Tag Archives: rape

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Fringe

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I’ve been a die-hard feminist at the global summit fringe over the past week – there every day from morning until late evening, running around trying to fit everything in all at once. Though the fringe was smaller than I expected, with less integration of events in the real summit into the fringe than I would have liked, it was a terrific event. There literally was too much to do, and to attend every discussion panel and workshop, theatre and musical performance, film screening and Q & A would have meant splitting myself into five different people.

Stand-out points for me were the screenings of Girl Rising and Banaz: A Love Story – both films dealing with the deeper patriarchal roots of discrimination and violence against women. Whilst the summit has only focused on conflict, there was an atmosphere throughout events at the fringe of catalysing a more holistic change both in peacetime and conflict – which is exactly what’s needed in the long-term. More on this in a second.

From the performance stage, Musicians Without Borders, an NGO using musical expression to help refugees deal with the traumas of conflict, gave a fantastic performance mixing elements from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East – with an Iranian guy on percussion I could have listened to forever.

Plan UK also ran several small talks and workshops; Dr Chris Dolan’s session on male victims of sexual violence in conflict was  shocking and enlightening all at once. He drew attention to the fact that male survivors are comparatively sidelined to women and girls in terms of visibility, funding, training for humanitarian workers and programmes of support and rehabilitation. From the Refugee Law Project’s work in Uganda, screening of refugees revealed that 1 in 3 victims of sexual violence were MEN. Think on that statistic.

2014-06-12 14.33.02The talk on men returning from conflict and their subsequent violence continued this male focus, but was slightly overshadowed by the appearance of Angelina Jolie halfway through. And I was excited just to hear Laura Bates (of the Everyday Sexism Project) talk. Naila Kabeer gave an incredibly engaging argument for a sustainable post-2015 framework in a separate panel with Justine Greening MP.
On Thursday, the failure of Theresa May MP to turn up to her own talk on modern slavery and trafficking was met with unplanned protests against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s policies of detention and refusal to grant asylum for survivors of sexual violence. 2014-06-12 17.29.10Further protests also manifested outside the fringe later that afternoon, against the absence of Bangladeshi rape survivors’ voices at the summit (see below).

I think the rising atmosphere of discontent on the final day of the fringe reflected my own dissatisfaction at some aspects of how the event was organised, and indeed the summit.

Whilst the array of events on offer have been great in raising public awareness – I’ve absolutely gained some new knowledge on this issue – I wish that the summit itself had been more open. I want to know who exactly was involved in discussions, who decided who should be involved, and what weighting was given to each of those voices?

Particularly as I spent more time at the fringe, the absence of certain voices became more obvious. Where were the trans and LGB representatives? Why were there no groups speaking up for non-normative genders, sexes and sexualities? Largely the focus was on heterosexual violence against women by men, with a smaller emphasis on male victims sexually assaulted by male perpetrators.

So where are the queer voices? Perhaps it’s down to a lack academic interest in collecting differentiated statistics from refugee populations or those living in conflict – but that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse to me. If a new approach to ending sexual violence in conflict is about to be enshrined in international legislation, and ratified by nations across the world, the gender binary which exists in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and all it’s clauses defining what constitutes sexual violence, needs to be deconstructed – as this is what informs domestic legislature.

For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term ‘gender’ does not indicate any meaning different from the above. (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Article 7, paragraph 3)

Put simply, if we only legally recognise two sexes (male and female) we risk making non-conforming individuals and communities, who have suffered sexual violence in conflict, invisible. Take for example, female to male transitioning individuals; rape can be used as a tool to degrade and deny that person’s transitioning identity as male, by reminding them in the most intimate way possible that they still have a vagina. Male to female transitioning individuals might alternatively be raped with the intention of degrading them as a ‘woman’, because they express a female gender identity and thus ‘deserve’ to be subordinated; or those with male genitalia might be assaulted on the premise that ‘male rape’ is impossible, and cannot therefore have been a victim.

These are just some of the circumstances narrated to me during my time in Bangalore, working with various sexual minority charities, and occurred during peacetime. Given that sexual violence increases during conflicts, it seems reasonable to estimate an increase in the number of victims not conforming to ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex categories, which begs the question, “Why are they being ignored?”

We must recognise the prevalence of sexual violence against men and boys in order to prioritise their needs alongside women and girls, but if this summit is to represent a landmark global change in attitudes and humanitarian response to sexual
2014-06-12 11.47.14violence in conflict, why are we ignoring certain victims? ‘One is enough’ as a motto for action should equally apply to the whole rainbow spectrum of LGBTQIA+ individuals as it does to women. Why would the international community choose to ignore certain groups for the next 10-15 years by failing to protect them in the legal framework? Legal provision can lead to implementation, which leads to programmes being delivered and survivors having their needs met. I don’t understand what would stop the world from wanting all people to be safe and supported, and I just hope that these voices have a say in what emerges in the post-2015 framework.

England or India; India or England?

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I’ve now been back in England for seven months, and working for a substance misuse charity in central London for most of that time. My job is ending in March however, so I’m increasingly reassessing whether to stay in my native country, or to return to India. The daily routine of my seven months in Bangalore last year were fundamentally the same as my routine in London since – wake up, commute, work in the office, go home, eat, sleep – but it was the weekends that made the difference. Travelling around the incense bazaars of Mysore or seeing the damage wreaked by the Tsunami along Tamil Nadu’s coast, set against sitting inside hiding from the English rain. By writing this article I hope to aid my decision to some extent, and try to pinpoint the crucial element in each that inexplicably grabs at my heart strings.

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The things I miss most about Bangalore are of course the things I miss most about India: the colour, the smells, the sounds. I know it’s leaning towards a stereotype here, but there really is no easy way to describe and deconstruct such a complex and heady mixture of texture and culture and movement that is the chaotic way of everyday life. Whilst Bangalore has its share of pollution, waste heaps, stray dogs, beggars, corrupt officials, and murders like most other cities on the sub-continent, it also benefits from all that draws so many travellers to this country. I don’t know whether it’s the garam masala permeating the streets that is the secret ingredient, or the hot chai drunk at the roadside as it is best enjoyed; maybe it’s the times when a neighbour or business owner down the street brings round barfi and halwa sweets to celebrate a family marriage. How to distil such a deep-rooted longing for another culture into its essence? It may be simplest just to say that it feels like home.

I like the way that when you wear a sari to work men suddenly start calling you ‘sister’ (instead of ‘foreigner’) and auto-rickshaw drivers forget to extort you. Instead they just flip on the meter and drive straight, as if wearing jeans at any other time would make me forget what it costs to travel to the office. I like that I can cover myself in a different mehndi design every other week if I want and people wouldn’t comment that I’m strange – it’s just part of a normal fashion statement. I like watching the latest Bollywood hit (or miss – take Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani for example) to the exuberant wolf whistles and applause of the cinema-going crowd and losing yourself to the story, the songs, and the dances. It’s almost a way of life, and I can be happy in the knowledge that I am surrounded by others who love it as much as I do. 

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More than the clothes and the sweets and incense though is the history, India’s political past, corrupt present, and the complex intersection of class, caste, and religion. The ticking bomb of racial and religious tensions is ever-present – as evidenced by a bomb blast in Hyderabad during my stay, which exploded in a bus station not dissimilar to my local one in Bangalore. It is also responsible too though for a melting pot of cross-cultural influence, when so many groups, sub-groups, political alliances, caste boundaries, and gender roles are shifting and blurring. This fusion space is increasingly occupied by civil society and women’s groups and helping to foster movements like the first One Billion Rising event in 2013.  

Of course I could not forget to mention the temples, the monuments, the festivals, the landscape: attending ceremonies for moving into a new house, ceremonies for reaching puberty, ceremonies for a new betrothal, ceremonies for marriages; doing puja to Shiva, Lakshmi, Krishna, Ganesh – whichever god you need the most to fulfil your desire for a safe journey or a prosperous business venture. The landscapes that on a single train journey shift between horizon-wide swathes of banana and coconut trees, to Ooty tea plantations and later, to Rajasthani desert. India is so vast it truly deserves the name ‘sub-continent’, and I only wish I had enough years in me to make enough journeys across its face.

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The dull winter skies of the London commute are unbearably suffocating by comparison. Emerging from the tube each morning like a burrowing creature covered in dirt and pollution, I see grey streets with grey buildings and everyone wearing black. Everyone. The more days I work the 9-5-London-office routine and the greater numbers of London breaths I take, the more toxic and transparent I feel I become. It’s not just the monotony however. There’s an absence of joy, or kindness, or warmth in the passing of hundreds of faceless people each day. There are more people jammed into buses and streets in Bangalore, but the natural inclination is to assist and accommodate others, not ignore them.

England does have it benefits – the obvious one being fewer lecherous stares and wondering hands for a start. They do still exist though, as I was nicely reminded by a slimy little man on southwest trains last week. More strikingly it’s the absence of such overt sexism and gender inequality in everyday life though, that really changes how I inhabit outdoor space in the UK. The dominant ideology in this culture does not assume that women have no right to occupy public space, and instead allows me to wander unhindered and un-harassed as I please, though I’m sure that if I was to be attacked, we could rely on rape apologists to blame my dress-sense instead of the perpetrator.

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Then there’s the better pay, the better quality of fresh food (meat especially), and the efficiency, for the most part. Commuters might bemoan the national rail service, and colleagues decry local authority bureaucracy, council incapabilities, and ineffectual police forces – but from my perspective we’re incredibly lucky. These services are free, and you don’t have to bribe anyone to get justice, or your entitlements, or be insulted by the guy behind the desk for daring to give him some work. The system does function here, and it’s transparent which is the most important thing.

All in all, drawing London and Bangalore, England and India, side by side is as difficult as comparing chalk with cheese. How do I reconcile that my right to move and do and speak as I like, which I have taken so much for granted growing up, is not only frowned upon but actively discouraged in India? How can I be the outspoken feminist that I am in a country which values duty and respect over equality? The simple answer: shout louder, and alongside the courageous women already doing it.

But what about England. At what point do I accept that English culture doesn’t hold the best value for me? Is it about perspective and the contrast with India, or does it run deeper than that? When can I pass that invisible threshold which tells me that I am definitely going to be happy or not here? I feel like I’m in a constant state of flux trapped between two places and two lives, present in one and always wanting the other at the same time. Coming to the end of this piece I actually feel no wiser, so in my best interests, perhaps a quick trip to somewhere warm and Hindi-speaking would help settle my mind a little…

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Moi, proof I was there!KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

 

Homesick for India

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It’s been two and a half months since I left India. Time has moved both immensely slowly, as it seems like forever ago that I was surrounded by autos and cows, and motorcycles trying to run me over on the pavements, and yet it’s also gone too quick. I don’t know how I’ve managed to squeeze in so much: writing endless job applications, becoming an Avon lady (needs must, and the makeup is cheap :P), getting a job on my first interview with a London-based charity, starting the job, and finally becoming one of those irritating London commuters who gets frustrated when a tube doesn’t turn up within thirty seconds.

“I heart India”

I’m where I was aiming to be. This was the plan all along – to reach India, get some experience and spend some time away delving deeper into the culture I love so much, and eventually return to land my first real job towards my career in the charity sector. Done. Box ticked.

But that craving and gnawing absence is starting to creep up on me again. It’s the same feeling I had after leaving India the first time in 2009, like an addiction that cannot be numbed or forgotten by anything other than re-immersion in the thing that first caused it.

Indian-born French Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin…aka me, obviously

I don’t even know what it is that I am missing – surely not the lecherous little men, the misogyny, the hopeless inefficiency of every government office…? This time on returning to the UK from a starkly different culture, more strongly than any time before, I can almost taste my own frustration at the banality of some people’s worries and conversation topics. But that’s not it. Everyone becomes absorbed in their daily lives, and the issues relevant to their own bubbles. Indians are definitely guilty of doing it too.

When you’re trying to essentialise a feeling of longing though, for a place, a thing, an idea, it’s like trying to strip down what defines an entire culture to its bare bones. I can’t say what exactly it is about India that has me so hooked, but perhaps it can be most simply put as a sense of belonging, of being home. So many little things which come automatically to me are not shared with those around me in the UK. If I start humming a Bollywood tune, people won’t complain that I’ve got it stuck in their heads all day; when I try and cram myself into (what looks to me) a half-empty tube, people gawp at me; a freudian slip of ‘auntie’ in addressing a stranger makes you weird.

“…Excuse me, auntie…auntie!”

It seems natural to express the very Indian body language of bending my head side-to-side, or flicking out hand from forehead to emphasise a point. My syntax has been irrevocably changed, isn’t it. The non-verbal cues and signals I’ve internalised are now entirely void from the culture that presently surrounds me.

Perhaps then, it is these little everyday embellishments to human interaction which I miss. Without them, the act of conversing seems to fall flat. There’s an absence of nuance, of drama, of the complex social dance that constantly shifts and changes between two people in navigating and judging each other’s social status.

Body language

Whilst histrionics and tantrums can be symptomatic of how many Indians tend to deal with unwanted outcomes, they are part of a tapestry of lively and socially stimulating interactions, without which your life becomes filled with empty time. That dull task of catching your bus is suddenly a thrilling race to nab the driver’s attention, of listening with all your senses for information, a whisper of “is it that one” from the crowd, the satisfaction of navigating the confusing cacphony with practised ease. Like a boss.

Or maybe in England it’s that we’ve forgotten what significant problems really look like against the backdrop of the world. I recently read an article on Armpit August (or something like that), challenging the biased misconception that it’s unfeminine for women to grow out their underarm hair. Fine, go ahead. You actually already have the choice to do it anyway, so you’re not really changing anything, except your own self-acceptance of a certain body image. It’s a little bit sickening against the relentless conveyor-belt of honour crimes, trafficking, rapes, sexual harassment, incest, and gendered poverty that I was fighting whilst with SICHREM. I can’t help feeling disenchanted after having actively battled against such degrees of violence and for seemingly futile gain.

This is perhaps just a rant on my part, and so I shall end on a positive note: instead of grieving for something I know I can’t have right now, I’ll instead try to engage others in all that I find makes India amazing, and special, and irritating but hilarious as hell. Good job it’s Diwali coming up.

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Norwegian National and the rape case in the UAE

Thank god someone finally did something to help her. And lucky for her that she’s from Europe and highly visible. Not impressed with Rori Donaghy’s comment that the only response should be to change the travel advice. Travel advice or not, women resident in the UAE – and in countries with similar laws across the world such as Pakistan and Bangladesh – will continue to be punished for daring to be a victim of sexual assault. Obviously it was their fault for being female in the first place!

And whilst the perpetrator fails to receive any sentence for the crime of rape, his punishment for extra-marital relations (or similar) is also often less severe than the woman’s. Emirates Centre for Human Rights, do something more assertive than re-writing the travel blog for the UAE, and try to be part of a lasting change in attitudes towards women.

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Spot on article about rape culture, and how the supposed need to justify the protection of women by constructing them as ‘wives, sisters, daughters’ not only perpetuates patriarchal attitudes, but forgets that women should be respected as individuals. Please have a read.

The Belle Jar

I don’t have to tell you that Steubenville is all over the news.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s a fucking joke that Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, the two teenagers convicted of raping a sixteen year old girl, were only sentenced to a combined three years in juvenile prison. Each will serve a year for the rape itself; Mays will serve an additional year for “illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material.”

I probably don’t even have to tell you that the media treatment of this trial has been a perfect, if utterly sickening, example of rape culture, with its focus on how difficult and painful this event has been for the rapists who raped a sixteen year old girl then bragged about it on social media.

And I almost certainly don’t have to tell you that the world is full of seemingly nice, normal…

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Protests and vigils for India rape victim – Central & South Asia – Al Jazeera English

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The Indian rape victim has now died of her internal injuries induced by the metal rod the rapists used on her. I actually feel sick that this could ever be allowed to happen.

Protests and vigils for India rape victim – Central & South Asia – Al Jazeera English.

Are women safe in India? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English

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Just a quick one before Christmas Day descends. I was on Aljazeera and saw this video on another horrific crime committed against a woman in New Delhi. All of the issues discussed in this short film remind me of the research I did for my dissertation, and why I want to go and volunteer for a human rights charity.

It made me so angry, and I’m now more ready to leave for India than ever. See for yourself why.

Are women safe in India? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English.