December 6 should be the International Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women


In Canada, December 6, is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. In 1991, the Canadian government made December 6 the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women to commemorate the December 6, 1989, Montreal Massacre, also known as the École Polytechnique Massacre. On December 6, 1989, a man entered campus, sought and found a Women’s Studies class, separated the men and women, and killed 14 women, whom he identified as “feminists”. Those women were Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. Across Canada, people hold memorial services. Everyone in Canada knows of the Montreal Massacre, the worse mass shooting in the country’s history. But what about elsewhere? Where are the memorials for the 14 women, and for the horror of the event, in other countries? What is the geography of our compassion?

After the assault on the women of the École Polytechnique, rape laws were strengthened. Men formed the White Ribbon Campaign, which, according to the organization, is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women. The École Polytechnique established the Order of the White Rose, which created the White Rose Scholarship, a $30,000 prize given to a Canadian woman studying in an engineering Master’s or PhD program.

For days after the massacre, people brought white roses to lay at the site of bloodshed. It was a sea of white roses.

Michele Thibodeau-Deguire was the École Polytechnique’s first woman civil engineering graduate. She graduated in 1963. In 2013, when she was appointed Chair of the Board of Directors of the École Polytechnique, Michele Thibodeau-Deguire became the first woman to chair the Board. On Wednesday, she reflected on Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women: “It was something that came out; people just wanted to show how they felt. And every year, white roses were brought here at the door of Polytechnique.” Along with the White Rose Scholarship, the Polytechnique sells white roses to contribute to a science camp for girls from marginalized communities. “From something horrible, something beautiful came out,” said Michele Thibodeau-Deguire.

Valerie Provost, a survivor of the Montreal Massacre, reflected, “In 1989, for me, for my classmates, everything was possible. We didn’t imagine that these doors could be shut, but that’s what Marc Lépine did. He slammed the door in front of us. My classmates will never enter the country of their dreams. No diplomas; no career; no professional achievements; no great love story; no children; no flourishing talents.”

Canadian feminist activist journalist Judy Rebick noted, “Today, rape is the only violent crime that has not declined to the degree that most other violent crimes have. In Canada, women reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014 according to Stats Canada. Fifty-three per cent of all women and 82 per cent of young women told pollsters that they experience sexual harassment in a 2017 Abacus poll. Levels of violence and harassment against Indigenous women, women of colour and women with disabilities are even higher. There has been a decline in domestic violence, but 32 women were killed by intimate partners so far this year in Ontario.” The Abacus report opens with numbers, “There are almost 15 million adult women in Canada and according to our latest survey, almost 8 million of them (53%) have experienced unwanted sexual pressure. The prevalence of this experience is highest among women under 45.”

For one day a year, across Canada, people discuss sexual violence, remember the names of the 14 women, remember the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, remember that the struggle continues. Why only Canadians? A review of major news outlets this past week has none in English, French or Spanish even mentioning the day. Canada remembers, the world ignores. What exactly is the geography of our compassion? Why must each nation, and each national community, be left to its own devices and ways of remembering? I live in the United States. Montreal is close; Canada is close, and yet, in the United States, there was no mention of the day. Commodities and capital flow across the border, in ever faster and increasing numbers. People move back and forth across the border as well. Why not memory? Why not the honoring of the martyrs of the war against women? It’s not only Canada’s war. December 6 should be the International Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Feminist Current) (Photo Credit 2: Paul Chiasson / Canadian Press / CBC)

Is the disappearance of solidarity our most imminent threat?

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica

On the morning of November 9, 2016, many NWSA members packed their bags and went to Montreal to attend the National Women Studies Association conference. I was one of them. Our families and friends joked, “Please come back,” because for several weeks, Americans who feared a Trump presidency swore they would leave the country if the unthinkable happened. The unthinkable did happen. And I, along with my fellow members, had to somehow get our dispirited selves together and make the trip.

Arriving in Montreal felt like a breath of fresh air: we were greeted by narrow streets, ivy covered brick walls, flowers on the balconies, the sound of French, French cuisine, Chinatown, Notre Dame. The conference focused on the theme of decolonizing, the tensions facing indigenous communities, transnational views of political issues, and so on.

On Saturday, my friends from the South Asian caucus and an African-American professor went for lunch in the old town and walked up to Notre Dame. A woman who was at the entrance said the church was closed; it had closed just 5 minutes back. We asked if we could just step in for a few minutes since we were leaving back to the U.S. the next day. She said in a hostile tone that the church was closed and would open for Mass at 5 pm. So we spent some time taking pictures and went to the gift shop adjoining the church. The woman there said she would be closing in 10 minutes. She repeated this a few times. I said, “We heard,” and she said, “in case you are caught off guard.” I was surprised at her choice of words. One of my friends bought a tiny statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we left feeling we were not welcome.

My friend Fawzia, a fan of Leonard Cohen, wanted to stay for Mass where a tribute was being paid to him. The rest of us left back to the hotel. Later that evening, a traumatized Fawzia called us and we ran to meet her in the conference center. She was visibly shaken. She said that after we had left, she had hung around the steps of the cathedral for a while and went up to the guard who asked her to come back in 15 minutes, and that the Mass will be in French. So Fawzia stopped at a store across the church and bought something and went back after a few minutes. The guard again intoned that the Mass will be in French. At this point, a stream of people were entering the church. When Fawzia joined the line, the guard stopped her and said “Not you. The Mass is in French.” At this point Fawzia spoke to her in French that she was planning to stay for the Mass and why was she letting the white people enter but not her. Another guard then joined her and came close to her with his hand up and told her to go away. Fawzia immediately said she would not and why were they being racist. A third woman joined the guards and blocked Fawzia’s way. The first guard said she found her aggressive and the second guard threatened to call the police. At this point Fawzia said they could call the police if they wanted. She took out her camera and began taking their pictures. The first guard quickly shielded her face. The other two continued to block the entrance. People who witnessed the scene passed by even though Fawzia said loudly to them that she was not being allowed into the church and only white people were being let in.

She took a cab and burst into tears and told the cab driver what happened and wondered if this was what Montreal was like. The cab driver said he was sorry she had this experience.

Our collective illusion that Canada was somehow going to be a reprieve from our fear of the beginning of the nightmare that had unfolded in the U.S. was just that—an illusion. The reality, as our Canadian feminist friends reminded us, was the history of white supremacy in Canada and the U.S. alike. Canada was also fighting the fracking war; immigrants who were people of color have had a rough history there; indigenous populations continue to face a wall that Fawzia and her friends were up against. The wall is that of white hegemony; the Anglo-French war of old resurfaces from time to time in Montreal and immigrants get caught in its midst.

The hands that pushed her away are the hands that push away migrants heading into European countries, the hands that push away the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the asylum seekers, the refugees. It is important to recognize the wave of fascism that we are currently seeing in the U.S. –with the Trump Presidency being heavily endorsed by the KKK and neo Nazi and white supremacist groups—is now giving the nod to right wing forces in France, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary. Turkey has already noted the progress of demagoguery in the U.S. and is engaged in a wave of arrests of journalists and intellectuals. Putin is happy that he has an ally. The makers of Brexit also have in Trump an ally so the unwanted minorities can be deported or eliminated. Transnationally, racism and xenophobia are ruling out inclusion and democratic processes.

The following morning, at 7:30, a few members of NWSA and the local South Asian women’s group held a protest outside Notre Dame. The held a pink sari as a banner on which they had pinned the sign of the South Asian Women’s Community Center and signs that read “Love Not Hate,” while one of the members took pictures and a video to be sent to media outlets. Fortunately, the protest ended peacefully. There was no police presence or arrests.

Those of us from abroad may want to ponder what it means to protest in a foreign country; what it means for a conference whose headquarters is in a foreign country to show its support to its members who have encountered racism at the hands of locals; what would be the result if police did indeed arrest protesters on the basis that they are foreign and are disturbing the peace, just as it is currently happening in Turkey and is now looming as a threat in Arizona toward undocumented immigrants who are protesting; why none of the bystanders and the people entering the church intervened, and if the disappearance of solidarity is our most imminent threat; the hegemony of the U.S. over Canada that distorts the picture of racism against a U.S. citizen of color, which has played out all over the world against men and women of color in contested sites in the Middle East.

 

(Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette / Marie France Coallier)

From Mumbai to Paris and Beyond: Transnational Solidarity In the Face of Violence

The following conversation took place right after we received news of the Paris attacks. We were in Milwaukee at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, where we were presenting on a panel on the invisibility of mothers in the U.S. and in India, made more so by social policies, particularly pregnant women in U.S. prisons who are shackled during pregnancy and labor. When the horrific news reached us, taking time out of the conference to respond to each other was the only way we knew to attend to our emotions and thoughts.

B: Yesterday, the news came. Something happened in Paris, the city I know well and where many of my relatives and friends live. The first pop-up news stated, “40 killed.” What? And then there was an avalanche of dreadful messages from friends and family. Then began the task of looking for everyone there. Pramila, with whom I presented that afternoon in Milwaukee, was with me and I clung to her to stay afloat.

P: My heart was in my mouth when I heard of the attacks when we finished our panel on the invisibility of women.  Over the next two hours, we got the news in dribs and drabs on CNN. My feeling of tragedy was overwhelming, especially because my friend Brigitte lives near Paris and visits there often, and it only happened she was currently in the U.S. and presenting at our panel. What were the chances that she and her family were not at that particular site of one of the attacks? What are the chances that any one of us is at the wrong place at the wrong time? But even as I think this way, I am already guilty of surviving. I am also witnessing another kind of suffering that is unfolding before my eyes—the sorrow of the witnesses.

B: Yes, the link to precarity struck me as well. My thoughts went to the family from Syria I met on the train to Thessaloniki. They left Syria to go on this very dangerous journey, crossed the Mediterranean Sea on a flimsy boat, scared. They were abandoned and ended up in the water, from where they were rescued. Yesterday in Paris, people stepped on pools of blood as they ran for their lives. It was difficult to locate friends and family certainly and my heart was pounding at times, but I felt that we had an urge for human connection, for solidarity. We wandered in the hotel and met our friend Sherry who hadn’t heard the news. We told her. Her first words were “Bush and his team opened a Pandora’s box!”

P: I, too, am thinking about how precarious our lives have become, even more so after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Daesh is no accident—it is the horrific outcome of a violent situation created by the invasion of Iraq under the false rhetoric of bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. The irony of this is not lost as we witness not simply the hardship brought about by the violence witnessed everyday by the Iraqis—a violence that was perpetuated by the U.S. presence and now by Daesh; the spreading of this violence into France that upholds liberty, equality, fraternity in its social policies and its political philosophy.  So it is not surprising that President Hollande’s first word after the shock of the attacks last night was “Compassion.”  Not revenge, not an eye-for-an-eye argument. Because the way out of the revenge equation is more liberty, compassion, empathy toward the marginalized—values that are anathema to fundamentalism everywhere. Because fundamentalism thrives on divisiveness, subjugation and fear.

B: The work of compassion was expressed by one of my interviewees in the documentary “What Do You Mean Shackled?” That is one of the values that we share and forget about so quickly when profit and money animate the elite and put us at risk of violence. Compassion and solidarity work together. Shackling pregnant women is simply horrific, as it was horrific to enslave people from another continent. But we continue to talk about “our values.” What and where are they? This morning, besides the probably necessary forceful responses, everybody in France is talking about the values of compassion and solidarity. How can we reinforce these values in actions instead of acting in opposition to them?

This morning in Paris, people were hugging and kissing each other. My friend there told me how they want to take care of each other, atheists, Muslims, Jews, Christians simply because they are human beings and nothing else.

P: I am recalling the terrorist attacks that happen in cities like Mumbai, the most recent being in 2008. Although the terrorists from Pakistan claimed responsibility, the Indian government followed the legal steps to achieve justice, instead of launching attacks on Pakistan, for it knew that violence only begets more violence. Remarkably, each time a riot happens, the plural citizenry of Mumbai stick with each other, offering support and solidarity. So it is only solidarity that can be the single most effective strategy against violence.

Words of sympathy from strangers…so simple, so natural.

This morning as we were having breakfast in the hotel, the waiter brought us the bill and on it he had written, “Our heartfelt sympathy for the French people.” This simple gesture brought tears to our eyes. Brigitte said, “We need to treasure these moments…such as the moment of solidarity I experienced with the Syrian refugees and the Greek women on the train to Thessaloniki.”

Solidarity and compassion are the only antidote to violence and hatred.

And one must go on. That sense of carrying on with our purpose is best expressed in  W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. The opening line goes, “About suffering they were never wrong.” In the poem, Auden describes the fall of Icarus from the sky into the water; the ships and people keep going on despite the suffering of the fallen boy. One can read the poem as people turning away from the suffering person. They see what happens; they absorb it; and they continue with their task. I want to add a few lines to this poem, depicting the folks on the shore turning toward each other and extending a comforting hand, rather than remaining isolated. Being isolated when suffering unfolds around you diminishes the spirit. What is spectacularly humane is for people to turn toward each other to offer comfort.

B: I watched on French TV the reaction of people in the iconic Place de la République. Some targeted Muslim people to give them kisses and hugs and to tell them thank you. One man said that he was appalled by the distortion of his faith and asserted that he felt more like a citizen. Certainly, people are looking for a common humanity.

Some people and the French press examined how Daesh came to be.

In the name of which god did the U.S. invade a country, with oil in its soil, so far away a country named Iraq?

In the name of which god did they incarcerate so many in jails like Abu Ghraib and carry their violence with them?

They instilled the indistinguishable sense of injustice, detained the innocent with the angry. They tortured, pronouncing that it was fair to torture bodies from another place.

They believe in this competition for violence; competition–another word that negates solidarity and compassion, the basis of justice.

We are listening to countless stories of violence perpetrated in the name of which god? Stories of violence on farmers, women, and the ones who live and enjoy life in Paris.

This violence comes from nearby and far away–this is what deterritorialization of mode of production has produced. It comes from greed, from controlling faith, from competition. I think of your words about Mumbai as a place of laicity; I think of Paris as a place of laicity, a place for resistance maybe. I remember the French President saying no to war in 2001, no to the invasion of Iraq…Will he be remembered for saying the words of the people who never want war?

P: Yesterday I heard from a friend who said she was so disturbed by the Paris attacks that she wanted to reach out to her friends and embrace them. I was touched. In the same email, she said that only one religion is responsible for creating so much bloodshed. I want to tell those who are blaming the Muslim faith, we need to look at the set of circumstances that produced the current violence in Europe.  We need to see the chain of events, beginning with the first Gulf War, then the attack on Iraq as retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the massive breakdown of infrastructure in Iraq, its repercussions across the region, the vacuum of power that was filled with a government that was divided across sectarian lines, the daily carnage in Iraq, unemployment, loss of hope for young people facing a bleak future.  The ousted government of Saddam Hussein became the Islamic State. Their establishment is not based on religion—it is based on an ideology of violence in order to build territory and acquire totalitarian power. William McCants, author of Isis Apocalypse, says the Islamic State’s territory is shrinking and they are losing much of their money in undertaking organized violence. At the same time, places that are unstable will become the breeding grounds for ISIS recruits and for the establishment of their government. So what can we do to counter this maddening expansion of Islamic State members in our midst?

B: Additionally, the South, where Iraq and Syria are, has been affected by climate change generated in the North. The discriminatory system of the current economic system is also at work. Maybe that is the biggest hidden issue in the invasion of Iraq, the destabilization of the region, and as a result, the building of Daesh with the role of war capability as a rationale. Deleuze and Guattari said fascism requires a war machine. Fascism formed in the Western countries and it imposed a world war on populations in the Pacific Ocean and in Africa and many other places. Maybe the greatest threat for humanity is our divisiveness. We should not lower our guard as many forces would like to use these events to threaten the social and civil cohesiveness that is more than ever needed.

Solidarity and compassion should be viewed as crucial components for organizing, if we want to counter the maddening expansion of the Islamic State power and the maddening often concealed violence of the neoliberal order. Both require resistance.

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: Oliver Hardcore /  The Guardian)(Photo Credit 2: Enzo Dkndt / The Guardian

Solidarity with Greek women cleaners against austerity!

The women cleaners of the Ministry of finance in Athens have been demonstrating that the fight for life and dignity should know no rest. Since being laid off eleven months ago, thanks to austerity measures, they have been in front of the Ministry, standing there to show that life cannot be neither brushed aside nor contracted.

First, they turned to the court of justice, as labor rights must be defended by all means. The District court of Athens rule in their favor. The minister did not budge. A month ago, a court decision in Athens vindicated them and ordered their immediate reinstatement. The government responded with what the neoliberalist dogma orders: demanding submission and dependency and going after the women cleaners. The government dismissed the judgment and bypassed the court of appeal, going straight to the higher court Areios Pagos.

At the same time, the conservative press, media, politicians have broadcast negative images of the cleaners, calling them shirkers, accusing them of receiving undue privileges.

Meanwhile, the women cleaners who lost their meager salary (around $1000/month) are regularly physically assaulted by riot police, and suffer injuries requiring hospitalization.

Why is the government in Greece going after the women cleaners with such rage? Why do the State despise their lives and livelihood so much? Isn’t the state responsible for the well being of all its members including low wage women?

Who is the government serving?

In the late 70s, when the dollar was `floated’, the market system encompassed the idea of floating currency in relation to the idea of floating work value. As a result, the value of work as well as the value of life became increasingly indeterminate. The goal became the promotion of indeterminacy as a way of life, going against all efforts to create a socially responsible state. Austerity measures, and structural adjustment programs implemented in the South, opened the way to establishing a contracted work force by erasing the notion of public services and public responsibility. Austerity and structural adjustment `liberated’ public funds to the indeterminate market system.

Women are more dependent on public services and related jobs and comprise the vast majority of the growing underpaid and unemployed population in Greece. The government has argued that the termination of their work was for the public interest, intentionally confusing reduction of public sector with public interest. The State claims that the decision should be made in an administrative court, which would to make it a permanent labor rule.

The fact that the women cleaners were no fiscal burden, and their replacement by contracting businesses is more costly and less effective does not matter. The issue is not the way work is done but rather the profit making market system that thrives on the floating value of work. This is a legal issue and justice should protect life and way of life.

The fight of the women cleaners and their determination, despite their increasingly precarious situation as the result of no pay, is an example for all of us who understand that the threat is global and broad.

In building solidarity with the women cleaners there is a chance to direct the focus to respect for life that can override the ruthless neoliberal attack on human dignity.

Solidarity is the people’s weapon!

 

(Photo Credit: Greecesolidarity.org)

A Better Half: Young Feminists Can Rewrite Half the Sky

In many ways, Half the Sky has occupied much of the consciousness of what can loosely be defined as the newest “generation” of Western feminists. It is assigned routinely in college classrooms. While it has stimulated students in the U.S. to think about women’s issues at a global level, it does so at the expense of feminisms that have, over the past few decades, attempted to recognize and correct abuses of privilege by Westerners conducted in the name of “third world women”.

Looking at the bestseller from the vantage point of a young feminist, one passage captures much of what is problematic about Half the Sky. Discussing ways that readers could get involved, the authors warn, “American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX in Illinois… Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

Somehow discussing the obstacles faced by women globally without any mention of colonialism, past or present, Kristof and WuDunn systematically dichotomize the West and “the rest” through such passages.

First, the passage reduces American feminism to an issue that barely begins to shed light on various forms of oppression in many women’s lives today – forms of oppression that are gendered, and also defined by race, class, able-bodiedness, and so forth.

Second, the passage relieves the reader of undertaking any immediate action by creating distance between her (and her apparently post-feminist American existence) and the issues at hand.

Third, Kristof and WuDunn fail to emphasize the importance of Westerners acting as facilitators or supporters of actions led by women at the grassroots themselves. By stepping in, and effectively stepping on local women, to create their own initiatives, the chance for cross-border solidarity is destroyed. This dichotomy reprises the historical legacies of colonial calls to action revolving around purportedly irreconcilable differences between “civilizer” and “uncivilized.”

The passage also argues for a space in global feminism for people who believe that the lives of unborn fetuses are equivalent to those of African women.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of the 5.6 million abortions carried out in Africa in 2003, only 100,000 were performed under safe conditions, a direct result of the fact that 92% of female-bodied people of childbearing age in Africa live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 maternal deaths in Africa are caused by unsafe abortions. Including anti-choice politics in a book that spends two full chapters on the gravity of maternal mortality seems contradictory, given the statistics. More to the point, it stymies any productive discussion on the struggle for control over women’s bodies and bodily agency as part of all issues examined in Half the Sky.

Throughout Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn refuse to acknowledge any relationships among capitalism, colonial and postcolonial globalized economies, and gendered inequality. For example, at one point they argue, “The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they’re more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and the status of women. The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the west should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world.”

Half the Sky argues that sexism is to be found only in far-removed places, that the noble effort of combating sexism in these far-removed places is available to everyone and requires no critical self-analysis or questioning of one’s understanding of women as they exist in their own locality or politics, and that by replacing one kind of oppression with one that benefits industrialized countries, sexism has somehow been defeated.

This cannot become the dominant narrative for young feminists.

And yet it is.

Half the Sky has succeeded in garnering attention towards women’s issues, but its strategies are limiting and ultimately dangerous. How do we retain the momentum and critically, and politically, address the problems?

There must be a way to gain support for feminism that doesn’t rely on easily “marketable” ideas. For now, Half the Sky is the platform we have. We must surround it with other conversations, discussions that press global feminist activists to take responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. That would be a first step.

(Photo Credit: Young Feminist Wire)