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?

‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

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

Girls, Interrupted…No City for Women…

Padma began to scream. Then Anu began to scream. As if in slow motion Madhu saw that like boxers in a ring they were in the middle of a crowd of men with avid eyes, yes, it was the eyes that she always remembered, that Padma was bent over, her hands covering her breasts, that Anu lay crouched on the ground in a foetal position, her legs curled, her hands tight around her body. As Padma screamed Madhu saw the thick ring of men around them move back smoothly like a receding wave, then smoothly, in perfect accord, the wave flowed back towards them and they were engulfed. The hands at Madhu’s breasts squeezed and pinched, between her thighs the fingers probed and prodded, they slid down her bra and below her waist under her petticoat, she heard a groan as a hand rubbed her bare bottom up-down, as if it were sandpaper, she struck out with her bag and hit someone and her long nails scratched someone else’s hands, she bent down, her elbows out and hit someone’s stomach and as she did she felt a body moving hard against her back, both his hands holding her thighs, she heard her own scream as she fell on the ground, her head hitting the ground. There was silence. The loudspeaker began its next song from the latest Hindi film. She opened her eyes. It was as if nothing had happened, no one was around them, a few yards away four policemen with lathis stood grinning, and beyond them everyone stared.

Listening Now, Anjana Appachana

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The above quote from Anjana’s 1998 novel, Listening Now, set in Delhi, captures the horrors faced by women in India’s capital city where packs of predatory men regularly terrorize women and have done so for decades. Anjana, who was at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) with me (in the Emergency-prone 1970s) and later at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), right next door to Munirka where a young woman’s innocent decision to board a particular bus interrupted her forever, was always incensed by the overbearing male gaze that ruled our movements, the way we dressed, the way we spoke…what we could and could not do.

Rape statistics from National Crime Records Bureau's Crime in India 2011 report plotted on an interactive map of India. Hover over the map for detailed stats.
Rape statistics from National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India 2011 report plotted on an interactive map of India.

The recent fury in India over the gutsy, hard-working  optimistic young woman whose life was so rudely, abruptly,  interrupted by six predatory males in a bus who literally gutted her in the process of sating their lust and rage reminded me of Anjana’s novel and her simmering rage about the traumas and  injustices regularly faced by women in India. I hadn’t read it since 1998 but I knew it wouldn’t take me long to find the relevant passage.  Note that the passage ends by highlighting the indifference of the police to the women’s plight, their grins even signalling a kind of pleasure in what they were witnessing.

And that is what astounds the most; that the Indian Police, those assigned to protect the public from criminals and gangsters, seem not to see anything wrong with sexual predation and rape. Exactly 10 days after the hideous gang rape in Delhi, on December 26, another gang rape victim in North India ended her life, unable to cope with policemen who were more interested in getting her to drop rape charges and marry one of her rapists than uphold law and order. As a New York Times article detailed:

The family of Paramjeet Kaur sat huddled in the dusty courtyard outside their house on Monday afternoon as a stream of senior police officers, politicians and villagers arrived to pay their condolences after Ms. Kaur killed herself on Dec. 26, nearly six weeks after she was raped by two men.

The family kept asking: Where were all these people when their 18-year-old daughter had sought justice from the village council of Badshahpur and the police, only to be humiliated and pressured to strike a deal with her rapists?

“They are all here now, but nobody helped us then,” said Charanjit Kaur, 28, Ms. Kaur’s sister, as she sat against a whitewashed wall, her knees drawn up to her chin. “If the police had done something, she would be alive today.”

The practice of getting rape victims to marry their rapists strikes me as an extremely dangerous one. In effect it acts as an incentive to men to rape women if by doing so, they can expect the woman in question  to legally become theirs. What a bizarre version of crime and punishment. This principle certainly wouldn’t be applied to property would it? Hard to imagine a gang attacking a private home and having terrorized the owners, being allowed to acquire the property for themselves? But that, in effect, is what this complete perversion of justice amounts to.

What makes Delhi such a charming city and one that I keep returning to are the splendid ruins of old tombs and temples that irregularly interrupt the bustling city scape. Reluctantly I’ve come to believe that there are correspondingly ancient, if unlovely, mindsets –steeped in feudal, patriarchal logic and incompatible with the demands of contemporary life in cities such as Delhi. And they occur much more frequently than the occasional picturesque ruin in the postcolonial landscape. What we are confronted with in the case of these violated girls, are archaic psyches interrupted by the postmodern, themselves no doubt the victims of class-based iniquities,  reacting to the assaults with savage violence and cruelty. The failure of the  Police to do the right thing by women is also symptomatic of this time-worn  hoary mentality. We are in the midst of a cultural crisis of no mean proportions. I don’t believe we can legislate our way out of it.