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Happy New Year! Excuses for the break since the last post. I have just moved country for work to a place with an unreliable and slow internet connection, so gaining access to this site is proving slightly complicated. However, with perseverance (and some research into the best internet connections in town) it is still possible, so I hope to continue to write and update over the coming year.

To begin the year, two extracts which offer a different approach to women’s rights. Firstly, an extract from a short story, Discovering Home by Binyavanga WainainaI, from the collection : Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, published by the New Internationalist.

I like the way this story addresses indirectly women and women’s rights and the way characters speak indirectly to those rights demands. I particularly liked the impressions of powerful strong women in this story. It is a great contrast to the many stories (or development and rights messages) of women as disempowered, weak or oppressed.

The women are also not presented in as sexy or alluring. They obtain their power through other means, in the same way as a man might. They do not use their ‘feminine charms’ to win over men, or to get what they want or need.

The main character Eddah, is smart, strong and capable. She has political power as a member of a political parties, economic power by asserting control and ownership of her husband’s resources as well as setting up her own business and physical power by acting together with other local women. She also has essentials provided to her via a garden which men tend for her and from a shop owner with whom she has an affair.

Indeed, these women possess most of the characteristics sought after by development projects for gender equality or women’s rights : political participation or participation in decision making and generating alternative forms of income. The methods used to accrue these forms of power may not be the most orthodox, yet it is difficult not to admire the strength and resourcefulness of these women and particularly Eddah who defies a system which could very well be considered intended to suppress her.

Here are the extracts which show some of the strong female characters and their ability to claim their own rights within their community.

“I met Eddah when she had just married Ole Kamaro. She was his fifth wife, 13 years old … I remember being horrified by the marriage – she was so young! … ( A) few years of schooling were enough to give Eddah a clear idea if the basic tenets of Empowerment. By the time she was 18, Ole Kamaro had dumped the rest of his wives. Eddah leased out his land to Kenya Breweries and opened a bank account where all the money went. Occasionally, she gave her husband pocket money.

Whenever he was away, she took up with her lover, a wealthy young Kikuyu shopkeeper from the other side of the hill who kept her supplied with essentials like soap, matches and paraffin.

Eddah was the local chairwoman of KANU (Kenya’s Ruling Party) Women’s League and so remained invulnerable to censure from conservative elements around. She also had a thriving business, curing hides and beading them elaborately for the tourist market at the Mara. Unlike most Masai women, who disdain growing of crops, she had a thriving market garden with maize, beans, and various vegetables. She did not lift a finger to take care of this garden. Part of the co-operation we expected from her as landlady meant that our staff had to take care of that garden. Her reasoning was that Kikuyu men are cowardly women anyway and they do farming so-oo well.

Something interesting is going on today. There is a tradition amongst Masai, that women are released from all domestic duties a few months after giving birth. The women are allowed to take over the land and claim any lovers that they choose … I have been warned to keep away from any bands of women wandering about. We are on some enourmous hill and I can feel old Massey Ferguson’s tractor wheezing. We get to the top, turn to make our way down, and there they are: led by Eddah, a troop of about 40 women marching towards us dressed in their best traditional clothing.

Eddah looks imperious and beautiful in her beaded leather cloak, red khanga wraps, rings, necklaces and earrings. There is an old woman amongst them, she must be 70 and she is cackling in toothless glee. She takes off her wrap and displays her breasts – they resemble old gym socks.

Mwangi who is driving, stops, and tries to turn back, but the road is too narrow:on one side there us the mountain, and in the other, a yawning valley. Kipsang, who is sitting in the trailer with me shouts for Karanja to drive right through them:

“DO NOT STOP!”

It seems that the modernised version of this tradition involves men making donations to the KANU Women’s Group. Innocent enough, you’d think – but the amount of these donations must satisfy them or they will strip you naked and do unspeakable things to your body.

So we take off at full speed. The women stand firm in the middle if the road. We can’t swerve. We stop.

Then Kipsang saves our skins by throwing a bunch of coins onto the road. I throw down some notes and Mwangi … empties his pockets, throws down notes and coins. The women start to gather the money, the tractor roars back into action and we drive through them.I am left with the picture of the toothless old lady diving to avoid the tractor. Then standing, looking at us and laughing, her breasts flapping about like a Flag of Victory.

A quick second extract looking at rights of women in an unconventional way is this great post by wrongingrights. The states that it is written in response to the recent high publicity rape cases in India (and also see) the USA and Lara Logan in Egypt and the misplaced attitude of public officials towards those cases of women, (see this perspective from India and this one from Canada).

The article approaches the problem from a different perspective and also one which hits directly home. The posts discusses preventing men from working in the media, going out at night due to the risk they sexually abuse or rape women. It is also suggested that they wear blindfolds in public to prevent them from being aroused by women in public places. The post seems humourous and what struck me on reading it was that I found it humourous. It made me reflect that  if we discussed preventing women going out after dark or wearing less provocative clothing or being unsuitable for certain jobs it would be taken as a serious article not a comic one. In this role reversal this article effectively highlights the cultural and social norms we so easily accept as truths regarding women’s freedoms.

Here is an sample, but do read the whole post:

Unwise to Allow Men to Go Out Alone at Night?

A local coalition of religious leaders, concerned about recent studies showing that an average of 6% of men will commit a sexual assault during their lifetime, and that nearly all sexual assaults are committed by men on their own or in groups, are urging parents not to let their sons go out at night unless they are accompanied by a mother, sister, or trusted female friend.

Mens’ groups have responded with concern, pointing out that this may leave some men unable to complete the tasks of daily life, such as going to school, working, or socializing.

In response, the religious leaders said that they “understand that this may be an inconvenience for some men,” but that “the minor difficulties this imposes on men are nothing when compared to the lifelong horror sexual assaults cause their victims.” “Really,” said the organization’s leader, “almost any limitation on men’s freedom is better than the risk that they might sexually assault someone. That’s just common sense.”

(Just a little final note on Egypt, as I have been following women’s rights issues in Cairo for the past year, see here, here and here, it seems important to highlight that the issue of sexual assault goes much wider and deeper than the assault of Lara Logan, which partially inspired the wrongingrights post. Sexual assault is a complex problem in Egypt and one which women and activists face daily. For more information on that subject see Harassmap, Nazra and a plethora of media comment, including Egypt Independent, Washington Post, Aljazeera and of course this much discussed piece by Mona Eltahawy).

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A new month, a new round-up of rights news from around the world. In addition as I am just starting a new job in South East Asia the regional focus will expand a little to reflect interesting new resources I discover here in the course of my work.

Firstly, an interesting short piece in the IHT on the situation of women in Myanmar. The author Didi Kirsten Tatlow highlights some of the major issues being addressed in terms of gender. She reports on “very active” women’s groups taking advantage of the new political liberalisation. She highlights legislative need such as the preparation of a law on domestic violence. Also interestingly she highlights a role for women as peace-keepers in the communities affected by war, such as the current violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities. She also states that a more general survey of women in the country to understand better there status and role in this society. I look forward to seeing the results of some of these interesting ideas.

Secondly, a piece in 500 Words Magazine, a magazine publishing essays on Sudan through the words of the Sudanese Youth. I particularly like this piece
Why Breakfast should be banned in Sudan which recounts in an amusing way the problem of inefficiency in Sudan’s working culture. Another nice piece is What we used to be and what we are now which reflects on the changes in Sudan since his childhood and discusses the responsibilities of the youth of today in addressing development.

Finally, a compelling look at sexual harrassment and sexual violence around the world by the Fair Observer. These selection f articles compare and contrast the issue of assuring safety for women in their day to day lives in a number of different contexts, from implementing laws in post-conflict DRC to combatting traditional values in post-revolution Egypt, to creating safe public spaces in Latin America. to the difference class can make in protecting women from violence in India. All the articles highlight a common idea of women being perceived a certain way by society, requiring certain special treatments or being required to limit themselves to certain feminine behaviour or actions.

The origins of these ideas are very nicely highlighted by the South African contribution, an interview with Bernadette Muthien. She states:

(l)et’s just try to understand how the violence works: Gender based violence obviously occurs based on gender and the root cause of all violence we would argue is patriarchy. It precedes all the economic systems we know today … And patriarchy has been around for thousands of years … What patriarchy does is it uses violence in general to control people and gender based violence specifically to control people. This can be seen by looking at child rape and child sexual abuse. When a child is raped, then that person is marked by that rape for the rest of their lives. Sometimes they themselves become perpetrators. In other words, if you rape a child, you have that person incapacitated for almost the rest of their lives. It can become an incredibly powerful source of control, and then you have an automatic cyclic existence of rape: generation after generation gets raped. I become a parent, I rape my child – it perpetuates itself and the mechanisms of control become almost unconscious. It is a system to maintain control over people, and women in particular.

She goes on to conclude with a vision which takes sexual abuse and harassment out of the box of gender issues and women’s issues. She highlights a wider aspiration which includes aspiration for a new form of masculinity and an idea of feminism which is cooperative rather than competitive. A difficult goal perhaps, but one which could really make a difference.

In her words:

I would like to continue to have hope. We must try and find hope for what we do and it would be good if we could continue to do the work we do – To find more and more people using cooperation rather than competition, and if more and more men come along and say “We have to construct better models of masculinity, better ways to relate to one another”; more and more women saying, “I do not want to be a victim. I want to take my own agency and power but I don’t want to be like Margaret Thatcher either. I want to be a woman who is not patriarchal.” and women coming together, working with one another, that could be very wonderful.

A new regular post highlighting a few special rights stories. I will post at the beginning of each month. I hope to share some of the best articles, reports, videos, photos which I’ve come across in the past month which discuss or shed some new light on human rights and development issues across the globe.

So onto the very first Rights Round Up :

1. Aljazeera‘s article: In pictures: Cairo’s rich-poor standoff by Mosa’ab Elshamy.

A compelling photo essay which highlights some of the contradictory aspects of the right to decent housing in Cairo. The pictures are of the Boulaq slum area of Cairo, situated near to the Nile Towers luxury shopping centre. Mosa’ab Elshamy states:

” While opulence is the towers’ signature, Ramlet Boulaq is without sewage, electricity or running water. “

The images highlight the derelict state of residents houses and the sub-standard living conditions in which they survive, by placing these alongside the suited clients of the Nile Towers complex. The right to housing is a much spoken of problem in Cairo, yet images like these go to highlight how much still needs to be done to assure a basic right to housing for city dwellers.

2. Throwing Stones at the Moon (extract) in Granta.

The haunting story of María Victoria Jiménez, told beautifully in her own words. A medical intern who was attacked and disfigured for exposing corruption at a hospital, her tale is similar to too many in Columbia and other Latin American countries where violence rules over truth. Her strength and honesty makes inspiring but hard reading which demonstrates what defending rights has comes to mean for Maria Victoria.

“I don’t want to move to another part of the country because that would be quitting. And if I quit, everyone will do the same, and we won’t get anywhere. The fact is that if people stay silent, what future will my nephews have, and what future will their children have?

I continue to move around from house to house in Bello. I go to work and then I go straight home. I don’t have a life. I stay in my room by myself and I sleep with a kitchen knife, pepper spray, and a bulletproof vest next to my bed. Outside of work, my life is four walls. Sometimes I think that maybe it would have been better to have died.”

3. Une Justice Qui Fait Honte au Pays! in Courrier International.

One for the French Speakers. An impassioned critique of the Tunisian justice system for bringing charges against a woman who was raped by police officers. An article which highlights once again the struggle in the Middle East and North Africa for a system and society which respects and assures equal treatment for women.

4. Women’s Rights Demands

A lovely short (and optimistic) video on women’s rights demands in Egypt, created by CEWLA (The Centre for Egyptian Legal Assistance), but expressed by the women themselves. So often we writers, organisations and commentators speak for women. Here they are speaking in their own words, saying what is important for them in Egypt’s future. Demands include assuring criminalisation of FGM in the Constitution, rights for housewives, universities in Upper Egypt and higher representation for women in political bodies.

5. Amnesty International : Rule of Law Elusive – Two Report on Violence against Protesters in Egypt

For months I have been hoping Amnesty International’s comment on violence in protests in Egypt, after following and reporting on this topic during the Abbaseya clashes. Amnesty don’t disappoint  issuing two reports. The first focuses on abuses carried out by the military, including torture and killing with impunity. The second focuses on police violence during protests and clashes. Attacks by the authorities on protesters seemed to characterise Egypt’s transition period, undermining the very freedom of expression and assembly which was fought for during the revolution. The reports call for President Morsi to reform the police and security institutions and ask for accountability and justice for past abuses.

 

 

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