Category Archives: gender

Sanitation and Sexual Violence

A-slum-in-India-010Two days ago, two teenage girls were gang raped and then murdered outside a village in Uttar Pradesh in India. The girls were looking for a place to defecate.

According to a report by WaterAid, 2.5 billion people live without access to a domestic toilet. This forces women and girls to walk to isolated spots, often early in the morning, in order to relieve themselves. This is precisely what these two girls were doing when they were waylaid and attacked.

The Times of India quoted the police in another district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of molestation and rape occur while women are seeking sites to defecate.

One in three people around the world lack access to basic sanitation.

As WaterAid puts it:

Being forced to defecate by rivers, in fields or in alleyways not only puts women and girls at greater risk of sexual violence and harassment; it is also a major public health risk. The practice pollutes natural waterways and spreads diseases, notably diarrhoea, a major cause of death in children in the developing world. Every day, around 1,400 mothers will lose a child to this disease, brought about because of a lack of access to basic sanitation, clean water and hygiene services. Research estimates that just putting an end to open defecation worldwide would see this figure drop by over a third.

WaterAid and other charities are calling for new Sustainable Development goals to address this global crisis. It’s worth remembering, however, that lack of access to basic sanitation and the sexual violence that it helps perpetrate are a product of increasing global inequality. Global institutions of governance such as the World Bank have been exacerbating rather than ameliorating these conditions.

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The Right to Heal

shock_and_aweLast night I attended an event at the Brecht Forum to commemorate the Tenth Anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The event featured Yanar Mohammed, President of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War Director of Organizing Maggie Martin, and Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights.  It was moderated by Ali Issa of the War Resister’s League.

The following is a transcript of the conversation.

Ali Issa: We’re here to mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and well as the launching of the Right to Heal Initiative.  I’d like to begin the evening by introducing playwright and activist Eve Ensler, who will introduce our guest from Iraq, Yanar Mohammed.

Eve Ensler: I spent the last two days revisiting Iraq, in a state of mourning about what has happened to the country.  Remember that moment in the Halliburton documentary when Dick Cheney is asked if he ever thinks about anything he’s done wrong.  He arrogantly responds that he never thinks about what he’s done wrong.  For those of us – millions – who protested against the war, it’s clear that things went very wrong from the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq.  I remember meeting Yanar during a phone interview; I couldn’t see her, but I felt she was fierce.  I went to many people in the government to see if they could host her here in US, but they said we couldn’t bring her because she’s a communist and is opposed to the war.  Now I spend a lot of time in the Congo, which has similar representation in the world to that of Iraq.  My experience with women who are fighters and revolutionaries is that they are the ones who bring new energy into the culture.  Like them, Yanar has started newspapers, opened shelters for women, opened radio stations.  The world is held up by such women activists who give their lives to keep the world going.

Ali Issa: Thank you, Eve.  Panelists: can you talk about the conditions that Iraqi activists face, as well as the achievements of the past 10 years and the demands of the Right to Heal Initiative?

Yanar Mohammed: It’s hard for me to sit here and be happy with applause.  I’m here because we’ve been bombed for 10 years.  Iraq has been turned into a country where women have the status of slaves and neighbors kill one another.  Before speaking about our achievements, I have to talk about the history of struggle in Iraq.  The political formula for Iraq imposed by the US has turned us into divided sectarian groups; it’s a blueprint for civil war.  This is exactly what has happened.  Since 2008, almost half a million people have been killed because of sectarian conflicts.  And in addition, the women of Iraq have been subjugated by a constitution that imposes sharia were it did not exist.  The US has not had to kill Iraqis – they just set a formula that divided the country along sectarian lines and we proceeded to kill one another.

Our opening up of shelters was a message to women that they don’t have to surrender to ‘honor killings,’ which have grown up since the war as a result of the imposition of tribal law.  We found out that some women are escaping sectarian war, and some even are escaping being trafficked.  There are 5 million orphans of war in Iraq.  We’ve tried to reintegrate such women into national life but have found that the government doesn’t want to give them citizenship.  So we keep them in our shelters, and try to give these women IDs from women who have died.  One thing a feminist can do: keep on talking.  We began talking about trafficking in 2007 and we haven’t stayed silent.  In February 2012, an anti-trafficking law was passed, so there are small achievements here and there.

iraq_prostitution_0306But our biggest achievement was to show to Iraqi youths that they do not have to take the war as the only solution.  There are very few alternatives to such violence.  In addition, we put together a report about disabled children who have been exposed to contaminants by US military weaponry.

Maggie Martin of Iraq Veterans Against the War:  In 2008 we held the Winter Soldier event, but it was largely shut out by the mainstream press.  This was a huge lesson for us: it isn’t enough just to tell the truth.  Another idea we have is to get soldiers to resist, so that military won’t have enough soldiers to keep fighting imperial wars.  But now we have an economic recession, and it’s very hard to ask people to turn down deployments when they need to support their families.

I spent time with soldiers in various bases with this new initiative, Right to Heal.  We need to stop soldiers who are suffering from various forms of PTSD being sent back into battle.  Troops who go to get help for psychological conditions are being disciplined and facing ‘bad conduct’ discharges.

We feel that we cannot ask people to stand up and speak out when their basic human needs aren’t being met.  So we started talking about the Right to Heal for service members and veterans.

One of our three central points has been reparations for the people of Iraq, but it’s a huge accomplishment that we’re now moving to campaign aggressively around this issue.  One of our big accmplishments at Fort Hood was the commanding officer holding a town hall (via Facebook) about the needs of traumatized troops.  People still feel a lot of stigma about speaking out on this issue.

Pam Speer of CCR: We launched our Right to Heal initiative in front of the White House yesterday.  Remember the story of Tomas Young, whose body was almost totally destroyed in the Iraq War.  Soldiers such as Tomas Young were sent to fight an unjust and illegal war, and this has a huge impact on people.  Tomas Young’s letter to Bush and Cheney demonstrates this.  The efforts of members of Congress to challenge covert wars in Central America in the 1980s are very relevant today, particularly in terms of the tactics and forms of torture deployed in Iraq based on the so-called Salvador Option, but discussion of these issues has been foreclosed by US courts.

One of the efforts I’ve been involved in from early on was the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which the US did its best to stymie.  It now has over 120 states.

I say all of this to explain the context of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.  This was set up to monitor compliance with the Inter-American Declaration of Human Rights.  This is a place that the US has to engage at times.  Our petition to the Inter-American Commission is just the first stop – we’re going to keep petitioning other organizations such as the UN.  We’re constantly chasing George Bush and Dick Cheney – as soon as we hear that they’re going to travel, we start drafting indictments.  They will ultimately be brought to justice.

What are we demanding?  Reparations for people of Iraq.  Responsibility for skyrocketing cancer rates.  The fact that people are deciding not to have children in Iraq – this is a form of genocide.  The irony is that after the first Gulf War, Iraq was made to pay reparations to Kuwait.  But the US is not doing any such thing.  Reparations should involve more than just money, but also health care, decontamination, cancer treatment centers, etc.  In this document, we also tried to make clear the fact that US soldiers sent to fight in Iraq are facing some of the same problems as the people of Iraq.

Ali Issa: How are we defining reparations?  State-to-state?

Yanar Mohammed: It’s commonly believed that everything is ok in Iraq since we have a government.  But things are more complicated.  Our organization, the Organization for Women’s Freedom, has been blocked for years.  Eventually the government sat us down and said that they would recognize us but only if we stop sheltering women.  The other condition is that we not do any political work.  I said that the law does not say this.  They could put me in prison at any point because it doesn’t suit them, but for the time being we carry on.

On the subject of the constitution, we want a secular democracy. One million people came out to Tahrir Square in Baghdad on February 25, 2011 in solidarity with the Arab Spring, but the military surrounded us and chased us.  These troops were clearly trained by the US, and they engaged in brutal tactics against us.

Many people would question me for organizing a campaign with Americans, and, moreover, with an American soldier who was part of the invasion.  Our answer is that the war did not come from the US because the people wanted it.  We know that the same is true in Iraq.  The people of Iraq and the people of the US did not want the war.  Today’s the day to see this go into effect.  We learn from these organizations and help challenge US imperialism.

Maggie Martin: Any of us could end up in jail because of our political work.  Our new values, vision, and mission is based on addressing militarism, solidarity with war-torn peoples, people negatively affected by US militarism.  On the local level, there are many questions about what we were doing 10 years ago.  I was thinking about the children of Iraq, who have lived under occupation for a decade.  And that also made me think of kids in the US, who have been living in a highly militarized society for at least a decade.  We need to think about the kind of culture that we are building through militarism.  SO I’m happy to be celebrating popular resistance to militarism.

Pam Speer: We’re talking about working in solidarity.  One of the things AI has always stressed is to talk about the activism that’s going on in Iraq.  There’s so much strategic brilliance there that we need to take our lead from them. On the Right to Heal website, there’s a link that allows people to support Iraqis affected by ammunition testing in sites such as burn pits near US bases (sites to get rid of highly toxic, carcinogenic materials).  These toxins got into the air, resulting in birth defects, illnesses, cancer.  Organizations like Madre are channeling aid to sites affected by such toxicity.

We need to think carefully about what the needs are and what the US is responsible for.  In particular, we need to think about responsibility of US occupational authority for gender-based persecution that’s being carried on at the moment in Iraq.  We need to make this part of our analysis.  We have to frame the harm and then insist on accountability and acknowledgement.

Audience question: What can we as Americans do?

Maggie Martin: How to get involved: sign pledge on website, join our campaign, check out www.civsold.org

Audience question: Is the Right to Heal linked to demands for justice?

Pam Speer: Right to Heal should not be seen as exclusionary of justice and accountability.  We see the two as linked, as does international law, which says that you have to have acknowledgement, apology, and accountability, following by responsibility for repairing.  The US isn’t going to do this by itself; in fact, the Obama administration is already talking about ways to expand the War on Terror.  We have to keep talking about this here, and also go the international community, showing them that there are people on all sides of the equation and not allowing others to frame the questions for us.

Audience question: What can you tell us about the situation of women in Iraq today?

Yanar Mohammed: The situation of women was not great before the war.  We’d been starved by UN sanctions for years.  Then another war came, and the public sector was starved of funds.  40% of the public sector in Iraq is women.  What happens when you stay without a salary for years?  You agree to become a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th wife.  You cannot get a job.  You become vulnerable to more vicious symptoms of post-war society, such as human trafficking.  Women are leaders all over the world, but there are problems in Iraq since the quota system brought forward some of the most reactionary women, who were willing to vote for a constitution that says that women are worth one quarter of a man.

Audience question: What problems do military contractors raise?

Pam Speer: It’s still a state that is responsible.  We have a case set to go to trial that involves the interrogators at Abu Ghraib, who facilitated many of these egregious abuses.  No government prosecutions have taken place, but civil cases are moving forward.

Please check out Costs of War to remind yourselves of the massive economic debacle of the war on Iraq.

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You Strike a Woman, You Strike A Rock!

womanWathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo’ – You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock.  This slogan has come to define the struggle of women against oppression in South Africa. The rallying cry originates in a 1956 march led by women against the apartheid regime’s odious pass laws, which controlled the movement of people of color within the country.

Despite the gains made in South Africa in the intervening years, women continue to face deep inequalities and oppression. The country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, for example. For this reason, the tradition of women fighting back fearlessly against apartheid is an important one to remember during Women’s History Month.

Of course, South Africa is not the only country where women face enduring struggles against patriarchy. This weekend, women from around the world gathered here in New York at the United Nations for the 57th session of the UN Commission on Women. At a side event to the conference, a group of activists emerging from civil society networks that mobilized for last summer’s Rio+20 conference spoke out about the challenges posed to women around the world by unsustainable development.

imagesIndigenous women from Guatemala talked, for example, about having to walk for 2-4 hours per day in order to retrieve water for domestic use since extractive mining operations in their communities are consuming the lion’s share of public water supplies. An activist from Colombia talked about the often-violent displacement of women by the “green grabbing” activities of large-scale agrofuel production companies. Linking violence against women’s bodies with structural economic forms of violence, a woman from Fiji underlined the necessity of thinking (and mobilizing) across different scales.

An excellent report on the conference can be found here. And here’s a link to the Women’s Major Group, the organization founded following the Rio+20 conference to militate for a just and sustainable future.

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Women and the Food Crisis

la-paz-by-you-_2-960x654The vast majority of food is grown by women. In the Global South, women are the primary producers of basic grains such as rice, wheat, and corn. Yet women – and their children – are the most likely people to suffer from hunger in the world.

In poor countries around the globe, women have increasingly been entering salaried agricultural work, producing food for export in the agribusiness sector. But women are not offered comparable pay or jobs as their male counterparts in this sector. And of course salaried work imposes a double burden since women must continue to work in non-salaried labor in order to grow food for their families. In Spain, for instance, women workers in agribiz make 30-40% less than men.

The food crisis, in other words, is also a gender crisis. More and more of the aspects of social reproduction that were once controlled by peasants – by peasant women, specifically – are being subsumed by agribiz. As this happens, control over food production is taken out of the hands of producers and submitted to the whims of global capital.

campesinaThe upshot has been a global wave of de-peasantization and migration to megacities, many of which are now directly in harm’s way as a result of climate change.

Esther Vivas offers an excellent discussion of these trends, and of the resistance organized by peasant women through organizations such as La Via Campesina, in her report “Without Women There Is No Food Sovereignty.”

Also worth checking out is my colleague Fred Kaufman’s recent book Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food. As it’s title suggests, Bet the Farm explores the financialization of food, as well as linked political consequences such as the Arab Spring.

The contradictions in the global food system are set to catalyze dramatic upheavals in the not-too-distant future. Vivas and Kaufman help us understand where these crises are coming from, and how we can challenge them.

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The evil that men do lives after them

caesarYesterday I went to see the film Caesar Must Die, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviana.  Set in a maximum security prison outside Rome called Rebibbia, which famously houses some of the top bosses of the Italian mafia, the film documents a scorching production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a group of convicts. The film is a chilling meditation on mens’ capacities for violence.

The film is stripped down to bare essentials. We see a snippet of the final production at the outset, but the film quickly segues back to try outs for the play, in which potential actors are asked to identify themselves first as if they are at a border crossing, leaving behind their wives and children, and second as if they are being harshly interrogated. Following this introductory casting, rehearsals unfold, although the border separating rehearsals, the play itself, and the lives of the convicts is consistently blurred.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a harsh lesson about the dramatic danger of unleashing violence, with the cascade of vendettas and military clashes that follow Caesar’s assassination completely undermining Brutus’s idealistic vision in murdering his beloved Caesar.

The power of Caesar Must Die lies in the gravity that comes from employing men who have led violent lives as actors in Shakespeare’s depiction of a politically motivated assassination and the bloodletting that follows. The Taviani brothers’ film hammers home this message by showing us that men such as the actor-convicts of Rebibbia prison are ineluctibly scarred by the violent acts they have committed. The shadows that pass over these actors at moments in the production remind us as viewers that violence does not die, but lives on in these men, scarring their memories, interrupting their voices, and, of course, drastically impoverishing their present-day lives.

At the outset and conclusion of Caesar Must Die, we watch as each of the men whom we come to know in the course of the film is locked into his tiny cell. These somber moments underline the grim toll of violence, but also suggest the importance of art in opening up – however fleetingly – wider vistas of human experience and emotion to the men who enact Shakespeare’s play. A similar unsettling message can be found in This American Life‘s moving portrait of a jailhouse production of the final act of Hamlet. However great the violence committed in the past by such men, these two documentaries suggest, the greater violence lies in their societies’ decision to consign them to a living death behind bars.

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Staying Alive

Survival is our politics now. So says French political anthropologist Marc Abélès in The Politics of Survival. And so say many cultural producers today, although this admission often comes by way of what cultural theorist Fredric Jameson called the political unconscious more than through any overt acknowledgement of the true character and gravity of the crises we confront today.

Take Ridley Scott’s recent film Prometheus, for example. The film is a prequel to Alien (1979), a film which shared a great deal in common with previous Cold War-era paranoid movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Of course, Alien was a film of its time. The movie’s focus on the biopolitical threat of contagion was clearly influenced by the ecological crisis of the 1970s and by previous works of biopolitical horror such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969). In addition, the bad-ass heroine Ellen Ripley was very much a product of second-wave feminism.

Nonetheless, just as in earlier films of paranoid American empire such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Scott’s Alien features a hapless crew of (multicultural but clearly American) explorers who stumble upon an alien horde that subsequently annihilates them. The message seems to be that the expansion of U.S. capitalism can bring its agents – the crew members of the spaceship Nostromo (in a nice reference to Joseph Conrad) are bringing a freight of iron ore back to Earth – into contact with threatening populations of aliens. But it is the survival of this small group of explorers alone that is at issue.

Contrast this with Prometheus. In Scott’s prequel, released thirty three years after the original, it is the survival of humanity itself that is at stake.

In Prometheus, we find out that the aliens which Ripley battled are the product of a toxic biological weapon engineered by a race of god-like extraterrestrials who, having created humanity, have now decided to wipe us out for some inexplicable reason. The struggles of archeologist Elizabeth Straw to survive the various alien threats that assail her thus stand in for the struggle of humanity itself to stay alive.

One could perhaps say that the inscrutable motives of the “Engineers” who created us and now seem bent on our destruction in Prometheus might stand in for our planet’s environment, which seems to be turning against us with increasing virulence and unleashing multiple unanticipated plagues upon us. This is perhaps stretching allegory a bit far, but the crux of the film is indisputably the struggle for species survival, a marked shift from the earlier Alien films.

The obsession with survival in contemporary U.S. culture is virtually inescapable. Soon after seeing Prometheus, I wandered into Amie Siegel’s exhibition Black Moon (2012) in the Austin Museum of Art. Siegel’s video installation offers a powerful evocation of the current obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Long panning shots through blighted suburban housing developments in what appears to be Phoenix or some other city of the Southwest evoke the sub-prime mortgage-fueled bust.

Erupting into this bleak landscape of politically engineered economic abandonment, a small band of women guerrillas struggles to survive an unnamed and invisible nemesis.

Like Scott’s Prometheus, Siegel’s video exhibition remixes an original from the 1970s, in this case Louis Malle’s film Black Moon. Siegel’s piece updates the original, though, by situating the unexplained civil war in the context of neoliberal blight. Like Scott’s film, Siegel’s work also focuses on women as protagonists. The exhibition shares a great deal with Sarah Hall’s dystopian novel The Carhullan Army (2007), in which a commune of radical feminists takes to the Scottish highlands in order to survival the ecologically driven collapse of modern society.

This kind of apocalyptic narrative exerts such as strong appeal on the contemporary political unconscious, I want to argue, precisely because of the absence of genuine acknowledgement of the gravity of the crises that confront us in mainstream discourse.

The exhaustion of the neoliberal model of capitalism has been addressed by elites since the onset of the present crisis in 2008 by wave after wave of heightened austerity that is doing nothing but exacerbating the crisis, as well as drowning average people in misery. The political systems in both the U.S. and E.U. seem gripped by total gridlock, with rule being carried out in Europe by conservative bankers whose feckless measures have plunged the economic union into interminable crisis. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a political system riddled with corruption as a result of the influence of big money has spiraled into previously unknown extremes of partisanship and polarization. And, of course, underlying these crises, we continue to push the planet through incremental increases in carbon emissions into a climate crisis from which there is likely to be no exit for the vast majority of humanity.

There is, of course, little substantial admission of these crises in mainstream discourse, let alone an attempt to grapple with the kind of serious, systemic transformations that would be necessary in order to stem our current headlong rush towards oblivion.

Given this fact, the apocalyptic political unconscious proffered by films such as Prometheus can often seem very attractive. Hell, at least someone is willing to admit we’re in deep shit.

There are, nonetheless, significant dangers associated with such an outlook. As Eddie Yuen and the other contributors to the forthcoming volume Catastrophism point out, apocalyptic thinking distorts our understanding of the organic crisis faced by contemporary civilization. As a result, such thinking more often impedes rather than fuels progressive responses to crisis. In fact, if catastrophism has any basic DNA, it is in the apocalyptic thinking of fundamentalist religious movements, which tend to be animated in their responses to crisis by highly reactionary social mores.

The challenge we face, then, is to survey and help the multitude understand the depth of the crisis we currently face, while not giving in to apocalyptic rhetoric. We cannot afford to wait for the slate to be wiped clean before we build new, sustainable societies. That battle has to be waged in the present, through initiatives both pragmatic and visionary enough to engage people in genuine campaigns of hope.

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Staten Island Noir

The first short story I’ve ever written is forthcoming in Akashic Books’ fantastic noir series. I just got this copy of the cover; the book comes out in early November.

Each volume in Akashic’s series is based in a different city around the world. The publisher has been particularly attentive to cities in the global South, with titles like Kingston Noir, Delhi Noir, and (forthcoming) Lagos Noir featuring prominently in their catalog.

The series features and is edited by local writers, so it plays an important role in bringing collections of authors to the attention of audiences in the North who might otherwise remain below the radar.

I intend to explore the rubric of noir in future scholarly work. In what ways, I want to ask, are crime and policing responses to the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism that have forced literally millions of people off the land and into sprawling mega-cities in postcolonial nations? How adequate is the discourse of noir to reflecting critically on the impasses of neoliberal globalization? What gets left out of crime lit, and what crimes cannot be solved be even the most hard-boiled sleuth?

I hope my scholarly work on these kinds of questions will be productive. For now, though, I can say that I had great fun writing “Teenage Wasteland.” This story, set, of course, on Staten Island, explores the politics of toxic garbage disposal in the Fresh Kills dump during the late 1970s. The protagonist is a young Italian-American woman who gets diverted from her career as a fledgling punk rocker in her favorite stomping ground – CBGBs – by a rash of toxin-induced illnesses in her home neighborhood on Staten Island.

I definitely feel that there is more ground to explore here. Both in terms of garbage politics in NYC and in terms of the protagonist I created. I have ambitions to send her to Love Canal and to Italy. After all, the story is set during the anni di piombo (the years of lead), when the Italian government colluded with the mafia, NATO, and the CIA to shift Italian politics to the right by staging a series of bombings which were blamed on anarchist groups and on the Left in general. Lots to explore… Stay tuned.

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