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Updated: 32 weeks 6 days ago

Dagestan: Russia’s hottest spot

8. March 2014 - 13:27

Asked to name Russia’s most troublesome region, most people would plump for Chechnya. But its neighbour Dagestan is now officially the most dangerous part of the Federations.

In this republic of three million people there are sixty different ethnic groups, and not a week goes by without clashes between the police and insurgents, anti-terrorist special forces raids and explosions. It is also one of its least developed regions, with most of its financial needs met by subsidies from the centre. And its level of corruption is one of the highest in Russia as well. 

The media blackout   

Before the Sochi Olympics the Russian government was naturally afraid that Islamist militants from Dagestan might attempt to disrupt this prestigious project, and if it had happened then the world would have heard about it. But the Russian media were ordered to hush up any local, run of the mill incidents in this nearby region during the Olympics and Paralympics.  

Dagestan is one of Russia's least developed regions. Photo CC Bolshakov

So if you look at news agency tapes from the beginning of February you will find no record of a shooting attack on the police in Babayurt, special forces operations in the capital Makhachkala or the murder of a 14 year old by insurgents. During the Olympics the movement of Dagestanis was also restricted: in one district, for example, police stopped people as they left a mosque and made them sign a document promising to inform them (the police) if they were travelling out of the republic. The police insisted this was a routine security measure: ‘No-one is stopping anyone from going anywhere. They can go where they like; they just need to tell us where they are going’, they told us, but wouldn’t explain why they were doing it. 

During the Olympics the movement of Dagestanis was restricted.

According to Dagestan’s Anti-terrorist Commission, 96 police officers were killed last year, with 22 murdered in the city of Khazavyurt alone. In neighbouring Chechnya this problem is dealt with more effectively: the authorities react mercilessly to any signs of radicalism. If a young man joins an insurgent gang, for example, special forces heavies put the screws on his family: their house might be burned down, or family members abducted.  In Dagestan there’s none of this collective blame. Compared to mono-ethnic Chechnya and other parts of the north Caucasus, Dagestan is a relatively liberal republic – civil society is more developed here; there are separate mosques for different religious groups and in terms of freedom of speech Dagestan could serve as an example to other Russian regions. But people are afraid of what might happen after the Olympics, and many experts believe that, once the circus leaves Sochi after the Paralympics, Russian troops might march into Dagestan, as they did in Chechnya.In fact it would have been almost impossible for people from Dagestan to enter Sochi. All visitors had to apply in advance for temporary registration permits, and a lawyer from Ingushetia revealed on social networks that there was an unspoken ban on giving them to people from the north Caucasus region. Since the suicide bombing by a Dagestani woman in Volgograd at the end of last year, roadblocks have been increased on all the major roads in the republic. Cars and their passengers are subjected to endless checks: on the border with the Stavropol Krai, for example, tailbacks several kilometres long can be seen every day. The republic’s concerns about security can be judged by the fact that when the Olympic torch was carried through other cities in Russia, crowds lined the streets; in Makhachkala, however, the flame bearers ran round a football stadium guarded by more than a thousand police.

Branches of Islam

One reason for the escalation in violence in Dagestan is conflict between the various Islamic groups. The vast majority of Muslims here have traditionally been Sufis, but every year sees the appearance of members of a more radical movement within Islam, Salafism. Most of the militants identify with this movement, which makes life difficult for peaceful Salafis. 

The vast majority of Dagestan's Muslims are Sufis. Photo CC Vladimer Shioshvili

Many experts believe that once the circus leaves Sochi Russian troops might march into Dagestan.

Experts believed that a dialogue between the groups could defuse some of the tension, and in April 2012 representatives of the two sides signed a resolution agreeing to lay aside any existing grievances between them and cooperate in resolving future disagreements with the help of Islamic scholars – an unprecedented step for both communities, and taken without any government pressure. However, a few months later the Sufi leader Sheik Saida Afandi was killed in a suicide bombing, and that was the end of the dialogue.  Dagestan’s President Abdulatipov has since tried to bring the two sides together for further discussions, but without success, and not helped by a split within the Salafi faction.  

But if attempts at peaceful discussion haven’t had any beneficial effect on the situation, Caucasus experts have been coming up with other ideas for combatting extremism. 

An anti-insurgent crisis

Svetlana Isayeva, head of the organisation ‘Dagestan Mothers for Human Rights’ believes that police insensitivity is one reason for Salafi radicalisation. ‘They make the mistake of lumping everyone together – as far as they’re concerned all Salafis are extremists, whereas in fact the majority don’t support the insurgents and just want to live a peaceful life. Now they’re constantly harassing militants’ families. Is it their fault if their nephew or uncle joins the insurgents?’

In some places relatives of militants were subjected to mass arrests and punitive measures.

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, the North Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group, agrees that the Salafi community is under a lot of pressure: ‘Under Dagestan’s previous leader, Magomedsalam Magomedov, there was a much more tolerant attitude to the Salafis, but a year ago President Putin replaced him with Ramazan Abdulatipov and since then there has been constant harassment of the community.’

FSB service employees during a special operation in Makhachkala 29 December 2012. Photo RIA Novosti

A report compiled by Sokiryanskaya and her colleagues details some examples: ‘Salafi community initiatives such as madrasahs, pre-school nurseries and sports clubs were closed down. Intimidation of Salafi religious leaders was renewed, and some of them left the republic. In some places relatives of militants were subjected to mass arrests and punitive measures, which appears to have pushed some radically-minded young men underground.’

The authorities in Dagestan seem to be saying now they need to find new ways to tackle the situation. There are meetings happening almost every week to discuss the issues, although they haven’t yet come up with any alternative solutions. At one of these Kazenin, along with fellow analyst Irina Starodubrovskaya, gave a presentation entitled ‘The northern Caucasus: quo vadis?’, where they argued that any anti-terrorist strategy has to be based on civil rights and the rule of law, with the activities of the police and other law enforcement agencies brought under the strict control of the civil authorities and the results discussed publicly. Political analyst and Caucasus expert Konstantin Kazenin also believes that the use of strong-arm tactics is only making things worse. ‘International experience shows that relying on force alone to combat terrorism is often counterproductive’, he told me, ‘and it has a lot of negative effects, including the infringement of peaceful citizens’ rights and an escalation of violence on both sides’. 

The economics of terror

Ramazan Abdulatipov, Dagestan’s head of government, is given to making aggressive statements. He has frequently announced, for example, that officials found to be in contact with insurgents will not only be fired but also prosecuted. But the fact that officials were a source of income for the militants was well known to his predecessor Magomedsalam Magomedov, who stated at a meeting of the Antiterrorist Commission that part of the republic’s budget (70% of which, let me remind you, is provided by Moscow) goes into the pockets of the insurgents. Dagestan is also known for its high level of corruption: in a comparative table of corruption in government procurement compiled by the Russian civil rights and safety organisation ‘Safe Fatherland’, Dagestan had the second highest figures (and Chechnya the highest). The militants know, of course, that the bureaucrats steal right, left and centre and so have no scruples in asking for a share of the takings to fund their jihad.

Dagestan's Sufi community has experienced constant harassment since Abdulatipov became leader.Photo CC Presidential press office

Officials were a source of income for the militants.

Another tactic of the insurgents is to send officials and business people a ‘flashka’ – a flash drive - containing a video with a demand for a large sum of money. In other parts of Russia flash drives are used, like everywhere else, to save and transfer data, but in Dagestan the word has a completely different connotation. There are even spoof videos on Youtube, made by schoolchildren – on one of them a lad threatens his head teacher, demanding a free computer and a revision of all his marks from Ds to As. One local MP was sufficiently moved by this to make a speech urging schools and universities to run awareness raising sessions: ‘Children are imitating the militants, not the police’, he lamented.

Khasavyurt  businessman Nasrudin Isakov was one of the people to receive a ‘flashka’. A large bomb recently exploded next to his shop, and he only survived because he had opened his safe to look at some papers and it stood between him and the blast. He had had several communications from local paramilitary gangs demanding money for the jihad, but was afraid to go to the police because the militants threatened to harm his family. And in any case, as he says, ‘How could the police protect me when they can’t even look after themselves? Cops are getting killed just about every day in Khasavyurt’.

Isakov refused to give the insurgents any money. Then last December they shot his son Umar outside his own house. ‘The police opened a criminal file because there was a death involved, but it says that Umar was being careless with a gun,’ Isakov explains. ‘If you believe this version of events, the pistol must have fallen from his hands and shot him three times in the heart... But I hadn’t the strength to argue, and there was no point anyway.’ 

The threat of terrorist activity in Dagestan is an issue that is becoming more pressing by the day.

Isakov still didn’t pay the militants. ‘One of them phoned me,’ he says, ‘to remind me about my debt. I asked him why he was demanding money from me. I run my business according to both Russian and Sharia law; I don’t drink alcohol; I help the poor and orphaned. He answered that I should pay just because I’m a Sufi.’

Are Russians potential terrorists?     

The threat of terrorist activity in Dagestan is an issue that is becoming more pressing by the day. One focus of police attention is ethnic Russian converts to Islam. This is no coincidence: according to the special forces, terrorist Dmitry Sokolov, who was recently killed during one of their raids, prepared his wife Naida Asiyalova for her suicide bombing attack in Volgograd last year. 

A week ago Russian Muslim convert Olga Petrova was detained by two plain clothes police at Makhachkala’s bus station, where she had gone to look at a timetable. ‘A man came up to me’, she told me, ‘didn’t introduce himself and rudely asked to see my ID card, saying he was a police officer. When I took it out of my bag he grabbed it and asked me to come with him, which I did because I didn’t want to lose my ID.’

‘They said I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab.'

Once inside a police station, Petrova was asked about her family and her children, their dates of birth were noted and she was released. ‘No one explained why I had been detained,’ she said. ‘They said I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab, but that’s not against the law. As he let me out, the cop said it wouldn’t be our last conversation.’ 

Police interest in Petrova is not surprising – her husband is in prison for membership of an illegal paramilitary group. Nor, she told me, is it the first time she’s been singled out by the police. ‘On 20 January they came to the village where I was living, said it was a counter-terrorist operation and surrounded the house I was renting. There was nobody there except me and my children and two women friends, but that didn’t stop the heavies. They held us in the house for several hours, then took us to the police station, where they asked us about our relatives and friends, showed us some photos and demanded we identify some people’. She was released only after being fingerprinted and having a saliva sample taken for DNA testing. 

‘They said they had detained me as I looked suspicious because of how I was dressed. I wear a hijab.’  

Petrova has been in touch with rights organisations more than once and has asked journalists to write about her experiences, but publicity and support from voluntary organisations don’t stop the police. It’s obvious they have no grounds for detaining her (otherwise she’d be in a remand centre at the very least), but at the same time they haven’t formally infringed her legal rights, explaining that they detained her because of her suspicious mode of dress.            

Something similar happened to another Russian woman, Anastasia Dulevskaya, who recently converted to Islam and moved to Dagestan from Samara, a city in the Volga region of Russia. According to the human rights organisation Memorial, where she asked for help, Dulevskaya was called in for questioning at the Dagestan Counter-Extremism Centre. There she was asked why she had converted to Islam, whether she was a Salafi, whether she was a friend of Asiyalova and so on. Then they suggested she collaborate with them: infiltrate Islamic groups and report back. She was promised generous remuneration for this undercover activity, but refused.   

A trolleybus torn to pieces by the explosion in Volgograd last year. Photo CC Правительство Волгоградской области

Anastasia then began to receive text messages on her phone and social network pages, telling her she should cooperate with the authorities, but she ignored them. In early January she was again detained and brought into a police station, and according to a statement she gave Memorial, there she was treated roughly and hit a couple of times; the police also tore her hijab off and shouted at her that she was a future suicide bomber. They released her on condition that she turn up the next day at the Counter-Extremism Centre with all her stuff, to be taken to the station and sent back home to Samara. 

On 3 January Dulevskaya came to the Memorial office and wrote a statement saying that she feared the police might set her up by planting drugs, arms or a ‘suicide belt’ in her luggage. That was her last contact with the organisation. She has since disappeared and a source in Dagestan’s Interior Ministry has stated that if she doesn’t reveal her whereabouts soon, they will start a search for her as a potential suicide bomber. 

A new investigation tool - the DNA database

According to Svetlana Isayeva of Dagestan Mothers for Human Rights, the authorities have been compiling a DNA database on all close relatives of known militants. ‘Legally, only a court can make people give blood or saliva for DNA testing,’ she says, ‘but the police and other government investigators use threats and blackmail to force relatives into it.’

The authorities have been compiling a DNA database on all close relatives of known militants.

Makhachkala resident Amina Umarova, a member of the Salafi community, is resisting their efforts:  ‘I’m afraid to go near the police station,’ she told us. ‘I’ve asked them to send me a written request, but they haven’t done it. The last time they came to my flat was ten days ago, but as soon as they ring the bell I phone the human rights people and the media. That seems to be stopping them.

She has good reason to fear the police. In 2007 the security forces abducted her husband Ramazan Umarov. ‘They broke in to the flat and took him away, and nobody has seen him since. In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights demanded that Russia pay his family 60,000 Euros in compensation: they concluded that there had been no investigation of his abduction and that the absence of any further information about him was sufficient proof of his death.’ 

A representative of Dagestan’s investigation department explained that the DNA database had been created to help police solve crimes of a terrorist nature. ‘Nobody is blackmailing anybody’, he said. ’We just try to persuade people to give a DNA sample. The database was begun in May 2013 and has already helped us investigate a number of crimes. If a suicide bomber blows themselves up, for example, it can sometimes take months to identify them. But if you get a DNA sample from the body you can compare it with the database and immediately narrow the range of potential suspects in the crime.’ 

Syrian finale?

At the end of February President Abdulatipov announced live on local TV that  ‘at some point the government of Dagestan had permitted the balance of law enforcement in the republic to swing towards the security services',  but that now more attention would be paid to the ideological battle, prevention and propaganda.

Meanwhile, Grigory Shvedov, editor in chief of the 'Caucasian Knot' website, in an interview published in Novoye delo (weekly publication in Dagestan), which also came out at the end of February, said that the security services' contribution to the battle with terrorism had proved successful. According to him, the number of killings in 2013 had dropped significantly by comparison with the preceding year: in 2013 there were such 341 murders, whereas in 2012 there were 405. 

But Shvedov warned that the success of such policies could only be short-term.  In the event of their continuation, Dagestan could find itself in the same situation as Syria, where government policy favoured the repression of radical Muslims.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The myth of the black widow Civil war, secession and the body politic Country or region:  Russia
Categories: les flux rss

Civil war, secession and the body politic

7. March 2014 - 17:43

Working with young people is important in any society. The recent story of an unusual Chechen initiative demonstrates why functional governance has so spectacularly failed to take root during the last 23 years.

‘Youth mobilisation’ is a constant theme in my work in the North Caucasus. It’s what the international aid agencies have been doing for a decade or more, it’s the local NGOs’ bread and butter, it’s on every regional government’s agenda and nowhere is it higher than in Chechnya, which spends 2% of its budget on youth policy – more than anywhere else in Russia. Even the federal government does its bit, funding the Mashuk summer camp, which brings together 3000 ‘young leaders’ from the region every year for a mix of patriotic pep talks, workshops and experiments with ethnic coexistence in close quarters. These are often well-meant, earnest affairs, run by people who genuinely care; and yet, they tend to fall flat. You pick 25 ‘young leaders’ from village schools, put them through a programme that ‘has changed their lives’ (according to their feed-back forms) and yet a few years later, 24 of them are concerned mostly with weddings and new furniture while the 25th was mobilised so successfully he is now at an elite Moscow university, all but lost to his community. Perhaps ‘mobilising’, as a transitive verb, is a contradiction in terms. 

The Club: beginnings

Efforts to mobilise youth are often well-meant and earnest, but they tend to fall flat.

There was one amorphous, informal initiative in Chechnya, one that never purposely went searching for ‘young leaders’ and never raised more money than a few roubles for cake and tea. Yet, within months of coming together, it pulled in the smartest, most original, thoughtful and driven young people from Grozny and beyond, so much so that when looking out the window during one session I wondered ‘who is even left out there now?’ This ‘club’ was just about games, discussions, ideas, sometimes art and films, but mostly, the company of like-minded, if idiosyncratic, peers. ‘Mobilising’ apparently makes more sense as an intransitive verb.

Without funding, the club was constantly in search of a home. Grozny is notorious for its bubble-like glut of empty real estate, but space where young people can gather without anyone trying to ‘own’ or control them is still desperately hard to come by. The club bounced from one university (‘we can’t have boys and girls sitting together’) to another (‘sure, we can give you space, but you have to take on our brand’) and then to a civil society resource centre which assigned a chaperone, who kept looking at her watch.

Despite massive spending and overworked civil servants, functional governance eludes Chechnya. CC Christiaan Triebert

One early option was a brand-new Temple of Learning, all polished marble, brass and shiny whiteboards: a private foreign languages school as some would have it, an Islamic centre according to others (among them my taxi driver, but also the people who put up the money behind it). However, when one club session there ended in a not-quite-voluntary religious sermon, the club’s organisers kept away from there, too.

A year ago, the club finally found a home, a modest ground-floor apartment hastily re-arranged into an ‘office’, offered by a local NGO that graciously handed over the keys. With this new-found stability, the community blossomed and the office was soon bursting at the seams ­– people in their teens and twenties squatting on the rug during sessions, hammering out new rules for their blissful new autonomy, one of them being ‘all decisions must be taken by group vote.’ The Temple of Learning, meanwhile, is located just around the corner, beckoning, especially to one segment of club members who are confident, with promising career prospects or just a strong sense of entitlement; well-educated and worldly by local standards, some even with international training; thinking of themselves as just a bit too big for little Chechnya - and all male. 


Within weeks, some of these young men, by then visibly straining against the club ethos of equal respect for everyone (even the oddballs and teenage girls!), were wooed by the Temple of Learning and proposed to move the club to this much more comfortable and prestigious venue. The club’s founders winced at the old memory of the imposed religious lectures, argued that there might be a dress code for the female club members (in fairness, it must be said that ultimately there wasn’t), and objected. In line with the new rules, an open vote was held, on the club’s social media page. It came out 60:40 in favour of staying at the office. And that was to be that.

The day of the next session arrived and, with none of the club’s founding members present, the leaders of the mutiny went ahead and held the session at the Temple. Online, a storm of bitter passions broke out. How could they so blithely ignore a democratic vote? A vote by their fellow club members, whom they knew and supposedly cherished as the best company Chechnya had to offer? Anguished discussions started breaking out on the club’s social media page. ‘No big deal’, wrote one of the brash mutineers, ‘it won’t kill the girls if they have to put on a head-scarf’. Broken-hearted and appalled, a 19-year old woman, who had been with the club from the first hour, posted, ‘and to think that I was sitting in one club with such people, and all along this is how they felt about me.’ 

Feelings were deeply hurt all around. The mutineers evaded questions about the principle of the matter by praising, maybe a shade too loudly, the advantages of the Temple – the space, the convenience, the free cake, the charming cleaning ladies. For a moment, there was a sense that this could be fixed, that this civil war would end and that they would all still be one club. And then, just as quickly, everyone understood that what had taken place was a full-blown secession and that there would from now on be two clubs. The quotes above are cited from memory, because (as might be expected from those who don’t feel strongly about votes and equality) the record of these lengthy, unflattering, and yet historic debates was unceremoniously deleted from the club’s page, as if none of it had ever happened. 

A parable

This episode made democracy viscerally, painfully real to dozens of young people.

Does this anecdote mean Chechen society is ‘not ready for democracy’?  Wouldn’t that be a convenient excuse for the entrenched, unaccountable, soul-crushing authoritarianism that has settled on Chechnya? Far from it. If anything, this episode made democracy viscerally, painfully real to dozens of young people, many of whom will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of their community. Braving the ridicule of their peers and siding with principle over perks and prestige, they took a stance for democracy and respect for each person’s voice and dignity.

To me, this episode illustrates something far more complicated and subtle, but which nevertheless goes a long way towards explaining why every political arrangement of the past twenty three years in Chechnya has failed to deliver functional governance, at times spectacularly, devastatingly so. This includes the current rule, now in its eighth year, of Ramzan Kadyrov, because as dictatorships go, this one certainly doesn’t make the trains run on time. What happened in this microcosm of Chechnya’s best and brightest urban youngsters is a sort of parable of why this may be the case. Here, an earnest attempt at formal, social organisation, at institution-building of the sort that underpins all governance and statecraft anywhere, foundered on the ingrained indifference towards such institutions that prevails across Chechen society (and that of quite a few of its neighbours, too). And with no formal institutions and rules, the sort that make a community of citizens out of random individuals and are built on implicit consensus, the prospects for effective governance are not good.

Chechen refugees in Georgia in 1999. The tight social links binding Chechen society also impede formal governance. CC IHH TurkeyA brief recap of Chechnya’s post-Soviet history shows that during much of those 23 post-Soviet years, governance – the state’s most basic tasks, namely enforcing the law, providing such services as the populace has entrusted the government with and collecting the taxes necessary to do so – simply didn’t happen. During the 1990s, when political mobilisation ran comparatively high, at least around the quasi-governmental spectacles enjoyed by the separatist elites (such as commissioning a set of armed services’ uniforms, including naval ones – never mind that Chechnya is landlocked), the state, or whatever groups claimed to represent it, abandoned all pretence of law enforcement and service provision. Thereafter, ever since the Russian government wrested back control in the early 2000s and installed its powerful local allies in government, the reconstituting of government functions has stubbornly lagged behind the physical reconstruction that has famously transformed Chechnya’s towns, villages and roads. This despite massive federal budgetary subsidies, feverish recruitment campaigns by local authorities, hosts of seconded experts from all over Russia and the puzzling fact that many public servants work exhausting 60-hour weeks. Some strong subversive forces must be at work for all this input to have so little effect.

The web of relationships

Life as a Chechen doesn’t lack for rules. Every Chechen is born into a tightly woven net of obligations and entitlements that regulate his or her conduct towards every other member of their community. Every Chechen has a built-in relationship with every other Chechen, based on age, gender, family background, geographic origin of their kin and role within their own family. Most Chechens relish this and seek to make the connection ever closer. Watch two Chechens meet for the first time and you witness a peculiar ritual unfold. Their very first conversation will be an attempt to find out how they are connected to each other; within a minute, they will have tracked down a second-degree aunt who is married to their new acquaintance’s cousin on their mother’s side. Or siblings who studied together. Or the fact that their grandfathers used to be neighbours during their exile in Kazakhstan. This is followed by satisfied smiles on both sides, because they have just confirmed what underpins Chechen social structure – the fact that they’re all, in a way, family. And although the rules that govern this overgrown family are strict and complicated, they are based on this perceived intimacy, on a notion that ‘we are among friends, we can deal with each other on a personal level.’

The body politic and the need for rules

In Chechen society, as in any community based on closeness and informal ties, more abstract norms for governing organised group action can seem forced, over-the-top, pedantic, even ridiculous. Imagine taking minutes and recording votes at the dinner table, or putting out a tender when planning a school reunion. Thus, our mutineers who left for the Temple were probably surprised by the ferocious response of their fellow club members. After all, it was just a little voting app on social media, no different from the other games they play online. Among friends, in an informal setting, formal rules do not apply, and the vote could thus be safely ignored.

Rules, institutions and procedures are indispensable. They make a group of people into a ‘body politic.’

There is a moment when an informal community of family and friends merges into something more formal, more abstract, an organism that requires appropriate institutions and procedures that are deliberately put in place to preserve functionality and efficiency, but also values like equality, individual rights and transparency. Such rules, institutions and procedures are indispensable. They make a group of people into a ‘body politic’. 

By persistently rejecting abstract, formal, ‘political’ rules of collective social organisation in their dealings with each other, Chechen society has never quite graduated from an extended family to such a body politic. This, I suspect, is what brought about the rapid descent into failed-state doom during the separatist 1990s. It may be the reason why the authoritarian leadership of today, despite the massive resources at its disposal and its obsession with micro-managing every aspect of citizens’ lives, is daily thwarted by large-scale power cuts and in all its seven years in power has been unable to increase the number of kindergarten places to above 10%. People in the Chechen Republic are painfully aware of these failures and deeply frustrated by them, yet also have a strong sense of being owed better, fairer, more effective governance.

There are two clubs in Grozny these days: one still meeting at the Temple, the other, the ‘Office’, recently homeless after the NGO landlord had run out of funding. The Office found a temporary home in a library. It is still big on rules and democracy – the most recent vote was on whether to invest their modest endowment in an electric tea kettle. The young people in both clubs will one day, and quite soon, run this republic. Some of them already work high up in government. They’re all fervently patriotic and can go on and on about the grand ideas they have for their homeland. If they want to finally turn things around on their watch, if they want to catch up with even just the rest of Russia (low-hanging fruit, when it comes to effective governance), they will have to think long and hard about what government means, what institutions are for and how their community can turn itself a body politic. They will do well to remember the lessons of building an institution, of drawing up rules, voting on them and then actually heeding them; and why it all matters. Lessons learned in a run-down Grozny apartment which for a year was the centre of their universe.





Country or region:  Russia Rights:  Creative Commons
Categories: les flux rss

The toll of rape and the lack of conviction

7. March 2014 - 15:53

Why do so few rape cases lead to the alleged perpetrator being charged? A Bureau of Investigative Journalism analysis highlights how the police focus on the "consent" of the victim rather than her vulnerability to male exploitation.

It's late 2011. Two senior offices from the UK's largest police force are attempting to explain, in a long and rambling report, why more suspected rapists aren't being charged.

The officers, part of a specialist sexual offences unit within the Metropolitan Police, London's  police force, had been tasked with exploring why more people in the capital were reporting rape but the number of suspects being charged was falling. The explanation, the officers concluded, lay with the victims and the quality of their evidence.

The problem, they reported, was that most rape allegations were made by people in circumstances that could compromise their evidence in court. Victims were frequently young, had mental-health problems, had histories of domestic violence and had used drugs or alcohol before the attack—and these “vulnerabilities” meant their cases were likely to drop out of the criminal-justice system long before they reached court: “The number of cases where victims have multiple vulnerabilities in their lives is 87%, making them and their evidence less robust when scrutinised in the light of court processes.”

This claim was reiterated several times in the report. Yet its 10 “action plan” points did not include any on how to address allegations by vulnerable people—perhaps through training or a change in investigative approach. The impression left was of an intractable problem which, by “diluting focus”, drew attention away from cases with a better chance of ending in conviction.

One woman’s story

Fast forward 18 months to March 2013. A young woman, “Beth”, is deciding what to do about her sister, “Ella”, who has just revealed that she was raped the evening before by a man who had befriended her. Distressed and complaining of abdominal pain, she needs help. Not knowing where else to go, Beth drives her sister to the accident-and-emergency (A&E) department at King's College Hospital in south London.

A&E and the Haven, a specialist unit for victims of rape and sexual assault, are just a few minutes' walk apart on the sprawling King's campus. On arrival, Beth and Ella are surrounded by professionals who know the Haven is around the corner. Staff working in the unit are specially trained to carry out forensic examinations and to provide everything else that Ella might need, from emergency contraception to counselling to setting up an informal meeting with a police officer.

But for Ella and Beth it might as well be in Australia. They never get near the place. A&E staff liaise with the Haven but King's protocols demand they wait for hours. Meantime, a doctor suggests Beth might call the police, which she does. She isn't told that this will mean that Ella loses the option to refer herself to the Haven.

Ella receives a cursory examination before the pair are taken to a police station, where they have a further long wait. After interview, officers decide that Ella has not been raped and send her home.

After spending some 12 hours with NHS staff and police, Ella has not received an internal examination. No arrangement has been made for sexually-transmitted-disease screening and neither has any specialist support been offered.

Ella is extremely distressed by the rape and washes herself obsessively. “The failure to refer had a huge impact on my sister who had already been through an awful ordeal, as well as on her family and myself, because we had to deal with the impact on her,” said Beth.

The Haven said it could not comment on the details of the case but where police were called referral became their responsibility: “When someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted attends our emergency department, our clinical teams must carry out medical assessments to ensure that they do not need ongoing care in the acute hospital. They are triaged as quickly as possible and offered the option to speak to the police. If they do want to talk to the police, the police then take the lead on collection of forensic evidence and referral to the Haven.”

One factor played a crucial role in how Ella was treated: she has learning difficulties and autism. With the help of her sister, Ella managed to give a clear account to the A&E doctor of what had happened, including a detailed account of oral and vaginal rape. But after leaving King's she was interviewed alone by police, who decided that she had only had oral sex—although even if Ella had only been orally raped, she should still have qualified for a Haven referral.

Beth's view is that her sister's difficulty in communicating meant she should have been given a thorough examination as a precaution: “Given that she had said something different while in the hospital … the police should not have treated what she said in the interview as set in stone.” Beth said she had later been told by the police that when the man her sister had accused was interviewed he had admitted to having sex but claimed it had been consensual—so the police had decided to take no further action.

Officers had told her they couldn't put Ella, as a vulnerable person, through the courts. Yet they had not assessed Ella’s capacity before interviewing her or arranged for her to be supported during the interview. “It really does cause me great upset when I look back at the complete faith I had in all services involved,” Beth said.

The Metropolitan Police refused to discuss the case, although it did contact Beth to discuss her concerns.

Rape of most vulnerable “effectively decriminalised”

Despite soaring reports of rape in England and Wales over the past decade, detections, prosecutions and convictions have not kept pace and attrition—the rate at which cases drop out of the system—has gone from bad to worse. Only around 15% of rapes recorded by police as crimes in 2012-13 resulted in rape charges being brought against a suspect. Around 20% were dropped after being sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision on charging. But the highest attrition occurred while cases were still under the control of the police: two-thirds of rape complaints dropped out of the criminal-justice system before they were even sent to prosecutors, even though in most cases the alleged rapist was known.

Now an academic turned senior civil servant, who has been studying rape for a decade inside the Met, is calling for radical change to the way rape is investigated across all UK forces. Professor Betsy Stanko, the Met's assistant director of planning and portfolio, says detectives’ focus on proving lack of consent means the rape of some women, such as those with learning difficulties, has effectively been decriminalised.

This is because detectives concentrate on the victim's credibility, which is seen as vital to proving whether there was consent to sex. The professor wants police to focus instead on whether and how suspects exploited their victims’ vulnerability.

Despite the furore over the scale of sex abuses perpetrated by the former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile, which highlighted the tendency of the police to discount complaints of sexual assault when they came from the most vulnerable, Stanko believes police have not fundamentally changed their approach to rape investigation. She contends that it is because policy and legal reforms have focused on consent, rather than exploitation, that such a high proportion of rape cases still drop out of the justice system before trial.

I have obtained a document, An Overview of Sexual Violence, produced by the Met's evidence and performance unit in 2013, which showed how various factors influenced the chances of police dropping rape cases. Around 13% were dropped because officers initially recorded a rape but then decided no crime had occurred. Shockingly, cases were more likely to be classified as “no crimes” if victims did not understand the concept of consent than if there was evidence casting doubt over whether the offence had taken place at all. And where police accepted a crime had occurred, cases were less likely to be referred to prosecutors if the victim lacked understanding of consent.

The analysis drew on 687 rape allegations made to the Metropolitan police during two months in 2012. Stanko's team have examined allegations made during April and May each year for more than eight years.

The professor, who is soon to join the London Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime, is preparing research for publication focusing on the 2012 data. She has shared some early findings.

Her research, which will be discussed at the London School of Economics on March 11, found police were more likely to find that a crime had not occurred when victims had learning difficulties or mental-health problems. Those with learning difficulties were 67% less likely to have their case referred for prosecution than those without and mental illness reduced the chances of referral by 40%. “These women face almost unsurmountable obstacles to justice. Their rape is highly unlikely to carry a sanction and, in that sense, it is decriminalised,” Stanko said.

Alcohol consumption before the attack reduced the chances of referral to prosecutors by 45%, as did a history of consensual sex with the suspect. “If a victim has mental-health problems or is in a current relationship with the suspect then the most likely outcome is that the case will be dropped,” she added. “Victim vulnerabilities effectively protect suspects from being perceived as credible rapists.”

the highest attrition occurred while cases were still under the control of the police

Stanko’s findings are similar to those of other studies on police decision-making in the UK and US.

A paper from the University of Bristol, published last year, tracked rape cases in three police forces in the north-east of England. It found only around a third of cases where the victim had mental-health problems resulted in arrest, compared with half of those where no such issues were recorded. And recent research from Arizona State University in the US found that police were less likely to arrest suspects, once they had been identified, if the victims had a history of drug use, particularly in the context of prostitution. “The language of officers suggested [these] were not seen as genuine victims,” the paper says.

More than 80% of victims in Stanko’s sample had characteristics that left them vulnerable to sexual attack. She joined the Met in 2003 from an academic post at Royal Holloway, University of London. Initially at the request of the then commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, she began researching the force's handling of rape allegations.

Most of this research has not been published. It included a report that was toned down by the former candidate for London Mayor Brian Paddick when he worked at the Met.

“The profile of victims reporting rape in London hasn't significantly changed in eight years,” Stanko said. Around a third were under 18, the vast majority knew the suspect and between a quarter and a fifth were or had been in an intimate relationship with their assailant. Most attacks took place in a private home and the victim had drunk alcohol or taken other drugs in around a third of cases. Around 18% had mental-health problems, she said.

Recognition of exploitation key to reform

Stanko recognises that attempts have been made to change and that more allegations of rape are being investigated, rather than dismissed before they even get recorded as a crime. But she said that they just dropped out further into the process.

There were issues of resources and burn-out in this extremely difficult area of policing, she conceded. But for Stanko the only way to change the statistics fundamentally was to address the issue of vulnerability: “The overwhelming majority of rapes still go unreported. But we are not learning from those allegations that do reach the police.”

The note of resignation running through the Met officers' report of 2011—vulnerable victims do not make good witnesses, so there is nothing to be done—was replicated throughout the criminal justice system, across the country: “The debate, policies and law reforms continue to address issues of consent—the legal line separating sex from rape. Exploitation is seldom recognised, though it is critical to how rape happens.”

Recognition of this exploitation had to be at the heart of any reform, Stanko said. Anything else would just be “tinkering around the edges”.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The rape victims prosecuted for "false" rape allegations Rape in the UK: myths about myths Rape in the papers Country or region:  UK City:  London Topics:  Equality
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The case for treating migrants well is about much more than the economy

7. March 2014 - 13:21

The government has been hiding evidence that immigration costs jobs. It doesn't, but those who want to defend migrants shouldn't be distracted by such arguments - the case for allowing people to move is about much more than economics.

image, Flickr/Malias

The government has been pushing a lie about the link between migration and unemployment. We've been told that for every 100 new migrants who arrive, 23 Brits end up on the dole. This turns out to be rubbish. The government knew it was rubbish every time they repeated it, but kept repeating it anyway. It was a great mantra for anyone who didn't like immigrants. This "fact" was a stick with which to beat anyone who made the case for freer movement and more humane immigration policy. This "fact" meant accusations of elitism could be easily flung. If you supported migrants, it it was easy to paint you as hating ordinary working Brits.

For a number of months the government has been sitting on a report that shows this 100 migrants = 23 jobseekers myth to be rubbish. The report reaches this conclusion by assessing all the available research from 2003 onwards. The government have been embarrassingly forced into admitting that the report exists, and snuck it out yesterday.

This 23 migrants = 100 jobs seekers "fact" provided cover for thinly disguised racism in British politics. Every political party (except UKIP) has just about got the hang of not being racist in public. This leaves the racists in politics with a problem. Either face the sack, or find away of perpetuating racist policies and attitudes without resorting to racial slurs or overtly racists statements. Economic arguments against immigration where exactly what they needed. And one as stark as '100 migrants = 23 British jobseekers' was a gift. Politicians could make the case for tightening border controls. They could make the case for marginalising and punishing migrants by denying people housing and health care based on their immigration status. Oh, but I'm not a racist. Of course not. I'm just looking out for the jobs of ordinary working Brits.

Meanwhile many intelligent and dedicated campaigners were forced to spent huge amounts of effort trying to take apart these dubious “facts” about immigration and employment. Many people I know went to great lengths debunking these arguments. But all along the people in government who used them knew they were lies. This was a very clever way of wasting the time and resources of people who disagreed with them. Trying to debunk these economic arguments sucked time and energy away from (for example) defending cuts in legal aid, campaigning for fairer access to housing or campaigning against forcing some migrants to pay for NHS services. This lie was also a huge exercise in distraction.

There is no point in arguing about facts with people who don't care about the truth.

Perhaps the answer is not to focus on economic arguments about immigration. It is often possible to find two reputable economists supporting entirely opposing policies. Or even one economist who can produce evidence to support two opposing positions. This lead Winston Churchill to demand that someone find him a “one handed economist”. Several studies have reached different conclusions about the the impact of migration on employment, often using the same data. This combined with the fact that the government seem to happy to act deceptively makes me wonder about the wisdom of engaging in economic arguments about immigration at all.

The problem with economic arguments about migration is that it suggests someone's worth rests solely on their impact on the economy. If we can prove that the impact of migration on the economy is positive then migration is positive. But if we can't make this economic case then suddenly tightening border controls and restricting access to housing and healthcare becomes acceptable. This is a dangerous place to be. It's also a strange way to make the case for immigration. We don't, for example, make the case for humane and respectful care for the elderly because old people might be able to supercharge the economy. We don't make the case for decent services for people with disabilities because it might be good for economic growth.

Making the case for immigration on other non-economic grounds could be far more powerful. We could argue that we would all like to live in world where people can seek a better life by moving. And that when people do this they are treated humanly and fairly where ever they go. Not because they will help boost the economy, but simply because they are humans. Similarly, we should make the case for a world where people fleeing torture, repression and human rights violations can seek refuge in other countries. Not because refugees might help the economy but because this is something we are committed to under international law. And because this is the kind of thing that one group of people should do for another group of people who desperately need it.

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How I learned to let go and be myself

7. March 2014 - 10:26

I was bullied in school for not fitting in, while at home my father abused alcohol to cope with his pain. I learned there is something wrong with some people. To avoid this trap of authority, we must allow for the queer and glorious differences between us.

Life itself flows lovingly through this whole, intimate ecosystem. Credit: Shutterstock

I grew up being taught that there is something wrong with some people. Like many others, I came to believe deep down that I was included in that – that there was something wrong with me. 

I was bullied in school for not fitting in, while at home my father abused alcohol to cope with his own pain. All around me and in the media, voices dismissed those like me who disagreed, dissented, differed. I was left hurt and confused by the violence I saw and felt all around me.

I developed a tough coating. It kept me safe in a chilly emotional and political climate.

Through all this, I didn't see how I became similar to what I opposed. In rejecting one idea of right and normal, I unintentionally created my own. 

Critical of the micro-states of home and school and the macro-states of nations, I was immediately attracted to anarchism, feminism, queer and other movements for liberation. Patterns of control in the world cause so much harm. I wanted the world and my experience of it to be different!

And yet, I found myself, and still do to an extent, inventing borders of right and wrong, us and them, inside and out – just like a state. I can police myself, trying to maintain my image as a good radical, a proper anarchist. I can push myself harder than any external boss trying to prove that I'm good enough to be included in this or that club.

Policing myself is inextricably linked to policing others. Out of fear, I too am capable of trying to make others conform to my idea of how the world should be, of how they should be.

New patterns of authoritarianism can easily arise, even in movements for equality and ecology. In 1940 the influential anarchist Emma Goldman wrote: "The strongest bulwark of authority is uniformity; the least divergence from it is the greatest crime...Few have the courage to stand out against it. [S]he who refuses to submit is at once labelled 'queer,' 'different,' and decried as a disturbing element in the comfortable stagnancy of modern life." 

If we wish to avoid the trap of authority, perhaps we need to allow ourselves and each other to be queer, different.

Queer – as some of us understand it today – is not just gay. It is weird and wonderful like nature herself. It crosses borders of us and them, hetero and homo, man and woman. Like nature, queer is uncontainable, overflowing any lines we may draw on maps of land, bodies or desires. Real life never fits neatly in the boxes we invent.

Trying to live up to some abstract idea of who we are, or who we should be, is emotionally draining. The gentle courage to be true to ourselves, in all our glorious difference, requires great emotional strength. It requires love.

“Even after all this time. The sun never says to the earth, 'you owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.” ― Hafiz of Shiraz.

That is what nature invites from us: love in infinite forms. Love for ourselves, for each other, for plants and animals, rivers and trees. Love for our fear and our anger. Love which is not inhibited by the categories we might overlay onto the queerness of life.

Our collective economic, ecological and emotional crises are calling out for elements to disturb the stagnancy, to wake us up to the wonders of life. Any of us might feel the call to shake the sleep from our limbs, the dreams from our minds. To step outside the ideas of how things are, or how they should be, and drink deeply from the direct experience of being alive. Even when it hurts. 

Something in me learned a long time ago that it's a good idea to hide – to make sure no one every finds out what is wrong with me. And when I follow that, I become depressed, withdrawn, tired, anxious.

But I've also tasted something much sweeter, harder to name, that comes with no longer needing to hide, to conform, to contain or to distract myself. It can spread to others through smiles, kind words and encouragement to experiment and explore.

What does a loving politics or economy, look like? When there is no need to contain or control, no desire to judge or use other beings for self-centred ends?

Perhaps we might all come to realise that by loving others as they are, we are also loving ourselves as we are. Nothing to hide. No closets of any kind. No borders to police.

Instead, life will organise itself around us. The edge between the forest and the field, the ocean and the shore, is rich with life. Those queer, in-between-spaces that don't fit one category or another are crucial to the vibrant intimacy of nature. They thrive precisely because they are allowed to move, evolve and change: living boundaries rather than imaginary borders.

Each of us may have our own unique ways of participating in this process of transformation. No movement, no ideology, no teacher, no parent, no boss, no friend, no lover can tell us what that is. They may have some helpful ideas and can offer us encouraging feedback, but they cannot walk our path for us. Nor can we walk theirs.

From the outside, anyone's life may seem queer. Not what was expected of us, maybe not even what we expected of ourselves. There will be those who will ridicule. There will be uncertainty and self-doubt. 

But if we truly wish to be of service to humanity and the planet which is our home, we must risk being misunderstood.

Even more radically, we might dive in and relish joyous queer intimacies. For much of my life, I have felt very confused and disoriented when my emotions and desires did not fit in the boxes of gay or straight, romance or friendship, human or nature. I'm learning to enjoy the disorientation. There is freedom in not needing to know, to label, to box, to judge.

I'm not advocating looking for intimacies outside the boxes. Rather, I invite you, me, and everyone to see how life and love are always beyond labels, beyond judgements. It's possible, perhaps with practice, to let the mind that judges rest. Like the waxy coating of the lilac bud melting in the warmth of spring, the mind melts into the heart and the world looks fresh, bright, beautiful. 

Walking in the woods, my heart melts at the beauty of it all. Such intimacies, visible and hidden! Moss clinging tenderly to bark. Roots of holly and oak intertwine. Sleeping bulbs held by soil, fed by worms, watered by sky. Warm, dark openings in earth and trunk house a cacophony of animal bodies. Life itself flows lovingly through this whole, intimate ecosystem. 

I also see evidence of human neglect. My heart closes to the crisp packet and the dog shit, to the shouting parent and the texting walker. With a conscious effort, and without having to like them, I see these too as wonders of the natural world. How amazing each one is in their own way! Each playing its own role in the world. Each having, or offering, opportunities to learn.

In another space, dancing with a Biodanza group, we explore power and gentleness, femininity and masculinity, individuality and intimacy. We learn to connect with each other and ourselves. Bodies explore possibilities of space, motion and touch. Hearts open and close: protecting, giving, receiving. Women and men holding women and men, loving women and men, without needing to be women or men.

And yet, conditioning kicks in. A woman holds me in a long embrace. What does she want? I find myself thinking. Is it something I can give? I hold back, reserved. Until the melting comes. A doorway opens in my heart and everything is beautiful again. She didn't need anything from me. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  East end boys and west end boys: does gentrification lead to homophobia? Silence = death: Sarah Schulman on ACT UP, the forgotten resistance to the AIDS crisis Why we need radical love to create change Marginal bodies: queer migrants on transformation Thinking like a plant Topics:  Civil society Culture Equality Ideas Rights:  Creative Commons
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Contesting patriarchy-as-governance: lessons from youth-led activism

7. March 2014 - 9:59

Youth-led mobilisation has mocked and exposed patriarchal power by unmasking its politics of social control. Are we on the threshold of a new politics of gender creating cross-gender alliances around struggles against autocracy?

The recent waves of citizen-led activism that swept the globe inspired numerous attempts to identify common drivers across diverse instances of public disobedience and protest.  Growing numbers of educated, unemployed, alienated youth, the humiliations  of autocracy, the authority- busting potential of the internet and social media, and the coming of age of Generation Y are among recurrent leitmotifs. These common denominators – broadly  related to the tensions between the global forces of neoliberalism seeking to expand the freedom of capital, and the forces of social resistance struggling to preserve and redefine community and solidarity - provide  an overly broad umbrella for phenomena  as diverse as the Arab uprisings, the Occupy movement, the indignados of Southern Europe, the student movement in Chile or the Gezi protests in Turkey.  Could the lure of the “global” be making us lose sight of more subtle and context specific idioms of discontent?

In this article, the fourth in a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings (and beyond), I explore the reasons behind the apparent anti-patriarchal thrust of struggles against authoritarianism in some parts of the MENA region, and pose a relatively neglected question: Are there any lessons to be drawn from youth-led activism for a new politics of gender?

At first sight, the answer would appear to be negative.  A mobilized citizenry was, first and foremost, demanding their social and political rights, clamouring for justice and freedom and an end to state violence and corruption. If and when gender issues came up - as they did in the context of the Arab uprisings - they were treated in a rather truncated manner, mainly to document levels of  women’s participation in popular protests, their subsequent exclusion from formal processes of transition and their exposure to increasing levels of violence. Feminism and women’s rights activism - considered by some as  “old politics” par excellence - appeared to elicit ambivalence, if not outright indifference, among members of a new insurrectionary generation. Yet this distancing was taking place against the background of widespread popular protests against gender-based violence, involving both men and women, who were plainly engaged in new forms of grass roots activism and social critique. How can we account for this state of affairs?  Is the language of feminism up to the challenge of capturing the new sensibilities and aspirations animating the actions and idioms of multitudes of youth, both male and female? Or do the lenses we train on the politics of gender inadvertently restrict our vision?

Patriarchy: now you see it, now you don’t

In the 21st century, pinning down the meanings, locations  and operations of patriarchy is no easy task. On the one hand, there are many who claim that women’s rights advocates, both at the international or local levels, are engaged in a rearguard battle against a global tide of growing conservatism, both religious and political. Patriarchy is not only deemed to be  alive and well but thriving under conditions of neo-liberalism, with women bearing the brunt of every new twist in global capitalism. The success stories of women who “ make it” in the corporate world are tempered by the knowledge that this passes the majority of women by in an increasingly unequal world. Yet, issues of social justice are easily overshadowed by passionate debates about the politics of representation with working class, black, ethnic, religious and sexual minority women all fighting for their particular corner in the oppression league.

There are those, on the other hand, who maintain that feminist norms and values, far from being marginal, have gained institutional power, most notably in the development of international criminal law aimed at prosecuting sexual violence. The term "governance feminism" has come to signify a reliance on state-centred forms of power and the promotion of a politics of respectability and political correctness that criminalizes and marginalizes certain practices and subjectivities. This has turned the discussion about patriarchy on its head, suggesting that the top-down enforcement of women’s rights has itself become an oppressive governance practice.

Transposed to contexts such as Egypt, governance feminism accrues even more sinister connotations. The women’s anti-violence movement may be interpreted, in this  perspective, as a collaboration between upper class feminists and a brutal  security state colluding around a class-specific politics of respectability that marginalizes and criminalizes working class masculinities and demonises the so-called “Arab street”- potentially demobilising class-based movements for democratic change. Although the focus on class is undoubtedly welcome, should we take manifestations of misogyny and violence in our stride so long as they emanate from “subaltern” quarters that are the target of state repression? And how do women’s rights activists in the MENA region, who have in most cases had a risibly meagre record of success in amending discriminatory legislation in their favour, share in the opprobrium of governance feminists who allegedly walk the corridors of power (a dubious proposition in itself) ?

Whilst old and new conventional wisdoms jostle for attention in academic and policy circles, we have been witnessing new spontaneous grass-roots movements where young men and women mobilize together to mock authority, and to condemn the repression and violence perpetrated by both state and non-state actors. If resistance follows and contests the terms of systems of power, anti-patriarchal contestations must surely flourish in contexts where the language of power and patriarchy are most intimately and explicitly intertwined.

Contestations from below: forms of domination, paths of resistance

The Green Movement in Iran, starting with the contested 2009 presidential elections, provided us with a rare spectacle. Majid Tavakoli, a student leader arrested after delivering a fiery speech against dictatorship, was alleged by pro-government news agencies to have been caught trying to escape dressed as a woman. A series of photographs showing him wearing a headscarf and chador were clearly intended to expose him as a coward, and to humiliate a hero of the student movement. This ploy backfired badly when an Iranian photographer invited men to post pictures of themselves wearing hejab on Facebook - which they did en masse, stating “We are all Majid”. This reaction hit two targets simultaneously; it ridiculed the regime’s transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion, whilst rebuffing its bid to enlist men into accepting that an association with femininity debases them.

Does a form of rule that explicitly targets the private and the policing of gender relations bring personal liberties and gender issues closer to the heart of democratic struggles? The answer appears to be resoundingly positive if the dizzying array of everyday forms resistance and defiance displayed by Turkish youth before, during and after the Gezi protests of the summer of 2013 are anything to go by. 

After three consecutive electoral victories Erdogan, who came to power on an ostensible “democratisation” ticket in 2002,  interpreted his mandate at the ballot box as a licence to rule by fiat. Adopting a hectoring and moralistic tone he attempted to regulate citizens’ private lives, from dictating how many children they should have, whether women should be allowed to have abortions and caesarean sections, to whether they could drink or manifest affection in public. The PM’s clearly stated intent to promote “a pious generation” was perceived by many as a thinly disguised bid to create a docile citizenry - obedient subjects who fear God, their head of state and their fathers. The saturation of public space with piety, a populist move undoubtedly meant to bind believers to the ruling party, appeared to backfire long before the regime’s alleged corrupt practices started making the headlines. For instance, the admonishments to behave decorously in public led to a “kiss-in” with couples locked in passionate embraces in public spaces like the subway. The news spread fast through the social media and youth remained undeterred by being denounced as “immoral” and members of “marginal groups”, or even attacked by groups of zealots.

When the PM announced, at the annual meeting of his deputies in November 2013, that he intended to take legal measures to prevent unmarried male and female students sharing dorms and apartments, again, protests spread like wildfire. Mixed sex groups started posing for photographs bearing protest banners on university campuses across the land, and a couple even came forward to incriminate themselves, applying to the public prosecutor’s office to be tried, only to have their case dismissed. Although sources of discontent are varied and deep ( environmental concerns, urban plunder, police brutality, censorship of the media and general lack of transparency), the head of state taking on the mantle of the strict pater familias  became the subject of  the most virulent lampooning and ridicule. Repeated acts of defiance, through the medium of music, performance and cartoons, alongside street protests, defined the contours of a lively sub-culture that corrodes patriarchal power by unmasking its political intent: “normalizing” patriarchy as a tool of governance. This form of protest goes to the heart of political culture in Turkey by shining a light on an idiom of power that transcends the secular/Islamic divide and traverses diverse mainstream political parties.

The Arab uprisings also revealed youth sub-cultures intent on democratic participation and a rejection of their elders’ conventional politics.  In Egypt, for instance, the spotlight was turned, as never before, on the political nature of violence, including gender-based violence.  This lifted the lid on the previously taboo topic of harassment in general, prompting the formation of  networks such as Harassmap, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, Tahrir Bodyguard and Imprint  that include young men in  their membership. Contesting Orientalist notions of essentially misogynistic Arab masculinities, young men have been more willing to take positions on women’s rights and to do so publicly.

Are there any grounds for imagining that these new voices for democratic change represent anything more than evanescent episodes of civic euphoria? The challenges of translating these aspirations into sustainable organizational forms and governance alternatives remain phenomenal. Yet, there are some harbingers of longer term transformations that cannot be ignored.

Old alliances, new crises

Although state practices are always gendered, there is a particularly explicit connection in the MENA region, across regime types, between the language of power and that of patriarchal authority. Power holders utilize the idiom of patriarchy to legitimise their regulation of citizens’ lives, to suppress dissent and to elicit consent. The patriarchal state enlists men in its project of rule by explicitly upholding male prerogatives over the control of women: honour crimes carrying lighter sentences and marrying one’s victim extenuating the crime of a rapist constitute pertinent examples. The exclusion of women from the realm of equal citizenship is plainly visible and enshrined in legislation to varying extents. The trade-off in abdicating authority to patriarchal state rule, even for men of popular classes who are themselves subordinated in the class hierarchy, is to retain control over the domestic and communal domains, a control deemed central to the exercise of masculinity.

This compact manifests itself in cross- party and cross- class alliances among men when the question of curtailing women’s rights or blocking reformist moves entailing their expansion are on the agenda (for instance, in Turkey a group of male MPs across political parties attempted to block the draft of a reformed civic code in 2000 on the grounds that equality in the family would lead to chaos and, in Egypt, the secular Wafd party, among others  readily joined the fray in calling for a restriction of women’s rights after the fall of Mubarak, giving the lie to the notion that Islamist parties hold a monopoly in this domain). The safeguard of male privileges (whether in the name of religion, the maintenance of social order or the integrity of the family) has acted as an important plank of populist consensus and cross-class alliances among men.

Are there any reasons to assume that these alliances might ever fracture and give way to budding cross-gender alliances in new struggles against various forms of autocracy?

Under conditions of neo-liberalism, most states have abdicated their paternalistic functions of provision of public goods and welfare. Many resort to crude ideological means to shore up their legitimacy, or deploy increasingly forceful methods of surveillance and coercion, or both, and cannot sustain the myth of the ruler as benevolent patriarch.  At the domestic level, the male provider role, one of the bedrocks of male privilege, is under significant strain. High male unemployment rates and increasingly precarious forms of employment coincide with a period when women’s aspirations and their public presence have never been higher. Notions of female subordination are no longer securely hegemonic.  Reliance on a new politics of masculinist restoration - a politics that requires systematic indoctrination (Islamic, nationalistic or mixtures of both), greater surveillance and higher levels of intrusion in citizens’ lives- becomes essential to the maintenance and reproduction of patriarchy. The contradictory pulls of the politics of masculinist restoration on the one hand, and anti-patriarchal resistance on the other, open up new fields of contestation for a new generation of men and women who are more fully alert to the intimate relations between authoritarian rule and forms of oppression based on gender, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation. One of the lessons that youth activists - male and female - may have absorbed is that as long as the patriarchal social order is taken for granted, naturalized and not opened to question, citizenship must remain imperfect and democracy truncated.

Previous articles in this series written by Deniz KandiyotiPromise and peril: women and the 'Arab spring'Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring'Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence

To read the full collection of articles monitoring the uprisings and social movements in the Middle East and North Africa, providing a gendered analysis of developments across the region go to 50.50's platform Women and the 'Arab spring'

Find hundreds of articles exploring the challenges and opportunities for gender equality, pluralism and democratic participation on 50.50's platform Gender Politics Religion






Sideboxes Related stories:  Promise and peril: women and the ‘Arab spring’ Disquiet and despair: the gender sub-texts of the 'Arab spring' Fear and fury: women and post-revolutionary violence Harassment free zone Patriarchy and militarism in Egypt: from the street to the government Women in the new Libya: challenges ahead State feminism: co-opting women’s voices Citizen action and the perverse confluence of opposing agendas Visible players: the power and the risks for young feminists Occupy: you can’t evict an idea Spain: from 'los indignados' and '15 M' to the first strike by society Brazil: "state feminism" at work State complicity in the sexual abuse of women in Cairo A tangled web: the politics of gender in Turkey Vaginal obsessions in Turkey: an Islamic perspective Neoliberal neopatriarchy: the case for gender revolution 1% Feminism State feminism in Tunisia: reading between the lines Forced marriage to rapists: the death of Amina El Filali Embracing shame: turning honour on its head From the war on terror to austerity: a lost decade for women and human rights Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Equality
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Martha Nussbaum, empathy, and the moral imagination

7. March 2014 - 9:45

The emphasis in Martha Nussbaum’s work on the importance of the emotions in moral philosophy also posits that story-telling plays a central role in expanding our empathy and as such is a necessary part of a just society.

Does literature make us kinder, more human?  Great works of literature are often love-letters to literature itself, self-conscious replies to the act and the multiplicity of story-telling, and the humanity involved in embracing a plurality of voices.  But while literature can be seen as engaging in an eternal dialogue with itself, moral philosophy has rarely taken story-telling seriously.  Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, however, draws upon the concept of the nineteenth-century novel as a building-block of social justice through the role that novel-reading plays in developing our moral imagination.

One of the most influential aspects of the capability approach, developed in large part by economist Amartya Sen and also extensively by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is its elevation of what could currently be categorised as ‘economic, social and cultural’ rights within the frameworks of human rights, balancing out the emphasis that had developed on civil and political rights in much western liberal discourse on rights.  As the capability theory holds that there are a core group of entitlements – or needs – that must be fulfilled for each person to exercise their full capability, goods such as access to education and the right to participate in cultural life are elevated to bare-minimum conditions for a person to fully exercise their humanity.  This entails that states and other relevant bodies of power have a duty to take positive steps to secure all the entitlements – or meet all the needs – that person requires for be fully realised.

Nussbaum builds upon the capability approach’s attempt to sketch out the needs that must be met in order for a person to be fully empowered.  Echoing Simone Weil’s conception of the core interrelated ‘needs’ of humans in The Need for Roots, Nussbaum highlights empathy as an essential ingredient of humanity.  In her work on disgust, shame and dignity, she dismantles the concept of disgust to highlight the necessity of empathy for social justice and shows how constructs of disgust have been deployed to deny the full humanity of marginalised people – constructing taboos around issues such as menstruation and the policing of rigid frameworks of sexuality have limited the scope of who is considered worthy of humane and dignified treatment.  Those we dehumanise and Other-ise are outside of our circle of empathy, beyond the realm of the concern of the state or society.

Alongside this focus on dignity and the illegitimacy of ‘disgust’ as a tool of policing the boundary of who is fully ‘human’ and worthy of concern, Nussbaum has highlighted the centrality of emotions in building an understanding of justice, demonstrating how the innate human-ness of emotions or ‘upheavals of thought’ have been undervalued in western political philosophy.

These threads in Nussbaum’s work come together in her defence of literature as one of the nutrients that feeds our human needs. Literature, she argues, is nourishing because it expands our empathy, developing our moral imagination.  Empathy is something we practice, and literature helps us to flex this muscle.  By encouraging us to exercise our moral imagination, we develop our capacity to more fully put ourselves in another person’s situation and thus those ‘different’ to ourselves in circumstance, identity or practice can no longer be dehumanised or Other-ised as ‘disgusting’ or ‘subhuman’.   

It could be argued that has was always been a central role of literature. This aim of encouraging readers to engage their own moral compass was the self-conscious goal of writers such as George Eliot.  Virginia Woolf saw Eliot as a rare English writer for ‘grown-up people’ because in her novels Eliot’s skill lies in enabling us to feel empathy for the complexity of characters who are positionally at odds with one another, or as they brush past each other in their own narrative orbits; the imperfect, human inner world of each of them rendered for the reader to meet with their own humanity, even as the characters’ lives warp one another’s like nearby magnets.  Similarly, the eighteenth-century literary emphasis on ‘sentiment’ could be read as being predicated on sensitivity to the realities, emotions and mood-states of those around you, which in turn shape you – sensitivity exalted as an ideal because it indicated a high level of ‘moral imagination’, receptiveness to the inner state of others. 

The endurance of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary also comes to mind: neither can really be presented as a feminist text even in the most generous reading, as both problematically ventriloquize largely-silenced female experiences of reality and the emotions through the literary equivalent of the ‘male gaze’, and both Tolstoy and Flaubert perpetuate – through worn tropes and through silences – some of the prejudices of their period even as they sought, in various ways, to unpick them.  Still, if Bovary and Karenina initially drew contemporary readers because they touched on the nineteenth-century fascination of female sexual infidelity, they have perhaps endured as figures of the cultural imagination instead because, through the cumulative building of the inner worlds of their heroines, they allowed the reader to travel through the protagonists’ experiences, feeling the constraint of their circumstances from within.

Through literature we can live more than one life, not only through the imagination that takes us to times, geographical locations and social realities that we have not personally lived but – crucially to Nussbaum’s argument – by entering the viewpoint of others from within, experiencing their experiences through our reading.  And after we have ‘lived’ people through literature, it is harder to find them alien or disgusting, however much our governments or media may try to make ‘other’ groups seem so.

So, does it follow from the argument that literature operates on the moral imagination that literature is or should be ‘moral’? The question feels uncomfortable, because we do not want literature to be moralistic.  Arguments about literature’s ‘moral’ value have, after all, been deployed in veins that run counter to what could be considered social justice, for instance by conceiving of writers as patrician figures who speak in code amongst one another, as a kind of poet-caste -- or in a Stalinist conception of writers as 'engineers of human souls'. It is also uncomfortable to think of literature as a moral agent in the wake of Barthes’s influential idea of the death of the author, in which the text stands alone open to eternal reinterpretation. How can we say literature works to humanise and generate empathy if authorial intent is irrelevant?  Does Nussbaum’s idea of literature and the moral imagination pose problems for the post-Barthes approach to literature?

Perhaps it is helpful to differentiate between the author (dead in the post-Barthes conception) and the writer, whose conscience as a moral agent is real.  Writer Susan Swan has spoken of the role of the writer’s conscience as a kind of ‘literary imagination’ whose responsibility is to the stories being told, and preserving the humanity contained within them through their transmission.  Similarly, Susan Sontag used the post-war ‘rehabilitation’ of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl amongst aesthetes who sought to position her as a morally-neutral ‘high-priestess of the beautiful’ to demonstrate that morality applies to artists and writers as people just as it applies to anyone – ‘artist’ as a title is not a get-out card from complicity in systems of oppression, even or especially if it is through art that the system of oppression is presented as just. Such a position on the duties of role of the artist or writer do not entail that artists make moralistic art but that if their works dehumanise, this dehumanisation is real.  In Nussbaum’s reading of the role of literature as a device for developing our empathy, the duty of the writer is to write with humanity.

A related criticism to the concern that literature should be ‘moral’ is the concern that Nussbaum is elevating ‘literature’ in terms of the western canon of literature and the western tradition of the novel, a position necessarily at odds with the priorities of social justice if it implies that the voices of the western canon of literature are more valuable than the majority of humanity, or uniquely positioned to ‘teach’ everyone else how to feel and how to live.  The canon of western literature (the Dead White Men Books, as much might be re-named), variously silences, ignores, sidelines or essentialises most of the world.  How could looking at the world through its eyes expand our empathy? 

The reply to this criticism is not only the point that much literature, from Joyce to Atwood to Rushdie, works as a reply to the silencing of various peripheries by the ‘western canon’ – literature, in other words, self-corrects in its multiplicity when it is allowed to thrive; in modernity and post-modernity the canon has been turned on itself, rewritten and responded to by voices that have been historically absent.  It is true that the elevation of ‘literature’ in Nussbaum’s argument is problematic, seeming to privilege written cultures and traditions over other forms of expression, and may lead us down the road of attempting to create hierarchies amongst which arts or forms of expression are most ‘noble’ in their task of expanding our capability, akin to the Frankfurt School’s nervous preoccupation with discerning the qualitative difference between popular culture and ‘high art’. Perhaps a better way to think of Nussbaum’s argument about the moral imagination to think not of literature in terms of what constitutes the ‘literary’ but of story-telling as a central facet of our humanity.

In other ways, the argument that literature – or story-telling – exercises our moral imagination neuters the problematics of the limiting, privileged ‘voices’ of the white, straight, elite male western literary ‘canon’.  For it follows from the idea that literature is an exercise in empathy that literature which perpetuates essentialist, colonial, racist, sexist and otherwise de-humanising depictions fails not merely on the social-justice score-card, but fails as literature.  The tropes identified by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism as threading essentialist and dehumanising (or silenced) depictions of colonised peoples into the canon of nineteenth-century English literature fails as art in the extent that it fails to transmit the humanity of those depicted.  A corollary of this is that stories that harm are bad stories – or, literature which fails to recognise the humanity of those it is depicting does not work as literature, because not allowing the reader scope to exercise their moral imagination is a failure of the writer. 

The loss of bodies of literature and the loss of types of story-telling, it also follows, is a loss to humanity in the extent to which it hinders our ability to stretch our empathy through our experience of the multiplicity of voices.  Echoing Simone Weil’s idea that religious texts articulate an underlying truth of humanity necessarily through and within their own traditions, Nussbaum’s argument for the moral imagination of literature hints at how literatures – stories – as a multiplicity together form the voices of our humanity.  As others have pointed out, great works of literature from Ulysses to The Famished Road are often love-letters to the practice of story-telling itself.  There is no such thing as a perfect novel, or a single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has recently reminded us: it is the ocean of stories that each work of literature pours into that, taken as a whole, articulates humanity in plurality.  And it is through our engagement with these stories – through novel-reading, for instance – that we continually renew our humanity, stretch our empathy-muscles.  In this context, censorship of literature and biblioclasms such as the destruction of libraries from ancient Alexandria to 1990s Sarajevo are dehumanising acts because they rob us of part of our humanity by robbing us of the range of stories we can tell and voices we can hear.  Through the loss of cultural heritage they diminish potential points of affinity, cross-pollinations of our human-ness. 

To return to the capability approach and its normative concerns, Nussbaum stresses throughout her work that states and other relevant bodies of power have a duty to secure for each person the entitlements they require in order for them to exercise their full humanity, from bodily autonomy to freedom from fear to the right to participate in cultural life.  The practical implications of this position are immense, and a significant departure from negative-liberty conceptions of rights – the practicalities of enabling each person’s right to literacy and to exercise their write to practice their own language, for instance, would have to be met by the state and any other body that has the power to help provide this, in order for a person to be able to exercise their humanity in this respect. 

While the enormity of the tasks often set out by following capability approach analyses to their logical conclusions can be overwhelming, we can see in our daily lives how specific facets of these entitlements either thrive or suffer in different circumstances, such as the widespread closure of public libraries under the British Coalition government or the marketisation of higher education that severs the function of education as a social good.  Such measures act against our humanity, in Nussbaum’s argument, by depriving us of the avenues through which we can develop our moral imagination, our inner worlds – a necessary step towards recognising the inner worlds and humanity of each another.

(The is an extended version of an article originally published in openDemocracy's Transformation section.)

Sideboxes Related stories:  She Left Me the Gun: on story-telling and re-telling Trojan Women in the twenty first century: women in war from Euripides to Syria Rights:  Creative Commons
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US: why Women's History Month?

7. March 2014 - 9:27

Every generation of little girls and women needs to learn its past so that it can imagine a future in which gender equality is the norm and not the exception. As part of openDemocracy's International Women's Day series, Ruth Rosen argues that it is still necessary to have a token month every year devoted to women's lives

Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist -- never has” (Gerda Lerner ) 

Aside from the Republican’s relentless War on Women, let me offer you another reason why even one token month is still necessary to America’s political culture.

I’ve just finished reading a book titled The Season of the Witch, written by David Talbot, who founded in 1995, the first web magazine in the United States, known for breaking investigative journalistic stories. The book is an evocative political, social and cultural history of San Francisco from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Since he dealt with every trend and movement, often in overheated prose, I kept waiting—and waiting--for him to describe the sudden explosion of the women’s liberation movement.

Astonishingly, Talbot didn’t even write one paragraph about the women’s movement, which certainly transformed American political and social culture more profoundly than did the two chapters he devotes to the San Francisco 49ers football team.

Did his publisher tell him that half the population was dispensable? Did his agent convince him that including feminism would diminish the appeal and profits? Is he just ignorant?

This is just one example why we need Women’s History Month in the United States. It’s to prevent students, teachers, intellectuals and writers from forgetting about half its population.

The origins of this month reflect an era in which the grassroots efforts of a few prescient individuals created a national month dedicated to informing the public about women’s lives. It was during the late 1970s when a growing number of women, grasping the subordination of women in the present, began to wonder about what women did in the past. The idea of “women history” was still very new, and yet a group of women on the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" celebration for 1978.

Gerda Lerner

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the eminent historian Gerda Lerner, along with other historians, created a Women’s History Institute, during the summer of 1979, at Sarah Lawrence College.

From all over the country Lerner brought together feminist leaders and Molly Murphy MacGregor from the Sonoma Country California group just happened to be one of them. From her they learned what women in Sonoma County had been doing to publicize women’s past. They decided that their summer would be to create a country-wide "National Women's History Week".

Molly Murphy MacGregor
They chose March 8th, International Women’s Day, which was established in the United States in 1911 as a day to celebrate women workers and was then commemorated in the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc countries for decades.

The idea of celebrating—and discovering - women’s past quickly spread around the country. As the idea of a women’s history week gained broader publicity, state departments of education encouraged teachers to integrate women into the history curriculum. Within a few years, thousands of schools and communities were celebrating National Women's History Week, supported and encouraged by resolutions from governors, city councils, and school boards. 

In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation, declaring the Week of March 8th 1980 as National Women's History Week. Meanwhile, Representative Barbara Mikulski and Senator Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a joint bipartisan Congressional Resolution for National Women's History Week in 1981.

In the wake of passionate lobbying by the  National Women's History Project in Sonoma Country, Congress finally declared the entire month of March 1987 as National Women's History Month. And so it has remained.

But did it change anything? Well, yes and no. Many professional historians still ignored—and still ignore--the deluge of superb research that hundreds of distinguished feminist scholars have published. One well-known male historian, a receiver of the Pulitzer Prize, told me in 1989 that the women’s movement didn’t belong in a film about the 1960s. (The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 and women’s liberation groups began sprouting around the country in 1967.) Yet another historian taught an entire course on labor history in the 1980s without mentioning women workers. Still another historian told me it was too difficult to talk about women in his otherwise excellent course in labor history. (Imagine if I had found men “too difficult” to discuss in all my courses.)

Nevertheless, some history education began to change. Girls began to learn fthat women could be brave and how they had used their collective power to break one barrier after another. They learned, for example, about women who had flown airplanes during World War II, and who had built the war ships that fought fascism during that war.  They learned about Harriet Tubman, a former slave who repeatedly returned to the South to free dozens of slaves; Jane Addams who sought to end all wars by creating the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Florence Kelley who launched a consumer campaign to improve women’s working conditions, all the great jazz singers and athletes who transformed music, the arts, and my personal hero, and my personal hero, Billie Jean King, who championed the recognition of women’s tennis.

Billie Jean King

Most importantly they learned that women had been activists and had created powerful and effective social movements. They had organized and petitioned against slavery, and, without benefit of the vote, they had fought wife beating by drunken husbands, created parks and kindergartens for children, fought municipal crime and corruption, organized to end child labor, created settlement houses to educate newly arrived immigrants, fought against nuclear bombs, for civil rights, and against the War in Vietnam.

Labor history—which had been taught for decades, without noting that women had always worked, suddenly included teachers, nurses, domestics, caretakers, laundresses, waitresses, mothers, and textile and agricultural workers. A whole generation of little girls learned the lyrics of the song, “Free to Be Me and You” which taught them that they could be anything they wanted to be.

Fast forward to 2014 and one has to ask, so is Women’s History Month still necessary? Didn’t we transform the curriculum in all the disciplines, change laws and customs, legalize abortion, force everyone to call us Ms. instead of Mrs. and Miss, and teach students not to faint when a female professor entered the room?

Unfortunately, it is still necessary to have a token month devoted to women’s lives. Every generation of little girls and women need to learn their past so that they can imagine a future in which gender equality is the norm and not the exception.

Understanding women’s history is also an essential antidote to the Republican’s “war on women.” We are no longer in the midst of just a “backlash” against the women’s movements, as was true in the 1980s; feminism is the object of a serious right-wing attack against women’s rights, especially women’s reproduction freedom. And even our friends and allies, writing about San Francisco’s cultural history, clearly need reminding that women transform history.

No one ever expected Women’s History Month to change our political culture, at least not by itself. It doesn’t change the double standard that still exists when a woman runs for electoral office. (Did she spend too much or too little time with her children?) Nor does it change the endless scrutiny of women’s appearances—attacks against Hillary Clinton’s thighs or descriptions of Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas who stood up for women’s reproductive rights as “Abortion Barbie.”

Gerda Lerner, who many view as the mother of women’s history in the U.S, once wrote, “Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist -- never has” Women’s history brings us one tiny step closer to what Lerner wanted to change and to what Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Beijing in 1995, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all."

This is why we still need Women’s History Month.

Read all articles in 50.50's dialogue on Women's Movement Building

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CSW weather vane: fault lines and prospects for women's human rights

7. March 2014 - 8:33

As battles over women’s human rights rage on around the world, governments prepare to gather in New York next week to set some definitive agreements at the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women

It’s the last year of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the agreement made by the international community on advancing human rights and development globally. Created in 2000, they promised no less than halving extreme poverty and achieving universal primary education – all by 2015.

Most significantly for women, they created a separate stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment (MDG3). A memorable and critical first that should not be underestimated: it helped make the vital case that women’s rights is a substantive development and human rights issue. Through this, it provided political will, demonstrated and allowed others to demonstrate leadership about women’s rights, and also galvanized concrete funding for the rights of women and girls.

But the overall impact of the MDGs on the lives of the world’s girls and women has been patchy at best, and has been a telling disappointment too : the most off-track MDGs are those where gender equality is a cornerstone, namely MDG3 itself, as well as MDG5 on maternal mortality. For example, UN Women estimates that at the pace of the last 15 years, it will take 40 more years to achieve gender parity in parliaments, while progress on reducing the maternal mortality ratio has actually stalled.

The results of the MDGs to date thus provide some important lessons about what a global compact needs to include to deliver for women’s rights. Specifically, they helped to demonstrate why a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment is so important, but on its own insufficient to achieving the change we want to see. Such a goal has to be robust and UN Women has outlined what this can mean. Most obviously, it must include all the relevant variables no matter how controversial or ‘hard to measure’, and cannot exclude basic issues such as violence against women and girls. But it also needs to be supported by substantively transformative targets within other goals that also affect and are affected by prevailing gender inequalities, i.e. gender needs to be mainstreamed. As the UK’s Gender and Development Network explains, this is known as a ‘twin-track approach’.

On March 10th, the annual UN  Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) begins. It is a chance for the international community to assess its progress on women’s rights, and set the course for deepening advancements going forward. And this year’s theme is ‘Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls’. Not a moment too soon.

Over the last few years, the CSW has become an increasingly important normative and discursive space. What is discussed and agreed at CSW, while always used by women’s rights advocates to try and advance their case in their local contexts, has of late also been catching the eye of major conservative forces, including the Vatican. These forces have responded to the vibrant and successful efforts of civil society to use CSW to advance women’s rights by increasing their attention and resources towards influencing its outcomes to stall and even roll back on previous gains. Two years ago, they were so successful at dividing and undermining consensus that the CSW closed without any agreed conclusions. Last year, states fought hard to ensure a progressive outcome for the theme of violence against women and girls, and were to a degree successful.

This year’s CSW, as with the last two, therefore serves as a kind of weather vane for where we currently stand on women’s rights, where the major fault lines lie, and what our prospects are for the future.

Agreements set at CSW feed into the discussions of other major annual international convenings and negotiations affecting women, girls and also trans* people, such as the upcoming Commission on Population and Development next month. And as we are continually reminded, the battles over women’s, girls’ and trans* people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are very much alive; with just two months under its belt, 2014 witnessed Spanish MPs vote to introduce a new anti-choice abortion law; the President of Uganda sign a bill criminalizing homosexuality and one against ‘pornography’ that polices what women wear in public; and MEPs of the European Union vote to criminalize the purchasing of sex, against the advice of sex worker rights activists.

Importantly, the theme for this year’s CSW will inform discussion about what a post-2015 international agenda for human rights and development should look like and include. While the conversation on the post-2015 agenda began some time ago, this year’s ‘agreed outcomes’ from CSW will demonstrate what member states would like to see included in the final version of the post-2015 agenda, on women’s rights. Specifically, women’s rights advocates will be looking to see whether CSW affirms the need for a ‘twin-track approach’: a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s rights and empowerment, and substantive transformational gender targets within the other goals in the framework. According to Womankind Worldwide, anything less would be going backwards.

Of special interest to many, including those of us at Mama Cash, is how ambitions for women’s rights will be resourced within any future frameworks. What the international community feels are the priorities are of course important, but how governments will ensure these priorities do not become empty promises is vital. As AWID’s evaluation of the Dutch MDG3 fund for women’s rights has shown us, new and dedicated funding that reaches those carrying out the work is what makes the difference. For the post-2015 agenda to be successful and truly transformative then, funding will need to be made available for and accessible to the women’s, girls’ and trans* rights groups that do the groundbreaking work that leads to the sustainable advancement of their human rights.

But the reality is that this political organizing by women’s rights groups and movements is currently being executed against a vicious backlash against women’s rights, around the world. From the retrogressive developments across countries in the north of Africa and the Middle East following the revolutions in 2013, to discriminatory laws being introduced in a number of countries including Indonesia, to the entrenchment of women’s subordination as a result of the financial crisis and gender-biased macroeconomic government policies, such as is occurring in the UK, the future could appear to be quite bleak.

With this in mind, many women’s rights group have been organizing towards this moment for some time, and have set high ambitions for persuading governments to even move beyond the limited goal-target-indicator approach of the MDGs if possible. And as the evidence has shown us, these groups are the critical factor in whether real change occurs.

So, will countries get to that place of progressive consensus during CSW, reaching for a world in which all women, girls and trans* people can enjoy their full human rights? Women’s and girls’ rights groups will be present in the hundreds to fight for it. As the post-2015 agenda is set to transform the world’s approach to development for the next generation, it is inspiring to see women’s rights activists face the CSW with such energy and commitment – to convince the world’s governments that women deserve no less than their full human rights.

Zohra Moosa will be writing for 50.50 on the outcomes of this year's CSW later this month

Read 5050's coverage of previous CSW gatherings

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Feminist peacebuilding - a courageous intelligence

7. March 2014 - 8:27

There are patriarchal reasons why women are disproportionately made to suffer in wars. It should not be surprising that women are disproportionately active in resisting and challenging violence, wars and armed oppression, says Rebecca Johnson.

As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” (Virginia Woolf )

On Monday, the British Library hosted a meeting on “Sisterhood: Greenham in Common”. This brought together film director Beeban Kidron (now a baroness in the House of ‘Lords’); Labour MP Dame Joan Ruddock, former Chair of CND; Sasha Roseneil, Professor of Sociology and Social Theory at the University of London’s Birkbeck Institute, and me. Each of us was involved with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s – in rather different ways. The panellists and several audience members commented how Greenham – “the largest feminist social movement in recent times” has been almost completely left out of mainstream histories and retrospective programmes on the 20th century.  hat got me thinking.

Feminist campaigning gets acknowledged (mostly) when we focus specifically on issues viewed as female – equal pay, reproductive rights, and so on – but not when we mobilise on the broader, human issues like militarism, weapons, war, security, poverty and peacebuilding. As male commentators line up to present anniversary programmes on the patriotic men who followed their leaders into the trenches of the First World War, few mention the courageous intelligence of the 1,136 women from Europe and North America, who met in the Hague in April 1915 to challenge the militaristic stupidities that were engulfing Europe in yet another bloodbath. 

The 1915 Congress of Women was the start of the  Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), which continues to be at the forefront of international initiatives on peace and security 99 years later.  With participants from all the nations involved in destroying those hundreds of thousands of dutiful young men, the Congress formulated some 20 resolutions with practical proposals that ranged from the immediate – to halt the carnage and mediate between the warring governments – to longer term solutions, including establishing “a world institution that would provide continuous machinery to mediate arising conflicts [and] prevent them from growing into wars”.  Some met with US President Woodrow Wilson, who reportedly “borrowed” and applied many of the women’s proposals. Prophetically, WILPF later critiqued the Versailles Treaty, recognising how its punitive approach towards defeated Germany would pave the way for later, even bloodier wars.

Nearly a hundred years later, WILPF is going stronger than ever. Headed now by human rights lawyer Madeleine Rees, WILPF is at the forefront of proposals to involve women in the peace processes of Syria and Afghanistan, together with the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI), Code Pink and Madre.  Closer ties between these feminist peacebuilders have been forged over years of campaigning, organising separately and together, developing feminist strategies through gatherings such as last year’s Belfast Conference on Moving Beyond Militarism and War, hosted by several NWI Nobel laureates, to learn from our different experiences and plan joint actions and ways to support each other.  These links amplified all our work, from banning nuclear weapons and killer robots, to dealing with the pervasive violence that blights women’s lives and development in places ravaged by rape gangs, drug warlords and religious militias, with leadership from the African and Latin American laureates.

In the Cold War, WILPF was largely dismissed – at least in the United States –as a communist front. Once the Cold War was over, WILPF had a difficult transition, but came back stronger and more relevant than ever.  With help and encouragement, it was ideally placed (with offices close to the United Nations in Geneva and New York) to expand the cutting edge reporting and analysis of UN disarmament talks that Acronym initiated in the 1990s on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Conference on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  As it brought a new generation of bright young women into civil society diplomacy through Reaching Critical Will, WILPF also founded, and has continued to play an important role in many disarmament networks, most recently the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), providing thought-provoking analyses on the humanitarian consequences – and imperative – to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

There are patriarchal reasons why women are disproportionately made to suffer in wars. It should not be surprising that women have also been disproportionately active in resisting and challenging violence, wars and armed oppression.  But you wouldn’t think so by looking at mainstream media or the ‘peace negotiations’ led by the UN and nations wielding vetoes in the Security Council.  Lip service to involving women may be paid, as that is regarded these days as a necessary nod to UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000).  In fact, women continue to be silenced and excluded – mainly because we don’t fit into the ‘sides’ or ‘categories’ that political men use to frame who and what are important in the world.

Feminist work on peace and security doesn’t ‘fit’ the patriarchal narratives of women’s work and men’s importance, or of ‘good’ and bad’ sides with strength and power.  Mainstream historians just fail to comprehend the many ways in which our multifaceted challenges have changed history.  We don’t fit into limited histories that are embedded in misogyny, racism and the limitations of military-industrial propaganda, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there. 

War is never simple or reducible to ‘people like us’ versus ‘evil enemies’.  No matter what the messy causes, corrupt and stupid leaders, ideological justifications and money made by weapons profiteers, it makes a difference if you choose to be on the multiple sides of the women, civilians, duped cannon fodder and displaced. Feminist peacebuilding promotes the security needs of all the vulnerable people who get trapped in the middle of violence perpetrated by militias, militaries, terrorists and gangs that are barely distinguishable apart from some uniforms and nationalistic insignia.

As women we’ve understood that military victories are generally transient and pyrrhic. Peace requires disarmament, justice, and the longer term creation of responsive institutions and shared decision-making, to support the needs and aspirations of all ‘sides’.  Sustainable peace requires paying attention to what women say are the causes and solutions to conflict in our communities and countries.  Women don’t speak with one voice any more than men do, so putting a token woman on a delegation changes little. Sustainable security requires putting at least 50 percent women – from all backgrounds – front and centre of negotiations for peace and disarmament, not just occasionally but in every significant meeting and negotiating forum.

As I write this I have just heard that Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin was beaten up, detained and deported from Egypt this week, and Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and Irish peace activist Ann Patterson were among peace-women who were arrested and deported for trying to take food and medicines to Gaza.  Having spent time blockading the UK’s Faslane and Aldermaston nuclear bases with Mairead and Ann, I wasn’t surprised to hear they had chosen to become personally involved to bring practical aid and support for the Palestinian women and families, trapped between the manipulations and injustices of warring patriarchal factions and nuclear-armed Israel’s Occupation policies.  Peace-making isn’t just about talk or diplomatic resolutions, but about practical action to help the vulnerable and promote fundamental change. From Egypt, Libya and Syria – and now Ukraine – what started as civil society ‘awakenings’ have been distorted by militarised factions seeking control. Unsurprisingly, most of these appear to be dominated by men who condone violence against women and the suppression of dissent, including arrests and brutality to silence journalists and citizen bloggers. 

Virginia Woolf wrote “As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”  This is our feminist credo: from Women in Black (founded in Jerusalem in 1989, taken up in Belgrade in 1992, and now a worldwide feminist network against militarism and war)  to Million Women Rise, who march on International Women’s Day opposing violence against women and linking with campaigns against racist tolerance of violence perpetrated in the name of ‘culture’;  from forced marriages to the rape of lesbians, from the genital mutilation of little girls to the maiming of everyone’s minds through pornography, sexual trafficking and the peculiarly British Page 3 displays of young women’s semi-naked bodies in daily newspapers. 

As a woman, my country is still being formed: by millions of feminist peacebuilders, sharing power and working for disarmament, peace, justice and – yes – control over our fertility and our sexuality, and over our minds and bodies.

Read more articles by Rebecca Johnson on 50.50's dialogue: Towards nuclear non-proliferation

Sideboxes Related stories:  Excluded and silenced: Women in Northern Ireland after the peace process Syrian women demand to take part in the peace talks in Geneva Plotting for a woman-shaped peace: Syrian and Bosnian women confer The Occupy movement and the women of Greenham Common What kind of feminism does war provoke? To eliminate WMD we need to disarm patriarchy Slavenka Drakulić: violence, memory, and the nation Immunity and impunity in peace keeping: the protection gap Challenging militarized masculinities Peacework: lessons we have failed to learn Building a culture of love: replacing a culture of violence and death Breaking up with lame: protests in Bosnia The meaning of peace in the 21st century Leymah Gbowee: five words for the men of Libya Child soldiers, child wives: wounded for life Longing for ‘normality’: women’s experience of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina Is it time for a worldwide strategy for the building of peace? Pro-nuclear propaganda in 1983: lessons for 2013 Facing up to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear policies and mistakes Banning nuclear weapons: point of no return Where we must stand: African women in an age of war No woman’s body should be a battlefield Topics:  Civil society
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