Uncivil Disobedience

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My Gleaner column of April 5, 2017

It all started with UWI anthropologist Herbert Gayle saying that in his not so humble opinion there is no such thing as violence against women. The Gleaner followed that up with a 24-page supplement this January titled “Light on Violence” based on Gayle’s research. Naturally there was no mention in it of violence against women because as has been made clear, in the Gayle universe such a thing doesn’t exist.

While I can understand and sympathize with the desire to push back at UN-dictated terms of reference in the funding of social research I thought putting out a 24-page document on violence in Jamaica with not one page or section referring to the violence women face daily was going too far. A section called “Four forms of violence we need to worry about” doesn’t identify violence against women or domestic violence as one, despite the fact that in the months preceding this publication and the weeks immediately following it, the news was filled with reports of horrific murders of women very often by men they were close to.

In addition, the number of women and children routinely being raped points to a pervasive ‘rape culture’ that is so deeply ingrained and accepted that there is hardly any outcry against it. A blogger calling herself Natural Icon Beauty recalls at the age of 6 reporting to the family helper that she had been molested by the next-door neighbor and being told that this was normal, that the helper had gone through this too as a child and that it was probably because the man’s wife was away (!)

Because nine out of ten times this is the reaction of adults to whom a child confesses his or her violation the conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse is abominably low; most women don’t even bother to report their rapes because of the tortuous procedures involved that make them relive the trauma in the process of being interviewed by police and legal personnel bristling with disbelief and completely lacking in empathy. So much for the worry that women are going to come out of the woodworks making false accusations when evidence shows that even when there IS a case they are routinely dissuaded from reporting rape or are reluctant to do so because of the loss of reputation they suffer in the process.

Take Larissa Rhone who gathered the courage after 30 years to bring her grandmother’s husband to court in Jamaica for systematically violating her from the age of 5 to 16. For this she was vilified by the defense lawyer, as well as by her grandmother and others who called her wicked for ‘ruining’ an old man’s life, completely oblivious to the number of young lives his marauding libido had wrecked, for it wasn’t just Larissa but her younger siblings, cousins and even her own mother who had been violated by this man. Yet she and the other victims were all urged to remain silent about their traumas.

Matters were bound to come to a head. On March 11 women dubbing themselves survivors, marched in Kingston and all over the Caribbean protesting the violence routinely meted out to them. In Kingston the march was organized under the aegis of a new organization calling itself Tambourine Army. The protest was preceded by much disgruntlement and kass kass within the activist community between what someone referred to as an older, more ‘staid’ form of activism and the bolder, more risk-taking approach of younger activists fed up of a violent status quo immune to the tactics of older activists.

The newcomers were accused of being too angry, emotional and confrontational. Worse they had no qualms about lobbing profanities. But as singer Tanya Stephens, herself a survivor, retorted: “ The question is not why am I so angry. The question is why the f*%$ aren’t you?” To the criticism that the Tambourine Army was born out of an act of violence (what Global Voices called the bonking on the head of one of the accused with a tambourine) Stephens says: “Yes guys, the tambourine army was formed around an act of violence. That act of violence was RAPE.”

It was writer Kei Miller who neatly put his finger on what is important about Tambourine Army’s modus operandi.

“What is truly radical about the Tambourine Army and the #SayTheirNames campaign is not that a raping parson did get kuff by a tambourine, or that they took to the streets to march and make up noise, or that one of their leaders got thrown into jail. All of that is par for the course in social justice movements. So no. The most radical thing about this movement is the simple belief at the heart of their campaign. ‘I choose to believe you.’ Just that. So simple. If you are a victim of rape, and you come to me, ‘I choose to believe you.’”

In the meantime to quote Stella Gibson, the alter ego of Latoya Nugent, who was arrested under the Cyber Crimes Act for naming alleged sexual predators: “I stand with survivors because ‘enough is b0#$%&#@?t enough’.” To my mind the burning question we are left with is this: what exactly are we doing as a society when we penalize the use of words like’ f&^%#g’ while systematically deflecting punishment from the men f&^%#g underage girls and raping women?

See and blind, hear and deaf…

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The following is my unedited Gleaner column of March 22, 2017. Because it goes directly against the anti-Latoya Nugent and anti-#saytheirnames position adopted by the Gleaner this column wasn’t even shown in the Commentary lineup today (the sidebar showing columns published on a particular day), and you would have had to search hard to find it, very odd considering the number of views it has attracted. Anyway, thank the various gods for blogs…i can easily remedy the situation by posting it here.

The latest is that Nugent’s case which was to have been heard today has been postponed to March 31 because DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) Paula Llewelyn has announced ‘an interest’ in the case. We shall see when the time comes what this ‘interest’ means for issues of libel and defamation in cyberspace. Meanwhile the fate of Latoya Nugent aka as Stella Gibson on Facebook (the name of a hardcore police detective who’s an unapologetic feminist from the British show The Fall) hangs in the balance.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, Jamaican men cry rape every time women say, “Yes, let’s say their names.” A kind of hysteria breaks out because somehow they hear this as women demanding the right to falsely accuse men of raping them. But this is not what women are demanding at all, particularly in the new activism around violence against women.

According to Latoya Nugent, one of the founders of Tambourine Army, most of what has been said in both traditional and social media about the#saytheirnames movement is a damaging and gross misrepresentation. She clarifies that the movement is emphatically not about recklessly calling names without any context:

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When we encourage survivors to say the names of perpetrators we are not telling them where to say that name, when to say that name, we are telling them that if they are ever ready to say the names of their perpetrators in private and/or in public that support is available. Whether you want emotional support, psychological support or legal support, it is available for you. I want folks to appreciate that this is about facilitating the empowerment of survivors and about shifting the blame and shame away from survivors and placing it squarely at the feet of perpetrators and institutions which have allowed folks to abuse their positions of authority and trust because they are aware that we as a society silence our victims and our perpetrators. Our first response when a woman or girl says to us that they have been sexually assaulted or raped is that we don’t believe them and #Saytheirnames is about saying to such women, ‘we believe you, if you decide to come forward we believe you, we will provide the support that you need and if we can’t provide it, we will point you to the entities, or the agencies or the individuals who can give you the support that is needed.’ (Transcribed verbatim from an interview with Nationwide’s Cliff Hughes the day before Latoya Nugent was arrested)

Basically there has been a ‘see and blind, hear and def’ or “see not, hear not, speak not” policy in place in Jamaica for decades. There is widespread buy-in from civil society, the media, the Church, the University, the legal fraternity, you name it. It is enforced by an army of prim citizens, whose first reaction when you speak out about an injustice is to raise their finger to their lips in the universal gesture that means ‘halt your speech’ or ‘stop your noise’ as they say here.

People are socialized to believe that it is fundamentally wrong to ‘call someone’s name’ in public, especially in the media. This should only be done after accusations have been proved in court they say. But court cases take years to be completed in Jamaica and even when they do, often fail to deliver justice. Take the case of the Reverend Paul Lewis, accused of raping a 14-year old girl in Sav-la-Mar, in the presence of another 14-year old girl who testified in court to the rape. Despite the Reverend’s semen being found on the child’s underwear, despite the testimony of an eyewitness, a Jamaican court saw fit to hand down a ‘not-guilty’ verdict.

More often than not rape victims don’t report the crime or give up during the extremely painful, invasive process of going to court to prosecute their attackers. A senior lecturer at UWI says: “I’ve watched helplessly while one of my (now former) students went through 4 years of appearances, delays, and postponements in the courts for the prosecution of two young men whom she had been able to identify as being among her assailants in a gang rape. She eventually decided to pull out of the case. As she put it, they had taken enough of her life, and every time she was required to make another court appearance, she relived the experience. She needed to move on. Justice denied. I wish the perpetrators could be named.”

“Every year, an average of 5,500 people are reporting sexual violence to Canadian police, but their cases are dropping out of the system as unfounded long before a Crown prosecutor, judge or jury has a chance to weigh in,” reports the Globe and Mail. The use of the term ‘unfounded’ to describe cases that the police have dropped due to the inadequacies of their own methods of interviewing victims, taking statements etc has been identified as highly problematic. The article goes on to state:

“True unfounded cases, which arise from malicious or mistaken reports, are rare. Between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of complaints are false reports, according to research from North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.”

There is no reason the numbers would be markedly different in Jamaica. Why then the moral panic about the mere possibility of libel in cyberspace? And why is there not a similar outcry about the out-of-control rape culture here?

In memory of Jyoti aka Nirbhaya…how language facilitates rape

A brief meditation on how language facilitates rape on the first anniversary of the inhumane Delhi gang rape.

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Nirbhaya image via Deepak’s Lore

There are many reasons I chose the phrase Active Voice for the title of my blog. One of them is simply grammatical. I deplore the tendency to resort to the passive voice and all that it implies. The passive voice dwells on the action not on the actor. You come across it a lot in bad academic writing. “A form was developed and disseminated to collect epidemiological data, including data on health services utilization and costs….Subsequent visits were made to collect the data” etc etc.

But there are far more serious abuses of the passive voice, especially as described in the article quoted below; written in the wake of the horrific Delhi gang rape almost exactly one year ago (December 16)  Tilotamma Shrinivasa notes how the passive voice  can be employed as a blame-shifting device in relation to sex crimes. It’s worth thinking about.

What Grammar Says About Rape
Posted by: ladiesfinger , August 19, 2013

By Tilotamma Shrinivasa

Before we begin, a quick grammar lesson is due. Google for ‘passive voice’ and the very first hit defines it like this:

Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action.

And adds this:

“Sometimes a statement in passive is more polite than active voice, as the following example shows:
Example: A mistake was made. In this case, I focus on the fact that a mistake was made, but I do not blame anyone (e.g. You have made a mistake.).”

So, saying “Draupadi stole Bheema’s apple” blames Draupadi for stealing, while saying “Bheema’s apple was stolen by Draupadi” focuses on the fact that the apple was stolen. Now if you drop Draupadi from the second sentence, “Bheema’s apple was stolen” conveys the idea that this terrible thing happened to Bheema but doesn’t blame anyone! Or if I use an even worse and a grammatically dodgy form of passive voice: “Bheema had his apple stolen” squarely dumps the responsibility of what happened on Bheema’s head!

Now that you are equipped with the power of grammar, here is a snapshot of Google results for the recent assaults in Gurgaon and Manipal:

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Let’s not even start with the ‘allegedly’ business! Anyway, here is another general snapshot of recent articles:

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For more click here

Are we listening now?

What will it take to change the status quo in countries with the kind of healthy, flourishing rape culture that accompanies the worst forms of patriarchy?

In my last post i quoted a passage from Listening Now, a 1998 novel by Anjana Appachana about women in Delhi in which she captures the kind of lecherous assaults they often face in public. It was a situation we ourselves were familiar with as students at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in the 1970s. One intimate of ours was abducted by a hoodlum named Bobby Oberoi and narrowly escaped being raped by him. We later discovered that he was a budding Don, the scourge of Delhi University women, many of whom he had raped at gunpoint. Traumatized, she was afraid to return to Delhi, but luckily for her it was 1975, Indira Gandhi had just declared the Emergency, and most petty criminals and gangsters had decamped from the capital in a hurry: those who didn’t, risked being removed by the armed forces during curfew hours.

Later when some of us moved on to Jawaharlal Nehru University another member of our in-group found herself the victim of a stalker, a fellow JNU student from Aligarh, who became obsessed with her, dogging her footsteps wherever she went and begging her to marry him. It got so bad the university had to intervene, terminating his stay at the university and sending him home. JNU was an experimental university, the first central government funded university i believe, and every single state was scrupulously represented in its student body. This meant that students from rural areas who had never set foot in a big city suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with the most hip and sophisticated types from Delhi University, Calcutta, Bombay and the other major cities. It was the female students coming from colleges like LSR, Miranda House, Sophia’s who caused the most consternation for there was no counterpart for them in small-town or village India, where women rarely moved freely in public by themselves.

Anjana, like many other feminists, seethed with anger at the blatant lack of respect women were treated with, and was particularly incensed by the impunity with which men behaved, their actions circumscribing women’s lives in harmful ways. But were only men to blame for this state of affairs? Not at all. Her response to my quoting of the scene in her book makes the point that it’s often women themselves who deny the existence of gender-based violence, thus allowing it to continue without check. As she said:

Yes, that anger still simmers, but the writing helps Annie…but women don’t want to hear about it. When I had my reading at LSR either in ’98 or ’99, many of the girls were upset about that scene, because they felt it was unnecessary and that things were different. I was appalled. In fact I remember one of those girls shaking her head at me in disappointment and asking me why I found it necessary to write that scene. I said, it happens. And she shook her head again. Perhaps they saw me as a “foreign returned” woman who had no right to write these things. And I didn’t want to start justifying my years in India (have been coming here every year, now twice a year and living here not as a tourist but as a constant caregiver), so really, there was nothing to say. Fortunately the other readings went off very well, no one protested about that scene. But imagine, LSR girls! Sometimes I find, even about other things, that it is women who are most incensed by some of the things I write about. It is the attitude of “It-isn’t-like-this-anymore.” And from what I have seen and lived, it is worse now, because we women are going forwards and the men are rapidly going backwards. Also, all these rape protests are good and necessary, but are women making any changes in their own lives? Do they feel passionately about what is right and wrong and then do they try and do something about it?

I think we’re all just beginning to realize that if we–women, that is–want to feel safe and equal, we’re going to have to do something about it ourselves and this includes erasing or reformatting our own socialization. The following blogpost by Neha Dixit speaks eloquently of what will be required, among other things:

Unlearning submission

When the middle class thronged the roads protesting against this rape, they got a first hand taste of the police atrocities. Unlike the Anna movement, here they were ready to face police batons, water cannons, tear gas, which was till now  for them only a romantic image of a revolution. They lived the reality of stone pelting in Kashmir and the autocracy of the Armed Forces Special Power Acts in the Northeast. It may be surface sensitisation, but it was also a moment  to expose the sex terrorism of the state. To discuss custodial rapes, about the rapes of adivasi women like Laxmi Orang, who have been waiting for justice for the last five years or that of Manorama who was raped and killed eight years back by the army. And it is in this light then the middle class may understand the grotesqueness of Central Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde’s statement when he says, “ Tomorrow, if 100 adivasis are killed in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli, can the government go there?”  It is this participation, even at a cursory level, that is potent enough to initiate the scrutiny of political representatives and their prejudices.

For a woman who has made the journey from a stereotypical, upper caste patriarchal, middle class, small city person to a person who is still struggling to fight it on a daily basis, to do away with all stereotypes and acknowledge one’s privileges to engage with the working class, I understand the importance of unlearning. In creating an independent life, in awakening one’s own critical consciousness.

It is this unlearning that was instigated by these protests amongst the middle class. The unlearning that teaches to refute, question, assert and empathise. The Indian feminist movement is hidden under these protests.

In addition to unlearning the harmful effects of having learnt to be women in a profoundly patriarchal society we might have to take direct action of the kind outlined on Facebook by my friend, Punam Zuthsi…

On the 3rd I attended the IIC panel discussion moderated by Soli Sorabjee. From amongst the audience there was a suggestion … offered hesitantly that there should be a group of women who should volunteer to spend 12 hours at a time at a police station to ensure that anyone who came to the police station feel reassured and supported… I am told that there is a system by which women who volunteered could be made honorary constables. Reading the account of Nirbhaya’s companion who sat for hours in the ER of Safdarjang without a stitch; and hearing of a man whose head injury was not attended to for the whole day given the rush on the CT Scanner in the Safdarjang/ AIIMS… Apart from police stations there needs to be someone at the Emergency Rooms of Safdarjang and AIIMS and the Trauma Centre as well… Obviously the ‘social work’ segment at the hospitals is not terribly useful… One knew that the ERs did their work but it seems that they seem not to be as reassuring as I thought they were…

Now are we prepared to undertake such a radical rearrangement of our lives? If we want to lead free and unencumbered lives we’ll have to secure it by finding solutions to each of the ways in which society systematically failed that ill-fated young woman who was trying to do something as pedestrian as catch a bus home last December 16. We’ll have to acknowledge that there are fundamental ways in which our culture(s) must change. If not change won’t come in our lifetimes or the next.

Finally some of the change so urgently needed isn’t that difficult. A lesson may be learned from the family of SOHAILA ABDULALI, who lived to write about the horrific rape she suffered at the age of 17, and how she survived to lead a full life because of the empathy of her family and their continuing love and care for her after she was raped. That is what families are supposed to be, nurturing cradles of unconditional love–no matter your gender–especially when life has left you damaged or brittle. Read the following article and see how familial support and love helped to heal a trauma that could have disrupted Sohaila’s life forever. Now why can’t we all take a leaf out of this family’s book?

It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape. I’m not an expert, nor do I represent all victims of rape. All I can offer is that — unlike the young woman who died in December two weeks after being brutally gang raped, and so many others — my story didn’t end, and I can continue to tell it.

When I fought to live that night, I hardly knew what I was fighting for. A male friend and I had gone for a walk up a mountain near my home. Four armed men caught us and made us climb to a secluded spot, where they raped me for several hours, and beat both of us. They argued among themselves about whether or not to kill us, and finally let us go.

At 17, I was just a child. Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. With them on my side, so much came my way. I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.