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Cruel and Unusual Punishment

31 Jan

THE LATEST edition of Dart Society Reports, the publication of the organization for journalists who cover violence, has as its cover story a chilling account of solitary confinement in America. Through a 16-minute video and a nearly 6,000-word article aptly titled “The Gray Box,” Denver-based journalist Susan Greene captures the deadening silence and utter lack of stimulation that characterizes the life of a prisoner held in isolation. The first voice on camera reads words from the legal declaration of Tommy Silverstein, currently in his 28th year of solitary confinement, describing the cell where he spent all his time. It was so small that if he extended his hands, he could touch the walls on either side. The ceiling was so low that he could reach up and touch the light fixture. The video goes on to tell the stories of Brian Nelson (spent 23 years of his 28-year sentence in solitary confinement; went on hunger strikes in protest, the longest lasting 48 days); Vicente Rodriguez (painted using pigments from Skittles and employed art materials made of candy); Robert Felton (befriended spiders and beetles, made a chessboard from toilet paper and played against himself); and more. It cuts from these stories to the spokesperson of the Department of Corrections, Katherine Sanguinetti, who refers to solitary confinement as “administrative segregation,” and insists that solitary is reserved for the most dangerous, disruptive, and violent inmates.

Many of the inmates featured in the video (now released) were convicted of serious crimes. Nelson was convicted of murder, as was Rodriguez. But “I’m human,” says Rodriguez, as he silently pleads for our empathy. “Places like that is not good for us. Period.” That was one of Greene’s biggest challenges while working on this story, she says. Solitary confinement is “a certain kind of trauma. It’s a challenge to write or use the word “trauma” about people who have traumatized other people. Some people have no empathy or tolerance for them.” Greene meets regularly with friends who work on this issue, law professors and attorneys who represent inmates stuck in solitary. “I go out to dinner with them every month, and two of them are always saying, ‘No one cares! No one cares!'”

Some inmates are in solitary for serious crimes; Greene tells the story of others who don’t seem to belong with the worst offenders. A 17-year-old who accidentally killed someone while driving under the influence was tried as an adult and committed suicide while in solitary. Then there’s Anthony Gay, who

had a low-level assault charge in Illinois for punching another kid, stealing a dollar from him and swiping his hat. A parole violation on his seven-year suspended sentence ultimately landed him in a state supermax where he has cut himself hundreds of times with shards of glass and metal, and eats his own flesh. He has racked up a 97-year sentence for throwing urine and feces out his food slot — behavior that’s fairly typical for severely mentally ill prisoners in solitary.

Gay passes his time at the Tamms Correctional Center writing anyone who will receive his letters.

“I’ve been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me,” he writes. “America, can you hear me? I love you America, but if you love me, please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.”

Nelson, who features in both the video and the story, has been a free man in Chicago for a year and a half. But it is a strange kind of freedom, filled with anxiety and alienation.

“I’m here, but I’m not here, if that makes any sense,” he says from behind the wheel of his Jeep Compass, disoriented on the South Side. “People ask me what hurts. I say the box, the gray box. I can feel those walls and I can taste them every day of my life. I’m still there, really. And I’m not sure when I’m ever gonna get out.”

It was difficult for Greene to report on this story, which took three months of work. In a sense, she had been reporting it ever since she left the Denver Post, where she had been a metro columnist. She would get letters from inmates in solitary confinement, and when she left the newspaper, her files on solitary were the only ones she took with her. “I knew I wanted to look more closely at it,” she said in a telephone conversation. It was challenging to report because there was no access to her sources: solitary confinement can mean no visitors and no phone calls. “By definition, they are so distanced already, these guys are so far from us than anybody on the planet, because they are totally inaccessible,” Greene says. Those she was able to meet, those who were no longer in prison, also presented difficulties. They had “major trust issues. Let me put it this way: I’ve never been stood up this many times in my reporting before. Just talking on the phone, just — they are so uncomfortable with women. Having conversations is tough with them.”

Back home, she would have to juggle the traumatic stories she had heard with the mundane requirements of being a parent. She “dealt with it by compartmentalizing. I’ll pick up my kids from school, and then the mailman arrives. While the kids are doing their homework or on their instruments, I’ll read the letters. Then I’ll have to make dinner. Life just pulls you out.”

*  *  *

One of the most popular articles on the New Yorker‘s website also deals with America’s obsession with mass incarceration and solitary confinement. “The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik, begins, evocatively, “A prison is a trap for catching time.” Gopnik describes the mind-numbing boredom of life in prison, and examines how this country’s over-reliance on imprisonment evolved to such a point that there are more black men in the grip of the criminal justice system today than the total number enslaved in 1850. “Every day, at least fifty thousand men — a full house at Yankee Stadium — wake in solitary confinement,” Gopnik writes, “often in ‘supermax’ prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo ‘exercise.'”

Steve Liss, the photographer whose black and white image of a child in a bunk accompanies the story (and who graciously gave permission for The Investigative Fund to use some of his images with this blog post; click on the camera icon to see the slideshow) has a series on his website called “Children Behind Bars.” His haunting photo-essay begins, “This is the world of young felons, of kids gone astray, of children as young as 10 who cry for their mothers from behind bars.” Liss’s images describe that world with heart-rending honesty. One photograph shows a young boy standing on a crate in order to reach the desk where a deputy is fingerprinting him. Another shows a young man half-on, half-off a mattress on the floor, the manacles around his ankles chained to his wrists. The mattress is old and tearing in places. He is tied up like an animal. (In fact, as Greene points out in her piece, “New federal guidelines on the use of laboratory animals require relatively more space, sensory stimulation and environmental enrichment than we afford people in confinement. The revised rules put forth by the National Academy of Sciences call for significantly more square footage to house a head of cattle, for example, than prisons provide in solitary.”)

Last week, Steven Slevin, mentioned in Greene’s story, won $22 million in damages for the inhumane conditions in which he was jailed — in solitary confinement — in the Dona Ana County facility in New Mexico. Perhaps that will shed a light on the inhumane conditions under which all inmates in solitary confinement live.

On page 1473 of the US Constitution (available online here), under the subhead “Cruel and Unusual Punishments,” a paragraph reads:

But in Weems v. United States40 it was concluded that the framers had not merely intended to bar the reinstitution of procedures and techniques condemned in 1789, but had intended to prevent the authorization of “a coercive cruelty being exercised through other forms of punishment.” The Amendment therefore was of an “expansive and vital character”41 and, in the words of a later Court, “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” [emphasis added]

Greene says that the punishment of solitary confinement has “to do with this language in the Eighth Amendment, about the evolving standard of human decency. “It’s like the saying about a tree falling in a forest, she says. “If no one knows about the situation of these guys in solitary confinement, the standards of human decency can’t evolve. That’s why it’s important to get people to care.”

This blog post was originally published on the website of The Investigative Fund. Head over there to see a selection of Liss’s beautiful photographs of children behind bars.

Four on Friday: The Violence Report

12 Aug

1. AS Jatin and I were driving to the Newark airport this morning to pick up my brother who was coming back from summer vacation in Mumbai, we listened to part of today’s Democracy Now! broadcast. Amy Goodman was interviewing a same-sex, binational couple who are on the verge of being separated thanks to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. The act was signed into law by President Clinton and denies same-sex married couples the protections and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign says that DOMA: “purports to give states the ‘right’ to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.” It also

creates a federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse” for the first time in our country’s history. This is an unprecedented intrusion by the U.S. Congress into an area traditionally left to the states. Marriage is defined as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and spouse is defined as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Marriages that do not fit this description would not be eligible for any benefits offered by the federal government. Under DOMA, even if a state were to recognize same-sex marriages, the federal government would not. The people involved would be unable to receive a number of benefits, including those related to Social Security, survivorship and inheritance.

In the case of the couple interviewed by Amy Goodman, Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, an Australian national, might be separated on August 25—the date that Makk has to leave the country or be subject to deportation. Wells and Makk have been together for 19 years; they have been married for seven. They were among the first same-sex couples to tie the knot when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004. Makk is also the primary care-giver for his husband, who has HIV/AIDS. Wells described his relationship with Makk:

We got married on July 22nd, 2004. It was really the most momentous day of my life. I had never imagined that I’d be able to get married. And when the opportunity came to me, I realized that I was with the man I had looked for my whole life. I had never felt anything towards someone the way I felt about Anthony. And I didn’t think about us being torn apart in the future. We had been able to keep within the law and get the proper visas. And being together, although it was a lot of work, it was possible. It was only at the end of last year that we ran out of options. Now we find ourselves in this position.

Although last month President Obama said he would not defend DOMA in the courts, it is still on the books. Which means that for the moment, Makk and Wells are facing an uncertain future.

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

As one-half of a recently married, binational, heterosexual couple, it is especially unfair that Makk and Wells are being denied the immigration benefits that were extended to my husband and me. Makk said:

There’s thousand of couples in our situation. It’s not just us. And something needs to be done. And they can do it. And it’s clear—it’s clearly discrimination. And our relationship, as long as the other thousands of binational, same-sex couples—we have committed relationships, and they are just as committed as heterosexual relationships. And it is very discriminatory, what they are doing. And it’s—and I’m sure that the people will see it, and someone’s going to step in before I either have to leave or stay illegally. And this is something that we have tried over the years so hard not to do.

I remembering going to watch the gay pride march in New York in June, just a few days after New York announced its legalization of same-sex marriage, and the infectious joy in the air. That was a day of celebrations, and for good reason, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves again. The work of fighting for marriage equality is far from over. Last month Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced a bill to repeal DOMA, called the Respect for Marriage Act. The White House later endorsed it. You can chime in here.

2. The plight of the same-sex California couple got me to thinking about violence: legal violence, physical violence, all the forms that violence can take. It can take the form of indifference, like the indifference of the world to the immense suffering in Somalia, to watch people starve to death and not lift a finger to help. This past week we’ve been hearing about the supposedly “mindless violence” of the rioters in the UK, and the violence of the cuts in government spending and their effects on the poorer classes in that country.

I can’t say I understand what’s going on, or why—and I don’t think I’m the only one—but here are a few pieces that I’ve read recently that have shed some light on these events.

Maria Margaronis blogs for The Nation online about the mood on the streets:

The police are overwhelmed; the politicians nervously continue to plough their furrows. “Sheer criminality,” says Home Secretary Teresa May, as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage would imply condoning it. Labour politicians flirt with the temptation to blame government spending cuts, as if such fury could build up in a matter of mere months. Of course the cuts don’t help: they are the final straw, the irrefutable evidence that the poor are now dispensable, outside society. Nor does the larger sense that nobody’s in charge, that the economy’s in freefall, that bankers have been looting the public purse for years, and that our leaders have no idea what to do about any of it. There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.

Michael McCarthy in the UK’s Independent writes of the death of British civility:

I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture. The role of culture in making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.

This is in sharp contrast to a society like that of the United States, for example, which is largely a rule-bound society. To give just a single instance: drinking alcohol in the street used to be rare in Britain, because it was frowned upon – but in the US there are local laws specifically forbidding it. The rule-bound society, which is the reason for the vast proliferation of lawyers in the US, arose in America because the founding fathers created a new nation from scratch, starting with a written Constitution that set out the first principles and then writing down and proscribing everything else about people’s behaviour.

Britain, whose governing process evolved slowly and organically, does not even have a written constitution, merely a set of understandings about how things ought to be done.

But these understandings have, in the past, been widespread and very powerful. The bus queue and the idea of queuing generally is an example that persists; I remember my shock and spluttering resentment when I first went skiing, years ago, and stood patiently with the other Brits in the queue for the chairlift and watched as the little French and Italian kids skied to the front and forced their way in.

In the Independent, Camilla Batmanghelidjh responds with the argument that these kids feel no sense of community, of ownership:

If this is a war, the enemy, on the face of it, are the “lawless”, the defenders are the law-abiding. An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.

And in the Guardian, Zoe Williams writes about the psychology of looting, and the lack of worrying about consequences:

By 5pm on Monday, as I was listening to the brave manager of the Lewisham McDonald’s describing, incredulously, how he had just seen the windows stoved in, and he didn’t think they’d be able to open the next day, I wasn’t convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies?

And on the BBC, usually my go-to network every morning, anchor Fiona Armstrong interviewed West Indian journalist Darcus Howe in this video that has drawn so much ire that the BBC has had to apologize for it. After Howe said he was not shocked by the events, Armstrong asks: “You say you’re not shocked. Does that mean that you condone what happened in your community last night?” In what universe does a lack of surprise equal endorsement? It goes on in that vein, see for yourself:

Democracy Now! subsequently interviewed Howe along with Richard Seymour, a popular blogger in the UK. Seymour offered his opinion on the riots and the seeming inability of the British authorities to stop the mayhem:

First of all, the circumstances of the killing are that they allowed people to believe that Mark Duggan had a weapon and that he shot that weapon at police officers, and that, therefore, you would conclude they fired back in self-defense. That’s absolutely untrue. The IPCC, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, has confirmed that the bullet that was fired and lodged in a police radio was a police bullet. So, it would be an interesting question, who fired that bullet and why? Which among the officers did so? But it certainly wasn’t Mark Duggan. So, they lied.

But in addition to that, they didn’t inform the family. They let the family find out from the media. And they didn’t send round a family liaison officer to speak to the family. None of the usual procedures, in this highly unusual circumstance, was followed. So, generally speaking, there was a backlash, a reaction against the police, as a result of this.

I just want to say also, in connection with this, Darcus mentioned the competition for the top jobs in the Metropolitan Police. It’s important to note the backdrop here. This is the deep crisis that has shaken the Metropolitan Police in the context of the hacking scandal, in relation to the relationships between top Metropolitan Police officials and the News of the World, News International empire. That has created a deep crisis within the police. It’s an ideological crisis as much as anything else. And so, this is, I expect, one of the reasons for the disarray that they’re in at the moment.

Riots are about power, says Laurie Penny of the Penny Red blog:

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

And Dan Hind has a thoughtful piece on Al Jazeera arguing that the violence is not apolitical, and it is not driven by a single cause:

Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements. In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.

All these points make sense to me. I don’t have the answers or solutions to this problem, but it seems to me that these authors do a fairly good job of sketching in broad strokes the motives and roots of this maybe not so “mindless” violence.

3. This past week, The New Yorker published a much-discussed anatomy of the violent raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1. Written by a young freelancer, Nicholas Schmidle, in the narrative nonfiction style, it is a riveting account of what actually happened during that raid, and how the Americans finally “got” bin Laden.

What has been getting press in the aftermath of its publication is the fact that Schmidle did not speak with any of the Navy SEALS who actually conducted the raid; instead, the story was reconstructed from accounts by others who heard the radio communications and who, presumably, were very familiar with the details of the raids. Nowhere in his story does Schmidle reveal that he never spoke with the SEALS; and he tells the tale so skillfully that it seems as though he did. The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi revealed in this post just how Schmidle got his story. Farhi wrote:

Schmidle says he wasn’t able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

But a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.

Some readers were critical of this. Columbia Journalism Review questioned the secrecy of The New Yorker‘s fact-checking. Women’s Wear Daily collected the criticisms in this column. And the redoutable Poynter devoted many, many words to this minor controversy. (For the record, I think Schmidle and his editors could have made his sourcing clearer without losing the urgency of the narrative.)

But the most piercing critique was made by this Reuters blog, aptly titled, “When There Are No People in Pakistan.” It’s been making the rounds among South Asians on Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t see media critics at CJR or Poynter taking note of it. Presumably only Pakistanis care when their voices are left out of a story that takes place in Pakistan—this is violence by omission, perhaps?

Forgive me, Reuters, for quoting in such depth, but it needs to be underlined and highlighted:

In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner  talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.

Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.

Now scroll down to what seems to be the first clear reference to Pakistani civilians. It was in the context of whether President Barack Obama should consider an air strike on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound or a helicopter raid.

“He (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers. That option would avoid the risk of having American boots on the ground in Pakistan. But the Air Force then calculated that a payload of thirty-two smart bombs, each weighing two thousand pounds, would be required to penetrate thirty feet below ground, insuring that any bunkers would collapse. ‘That much ordnance going off would be the equivalent of an earthquake,’ Cartwright told me. The prospect of flattening a Pakistani city made Obama pause.”

The helicopter raid decided, the assault plan was fine-tuned. “The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors.”

And of the people who lived in Abbottabad? What of their reaction? Linguistically, they are described in three letters – a “mob”.

”After describing the operation, the briefers fielded questions: What if a mob surrounded the compound? Were the SEALs prepared to shoot civilians?” wrote Schmidle.

The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night.  He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed.  In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.

In the final paragraphs of the piece, the journalist writes:

I don’t know what really happened that night from May 1 into May 2. I don’t know, and none of us know, how its repercussions will play out in Pakistan over the months and years ahead. But I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

4. To end this piece on a slightly lighter note, I want to mention a mild form of violence to language, but humorously. I recently discovered this Facebook group, English Whirled Wide, which seems to collect images from around the world of quirky, ungrammatical, and just plain funny signage. In case they require a Facebook log-in to view their collection, I am pasting some of their images here:

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

To celebrate how we can contort and twist and refashion the English language, here’s Zigzackly’s declaration of the 2011 Great Grandson of Godawful Poetry Fortnight, which runs from August 19th to the 31st. To all those who point out that this “fortnight” only lasts 13 days, Zigzackly says, “Poetic license!”

In the spirit of English-mangling and good fun, here’s my contribution:

A journo once went to the sea
Where whales danced and exclaimed with some glee
But the writer took note
And dreamed up a big boat
Thus Moby Dick was created by he!

(Before anyone sues me for libel or defamation, let it be said that this is just my offering to the godawful poetry gods and has no bearing on the actual authorship of Moby Dick!)

In case my feeble attempt has disgusted my dear readers, I will leave you with some real poetry, by the United States’ new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine.

What Work Is
By Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Hungry for Survival

28 Jul

WHEN I was growing up, there was a massive famine in Ethiopia. It lasted from 1984 to 1985 and was likely over by the time we were old enough to understand them, but politically incorrect jokes was how we learned about hunger in the Horn of Africa.

“How many Ethiopians can fit in a phone booth?” went one. The answer: “All of them.”

“Have you ever tasted Ethiopian food?” went another. “Neither have they,” was the punch line.

Somehow, in our juvenile, uncomprehending minds, people starving to death were good for a laugh. It’s not funny anymore. Somalia is in the grips of a frightening famine, and its people are fleeing — 1300 a day — across the border to Kenya, to a swelling refugee camp that was built to accommodate 90,000 people and now struggles to hold 400,000. It is the biggest refugee camp in the world, and the hungry are still coming.

Oxfam Ambassador Kristin Davis visits Dadaab refugee camp

Oxfam Ambassador Kristin Davis visits Dadaab refugee camp

The United Nations declared a famine in two regions of Somalia last week, but has still to airlift food into the country. The Islamists who control the territory have banned the World Food Programme. Meanwhile, the Somali Foreign Minister has said that 3.5 million people may “starve to death” in his country if the world does nothing.

I remember the homeless beggar children on the streets of Mumbai, where I grew up, and their distended bellies and hands stretched out for money or food, and I know that I do not understand the true meaning of the word “hunger.”

This Washington Post article on the famine paints a chilling picture:

Xukun Muhumed walked more than 130 miles to seek help for her thin baby, sickened by hunger. As she trudged slowly across the bleak landscape, choked by famine and drought, she wondered whether her infant son, Sadik, would survive.

“If Allah wants him to die, he will die,” said Muhumed, her voice dropping. “I have seen many people who have died along the way.”

“These are becoming roads of death,” Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, told reporters in Nairobi over the weekend.

And yet aid from the rest of the world has yet to flow in. According to the Post:

Aid agencies have been sounding the alarm for months, but funding from the United States and other Western donors is several hundred million dollars short of what is needed. At the Dollo Ado refu­gee camp in Ethiopia, where many of the displaced in Dolo were heading, an additional 13,000 tents are needed to meet the fresh influx, said the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Meanwhile, aid agencies are struggling to keep the flood of refugees from overwhelming neighboring countries. The World Food Program is planning to open new feeding sites in Dolo by the end of the week, but that could be too late for infants such as Sadik, whose bodies have swiftly deteriorated after their long journeys.

The famine is not limited to Somalia, though that country is the worst affected. It has also hit Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

Western countries may be dragging their feet, but we don’t have to. Médecins sans Frontières has feeding centers already on the ground and they have plans to expand them. Donate here.


6 Jul

INDIA is in the news again, for the wrong reason. On Monday, Indian health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, announced to a conference on HIV/AIDS full of people in Delhi that gay sex was “unnatural” and that homosexuality “is a disease which has come from other countries.” (And at no point did some clever organizer think to cut off his microphone feed.) There was more, but since it’s been plastered all over CNN, The New York Times, the Guardian, and more, I won’t repeat it here.

Bring to mind a certain comment by Commonwealth Games official Lalit Bhanot about the appalling state of the athletes’ village that the New Zealand team encountered? Bhanot told a group of Indian reporters, “These rooms are clean to both you and us.” Foreigners “want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may differ from our perception.” Someone really needs to invent a cure to the foot-in-mouth disease.

Meanwhile, here are some photographs I took at the gay pride parade two weekends ago, two days after the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage in New York on June 24.

Tossing the rainbow ball with spectators

Tossing the rainbow ball with spectators

Spreading his wings

Spreading his wings

Shut up and bounce!

Shut up and bounce!

Proposing to 15th Street

Proposing to 15th Street, but there were no takers!

A shock of red feathers

A shock of red feathers

The desi contingent, rocking it to Sheila ki Jawani

The desi contingent, rocking it to Sheila ki Jawani

The come hither move

The come hither move

This sign was one of my favorites!

This sign was one of my favorites!

Meanwhile, since the day the new law takes effect, July 24, is a Sunday, the city will keep offices open so that gay couples can get married that very day. I can’t think of a better reason to work all weekend!

p.s. My friend Shaunak, who runs a photo blog, was also at the pride march. See his pictures here.

Four on Friday: Reclaiming Streets, Language and More

1 Jul
SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

1. ONE afternoon almost a decade ago I was walking from my house in Bombay to Breach Candy, a 15-20 walk, and about five minutes in, I noticed that there was a man following me. I don’t remember what he looked like, or what he was wearing—he was a typical Roadside Romeo, one of those lewd, cat-calling types who like to sing suggestive Bollywood songs and make like an octopus with their grabby hands, that women in India encounter daily on the streets.

I had been followed by men before, and I tried all my usual tricks to throw him off. I stopped to enjoy the view of a park, hoping he would pass me by. He didn’t. I strolled into a nearby store, browsing the jewellery on sale, lingering over the silver section, but when I walked back out, he was across the street, waiting. Our eyes met and he gave me a cheeky wave. I had been irritated before, but now I was seething. On the next corner I saw a policeman, and I stalked right up to him. The words rushed out of me, how this person had followed me all the way from home, and how I had tried to lose him but he kept right behind me, and now this, the final straw, him waving knowingly, as though to say, “I’m still here. I’ll always be here. You can never be free on the streets of the city.”

While I was talking, people started listening in, as they are wont to do, and offering their own opinions. One Parsi lady, with hair fully white and cut in a bob, offered her support and congratulated me on doing something about it. Two women in salwar kameezes nodded knowingly; this had happened to them many times. A few men, enraged on my behalf, marched over to the man, who by this point was trying to slink away, unnoticed. They dragged him over to face the policeman, and I, who am not normally known for my bloodthirstiness, I was fiercely glad. They formed a knot around the man, who had no more sly smiles left in him, and I heard the sound of palm meeting flesh.

I walked away then, feeling powerful and vindicated. This was for all those times that a man had stuck out a hand and grabbed a body part that did not belong to him, for those moments of embarrassment and humiliation when I had had to walk past a group of men who were determined to undress me with their eyes, for the shock and violation caused by their crude comments and the baring of their privates—something that every woman, in India and around the world, has had to endure at some point or another in their life.

2. That’s why I’m so glad that an organization like Hollaback! exists, and that it has come to India. Hollaback! is an international movement to stop street harassment using mobile technology. Their “about” page says:

Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against… [It] is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay. At Hollaback!, we don’t buy it.

We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK… The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment… By collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! breaks the silence that has perpetuated sexual violence internationally, asserts that any and all gender-based violence is unacceptable, and creates a world where we have an option—and, more importantly—a response.

The way it works is this: if you have been harassed, you can take a photograph of the harasser with your smartphone (using their Droid or iPhone app; global apps to come this summer) or a digital camera, if you have one handy, map your location, and share your story on your local Hollaback! website. And as the Mumbai site says, participate in the Main Hoon Na! campaign: “The Main Hoon Na Campaign provides real options to people who want to help end street harassment with a simple message: If you see someone being harassed, go to them and ask them if they are OK, and if there is anything you can do to help.”

It’s simple, but powerful. So the next time you see someone on the street being harassed by a Roadside Romeo, shout, make a ruckus, tell a cop, take a photograph, or simply offer your support.

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Speaking of safely strolling down the street, a book came out earlier this year which addresses this very issue and I am dying to read it. It’s called Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets and it’s by three formidable women, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. The authors argue that “though women’s access to urban public space has increased, they still do not have an equal claim to public space in the city” and they draw from feminist theory to argue that “only by celebrating loitering—a radical act for most Indian women—can a truly equal, global city be created.”

Mumbai is famously safe. Unlike Delhi, which has acquired a bhayanak reputation, what with taxi drivers raping tourists and terrible tales of gang rape at gunpoint, Mumbai is supposed to be safe for women (well, relatively speaking, anyway). And indeed, even with my occasional encounters with leering, lunging men, I usually feel safe in my hometown as well. Why Loiter? shatters that belief.

As this review in Himal says:

The authors take us on an insightful and eventful journey, though one that leaves the reader a mite frazzled. Whirring through the bustling bylanes of Dongri and Nagpada, the posh Malabar Hill and Ballard Estate, middle-class Shivaji Park and the teeming gallis of Dharavi, we glimpse the array of women out on the streets, in the bus stops and parks. They take us on a desperate (and unsuccessful) search for a ‘ladies’ toilet in Andheri Station; a squashy ride in the ubiquitous local train; leave us breathless after a brisk walk across the Oval Maidan, where no woman must linger; and finally allow us to feel the sea breeze on the Marine Drive promenade. The book breathes Bombay, Bambai and Mumbai; it never lets us forget that there are distinct worlds in this city of 21 million. From the eyes of women, these worlds, separated by class, caste and religion, are hard to reconcile with the stereotypes of the freewheeling ‘Bombay girl’.

In a section on public toilets, the authors write, “If public toilets were to be your guide to imagining the city, what would they say about Mumbai? First, they would imply that there are very few women in public as compared to men… Second, they would suggest that if Mumbai women need to pee, they do so at home… And third, they would say, since even fewer facilities are open after 9pm, respectable women have no business being out in public after dark.”

Loitering without purpose, they say, is a way to reclaim public space, and I am going out right now (ok, when I finish this post) to go do some loitering of my own. It’s on the streets of New York, true, but no doubt I will attract at least a curious, assessing glance or two. I will go stand on the street corner, and not pretend to be texting someone, or waiting for a friend, looking impatiently at my watch, or window-shopping while walking slowly to my destination. I will loiter, because it’s my city too, and I am claiming its streets.

I am going to do my part in creating a city “with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breastfeeding, exchanging corporate notes or planning protest meetings. If one can imagine that, one can imagine a radically altered city.”

3. Many of you will have heard by now of the SlutWalk movement which began in Toronto this past January when a local cop, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, told students at York University during a safety information session that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Despicable remarks, and from someone who should have known better. People get assaulted every day, regardless of what they are wearing. The madonna/whore dichotomy is ancient and damaging and sadly, still in use. The women in Toronto had had enough, and they organized a SlutWalk, a march of women down to the police headquarters, in protest.

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

The movement spread like wildfire around the world, and to India: Delhi will hold its first SlutWalk in July. Though the word “slut” itself doesn’t hold the resonance in India that it does in the rest of the English-speaking world, the sentiment behind it is the same. As this DNA India article detailed:

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is a rape every 18 hours, and molestation every 14 hours in Delhi. One of every four rapes in India is committed in the capital. Only one in 69 rape cases in India are reported; just 20% of these cases result in conviction of the rape accused. In other words, the chance of a rapist being sent to jail is 0.28%.

These are figures we should all be bitterly ashamed of—and do something to change. You can start by listening to Jaclyn Friedman’s amazing speech at the Boston SlutWalk. Here are a few snippets:

Well hello you beautiful sluts!

Do you see what I did there? I called y’all sluts, and I don’t know the first thing about what any of you do with your private parts. (Well, maybe I know about a couple of you, but I’ll never tell.)

That’s how the word “slut” usually works. If you ask ten people, you get ten different definitions. Is a slut a girl who has sex too young? With too many partners? With too little committment? Who enjoys herself too much? Who ought to be more quiet about it, or more ashamed? Is a slut just a woman who dresses too blatantly to attract sexual attention? And what do any of these words even mean? What’s too young, too many partners, too little committment, too much enjoyment, too blatant an outfit? For that matter, what’s a woman, and does a slut have to be one?

For a word with so little meaning, it sure is a vicious weapon. And, while the people who use it to hurt may not agree on what they mean by it, they’ll all agree on one thing: a slut is NOT THEM. A slut is other. A slut is someone, usually a woman, who’s stepped outside of the very narrow lane that good girls are supposed to stay within. Sluts are loud. We’re messy. We don’t behave. In fact, the original definition of “slut” meant “untidy woman.” But since we live in a world that relies on women to be tidy in all ways, to be quiet and obedient and agreeable and available (but never aggressive), those of us who color outside of the lines get called sluts. And that word is meant to keep us in line. To separate us. To make us police each other, turn on each other, and turn each other in so that we can prove we’re not “like that.” That word comes with such consequences that many of us rightly work to avoid it at all costs.

But not today. Today we all march under the banner of sluthood. Today we come together to say: you can call us that name, but we will not shut up. You can call us that name but we will not cede our bodies or our lives. You can call us that name, but you can never again use it to excuse the violence that is done to us under that name every single fucking day.

Friedman ended with this rousing call:

If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together—I am a slut. If you love someone who’s been called a slut—stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve ever been afraid of being called a slut, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve been blamed for violence that someone else did to you, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business, and we can all live our lives and pursue our pleasures free of shame, blame and free, stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.

So SlutWalk Delhi, ignore the catcalls and the cynics who will try to pull you down, and let’s all say together: You can call me a slut, or a kutiya (bitch), a chinaal or randi (whore), but that doesn’t give you the license to commit violence upon my body.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

4. And thanks to my friend Meghana for bringing this excellent HuffPo article to my attention. (Meghana has a little girl of her own, who’s so smart she can say my name already, so she’s on top of this parenting stuff.) In it, the author recounts meeting the five-year-old daughter of a friend for the first time. Despite wanting to coo over how adorable she looked, the author made herself talk to the child about her love for books. Because it’s the constant discussing and praising of the way our daughters look—over the praising of achievements—that has led to the American girl’s obsession with physical appearance.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Read the entire article here. And the next time you see that little girl in your life, give her a book. Maybe Tina Fey’s Bossypants.