Young women refuse to be sacrifices

Welcome to 2012. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Spring, the Indignado Spring continue. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and beyond, women are on the move, on the march. In Saudi Arabia, women are on the drive as well. Young women.

Across the United States and Canada and beyond, young women are leading and expanding the Occupy movement. In Chile, women high school and university students are pushing to end the privatization of education, to open the schools to freedom, democracy, universal opportunity.

In India, young rural women are leading resistance campaigns to stop major land grabs.  In Afghanistan, teams of young women athletes are punching their way through centuries-old as well as recently devised glass ceilings.

In Kenya, young women are entering into local electoral politics. In Mauritius as well.

Women everywhere are on the move, keeping on keeping on, filling spaces with their voices, their bodies, their energy, their aspirations, their collective and singular power.

At the same time, women struggle with a master narrative in which they only function as sacrifices. In India, two farmers sacrifice a seven-year-old girl, Lalita, in order to ensure good crops. In Afghanistan, a fifteen-year-old girl, Sahar Gul, struggles to survive, and to live with dignity, having fled the torture inflicted on her by her husband and his mother and sister. When she first fled, the State actually returned her to `the family.

In the United States, girls like seventeen-year-old Nga Truong, are routinely forced into confessing crimes they didn’t commit and then are sent off to prison. In the United States, seventeen-year-old girls like Samantha L. are sent to prison for life, without possibility of parole.

In Australia, teen-age girls, like Danielle Troy, have to plead for compassion rather than punishment. Their crime? Being mothers.

And in South Africa, two teenage girls are attacked by a crowd of 50 or 60 `adult’ men. Why? Because one of them was wearing a mini-skirt. Four years ago, another young woman, Nwabisa Ngcukana, was stripped and assaulted for exactly the same `crime’, at exactly the same taxi rank.

From domestic violence to more general sexual violence to mob violence to State violence and beyond, the patriarchal story of young women is the story of being-sacrificed. If a man is told, by no less than God, to sacrifice his son, we are told that is a tragedy. A moral and ethical crisis. But where is the mother of that son in the story? And what if, instead, the father was told, by no less than God, to sacrifice his daughter? Would that too be considered a tragedy? An ethical and moral crisis?

Not by the patriarchs, it wouldn’t, as the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac so aptly demonstrates: “It is difficult not to be struck by the absence of woman… It is a story of father and son, of masculine figures, of hierarchies among men… Would the logic of sacrificial responsibility within the implacable universality of the law… be altered… if a woman were to intervene in some consequential manner? Does the system of this sacrificial responsibility and of the double `gift of death’ imply at its very basis an exclusion of woman or sacrifice of woman? A woman’s sacrifice or a sacrifice of woman? Let us leave the question in suspense.”

Women, and in particular young women, are saying, “No.” They reject the story that excludes them and the  `suspense’ that reduces them. They are saying – with their bodies, voices, actions and deeds – women and girls are not to be sacrificed. If `the Law’ says they must be, the Law is wrong. Women are making a better Law, living out a better story, and creating a better world. Another, better world is possible.

 

(Video Credit: WBUR)

The Hardest Hit, can they suffer?

Over the weekend, thousands across the United Kingdom joined, under the banner of the Hardest Hit Campaign, to protest cuts that target people living with disabilities. These include changes in the disability living allowance system, cuts in local services, time limits for out-of-work support, and reductions in the support for parents with a disabled children.

The changes in disability living allowance involve a shift from the Disability Living Allowance to the Personal Independence Payment program. Under the new assessment regime, almost everyone on Disability Living Allowance loses something, and often they lose everything. How? They submit to a “fit-to-work test”, a test that has proven horribly flawed in its elements and outcomes, but no matter. People living with disabilities must learn, or be taught, to pay for themselves. They must learn, or be taught, the lesson, “something for something.” They must learn, or be taught, “independence”. Personal independence.

And who will teach them? The testers. And who exactly are the examiners? The United Kingdom contracted that job out to Atos Healthcare: “Atos Healthcare provides independent medical advice to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). We conduct disability assessments for people claiming a range of disability … Each year Atos Healthcare process over 1.2 million referrals for medical advice completing over 800,000 face-to-face medical assessments within our nationwide network of over 140 medical examination centres.”

That’s an annual contract of around £100million-a-year. According to many, the assessments are, first, often way off. The stories are legion of people living with severe and immobilizing disabilities being deemed perfectly fit for “independence”, meaning denial of services and funding. Second, the face-to-face meetings are intimately degrading. The tone of the entire process is felt to be prosecutorial. “Clients” are made to feel they must prove themselves both “deserving” and “beyond reproach.” Who among us could pass the “beyond reproach” test?

The meetings themselves are also often demeaning. Women living with terminal illnesses, women who had worked all their lives are told they must come in and justify the end-of-life assistance they’re receiving. They must learn the lesson of independence. Some Atos Assessment Centres, such as the one in Croydon, are inaccessible, and so those in wheelchairs must either scale 46 steps or take a 14-mile round trip to the next Atos center. If it weren’t so bad, it would be laughable.

Women are particularly targeted. “Cuts for the disabled” targets women, “cuts for care providers for the disabled” attacks women even more specifically and more ferociously. And for the women living with disabilities who are themselves care providers … it’s a nightmare.

For some, like Jennyfer Spencer, the nightmare is quite simply a death sentence. Spencer was wheelchair bound and placed in a fifth-floor apartment. For years, she protested and tried to get moved to a ground floor apartment. Finally, she died and was “discovered”, later. Also discovered was a letter she had left for a local newspaper: “No human or animal should ever go through life as I did.”

Of animals, Jeremy Bentham noted, “The question is not, `Can they reason?’ nor, `Can they talk?’ but, `Can they suffer?’” Can they suffer? For Jacques Derrida, Bentham’s question of suffering is actually a question of inability: “”Can they suffer?” amounts to asking “can they not be able?”” If suffering, anguish, vulnerability are all part of a political economy of not-being-able, what is the State policy of rendering suffering, anguish, and vulnerability? When the State actually gets into the business of producing suffering, when the State actually gets into the business of outsourcing the production of suffering to a major corporation, one that, by the way, has already failed the competency test but “promises to do better in the future”, what is that? What is it called when the State chooses to turn disability into inability, all in the name of independence?

 

(Photo Credit: Tenants Unite)

Betty Tibikawa’s asylum nightmare

Yarl’s Wood

Betty Tibikawa is a Ugandan lesbian who has applied for asylum in the United Kingdom. She has been turned down and sits in Yarl’s Wood, waiting to be deported, struggling to live.

Betty Tibikawa’s family has disowned her. The infamous Ugandan tabloid, the Red Pepper, identified Tibikawa as lesbian, and so extended the threat to her life and well being.

And she has been tortured. Having just graduated from high school, Betty Tibikawa was preparing to go to university in Kampala when three men abducted her. They took her to an abandoned building and branded her thighs with a hot iron. They left her unconscious. She remained at home, in bed, for two months. In the home of the family that then disowned her for being lesbian.

The United Kingdom Border Agency has decided that Betty Tibikawa shall not receive asylum. The scars are real, and they do indicate having been branded with a hot iron, but she shall not remain in the United Kingdom. Has the agency decided, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Uganda is now magically safe for LGBTQ persons? That can’t be. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. Is Betty Tibikawa not lesbian enough for the UKBA, and thus not in enough danger? Being tortured, being abducted, being threatened by a national newspaper, being disowned and abandoned by one’s family aren’t enough? What would be credible enough?

Betty Tibikawa’s story is an old story, a familiar story. In pleading for asylum, Tibikawa is  “at the mercy of states not only jealous of their own sovereignty but dominant on the international scene, pressed to intervene here rather than or sooner than there”. Hers is a story of mercy, a test of the sovereign nation-State’s capacity to engage in mercy. The State has failed … again.

She has come before strangers and revealed herself. She has been prodded, poked, interrogated, poked again, prodded again, all in the name of some sort of science. In this, Betty Tibikawa mirrors Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman brought to France, an African woman who, in the end, “craved … mercy. Mercy. I was one colored woman against a thousand dead white men.” All she craved was mercy. She found none. She found, instead, European men who claimed science, who claimed mercy.

Betty Tibikawa mirrors as well Joseph “John” Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, who looked at the world of English scientists and doctors and wondered aloud, “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” The doctors responded that Merrick had much to learn about science, about religion, about mercy.

Where is mercy?

Is it to be found in a court of law? Does mercy abide anywhere in the processes of asylum? Do mercy and justice ever meet? What crime did Betty Tibikawa commit? The crime of self knowledge? The crime of knowing whom she loves? The crime of love itself?

Betty Tibikawa says she can’t sleep and has terrible nightmares. The current practice of asylum is a nightmare, a nightmare from which we all must try to awake. Meanwhile, Betty Tibikawa waits to be deported back to Uganda.

 

(Photo  credit: Dan Chung / Guardian)

 

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state

Pagani detention center, Greece

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state.  Asylum haunts the principle of democracy by positing a citizenship of higher order than that of the national variety. This asylum citizenship is based not in identity, not in birthright, not in lineage or kin, not in relationship to the nation-state. Instead, asylum citizenship is based in the conditions of life, in need, in a will to survive, in a demand for dignity. The asylum citizenship is the unknown and unknowable stranger who demands recognition as a familiar. Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has given up on the structures of power and the logic of the nation-State. It is neither a superior citizenship nor a more powerful one nor a wealthier one. Nor is the asylum citizen more privileged.  Asylum citizenship is of a higher order because it has always already been with us, and so precedes the noise of national sovereignty and of national due process, as it exceeds the furor and the hurly burly of the rule of law.

Asylum haunts the modern democratic nation-state because it puts the notion of demos in crisis. Asylum haunts the democratic nation-state because it preceded the nation-state. Asylum does not participate in the nation-state historical narratives of progress, those stories that make the invention and maintenance of the nation-state the pinnacle of civilization. For thousands of years women, men, children have sought, received or were denied asylum. They continue to do so today. This seeming eternal repetition of the same does not mean that those who seek asylum today are somehow `primitive’. Asylum as an aspect of the human condition is no more inevitable than torture or genocide, and no less historical or historically produced.

Women asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme. Children of asylum seekers haunt the democratic nation-state because they also demonstrate, forcefully, the violent patriarchy that reigns supreme.  They step out of the shadows, ask for help, and they are punished. For women asylum seekers and for their children, the modern democratic nation-state is a tight knit and tighter fisted brotherhood, and women asylum seekers and their children are not brothers.

How does the contemporary democratic nation-state respond to the asylum citizen? Prison. Yarl’s Wood, in the UK. T. Don Hutto, in the US. Villawood, in Australia. Lindela, in South Africa. Pagani, in Greece. Via Corelli, in Italy. Opbouw, in the Netherlands. Vottem, in Belgium. Glasmoor, in Germany.  The list goes on, the construction of new `reception centers’ continues, the cells continue to grow more intensely overcrowded. This is the way the modern democratic nation-state recognizes, understands, absorbs, responds to and resolves asylum. Sequestration. Intimidation. Torture, `if necessary’. Expulsion. The nation-state calls these reception centers, residential centers.  And so, this must be the architecture of reception and residence in the modern democratic nation-state.

Fifteen years ago, Jacques Derrida was asked to discuss the ways in which the French population was “taken by surprise” by immigration of the sans-papiers, the undocumented: “Immigration is no higher now than it was a half-century ago.  Yet today it takes people by surprise. It seems to have surprised the social body and the political class, and it seems that the discourses of both right and left, by refusing illegal immigrants (immigrés clandestins), have degenerated into xenophobia in an unexpected way.”

Derrida replied, in part, “A politics that does not maintain a reference to the principle of unconditional hospitality is a politics that loses its reference to justice.  It may retain its rights … but it loses justice. Along with the right to speak of justice in any credible way. …One would have to try to distinguish between a politics of immigration and the respect to the right of asylum.  In principle the right of asylum … is paradoxically less political because it is not modeled in principle on the interests of  the body proper of the nation-state that guarantees this right.  But … it is almost impossible to delimit the properly political nature of the motivations for exile – those that … justify a request for asylum. After all, unemployment in a foreign country is a dysfunction of democracy and a kind of political persecution. Moreover, the market plays a part in this; the rich countries always share in the responsibility (if only through foreign debt and everything it symbolizes) for the politico-economic situations that push people into exile or emigration. And here we touch on the limits of the political and juridical:…a right of asylum can be null or infinite.”

From the perspective of asylum, in the modern democratic nation-state, there is no right, there is no left. These niceties are irrelevant. Instead there is only unconditional hospitality … or there is none. And where there is none, there is injustice. More precisely, there is the loss of justice and the loss of the `right’, the capacity, to speak of justice credibly.  Xenophobia cannot credibly surprise anyone, it is the national democratic politics of false hospitality. The particular `indignities’ visited upon women asylum seekers  cannot surprise anyone. They are manifestations of the patriarchy that reigns supreme in the violent and violating absence of unconditional hospitality.

 

(Photo Credit: UNHCR / EU Observer)

The Parable of Yarl’s Wood

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat. For the breath of the ruthless is like a storm driving against a wall and like the heat of the desert.  — Isaiah 25: 4-5

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”… “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  — Matthew 25: 35-40.

Once, providing asylum to those who needed it was considered a sacred act. In the Book of Numbers, God ordered Moses to create “cities of refuge” or “cities of asylum,” for those fleeing unjust punishment. International conventions written following the Holocaust and World War II confer refugee status on people who face persecution, abuse, torture, or death in their own countries. And even today, the immigration laws of most Western countries have provisions for granting asylum to such refugees—in theory at least. In practice, it’s a different story. In the United States, refugees seeking protection have often found themselves in prison instead. In the United Kingdom, the situation is just as bad or worse.

The United Kingdom has eleven `immigration removal centres.” Seven are privately run. Six are run by G4S, the world’s largest security provider. The seventh, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, is run by Serco. Of the seven prisons, two house women. Tinsley House holds 5 females. Yarl’s Wood has 405 `bed spaces’, which divide into 284 single female bed spaces; 121 family bed spaces. Serco has responsibility for practically all the women and children who apply for asylum.

On February 5, at least 50 women prisoners at Yarl’s Wood went on a hunger strike, which they suspended on March 19. They may resume the hunger strike on April 9.

The women were protesting the Detained Fast Track Asylum System, which discriminates against those fleeing sexual and domestic violence. It is estimated that over 70% of the women at Yarl’s Wood are rape survivors. They were also protesting the length of time many had been detained. One woman who spoke little or no English had been at Yarl’s Wood for two years. Generally, they were protesting degrading and humiliating treatment.

According to Nigerian asylum seeker Mojirola Daniels, on February 8 about 70 women were herded into a long airless hallway and then locked down. They were denied access to toilets, water, anything. There was no heat. Women suffered hypothermia. Blood, urine, faeces covered the floor. Some women passed out. Others were beaten. Finally, hours later, the women were allowed to leave, in pairs: “We were about 70 which consist many Nigerians, Chinese, Jamaicans, Zimbabweans and some nationals that I do not remember. I have been traumatised and victimised because of this experience. I can never believe this can happen in the UK and I am still in shock.”

Another woman reported: “One of the managers told the women they would regret what they have done; she called the Chinese women monkeys, and the Black women black monkeys. Four other women have been locked in other rooms for three hours, and have been told by room mates that their belongings have been packed. They are worried they face immediate removal even though their cases are still being considered. Fifteen women have been locked up in “Kingfisher”, the punishment wing.”

Hunger striker Aisha and non-participant Victoria agree on the conditions in Yarl’s Wood.

35 year old Jamaican asylum seeker Denise McNeil was identified as a `ringleader’, moved to another prison, and placed in solitary. Gladys Obiyan from Nigeria, Sheree Wilson and Shellyann Stupart from Jamaica, and Aminata Camara from suffered a similar fate. Others were suddenly `repatriated’. Leila, an Iranian prisoner, had been at Yarl’s Wood for 20 months, 15 days. After taking part in the hunger strikes and other protests she was placed in solitary: “I want to kill myself, I cannot live here”. Women do try to kill themselves at Yarl’s Wood.

The women are suing Serco. Their lawyers noted: “Serco guards intervened, and according to accounts from our clients “kettled” protestors inside and outside the building, injured some and locked the “ringleaders” in isolation for more than two weeks.”

There will be investigations and trials; poems, plays, and performance pieces; testimony and more. Perhaps the fast-track asylum system will be slowed down. Perhaps detention for women who have been tortured and rape will come to an end. Perhaps no more children will be sent to immigration removal centres. One can hope for these changes.

But asylum will not come until we have cities of refuge: Asylum is a sacred responsibility, not only around Passover or Easter or any other holiday. The building of cities of refuge begins with the end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration. The end of automatic asylum seeker incarceration begins in practice. End the practice of shame and isolation of women asylum seekers now. Walk with the women hunger strikers, the innocent prisoners of Yarl’s Wood, for they are the architects and the carpenters of the cities of refuge to come.

[In a very slightly different form, this was posted at Solitary Watch. Thanks to Solitary Watch, and Jean Casella in particular, for the invitation, editing, and for their great work and labor.]

 

(Video Credit: visionontv / YouTube)

 

Haunts

Welcome to `Haunts’, a new series about prisons, police, women.

A specter is haunting the world, or so one could believe from reports and blogs. Consider these:

My Great Recession: Economic Downturn? When Was It Ever Up?”, RaceWire, May 21, 2009:
“Economic downturn? When was it ever up? I have been dealing with poverty and economics since I was a child in Guatemala- now as a young adult in this country its even harder for me to find a job, get housing or go to school. It makes me feel empty like a ghost, because I feel I have a lot to offer. I have survived gangs, drugs and migration. Im not sure how I will survive this.”

Spooks haunt our democracy”, Mail & Guardian, May 22, 2009

And then there’s “Quarto”, a poem by Adrienne Rich, in The Nation, which begins:
1.
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
Battle of the Overpass.
Victories turned inside out
But no surrender

Cemeteries of remorse
The beaten champion sobbing
Ghosts move in to shield his tears

There have been others in the past couple days. The world is indeed haunted by specters, ghosts, revenants (revenants means “literally that which comes back”), and for some, it was Jacques Derrida, in Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, who drew attention to ghosts around us as part of the new world economic order. Derrida noted that the first noun of the Communist Manifesto is specter. We note that the first verb, the first action, is haunting.

The home of specters, of ghosts, of revenants is prison. The place where people are and are not, visibly invisible, a zone of hyper-monitored abandonment. Say `recidivism’ to anyone, and they’ll know you’re talking about prison, about prisoners.

There are more people in jails and prisons today, globally, than ever before. There are more people in jails, prisons, detention centers in the U.S. than ever imaginable. There is more money being made out of prison than was ever conceivable. Early prison designers thought conscript labor might pay the bill. Ha! They never thought about private prisons, about the surplus value emanating from prisoners’ bodies, the aura. And at the center of all this new world global prison? Women. The fastest growing prison population, thanks largely to so-called wars on drugs and their mandatory sentencing programs. Women, mostly low income, mostly defined as members of racial minority and oppressed communities. Women constitute the haunting ghost in the prison machine. Women are not only prisoners, they are partners, spouses, mothers, friends, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, correspondents, visitors, re-visitors. They are the revenants who sustain … what? Women haunt from within, women haunt from without.

What is haunt? It’s a verb, it’s a noun; it’s an action, it’s a thing. Haunting, even etymologically, is all mixed up and messy and confusing. It mixes action and place:

haunt: From the uncertainty of the derivation, it is not clear whether the earliest sense in F. and Eng. was to practise habitually (an action, etc.) or to frequent habitually (a place). The order here is therefore provisional.”

In Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (Dial Press, 1948) Salvador Dali described a way in which prison haunts the eye:

“After the two months which I spent in prison during my adolescence I was able to realize the truth of the phenomenon of the so-called “flying bars” of which all prisoners speak. For a long time after their incarceration, in the most unexpected circumstances and places, they often see the bars of their prison window appear before their eyes, sometimes fixed but more often as if in flight, now standing out dark against a light background and again–more frequently–appearing as negatives, even against very light background, like the sky, for instance, on which I often observed the bars of my prison in Gerona, appearing in a blue tonality even more luminous than the sky itself. These apparitions, which lasted about three months after my liberation, made me give a good deal of thought to the persistence of retinal impressions….Thus you realize that what I am advising, good inquisitor that I am, is that you should surround yourself with a prison for your eye. For nothing is more harmful to it than the freedom to see everything, to attempt to embrace everything, to want to admire everything all at once. But the prison which I advise for your eye must be mobile, transparent, and its flying bars aerial and tiny.” (61, 62)

Surround yourself with a prison for your eye. To do so, try to focus on the women in and beyond the global prison. Ghosts move in to shield his tears. Adrienne Rich knows, the ghosts are women, but the women, haunting, are not ghosts.

(Photo Credit: Ai Weiwei / Mary Boone Gallery)