Be A Man: Stand Up, Speak Up, Show Up for Women & Girls

It may come as a surprise that I volunteer my time advocating for women’s rights. After all, I am a busy teenager busy with work, a full school schedule and sports. However, my interest began over discussions at the dinner table. In 2013 my mother told me about a book she read, “I am Malala”. This story about a girl’s fight for her right to an education really packed a punch with me. Besides learning about the history and politics in Pakistan, I am now a believer in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world. My eyes were opened of how much I take for granted every day: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the fact that I attend one of the best schools in the area.

Men, there is no way gender equality can be achieved without our involvement. Your sisters, mothers, aunts and women around the world are depending on us. We must come together to change our biased world.

So what can we do? I once read that equality is a verb. I love that. Encourage, share, advocate, and intervene. Expose yourself to different perspectives than your own. If you are serious about change, lead by example. Model respect for women. Don’t condone sexist jokes or stories. If you witness an injustice, be bold and say something. Avoid any behavior that causes anyone to feel diminished. Speak out when you witness others behaving this way. 

This fall WAGE will be holding our annual 5K fundraiser. Come on out and support us in our mission to empower girls and women.

Men should want equality for all as much as women do. Improving women’s standards benefits everyone, not just women and girls. Everyone has a role in advocating: men, women, moms, dads, teachers, neighbors and leaders. Let’s banish harmful stereotypes and support human rights of all people, everywhere.

Matthew Meyer, age 18
 

Posted on August 21, 2017 .

Books, not blood

Nearly 11.5% of the Syrian population has been wounded or killed since “The Day of Rage” on March 15, 2011, when peaceful protests were met with violent military action. It has been called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. 

One obvious casualty of the conflict has been the displacement of 7.6 million people. Out of fear and a strong sense of survival they are fleeing their homeland for safety in Germany, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and the U.S. among others. It has been estimated that about 10 thousand refugees are in the U.S., with more than 300 in New Jersey.

But as we read and see the horrific stories about victims of violence, we realize that another profound casualty of the war for Syrian children is education. 

In a country where an estimated 97% of primary school-aged children were attending class and literacy rates surpassed those of most nations at over 90%, books have been replaced with blood, and schools for military sites. Teachers have fled or been killed. The once thriving school system has been pummeled by ignorance, shattered by fear.

Curricula that once included liberal arts, sciences and math are now replaced with how to load a machine gun and how to kill as ISIS pillages their way across the Middle East, forcing their ideals on others. Today, 2.2 million are not in school at all, and it has been estimated that an additional half a million refugee children are not in school.

This is even more upsetting for women who have been brutally targeted during this conflict, with rape and what has been called “survival sex” often used as a weapon of war and marriage at an early age seen as a desperate attempt at survival and human trafficking running rampant. 

And then there are the many parents who are not willing to endanger their daughters by allowing them to travel to school or are facing the imperative prospect of swallowing their pride and finding employment of any kind even though they may be accountants, professors or software engineers. 

Exacerbated by traditional gender roles and inequalities that cause parental prejudice against girls’ education, Syrian girls ending up a high risk of dropping out of school is one of the devastating consequences of the nearly six-year conflict.

Although the future looks bleak for many of these refuges, there is hope. I recently read about one mother’s harrowing story of courage. Absent of resentment, the mother of seven who lives temporarily in a camp in Jordan, told a reporter that she has not given up and believes that “the future belongs to girls who are educated.” 

For another young Syrian woman named Yusra Mardini, her courage and determination to survive also outweighed her fear. A few years ago her future looked so bright, but after being displaced from her home with her family, nearly drowning in the Mediterranean and feeling hunger pangs that most will never feel, Yusra faced her fears head on. As their boat sank, she and her sister jumped into the sea and swam for three hours to push it to safety, saving 20 lives. Young Yusra continued to defy the odds once settling in a refugee camp in Germany. She had a goal in mind and met it, one lap at a time. She wound up working so hard that she garnered a spot at the Rio Olympics as a swimmer on the first-ever Olympic refugee team. 

And thankfully there are many stories of bravery. Right here in the United States people are also helping, some of whom remember the stories their grandparents told them of the Holocaust. Feeling a sense of responsibility or hoping to stem the tide of violence, some families are sponsoring Syrian families by helping them gain access to food, get the education their children need and overall assimilate into a culture very different from their own.

Education is the sustainable solution to ensuring these children have brighter futures. It not only provides them with the knowledge they need and crave, it also gives them the structure they need as well as the tools needed to be empowered to overcome their insurmountable challenges and NOT be victims.

Just as we teach the hungry how to plant crops and reap them for food, the only sustainable solution, we believe, to preventing violence against women is education. No matter where their home may be, most children have a thirst for knowledge, not a vengeance to facilitate violence and draw blood. And no matter what they face, education will be something that can never be taken away from them.

I write of atrocities happening thousands of miles away, but right in our backyards the same or similar violence, disrespect and suppression of confidence and spirit is also happening, clearly on a smaller scale and often going unrecognized or being masked by a flawed justice system and a perpetuated mindset that leads some women to feel they have no voice. 

As refugees muster any courage they have and struggle to survive, we thankfully do see glimmers of hope in the face of such atrocities. And perhaps this is what gives those humanitarians who work tirelessly and courageously to have the hope they need to continue. 

Heather Mistretta


 

 

Posted on January 13, 2017 .

"A Christmas Present" by Rekha Datta

On a brisk, sunny Saturday December morning, a group of young volunteers of a student club called ‘Students Advocating Girls’ Education’ (SAGE) donned orange reflector vests, directional cones, grabbed some hot cocoa and enthusiastically engaged in setting the course for the Second Annual 5K Race for Girls’ Education. The sun struggled to outdo the overnight frost, gold, blue and green balloons fluttered in the clod air, and the event loudspeaker played energizing music selected by the young minds to bring on early morning cheer. The beauty of unity in diversity was in action.

Only a few weeks back, many, including some of these youngsters were struggling to find their place and voice in the post-election America, and indeed, the world. Just like the rest of the country, friends and family found themselves at opposite ends of a fractious debate surrounding their electoral choices. It was in that emotional setting that we decided to have the race, to engage in community building, to think beyond our narrow interests and selves and to continue believe in helping others. The annual 5K, which they had started a year ago, and which kept getting postponed due to logistical challenges, would be a perfect way to celebrate our unity, to pivot, regardless of how the political process posited us against each other.

Given that term papers were due, finals were looming, December temperatures were intimidating, the turnout was expectedly low; however, the enthusiasm and generosity of spirit of those who braved everything and participated in the race were indomitable. Again, the thought that everyone was keeping their immediate cares aside and got together to help raise funds for education of underprivileged girls in local community was inspiring. It was only a couple of years ago when the founder of SAGE, after attending a meeting of the newly formed not for profit group, Women and Girls’ Education (WAGE) International, was inspired to form the student wing to promote education as an antidote to violence. WAGE and SAGE work with community partners to find alternatives to violence using education as a tool. They offer mentorship and resources to children and adolescents in communities that face adversity and violence. The proceeds of the 5K would help them in this mission, and support a local school.

United under this mission, overcoming political fractures, the walkers, runners, and organizers gathered under the morning sun, bundled up in their winter outdoors gear. As the first whistle marked the beginning of the race, it did not matter that the participants might have different political stripes, might be worshiping different Gods and Goddesses or no God at all, spoke different languages, represented different ethnic and racial groups. Everyone put up their brave fronts, but was obviously cold. Except for the winner of the race, who chose to run in shorts and a sleeveless vest, others were united in their vulnerability to the elements. The weather brought us close; we shared camaraderie.

Through this microcosm of experience in a community activity, it became clear how much we share in commonality in spite of our differences. Through our diversity, we enjoyed our unity of purpose, of our shared experience braving the cold, our common belief in doing out small parts in bringing about small changes, positive ones in someone’s life. When we do something for others, we are actually helping ourselves.

This Christmas morning, the first people I thought of praying for were my family. Next I prayed for my friends. Then the migrant children displaced over the last few years in violence.  I was thankful for those who found friendly homes around the world. Then the order and priority of those prayers got all jumbled up. Children facing violence have been on my mind since the wee hours. Restless, I reached out for the book that my daughter bought for me, and a line grabbed me. The book begins with a violent bomb blast in a busy market in New Delhi, taking the lives of two young siblings. Not something you would want to cherish on this holy morning of merriment and joy. Yet the reality of the fiction and the beauty of the language and the humanity behind it all haunted me. Through the morning stillness of the morning, children facing violence overwhelmed me.

I have been struggling to put words to my feelings to write this column for weeks. There seemed too much negativity, hostility, violence in thought and action, demonization of groups of people, doubts on shared humanity, the list goes on and on. I have struggled to find my voice. This morning it seemed to be coming back to me. Those who I work with through SAGE and WAGE, bring me a sliver, however thin, of hope, of belief. Magically, as I read the book and reflected on an apparently unexplainable world, I found a connection between our recent 5K and the fictionalized reality of the violent world that we live in. A world in which our commonality matters, our common humanity matters. Yes, we all bleed when pricked, this earth and its resources belong to all of us, regardless of what language and in whose name or under what documentation we claim them. We are all immigrants visiting and living on this earth for a few decades. In this shared destiny, we can only know how life is for everyone when we have learned how it is to live in others’ shoes. Our individual successes give us personal security, but we also have to survive as a collective. Aristotle had reminded us we are all political animals. We need each other. We cease to be human when we stop to care. The line where I stopped before I put the book aside and reached out for my laptop to write this blog was, “I just remembered something you said when we first talked. That your pain only went away when you started thinking about others.” – Karan Mahajan (2016).

December 4, 2016. SAGE organized a 5K walk-run to benefit girls’ education at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

December 4, 2016. SAGE organized a 5K walk-run to benefit girls’ education at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Posted on December 25, 2016 .

It's more than just a legality

Last month marked the 22nd anniversary of the Violence Against Women (VAW) Act, a movement started by a grassroots effort in the late 80s and early 90s and carried on by then-Senator Joe Biden. A long overdue bill, the VAW Act was designed to protect women from domestic violence, rape, dating violence and stalking. It marked the first comprehensive federal legislative package designed to end violence against women, and it served as a triumph for women’s groups that lobbied hard to persuade Congress for change. Since the passage of the VAW Act, from law enforcement to victim services to Capitol Hill, there has been a paradigm shift in how the issue of violence against women is addressed.

No doubt the intent was good, but 22 years later men are still ignoring boundaries, overpowering girls on college campuses and getting only a slap on the wrist for the heinous acts they commit. And many girls and women are seeing themselves as powerless victims, a trend that only helps to perpetuate the cycle.

What message is this sending our children who represent our future?

One in every three women will experience a violent act in their lifetimes. A staggering and brutally personal statistic for some, but a distant, nebulous, almost surreal one for others. This is one of the problems—the cavernous gap between those facing abuse and those who can choose to ignore it and turn a blind eye to the ugliness, and the mindset that helped foster it. Bridging that gap through education should be at the forefront of discussion.

There is hope, and the stats are not all negative. This sense of hope is important to impart in any discussion. Since enacting the VAW Act on September 13, 1994, some good things have happened like:

·         The National Domestic Violence Hotline was established. This enabled victims of abuse to reach out and get the help they need.

·         The rate of intimate partner violence declined 67% between 1993 and 2010.

·         States followed suit by reforming their laws to better protect women, i.e. making stalking a crime.

·         Many states have passed laws prohibiting polygraphing of rape victims.

·         Communication and publicity of worldwide atrocities has become more transparent.

·         Funding was provided for victims of abuse and evidentiary matters. In fact, $4 billion in VAWA grant funds were awarded to state, tribal, and local governments, non-profit organizations focused on ending violence against women and universities.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law on February 19, 2009, included an additional $225 million to combat the legacy of laws and social norms that long served to justify violence against women. However, when a case challenging the civil rights remedy reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, the remedy was struck down as unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000).

·         Education and training about violence against women for victim advocates, health professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges. 

So, now over two decades after this landmark legislation passed, it is evident that the VAW Act has increased prosecution rates of domestic violence cases, but there is little conclusive evidence that it has significantly reduced the incidence of violence. According to the Department of Justice, the rate of intimate partner violence dropped 64% between 1994 and 2010, a drop many attribute to the law. But this decrease happened in tandem with the sharp drop in violent crime nationwide and when the economy was rebounding, making it hard to know whether a drop in domestic violence might have happened without the policies adopted.

And we also have to keep in mind that no matter how much new legislation is passed, the stigma associated with domestic violence is entrenched in our society. As a result, it is still a severely under-reported crime, and some critics say mandatory arrest policies have exacerbated this problem. These policies, which existed in some states before VAW but became more common after early versions of VAW encouraged them, require police officers responding to domestic violence calls to arrest alleged abusers if there is probable cause to believe assaults have taken place.

The intent of these laws was to spur a culture change in law enforcement, which had a long history of declining to intervene in domestic violence situations. But some say mandatory arrest discourages some women from reporting domestic violence because they fear their partners, either from physical retaliation following the arrest or because of the loss of income if the defendant is thrown in jail.

Education is the cohesion that this Act needs to be fully effective. Education is needed on a mainstream level for both those affected by domestic violence and those on the periphery who thankfully are not facing violence. Bridging that gap will be education, and together we can offer hope to the victims and tools to those who can help them.

--Heather Mistretta

 

Posted on October 26, 2016 .

"A Feminist Since Birth" by guest blogger and trustee, Rachel Mueller-Lust

May 26, 2016

This past Sunday I attended a meeting of WAGE International (Women and Girls’ Education International) and I was so very inspired by the experience. I was invited to the meeting after I had been asked by their president Heather Mistretta and agreed to become a board member. I didn’t hesitate an instant to say, “Yes!” even though I didn’t really know that much about their group.

WAGE is committed to empowering women and girls and educating everyone to stop the cycle of violence against women and girls. Stepping into the home of WAGE’s founder Rekha Datta on Sunday afternoon was a leap of faith, given how little I knew about WAGE. But as we gathered and introduced ourselves to each other, I knew that I was in the right place. Sitting around the living room of our host’s house, I was struck by all the amazing people who were drawn together for a mutual cause. Rekha’s husband introduced himself by saying that he was “a feminist since birth.” That is such a wonderful way to put it, I thought. I, too, am indeed a feminist since birth, fortunate to have been raised by my thoughtful and loving parents in such an unusual and peace-loving town of Roosevelt, New Jersey.

Attending the WAGE meeting was coming home. Coming home to feminism, coming home to peace, coming home to activism and finally coming home to New Jersey. WAGE is headquartered in Monmouth County, NJ, about 2 hours away from my current home in New York. My hometown of Roosevelt where I grew up is also in Monmouth County. And Roosevelt was a town filled with activists in the 60s and 70s. I am grateful that I grew up there and was exposed to so many forward thinking and creative individuals.

Throughout my life, I have been committed to empowerment of women and girls though I hadn’t fully strung together all the links of my passion and experience until yesterday morning. While I was in meditation with my Wednesday morning group at The Garrison Institute, immense emotion arose in me as memories of the feminist and activist work I have done over the years came flooding over me.

As a child, I attended peace marches in DC along with my family, traveling by chartered buses filled with all ages of Rooseveltians. My brother and I were little-kid activists: children’s equality, and recycling (seeGnilcycer: Recycling In Roosevelt, New Jersey) where our main areas of focus. And of course, feminism was ingrained in me. My mom was a beautiful feminist role model, striving for equal rights. She also subscribed to Ms. Magazine from its inception and I remember fondly how much I loved reading each issue when it arrived in the mail.

Equality and peace are closely connected so I suppose it isn’t surprising that working with WAGE to educate and empower and promote peace is a good match for my passions. I have had opportunities throughout my life to contribute to causes that help women and girls. My entire business career I was always very focused on helping to support and promote women in my company and mentored women as well as men to be empowered to be themselves and strive for greatness in their work. Along the way I also took time away from the corporate world and did some powerful work with girls and boys.

Although I have been living in New York for most of my adult life, I have been drawn to groups that are all over the country. As part of a yearlong leadership program that met in Sebastopol, California, I developed and held a workshop for boys and girls at a summer camp in Yosemite, CA. I remember that day so well. I flew from New York into Oakland, CA and drove for over an hour to the camp to hold the workshop with my co-leader Angela.

Angela and I were deliberately paired because our leadership styles were very different and one goal of the amazing leadership training was learning how to dance with and co-lead when your partner has a different natural style. This is such a gift of learning for life because we encounter so many people who have different backgrounds, talents and experiences from our own. We need to realize that other perspectives and approaches are neither the right nor wrong way. Learning how to lean into a different way of working with someone is a peaceful act. It is accepting colleagues for all that they are and working towards navigating differences with ease. It is about learning to trust each other no matter that we have different ways. What a great learning for me and also what a great experience leading a group of boys and girls from that peaceful stance.

Part of the tenant of my co-leading training was learning how to use improvisational techniques to build off of another person. I loved doing the improvisational games over the year training and became so enamored with improv that I took a summer course atThe Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC. One of the main reasons I love to write and speak is that I enjoy creating with language. Improv training gave me an invaluable tool to create off the cuff, something I draw upon all the time for writing and giving presentations.

Improv also allows for playfulness and creating from nothing. The flow and spontaneity I feel when using language to convey my thoughts and feelings fills me with such joy. And it makes me feel so empowered. So I had a thought. What if I can connect my love of improv and my sense that it is such an empowering skill with my passion of empowering girls? I decided to seek out organizations that did just that and discovered a wonderful group, called ACTNOW in Northampton, Massachusetts near Smith, Amherst and Mt Holyoke Colleges. I met with their organizer, Nancy Fletcher and volunteered to do some work with them. They use movie making and improvisation to empower girls. The girls take on any one of the many roles needed to create a film including writing, directing, camera work, acting and editing. Although ACTNOW was closer than my groups in California, it was a three-hour drive from my home in New York. I only worked with them for a short time, yet I have fond memories of the amazing girls and that organization.

And so it turns out that it isn’t uncommon for me to travel far in order to participate in activities designed to empower girls. I will travel over the country in search of groups of people who share my passion for women, girls, empowerment and peace. And though I have dabbled here and there, I wonder where my need to help empower women will take me next. I am excited about what lies ahead with WAGE International, and I know that this organization is a catalyst for me to further experience how I can promote feminism, love and peace in the world. I am grateful that they have found me and I them.

 

Posted on May 26, 2016 .

World Human Rights Day

December 10, 2015

Heather Mistretta

As many children embark on a new school day, from preschool to college, there is one constant--they will face challenges, both big and small. Some may not like the classmate sitting next to them or the teacher’s lecture on classroom procedures, but others will face the challenge of avoiding rape, violence and intimidation while walking to school due to abject poverty, ignorance or the absence of criminal laws protecting women’s rights and their safety.

Today, December 10, is World Human Rights Day. It commemorates the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to the UN, this year's Human Rights Day is devoted to the launch of a year-long campaign for the 50th anniversary of the two International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which were adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 16, 1966.

“The two Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, form the International Bill of Human Rights, setting out the civil, political, cultural, economic, and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.”--UN

As we reflect on this very important day, the recent atrocities both in the U.S. and abroad in Europe and Africa, and the recent insidious talk of hatred and intolerance, we realize that it is even more important than ever to be kind to one another and embrace others’ differences instead of rejecting, ridiculing or condemning them.

Albert Einstein, who was not only an amazing physicist but also an insightful and compassionate thinker and champion of human rights and practicing tolerance, once said, “Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”  He added, tolerance is the affable appreciation of qualities, views, and actions of other individuals which are foreign to one`s own habits, beliefs, and tastes. Thus being tolerant does not mean being indifferent towards the actions and feelings of others. Understanding and empathy must also be present.”

Ignorance breeds fear and a reactive state of being, but a more deliberate and patient approach is vital no matter how wide the philosophy gap may be. It is everyone’s responsibility to respect differences and protect human rights. And by no means underestimate the power of one person and the impact he or she can make. Angela Merkle is an exceptional example, but let’s hope that her courageous and tectonic actions inspire others to realize that they too can make someone else’s life better.

This year has been an important one for women. August 18 marked the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote in the United States. Nearly a century later women in Saudi Arabia for the first time in history were allowed to vote and participate in some municipal elections just this month.

One of the caveats, however, is that Saudi women are still limited because they are not allowed to drive to the polls and must be accompanied by a male “guardian” on every trip outside of the home.

Women in Saudi Arabia were first allowed to participate in politics in February 2013, when 30 women were appointed to the king’s advisory body, the Shoura Council. And the number of women working in the country overall has increased by 48 percent since 2010, as reported by the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information and highlighted by Bloomberg, but that number still hovers around only 16 percent.

Saudi women are now permitted to work in retail and hospitality, and the first Saudi female lawyers were granted their practicing certificates in late 2013. Female nationals are now employed for diplomatic services as well; they can also be hired as newspaper editors and TV chat-show hosts, according to the BBC. Female students, who are now also allowed to study law and architecture, account for about half of all graduates in the country.

And in Nigeria, it had first been thought that the hostages released recently by Boko Haram included the missing Chibok girls, but sadly that wasn’t true. On April 14, 2014, 230 girls from Chibok, Borno State, were abducted by the violent, militant group and taken to an unknown destination. Some have escaped from their captors, but the majority of the girls are yet to be rescued and reunited with their families.

People have rallied to draw attention to the crisis, adopting the hashtag; “Bring Back Our Girls,” and there has been a global outpouring of outrage and solidarity with international figures such as Michelle Obama, Pakistani Nobel Peace Laureate, Malala Yousafzai, and UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki- Moon, pledging support to free the girls.

We can only hope the tide is changing in both thought and action, and that it will permeate the borders of racism, intolerance and complacency, and that a more peaceful way of life will be preferred over a xenophobic and narrow-minded one. But we can’t wait for it to change on its own. So please today in honor of World Human Rights Day, try to do something, no matter how small, for someone less fortunate than you.

 

 

Posted on December 10, 2015 .

Remember, Learn & Educate

~Heather Mistretta

April 14 marked one year since the militant group, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. Along with the new Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, members of the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign are still working to secure the release of the 219 girls who are still captive, but a lot of people are more concerned with who the next American Idol will be or what the Kardashians are going to do next...

Whether it be in the barren fields of Nigeria, the trendy streets of Soho or the sleepy, seemingly bucolic suburban town in New Jersey, every girl across the globe deserves the opportunity to live a happy, healthy life absent of abuse and violence. One in every 4 women will experience violence in her lifetime, and an estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

And abuse isn’t just a black eye, a dislocated shoulder or a split lip. Abuse can also mean a damaged sense of self, a loss of security or a feeling of pathos and desperation so deep your toes hurt and even if there are people helping, the feeling of loneliness can be unbearable.

These statistics aren’t meant to simply shock you but instead to make you aware of the insidious worldwide violence and the vicious cycle that it creates in hopes that you can be a part of the change. We need to educate both boys and girls to be catalysts of change and citizens empowered to help eradicate violence against women.

So when you sit down tonight to enjoy your dinner, and by all means I hope you do, or you run to the grocery store for milk or attend a teacher’s conference, I hope you also communicate and get to know the people around you, even if it's just a few words. I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone and meet someone new, or learn something new about someone you already know. You might be surprised by the courage you have inside you. It is this communication that will help us all facilitate the work we need to do, and it is communication that will help girls be empowered so that they avoid being a victim and instead become confident, caring and brave young women. It is through this communication that we can foster confidence, respect and bravery in our boys so that they grow up to be valuable and aware citizens who respect women. Because this is not just a women’s issue, and this is not just a men’s issue. This is a human issue. It’s about caring for one another and embracing and learning from our differences.

As we remember all that we can be grateful for, we have to think of our children. We need to protect their rights so that they too have the opportunity to look forward to a bright future absent of abuse, isolation and suppression of their spirit and dreams. Their voices are important, and we need to listen.

“Everything you desire, crave, need and want is within us. You are your own soulmate and the time you spend in your own solitude, the beauty you find in your laugh lines, the time you take to not smooth those curves, but to love them, is maybe not what you were looking for but something you are blessed to have found.”—Seema Kapoor

Posted on April 20, 2015 .

The Unfortunate Uncertainty of 'India's Daughter'

~ Rekha Datta

March 8, 2015

Earlier this week, marooned at home due to a blizzard, after having completed my tasks for the day, I brought myself to watching the much debated newly released BBC documentary by Leslee Udwin, titled, ‘India’s Daughter.’ The film revisits the brutal gang rape of a 23-year old medical student on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012. It also contains an interview with one of the accused, the driver of the bus, Mukesh Singh, who is on death row.

The film, scheduled for launch in India and a few other countries on International Women’s Day, March 8, has been banned by a court in India, and has raised a furor of debates in parliament, among activists, on social media, and among the public in general. Various uploads of the film on You Tube have also been pulled down from time to time over the past few days.

I watched the film with apt hesitation and braced myself for difficult details and footage surrounding the incident. What follows is my attempt to process some of the narratives and issues surrounding the film’s depiction of the gruesome tragedy. I begin with some of the questions that emerged in the context of the film. Alongside, I attempt to offer some alternatives that can emerge from this film, the debates surrounding it, and what we can learn from the documentary.

Above all, in analyzing the film and the incident behind it, the intent here is not to disrespect the heroic victim, Jyoti Singh and her family, and all those who are tirelessly working in India to bring positive change to make women’s lives better. In fact, like the film, this reflection is a tribute in gratitude and hope that it will bring much needed social and cultural change to take the country and humanity forward with gender equality.

Apparently, even though Udwin had secured permission to interview Singh, there are some issues surrounding the extent and nature of it. Some official spokespersons and parliamentarians are showing outrage at the fact that the permission was given in the first place. Others are claiming that the terms were violated.  Even as these details are debated, some questions abound, and certain facts remain, whether or not within the purview of the permission.

Especially given India’s proud and rich democratic tradition, banning the film will not serve any of the powerful changes that it can bring to society.

Glorifying a convicted rapist?

As already mentioned, the film provided one of the accused, Mukesh Singh, currently on death row, a platform.  Interspersed within the narratives of the protagonists, the film does portray Mukesh Singh, who recalls the incident, and shows no remorse. During the course of his interview, he is dismissive and boastful. It is unsettling to watch his demeanor and process his views. At one point he even says that if Jyoti Singh had not resisted, they would ‘let her go’ after they were done raping her!

If anything, it is difficult to agree that the film has put criminals on a pedestal. If anything, I doubt that after watching it, anyone would have any sympathy for the offenders.

If there is anyone who the film glorifies, it is Jyoti Singh’s parents, and Jyoti herself.  Through the voice of her tutor, whose quiet demeanor and narration of the kindhearted individual that Jyoti was, the film brings us closer to someone whose death has been more familiar to us than her life. The film cherishes her life, her dreams. The interview with her parents shows the nobility and generosity of their hearts in raising their daughter, selling their plot of land so that Jyoti can pursue her education and dreams of becoming a medical doctor. Sure, they are seeking justice; sure, they are hurting. But the film allowed me, as a mother, to weep with Jyoti’s mother. Her words of comfort for her daughter, as she lay in the hospital fighting for her life, “everything will be all right,” is a universal language of a mother to their children when they are hurting. The film offered me the opportunity to share her pain at a human level. It brought me closer to her. 

Denigrating India?

In 2012, a study by Trust Law portrays India as one of the worst countries for women. Some sources have dubbed Delhi as the rape capital of India.

Behind such dubious distinctions is the overall state of violence against women (VAW). And India is by no means the sole proprietor of VAW. But surely India is not bereft of it.

Most certainly, violence against women is not unique to India. The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide, 1 in 3 women face violence in their lifetime. According to recent data published by the United Nations, 35% of women around the world have experienced sexual violence. The National Crime Records Bureau in India states that a crime against a woman is committed every 3 minutes. A woman is raped every 29 minutes. UN Women estimates that up to 50% of women in European countries face some form of sexual harassment at work. 20% of women in Nairobi have faced sexual harassment in school or at work. In the United States, 83% of girls between 12 and 16 have faced some type of sexual harassment in public schools. [i] Other estimates from the UN show that “more than 133 million girls and women have experienced some form of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East.” [ii] This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the numbers and extent of gender based violence women face. So, there is no ground to suggest or argue that India is portrayed in negative light when it comes to VAW through this one documentary. It is a problem in India; it is a problem worldwide.

In fact, while watching the film, through the pain of the family, I felt that it actually commends India and its democracy. It shows the empathy of the Indian populace, the passion in the hearts of women and men who spontaneously and courageously took to the streets protest, to seek justice. It shows a concerted effort by individuals from all strata of society, activists, feminist groups, media and NGOs demanding government action. It shows a democratic culture at its best, and, perhaps one of the crowing moments of channeling action against VAW as a public dialog and policy priority and change. One only hopes that the ‘Arab Spring’ of a people’s actions forcing policy change to address VAW does not lose its momentum in India, and becomes a path to follow elsewhere.

Reinforcing Patriarchy?

Undoubtedly, Mukesh Singh’s statements strike a deep chord about the cultural argument.  In fact, he, as well as the defense lawyers appear to defend the stereotypical patriarchal perspectives that a woman’s place is in the home, she should not have been out at 9 p.m., not without a male relative; a sentiment often echoed by many in India and worldwide – “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

Some are worried that Singh’s remarks will serve as a catalyst to encouraging nascent perpetrators – it is okay to ‘teach a woman a lesson,’ if they detract from their traditional roles! One of the most shocking statements was from the defense lawyer, AP Singh, who said that if his sister or daughter “disgraced herself” by being seen with a man, he would set her ablaze alive. Such misogyny is there, the film will not bring it about, it merely brought it to the fore.

To be sure, these are deeply disturbing statements and views, but they are hardly untrue. By underscoring these perspectives, the film has raised our consciousness of the need to work on these perceptions. Not facing them is not going to make them go away.

How to change this culture - through policies, through dialog, through the home, where much of domestic violence occurs, through the media, and through education – that is the national and international conversation that the film encourages us to engage in.  

The feminist literature, organizations, activists, and individuals have long argued that ‘power’ relations lay at the root of the prevalence of a cultural perception of overpowering women through force and other means. Gender equality and removal of discrimination, prompted by such and other realizations have helped put laws and policies in place at national and international levels. The will to implement and enforce them remains a challenge, albeit.  Cultural change goes deeper than policies and laws. But the latter do have a role in addressing cultural practices as well. It does not happen overnight; it takes time.

One of the questions that surfaced as I watched the film is the juxtaposition of the new India with the traditional role expectations of women. The film made references to women’s roles in a new India and traditional India. Here are some excerpts: “A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night…. Boys and girls are not equal…Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes….”

It is legitimate for many to be outraged by such statements. But let us ask ourselves the question – regardless of the source and context, do they ring true? Is there a cultural perception that boys and girls are not equal? Are women blamed for what they choose to wear? Are women expected to conform to traditional roles set by generations of men?

Behind these questions are also some other cultural aspects that India (and the world at large) needs to address. As women get more educated, and work outside their traditional patriarchy defined socially constructed roles, alongside have we also enlightened boys and men to adapt? The film is inspiring us to address such questions. Empowering women does not have to mean men are disempowered. Perhaps we need to become more intentional in imparting that message. Feminists have struggled for equality, to keep both genders equal, not to further more discrimination. We do not need to shoot the messenger.

At another layer, the film also hinted at India’s development disparities and class differentials that are intersecting with gender issues. When it depicted the background of some of the perpetrators, the reference to their economic hardships did not go unnoticed. Was there a subtext there? Do women who are successful in the new economy of India’s rise become more of a target of male hatred, especially from those in society who feel economically marginalized?

Weakening women?

If there were an aspect of the film that made me think of doing something differently, I would perhaps look at the film’s title. It seems ‘India’s Daughter’ feeds right into the conflicting images of women and girls that the Indian culture nourishes, and confuses.

Roles such as ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ evoke emotional connections, and also introduce the element of a ‘power relation.’ For instance, a man can be devoted to his mother, but is responsible to protect and provide for his wife and daughter. The latter implies control, power, and often lead to the right to ‘overpower.’ Along with objectifying women that is prevalent through the media, films, and other forms, and a sense of machismo, these deep-seated sociological elements often lead to VAW.

Following the train of thought in the earlier sections, perhaps it is time that women’s rights and women’s place in society are determined as individual rights. The conversation should begin on looking at a woman as an individual. Constitutions around the world offer fundamental ‘individual’ rights. Twenty years ago, the Beijing Women's Conference introduced the call for treating women’s rights as human rights. That campaign has achieved much progress in bringing legislation to bring perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and peacetime to court. States are also required to take VAW more seriously if they are seen as violating human rights. In a similar vein, we need to campaign for the right of girls and women to be educated as a fundamental individual right, and not one based on their gender.

‘India’s Daughter’ evokes an emotional connection, we need to also strengthen a powerful connection, that of an individual’s right to their own body, to their right to movement and assemble, to be educated to become a doctor (if she or he so chooses) – rights which are constitutionally guaranteed to every person! Perhaps this notion will also help us understand, and decouple worship of the female form through images of goddesses and misogyny.

Outsider Audacity?

Exploiting a tragedy, and the victim(s), could be, and remain problematic.

Interference from the outside is also often at issue in such instances. Since this particular tragedy, the Government of India has undertaken some strong legislative and other measures to combat VAW. The perpetrators have been brought to justice in record time. These have been the outcomes of domestic pressure and actions.

Yes, we have to be respectful about cultures, and be deferential to community-based solutions. Community-based solutions are often the most effective. Women of the communities can be and are, the agency. We should refrain from meddling from the outside, and above all, avoid patronizing.

As an expatriate writing about an event that occurred in India, it has crossed my mind whether I have any authority to express my reflections on the issue. But contextualizing it helped me process such feelings.

For many of the reasons and facts outlined above, I see VAW as a cultural, as well as global phenomenon. Cultural practices are to be honored, but a patriarchy-defined system that justifies physically harm girls, or keep women silent cannot but be detrimental to the body politic, and geography knows no boundaries in this respect.

We live in an interdependent world. If we are ready to reap the economic benefits of globalization, we cannot at the same time want to make culture impervious. If the world inspires us to think about women’s rights as human rights, and women in our respective countries, communities, and families can live lives without fear as a result, that is neither cultural imperialism nor patronizing! And, when Leslee Udwin has made this film, as a rape survivor herself, she might actually know what it feels like, more than just being from India, to be able to tell the story. Rape knows no nationality!

So, on this day, as we celebrate the 2015 International Women’s Day, we can certainly raise a global voice and rise above "narrow domestic walls." As Tagore had put it about a century ago, “nohi devi, nohi samanya nari/ pujakori morey rakhibe urddhe, se nohi, nohi/ hela korimore rakhibe piche, se nohi nohi/jadi parshe rakho more, sankate sampade/ Sammati dao jadi kothin brate sahay hote, pabe tumi chinite more” – "I am not a goddess, not an ordinary woman. I am not one to be worshipped. I am not to be ignored and kept behind. If you keep me beside you, seek my assistance, in hardship and in struggle, … then you will get to know me." 

 

[i] http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/299-fast-facts-statistics-on-violence-against-women-and-girls-.html

[ii] See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures

Posted on March 10, 2015 .