Women Writers Speak and Write Despite Calls for their Death or Exile

Last month, Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead in Karachi after she gave a talk for the second part of a conference on Human Rights in Balochistan that she had organized at her T2F, a bookstore and café. Sharmila Seyyid is living in a safehouse in South India, far away from her home in Sri Lanka, hounded by fundamentalist mullahs in both countries for some of her innocuous statements in a BBC interview. These are women who are speaking openly about the rights of people around them so that men and women might treat each other with respect and dignity. Both created safe places where the imagination could reign freely without fear. Sabeen created T2F (The Second Floor) as “an inclusive space where different kinds of people can be comfortable,” a place where arts, culture and dialogue could live freely.

In the last two decades the South Asian women writers who have received vituperative harassment have included Arundhati Roy, Kutti Revathi, Bama, Sukirtharani, and others we know little about. An Indian woman writer and journalist, married to an Afghan citizen was murdered a couple of years back. Despite threats, many women writers have bravely persisted. Kutti Revathi received hate mail, but has continued to write poetry. Bama and Sukirtharani in Tamil Nadu have persisted despite protests about their feminism. Women before them have been exiled for their seemingly rational views on religion and women’s right to be free of violence: Taslima Nasrin still remains exiled from Bangladesh and lives in Germany.

We continue to hear of women’s writing that is questioned, hated, banned, and sometimes, the authors harassed and exiled.

Why do fundamentalists fear women’s writing? Why is there increasing violence against women writers? What are they speaking about that so threatens religious fundamentalists? Fundamentalists believe in the need to keep society’s patriarchal structure intact, and so women are kept in their place within expected traditional roles, without rights to their minds or bodies. If they thought or spoke independently, it would disrupt the status quo and bring uncertainty to the roles of men and women in society and disrupt men’s dominant place in all branches of society—politics, law, religion, and family. Sabeen and her organization T2F supported the cause of an independent Balochistan. She invited Mama Qadeer, the separatist activist, and other panelists for her last series of two conferences entitled “ Unsilencing Balochistan.”

The Pakistani secret services have been accused of being responsible for the disappearance and execution of many activists in Balochistan who were working on restoring justice. Sabeen Mahmud was one of the rare women who had the courage to stand up against this injustice.

Sharmila questioned the system of purdah and freely wrote about rights of sex workers. Kutti Revathi writes uninhibitedly about woman’s bodies. Nasrin is openly atheist and argues for women’s freedom from male oppression within Islam. Bama questions caste and male oppression. Roy argues openly for Adivasi people’s right to live without being murdered by the Indian government. Soni Sori, an Adivasi teacher and organizer, has been tortured under police custody. Why? Because she advocates for minimum wages and for Adivasi women’s rights. Why do the police want her in jail? “[Because] she has taken on powerful companies that want the Adivasis’ land, and the Chhattisgarh government that supports these companies. She has taken on the police for their illegal activities”.

Fundamentalists deliberately refuse to acknowledge the tradition of female outspokenness that is part of literary, artistic, and faith traditions. If they are not literate or educated in history and the arts, perhaps their ignorance plays a role in this blind acceptance of a conventional gender division. Worse yet, government support of neoliberal agendas makes officials the henchmen of corporations, colluding with fundamentalist ideology. Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated at the time China put $46 billion on the table to sign a strategic agreement with Pakistan, creating an energy corridor through Balochistan to the Arabian Sea at the deepwater Port Gwadar, Pakistan.

Neoliberalism and fundamentalism see women’s silence as important to the sovereignty of corporations and organized/structural religion. The woman who talks, questions, imagines, writes, wonders is a nightmare for fundamentalism and neoliberalism. So the only thing that can be done to stop this thinking humanistic female machine is to kill or exile her. But as we see in so many examples around us, women writers, artists, filmmakers continue to do what they think they have to do, because there is no other way they know how to live meaningfully. Death threats cannot stop them from saying what they need to say. They must be heard and read beyond borders!

 

(Photo Credits: tribune.com.pk)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

 

Gloria Kente

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: IOL / Jeffrey Abrahams) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images)

 

Jamila Bibi and the high price of compassion

On Tuesday, September 16, Jamila Bibi was deported from Canada to Pakistan. The story is straightforward, and then again it’s not. Jamila Bibi is 65 years old. In 2007, Bibi fled her home. She says she was accused, falsely, of adultery. If convicted, Jamila Bibi could face death by stoning. Bibi went to Canada and applied for asylum.

In 2009, her asylum case was heard. Negar Azmudeh, who presided over the case, concluded that Jamila Bibi was a credible witness, that there was ample evidence that she had been unjustly accused of adultery, and that if convicted she would face death by stoning. However, Azmudeh reasoned that since Jamila Bibi’s husband had not filed for divorce, she was not only still married but under the protection of her husband. It was her husband’s uncle who had filed the adultery charges. And so Jamila Bibi was denied asylum. She did not have enough money for a lawyer, and so did not immediately appeal the decision.

Three months after the 2009 hearing, Bibi’s husband filed for and received a divorce. That action did not change the decision. Bibi has been working in Saskatoon as a cook. She reported dutifully every week. She made friends, some very dear, such as her employer Sahana Yeasmin.

In 2012, Bibi had enough money set aside to approach a lawyer, who immediately appealed the case. Again, Bibi reported every week. Two weeks ago, on her regular visit, she was informed she was to be deported. She was immediately taken into custody. Less than a week later, she was deported to Pakistan. According to Sahana Yeasmin, Bibi, now in Pakistan, fears for her life and is in hiding. Yeasmin reports that Bibi is thankful for the support and remains hopeful that she will be able to return to Canada and to her life in Saskatoon.

Jamila Bibi’s story, up to now, is painful and terrible, but Canada’s story, in many ways, is far worse. How is it that an adjudicator can say that despite credible and ample evidence, a woman accused of adultery is safe because her husband has not divorced her? How is that no one applied compassionate grounds to keep Jamila Bibi in Canada? Where exactly is the intersection of the rule of law and the exercise of compassion, in particular in asylum cases? Surely, these are the exceptional cases that test and prove the rule.

As Nida Shahzeb wrote, “What evidence are they talking about? Did they expect Jamila Bibi to pull some strings even though they know she does not come from privilege back in her village? Or do they expect her accusers to now shower her with petals at the airport? What makes this action of the Canadian government different from the numerous acts of brutality in Pakistan? Is Canada to be held accountable if Jamila Bibi is killed in Pakistan, a country which has a continuing history of honour killings?”

Why did Canada ship Jamila Bibi back to Pakistan, perhaps to a slow and painful death? Because she wasn’t worth keeping. As a woman, a woman of color, an older woman, a woman worker of meager means, she simply didn’t have enough value for the State to be bothered. In the global asylum and refugee marketplace, the price of compassion for such women has become prohibitively high.

 

(Photo Credit: cbc.ca)

In Lahore, in Johannesburg, there was no stampede

In the past two days, four women have died in what the press has called `stampedes.’

There was a concert Monday in Lahore, Pakistan. It was organized by a private college. The crowd was mostly young people, college students. At some point after the concert, something happened, the crowd tried to leave, there was only one door and even less organization, and … three young women—Farah Nawaz, Maheen Naseem Abbas, 17 years old, and Sadia Batool—were crushed to death. It’s a common enough occurrence, around the world.

On Tuesday, in South Africa, universities registered students who, for whatever reasons, had missed the earlier registration dates. Often the reason is students come from historically disenfranchised communities where there’s little or no expectation of their successfully pursuing further education. That too is a common enough situation, around the world.

As in past years, the lines were endlessly long, but the number of available slots were finite. Painfully, tragically so. Excitement, tension, anticipation, apprehension, were high. When the gates opened at the University of Johannesburg, the people rushed forward. In the rush, people were injured, and one woman, the mother of a prospective student, was killed. There were many mothers in the crowd, assisting their children. Many mothers, many children were injured. At least 22 are counted as injured, but those are only the visible injuries.

Both incidents, and especially the South African incident, have been widely, even universally, described as stampedes.

What exactly is a `stampede’, and how does a crowd of people, of human beings, morph into a stampede? And why is it the case that women and girls are more often than not those who suffer the violence of so-called stampedes?

Stampede is a relatively new word, and it seems to be a North American invention, another gift the United States has bestowed upon the world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined early in the 1800s. Cowboys in the United States borrowed the Mexican word, estampido, which means crash, explosion, or report of a firearm, and estampida, which means a stampede of cattle or horses. It was an early example of transnational vaquero cowboy culture.

Stampede, or stompado, was a “sudden rush and flight of a body of panic-stricken cattle” or horses. Later, stampede came to mean a “sudden or unreasoning rush or flight of persons in a body or mass”.

At its inception, stampede meant a thundering, powerful, dangerous herd of animals. Today, when referring to people, it means a mass of people who are threatened and in flight. At the beginning, a stampede was about virility, big roaring animals and big riding cowboys.

When people stampeded, that was panic. In fact, the Spanish translation of human stampede is pánico. Panic. Sudden, wild, unreasoning, excessive, at a loss and out of control. And the term for mass panic is hysteria, the women’s condition: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”.  Hysteric: “belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb”.

It doesn’t matter who is trampled in the event called a stampede. What began as an articulation of masculinity, the enraged capacity to destroy all in its path, has become the helpless, or `feminine’, implosion of self. What began as a roar has become somehow a whimper. When you read that a group was in a stampede, know this. Stampede is not a neutral word. Stampede is gendered, and the gender is woman.

There was no stampede in Lahore, there was no stampede in Johannesburg. Words matter. In both instances, educational institutions failed … and women died … again.

 

(Photo Credit: Adrian de Kock/thestar.co.za)

Azbaa’s anguish, Auden’s blues

Azbaa Dar

Pakistani born Azbaa Dar is being held in Yarl’s Wood. On Monday of this week she reported, dutifully, to the Liverpool office of the UK Border Agency. She has been applying for asylum for nine years, and as part of the process, she has to `visit’ the UKBA offices regularly. At this visit, she was given a letter denying her asylum. She was then taken to Yarl’s Wood and told she was to be returned to Pakistan.

Azbaa’s family had been turned down for asylum on Easter 2006, after a five year asylum process. Her father, Arif, a local high school governor, her mother, her four younger sisters were sent to Yarl’s Wood, and then shipped back to Pakistan. Since their return, Arif has been detained and tortured on a number of occasions, her mother is ill, her sisters have been threatened if they pursue formal education. And then of course there are the floods.

Azbaa escaped capture and lived clandestinely around Liverpool for close to four years. Finally, a deal was struck that if she turned herself in and came regularly to the office, she’d be fast tracked. She was. To Yarl’s Wood.

She was supposed to fall under a `legacy’ agreement, that would take into account the roots of the applicant in her new community. Azbaa has won Good Citizenship awards, has logged in 800 hours of volunteer, unpaid service at a local hospital, and is generally viewed as a model. She was supposed to be treated with some modicum of decency, recognition, appreciation. She was supposed to receive due process of some sort.

Instead, she has been treated as a dangerous criminal, a threat to society.

Azbaa Dar’s story, and that of her family for that matter, is all too common in the so-called advanced democracies. Pregnant Tamil asylum seekers are kept as prisoners in Canada. An Australian candidate for Prime Minister of Australia bases his campaign on severely limiting the number of asylum seekers who reach the nation’s golden shores.

It’s a common story. Seventy one years ago, 1939, on the verge of World War II, W.H. Auden wrote “Refugee Blues”. Here are some stanzas:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us….

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me….

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.”

I dreamed I saw Azbaa Dar and W.H. Auden, walking down the road, smiling. But that didn’t happen. Instead, we live with the anguish of the asylum seekers, in the UK, in Canada, in Australia, in the US, in the great democracies of the world. Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk)

The gender of stampede

There was a stampede in Jakarta, Indonesia today. Few agencies have reported it, I’ve found only one. Thirteen people are reported injured, and it is reported that the thousands who gathered for free food and cash handouts, to mark the end of Ramadan, were overwhelmingly women and children.

Human stampedes are reported throughout the year, everywhere. In the past week or so, four human stampedes have been reported, Jakarta’s being the most recent.

In New Delhi, India, on Thursday, September 10, “Tragedy struck a government secondary school in Indian national capital New Delhi Sept 10 when five girls were killed and 27 other students injured, six of them very critically, in a stampede. The incident occurred when students were trying to make their way up and down a narrow staircase when they were asked to shift classrooms during an examination in the Khajuri Khas Senior Secondary School….Some students said they were asked to shift classes as certain classrooms were water-logged due to incessant rains since Sept 9 night. One of the girls, going down the staircase, fell leading to the stampede….All but one of the 27 injured students were girls.” In the end, 34 students were reported injured, five killed.

That was Thursday. On Saturday, in KwaNongoma, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, “Tragedy struck at the annual Royal Reed Dance … when one of the maidens was crushed to death during a stampede that broke out following a scramble for promotional caps. Another maiden is in a critical condition while 10 others were seriously injured as the event turned into pandemonium.”

That was Saturday. On Monday, September 14, in Karachi, Pakistan, “Eighteen people were suffocated to death during a stampede here on Monday as poverty-stricken women battled for a free bag of flour being distributed by a philanthropist in Khohri Garden. The dead reportedly include a number of children as well. Meanwhile, several unconscious women were rushed to the emergency ward of the Civil Hospital in Karachi.” Actually, it was twenty women and girls killed, and fifteen were injured. Or was it at least 25? At any rate, the women and girls were waiting for free food.

Stampedes occur all the time. It could be sports events, such as in March of this year at the Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Côte d’Ivoire at a football, or soccer, match when a wall collapsed and the crush killed 22 and injured over 130. It could be the proverbial fire in a crowded theater or club, as happened in Bangkok this New Year’s, when at least 59 people were killed and over 200 were injured. Or it could be a sale at a big store, like Wal-Mart, as happened late last year, in Valley Stream, New York, not far from New York City. That was on the Friday after Thanksgiving, when people couldn’t wait any longer and broke through the doors, trampling a worker, Jdimytai Damour, to death. It happens all the time.

All of these incidents were described as stampedes. In the most recent, the dead and injured were all or almost all women and girls, but that is not my point here today. What exactly is a stampede, and how does a crowd crush become a stampede?

Stampede is a relatively new word, and it seems to be North American. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined early in the 1800s, Cowboys in the United States borrowed the Spanish word, estampido, which means crash, explosion, or report of a firearm, and estampida, which means a stampede of cattle or horses. It was an early example of transnational vaquero cowboy culture. The word didn’t come from Spain, it came from Mexico. Stampede, or stompado, was a “sudden rush and flight of a body of panic-stricken cattle” or horses. Later, stampede came to mean a “sudden or unreasoning rush or flight of persons in a body or mass”.

Here’s the thing. At its inception, stampede meant a thundering herd, powerful, dangerous. Today, when referring to people, it means a mass of people in flight who are threat mostly to themselves. How does that happen? Here’s one possibility. At the beginning, stampede was virile, masculine, big roaring animals and big riding cowboys. People, on the other hand, that was panic. In fact, the word in Spanish for the phenomenon of people rushing as a crowd and crushing one another in the process is precisely pánico. Panic. Sudden, wild, unreasoning, excessive, at a loss and out of control. And what is the term for mass panic?  Hysteria, the women’s condition: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”.  Hysteric: “belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb”.

It doesn’t matter who is trampled in the event called a stampede. What began as an articulation of masculinity, the enraged capacity to destroy all in its path, has become the embodiment of womanhood, the helpless implosion of self. What began as a roar has become somehow a whimper. When you read that a group was in a stampede, know this. It is not a neutral word. It is a gender, and the gender is woman.

And those who were in the stampede? Writing of the trampling to death of Jdimytai Damour, one person commented, “I’m particularly troubled by reports that police are thinking about charging individual members of the crowd. When people behind you start pushing you forward, there is often nothing you can do. And there’s a real fear that if you try to resist, you too will be trampled. Part of the tragedy is that there are undoubtedly people in that crowd who know they stepped on something that day, or who, in their excitement, spurred on the surge. These thoughts may haunt them for many years.”  Those who trampled will be haunted, those who lost loved ones will be haunted. The rest of us, we are meant to be haunted by the gender of stampede.

(Photo Credit: NDTV)