Brunt: somewhere between rights and reconciliation, women

Yesterday was 16 December 2009. In South Africa, it’s the Day of Reconciliation. President of the Republic of South Africa Jacob Zuma spoke, in Tshwane, about reconciliation. The President spoke at length about the military, about veterans and about serving members of the South African National Defence Force. Reconciliation.

Seven days earlier, 10 December, was Human Rights Day. President of the United States Barack Obama spoke in Oslo, Norway, as this year’s Nobel Peace Laureate. He spoke of just war. Peace.

Both presidents spoke of responsibility. For one, it was the responsibility of nation building, for the other the responsibility of peace. This was a week then that began with war as peace and ended with the military as agent of reconciliation.

Women know better. Women `bear the brunt’ of these speeches.

Women often bear the brunt of poverty and human rights abuses; but as activists they use these roles to trigger positive social change”. Women bear the brunt of poverty because they are the target of discrimination, oppression, exploitation, violence. Here’s how Amnesty describes the world of women: “Over 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women. Women earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income but do two thirds of the world’s work. Three quarters of the world’s illiterate are women. Women produce up to 80 per cent of the food in developing countries but own only one per cent of the land.”

Treated as objects, women refuse to be abject. Around the world women are mobilizing, gathering, celebrating, organizing. Women like Ugandan human rights activists Jacqueline Kasha, Solome Kimbugwe Nakawesi, Sylvia Tamale, speaking out and organizing against the homophobic bill in Uganda’s parliament; or Val Kalende, an out lesbian in Uganda who has the courage to speak truth to power, and the truth is she simply wants to live a full and joyful life.

Women like Terra K, Joan S, Michelle M, pregnant women prisoners in the U.S. struggling for decent health care and for decency and dignity. Women like Nepalese widows Bhagwati Adhikari, Lily Thapa, Rekha Subedi, Nisha Swar, members of Women for Human Rights who reject the oppression of widows and of all women.

Women like Annise Parker, new mayor of Houston and first elected out gay mayor of a major U.S. city, or Elizabeth Simbiwa Sogbo-Tortu, campaigning to become the first paramount chieftain in the country.

Women like Zimbabwean activist Kuda Chitsike, women who dare to organize, women who dare to win.

These are a few women who were reported on during the week that began with a peace speech justifying war and ended with a reconciliation speech focusing on military well being.

We found out this week that, in KwaZulu Natal, urban women `bear the brunt’ of AIDS: “The face of HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu-Natal is a woman in her thirties living in eThekwini, according to a study released this week. Urban women in the province are far more likely to be HIV positive than their rural sisters, while over half (54%) of all pregnant women in their thirties were HIV positive….Despite levels of poverty being higher in the rural districts, social scientists believe that there is more social cohesion in rural communities that protects against women against HIV.…People living in informal settlements have the highest HIV prevalence.” How do you reconcile the urban and rural sisters? Call in the military?

We found out this week that, in Honduras, women `bear the brunt’ of human rights abuses at the hands of the coup regime, and the Obama regime is doing little to stop that: “Repercussions from this summer’s coup in Honduras are far from over….The brunt of …abuses is borne by the women….Women make up the majority of the vast resistance movement in Honduras, playing a critical leadership role in civil disobedience and citizen protection. For their tireless and courageous support of democracy, they have received death threats and been attacked with nail-studded police batons, tear gas, and bullets. Detained by police or military for hours and even days without charges or access to legal counsel, women have been deprived of medicine, food, and water. At least two cases have resulted in death. Lawless violence against women has pervaded Honduras since the coup.” When war is peace, violence against women is national security.

This is the logic of the brunt, of the sharp blow, the assault, the violence, the shock, the force. Women `bear the brunt’ because men understand peace and reconciliation as military engagements, from the bedroom to the boardroom and beyond. Women are meant to inhabit the space between hollow rights and empty reconciliation, And beyond? As one necessarily anonymous writer opined recently, looking at the current situation in Uganda, “You want gay rights? Get more women elected.” You want real peace, real reconciliation? Look to women’s organizing histories, stories, lives.

Today is 17 December. A new week begins.


Val Kalende

Bordering on: citizens, prisoners, exceptions, women

I used to think that all prisoners are political prisoners because they’re `guests of the State’, housed and held in total institutions in which the very least the State was obliged to do was acknowledge the prisoners’ existence and maybe keep them alive. Given the convergent news of this past week, I have had to rethink that a bit.

Four names: Edwina Nowlin, Alberto Fujimori, Jacob Zuma, Gladys Monterroso. Four countries: the United States, Peru, South Africa, Guatemala. If your country isn’t on this list, that’s accidental good fortune. Trust me, it should be. In fact, it is.

A girl is flogged in Pakistan, a video captures the moment and circulates and suddenly everyone is concerned about gender and punishment in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani courts perform concern: “Pakistan’s newly reinstated chief justice has ordered a police committee to investigate the controversial flogging of a teenage girl. Ayesha Siddiqa wonders about the innocence of the sudden gaze, “As the entire Pakistani nation watches video footage of a 17-years-old girl screaming on their television screens during the process of her torture at the hands of the brutal Taliban in Swat, one wonders if the mothers, sisters, daughters and the male members of this nation will ever take time out to think about this system of justice advocated by these men who are not even qualified to interpret the Quran and Sunnah.” She lays the system of Hudood laws squarely on the shoulders of the Zia regime: “In Pakistan in particular where the Hudood laws were formulated under the Zia regime, the objective was not to bring justice in the society but to throttle all forms of justice. In this respect, the Taliban in Swat and those who ruled Afghanistan for some time are Zia’children. They use force arbitrarily and apply laws without the real context to enhance their own power.” Flogging is never `spontaneous’ , never `organic’, and never `gender neutral.’

In the United States, there’s the tale of Edwina Nowlin: “Edwina Nowlin, a poor Michigan resident, was ordered to reimburse a juvenile detention center $104 a month for holding her 16-year-old son. When she explained to the court that she could not afford to pay, Ms. Nowlin was sent to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which helped get her out last week after she spent 28 days behind bars, says it is seeing more people being sent to jail because they cannot make various court-ordered payments. That is both barbaric and unconstitutional.”

This practice is going on all over the country: poor women, and men, who cannot pay the fines, and cannot be the additional fees to the companies that collect the fines, are thrown into jail: mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, strangers. Debt, the not so secret origin of primitive accumulation, built on the backs of the poors, largely people of color, largely women, haunts our world, from Pakistan to the United States and beyond.

Meanwhile, death stalks and storms the corridors and cells of Zimbabwe’s prisons, as demonstrated in a documentary shown this past week. Emaciated prisoners can’t bring the morsel of food to their lips, can’t stand and can’t fall. Hell hole. Death camp. These phrases are too elegant by far for what’s going on. George Nyathi, recently released from the torture of Hami maximum security prison outside of Bulawayo, looks into the mirror now, now that he is `free’, and sees Edwina Nowlin. The young woman in Pakistan looks into the mirror and sees …

I’ll tell you what they don’t see. They don’t see Jacob Zuma, who was exonerated of all corruption charges on Tuesday. They might see Alberto Fujimori, already in jail and sentenced, at almost the same instant that Zuma was released, to twenty-five years for having ordered kidnappings and killings when he was president. Fujimori may be in prison, but he’s powerful. His daughter says she may run for president of Peru, and would pardon her father. There’s no such daughter for that girl in Pakistan, for the prisoners in Zimbabwe, for Edwina Nowlin. There’s no powerful daughter coming to rescue those `suspected of terrorist activities’ being tortured in the prisons of Uganda, of the United States, of everywhere. No powerful kin or kith comes to the rescue of those mysteriously jumping from police vans or prison windows, such as Sidwel Mkwambi, beaten to death by police.

And when Gladys Monterroso, a prominent Guatemalan attorney and activist, was abducted last month, held for thirteen hours, burned, beaten, sexually and psychologically abused, there was no Great Man nor any of his family or cronies, to swoop down and save her. When Fujimori and Zuma and their gang look in the mirror, they see the State, they see State Power. When the rest look in, we see ourselves and those like us, call us citizens, of a nation, of the world, of whatever.

I used to think that prisons demonstrated the limit case of citizenship, that we had to ask why some people were in prison and why others were not. This week has me wondering. Perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps we have to wonder how it is that any of us, that anyone you or I meet on the street, is not in prison. Perhaps prison is the crucible of normative citizenship in the world we inhabit, and being-outside, what’s that called again, oh yeah, freedom, that’s the exceptional state. And that would go some distance in explaining why women are the fastest growing prison population and still don’t get counted, still are not recognized. Citizenship. Gladys Monteroso, Edwina Nowlin. Citizens, not exceptions.