, and in particular the English language world press, has gone largely silent. The one exception has been Al Jazeera which, from the very start, seemed to sense that something was going on, and has had almost daily reports, often two or three a day.

Yesterday, Al Jazeerareported on a march through Managua. People demanded justice for victims in a scenario in which masked paramilitary forces are attacking barricades, churches, schools, communities, individuals, and justice itself. Another Al Jazeera report yesterday noted that the United Nations and much of the rest of the international community has called for a negotiated end to the violence, but there is no negotiation with masked parastatal agents who seek to terrorize not only the population but the very idea of negotiated settlement. Al Jazeera also updated its ongoing “Nicaragua unrest: What you should know”.

You should know that the world has stood by while 300 people have been butchered. You should know that the world press largely stood by while 300 people have been butchered, and you should ask, “Why?” How many Nicaraguans must die before “pressure mounts on Ortega”?

There is “unrest” in Nicaragua, but there’s unrest everywhere. The news in Nicaragua is that there’s a massacre taking place, and yet again much of the world has not cared. It took an assault on a church, with students and, significantly, a Washington Postreporter, to draw some attention. Yesterday, José Mujica, the former President of Uruguay, condemned the State violence in Nicaragua and lamented his error in not doing so much earlier. In his remarks, Mujica declared, “I remember the names of comrades who gave their lives in Nicaragua, fighting for a dream. I feel that something that was a dream has gone awry, has fallen into autocracy that those who were once revolutionaries have lost the understanding that in life there are moments when one has to say, ‘I’m going.’”

There’s much to say about what’s going on in Nicaragua, for example the role of women as leaders of the struggle for justice, but for now it’s important to say anything, to insist that our local and national and international news media do better, do something, do anything, because if they don’t, when the “international community” finally decides to “do something”, almost certainly that something will be military, which is precisely not what the Nicaraguans calling for Ortega’s resignation want. They want justice, not invasion.

In another context and time, and yet the same, Nicaraguan poet Giocanda Belli wrote,

 

“¿Qué sos, Nicaragua?

¿Qué sos
Sino un triangulito de tierra
Perdido en la mitad del mundo?

¿Qué sos
Sino un vuelo de pájaros
Guardabarrancos
Cenzontles
Colibríes?

¿Qué sos
Sino un ruido de ríos
Llevándose las piedras pulidas y brillantes
Dejando pisadas de agua por los montes?

¿Qué sos
Sino pechos de mujer hechos de tierra,
Lisos, puntudos y amenazantes?

¿Qué sos
Sino cantar de hojas en árboles gigantes
Verdes, enmarañados y llenos de palomas?

¿Qué sos
Sino dolor y polvo y gritos en la tarde,
—Gritos de mujeres, como de parto—?

¿Qué sos
Sino puño crispado y bala en boca?

¿Qué sos, Nicaragua
Para dolerme tanto?”

 

“What are you, Nicaragua?

What are you,
a little triangle of earth
lost in the middle of the world?

What are you,
a flight of birds,
guardabarrancos
cenzontles
hummingbirds?

What are you,
a roar of rivers
carrying off polished, shiny stones,
leaving footprints of water in the mountains?

What are you,
a woman’s breasts made of earth,
smooth, pointed and threatening?

What are you,
a song of leaves in giant trees,
green, tangled, filled with doves?

What are you,
pain and dust and screams in the afternoon,
screams of women as if in childbirth?

What are you,
clenched fist, bullet in the mouth?

What are you, Nicaragua,
to hurt me so deeply?”

What are you, Nicaragua … and who is asking? Who hears the screams in the afternoon and who is paying any attention?

 

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera)

Patricia Okoumou: “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.”

Patricia Okoumou

“The root of the word memory stems from the word mourn.”
Valarie Lee James

On July 4, Therese Patricia Okoumou, who goes by Patricia, celebrated “Independence Day” by scaling the pedestal of the Statue of Libertyand climbing to the robes, to protest family separation, zero tolerance, abuse of children, and, generally, the assault on democracy. After four hours, Patricia Okoumoucame down and was arrested. Outside of court the next day, Patricia Okoumou explained, “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.

Who sat with Patricia Okoumou on the toes of Lady Liberty? No one. While she may have felt the support of all those who rally to what is called the Resistance, in fact, materially, Patricia Okoumou sat alone. I thought of that being-alone-in-resistance the other day when a South African friend turned to me, apropos of nothing in particular, and said, “So Trump is horrible, maybe the worst ever. Where are the burning tires?” While I had some unpersuasive response, the question, like smoke, lingers. Where are the burning tires? Why did no one join Patricia Okoumou when she started climbing?

I am not talking here only about those who were protesting with Patricia Okoumou at the base of the Statue of Liberty. I am talking about all of us. On July 6, columnist Ross Ramsey asks, “If kids separated from their parents can’t hold our attention, what will?” On July 7, columnist Jessica Valenti responds, “The US government is abusing children – we can’t stop being urgently ashamed”. The obvious implication is that “we” might very soon stop being urgently ashamed, or ashamed at all. Meanwhile, also on July 6, it is reported that Jimena Madrid, the 6-year-old Salvadoran immigrant child who “riveted people around the world when her voice was captured on an audiotape after she was separated from her mother inside a Border Patrol detention facility”, is still not with her mother and the two may never be reunified. Are we paying attention? Are we urgently ashamed? Where are the burning tires?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Patricia Okoumou sat and lay on the Statue of Liberty for four hours. At one point, she napped briefly. When she awakened, the police had set up a ladder. A police officer at the top of the ladder said his name was Brian and he was there because he cared about Patricia Okoumou. Patricia Okoumou answered, “No, you don’t, you could shoot me the way you shot Claudia Gomez and killed the trans woman.” Patricia Okoumou was invoking, and mourning,Claudia Patricia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Guatemalan refugee shot in the head by ICE agents in Texas; and Roxana Hernández, a 33-year-old Honduran transgender woman refugee who died in ICE custody in the detention center commonly called the ice box. Both women were killed, or better executed, in May. Patricia Okoumou refused to forget them. Memory begins in mourning.

Repeat after me repeating after Patricia Okoumou: “In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Who sits with Patricia Okoumou?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

Where are the burning tires?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

If kids separated from their parents can’t hold our attention, what will?

“In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period. There is no debating it. Nothing you can say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

In a democracy, we do not put children in cages. Period.

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Joanna Walters)

Ottilie Abrahams worked ceaselessly to make the world a better place for humanity as a whole

Ottilie Abrahams

On July 1, Namibian liberation activist, educator, feminist, movement builder Ottilie Abrahams died, at 80 years old. While many in Namibia, and in South Africa, mourned her passing, beyond the region little was made of her death or, more importantly, of her lifetime contributions. That’s too bad, because for those who care about justice, liberation, education, women and girls, and so much more, Ottilie Abrahams was, and is, a model.

Too full to summarize here, Ottilie Abrahams was one of the founders of SWAPO; one of the founders of the Yu Chi Chan Club, an armed revolutionary group; one of the founders of SWANLIF, South West African National Liberation Front; one of the founders of the Jakob Marengo Secondary School; one of the founders of the Namibian Women’s Association; and one of the founders of the Girl Child Project. That’s an abbreviated list.

Throughout her life, Ottilie Abrahams argued for the right to argue, think, contest, and demand. She mobilized women. She organized students and teachers. She criticized struggle comrades for their elitism and their corruption, and more than once was ‘invited’ to leave the organization and/or party. She welcomed every obstacle as an opportunity. The Jakob Marengo Secondary School is an example of that.

Ottilie and Kenneth Abrahams founded the Jakob Marengo Tutorial College in 1985. At that time, Namibia was still under the South African “mandate.” According to Kenneth Abrahams, the choice of name was “natural.” Jakob Marengo led the 1904 – 1907 War of Resistance to German colonialism. He was a national hero in a nation not yet recognized as such. Of equal importance, especially to Ottilie Abrahams, by 1985, Jakob Marengo was largely forgotten. She argued for the importance of historical memory. She researched Jakob Marengo’s life and she researched the popular archive of that life. Who remembered Jakob Marengo, and who did not? With that she designed a school committed to participatory democracy, critical thinking, and real and ongoing equality among both individuals and groups.

From her youth to her last day, Ottilie Abrahams worked ferociously to decolonize individuals and populations, to dismantle patriarchy, and to create a concrete transformative, liberatory, feministparticipatory democracy. In her writings and interviews, from beginning to end, the one constant is the insistence that democracy, if it is to be called democracy, must be participatory, and for that to happen, we all must engage in cointentional education. We must all be equally responsible for one another’s learning and wisdom. Ottilie Abrahams created a school in the image of the nation she believed Namibians, and everyone, deserves. Her school was based on “participatory democracy, critical thinking, non-sexism, responsibility and reciprocity as well as self-discipline.” As Ottilie Abrahams said, “These values are intended to produce people who will understand that they are their own liberators. Once they become adults, they will insist on participating actively in their own governance and become citizens who will work ceaselessly to make the world a better place for humanity as a whole.”

Ottilie Abrahams often said, “I will rest the day I die.” That day has come. Rest in peace Ottilie Abrahams. You provided the tools of critical feminist liberatory consciousness and action, which begins and ends with the recognition that liberation is within reach, and now, as always, the work of struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Namibian)

In South Africa, at the Curro Waterfall preschool, Black Women teachers demand justice

A half hour out of Johannesburg and “a breezy 23 minutes” from O.R. International Airport lies a place called Waterfall, “one of the fastest transforming suburbs in South Africa” Waterfall boasts “soaring investor confidence …, burgeoning residential, commercial, mixed-use and retail precincts”, Waterfall City, The Mall of Africa, brand name restaurants, malls, schools … and, according to recent reports, racism with a large component of sexism. Specifically, the Curro Waterfall pre-school,  known as a Curro Castle School, has had a practice of slotting Black women as assistants and White women as teachers, often despite respective qualifications, and then segregating assistants from teachers. They are referred to differently, and they have segregated staff rooms. As today’s Mail & Guardian notes, “The signs on the staff rooms did not read `whites only’ or `blacks only’ but teaching assistants were segregated from teachers.” Within a month, three Black Women teachers resigned from Waterfall Curro. The teachers are going under the names of Sibongile Khumalo, Juliet Bongo, Lerato Makhubela. Concerned parents raised a ruckus as did teachers, and now an independent investigation is underway.

While this is clearly an issue of racial discrimination on the part of the school’s management and some of its staff, the events also speak to the importance of an intersectional approach. Where are the women? Everywhere. Three Black Women resigned within a month. White Women teachers told their children to call anyone who was White a teacher, and to call anyone who was Black an assistant. The children age from three months to five years. What are they learning at the juncture of race and gender?

Black women are slotted into lower paying positions and then forced to accept them. Black women are demeaned and told by the administration to tough it out. When Sibongile Khumalo perceived that she was being treated differently than her White colleagues, she went to the executive head of Curro Waterfall, Graeme Waite, who told her she could stay or she could go. “It was a way of killing my confidence or something because, by that time, I was destroyed. Only resilience kept me going. I told myself that I’m not going to leave this school until I can prove a black person is competent,” explained Sibongile Khumalo.

The three Black Women teachers stayed, and stayed in the assistants’ staff room. Finally, a group of parents began investigating and found racist practices in employment and culture. They wrote to Curro Group CEO Andries Greyling and demanded that Waite be fired. As of now the staff rooms are allegedly no longer segregated by `rank’ and Waite continues as executive head of the preschool.

The issues raised here – salary, culture, dignity, happiness – affect all workers and all people, but not necessarily in identical ways or with identical impact. Women workers struggle with the killing of their confidence in ways that are particular to their being positioned as women workers. What happened at Curro Waterfall was racist sexist, with the two parts intensifying each other and the whole. When it came to the three Curro Waterfall teachers who demanded justice, remember this: All the women were Black, all the Blacks were women, and all of them were brave.

 

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian / Wikus de Wet)

Trying to kill DCQ18 and Ali: Australia is still not shocked by the torture of innocents on Nauru

Wednesday, June 20, was World Refugee Day. Some 65 million people are refugees, out of a global population of  7.6 billion. Congratulations, world. While eyes rightly and firmly fixed on the horror show that is the United States reception of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, with an occasional glance at the horror show that is the Italian reception of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, it would be understandable if you missed this week’s horror show that is Australia’s ongoing torture of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. This week, the week of World Refugee Day, Australia allowed a dying man to leave Nauru for palliative care in Australia. This week, Australia was forced to allow a Somali refugee permission to go to Australia for necessary and lifesaving medical attention. There are 65 million refugees. These are two.

Ali is a 63-year-old Hazara refugee father of six who has spent five years on Nauru. He is in the last stages of advanced lung cancer. He has pleaded for months to be allowed to go to Australia where he might get decent care. The Australian government refused. Thousands of Australian doctors pleaded to have Ali transferred to Australia. No dice. Faith groups, activist groups, women’s groups, sports groups, and individuals mobilized. The Australian government refused. Finally, today, Ali was moved to Australia. Ali is a formally recognized refugee. Nevertheless, he only gains passage when he’s about to move onto the next realm. What is asylum in that world, in our world?

A 30-year-old pregnant Somali woman, known as DCQ18, has also been on Nauru for five years. She too is a formally recognized refugee. She is twelve weeks pregnant. She is a survivor of infibulation, also known as female genital mutilation. She has tried to commit suicide. She is persuaded that pregnancy and childbirth would be fatal. Doctors agree. She wants to terminate the pregnancy. Doctors agree that that would be a good thing for her, in the circumstances. Abortion is illegal on Nauru. Australia has offered Taiwan as a solution. Doctors agree that Taiwanese doctors, though first caliber, have no experience in treating women who have undergone infibulation. The court agreed, and DCQ18 will be transferred to Australia for medical care. Australia formally recognized DCQ18 as a refugee in November 2014, and since then she’s been dying on Nauru.

This week, Iranian refugee and prisoner on Manus Island for the past four years, Behrouz Boochani, wrote, “The one thing that remains consistent over all this time is the unrelenting affliction. We are forgotten people discarded on forgotten islands. The question remains: “Who will be the next to be sacrificed? Whose death will enable our innocent voices to be heard in the media again? Whose death will function as another message to the world that we are locked up in these island prisons?”

Looking over the detritus of Holocaust death camps, philosopher Giorgio Agamben saw the work of homo sacer: “he who is exiled from political belonging, exposed to persistent structural violence and the risk of a meaningless death.” This year, Australian feminist historians Catherine Kevin and Karen Agutter looked at the mess of Australian immigration policy and saw the work of femina sacer: “subject to extreme reproductive coercion, bereft of political belonging and politically meaningful only insofar as they convey a warning to those who would travel to Australia by boat to seek asylum.”

Australia casts a shadow on the U.S. – Mexico border as that border casts a shadow on the Mediterranean as the Mediterranean casts its shadow on the waters around Australia. At the center of that shadow is a darkness and a silence, an insistence that the violence committed against some particular people means less than nothing, that their deaths mean less than so much dust and ash to be swept off and forgotten. The work of asylum seekers once had something to do with life-to-come. Now, they are forced into the administration of their own endless, agonizing dying. That must end … now. Shut down the detention centers today.

 

(Photo credit: The Guardian)

Where are the girl refugees, asylum seekers, children?

The United States government launched a new, and to many eyes and ears, fascist program for asylum seekers and people crossing into the United States. Touting questionable lines from the Bible and making false claims about the law, Trump and Sessions have proudly announced a zero-tolerance program, ignoring the catastrophic history of such programs in the past, in which everyone is charged with a criminal offense and sent to Federal prison. If they are with children, the children are taken from the parents, often by force, and sent off, with the excuse that “the law” says that children can’t go with their parents to prison. There is no such law, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is `deterrence.’ What matters is the imposition of force and violence on the most vulnerable.

Stores have been turned into giant child detention centers, and military bases are being turned into child prison camps. One former store in Brownsville, Texas, is currently holding 1500 boys… or it was a week ago. Today, probably more. According to Rochelle Garza, an immigration attorney based in Texas, “What’s happening is atrocious. It’s really unbelievable to separate a child from their parents, children as young as five. The parents don’t know where their child ends up. They’re being pushed through the criminal system and immigration system without any knowledge of where their children are and their children don’t know where their parents are. That’s against the whole point of unaccompanied minor reunification process. The whole thing is garbage right now. The kids are not being sent to any parent. It doesn’t make any sense.” Meanwhile, prison staffs and administrators are complaining that they’re not ready to “handle” the influx of children. Children.

Where are the girl refugees, asylum seekers, children in this unholy mess? We see pictures, such as the one above, of girl infants, toddlers, children weeping, crying, screaming, trembling, and then … they’re gone. Into the night and fog. Where are the girls? Is anyone paying any attention to the specific needs and identities of girl children? Yesterday, the Office of Refugee Resettlement updated its “Fact Sheet”. Here’s the one sentence that in any way alludes to gender: “In FY 2017, approximately half of all children referred were over 14 years of age, and over two-thirds were boys.” That is the full extent of the Office’s concern for girls. Nothing. Less than nothing.

Children and parents are entering the United States together. The children are not “unaccompanied minors” until they are ripped from their parents’ arms, arms which lovingly protected them on the long and arduous journey to the north. Now those children are being shipped like so much freight, sent hither and yon across the country with less than no regard for the children or for their parents or grandparents. In response, the State quotes the Bible. Where are the girl refugees, asylum seekers, children in this unholy mess? A specter haunts the United States, and it is that of the disappeared.

 

(Photo Credit: Slate / John Moore / Getty)