Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Back on the street with a new book in hand, the acrid, polluted air hits me as the traffic rumbles by. Horns blare. Pop music emanates from a street stand. Rickshaws rip past. Bus attendants lean from doorframes and shout out destinations. The cacophony surrounds me.
I look ahead and a group of men are staring at me. It’s disconcerting. I look down. But then I look up because looking down makes me feel dominated. I look past them, making sure not to catch their eyes. A female traveler once told me that in India acknowledging a man’s lascivious gaze might be interpreted as a come on. And with the prevailing belief among uneducated men that western women are unusually promiscuous, I try not to contribute to the fallacy. “Hello, gorgeous” one says laughingly as I walk past.
I came here because I’m annoyed so many women are violated and enslaved. I didn’t realize that the complex societal fabric that fosters female sexual exploitation would, to a certain extent, turn on me. It’s not like anything horribly traumatic has happened, but it's the sensation of having a group of men look you up and down, saying comments to each other, leaving you feeling undressed and dirty. It’s sitting on a bus and having the man three seats ahead of you turn around to leer at you. It’s walking along the sidewalk and having a man approach you from behind to say something lewd. It’s wanting to yell at them for being so barbaric, but knowing it would probably only humor them. And unfortunately my experience isn’t uncommon; I have talked to a number of other western females who have been hassled far worse.
I’m lost in my anger, trying to remind myself that most men here are respectful, when a child clad only in underwear pulls on my shirt. Telling myself that some adult probably forces him to beg, I ignore him as he clings to me for a few steps. But then I realize he is just reaching for my water bottle. So I hand it over and he gulps it down.
I keep walking, attempting to absorb this contradiction that is Kolkata. Not only is it beyond understanding, it’s the kind of place that throws you off balance and makes you question your assumptions about life. But that is not exactly a bad thing. In fact, if the heat were not so mind numbing, I’d say it’s a fresh breeze freeing my thoughts of the monotony I let myself become trapped in when at home.
I turn and walk up the steps of Barista. Inside I might as well be in Starbucks. It’s the same corporate furniture, omnipresent logo, sterile environment, completely devoid of character and yet disarmingly comforting. Listening to the familiar harmony of espresso being made and milk being steamed, I sit in an armchair and peer out of the large glass window. It occurs to me that the majority of people in view will never sit where I am sitting or taste the luxury of a blended iced coffee like the one I’m sipping on.
India is too difficult for generalizations, and for every observation I make, I know it is true for other cultures, but somehow life here seems intensified, the contrasts more dramatic. Thousands of families live on sidewalks. Some sleep in makeshift tents, others on mats exposed to the night air. Their children play with the neighborhood street kids and bathe using public water taps. They cook on open fires, wash dishes on curb edges, and might collect garbage to earn a few rupees. When the rains come and it floods, they grab their meager possessions and wait until the water recedes. Then they “rebuild.” Behind the walls that line the sidewalks, people live in tall, guarded apartment buildings, have drivers and servants, buy designer clothing and attend art openings.
I’m struck by the proximity of it all. At home we have disparity, but it’s displayed differently. So who is handling it best? Are they…for accepting the inequality and forcing themselves to witness and live amid the diverse paths life takes us? Or are we… for gentrifying and sequestering our poor off in projects?
Hmm…well, I come into this with my own perspective, and as a result will leave with my own opinions. Probably wrong, but at least obtained through the experience.
As for photos, here are some random ones around town, mostly of the colonial architecture.
The following are photos my husband took when he came to visit:
Monday, July 23, 2007
Given the troubled history of this holiday, I was curious to check out the festivies for myself. While the parades that start off the day's activities have been greatly sanitized to appeal to a wider audience, some of the events, such the large bonfires attended by many drunken youths that sprout up throughout neighborhoods such as Annadale and the Shankhill, unfortunately still retain some of the intimidating atmosphere that has long characterized life in this city for both communities. Although efforts are currently being made to make the 12 of July more inclusive and family-friendly to all, it's quite clear that much more needs to be done before this can happen.
Monday, July 16, 2007
We were able to track down and obtain the police report through the Victim Services Department of the Detroit Police Department, but it took some time as the murder victim's Arabic name had been bungled miserably. We were also able to track down some Arabic, English, and French speaking lawyers through an Arab American institution in Michigan who may be able to help this man and his family.
But, what I found most interesting throughout this process, was the difference in perceptions of the police force, the government, lawyers, and public institutions in general. It seems to me that Moroccans in general have an inherent distrust of the police and of public institutions. Even public institutions with the obvious intent of assisting them. This is a problem which OMDH has encountered time and time again during their investigations and fact finding missions and in interviewing victims of human rights abuses -- the victims are afraid to reveal too much, afraid to accuse, afraid to name abusers and agressors, afraid to implicate themselves in anyway, afraid of making themselves an easy target for retribution by the police and the government.
I found this to be absolutely true in trying to interview and obtain information from this man whom I was trying very hard to help. I became frustrated, and a cultural divide became apparent. This man had traveled to Rabat specifically to speak with myself and another American intern, just because he had heard that two English speaking interns were working at a human rights organization -- OMDH. I had to be incredibly patient, win his trust, and go over the details multiple times, in order to make sure that I had received the complete story. During subsequent interviews, he would reveal vital pieces of information, and I couldn't believe that he hadn't already told me this information in a prior interview. He was very wary of speaking with a lawyer -- he wanted to discuss the possibility with his family first, even though I explained the concept of confidentiality. He was very wary of talking to the Detroit police department via an interpreter, even though I felt that he had important information which might help the police in their ostensibly stalled investigation. The entire process was fascinating, and it made me realize that government, legal, and police protections, which I take for granted in the US, not to say that our legal system and/or government and/or police force are perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but that this man does not enjoy that same degree of trust in his police force and government, that he actually fears his police force and government -- the institutions which should be operating on his behalf and protecting his interests.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The thing that struck me the most about the content of the final report on the subject, produced by a national network of centers for female victims of violence, was the way in which the concept of violence was defined and categorized. The different forms of violence recognized in the report included physical, sexual, but also psychological, judicial, and economic. Not having access to the court system in order to obtain legal reparations was considered to be a form of violence against women. Men withholding money from their wives in order to elicit whatever behaviors was considered to be a form of violence. From my viewpoint, this seemed to be a really different way of looking at the issue. I think, for the most part, that we think of violence towards women in the US strictly as physical and sexual abuse. In the US, in my opinion, we don't think of economic violence as a form of violence, since this concept would jeopardize our hypercapitalistic, dog eat dog economic system. Having grown up in an abusive home, I know what an impact the treat of economic retribution can have on a woman's decision to leave or to stay.
The other evening, I had the most wonderful and interesting experience. I was invited into the home of a Moroccan family for the evening. The mother, around 60 years of age, in traditional Moroccan dress, sat aside her 27 year old daughter, in jeans and a t shirt, watching a pussy cat dolls video on the television. The mother had raised six children -- she had given birth to eight, and most of her children are now living in France, where they were also educated. Her oldest is about 45, her youngest, 27.
She told me that she had been married via an arranged marriage when she was twelve. Her father had decided to marry her off, and she had had no say in the matter. She said that her mother and her sisters cried and begged and pleaded with her father not to marry her off, but to no avail. She told me that she was terrified. Her future husband was about 10 years older than herself. She told me that she was expected to have sex with her husband as he wished, as well as to cook and clean and take care of the house. She said that she didn't know how to cook, and that her husband beat her as a result. Her sister had to come live with her for awhile to teach her how to prepare tajine and cous cous. She had her first child at 15. I was struck at how honest and open she was. And, she told me all of these things within earshot of her husband. At 70, he was now about half her size, and seemed tiny and frail to me. He was kind to me, but spoke little to nothing.
I asked her what she thought of the women parading around half naked in music videos. She told me that she thought it was fine for this modern period in time, but that if she were that age, she would be too shy to do as much. The mother started to cry, and said something in Arabic, and I was terrified that I had offended her in some way, that I had taken more than enough time to breathe between bites of tajine, but, no. The daughter told me that her mother cried, because she thought that I had the face of a Muslim. I took this to be a great complement. One is constantly exhorted to eat, eat in a Moroccan home. I ate until I thought I would be ill, and then I had to stop. Moroccan cuisine is fantastic. A visitor to Morocco will never go hungry, because everyone wants to feed you.
Later, the daughter and I slept in one salon, and her parents in another nearby. They chatted and laughed and spoke in Arabic well into the night. The daughter joked with me about her elderly parents, "the lovers chit chat." I asked the daughter about what she thought about her parents relationship. She told me that they still love each other very much and that they are very happy together. She said that her mother held no grudge about the beatings early in their marriage. She said -- "time passes."
This family situation is very typical of Morocco, I think -- the blending of old and new, traditional and modern, accepting of new social mores for the younger generations while the older generations still maintain the traditions. But, the daughter still hid any pictures of herself with her boyfriend in the pillows of the couch in the salon. She was on the pill, but her mother was not aware that she was having sex. But, she had made her boyfriend wait two years before they had begun an intimate sexual relationship. All of these contrasts in juxtaposition are what make Morocco so fascinating.
Monday, July 9, 2007
I was pleasantly surprised by the forcefulness of some of the speeches. There were some speeches in which the speakers demanded that the government do more to protect freedom of speech, of the press, of association, even in the face of terrorism. Some speakers also spoke to the results of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, a commission meant to address gross human rights violations committed within Morocco during the reign of the current king's father, Hassan II, between 1956 and 1999. Driss Benzekri was the President of the Commission. Some are demanding that the government do more, since the commission did not allow the victims of the human rights violations to name their abusers. None of the abuses could be attributed to Hassan II. And, no current violations, during the reign of the present king, Mohammed VI, could be addressed. The reparations resulting from the commission tended to provide funds and resources on a community level. The trial did allow victims to voice their experiences. It is now a matter of public record -- that these events occurred, which is a positive step forward, but, on Friday evening, there was a French human rights lawyer in particular, who really derided the government for not allowing the victims to name their abusers. Morocco has laws condemning torture, and Morocco has also ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, but the laws are just not being applied as they should, especially with the crackdown on terrorism, and a lot of people just simply don't realize that it's not ok for the police to beat you.
Driss Benzekri spent 17 years in prison as a political dissident. He was also the Vice President of the organization with which I am working this summer, OMDH, the Moroccan Organization of Human Rights. He was the Secretary General of the Advisory Council on Human Rights which led to the establishment of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission. He continued to work for human rights until his death on May 20, 2007, in Rabat. He had been ill. He was only 57 years old.
It was really wonderful to see so many people attend this ceremony and to be able to be a part of it. There was a lot of love and hope and camaraderie in the room. I will post pictures soon.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Thursday, July 5, 2007
I'm currently spending the week in Dublin finishing up a couple of summer courses. Ok, that doesn't really have much to do with my work at the CAJ in Belfast other than the fact that the time spent here provides a somewhat useful basis for comparison of the social development of the two cities, particularly for non-Irish folks. First impressions are important and this instance was no exception. Whereas Belfast was subdued and homogenous, Dublin was vibrant and diverse. The impact of this difference was jarring both for my traveling companion and myself. Inevitably after such an experience, I began to examine why this was the case. Although Dublin's properity did not surprise me, Belfast was in the middle of a development boom and experiencing an unprecedented level of growth and stability. After extended conversations with some Irish citizens both from the North and South, the only answer that I could sadly come up with is that old habits die hard.....
Despite much optimism amid a new and more equitable political framework, a certain unease, left over from decades-old bad memories, pervades the mentality of the average Northern Irish citizen. For Belfast residents, a need for security is paramount and closing up shop at 6pm and going home is a small price to pay in order to achieve this. Of course, such practices come at the price of vibrant street life on evenings and weekends, this giving the city a distinctive melancholic tinge at those times. Hopefully, this will not always be the case as the Belfast residents deserve clearly deserve better.