Tag Archives: culture

FGM and Leyla Hussein

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What can I say that Leyla Hussein hasn’t already expressed so eloquently and so entertainingly? Her appearance on the channel 4 documentary, The Cruel Cutwas entertaining, and I’m so glad that I watched it.

FGM is an issue that has been fought by numerous charities, facebook groups, individuals, and campaigners for many years. Indeed, as the documentary itself pointed out, it has been illegal in the UK since 1985. I’m glad that Leyla’s programme has brought this subject into the mainstream media, and from what I read in the Evening Standard (yes, that benchmark of investigative journalism) her efforts might already be leading towards the UK’s first ever prosecution.

Given that there are so many pre-existing movements and NGOs fighting against FGM both here and across the globe, I think it was right that she didn’t focus on the pure horror of it, or throw endless case studies and statistics from Africa at the audience. She didn’t try to make us cry or feel sorry for survivors, or to alienate viewers for whom the problem might appear too distant and therefore irrelevant, or inapplicable.

Ms Hussein firmly planted this issue in our own backyard, and she’s making us all accountable. Quite right that she’s shouting out against excusing and protecting barbaric acts, and the perpetrators who deliver them, in the name of ‘cultural sensitivity’. The UK government’s preference for a ‘multiculturalist’ approach has only hampered attempts to fight other acts of gender-based  violence, by preventing cultural outsiders to minority communities from taking action in fear of offending local sensitivities.

Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition, or religion. It is torture and a crime. Help us to put an end to this crime. – Waris Dirie, Survivor of FGM, UN FGM Ambassador, Founder of the Desert Flower Foundation and former Supermodel

This an affront to women. I say it loud. Forced marriage, marital rape, domestic abuse and violence, child marriage, dowry-related murder, honour killings, and female genital mutilation are all acts of cruelty, violence, and most of all power. They are none of them supported in any religious doctrine, and remove them from their cultural setting, these acts become exposed for the horrific crimes that they are.

What I most liked about Leyla’s approach, and the work of the other women behind Daughters of Eve in making this programme, was the dual emphasis on education (not least her upfront engagement with men in the FGM-practising community) and on implementing structural change. It’s all very well to lament the issues of FGM, and highlight those affected, but even more essential is to move forward with that gut-wrenching feeling of disgust and horror to take action. And that is what she did.

We can all take action in eradicating FGM from the UK, from our own communities and localities. Leyla Hussein and Daughters of Eve are quite rightly calling for change in the structural responsibility for safeguarding against FGM in the UK. If one body (ie. The Home Office) takes charge of this role, theoretically the right training for frontline staff in the police, schools, health, and social services will enable them to not only identify the risk factors and signs of FGM, but also to know how to deal with the situation when it arises – and ultimately how to save a child from being forced to undergo life-altering mutilation.

I don’t think as a nation we should be focusing on punishment for perpetrators as in the France model, as time and again education and prevention-focused approaches have proven to be the far more cost-effective option in reducing the prevalence of various crimes. Taking a preventative approach akin to the Dutch, and mainstreaming FGM education within schools as part of their wider social awareness learning, would do far more than getting that first landmark prosecution.

There is a plethora of information, articles, and films out there. Channel 4 already produced a documentary on FGM all the way back in 2003, which I think illustrates how little we have progressed in 10 years.

There are so many ways that we can all get involved in fighting this. Join the twitter debate #StopFGM, or simply share The Cruel Cut with others.

By far the best thing that you could though, is to sign and encourage others to sign, the e-petition. http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740 The coalition government last week sent out a response to the petition, which it is required to do after a petition reaches 10,000 signatures, though it was less than inspiring:

This Government recognises that tackling violence against women and girls, including FGM, requires a sustained, robust and dynamic cross-Government approach. Every department needs to play its part in addressing FGM. The Department of Health is working to improve the information collected by the NHS on FGM. The Home Office has recently announced it will help fund a new study into the prevalence rates of FGM in England and Wales. The Department for International Development has established an ambitious £35m programme to address FGM in Africa and beyond, with an ambition toward ending FGM in one generation.

The Home Office is the lead on violence against women and girls (VAWG) and has captured FGM in our comprehensive VAWG Strategy, rather than in a stand-alone Action Plan. Recently updated, the Strategy (The Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls: Action Plan) has a renewed focus on protecting potential victims. Through the plan we are working closely across Government to help secure a FGM conviction, and with charities and frontline organisations to help improve awareness of FGM.

This response seems to me like one of trying to fob us all off. It goes on to say in the next paragraph how the government is out-sourcing it’s anti-FGM efforts to charities and other non-governmental organisations [so that it doesn’t have to take responsibility for establishing effective measures itself], and is focusing on providing advice to people concerned about FGM [so that it can pay lip-service to supporting victims as a valid stand-alone strategy, instead of taking preventative measures to change attitudes and practices and protect future generations of girls].

I think the fact that the DFID (the Department for International Development) approach focuses on Africa “and beyond” tells you everything you need to know about the government’s attitude towards preventing FGM. It is clear that they don’t regard FGM as a problem within the UK itself, and that they subsequently believe it is not ‘our’ problem.

All the more reason that we ensure Leyla’s e-petition reaches 100,000 signatures for this issue to be discussed by the Backbench Business Committee, and take hold of that opportunity when it comes to ensure truly effective prevention strategies to protect British girls are put in place.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740

Reverse Culture Shock

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Whilst at first the tea tastes watery, the food has no (spice) flavour, and there are too many middle class boys with hipster haircuts overly happy to share their yelled conversations with the street, I am glad to be back. Now that I’m into my fifth day back in England I feel much more at ease with all things England.

High tea

That’s not to say that I didn’t have some problems. Even driving to Bangalore airport at 2am in a taxi on Tuesday morning, a strange nausea started creeping up on me and a dizzying feeling – which I assumed to be the result of hunger (I’m always hungry) and tiredness. After landing and reuniting with my boyfriend however, and with a good night’s sleep, the next day it happened again. We were in one of Woking’s indoor shopping centres when I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. He sat me down in the open cafe area where I felt a little comforted by the sight of a ‘Spice House’, and waited for him to get me something sugary.

Nom nom nom

After wolfing down a Gregg’s doughnut though, I realised it wasn’t just a bout of low blood sugar I periodically experience, but the onset of a growing sense of panic. Everywhere I looked, people were walking around in shorts, and spaghetti strap tops, and bras were hanging out all over the place. Given that it could have been no more than 25 degrees that kind of clothing was clearly absurd.

But it was more than that. I felt suffocated by the silence, the absence of traffic beeping and revving, the empty streets, the conspicuous void of incense-pollution-rotting refuse-cow dung-garam masala mix assaulting the nostrils. It was like being in an alien landscape where all the people had vanished.

Noisy, busy, blissful India

A couple more days in though, and my perception is changing again. Whilst I can’t shake the unsettling sensation that the world before my eyes is a mirage drawn across reality, that Bangalore will re-materialise in due course, it simultaneously feels like I never left. Did I even go to India? Was it all a dream? Though I’m not panicking each time I think about the empty street outside now, and my taste-buds have quickly relished a return to olives, houmous, pizza, and pasta, I’m craving rice and spice, and I’ve been mostly living inside the house of my boyfriend’s parents.

Breathe in that English suburbia

My life is no different being in England. I am still looking for a job, I still too many things to do in inadequately short spaces of time, and I still (apparently) wobble my head all the time. My brother tells me I have an Indian accent – well I pity him for not having one, it’s the best accent in the world.

I think the relative isolation period that I’ve put myself in within the confines of the house is vital to allow my subconcious to adjust. I never fully felt comfortable in India, but I think to some extent I understood it. Whilst I still rail against the misogyny and the corruption, the lack of female autonomy and the stifling social controls on personal movement, I’m finding that home is no longer home. I feel a stranger in my origin culture, and not just at the superficial level. I’m really starting to question the way society is structured in the UK, and gendered behaviours here too. The contrast in how British young men and women behave is too stark against their Indian counterparts not to notice – and I’m not sure I like it anymore. Or perhaps time will erode the harsh edge off my memory, and I’ll quickly come to love my country again.

More than ever though I feel I’ve become part of a British diaspora – a reverse cultural and migrational flow of people, ideals, and values – into modern India. Like anyone whose culture is rooted in one place, as their everyday continues in another, I feel suspended between the two. I cannot go back to being English, but the prejudice and hierarchy of my second home means that neither will I ever become entirely Indian. I want to live in both places, in both cultures, and neither entirely, at the same time. The difficulty lies in negotiating the contradictions between them. What to do, ah? I think several more visits to the land of Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan, for better or worse.

VIBGYOR – A week at Thrissur’s International Film Festival, Kerala

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Julika and I spent the afternoon of Wednesday last week sorting through the mountain of books and SICHREM-branded t-shirts that we would take to sell at Thrissur. The plan was to attend this six-day long film festival in Kerala’s cultural capital, manning a stall within the grounds as a means of small-scale fundraising.

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VIBGYOR film festival, Thrissur

After minimising the heavy books we had to carry, and streamlining our stock to the most popular texts, we took an auto back to my house to pack as much as possible into our two rucksacks, rather than the huge cumbersome holdall back they’d used to store them in at the office. A quick nap and some food, before taking a taxi to the bus station for our sleeper coach at 9:30pm. The bus was surprisingly comfortable – blankets, curtains, even a pillow. Julika and I shared a cosy double bed section, and despite having our own separate divots to sleep in, I still apparently tried to steal her blanket in my sleep.

9 hours later, and with some sleep, we arrived in the small city of Thrissur and decamped at the YMCA. The day was ours to do as we pleased, with preparations for the festival just beginning, so we walked into the centre where Lonely Planet assured us of a Hindu temple atop a hill with “sweeping metropolis views”. The small rise we found sitting in the middle of what was effectively a very large roundabout was at first sight so unrecognisably our destination that we thought we had got lost. It was only upon reading the sign by the lone building stood there that we realised those urban vistas translated as views of various shops across the road from this small, closed temple. Sigh.

Not to be perturbed, we ventured around the small park. As I was taking some pictures, Julika suddenly came running. She was so agitated I thought something bad had happened, until she shouted, “Elephants! Elephants! There are elephants!”

Spying on the elephants

Spying on the elephants

We climbed onto a stone wall which ran around the elephants’ enclosure, and watched as various men fed and washed different individuals. It quickly became apparent that the animals were tightly chained however, by two feet, and the nearest individual was blind and extremely aggressive and unhappy. It seemed an incredibly inhumane way to treat animals kept only for the purpose of temple festival duties, and we later got into a heated debate with our colleague on this subject. Considering the religious significance of elephants to Hinduism (Ganesh, the god of luck and prosperity, has the head of an elephant), it made even less sense to treat these fantastic animals with such impunity. I later found an encouraging article relating to this issue, which restored my hope a little.

The following five days of the festival ensued with much dancing and celebration. Choosing a prime spot near the entrance to the university campus where the festival was being held, each morning we would unpack our (increasingly lighter) bags onto the tables and await our first customers. In between manning the stall, which we set up under a temporary structure with a tin roof, Julika and I would take turns in watching different films.

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The focus for the VIBGYOR festival this February, in its 8th year, was stolen democracies. Even though my area of interest gravitates towards gender-related issues and sexual minorities, I was surprised by the number of films on show which I felt I had to watch. One of these was ‘Immoral Daughters’, by Nakul Sawhney, which explored honour killings and the cultural beliefs which perpetuate them. The stand-out clip for me was an interview with ganga-smoking village panchyat leaders. A young couple who married with their family’s consent were murdered by other villagers, with police complicity, for the crime of marrying too close within the community. When their families rose up against this act, panchyat leaders then ordered their excommunication. The cameraman asked one member of the panchyat whether rape and murder were treated in the same way, to which he replied, “No never. We never give excommunication for that.” Unbelievable.

There were so many other interesting films I saw, ranging from 5 minutes to an hour and a half in length, that it’s impossible to mention them all. The one that had the greatest impact on me is definitely worth mentioning though.

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Stolen Democracies

Anders Ostergaard’s ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’ documented the horrific military violence against Burmese citizens from the viewpoint of an underground network of covert journalists, who smuggled their footage via the internet and trusted couriers to report to the outside world. Illegally filmed on handheld cameras, the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, students and citizens against the military government, and the military’s violent retaliation, were shown moment by moment. As events unfolded around the frontline cameramen, you were living it with them, and it was real fear I felt when the first people started being shot, and when huge crowds were running for their lives and being gunned down. It is not an understatement to say that I was shell-shocked by what I saw. The entire audience, which would normally raise a clap when the first credits started rolling, sat in stunned silence to the very end.

When the monk that we had seen around VIBGYOR over the past couple of days took the stage, we learnt that he had been one of those involved in the protests, and had seen it all. Nobody asked him any questions, but everyone listened when he started to speak. It was an unsettling end to the day.

The following morning brought a little more normality, with the usual and tiresome parade of men wanting our numbers/email/to go for a drink. I began to feel like I was on repeat, answering the same questions with every visitor to our stall. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Are you a student? Why are you in India? Oh you work for this charity? Why?” It was endless. Even Julika – with her seemingly limitless willing to chat to people – was tired by the end. I had already crawled under the table to hide and go to sleep.

This is not to say that there weren’t very positive moments either. After being interviewed by a journalist from Keralan newspaper ‘Manorama’, Julika and I found our photo in print the next day, to the delight of the other stall-holders and various film-goers.

Famous at last!

We also gained an impromptu invite to one of the VIBGYOR volunteer’s 18th birthday party, where the usual happy birthday was followed by different people performing songs, and a young lad with a guitar singing Enrique Iglesias tunes. As soon as the drums started playing however, everyone went crazy, dancing like it was the last thing they would ever do, and it was so great to see. On the penultimate night, I narrowly escaped performing at the cultural evening, when I read the performer’s list and to my horror saw my own name at number 23. People sang, people danced, people got drunk and had a good time.

   

My favourite part of the week though had to be meeting artist K.G. Babu. After approaching the stall on the Monday, this gently-spoken Keralan invited me and Julika to his family home, where he wanted to draw us. So Tuesday morning saw us breakfasting at his table on delicious coconut pancakes and scrambled egg, before he got to work on our portraits one at a time. Whilst it was Julika’s turn I wandered about the garden beneath all the different fruit trees – jackfruit, papaya, mango, cashew fruit, coconuts, large lemons (they looked like melons to me), and more – and stood on the levee next to the canal, hugely appreciating the strong breeze which blew away the humidity of Thrissur.

KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

KG Babu’s portrait of yours truly

Babu was kind enough to show me his studio, and the enamel paints he sometimes uses on his canvases. I couldn’t believe it when he offered the original sketch he had made of me. Clutching it in hand, we returned to our stall for the final hours of the festival.

It was a last-minute rush to the bus stand, and a sleepless trip back to Bangalore, but these little inconveniences were more than balanced out by the various unexpected and exciting events which unfolded through the week. To top it off, we made over 5000 rupees from selling books and SICHREM t-shirts, so felt we’d earned a day off from the office when we got home.