Why did Adelina Lisao have to be tortured to death before anyone sought justice?

Indonesian Consulate officials wait to claim Adelina Lisao’s body

On Saturday, February 10, 2018, 26-year-old Adelina Lisao was “rescued” from her employers’ house. She was taken to hospital, where she died on Sunday. Adelina Lisao was one of hundreds of thousands of domestic workers in Malaysia. Most of those workers are Indonesian and Filipino. For weeks, Adelina Lisao was tortured, often in plain sight and earshot of neighbors. The sort of violence visited upon Adelina Lisao is not an unusual occurrence for Indonesia and Filipina domestic workers in Malaysia, as has been documented for decades. Adelina Lisao died on Sunday. On Monday, the Indonesian government demanded “justice for Adelina.” On Tuesday, the press announced, in headlines, “Death of maid treated ‘like a dog’ casts spotlight on migrant abuse in Malaysia”. Just because there’s a glimmer in the dark doesn’t mean that a light is shining. If history is any guide, by Friday, Adelina Lisao’s named will be filed away and forgotten, and the mass abuse will continue.

In 1997, Christine B.N. Chin, a scholar of transnational migrant women’s labor, studied “the distinct ways in which public walls of silence continue to surround the absence of labor rights and benefits for foreign female domestic workers in the receiving country of Malaysia.” Chin noted that, despite the best efforts of Malaysian ngo’s, “efforts to break down public walls of silence surrounding the absence of labor rights and benefits for foreign female domestic workers have met with little success.” Twenty years ago, the situation of Indonesian domestic workers in Malaysia was recognized as an already longstanding issue. Since then, the public walls of silence have only grown thicker and higher. There is no spotlight nor loudspeaker breaking through that wall, not as yet.

In 2004, Human Rights Watch published a report on abuses against women domestic workers in Malaysia, which began: “In May 2004, graphic photographs of the bruised and burned body of Nirmala Bonat, a young Indonesian domestic worker in Malaysia, were splashed across newspapers in Southeast Asia. In a case that drew international attention and outrage as well as a prompt response by both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments, Bonat accused her employer of brutally beating and abusing her.” Who remembers Nirmala Bonat? What is the life span of “international attention”? Where is the outrage today?

According to the ILO, in 2016, Malaysia employed 300,000 to 400,000 domestic workers, almost exclusively from Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines. In 2010, approximately 230,000 Indonesian women worked, legally, as domestic workers in Malaysia. In 2015, Malaysia and Indonesia met to discuss “ways to improve protection of Indonesian domestic migrant workers in Malaysia.” Where was that “protection” while Adelina Lisao was being abused, tortured, demeaned, starved, beaten, and all in plain sight?

Indonesia should have demanded justice for Adelina Lisao long before she arrived in Malaysia. Malaysia should have demanded justice for Adelina Lisao as well. Adelina Lisao, this week’s moment of “international attention and outrage”, cannot be merely another empty sign. She is the brick and mortar of success in the now-decades-old new economy. A specter haunts the world … and her name is Adelina Lisao.

 

(Photo Credit: Sayuti Zainudin / The Malay Mail)

Australia vows to turn Black children into specters

 


Australia’s Immigration Minister has vowed to ship off asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, to Malaysia. This was meant to be Australia’s “solution” to a “crisis” of asylum seekers. Simple detention simply wasn’t enough. The State announced its intention late this week, and now seems somewhat surprised at the outcry. The government never thought that the fate of children of color, call them Black children, could matter quite so much.

This aspirational project of turning children of color, Black children, into distant and dimly remembered specters comes at a poignantly timely moment.

Today, June 5, 2011, is the last day of “Glenn Ligon: America”, a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Ligon is famous for works that turn words into paintings, stencils that conjure histories of slavery, of racism, of homophobia, of violence. Some of these pieces have been described as “stenciled sentences pulled from different sources.” The sentences aren’t pulled nor are they transcribed.

They are, instead, translations, as they are invocations.

Consider, for example, “Untitled (I’m Turning Into a Specter before Your Very Eyes and I’m Going to Haunt You)”. This has been described as having been pulled from a play by Jean Genet, The Blacks: A Clown Show.

But the line in Genet’s play is actually, “You’re becoming a specter before their very eyes and you’re going to haunt them.”

And it has a particular New York history.

On May 4th, 1961, almost fifty years ago to the day, Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show opened in New York, at the St. Marks Playhouse, and it was immediately hailed as a transformative event. When it opened, the play, a meditation on Blackness, Black rage and Black liberation, was described as “brilliantly sardonic”, “a lyrical tone poem”, a play of “furies

The original cast included Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., Ethel Ayler, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge, Maya Angelou, and Charles Gordone. The Blacks was the longest running Off-Broadway non-musical of the entire 1960s.

In an epigraph to the play, Genet claimed “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what’s his color?”

Fifty years later, we watch the Australian government plan to ship unaccompanied Black children to Malaysia, and we ask, “But what exactly is a Black child? First of all, how old is she?”

The children Australia plans to send to Malaysia are children seeking asylum. Not failed asylum seekers, but rather children in the process of seeking asylum. Australia’s Minister of Immigration believes that turning children into specters will deter “people smugglers”.

Today it was announced that the “deal” is being altered. Girl refugees might not be sent to Malaysia. The girls “spared” from deportation will still be unaccompanied and still be behind bars. They will not thank the State for this “gift”, no more than the boys will. These children designated as specters-to-come will haunt the State for decades. Fifty years ago, the specters will haunt them. Today, the specters will haunt you. Fifty years from now … the specters will haunt … us.

 

(Art Credit: Glenn Ligon / Philadelphia Museum of Art / Washington Post)